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2021 MLB season: Nine most surprising players who made Opening Day rosters

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The start of a new Major League Baseball season spells the end of a long winter; it signals the flowering of renewed optimism; and it ensures that fans across the world are about to tune in to a game and ask themselves: who in the world is that

The warp and the woof of April baseball entails, among other things, learning about unfamiliar players. That can mean old faces in new places; it can mean top prospects who were able to sidestep having their service-time suppressed; and it can (and usually does) mean minor-league veterans and non-elite prospects who beat the odds.

Below, CBS Sports has highlighted nine such players who you might find yourself wondering about over the coming days. You can thank us later. (Do note that we’ve limited the player pool to those who have less than a year of Major League service; Lucas Luetge types did not qualify, in other words.) Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Baddoo, the third pick in last December’s Rule 5 draft, was left unprotected by the Twins because of durability and proximity concerns. He’s played in 29 games since the beginning of the 2019 season, and those represent the only games he’s appeared in above A-ball. Baddoo nonetheless hit .325/.460/.750 with five home runs this spring, showing off his intriguing power and speed combination along the way. The Tigers have kept two recent Rule 5 picks for the duration (Victor Reyes in 2018, Rony Garcia in 2020) so Baddoo would now seem to have a fair chance at sticking all year.

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Marcano might be the most surprising inclusion on any roster. The last time he played in a regular season game, it was as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League. Nevertheless, he cracked the Padres bench after hitting .405/.479/.619 in 49 plate appearances this spring. Marcano is on the smaller side, suggesting he’s never going to hit for much power. He should, however, put the ball in play at a high frequency, and his above-average footspeed ought to give him a chance to contribute secondary value. 

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Mathisen took a circular route to reach the majors. He was originally drafted by the Pirates in 2012 as a catcher conversion project. That didn’t take, and neither did his attempt at hitting enough to make it as a third baseman. Mathisen’s bat has ticked up since he joined the Diamondbacks as a minor-league free agent prior to the 2019 season. He even had an impressive nine-game stretch last season in which he homered twice and drove in five runs using a stance that could make a casual observer mistake him as a Josh Donaldson cosplayer. Mathisen is unlikely to keep up that pace of offensive production, but it’s always nice whenever a player is rewarded for their grind. 

Nogowski made his big-league debut last August, right after the Cardinals resumed their season following a COVID-19 outbreak. Despite accumulating 17 service days over three separate call-ups, he received just four plate appearances. (He did record his first career knock, a single off Dallas Keuchel.) Nogowski subsequently had an outstanding spring, batting .333/.477/.515 with two home runs and six more walks than strikeouts. He’s not quite your standard Quad-A type, as his game is centered around walks and singles rather than power. Even so, he’s unlikely to turn into the new Gregory Blakemoor Norton, and he’ll probably have to settle for more yo-yoing as the summer heats up. 

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New Angels general manager Perry Minasian spent the winter (and, lately, the spring) remaking his bullpen. Most of those additions were of the external and veteran varieties (Raisel Iglesias, Steve Cishek, Alex Claudio, Junior Guerra, Tony Watson, and Aaron Slegers); Rodriguez, the Angels’ fourth-round pick in 2016, is the exception. He’s made only three appearances since 2018 (with none coming above High-A), yet here he is, with an aggressive Opening Day assignment as part of the big-league bullpen. Rodriguez’s delivery always featured significant relief risk, so the Angels are hastening that outcome while banking on his fastball-slider combo leading to a setup future.

Yes, another member of the Angels. Franklin Barreto’s injury and Luis Rengifo’s lackluster spring cracked the window for minor-league veteran Rojas to sneak into their Opening Day plan. He responded by smashing through said window, hitting .306/.447/.583 with four more walks than strikeouts in 47 trips to the plate. He just celebrated his 28th birthday in January, making him one of the older players on this list. Rojas, a lefty bat, is the only spare infielder on the Angels roster, so expect to see him get the nod at second, third, and short whenever Joe Maddon feels that David Fletcher, Anthony Rendon, or Jose Iglesias needs a day off.

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The first of two Rule 5 pitchers on this list plucked from the Yankees system, Stephan features an above-average fastball-slider combination that he delivers from a low and deep release point. The Yankees seemed reluctant to move him to the bullpen for whatever reason, but he should be able to carve out a middle-relief role with Cleveland.

The Orioles claimed Urias, Brewers infielder Luis’ older brother, off waivers from the Cardinals in February 2020. He appeared in 10 games during the pandemic-shortened season, hitting .360/.407/.560 (163 OPS+) while splitting time at the middle-infield positions. Urias didn’t perform well this spring (.186/.255/.279), but that didn’t stop the Orioles from releasing Yolmer Sanchez and creating a keystone vacancy that’s likely to be filled by a combination of Urias and Pat Valaika. Urias can hit a little, he just doesn’t offer much secondary value and would be best deployed in a deep reserve role. 

9. Garrett Whitlock, RHP, Red Sox

Whitlock was a Rule 5 pick by way of the Yankees, which will make for a fun footnote if he becomes a meaningful contributor on the strength of his fastball-slider combination. Why would the Yankees leave him exposed? He underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2019 that, when combined with the pandemic, has sidelined him for an awkwardly long time. Whitlock should open the season as a reliever; if the Red Sox can help him improve his changeup, he might eventually get a shot at taking a spot in the rotation.

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