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The MLB Stars With the Most at Stake This Season

Can Carlos Correa and Javier Báez reestablish their value heading into free agency? Will Trevor Bauer prove he’s an ace over a full schedule? And is this the year Vladimir Guerrero Jr. puts it all together?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The unique 2020 MLB schedule had numerous distortive effects on our perception of the league: The Cardinals played more than a third of their games as part of seven-inning doubleheaders, sub-.500 teams made the playoffs for the first time in baseball history, and counting stat thresholds were completely alien from anything that came before. With the regular season shortened to just 60 games, a minor injury could wipe out half a player’s season. A brief funk could turn into a professional crisis, or a streak of good BABIP luck could turn into a career year.

Players who had anomalous 2020 seasons, for good or for ill, go into 2021 with uncertain expectations. Did last year provide enough information to change our perceptions? Or was everything about last season a fluke? Here are five (well, six) guys who head into this spring with a lot at stake, reputationally or financially.

Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

It wasn’t long ago that Correa was slated to become the face of baseball in Houston. He arrived in the majors in 2015 as the former no. 1 pick, a middle-of-the-order bat at a glamour position, and a bilingual star in a market with more Spanish-speaking residents than any city in Spain apart from Barcelona or Madrid. Correa came up as a 20-year-old and was inserted right into the middle of the Astros lineup—and his face was plastered on billboards around the city.

Correa’s Rookie of the Year campaign coincided with his club’s first postseason appearance in a decade, and portended a bright future. To pick one fun fact: Correa hit 22 home runs in his age-20 season. In MLB history, only 25 players have had 20 or more career home runs by the end of their age-20 season. Of those, 15 have appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot. Nine are enshrined in Cooperstown.

For the most part, Correa has lived up to the lofty hype: He helped lead the Astros to four straight ALCS berths, two pennants, and a World Series title. And he was a huge part of that postseason success. Correa has 17 career postseason home runs, and walk-off hits in three different ALCS.

Correa has compiled 26.3 bWAR, hit 107 home runs, and posted a .276/.353/.480 batting line. Among players with at least 2,500 career plate appearances who have played three-quarters of their games at shortstop, Correa’s OPS+ of 126 ranks second all time.

And yet, there remains a sense of unfinished business for the now 26-year-old. A cornucopia of freak injuries have kept him from qualifying for the batting title in four of his six MLB seasons. He is no longer the league’s marquee young shortstop, having been surpassed by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Francisco Lindor, if not a handful of players beyond that. Correa has even drifted into more of a supporting role on his own team, behind José Altuve, Alex Bregman, and perhaps Yordan Álvarez in terms of offensive importance. Oh, and there was that whole trash-can-banging thing.

Correa, remarkably, is set to become a free agent this winter. The Astros have lavished long-term extensions on Bregman and Altuve, and have been unafraid to trade for highly paid veterans like Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. But despite its top-10 payroll, the franchise has tended not to swim in the deepest end of the free agent pool; in fact, one could argue the best free agents in each of the past two classes—Gerrit Cole and George Springer—were ex-Astros. That means Correa may have to look elsewhere if he wants, say, the 10-year, $300 million contract that Manny Machado got from the Padres in 2019.

The 2015 AL Rookie of the Year is poised to enter free agency at age 27, and his two-way ability will make him a highly coveted player no matter how he performs this season. But next offseason is going to be a buyers’ market for shortstops; Lindor, Corey Seager, Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, and Andrelton Simmons are all poised to hit the market, barring one or more signing an extension. And recent returns haven’t been encouraging for Correa. Last year was the weirdest in MLB history, and no team had a weirder 2020 than the Astros. Still, Correa slashed just .264/.326/.383 in his 58 games. That followed a productive but injury-plagued 2019 and a 2018 season in which he hit .239/.323/.405 in 110 games.

The talent is obviously there, but Correa hasn’t been healthy and productive at the same time since the Astros won the World Series in 2017. If he breaks that streak in 2021, he can name his price this offseason. If not, he’ll have prospective employers worrying that his best years are already behind him.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

Another victim of outrageous hype, Guerrero is entering his third season as an MLB starter, with 757 big league plate appearances and a respectable career wRC+ of 107. For most players a week short of their 22nd birthday, that would be pretty impressive. But this is a player for whom anything short of the Hall of Fame would be viewed as a disappointment. It is—and here I admit I’m part of the problem—an unfair standard for any ballplayer.

Nevertheless, Vladito is now merely the second-shiniest star among Toronto’s heralded crop of young sluggers, having been surpassed in prestige by Bo Bichette. And since the Blue Jays loaded up this offseason on big-name free agents like Springer and Semien, the young Guerrero keeps tumbling down the pecking order. If he continues to be just a slightly above-average hitter at a corner position, his sterling prospect reputation will wear off fairly soon. He needs a big 2021, and he knows it.

In a wonderful touch of irony, Vladito is pursuing that big season by becoming less big himself. Since the start of camp last year, he has dropped some 42 pounds from his frame. It’s a major change, even by best shape of his life standards, and Guerrero told reporters that he’s enjoying increased quickness and stamina as a result. If that translates to the plate, we could see him reach his full potential this summer and catapult the Jays from trendy sleeper to juggernaut.

Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers

The reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and highest-salaried pitcher in baseball is in a good situation, having signed with the defending World Series champions in free agency. But it isn’t entirely clear what the Dodgers will get for a contract worth up to $40 million in 2021. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to wonder whether Bauer can duplicate his exceptional 2020, from statistical indications of luck (including a career-low opponent BABIP and career-high strand rate) to the small sample size of his 11-start regular season to the fact that all 11 of those starts came against truly execrable competition (seven, for instance, came against the Tigers, Pirates, and Brewers). There’s only one way to find out whether Bauer is an ace or merely a good, durable sidekick to Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler: the crucible of on-field competition, an arena in which Bauer is only too happy to be judged.

But nothing with Bauer is that straightforward. Part of the uncertainty about him stems from the question of whether he will actually let his arm do the talking. Asked at his introductory press conference about his history of online abuse, Bauer delivered a less-than-reassuring deflection. Since then, he’s tried to updog Marcus Stroman into saying all lives matter on Twitter and pitched most of a spring training inning against the Padres with one eye closed, for reasons passing understanding. Considering his price tag, Bauer has to prove that he’s really as good as he was in 2020. But he also has to prove that he can act more or less like one would expect from a professional ballplayer.

Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, Chicago Cubs

Bryant and Báez find themselves in much the same boat as Correa: They’re nationally recognized stars from a World Series–winning team who are now set to enter free agency at an inopportune time. And since the Cubs have apparently transitioned from being a baseball team to a real estate development company with a baseball team attached to it, both big-name infielders will probably play elsewhere in 2022.

Bryant never got off the ground last year. Or rather, his problem was that he got on the ground too awkwardly. Two weeks into the season, the 2016 NL MVP injured his left wrist and ring finger while attempting to make a diving catch, costing him about two weeks of playing time. Then, in September, Bryant suffered an oblique injury; he played through it, but went 0-for-8 in the Cubs’ first-round playoff series loss to the Marlins. All told, Bryant’s 2020 amounted to just 34 games in which he hit .206/.293/.351. This after he hit a forgettable .261/.351/.478 post–All-Star break in 2019.

The Cubs had a weird offensive 2020 season in general—so much so that Jason Heyward, whose lack of production since joining the franchise has become a macabre joke, was one of only two Northsiders who hit worth a damn. But no Cubs player had a more concerning campaign than Báez. In 2018, Báez combined his signature exceptional infield defense with a career year at the plate: a .290 batting average, 83 extra-base hits, and 21 stolen bases—all career highs—to go with an NL-leading 111 RBI. Award voters were impressed, as Báez finished second to Christian Yelich in the MVP race. In 2019, Báez slashed .281/.316/.531 with 29 homers and 38 doubles. That was a step back from his 2018, but still an outstanding season by any standard.

Then in 2020, with zero warning whatsoever, Báez was the second-worst qualified hitter by wRC+ in the entire National League. At least Bryant walked enough to get on base a decent amount; Báez managed only a .238 OBP. In 2019, that would’ve been good for 16th among pitchers with at least 20 plate appearances. Even with Báez’s great defense and plenty of power, El Mago was a replacement-level player.

If Báez had hit the free-agent market after either 2018 or 2019, he could’ve billed himself as a two-way star, either the last piece on a championship contender or the leader of an up-and-coming team, and the kind of box office attraction who could serve as a pied piper for future free agents, much like Machado has in San Diego. Báez has always had holes in his game, but last season they were so exaggerated that he turned into an extremely expensive Freddy Galvis. Actually, that’s unkind to Galvis, who hasn’t had such a bad offensive season since 2014. How the 28-year-old Báez fares at the plate in 2021 could dictate the rest of his career.

Pete Alonso, New York Mets

Alonso’s record-breaking Rookie of the Year campaign in 2019 feels as far in the past as—to name another NL first baseman built like a 19th-century strongman—Ted Kluszewski’s 49-homer campaign in 1954. Alonso wasn’t bad in 2020, but with Dominic Smith’s breakout year, he wasn’t even the best 25-year-old first baseman on his own team.

The former University of Florida standout is part of a class of prospects who’s only started to succeed over the past decade: right-handed-hitting, right-handed-throwing first basemen who are drafted out of college. The pressure on such prospects to produce offensively has historically been so great that most fizzled out instead of becoming impact big leaguers. Then Paul Goldschmidt broke through, followed by Rhys Hoskins and Alonso. Andrew Vaughn and Spencer Torkelson were top-three draft picks in 2019 and 2020, respectively. (I know the Tigers are auditioning Tork as a third baseman, I just remain unconvinced he’ll stay there for long.)

Hoskins is a decent comparable for Alonso: After looking like prime Frank Thomas as a rookie, Hoskins took a step back over the next few years. As the Phillies loaded up on big stars, he went from their best hitter to maybe their third- or fourth-best bat. He’s still an elite on-base guy (he led the NL in walks in 2019), but with less-than-ideal power for a bad defensive first baseman. Likewise, Alonso’s star is dimmer than that of, say, Lindor. And as the bizarro Hoskins in this comparison, he possesses elite power but less-than-ideal on-base skills for a bad defensive first baseman.

We’re still only 16 months removed from Alonso finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting after leading the NL in both home runs and neck muscle definition. But a disappointing sophomore season, combined with the risk that Smith is a below-average defensive left fielder, could mean that Alonso has a shorter honeymoon in New York than anyone could have imagined in late 2019.