We haven’t quite put the pandemic behind us, but we do have a full season of baseball ahead of us. No more 60-game season, no more empty stadiums, no more geographic schedules. With that in mind, let’s celebrate the 2021 season.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Go ahead, blame Stu Sternberg. Or, more specifically, Matt Silverman. They’re the guys who plucked Andrew Friedman out of some nondescript financial office in Manhattan 15 years ago. Now Friedman has changed the way baseball general managers operate with his metrics-based theories, plus he has money to burn with the Dodgers. Yeah, they should win another World Series.
2. New York Yankees
The only thing standing between the Rays and the AL pennant is a team of medical alert bracelets. If Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Domingo German, Zack Britton and Luis Severino are reasonably healthy for major portions of the season, this is going to be a hard team to beat. Even if they’re marginally healthy, it could be a chore.
3. Atlanta Braves
Sort of like the Padres, except without the sickening hype. For this season, I’ll take Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna over Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. I’ll take Max Fried and Charlie Morton over Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. And I’ll definitely take competing all summer for a division crown with the Mets in the East instead of the Dodgers in the West.
4. San Diego Padres
So, here’s a team you can hate. Seriously. They sign a mega free agent (Manny Machado), unveil the future face of the game (Fernando Tatis Jr.), steal a Rookie of the Year runner-up from the Rays (Jake Cronenworth), trade for three aces (Mike Clevinger, Blake Snell and Yu Darvish) and have the best weather in America. All since 2019. Well, except for the weather.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are not as strong as last season and I’m not going to argue with you about that. On the other hand, they were the best team in the American League in 2020, so that’s a pretty high standard to reach. If the placeholder rotation survives April and May, and the young pitchers in Durham come riding in on white horses this summer, the Rays still can win 90 and the pennant.
6. Minnesota Twins
For a team considered one of the best in baseball, it seems a little unnerving that the lineup is built around a 40-year-old DH (Nelson Cruz) and a 35-year-old third baseman who hit .222 last year (Josh Donaldson). Oh well, the order is pretty deep and has prospects Alex Kirilloff and Brent Rooker on the horizon. Pitching should be good enough to win the division but not the pennant.
7. Chicago White Sox
The last time someone was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager — then returned to managing — was Connie Mack more than 80 years ago. And that, coincidentally, is just around the time Tony La Russa was born. Now, 10 years after retiring, the 76-year-old La Russa will try his hardline cerebral approach with a lineup of bat flippers and new millionaires. Well, this seems like it should be fun.
8. Toronto Blue Jays
The lineup has seven potential All-Stars, and that’s not an exaggeration. They won’t all be playing in Atlanta come July, but the point is they have that potential. The question is whether the pitching staff can strive to be mediocre. That’s all it will take. Just be barely respectable and the Blue Jays will have a shot at destroying a lot of wishful thinking going on in Tampa Bay.
9. New York Mets
This is the team to watch in 2021. Not because they’ll be the best team in baseball, but because they will inevitably find a way to hilariously stumble. It’s practically a given for teams that play Fantasy Baseball with their roster, and even more so for the Mets. Yes, they are entirely capable of winning the NL East but it will be so much more fun to watch them face dive.
10. Houston Astros
Houston had the tying run at the plate in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Rays in both the eighth and ninth innings last year. Think about that. The Rays were one hit from one of history’s greatest chokes after winning the first three games of that series. It should never have come to that. The Astros were good, but not that good. And that is sort of how they look in 2021.
11. Oakland Athletics
Frustrated that the Rays have fallen just short of winning the World Series a couple of times on a shoestring budget? Just imagine Oakland fans. The A’s have been in the playoffs six of the past nine years and have never won a pennant. They’ve never even reached the LCS. Now they’ve let half the team walk off in free agency and signed a bunch of dudes to one-year deals. And they’ll still win.
12. St. Louis Cardinals
A few years ago, the Cardinals had Jose Martinez and Jedd Gyorko on the corners of their infield. Now, thanks to the generosity of National League West teams, they have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Maybe it’s not vintage Goldschmidt and Arenado, but it’s still pretty darned good and enough for a team with an average pitching staff to make a run in the NL Central.
13. Milwaukee Brewers
Remember when the Rays joked about playing a two-man outfield last season? The Brewers could actually pull it off. Between Lorenzo Cain and Jackie Bradley Jr., Milwaukee has two of the best center fielders in the game. They also have some decent arms in the rotation and bullpen. If they could just get Christian Yelich to hit like an MVP again, the Brewers might win the division.
14. Cleveland Indians
It’s easy to write off Cleveland in 2021. The White Sox have gotten stronger in the Central and the Indians responded by dealing Francisco Lindor. But it’s not a good idea to dismiss a team with Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac in the rotation, as well as Jose Ramirez in the lineup. Cleveland is a team that can hang around all summer, surprise you in September and break your heart in October.
15. Chicago Cubs
Chicago is the defending NL Central champion, which is not as impressive as it sounds. The Central was a bit of a clown show last season, and the Cubs were swept by the Marlins in the wild-card series. Since then, they have traded their best starter (Yu Darvish) and lost their top reliever (Jeremy Jeffress). Bringing in Zach Davies and Jake Arrieta helps, but probably not enough.
16. Philadelphia Phillies
Matt Moore was 39-28 with a 3.88 ERA in Tampa Bay. Since being traded in 2016, he’s 15-28 with a 5.46 ERA in the majors. The Phillies are hoping he’s regained some of his form after a year in Japan. If so, Philadelphia could be a darkhorse. (I also said that last year and was wrong.) The offense is solid and the first three starters (Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin) ain’t too shabby.
17. Los Angeles Angels
Will the Angels finally return to contention? Who knows, but they should be one of the more entertaining teams in the league. Shohei Ohtani looks like he’s back to 2018 form, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon get their first full year together, and Albert Pujols will be doing a farewell tour of parks this summer. Also, this Joe Maddon seems interesting.
18. Washington Nationals
Washington was one of eight teams to have three players post a WAR of 2.0 or higher in the virus-shortened season. Six of those teams made the playoffs. The Nationals finished tied for last. That’s a team with depth problems. Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Max Scherzer are stars. If Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin return to form, the Nationals have a chance.
19. Boston Red Sox
Fenway Park is looking more and more Trop-like these days. GM Chaim Bloom signed versatile hitters like Enrique Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez along with under-the-radar pitcher Garrett Richards. The Sox had the biggest payroll in the game when Bloom took over before 2020 and they’ve already trimmed 25%. They’re not back yet, but they’re coming.
20. Kansas City Royals
Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. gets all of the attention, but the Royals have been rebuilding their franchise by choosing college pitchers at the top of the draft. In the past three years, Kansas City has selected five pitchers among the top 40 picks, including UF’s Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar. They all won’t be ready in 2021, but they’re starting to show up in the rotation.
21. Seattle Mariners
The last time the Mariners were in the playoffs, Lou Piniella was still in the manager’s office. For the timeline impaired, that means Seattle has the longest postseason drought in the majors. With a talented farm system beginning to produce players like 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and, perhaps, 2021 contender Jarred Kelenic, the Mariners are close to knocking on the door.
22. Cincinnati Reds
This is a really weird team. The offense looks like it could be pretty decent with Joey Votto, Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas, but the Reds hit a major league-low .212 last year. They lost Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani from the rotation, but still seem to think they are contenders. What the heck? In the NL Central, maybe they are.
23. Arizona Diamondbacks
A lot of mixed messaging going on in the desert lately. The Diamondbacks traded Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke and let Patrick Corbin get away, too, and then turned around and signed Madison Bumgarner to a ridiculous contract last year. Bumgarner had a 6.48 ERA in 2020 and, unless he has a bounce-back season at age 31, it is hard to imagine Arizona above .500.
24. San Francisco Giants
Ever notice how no one cries about that Evan Longoria trade anymore? He’s been a solid third baseman for the Giants the past three years, but not really worth the $43 million he has made during that time. Now, at age 35 and likely seeing decreased playing time, Longoria is still guaranteed another $43 million over the next two years if you include his 2023 buyout.
25. Miami Marlins
Not to say the Marlins were a fluke last season, but they were outscored by nearly a run per game and still made the playoffs. It was their good fortune to have their first winning season since 2009 in a year when a .517 winning percentage got you in the postseason. Miami has a good, young pitching staff but it is hard to see them sneaking past New York and Philadelphia this season.
26. Detroit Tigers
Trivia Time! Who was the first member of the exclusive 3,000-hit, 500-home run club? A smart baseball fan would know it was either Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. A really smart fan would know Aaron got there two months ahead of Mays in 1970. Which brings us to the Tigers in 2021. Miguel Cabrera is 13 homers and 134 hits away from being the seventh member of the club. Now you have a reason to watch.
27. Baltimore Orioles
Four consecutive losing seasons later, things are looking up for the Orioles. Catcher Adley Rutschman is right behind Wander Franco as one of the game’s top prospects, and Baltimore’s farm system is among the best in baseball. If there’s a criticism, the Orioles seem to be moving at a leisurely pace to ensure their best minor leaguers reach the big leagues at the same time.
28. Texas Rangers
Three years ago, Nate Lowe hit a combined .330 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs in three minor-league stops for the Rays. While he showed flashes of power in the big leagues, he never seemed to have the passion the front office was seeking. Dealt to Texas in the offseason, he got off to a slow start this spring. There’s potential there, but Lowe can’t afford to underperform on a last-place team.
29. Colorado Rockies
Less than two years ago, Nolan Arenado was considered one of the top players in the game and the Rockies rewarded him with an eight-year, $260 million contract. And now? Not only did they trade him to the Cardinals for prospects, but they threw in $50 million. Hard to say which looks worse for general manager Jeff Bridich in retrospect: signing Arenado to that deal or trading him.
30. Pittsburgh Pirates
You would think a 19-41 record was rock bottom. Nope. The Pirates had the worst record in baseball, then decided that they needed to rebuild. Pittsburgh traded Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon for younger, and mostly unproven, talent. On the bright side, they claimed Michael Perez off waivers from the Rays and signed Todd Frazier to a minor league deal. Woo hoo!