McGuinness: Previewing the 2021 MLB season
Andrew McGuinness | Tuesday, April 6, 2021
There has arguably never been a more relieving Opening Day than 2021. After the longest year of almost everyone’s life, things are finally starting to get closer to normal again. Major League Baseball is the latest example. A full 162-game season. Fans returning to ballparks across the league. The Yankees probably being dominant, much to the dismay of 95% of America. It’s all here!
With the season just getting underway, now is the perfect time to make predictions about the 2021 campaign. It’s one of the hardest to evaluate in recent memory, with the 60-game 2020 season being awfully difficult to draw conclusions from. Last year’s expanded postseason is out the window, meaning we’re back to a traditional five postseason teams from each league. Only the top team in each division (and two wild card clubs) are guaranteed meaningful October baseball. Now it’s time to figure out who those teams will be.
National League East: Atlanta Braves (2020: Atlanta Braves)
This is probably the deepest division in baseball; any of the five teams have a realistic path to the Postseason, yet the incumbent Braves have to be considered favorites. Atlanta has one of the deepest lineups in baseball, led by reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Marcell Ozuna and a phenomenal supporting cast. Max Fried was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year (7-0, 2.25 ERA). Ian Anderson (1.95 ERA) wasn’t too far behind. The odds of a fourth straight NL East crown are high.
National League Central: St. Louis Cardinals (2020: Chicago Cubs)
St. Louis made the move of the offseason in acquiring Nolan Arenado for spare change and a used paper clip from the Rockies. He and Paul Goldschmidt are one of the deadliest corner infield combos in the league. Top prospect Dylan Carlson looks like he’ll be an impact piece for years to come. The pitching is a bit weaker, but still pretty solid. The Brewers and Cubs could challenge, but the Red Birds decently have the highest ceiling of anyone in this division.
National League West: Los Angeles Dodgers (2020: Los Angeles Dodgers)
No need to overthink this one. The defending World Series champions are as stacked as ever. And that’s before accounting for the addition of defending NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, who joins a star-studded rotation. Cody Bellinger is arguably the NL’s most complete hitter. Mookie Betts’ 12-year mega-deal kicks in after an incredible first year in LA. There are plenty more stars than those three. Yes, the up-and-coming Padres are a legitimate threat. But LA is still the team to beat, no question.
National League Wild Cards: San Diego Padres, New York Mets (2020: San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals)
In the Mix: Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers
The Padres and Cardinals were the fourth and fifth-best teams in the NL last year, so they would’ve been wild card teams under a normal format in 2020. Speaking of the Padres, it’s a shame that they’re such underdogs in the NL West despite an elite roster. A postseason rematch with the Dodgers seems like a given with such a stacked roster. Fernando Tatis Jr. went from prospect to superstar and was rewarded handsomely for his breakout campaign. But he’s not all that’s here. GM A.J. Preller added Yu Darvish and 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell to stack the rotation. And they still have plenty of offense behind Tatis.
Meanwhile, after years of wasted opportunities following a Cinderella run to the 2015 World Series, the Mets look as stable as ever. New owner Steve Cohen didn’t deliver the 500-foot grand slam of an offseason that fans were hoping for, but he didn’t exactly strike out, either. Francisco Lindor is one of the best shortstops in the game, Carlos Carrasco is an underrated starter, and James McCann was the best free-agent catcher not named J.T. Realmuto. Adding that trio to a core led by reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom makes the Mets very formidable.
American League East: New York Yankees (2020: Tampa Bay Rays)
After a disappointing postseason run in 2020, the Yankees are hungry to end their 11-year drought and return to the Fall Classic. They need almost no introduction. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are elite power bats. Gerrit Cole leads a dominant rotation; same for Aroldis Chapman with their bullpen. They brought back D.J. LeMahieu. With the Rays due for regression and Toronto light in high-pressure experience, the stars seem to align for another amazing Yankees season.
American League Central: Minnesota Twins (2020: Minnesota Twins)
This season should be a thrilling race between the Twins and White Sox for the AL Central crown, just as it was (with Cleveland also mixed in) a year ago. Chicago hiring Tony LaRussa as manager is a… curious decision, while losing Eloy Jiménez for much of the year is just plain bad luck. Chicago has the higher ceiling, but the Twins have the stability to top the AL Central. Josh Donaldson, contact-hitting second baseman Luis Arráez and the ageless Nelson Cruz help form a solid lineup. If Jose Berrios can take a step forward, he and Kenta Maeda should be a nice 1-2 rotation punch. It’s a close call, but I’ll go with Minnesota.
American League West: Houston Astros (2020: Oakland Athletics)
This is another really tough division to call. The Houston Astros lost a core piece in George Springer and still don’t have Justin Verlander. Carlos Correa will probably have a monster season considering he’s in a contract year. On the other hand, the Athletics still have a very strong lineup, were the second-best team in the AL last year and advanced in the Postseason for the first time since 2006 despite losing Matt Chapman down the stretch. It comes down to pitching for me, and Oakland losing Liam Hendriks plus the potential of Houston’s rotation sets me over the edge. I don’t want to pick the Astros, but I’m going to do it anyway.
American League Wild Cards: Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays (2020: Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees)
In the Mix: Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics
Toronto took a major step forward last year by sneaking out a Postseason experience. It didn’t amount to much in the short term, but it gained their youth valuable experience and put the team in a position to buy this offseason. GM Ross Atkins did just that, adding a legit star in George Springer and some pitching depth. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette only getting better, the Blue Jays are definitely a team on the up-and-up.
The last spot is so hard to pick; the AL is definitely the more wide-open of the two leagues this year. I’m going to go with Tampa Bay. Yes, losing Charlie Morton and Blake Snell is bad for their rotation (though only the second-worst decision involving Snell in the last year). But they have a very deep bullpen, plus a solid lineup led by the underrated Brandon Lowe and Postseason superhero Randy Arozarena. The Rays are definitely in a position to take a step back from last year’s World Series run, but they’re falling from a high ceiling.