By JAKE SEINER
The Associated Press
A funny thing about this year’s likely MVPs – none were valuable enough to push their teams into the playoffs.
Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – all individual prize contenders, and all ready to watch from home as a champion is crowned.
Other big names remain – Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge are well known to the fall audience. Of course, they were all there last year, too, when Tampa Bay rookie Randy Arozarena stole the show.
Arozarena set playoff records with 10 home runs and 29 hits, winning the AL Championship Series MVP, and had a mad run at home to help the Rays push the Dodgers to six games in the World Series . It was a remarkable rise for the 25-year-old who only had 42 regular-season games under his belt, propelling him from an unnamed rookie to a star on baseball’s biggest scene.
The stars are cemented in October. Here are five budding ones that could stay in the spotlight this month:
WANDER FRANCO, SS, RAYS OF TAMPA BAY
AL Rookie of the Year candidate despite only playing 70 games, Franco has successfully gone from a minor league phenomenon to a big league contributor. The 20-year-old switch hitter hit .288 with seven home runs and an .810 OPS, tying the 43-game streak based on Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in 1956 for the longest by a player 20 or under. Flashy but polite, Franco seems destined for stardom regardless of these playoffs, but it could hasten his rise in the conversation for the best baseball player.
Another Ray to watch: rookie right-hander Shane Baz, who was 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his first three big-league starts in September to potentially find his way into the playoff rotation of Tampa Bay.
TYLER O’NEILL, OF, ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Son of a bodybuilding champion, the solidly built O’Neill helped the Cardinals to a franchise-record 17-game winning streak in September. He’s clubbed 13 home runs in the last 31 games with a maximum of 30 RBIs in NL during that span. After hitting 21 combined homers in his first three big-league seasons, the 26-year-old Canadian was 34 to form a dangerous midrange line with All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
AUSTIN RILEY, 3B, LES BRAVES D’ATLANTA
Riley grew taller than any other Braves player following Ronald Acuña Jr.’s knee injury in July. The 24-year-old worked his way into the NL’s MVP consideration with 33 home runs, 107 RBIs and an .898 OPS, a production fueled by a .333 batting average in the second half. Riley collapsed in the spotlight last October, hitting .143 while Atlanta lost the NLCS to Los Angeles in seven games. He returned for 2021 showing his best form yet for all four reigning NL East champions. A redemptive playoffs could result in Atlanta’s first World Series appearance since 1999.
LUIS GARCIA, RHP, HOUSTON ASTROS
The Astros are still led by many of the same stars as their marred 2017 title team – Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel – but their aspirations in 2021 rest largely on Garcia, 24. A 6-foot-1 rookie with tree trunk legs, Garcia was 11-8 with a 3.30 ERA in 30 games, including 28 starts. With Justin Verlander out for the year following Tommy John surgery and Zack Greinke likely being pushed into the reliever box following a late-season injury, Garcia could move behind Lance McCullers Jr. in a critical location for a young rotation.
LAMONTE WADE JR., 1B / OF, GIANTS OF SAN FRANCISCO
Late Night LaMonte – pronounced “lah-MONT” – was the wellness and escape star to surprise San Francisco. Dropped out by the Minnesota Twins, Wade made his way into regular service and contributed several big hits as the Giants ended the Dodgers’ reign as the eight-time defending NL West champions. Wade went 13 for 23 with 12 RBIs in the ninth inning, including a hit to sink Arizona on Friday night. A day later, he received the team’s Willie Mac Award, an honor voted on by players, coaches, staff and fans to recognize the club’s most inspiring player.