2021 MLB season: X-factor for each American League team

By Robbie Stratakos

The 2021 MLB season is just days away. Expectations are set, as we prepare for the first full MLB season in two years. However, who are the players that can move the needle for their respective teams when it comes to exceeding expectations? Here is the X-factor for every American League team in the 2021 MLB season.

Read More: MLB power rankings: 2021 outlook for every team before Opening Day

American League East x-factors for 2021 MLB season

Tampa Bay Rays: Randy Arozarena

2021 MLB season: Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays
Mar 2, 2021; Fort Myers, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena (56) gestures prior to the spring training game against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park at Fenway South. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Arozarena is coming off a postseason run for the ages. The million-dollar question is whether his offensive brilliance, which featured him performing at an MVP-caliber level, was a glimpse into the future or a hot streak? Arozarena hitting at a high level gives the Rays a prominent hitter to lean on and helps them stay in contention given their surplus of pitching. Him performing at an adequate level makes the Rays a borderline playoff team.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Rays, check out #RaysBaseball rumors, rankings, and news here.

New York Yankees: Luis Severino

Luis Severino Tommy John Surgery
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole is one of the three best starting pitchers in the sport, but his arm alone can’t get the Yankees to the World Series. Luis Severino and offseason additions Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon haven’t pitched a full season since 2018. If healthy and on top of his game, Severino can be the Yankees second ace. He gets considerable movement on his fastball and provides length. On the other hand, an underwhelming Severino continues the team’s ongoing rotation woes.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Yankees, check out #Yankees rumors, rankings, and news here.

Toronto Blue Jays: Steven Matz

2021 MLB season: Steven Matz, Toronto Blue Jays
Mar 25, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Steven Matz (22) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers during spring training at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

George Springer and Marcus Semien improve the Blue Jays offense and defense, but they don’t address the team’s weakness: starting pitching. Acquired as a reclamation project from the New York Mets, Matz has shown the ability to be a steady starter every fifth day. That said, he has been roughed up over the last two years. Hyun-Jin Ryu can’t carry this rotation by himself. Matz has to turn his career around for this aspect of the Blue Jays to be a reliable unit.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Blue Jays, check out #WeAreBlueJays rumors, rankings, and news here.

Baltimore Orioles: Keegan Akin

2021 MLB season: Keegan Akin, Baltimore Orioles
Mar 10, 2021; Sarasota, Florida, USA; Baltimore Orioles pitcher Keegan Akin (45) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training during spring training at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of left-hander John Means, Baltimore starting pitching has flashed little promise in recent memory. However, Keegan Akin has some upside. The left-hander posted a 4.56 ERA and totaled strikeouts at an impressive clip across eight appearances (six starts) in an AL East division that has a boatload of heavy swingers. The Orioles have some capable players around the diamond; they need starting pitchers to boast about. Akin taking the next step would go a long way.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Orioles, check out #Orioles rumors, rankings, and news here.

Boston Red Sox: Garrett Richards

2021 MLB season: Garrett Richards, Boston Red Sox
Mar 23, 2021; North Port, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Garrett Richards (43) pitches during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves during spring training at CoolToday Park. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox have a health-plagued rotation (Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi). Free agent signee Garrett Richards is no exception, but he’s the only one of the aforementioned starters who pitched the length of the 2020 season (he spent last season with the San Diego Padres). The right-hander is a reliable groundball pitcher whose continued presence in the ballpark can add stability to Boston’s rotation. Without such stability, this will be a severely lacking unit.

American League Central x-factors for 2021 MLB season

Minnesota Twins: Kenta Maeda

Minnesota Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Kenta Maeda had a Cy Young-Award caliber 2020 campaign, highlighted by a 2.70 ERA. The Twins project to have a balanced rotation but only if Maeda performs the way he did last season. An efficient, savvy Maeda forms a potent one-two punch with Jose Berrios. The Dodgers’ version of Maeda, a reliable but yawning starter, adds a new chapter to the Twins’ up-and-down rotation resume.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Twins, check out #MNTwins rumors, rankings, and news here.

Cleveland Indians: Aaron Civale

2021 MLB season: Aaron Civale, Cleveland Indians
Mar 4, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Aaron Civale (43) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a spring training game at American Family Fields of Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians are as good as any organization in MLB at developing starting pitchers, but they need that unit to be elite to make the playoffs. Aaron Civale getting back on track would add depth to their rotation. He’s a season removed from posting a 2.34 ERA across 10 starts, whereas he posted a 4.74 ERA across 12 starts in 2020. Civale is capable of catching hitters off-guard with his breaking pitches.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Indians, check out #OurTribe rumors, rankings, and news here.

Chicago White Sox: Dylan Cease

2021 MLB season: Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox
Aug 1, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease (84) delivers the ball in the first inning against the New York Mets at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox have a productive rotation headlined by Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. An advanced Dylan Cease takes them to the next level. Prior to tailing off a bit down the stretch, Cease was having a phenomenal 2020 campaign. The AL is top-heavy with the White Sox being a part of that power chain. They need as much fortifying as humanly possible to contend for the AL. Area for improvement exists in the back end of the rotation.

Related: If you’re a fan of the White Sox, check out #WhiteSox rumors, rankings, and news here.

Kansas City Royals: Brady Singer

2021 MLB season: Brady Singer, Kansas City Royals
Sep 27, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brady Singer (51) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have a compelling positional depth chart. Their rebuild yielding positive results comes down to their rotation making a jump. Brad Keller did as such last season. Brady Singer could do the same in 2021. Singer posted a 4.08 FIP and limited damage across 12 starts in what was his first season in the big leagues. Him building off his rookie season adds credibility to the Royals’ rotation.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Royals, check out #Royals rumors, rankings, and news here.

Detroit Tigers: Casey Mize

MLB power rankings: Detroit Tigers
Sep 17, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize (12) pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Mize is the Tigers’ top prospect, but he struggled mightily across his first seven starts in the big leagues last season. (Mize posted a 6.99 ERA). The highly-regarded right-hander is the expected future of this rotation. Yes, Spencer Turnbull is coming off an encouraging season, and Matthew Boyd logs strikeouts at a high rate. At the same time, the Tigers need Mize to live up to the hype of being the first pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. His progression is pivotal to their rotation’s outlook.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Tigers, check out #DetroitRoots rumors, rankings, and news here.

American League West x-factors for 2021 MLB season

Oakland Athletics: Jesus Luzardo

A's Jesus Luzardo
Aug 4, 2020; Oakland, California, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jesus Luzardo (44) pitches the ball against the Texas Rangers during the first inning at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Is Luzardo best suited starting or coming out of the bullpen? Was his shaky 2020 the byproduct of an injured-riddled spring training? Can he be their ace? The A’s are founded on positional versatility and pitching depth. They need the latter to perform better than it did in 2020 (the A’s rotation was 16th in MLB in ERA last season). Luzardo is a compelling left-hander with ace potential. A dominant rotation keeps the A’s in contention.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Athletics, check out #RootedInOakland rumors, rankings, and news here.

Houston Astros: Jose Urquidy

2021 MLB season: Jose Urquidy, Houston Astros
Oct 26, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Jose Urquidy (65) walks off the mound after the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals in game four of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Urquidy has been efficient and frankly pitched at a high level, but it has come in spurts. That has been a result of rotation depth (2019) and injuries (2020). With Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez and Forrest Whitley down with injuries, the Astros need some of their young starters to pick up the slack. Urquidy’s funky delivery can deceive hitters, inducing weak contact and easy outs. A healthy version of Urquidy can keep the Astros afloat until their rotation get healthier.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Astros, check out #4EverAstro rumors, rankings, and news here.

Seattle Mariners: Yusei Kikuchi

2021 MLB season: Yusei Kikuchi, Seattle Mariners
Sep 25, 2020; Oakland, California, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi (18) delivers a pitch against the Oakland Athletics during the fourth inning at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn are all coming off encouraging seasons. That said, the Mariners need more to be an ambush playoff threat in the AL. Yes, Kikuchi has struggled to get his feet beneath him in the big leagues. At the same time, he now has two MLB seasons under his belt. The 2021 season could see him begin to turn a corner and serve as a reliable fixture in the Mariners rotation.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Mariners, check out #SeaUsRise rumors, rankings, and news here.

Los Angeles Angels: Griffin Canning

Los Angeles Angels: Griffin Canning
Sep 22, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Griffin Canning (47) pitches during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Dylan Bundy had a superb debut year with the Angels, and Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb are respectable pickups. With that said, the Angels need an ace to emerge: Griffin Canning can be that pitcher. He has gradually improved over his 28 starts in the big leagues, works out of trouble and looks poised to be a top-of-the-rotation arm. A jump to stardom for Canning gets the Angels in the playoff mix.

Texas Rangers: Dane Dunning

2021 MLB season: Dane Dunning, Texas Rangers
Sept 21, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Dane Dunning (51) delivers in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers need a boost from their rotation for the sake of their rebuild. Dunning, who was acquired from the White Sox for Lance Lynn in December, could move the needle for their rotation. The former first-round draft pick posted a 3.97 ERA and was able to evade midgame catastrophes across his first seven career MLB starts last season. Him making quicker work of hitters could be a bright spot in a likely dry 2021 season for the Rangers.

Read More: 2021 MLB predictions: From MLB playoffs to 2021 World Series winner