2021 Tuffy Awards: Can these 8 MLB players continue their surprising early-season success?

Coming off a shortened 60-game regular season in 2020, we should all be well-versed in the dangers of putting too much emphasis on small statistical samples. Yet fantasy managers still can’t help but jump to conclusions after the first games of the new season.

That’s why we present our annual Tuffy Awards — to pay tribute to the little-known players who start the year ridiculously hot, get everyone overly excited to add them to their rosters and predictably return to their near-replacement level of production.

The inspiration for the award did just that 27 years ago. On opening day in 1994, unheralded Chicago Cubs outfielder Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes hit three home runs off Dwight Gooden and etched his name in baseball history.

Fantasy managers who grabbed Rhodes off the waiver wire were rewarded with a grand total of five home runs and a .234 average the rest of the season.

And so, with a mix of caution and healthy skepticism, we sort through the early box scores for the identity of this year’s Tuffy. (All stats through Sunday's games unless noted.)

Non-Tuffys

While these awards mostly call attention to overinflated expectations based on first-week samples, there’s also an opportunity to identify a few overlooked players who just might be worth an early investment.

With a pair of homers on Monday, Nate Lowe drove in at least one run for the fifth consecutive game to start the season, giving him a major league-leading 14 RBI. (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)

1B Nate Lowe, Texas Rangers. The Rangers averaged seven runs per game in their first series in Kansas City, with Lowe seemingly in the middle of every rally. After the season’s first weekend, he was hitting .357 and leading the majors with nine RBI.

Playing time is the key to fantasy value and Lowe just wasn’t going to get enough of it with Tampa Bay. Following an offseason trade, however, he’s now the unquestioned starter in Texas.

OF Cedric Mullins, Baltimore Orioles. Mullins’ career appeared on the brink of ending when he hit just .094 (6-for-64) in 2019 and was sent back to Class AA. But he retooled his swing, gave up switch-hitting and opened this season with nine hits in his first 13 at-bats.

While he doesn’t provide much power, Mullins can be a fantasy asset by stealing bases. He had a pair of 30-steal seasons in the minors and should have ample opportunities if he continues to thrive as the Orioles’ leadoff hitter.

RP Julian Merryweather, Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays’ closer situation certainly looks different in the wake of Kirby Yates’ season-ending elbow surgery. Jordan Romano figured to be the heir apparent after posting a 1.23 ERA and 12.9 K/9 rate last season. Instead, Merryweather received the season’s first two save opportunities, showing off his triple-digit fastball, striking out five of the six batters he faced and slamming the door on the Yankees.

Don’t read too much into the first week, though. Romano was used in high-leverage situations against arguably tougher hitters. Both should see save chances and are capable of performing equally well.

Near-Tuffys

Meanwhile, here are a few Tuffy contenders who should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

OF Michael A. Taylor, Kansas City Royals. Taylor looked like a budding fantasy star in 2017, when he hit .271 with 19 homers and 17 steals for the Nationals. But the arrival of Juan Soto and Victor Robles curtailed his playing time.

With the Royals, he took over as the starter in center field and hit a pair of home runs in his first two games. Unfortunately, that .271 average from four years ago is an extreme outlier for the 30-year-old Taylor, and his hard-hit rates aren’t great for someone who strikes out as often as he does. He’ll be OK in the counting categories, but defense, not offense, is what will keep him in the lineup.

2B Chris Owings, Colorado Rockies. Owings unexpectedly collected three hits, scored three runs and stole two bases on opening day. After four games, his shiny .400/.500/.700 line looked rather impressive.

The problem is, Owings doesn’t have a specific place to play. He’s already seen action at second base and the outfield — and the roster will only get more crowded once Brendan Rodgers returns from his hamstring injury.

SP Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs. Back where he spent the peak of his career, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner allowed one run and struck out five over six innings in his return to Chicago. Just remember the outing came against the Pirates, who lost their best hitter, Ke’Bryan Hayes, to an injured wrist in the first inning.

Arrieta, 35, has seen his ERA and WHIP rise each of the past four seasons. Taking advantage of the Pirates won’t reverse the trend.

RP Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles. One of the biggest opening-week surprises was the Orioles’ dominant three-game sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Valdez, 36, closed out two of those wins with a pair of scoreless innings.

Don’t expect those trends to continue. Valdez’s best pitch is his change-up, which is rare among closers. And manager Brandon Hyde has favored a mix-and-match approach for saves since taking over in Baltimore.

The 2021 Tuffy Award goes to …

White Sox rookies Yermin Mercedes, right, and Andrew Vaughn could end up splitting at-bats this season at designated hitter. (Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports)

DH Yermin Mercedes, Chicago White Sox. After totaling exactly one at-bat in 2020, Mercedes became the first MLB player since 1900 to begin a season with eight consecutive hits. He went 5-for-5 with four RBI in his first game, then followed it up with a homer, single and double the next day before finally making an out (on a fly ball to deep center field).

Yermín Mercedes is batting 1.000 (8 for 8) to start the season ?

(via @whitesox)pic.twitter.com/kwhV2FSUfR

Mercedes is a great story, spending 10 years in the minor leagues with three organizations before making his big-league debut. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a path to regular playing time unless he continues to hit above .500. Mercedes, 28, is listed as a catcher but has only seen time in the majors at designated hitter. That’s a problem with so many superior DH-only options already occupying that spot on fantasy rosters.

And don’t expect him to supplant starting catcher Yasmani Grandal anytime soon. Although more heralded rookie Andrew Vaughn went hitless in his first series as a major leaguer, he’s the one who’s likely to be the everyday White Sox DH. Mercedes will be relegated to pinch-hitting duty with occasional spot starts.

Like Tuffy Rhodes, this early fantasy star from Chicago can be hard to resist. But resist, we must.

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

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