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Each team's best 2021 award candidate

November 18, 2020

Since it's never too early to start thinking about next season, MLB.com asked its beat reporters to pick the one player from each team who has the best chance to take home an award in 2021. Below is a look at how all of the beat reporters responded, as well

Since it's never too early to start thinking about next season, MLB.com asked its beat reporters to pick the one player from each team who has the best chance to take home an award in 2021.

Below is a look at how all of the beat reporters responded, as well as a brief explanation for each pick.

MLB Awards: 2020 results, all-time winners

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

BLUE JAYS: Hyun Jin Ryu, AL Cy Young

Ryu was excellent in his first season with the Blue Jays, posting a 2.69 ERA and finishing third in AL Cy Young voting behind only runner-up Kenta Maeda and winner Shane Bieber. Across a full season, Ryu’s numbers could look even more impressive as he works deeper into games with an opportunity to rack up wins in front of a Blue Jays team that is young, improving and expected to be very aggressive this winter. He’s finished second and third in Cy Young voting the past two seasons (2019 came with the Dodgers in the NL), so this shouldn’t be far from his reach if he’s healthy and making at least 30 starts.

ORIOLES: Trey Mancini, AL Comeback Player of the Year

Fully recovered from Stage 3 colon cancer, Mancini aims to be back on the field by Opening Day 2021. Even if he misses that deadline, he’s a heavy favorite for Comeback Player of the Year honors after sitting out all of '20 to undergo chemotherapy treatment. He would join Indians righty Carlos Carrasco as fellow cancer survivors to win the honor. Mancini would also be the second Oriole to return from colon cancer, following Eric Davis in 1997.

RAYS: Randy Arozarena, AL Rookie of the Year

Arozarena’s emergence with the Rays was one of baseball’s greatest stories in 2020, as the 25-year-old set Major League postseason records in hits (29), home runs (10) and total bases (64). He set plenty of postseason rookie records along the way, too, but with his rookie status still intact through '21, Arozarena has to be the favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, even with all of the young talent on the cusp across the big leagues. He put up a 1.022 OPS over his 23 games in the regular season, and when you combine his potential to put up excellent counting stats with his all-around game and his knack for performing in big moments, he could be chasing some other awards down the road, too.

RED SOX: J.D. Martinez, AL Comeback Player of Year

A star slugger from 2014-19, Martinez fell into a pothole he never could get out of in ‘20. Martinez was too consistent and too elite for too long to simply lose it overnight. Expect the right-handed hitter to bounce back in a big way in ‘21, and having Alex Cora back as his manager will only help. Martinez loved playing for Cora and the two have already started brainstorming about a plan for a rebound season. In the abbreviated ‘20 season, Martinez slashed .213/.291/.389 and was one of the least productive position players in the game. Those gruesome numbers should be a distant memory by the time the ‘21 season ends.

YANKEES: Gerrit Cole, AL Cy Young

The game’s highest-paid pitcher is a four-time top-5 finisher in Cy Young voting, including each of the past three seasons. He placed fourth in AL Cy Young voting in 2020, going 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 12 starts, owning a share of the big league lead in both complete games and shutouts. What else does Cole have in the tank? He and the Yankees both believe a lot. Since the start of 2018, Cole leads all AL starters in fWAR, innings, wins and strikeouts and ranks second in ERA and FIP. The Yankees brought him to New York to be the best pitcher in baseball. There is little reason to think he can’t capture that title as soon as 2021.

AL CENTRAL

INDIANS: Shane Bieber, AL Cy Young

Can he go back-to-back? The 25-year-old dominated the shortened 2020 season, taking home the MLB pitching Triple Crown by topping all other pitchers in wins (eight), strikeouts (122) and ERA (1.63). Bieber showed just how lethal his repertoire can be after adding a cutter to create more separation between his fastball and breaking pitches. After he finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting in a stellar '19 season, Bieber climbed all the way to the top of the AL by winning the award in '20. And even after his spectacular season, Bieber said he has plenty of room left to grow, including perfecting his changeup. Could that be an offseason adjustment that assures he retains his title?

ROYALS: Adalberto Mondesi, AL MVP

Whit Merrifield often describes Mondesi as having “MVP-type talent.” Maybe in 2021, fully healthy and playing a whole season, that evaluation comes to fruition. Royals fans saw that type of talent during the final month of the season. Mondesi, already an elite defender at shortstop, overmatched the league over the final 22 games, posting a .376 average, 1.130 OPS, six doubles, six home runs, 19 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. Kansas City believes that end-of-the-season burst has allowed Mondesi to turn a corner, and that he is capable of racking up at least 40 doubles, 10 triples and 20 homers, all while stealing 60-plus bases. That’s MVP stuff.

TIGERS: Tarik Skubal, AL Rookie of the Year

Skubal and Casey Mize retain their rookie eligibility for next season, having been called up Aug. 18 and 19, respectively. Take your pick as to who has the better chance of a breakout season in 2021. Both had a good share of struggles, but Skubal showed flashes of potential, including six innings of two-hit, one-run ball with six strikeouts against the Twins in a Sept. 5 no-decision at Target Field. Look beyond Skubal’s 5.63 ERA in eight games, and his 7.9 hits per nine innings, 10.4 strikeouts per nine and 3.36 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggest better times ahead for the lanky lefty -- probably sooner than later.

TWINS: Alex Kirilloff, AL Rookie of the Year

It’s safe to say that the stage won’t be too big for Kirilloff whenever he appears in a big league uniform in 2021. There’s simply no way that his regular-season debut can match the stage and pressure of his first big league at-bat, when he not only became the first player to start in the postseason as his MLB debut since the World Series began in 1903, but he also stepped to the plate for the first time with two outs and the bases loaded in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against Houston. He later became the first position player to record his first career hit in the postseason, and that ability came as no surprise considering the heralded hitting skills that some evaluators believe make him one of the best pure hitters in the Minor Leagues. The No. 2 prospect in the organization and No. 27 overall in baseball, Kirilloff is a career .317/.365/.498 hitter in 279 Minor League appearances who should be a consistent factor in the corner outfield spots and at first base sooner rather than later.

WHITE SOX: Lucas Giolito, AL Cy Young

Giolito has been named an All-Star and finished tied for sixth ('19) and seventh ('20), respectively, in AL Cy Young voting since the start of the '19 season, when he moved his career on a direct path to the top after a dismal '18 campaign. The right-hander struck out 97 over 72 1/3 innings in ’20 -- ranking second in the AL behind only Cy Young winner Shane Bieber -- after fanning 228 in ’19. His whiff rate also went up to 36.6 percent, marking a career high. Let’s not forget the Aug. 25 no-hitter he threw against the Pirates and the perfect game bid that Giolito carried into the seventh inning in the opener of the AL Wild Card Series against the A’s. Simply put, Giolito has top-of-the-rotation stuff and he has figured out how to make the most effective usage of his repertoire. Now, he will be working with new pitching coach Ethan Katz, his coach at Harvard-Westlake High School in California who also helped Giolito make significant changes to his repertoire and delivery in the offseason prior to the ’19 campaign. It could be an award-worthy sort of combination.

AL WEST

ANGELS: Mike Trout, AL MVP

Trout is the best player in the game and is always in the conversation for AL MVP, winning the award three times and finishing in the top 5 in each of the past nine seasons. Though he is coming off his worst finish in the balloting for AL MVP, finishing fifth in the shortened 2020 season, Trout is showing no signs of slowing down and he should put up monster numbers yet again in '21. He has the benefit of hitting in front of fellow superstar Anthony Rendon, who could also make a run at the AL MVP Award with a strong season.

ASTROS: Alex Bregman, AL MVP

Bregman finished a very close second to Trout in the 2019 AL MVP race after hitting .296 with 41 homers, 112 RBIs and 119 walks, all while leading the AL in bWAR (8.4). Simply put, he was one of the top three or four players in the game. Like many of his Astros teammates, Bregman tailed off in the shortened '20 season and he wound up slashing .242/.350/.451 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 153 at-bats. Whether it was the long layoff because of coronavirus or the hangover from the sign-stealing scandal that seemed to permeate the club, Bregman will be looking to shake off a disappointing season in ‘21. He remains an elite player and will be only 27 years old on Opening Day.

ATHLETICS: Matt Chapman, AL MVP

Way back in February, Chapman arrived to Spring Training as a darkhorse candidate for the AL MVP Award. The prognostications for Chapman made sense given the year he was coming off of in 2019, when he earned his first All-Star selection and appeared in his first Home Run Derby in a campaign that saw him slash .249/.342/.506 with a career-high 36 home runs and 91 RBIs while also capturing the Gold and Platinum Glove Awards for a second straight year. But after a delayed start to the '20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapman battled injuries and struggled to get into a good rhythm, with his season coming to an end on Sept. 12 after learning he needed season-ending hip surgery. Ending the '20 season batting .232 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs, Chapman is expected to be fully recovered in time for Spring Training, and there is no doubt the 27-year-old third baseman will be motivated to return stronger than ever after having to sit at home in Southern California while watching the A’s get eliminated by the Astros just up the road at Dodger Stadium in the ALDS.

MARINERS: Jarred Kelenic, AL Rookie of the Year

Fresh off center fielder Kyle Lewis’ Rookie of the Year honor, why not make it two in a row for the Mariners, who likely will call up Kelenic early in the season and put him in the outfield next to Lewis. The 21-year-old was expected to make his MLB debut this past year, but with only 21 games above Class A under his belt, the Mariners opted to keep Kelenic at their alternate training site in the shortened campaign. With his intriguing combination of power, speed and competitive drive, Kelenic ranks as the No. 9 overall prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline and he figures to be a big part of the Mariners’ youthful makeover.

RANGERS: Joey Gallo, AL MVP

It is time for Gallo to put together a full season without any injuries as the force he can be in the middle of the Rangers' lineup. Gallo was close to doing that in 2019 when he hit .253/.389/.598 with 22 home runs and 49 RBIs in 70 games. This past abbreviated season turned out to be a struggle offensively for both Gallo and the entire Texas lineup, but he did win his first Gold Glove on defense. He turns 27 on Nov. 19, so he is young enough to still have many great seasons ahead of him.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

BRAVES: Ronald Acuña Jr., NL MVP

Acuña finished three stolen bases shy of a 40-40 season in 2019 and produced a 37-homer pace in the shortened '20 campaign despite the fact that his left wrist bothered him for all but the first three weeks of the season. The 22-year-old outfielder has finished within the top 12 in NL MVP balloting in each of his first three seasons and he is now primed to win this honor. His strikeout rate rose slightly from 26.3 percent to 29.7 percent this year, but there were still signs of encouraging plate discipline. Acuña's chase rate dropped from 24.0 percent to 20.1 percent and his walk rate rose from 10.6 percent to 18.8 percent, despite spending a majority of the season hitting directly in front of MVP Freddie Freeman. As Acuña continues to combine his incredible power with good discipline, he’ll show why some consider him to be the game’s next Trout.

MARLINS: Sandy Alcantara, NL Cy Young

The Marlins, backed by many scouts, have claimed that Alcantara’s “pure stuff” is as good as anyone in the Majors. The 25-year-old is starting to back that up, and if he continues to make strides like he has in the past two seasons, the hard-throwing right-hander could find himself in the NL Cy Young Award mix. Alcantara’s four-seam fastball averaged 96.8 mph this year and his sinker sat at 96.2 mph. Alcantara is missing more bats, as his strikeout percentage rose to 22.7, compared to 18 percent when he was an All-Star who logged 197 1/3 innings in 2019. Alcantara’s slider, a big pitch for him, has improved, as well. He had a 35.5 whiff percentage on the pitch in '20, an improvement from 31.6 percent in ‘19. The more Alcantara refines his pitch arsenal, the closer he gets to stacking up with the usual suspects in the Cy Young Award conversations.

METS: Jacob deGrom, NL Cy Young

deGrom may not have won a third consecutive NL Cy Young Award in 2020, but he’s still arguably the favorite to take home that award when he returns to the field in ’21. deGrom may have become the third pitcher in Major League history to three-peat had he had the luxury of a full, six-month season, given how brilliantly he pitched down the stretch in both ’18 and ’19. Instead, Trevor Bauer won on the strength of 11 excellent starts. deGrom will turn 33 next June, still in the prime of his career without quite as much mileage on his arm as many pitchers his age. Until he takes a step back -- and he’s shown no indications of doing so to date -- he will remain a perennial Cy Young favorite.

NATIONALS: Juan Soto, NL MVP

Soto already became the youngest player to win the NL batting title when he hit .351 in his age-21 season in 2020. So where does the slugging left-hander go from here? An MVP race likely is in his future. Soto finished fifth in NL MVP voting this past season, ranking just behind fellow phenom Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres. Soto edged out MVP winner Freddie Freeman by 10 points for the batting title, and he tallied 54 hits, 13 home runs, 14 doubles, 37 RBIs and 39 runs scored in 47 games. Soto also recorded the highest rates by a qualified hitter since Barry Bonds in 2004 in on-base percentage (.490), slugging percentage (.695), OPS (1.185) and wRC+ (201). The potential is sky-high for Soto in his fourth Major League season.

PHILLIES: Bryce Harper, NL MVP

Harper batted .268 with 13 home runs, 33 RBIs, a .962 OPS and a 157 OPS+ this past season, despite playing with a bad back over the final month. Look at his slash line before he tweaked his back in late August in Atlanta: .343/.478/.714. Then consider how he finished: .225/.386/.442. Harper said he only needed to rest following the season to be healthy by the time Spring Training opens in February. If Harper can stay healthy in 2021, there is no reason to think he cannot continue to crush the baseball like he did in the first half of '20. If he does, he could help the Phillies offset any potential losses to the lineup, including J.T Realmuto and/or Didi Gregorius, and win his second NL MVP Award.

NL CENTRAL

BREWERS: Corbin Burnes, NL Cy Young

Burnes managed to finish sixth in 2020 NL Cy Young Award balloting after his candidacy took a painful hit in his final regular-season start, when an oblique injury not only spoiled his bid to be the first Brewers pitcher to win an ERA title, but left him one-third of an inning -- that’s right, one measly out -- shy of qualifying for the honor. That also meant he didn’t appear with the other qualifying pitchers as voters perused statistical leaderboards while filling out their ballots. More importantly, it denied Burnes an opportunity to pitch Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series against the Dodgers, and sent him into the offseason with a bitter taste in his mouth. That worked well a year ago, when Burnes endured one of the worst seasons of any pitcher in baseball, with an 8.82 ERA in 49 innings in '19. He spent the winter reconfiguring his deep arsenal and returned in '20 with a lethal cut fastball, producing a 2.11 ERA and 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He’ll be entering his age-26 season in '21.

CARDINALS: Jack Flaherty, NL Cy Young

Flaherty was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2019, thanks to his historic second half of the season that saw him finish fifth in NL Cy Young voting. His stats took a step back in '20, but that was for reasons largely out of his control: A coronavirus outbreak in the organization paused the Cardinals’ season and caused Flaherty to go more than three weeks without pitching. When he came back, he had to build up with each start. Still, he showed what a dominant force he could be with his one postseason start, when he allowed one run in six innings while striking out eight Padres in the Wild Card Series. Flaherty will be eyeing a more consistent year in '21. That could put him in the Cy Young mix once again.

CUBS: Yu Darvish, NL Cy Young

Going into the 2019 All-Star break, Darvish had made 26 starts since signing a lucrative free-agent contract with the Cubs. He had a 4.99 ERA to go with an 11.7 percent walk rate in 137 innings in that time period, which had been defined by injury issues and command troubles. Then, Darvish flipped an incredible switch. In the next 25 starts, including his '20 showing, the righty logged a 2.40 ERA with a 34.6 percent strikeout rate and miniscule 3.4 percent walk rate in 157 2/3 innings. Not even an offseason, halted Spring Training, shutdown period or short Summer Camp could disrupt Darvish’s rhythm. In ‘20, he won eight of his 12 starts, posted a 2.01 ERA, had 93 strikeouts against 14 walks in 76 innings and finished as the NL Cy Young runner-up. With his growing comfort with the Cubs, a freedom to be himself on the mound and elite command of the strike zone and his 10-plus pitches, Darvish should once again be a Cy Young contender in ‘21.

PIRATES: Ke’Bryan Hayes, NL Rookie of the Year

Since the day Jameson Taillon had his second Tommy John surgery in August 2019, teammates have been touting him as a lock for NL Comeback Player of the Year in '21. Perhaps Taillon, a hard worker and legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher in '18, will nab that award after tweaking his mechanics to protect his elbow. But the Pirates’ favorite to win an award next year is Hayes, who finished sixth in this year’s NL Rookie of the Year balloting and maintains his rookie status heading into next season. In fact, it’s fair to say that Hayes will enter '21 as the favorite to take home the award after slashing .376/.442/.682 with five homers, seven doubles and two triples on his way to winning NL Rookie of the Month honors in September. He’ll be a Gold Glove Award candidate at the hot corner, and the surprising power he displayed at the plate during his debut makes him a much more interesting all-around player to watch. The Pirates’ focus for now is on building a better future, and there’s no doubt Hayes will be a part of it.

REDS: Luis Castillo, NL Cy Young

Castillo’s 2020 season had a bit of a split personality. The first month was less than stellar before he was dominant in the second month and helped the Reds reach the postseason. Over his first seven starts, the right-hander was 0-5 with a 4.10 ERA. In five September starts, Castillo went 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA, 37 strikeouts and nine walks. He won four games in a row with a 1.26 ERA before dropping his final regular-season outing. Castillo has established one of the best changeups in baseball to go with his near triple-digit fastball velocity. But he’s also developed his slider to get hitters off the changeup, and it worked for him down the stretch. Now that he’s had a taste of the playoffs and the chance to watch Bauer work up close, Castillo could give Cincinnati two Cy Young winners in a row next season.

NL WEST

D-BACKS: Zac Gallen, NL Cy Young

Gallen doesn’t get the attention of some pitchers in larger markets, but if he continues to pitch as he has in his first year-plus in the big leagues, that could change in a hurry. The D-backs acquired the right-hander from the Marlins at the 2019 Trade Deadline and he put up an ERA+ of 157 over eight starts down the stretch. In '20, Gallen picked up right where he left off as he set the Major League record for most consecutive starts with three or fewer earned runs allowed to open a career when he stretched his streak to 23. Gallen had just two poor innings in '20 -- he allowed four runs in the sixth inning on Sept. 7 and four runs in the first inning on Sept. 12. If you take away those two innings, his ERA would have been just 1.77. He still finished with a 167 ERA+ and he figures to only get better with experience.

DODGERS: Mookie Betts, NL MVP

As good as everyone already knows that Betts is, he’s even better than that because of the subtleties that don’t show up on a stat sheet. From his leadership, accountability and unselfishness to his instinctive baseball IQ that shows itself mostly on the basepaths, which might be the greatest of all his skills. Betts surprised manager Dave Roberts with the power generated by an undersized body. Betts surprised team leader Justin Turner with a tone-setting Spring Training address that rivaled Kirk Gibson’s eye-black meltdown in 1988. And Clayton Kershaw called Betts the best right fielder he’s ever seen. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Betts sparked the Dodgers when he became the full-time leadoff hitter, a spot in the order that Los Angeles has struggled to fill for years. Betts showed throughout the postseason how he can impact games with every tool, from taking away home runs to scoring on contact plays with the infield in. And he did all that despite the pressure of being the focal point of a blockbuster trade and then signing a jaw-dropping contract extension.

GIANTS: Buster Posey, NL Comeback Player of the Year

Posey opted out of the 2020 season after he and his wife adopted twin baby girls who were born prematurely in July, leaving the Giants with a significant void behind the plate. While San Francisco managed to exceed expectations and fall only one win short of the playoffs, there was no question the club missed its undisputed leader in the clubhouse and on the field. Posey will be back in '21 and he should be poised for a bounceback season now that he’s further removed from August 2018 hip surgery that sapped his power and hampered his production in each of his previous two seasons. Fellow core veterans Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford enjoyed resurgent seasons in '20 after working with the Giants’ new coaching staff, which brought fresh ideas and offensive philosophies in manager Gabe Kapler’s first year in San Francisco. Their improvements should bode well for Posey, who will be entering the final year of his contract.

PADRES: Fernando Tatis Jr., NL MVP

It’s been a decade since any Padre has taken home a major award from the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But there are plenty of opportunities to change that in 2021. Luis Patiño, MacKenzie Gore, Luis Campusano and Ryan Weathers all still have rookie eligibility. Jayce Tingler finished second in NL Manager of the Year voting in '20. Dinelson Lamet is expected to be healthy and could pose a Cy Young threat. And Manny Machado finished third in NL MVP voting in '20. But it’s Tatis who seems like the best bet. There’s no telling what the 21-year-old shortstop’s ceiling is. For three-quarters of the season this year, Tatis was the obvious MVP frontrunner before a late-season slump. Considering his five-tool skill set, there’s no reason to believe Tatis won’t be in the forefront of the MVP discussion next year -- and in the future.

ROCKIES: Nolan Arenado, NL MVP

As his 2020 season ended because of a left shoulder injury, Arenado fielded question after question about how the injury reduced his average to .253 -- with no extra-base hits after Sept. 9 and zero home runs after Sept. 8. That whole time he was waiting for a question about his defense. Then, his pride surfaced as he said pointedly: "I felt like my defense was better than it's ever been. Offensively, I would have been there also. But I just wasn't, in the 60-game race." It was as if he was laying his '21 manifesto: He will return to the form of five straight seasons from 2015-19 in which he finished with 37 or more homers and 110 or more RBIs.