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Play ball! Previewing the 2021 MLB season

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Believe it or not, Opening Day is almost upon us.

In just a few days, Major League Baseball will hit the field for the start of the 2021 season. It remains to be seen how teams will respond this year, after the truncated season of 2020. And this year will be plenty different as well. Teams will be playing before a limited or no audience. COVID issues may (and almost certainly will) still arise. There’s even talk of some change in the physical makeup of the ball itself.

It will be different. And yet … the bat will still crack. The glove will still pop. Familiar faces will display their usual excellence and unknowns will display unexpected transcendence. And for the more data-driven – the numbers will continue to tell you the truth. The joy of that part of baseball is that there will ALWAYS be more numbers.

We all love it for different reasons.

So we’ll see if the Los Angeles Dodgers can become the first back-to-back MLB champs in a generation. We’ll see if MVPs Jose Abreu and Freddie Freeman can follow up on their award-winning seasons. We’ll see if Cy Young winners Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer can manage a second straight great year. We’ll find out which young phenoms are the real deal and which are fool’s gold, which long-timers are out of gas or still have a little left in the tank.

It’s a complicated time in the world, and sports fandom is not exempt. Whether you think these games could be happening more safely (or not happening at all), the reality is that the 2021 season is going to take place, for better or worse. Here are one man’s thoughts on how that season might play out.

Play ball!

(Division winners = x; Wild Card winners = y)

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AMERICAN LEAGUE

AL East

New York Yankees - x

Toronto Blue Jays - y

Boston Red Sox

Tampa Bay Rays

Baltimore Orioles

It breaks my homer heart a little to place the Yankees atop the division, but hometown love can only go so far. The reality is that this New York squad is absolutely stacked, featuring elite talent all over the diamond. D.J. LeMahieu continues his later-career renaissance as one of the best hitters for average in the game. Assuming they stay healthy, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will maintain their immense power. Guys like Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit and Aaron Hicks fill out the lineup. And with a rotation led by top-tier starter Gerritt Cole, it’s tough to pick against them. I really like this Blue Jays team, though, and not just because I’ve got two of their trio of young legacy studs (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio) on my fantasy team. This team is going to hit a ton, adding free agent prize George Springer to the already formidable lineup. If the young hitters keep progressing (with a breakout or two) and the pitching can even partially keep pace, the Jays are going to give the Yankees a run for their money (though I should note that the early home slate taking place in Dunedin, Florida instead of Toronto may have unexpected impact). And here, squarely in the middle of the division, sit my beloved Red Sox. It’s tough to determine what this team’s identity will be, with what appeared to be a focal point – the Betts/Bradley/Benintendi outfield – all gone. It’s up to guys like Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, along with vets like J.D. Martinez and youngsters like Bobby Dalbec, to provide the offense. They’re going to need it, because aside from Chris Sale (always an injury risk), there’s not a ton of upside on this pitching staff. This team is going to struggle on that side of things. But hey – still gotta root for the home team, yes? Even in a down year, the Sox get a bump, meaning that I’m down on the Rays, even after their World Series run last season. The thing is – they kind of cleaned house after that. Getting rid of ace Blake Snell seems like madness, but the Rays front office has long had a next man up mentality; they’re counting on Tyler Glasnow to step up. They’re also brimming with potential, with guys like Randy Arozarena and Wander Franco looking to make (or continue) the leap. Somehow, despite all the shedding, they’re still deep – we’ll see how it carries forward. Last and least, we have the Baltimore Orioles. They’re going to be bad. Probably not historically bad – there are a couple of worse teams we’ll chat about later – but it’s going to be a long year for O’s fans. Expect some warm applause for Trey Mancini – returning after a battle with cancer – and anticipation of what youngsters like Adley Rutschman and Ryan Mountcastle will do going forward.

AL Central

Minnesota Twins - x

Chicago White Sox - y

Kansas City Royals

Cleveland Indians

Detroit Tigers

This is definitely one of those either-or divisions, with two extremely credible contenders for the top spot. I’ve chosen to cast my lot with Minnesota, just because I’ve always had a soft spot for the Twins. Plus, they look pretty talented – they brought the seemingly-ageless Nelson Cruz back to lead the home run charge. If Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton stay healthy, the Twins could run away with it – particularly if new ace Kenta Maeda and holdover Jose Berrios can hold up on the mound. It’s a challenging division, but I like the Twins to bomb their way to the top. However, if you want to go with the White Sox as your predicted division winner, I sure won’t fight you. This Chicago squad looks pretty darned good, with reigning MVP Jose Abreu heading up an offense featuring toolsy studs like Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert. In terms of raw talent, I’m not sure there’s a better team in the league. However, the key word is “raw” – I’m just not sure they’re there yet. Give it another year and this team – plus Lucas Giolito starting games and newly-acquired Liam Hendricks closing them – might be on its way to a dominant stretch. Just not yet. I’m always rooting for the Royals to perform well, but I think they’re going to struggle against the two titans atop the division. Still, there are some things to recommend this Kansas City team. Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi will almost certainly win the league stolen base title, providing a lot of excitement (albeit not enough contact). The arrival of Andrew Benintendi is exciting. Quality vets like Whit Merrifield and the newly-extended Salvador Perez are still here. And K.C. has a mess of young pitchers on the come-up – if a few of those youngsters hit the ground running, the Royals might surprise some teams. It’s taken far too long, but the Cleveland team name is finally on the verge of changing. This last hurrah won’t amount to much, though. They shipped all-world shortstop Francisco Lindor out of town, leaving them with Jose Ramirez and not much else; the cupboard is pretty bare on the offensive side of things. Sure, the pitching is more than legit – Shane Bieber is the reigning Cy Young winner after an unearthly 2020, while Zach Plesac looked great – but even an elite rotation is not going to cut it in this division without at least a little help. And then – the Tigers. The Tigers are going to be bad. Not only that, but aside from the milestone watch for the rapidly-aging Miguel Cabrera – he’ll likely reach both 500 homers and 3,000 hits this year – there’s not going to be a whole lot to cheer for in Detroit. If they can manage to avoid losing 100, they should chalk it up as a moral victory.

AL West

Los Angeles Angels - x

Houston Astros

Oakland A’s

Seattle Mariners

Texas Rangers

It’s possible that I’m overestimating this Angels team simply because I badly want them to be good. They have Mike Trout, of course, whose reign as the game’s best player may be on the verge of ending (leaving him as merely ONE OF the best players). They have Anthony Rendon, an elite third baseman. And they’ve got perhaps the most intriguing player of all in Shohei Ohtani, who looks like he might actually be able to pull off this two-way player thing, assuming he can avoid getting hurt again. They need some veteran pickups to pitch well and for Albert Pujols to empty the tank in the last year of his onerous contract – if that happens, watch out. The Astros are dealing with some stuff. George Singer departed in free agency. Justin Verlander’s surgery means he’s likely a no-go this year. And yet … there’s still a lot of talent here. Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman – both studs. I’m rooting for the diminutive Jose Altuve to bounce back from an abysmal 2020. Zack Greinke is still here, the same excellent pitcher and top-tier weirdo he’s always been; if guys like Lance McCullers and Jake Odorizzi get on track, Houston will be no dun to play. I’m not at all sure what’s going to happen with Oakland this year – I’ve got them here because it seems unlikely they’ll dip below Seattle and Texas, but they can’t get to LA and Houston. Losing shortstop Marcus Semien hurts, though it seems like maybe they had cause to let him go. Ditto slugging outfielder Khris Davis. The lineup features some mashers – first baseman Matt Olson foremost among them – and the outfield still has some pretty solid players in Ramon Laureano and Stephen Piscotty. The pitching looks perfectly cromulent, led by the inconsistent Frankie Montas. This A’s team is better than the sum of its parts, I think – just not good enough to make it to the top. As for Seattle, well – there’s not really a lot to look for here. There are some decent guys in the outfield in Mitch Haniger and Kyle Lewis, along with rising star Jarred Kellenic on the way. If you dig first base defense, Evan White’s your guy; he might even be a star if he figures out how to hit. Still, the cupboard is pretty bare. Not as bare as it is in Texas, though. Even with that shiny new stadium open to fans for the first time, there’s very little to cheer about as far as the Rangers are concerned. This is a team that is in full-on rebuild mode, with a couple of ostensible stars in slugger Joey Gallo and infielder Rougned Odor and not much else. The pitching staff is even worse – when Kyle Gibson is your no-doubt Opening Day starter, you’re looking at some pretty significant issues. This is the year to mess with Texas.

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NATIONAL LEAGUE

NL East

Atlanta Braves - x

Washington Nationals - y

New York Mets

Philadelphia Phillies

Miami Marlins

After years of commitment to the bit, my tradition of picking Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to win the MVP finally paid off. I’m betting on him continuing to rake in 2021, though I think he will be supplanted as his team’s best offensive player by Ronald Acuna, who is an absolute stud. Plus Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna and so on and so forth – Atlanta might have the best top-to-bottom lineup in the league. Throw in a quality pitching staff led by Max Fried and newcomer Charlie Morton and you’re looking at a contender. They almost made the World Series last year; they might finish the job in 2021. Picking the Nationals here might be a bit of a reach, but it’s tough to avoid when you’re talking about the team with Juan Soto, who might just be the best baseball player in the world despite not turning 23 until season’s end. Trea Turner’s elite. Newcomer Josh Bell is a masher. If Carter Kieboom bounces back and lives up to the hype, this Nats lineup is scary. Oh, and the rotation is led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin – three of the NL’s best starters. There’s a lot of interest in the Mets this year, thanks to the deep pockets of new owner Steve Cohen. The biggest splash was of course the acquisition of Francisco Lindor, easily the biggest positional upgrade made by any team in MLB this offseason. But this is a team that still has Jacob deGrom, who after winning the Cy Young in 2018 and 2019 plummeted all the way to … third in 2020. If Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto can keep their power up and Marcus Stroman and/or Taijuan Walker handle their business on the mound, this Mets team is scary. Don’t be shocked if they prove me wrong. Tough to say what’s what with the Phillies. On the one hand, their historically terrible bullpen can’t possibly be as bad this season, so they can count on some improvement there. Catcher J.T. Realmuto signed an extension to stick around. Bryce Harper is still here, poised as always for a potential monster of a season. There are a couple of other nice players, guys like Rhys Hoskins and Didi Gregorius, as well as young up-and-comer Alec Bohm. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler could be solid starters, but the dropoff is pretty steep from there. Not a great year in store for Philly. And then we have the Marlins. I’ll be honest – I couldn’t name a single Marlins player from memory when I sat down to write this story. Their best position player is probably Starling Marte; the whole outfield is decent. But their rotation reads like a collection of computer-generated players from an old NES game. The franchise is on the uptick, but for now, it’s pretty rough to be a Marlins fan.

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers - x

St. Louis Cardinals

Cincinnati Reds

Chicago Cubs

Pittsburgh Pirates

This is one of the hunchier picks that I’m making this year. For some reason that I can’t quite articulate, I like the Brewers to have a big year. There’s the back-end of the bullpen, where guys like Josh Hader and Devin Williams are utterly dominant. I think Christian Yelich bounces back from a down 2020 and returns to top-tier form. I’m rooting for Jackie Bradley Jr. to have a good season after departing from Boston. Oh, and along with Lorenzo Cain, they form one of the best outfield defenses in MLB. I think Brandon Woodruff is an ace-to-be at the head of a deceptively strong rotation. On Milwaukee! Meanwhile, I’m going against one of the few consistent rules that I follow in these previews here by NOT picking the Cardinals to make the playoffs. It’s probably crazy to do that, considering they added all-everything third baseman Nolan Arenado to a lineup that already includes studs like that pair of Pauls, Goldschmidt and DeJong. Oh, and Yadier Molina is somehow still an elite defensive catcher, all while guiding a solid rotation led by the very good Jack Flaherty. I won’t be the least bit surprised to be wrong on this one. Next up, we have the Reds, who I almost boosted another spot but couldn’t bring myself to place above the Cards. Plus, they said goodbye to their best pitcher (Trevor Bauer) who signed with the Dodgers. I will always root for good things to happen to first baseman Joey Votto, who is on the downslope of a potentially Hall of Fame career. Guys like Eugenio Suarez and Mike Moustakas will hit many home runs. Ace Luis Castillo is still awfully good, though the rest of the rotation doesn’t quite measure up. A good-not-great team. We’ll see what happens with Chicago, but it sure looks like they’re looking to tear it down and rebuild. Pitchers Yu Darvish and Jon Lester are both gone. Position players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez are hot commodities – will the team move them with an eye to the future. Those guys – plus Ian Happ and Joc Pederson and others – could certainly put up some runs. The rotation is depleted, with Kyle Hendricks and a diminished Jake Arrieta leading the way. It seems unlikely that management has the stomach to make a push in 2021. Speaking of teams not making a push, there’s a chance that the Pirates will be not just bad but historically bad. When there’s a real chance that the team’s best player is going to be young third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and their best pitcher is going to be … someone, it’s hard to predict even 60 wins for this squad. The likelihood of a 120-loss season is vanishingly small, but really – would it shock you if this Pirates team took a run at that ignominious record?

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers - x

San Diego Padres - y

Arizona Diamondbacks

San Francisco Giants

Colorado Rockies

Let’s hear it for the reigning champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Everyone with a pulse is picking this squad to have the best regular season in baseball this year … and I have a pulse. This team is STACKED. Perennial MVP candidate Mookie Betts leads the way, but guys like Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Max Muncy … the list of big bats just goes on and on. They can all go and get it as well – it’s just an unreal everyday lineup. As for the rotation, well – it’s only an all-timer like Clayton Kershaw alongside stud Walker Buehler, plus the addition of reigning NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer in free agency. On paper, the best team in the majors by a good bit. And yet, the Padres are somehow right on LA’s heels. Now, San Diego was bad for a while, but we’re now seeing the method to their madness. The team is led by Fernando Tatis Jr., the most exciting and electrifying young player in the game – one the Padres locked up long-term. But he’s not alone. Manny Machado, Tommy Pham, Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer – all legitimate players. And the pitching staff is crazy talented as well, adding not one, not two, but three strong starting options (Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove) to a group that was already among the NL’s best overall. This team might win 95 and still finish 10-plus behind the Dodgers. But the West is top-heavy. Next up, a Diamondbacks team that’ll be lucky to hit .500. Their best player is probably Ketel Marte; aside from Christian Walker and maybe a couple of others, it’s a pretty pedestrian lineup. On the pitching side, Zac Gallen looks like he might have it in him to make the leap, but beyond him, Arizona is counting on Madison Bumgarner not being cooked and a few journeyman types to hang in there – not exactly a recipe for success. The glow of the early-decade success for San Francisco has largely faded. We’re years removed from the heyday, with former stalwarts like Buster Posey and the two Brandons (Belt and Crawford) aging into the ends of their illustrious careers. And aside from Mike Yastrzemski – himself a late-blooming surprise – there’s not much on the horizon. The pitching staff is just as pedestrian as the lineup, leaving us with a team that has little chance of recapturing that previous magic. Lastly, we have a not-good Rockies team that made itself worse by sending away Nolan Arenado. Now, there are still some talented players here – stud shortstop Trevor Story chief among them – but for how long? We’ll see if starters Kyle Freeland and Jon Gray can get their forward progress moving again, but Coors won’t do them many favors. This is one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the league; it’s safe to assume that the record will reflect that.

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 March 2021 09:37

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