The must-watch player in every division this season

February 22nd, 2024

With the Dodgers and Padres playing the two-game Seoul Series in South Korea on March 20-21, the 2024 MLB regular season will be upon us before we know it. (Full Opening Day action is set for March 28). So today, we continue our weekly series of season previews, breaking down major storylines from the perspective of all six divisions.

Today: The must-watch player in each division.

The Dodgers are one of the most famous sports teams on the planet, and one of the best. They’ve made the playoffs every year for more than a decade, after all. But when you hear the Dodgers are coming to your town, you know the stars are going to be out. You want to see Shohei. You want to see Mookie. You want to see Freddie. You want to see that electric talent.

Today, in our 2024 MLB Season Preview series, we look at the player in each division who is the most must-watch star. This doesn’t necessarily mean the best player; Paul Goldschmidt won the NL MVP Award two years ago, but few would describe the low-key, humble Goldschmidt as the most electric player in the sport. We’re talking about the player -- usually a young player -- who you absolutely cannot take your eyes off. Certain guys look like they were born to play this game. Here’s the best version of that guy in each division.

AL East: Jackson Holliday, INF, Orioles

Hey, no pressure kid, but this is a division that features:

And yet, I have chosen you, Jackson Holliday, as the must-see player. I wish you luck with your career.

But still: I’m not sure baseball’s quite ready for Holliday. MLB Pipeline's No. 1 prospect has everything. He’s big and strong, like his dad, but also lithe and agile, able to play shortstop from Day One for a team that’s looking to improve upon a 101-win season. He has light-tower power and a consistent hit tool. He has the batting eye of a grizzled vet, even though he just turned 20. The Orioles are stacked with young talent, more young talent than they even quite know what to do with, but the general consensus is that Holliday may well be better than all of them. The Orioles are loaded. But they haven’t had anybody like this since … well, another son of a famous father who broke into the bigs with the Orioles and never looked back. The only real difference may end up being that they give this guy a few more days off.

AL Central: Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals

Leading up to his historic contract extension earlier this month, Witt's ascension to the top shelf of MLB players may have snuck up on some people. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 Draft didn’t put up big numbers in Rookie ball that summer, then lost the 2020 season to the pandemic. So he had only one full year in the Minors -- albeit an excellent one -- before reaching Kansas City in 2022.

But his rookie year, even though he finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting, felt like a moderate step forward rather than a huge one. He had solid numbers, but nothing that blew your hair back, and his defensive issues were well-documented. That’s the thing about superstars, though: Just give them time, and the talent will always win out. Witt shored up his defense last year as his offensive numbers soared across the board. Even then, it was a steady climb, month by month. By the end of the year, he looked like he was just getting started.

He’s only 23 and looks like an All-Star, but that’s the thing about Witt: He just now is starting to look fully comfortable. So watch what happens when he explodes. The Royals are about to become a game that every home team’s fans circle on their calendars.

AL West: Julio Rodríguez, CF, Mariners

You may vaguely remember that, for more than 20 years, the Mariners did not make the playoffs. It was a whole thing! But you know the minute we all knew, collectively, in a way that was sort of unspoken, that that drought was about to end? When Julio Rodríguez was in the starting lineup on Opening Day in 2022. You could just see it, in the way he carried himself, in the way he seemed to be floating above the grass a little bit, in the way he looked like he’d been manning center field for this team for decades … you could tell that no team with a player like that was going to stay down for very long.

He brought them back to the postseason that very year, and while the Mariners fell short last year, it certainly wasn’t because of Julio, who darned near carried them across the finish line by himself. You build whole franchises around guys like this for a reason, and the Mariners get to say they’ve got Julio on their roster through at least 2029. Julio is only just starting to scratch the surface of what he’s capable of, which is particularly impressive considering for about two months last year he was one of the best players in baseball. The only way you can slow down Julio is by making a statue out of him … which the Mariners will absolutely do, someday.

NL East: Ronald Acuña Jr., RF, Braves

There are some delightful players to watch in this division -- every time I see Bryce Harper I want to go flying around the bases as my helmet flies off behind me -- but let’s not overcomplicate this. Acuña became the first player in MLB history to hit more than 40 homers and steal more than 70 bases in a season last year.

With the possible exception of a triple in the gap (and the occasional hit-and-run), there are no more exciting offensive plays in baseball than a home run and a stolen base, and Acuña is the best in the sport at both. A leadoff man who steals bases like Tim Raines and hits homers like Mike Schmidt? What could possibly be more exciting than that? Oh, also, he led the Majors in runs and hits and OBP and total bases as well last year. Wherever you look on a baseball field, you’ll find Acuña doing something spectacular.

NL Central: Elly De La Cruz, SS, Reds

One of my favorite moments of the 2023 season was when, with Shohei Ohtani standing on second base after a double, De La Cruz touched Ohtani’s arm, as if to say, “Are you real? How can you be real?” It was sad because the very next day we learned Ohtani would not be pitching again, but it was also remarkable because sometimes when you watch De La Cruz, you ask yourself the same thing: How is this guy real? De La Cruz looks like a baseball player you’d create in a video game, one who is just great at everything, who has the sort of physical tools that literally tower over everyone else’s.

But one of the reasons De La Cruz is so must-watch in 2024 is that, in the macro sense, he didn’t really put it all together in 2023. He actually had a below-average OPS+ for the year (89), and somehow smacked only 13 homers despite an ability to hit the ball to the moon. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a big reason for that -- 144 to 35, yikes -- but that’s the sort of thing a guy with Elly’s talent figures out as he gets older and gets more reps. He’s a player who looks unlike anyone else in the sport. Watching him transform that into production, without losing what makes Elly Elly, will be a riveting nightly event.

NL West: Shohei Ohtani, DH, Dodgers

Even with Ohtani limited to being a DH in 2024, you have to pick him, yes? How could you not? Focusing only on hitting, doesn’t it seem possible he’s going to hit 50 homers? He had 44 last year in only 135 games. Are we looking at 60? Is he going to go 30-30? In that lineup, how many RBIs is he going to get?

It has been amazing, transformative, really, to watch him be a great pitcher and a great hitter the last three seasons, and we’ll get to see him do that again in 2025. But just doing one thing? Doesn’t it make that ceiling even higher? I don’t know a single person who can wait to find out.