Every team’s got a star. If you see ESPN or MLB Network advertising an upcoming game and the Angels are playing, you’re going to see Mike Trout, just like you’ll see Aaron Judge for the Yankees, Juan Soto for the Nationals or Francisco Lindor for the Mets. Baseball is a sport in which the individual can only make so much difference -- ask Trout about that -- but it’s still a sport of stars. Every team wants one. Every team sort of needs one.
But what’s funny about the first fortnight of the season is that the standout star of many teams has very much not been whom you might have expected. Sure, Trout has been the best player on the Angels, and Soto has been the best player on the Nationals. But it’s not always so obvious. Here are eight players who have arguably been the best on their teams whom pretty much nobody saw coming.
Phillip Evans, 3B, Pirates
You surely thought almost nothing about Evans last year, and why would you? The Pirates had the worst record in the sport in 2020. They were expected to be as bad in '21, except for third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. Well, Hayes got hurt in the season’s first week, and he was replaced by Evans, who, when you weren’t looking in '20, hit .359 in 39 at-bats. In his first 41 at-bats in 2021 … he has struggled to a mere .341 average. He also is hitting homers now, three already. (Bringing his career total to four.) The Pirates would still love Hayes to return soon, but Evans has been amazing.
Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Cubs
The Cub who has taken the most heat since the team signed him in 2019 has been their best performer so far, which is sort of a remarkable thing to say. He looks just like his old self -- well, except for the hair -- and has struck out 10, walked one and allowed no hits in his first six innings. Now the Cubs just have to fix everything else currently going wrong over there.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Giants
Hey, look who’s back! The guy who still holds almost all the offensive records in Rays history has been a bit of an afterthought since being traded to the Giants in 2017, but he has been on fire early, launching four homers and hitting .317. The Giants have shown themselves an adept organization at getting the best out of veteran hitters, so it’s no wonder they’ve pulled it off now with Longoria.
Jed Lowrie, INF, A’s
Heading into this year, Lowrie had played just nine games since 2018 in a rocky tenure with the Mets, including disagreements about surgeries and injuries. Back with the A’s, the team where he had most of his success, he’s smashing the ball and playing a niftier second base than you might expect a 37-year-old to pull off. That he’s currently the best player on Oakland may say more about the A’s than they might like it to, but Lowrie has to be considered one of the biggest surprises in the sport right now.
Yermín Mercedes, DH, White Sox
What more can we say about Mercedes, who has instantly made White Sox fans, reeling from the shoulder injury to Eloy Jiménez, feel better about just about everything? Heck, Mercedes even seemed like the guy happiest for Carlos Rodón after Rodón's no-hitter on Wednesday. We’re still just 11 games into the Yermín experience, and the .486 BABIP isn’t going to hold, but Yermín has been the spark this Chicago team clearly needed. And he’s already -- again, just 11 games in -- a legitimate baseball folk hero.
Cedric Mullins, OF, Orioles
Mullins held down a regular spot in the Orioles’ lineup in 2020, but he wasn’t one of their best hitters, though considering how bad he was in 74 plate appearances in '19 (he went 6-for-64 with no homers), that almost felt like a revelation. But he has been a monster early for the O’s, leading the AL in hits and getting on base in more than 45 percent of his plate appearances. He is obviously not that good, but at age 26, he might be hitting his stride. The question is, how much a part of the next good Orioles team he will be?
Tyler Naquin, OF, Reds
Considering how many Reds are hitting the ball so hard right now, it’s particularly impressive to see Naquin here. You know that Naquin, who is third in the NL with 14 RBIs, is smashing baseballs because when he actually got a day off on Wednesday -- something that Naquin, before this year, was pretty used to -- it produced RED ALERT fantasy baseball news alerts. He has caused Cincinnati manager David Bell to do some outfield reshuffling, but that is a problem that Bell will happily deal with.
Wilson Ramos, C, Tigers
Three years ago, Ramos looked like he might become a perpetual All-Star, but 2018-20 were frustrating seasons that just didn’t turn out the way anybody hoped. But he has teamed with fellow surprise Akil Baddoo to spark a hitting resurgence for the Tigers, and Ramos leads the American League in homers with six. That he was available for Detroit to sign for just one year and $2 million is a sign of how much his stock had fallen. He’s well on track to boosting it right back up again. And after all, he’s a catcher: Even though he's about to turn 34, he’s going to be hanging around for quite a while.