Every MLB team has a player, strength, or special skill that can make all the difference in wins and losses. As we approach the 2021 season, these X-factors stand out for each of the 30 teams.

 

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There’s a common theme with much of Arizona’s position players. Several are capable of playing multiple defensive positions, including Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar, Daulton Varsho, and Josh Rojas. The versatility allows the Diamondbacks to more easily overcome injuries and put the best lineup on the field each day. Unfortunately, that might not be enough to complete in an improved NL West.

 

Atlanta Braves: Pitching depth

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Pitching depth has become a strength for the Braves, and they bought in even more this offseason by signing free agents Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. The new faces allow Atlanta to comprise one of the deeper starting rotations in MLB, and it will become even deeper when Mike Soroka is able to return from a torn Achilles a few weeks into the season.

 

Baltimore Orioles: Trey Mancini

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The Orioles are lacking much talent currently, and they also missed arguably their best player last year when Mancini was absent due to cancer treatment. He’s returned healthy this season and hopefully ready to pick up where he left off in 2019 when he hit 35 home runs.

 

Boston Red Sox: Upside starting pitchers

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Boston GM Chaim Bloom didn’t spend big money in the offseason, but he did add some upside to the starting rotation with Garrett Richards. That was on top of his acquisition of hard-throwing Nick Pivetta last season and the return of Eduardo Rodriguez from COVID-19 issues. The team also really likes the potential of Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, and young Tanner Houck, making a rotation that at least has the ceiling to return the Red Sox to contention.

 

Chicago Cubs: Adbert Alzolay

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The Cubs lost a lot of innings in the offseason with the departure of Yu Darvish and Jon Lester. While the team did sign Jake Arrieta and Trevor Williams, the upside for that duo is limited at this point. Chicago could be counting on Alzolay to make a big jump this year after showing flashes in 2020, without a clear reliable arm in the rotation behind ace Kyle Hendricks.

 

Chicago White Sox: Michael Kopech

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The White Sox are loaded with talent in all areas, but few players are more interesting than Kopech. The former first-round pick hit triple digits on the radar gun in 2018 before tearing his elbow and opting out of last season. He’s set to begin the season in relief but could find starts down the road. His high-octane stuff should be a serious weapon for a team with championship aspirations.

 

Cincinnati Reds: Tyler Mahle

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Cincinnati lost Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer in free agency, but they still enter 2021 with two aces in Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. They’re counting on someone else in the starting rotation to step up, and Mahle is the best candidate. The right-hander has been inconsistent in his career, but he had a 3.59 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 47.2 innings last season.

 

Cleveland Indians: Triston McKenzie

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Cleveland continues to shed top-tier talent, trading Mike Clevinger last season, and moving Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco this offseason. Fortunately, they do have the young talent to remain competitive, and McKenzie will be one of their biggest breakout candidates. The former first-round pick was terrific in his MLB debut last year, posting a 3.24 ERA in 33.1 innings.

 

Colorado Rockies: Kyle Freeland

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Pitching at Coors Field is the most difficult of endeavors, yet most of the Rockies starting pitchers have demonstrated success pitching in Denver at some point. A native of Denver, Freeland proved he could pitch well at home in 2017, finishing fourth in the NL Cy Young race, though his performance has been up and down since then. The Rox really need Freeland to regain his old form behind German Marquez if they have any chance of competing in 2021.

 

Detroit Tigers: Willi Castro

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The Tigers have several elite young pitchers, but the young hitting talent is far behind. Castro is one of the exceptions, busting out upon his arrival to Detroit last year and earning the starting shortstop job entering 2021. After hitting .349 last season, Castro could really establish himself as part of the team’s long-term future with a repeat.

 

Houston Astros: Yordan Alvarez

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Alvarez was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2019 after hitting .313-27-78 in only 87 games, but he appeared in only two games last year due to surgeries on both knees. He’s shown up healthy in spring training, and the team will really be counting on him after losing George Springer in free agency.

 

Kansas City Royals: Speed

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Few teams in MLB have as much raw speed as KC, and they really use it to their advantage offensively. Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi led the league with 24 steals last, but Whit Merrifield, Michael Taylor, Andrew Benintendi, Edward Olivares, and Jarrod Dyson also seem very capable of double-digit steals. Lacking power through the entire lineup, the Royals can still manufacture runs.

 

Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani

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Ohtani has shown flashes as a pitcher and hitter since his MLB arrival in 2018, but he has yet to string together a full season doing both. His arm looks healthy this spring, and the Angels are going forward with the two-way plan of using Ohtani as the DH and starting pitcher. If Ohtani can stay healthy, he’s capable of winning MVP and vaulting the Angels back to the playoffs.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers: Depth

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There’s so much attention paid to the Dodgers star power with Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw, and others, but their depth is just as impressive. The team’s bench has several very capable hitters, including Chris Taylor, Edwin Rios, and Matt Beaty, while the starting rotation looks seven deep after signing Trevor Bauer. The Dodgers have a great chance to win back-to-back World Series.

 

Miami Marlins: Sixto Sanchez

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Miami continues to rebuild with a dynamic starting rotation as their strength. Sandy Alcantara has already established himself, but Sanchez could have a higher ceiling. The centerpiece of the team’s return in the J.T. Realmuto trade, Sanchez posted a 3.46 ERA in seven starts last season and could make the team more interesting in 2021.

 

Milwaukee Brewers: Corbin Burnes

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Milwaukee saw an under-the-radar breakout from Burnes in 2020, and he could be headed for even bigger things in 2021. Sporting an elite fastball, Burnes posted a 2.11 ERA in 59.2 innings with an incredible 88 strikeouts. It remains to be seen how many innings Burnes will throw this season, but he’s a weapon that could lead the team back to the playoffs.

 

Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton

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The Twins remain a very talented team, but they need to stay healthy to get the most out of their roster. Health hasn’t been on Buxton’s side during his career, as he’s reached 100 MLB games only once in six seasons. The center fielder remains elite defensively with a high offensive upside when he’s on the field, but the Twins need him to stay healthy to reach their potential.

 

New York Mets: Dominic Smith

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A natural first baseman, Smith had to shift to left field over the last few seasons to get his bat in the lineup. He remains a work in progress in the field, but Smith hit .316-10-42 in only 50 games last year and has developed into a potentially elite hitter. The team can forgive his defense if the offense continues to produce.

 

New York Yankees: Corey Kluber

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Kluber is a two-time Cy Young winner with Cleveland, but he’s barely pitched over the last two seasons due to injuries. That didn’t stop the Yankees from giving him $11 million going into his age 35 season. The team has high hopes for Kluber after losing Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton in the offseason.

 

Oakland Athletics: Jesus Luzardo

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Luzardo has been hyped as a future ace, but injuries and COVID-19 have limited him to only 71 innings in the majors over the last two seasons. The lefty is looking to build on last year’s momentum at the front of Oakland’s rotation, with a chance to move the A’s to the front of the AL West.

 

Philadelphia Phillies: Scott Kingery

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After a breakout 2019 season, Kingery struggled through the after-effects of COVID-19 last season. The team is relying on him to bounce back and fill a utility role this season, and he has a shot to see regular playing time if his bat can rebound. Kingery would be an important piece of the puzzle, with power, speed, and defensive upside.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates: Gregory Polanco

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Polanco was once a top prospect, but he’s had trouble bouncing back from a major shoulder injury that he suffered in 2018. Last season the right fielder hit .153 in 50 games, easily a career-low. The Pirates would like nothing more than for Polanco to bounce back to his starter level, if for no other reason than the fact he can draw a solid return in a trade.

 

San Diego Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr.

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Tatis Jr. is quickly becoming one of the faces of baseball and has a chance to become an even bigger household name this year with the Padres adding significant talent. For all the attention that Tatis Jr. has been given, he’s played only 143 games in the majors over two seasons. If he can reach his potential this season, the Padres have a chance to beat the Dodgers in the NL West.

 

San Francisco Giants: Kevin Gausman

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A former top prospect in Baltimore, Gausman struggled with velocity issues and a small home ballpark near the end of his time with the O’s. He was able to rebound in San Francisco last season with a 3.62 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 59.2 innings and has returned for at least one more season. Gausman looks like the team’s ace going into 2021 and could be a difference-maker if the team is competitive this year.

 

Seattle Mariners: Jarred Kelenic

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Kelenic is Seattle’s top prospect, producing a 20/20 season in 2019 as a minor leaguer. He’s set to make his arrival at some point this year, with the potential to add excitement for a rebuilding team. Unfortunately, Kelenic already suffered a setback with a knee injury this spring.

 

St. Louis Cardinals: Dylan Carlson

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Carlson was hyped as the Cardinals’ top prospect last year, but he struggled at the plate when he finally got an opportunity. The team is still relying on Carlson to deliver this season, trading Dexter Fowler in the offseason and not making any other significant outfield moves. If all goes well, Carlson could patrol center field in St. Louis for years to come.

 

Tampa Bay Rays: Kevin Cash

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Cash and the Rays front office continue to revolutionize the game with creative ways of building a team and managing. He will have to be as creative as ever this year after losing aces Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in the offseason. If nothing else, the Rays have build depth that Cash will have plenty of opportunities to deploy.

 

Texas Rangers: Joey Gallo

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Gallo hit 40-plus home runs in back-to-back seasons for the Rangers in 2017 and 2018. Since then, he’s had trouble getting back up to speed, battling injuries in 2019 and slumping last year. The Rangers need Gallo to rebound this year after some significant losses in the offseason.

 

Toronto Blue Jays: Power

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The NL East is a division known for its elite lineups, and the Jays have done enough in the offseason to add to the collection. The team signed power hitters George Springer and Marcus Semien, adding to very capable hitters in Teoscar Hernandez, Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Rowdy Tellez to make one of the most intimidating lineups in baseball. Toronto has a chance to bounce back to contention by simply outhitting their opponents.

 

Washington Nationals: Victor Robles

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The Nats have plenty of stars, led by Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg. However, they desperately need other players to step up if they have any chance of bouncing back to their 2019 World Series form. They’re counting on Robles to be one of those players, as the former top outfield prospect posted great numbers in the minors but has yet to put everything together in Washington. His struggles were especially frustrating last year, but the team loves his potential.