Baseball is back. With 2021 Opening Day finally upon us, it is once again that time of year when baseball fans, writers, and analysts say a bunch of stuff about the upcoming season that is largely inaccurate. But that’s what makes these predictions “bold.” Here’s hoping I get at least one of these right.
Gone are the days of Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and prime Chris Davis, but there is still no shortage of power in the Orioles lineup. Mancini is on track to return this season after missing all of 2020 due to cancer treatment; thankfully, he is now cancer-free. Mancini hit 35 homers in his last full season in 2019. Santander, who is looking like a gem from the 2016 Rule 5 draft, has homered 31 times in 130 games since the start of 2019. Having both of them healthy and productive could help keep Baltimore more competitive than expected in a loaded AL East.
Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts has a historic season
Despite being a very good hitter at a premium position in one of baseball’s largest markets, Bogaerts somehow remains underrated compared to his fellow shortstops. He has posted a wRC+ of at least 130 in each season dating back to Boston’s World Series championship 2018 season. By surpassing the 40-homer mark (his career-high is 33), he would break the franchise record for homers by a shortstop (set by Rico Petrocelli in 1969) and would join Petrocelli, Ernie Banks, and Alex Rodriguez as the only shortstops to hit 40+ home runs in a season. Bogaerts is somehow only entering his age-28 season, so it’s definitely within the realm of possibility.
It feels like it’s only a matter of time before Cole wins a Cy Young award. He nearly won the award in 2019 and showed no signs of slowing down despite moving to the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium for half of his starts (he actually had a 2.09 ERA at home and a 3.67 ERA on the road). That’s not the bold part of this prediction. The Yankees are banking on Kluber and Taillon, who combined to pitch one inning in 2020, to be mainstays in their rotation. Kluber, of course, has already won the Cy Young award twice. Taillon’s last full season (2018) resulted in a 3.20 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP in 32 starts. They both appear to be fully healthy, and if it stays that way, the rest of the AL is in trouble.
As if the last prediction didn’t make me sad as a Pirates fan, this one made me want to vomit. This duo of former Buccos is being called upon to help lead a rotation that lost Blake Snell and Charlie Morton (yet another ex-Pirate) in the off-season. Glasnow is one of the league’s very best strikeout artists (his 38.2 K% ranked third among starters in 2020) but has only exceeded 100 strikeouts just once in a season in his career, which was also the only time he eclipsed 100 innings pitched. Archer averaged 245 strikeouts per season during his prime from 2015-2017 and is now healthy and back with the team with whom he had such great success. Pitching is seldom a weakness for the Rays, so betting on a strong season from any Rays hurler, especially Glasnow and Archer, is by no means out of line.
The Jays already possessed a very strong core of young offensive stalwarts, so they didn’t exactly need to go out and get Springer this off-season (or Michael Brantley, for that matter), but Springer’s presence elevates Toronto’s lineup from an intriguing youthful bunch to a legitimate threat in the AL. 2021 may finally produce the inevitable Vladdy Jr. breakout season, as he reportedly has shed 42 pounds since the start of last season. With Bichette (career 134 wRC+) and Biggio (24 HR, 20 SB, 16.1 BB% in 159 career games) also in the fold (not to mention guys like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez, who I’m also quite high on), there may very well be playoff baseball north of the border for a second consecutive season.
Chicago White Sox: Lead MLB with 8 All-Star representatives
I wrote this prediction before the unfortunate injury to Eloy Jimenez, but the White Sox are so stacked that I decided against changing it. Between reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu, rising stars like Tim Anderson and Luis Robert, middle-of-the-lineup mainstays Yasmani Grandal and Yoan Moncada, and a whopping four pitchers who received Cy Young votes last season (Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel, Liam Hendriks), the Pale Hose are sure to be well represented at this season’s Midsummer Classic.
Such a season might be viewed as a step backward for Bieber, whose absurd 2020 campaign consisted of a 1.63 ERA, 2.07 FIP, and 41.1 K%. Plesac may not be too far behind him. He posted a 2.28 ERA last year and struck out 57 batters in 55.1 innings. Plesac had near-elite whiff rates on his slider and changeup, both of which he features prominently, while opposing hitters slugged .577 and whiffed just over 15% of the time against his fastball. Should the Cleveland Pitching Factory be able to rectify this issue, they could wind up with one of the best starting pitching duos in baseball.
Detroit Tigers: Gregory Soto reaches 100 K out of the bullpen
In what figures to be a long season for baseball fans in Detroit, one exciting development to watch is a full season of Soto, whose fastball (that averages 97 MPH) and wipeout slider from the left side makes him the likeliest option to pitch high-leverage innings late in games for the Tigers. The 2019 season saw 8 full-time relievers top the 100-strikeout mark (and two others finish with exactly 99), and Soto may be ready to join that group.
Two of my absolute favorite acquisitions made by any team this off-season were Santana and Benintendi, both of whom wound up in Kansas City. 2020 proved to be a struggle for both players, as they each batted sub-.200 and failed to produce a wRC+ of 100 or better for the first time in either of their careers. With each now getting a fresh start and surrounded by a pretty strong supporting cast, look for both of them to return to form and perhaps reach new heights at the plate.
Minnesota Twins: Alex Kirilloff sets club rookie OPS record
The Twins have already decided that Kirilloff, who made his Major League debut in the 2020 playoffs, will start the 2021 season in the minors, but his demotion may not last long. The 2016 1st-rounder was given a future grade of 60 (on the 20-80 scale) for both his hit and power tools, so there aren’t many questions as to whether or not he will hit enough to stick around. Twins legend Tony Oliva recorded a .916 OPS in his 1964 season that culminated in a Rookie of the Year award. A similar season may be in store for Kirilloff in 2021.
Houston Astros: Yordan Alvarez wins AL MVP
It would take one heck of an offensive outburst for a designated hitter to win MVP over Mike Trout, but I think Alvarez is up to the task. He missed nearly all of 2020 after undergoing surgery on both of his knees but when he was healthy in 2019, he absolutely mashed. He raked to the tune of a .313/.412/.655 slash and sported a Baseball Savant page with a lot of red on it. Should he be able to maintain his elite hard-hit and walk rates, he may wind up performing like a lot of people suspect Juan Soto would, and with the Astros certainly in the thick of the AL West race, such a season would not go unnoticed.
If indeed 2021 is the end of the road for Pujols, this would be quite the way to go out. He is 35 homers shy of overtaking Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time home run list, but that just might not be plausible for the 41-year-old, so Walsh may have to do most of the heavy-lifting here. Walsh slugged .646 in a 32-game sample last year, and while that’s likely not replicable, he may wind up getting enough at bats to hit 30-35 homers by himself. Pujols has never hit fewer than 17 home runs in any non-2020 season, so a combined total of 50 may not be out of the question.
Oakland Athletics: Matt Olson leads AL in HR
Olson has proven a legitimate power threat since his first taste of extended big league action in 2017, when he homered 24 times in just 216 plate appearances. He hasn’t quite replicated that kind of power surge in a full season yet, but the power hasn’t gone away – he is one of just 38 qualified hitters to slug .500 or better since 2016. Durability has also proven to be one of Olson’s strengths, as he appeared in all 60 games for Oakland in 2020 (and also played in all 162 games in 2018). If he can work on limiting strikeouts (his 31.4 K% in 2020 was a career-worst and in the ninth percentile of MLB hitters), Olson is going to be a problem.
Seattle Mariners: Multiple Mariners pitchers make the All-Star team
While there are not great expectations for the 2021 Mariners, their starting pitching looks poised to be a strength. Whether it’s ace Marco Gonzales (3.10 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 2.5 BB% in 2020), trendy breakout pick Yusei Kikuchi (3.37 xERA, 3.9% barrel rate, 2.5 MPH increase in fastball velocity), or returning veteran James Paxton (3.42 ERA, 117 ERA+ in six seasons as a Mariner), Seattle appears to have multiple All-Star candidates leading their rotation.
Texas Rangers: Post lowest winning percentage in franchise history
Boy, how things have changed in just one year. The Rangers looked like a possibility to sneak into the extended playoff format entering 2020 with an offense led by Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, Elvis Andrus, and Shin-Soo Choo, a strong starting rotation headlined by Lance Lynn, Corey Kluber, and Mike Minor, and a potential budding star in closer Jose Leclerc. Fast forward to Opening Day 2021, and Gallo is the only man of that group that will take the field in a Rangers uniform this year. Leclerc was just sent for Tommy John surgery; everyone else is gone. Perhaps no departure was more painful than Odor’s, who was designated for assignment after failing to crack the Opening Day bench with the team still owing him upwards of $27 million. The magic number to clinch the worst record in franchise history is 107 losses, which just might be in the cards for the 2021 Rangers.
Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr. goes 40-40 en route to NL MVP
To this day, there have only been four 40-homer, 40-steal seasons in MLB history: Jose Canseco in 1988, Barry Bonds in 1996, Alex Rodriguez in 1998, and Alfonso Soriano in 2006. Acuna’s elite combination of power and speed is as daunting as anyone in baseball, and certainly on par with the current members of the 40-40 club. Multiple players have come close to reaching the mark in recent seasons, including Acuna, who came just three stolen bases short in 2019. With the Braves firmly cemented as championship contenders, a 40-40 season would help Acuna stave off the likes of Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. in the NL MVP race.
Miami Marlins: Starting rotation leads MLB in K
The 2020 Marlins rode their youthful rotation to their first playoff berth since their 2003 World Series title. Despite the abundance of offensive talent throughout the rest of the NL East, there remains plenty of room for Miami’s young starters to grow. Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Elieser Hernandez, and Trevor Rogers, who all posted strong strikeout numbers last year, currently make up the rotation, with rookie phenom Sixto Sanchez waiting in the wings. That quintet accounted for 38 of the team’s 60 starts last season and struck out more than a quarter of opposing hitters (25.3%). Provided that they stay healthy, there’s potential for that number to greatly increase in 2021.
New York Mets: Jeff McNeil is an NL MVP finalist
McNeil has a .319/.383/.501 slash across 1,024 career plate appearances. Among all active players with at least that many plate appearances, not a single one has a batting average that high (he’s tied for ninth in on-base percentage with reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman). He’s simply one of the best in baseball at creating runs and getting on base, and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. He figures to slot in either atop or in the heart of a potent Mets offense that added Francisco Lindor and James McCann this off-season. He also has always provided value with his glove no matter where he played, and he is expected to primarily stick at second base this season, a spot where he has consistently excelled. He may prove to be the most valuable player on one of the best Mets teams in recent memory.
Philadelphia Phillies: Bullpen once again posts ERA over 6.00
The 2020 Phillies were in the playoff hunt up until the end of the regular season, but they were ultimately let down by a bullpen that sported an unfathomable 7.06 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, and .315 opponent average, all of which were MLB-highs. They tried to rectify this issue at the trade deadline by acquiring Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from the Red Sox and David Phelps from the Brewers. This didn’t help. Workman’s 6.92 ERA and 6.96 FIP as a member of the Phillies were by far the lowest of the three. They once again tried to duct tape together a functional bullpen by bringing in Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler, and Sam Coonrod this off-season. Maybe that will work, maybe it won’t. But I’m not confident.
Washington Nationals: Trea Turner leads all SS in WAR
In an era full of young, uber-talented shortstops, Turner is flying under the radar. He raked to the tune of a .335/.394/.588 slash and a 7th-place NL MVP finish in 2020. Turner was a 4+ WAR player in both 2018 and 2019 and his 2020 season prorated to 7.5 WAR across a full 162-game season. Few players contribute at the plate, in the field, and on the bases quite like Turner, and even when lining up against guys like Lindor, Tatis, Seager, and Story, Turner has proven that he is no slouch.
Given the general weakness of the NL Central, it is entirely possible that the Cubs go on a run and take the division thanks in large part to comeback seasons from Bryant, Rizzo, and others. But there’s also the possibility of the offensive struggles carrying over, the retooled pitching staff not holding their own, and the Cubs being out of contention by July. In that case, Chicago would probably be a major player at the trade deadline. Bryant’s name was being floated around in trade speculation for the majority of the off-season, and the club’s recent extension offer to Rizzo was recently leaked and certainly puts into question the chances of Rizzo sticking around. With the Cubs likely viewing the likes of Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ as more valuable long-term pieces, they may be best served to dismantle the Bryzzo bromance to add to the farm. To add spice to this prediction, I’ll say Bryant to the Nationals and Rizzo to the White Sox.
Cincinnati Reds: Lucas Sims leads MLB in saves
The Reds’ trade of veteran closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels created an opportunity for a new closer to emerge in Cincinnati. While Amir Garrett may be the popular choice, and the team also added an experienced closer in Sean Doolittle, I propose that Sims (who has zero MLB saves to his name) will not only ultimately win the job, but he’ll run with it. He quietly had a breakout season in 2020 with a 2.45 ERA in 25.2 innings. But it’s his Statcast metrics that are drawing attention, and they were absurd. He was in the 100th percentile in spin rate on both his fastball and his curveball, both of which he throws prominently. He was in the 98th percentile or better in xERA (2.17), xBA (.132), xSLG (.208), xwOBA (.227), and Barrel % (1.8%). That’ll play.
Milwaukee Brewers: Brandon Woodruff wins NL Cy Young
Corbin Burnes was all the rage during his breakout campaign, but Woodruff is the Milwaukee hurler I have my eye on. He has been quietly consistent and above-average at basically everything since he became a full-time starting pitcher. In 35 starts since 2019, he owns a 3.41 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 3.08 FIP, 29.8 K%, and 6.1 BB%. He saw improvements in his strikeout and walk rates, spin rates, and fastball velocity in 2020, and he now will have Lorenzo Cain, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Kolten Wong, three of baseball’s most elite defenders, in the field behind him on a regular basis. All of these factors scream “breakout” to me. Woodruff will no longer be flying under anyone’s radar after 2021.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Ke’Bryan Hayes wins NL Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger
Nobody expected Hayes to produce a 195 wRC+ in his first taste of MLB action, and nobody expects him to approach that number in the future. But the underlying numbers suggest that he won’t have to. His 55.4% hard-hit rate last year would have slotted him between Christian Yelich and Mike Trout on the leaderboard had he recorded enough at bats to qualify. The .450 BABIP is obviously going to come back to earth, but even this spring, he has continued to hit the ball very hard and to all fields, so I’m not concerned about him regressing. His defense has always been regarded as plus-plus and has been as advertised since his call-up. He may already be poised to give the likes of Arenado and Machado a run for their money.
St. Louis Cardinals: Come within one game of winning NL pennant
The Cardinals seemingly always make noise as soon as people write them off. The 2006 Cardinals went a measly 83-78, yet won the World Series. In 2011, they had to go 18-8 in September (while the Braves went 9-18 in that same span) just to clinch a Wild Card berth. They were a strike away from losing the World Series in Game 6 before ultimately coming back to win Games 6 and 7. Now in 2021, they’ve brought back team legends Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright for potentially one final ride and traded for a superstar in Nolan Arenado. Yet the consensus is that they haven’t managed to separate themselves from their mediocre divisional competition. I don’t think any NL team will overtake the Dodgers, but the Cardinals will come close because, well, they’re the pesky Cardinals.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Merrill Kelly is the team’s lone All-Star
Kelly’s path to the majors was a strange one. A failed pitching prospect in the Rays organization (I didn’t know that was possible), Kelly took to the KBO to salvage his baseball career. Needless to say, it worked. He won 48 games in four seasons in Korea and turned that into an MLB deal with Arizona. Kelly only started five games in 2020 but had a 2.59 ERA and a 29:5 K:BB ratio in those starts. He records above-average vertical movement on most of his pitches which helps him maintain a strong groundball rate. If he can keep the ball on the ground and continue to limit free passes, he could emerge as the ace that the Snakes need with uncertainty surrounding Zac Gallen and Madison Bumgarner.
Colorado Rockies: Slug sub-.400 as a team for the first time in franchise history
It would be genuinely impressive for a team that plays half of its games at Coors Field to cumulatively have a slugging percentage that starts with a 3. But the logic here is simple. The Rockies are really bad. They slugged just .405 last year. Then they traded Nolan Arenado. With Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon on expiring contracts, if this front office has any sense of direction (and that’s a substantial-sized if), they’ll find takers for both in relatively short order. A band of sub-replacement level hitters would probably struggle to slug .400, even at Coors Field.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Trevor Bauer is team’s 5th-best SP by ERA+
The general consensus is that Bauer is due for some serious regression, which makes sense seeing how he has recorded an ERA below 4.00 in a season just twice. The concerns about his 2020 Cy Young campaign being just a good couple of months (or tainted by the use of foreign substances) are completely valid. But this prediction is also based on the fact that the Dodgers are absolutely loaded with pitching depth. David Price, Tony Gonsolin, and Jimmy Nelson could top multiple teams’ rotations; they all open the season in LA’s bullpen. Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler remain two of baseball’s very best starting pitchers, and Julio Urias and Dustin May both have an abundance of untapped potential. Bauer may not live up to his $40 million salary this year, but he by no means has to carry this pitching staff. Even if he regresses, the Dodgers will be just fine.
San Diego Padres: Somebody finally throws a no-hitter
The Padres were the talk of the MLB off-season, and for a good reason. They made a serious push to compete with the powerhouse in Los Angeles by adding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove to a rotation that already contains Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, and Mike Clevinger (although not until 2022) and has the best pitching prospect in the sport, MacKenzie Gore, on the doorstep. While the Friars may not be able to end their World Series drought in 2021, their newfound pitching surplus has put them in a good position to put a stop to a different skid. The Padres remain the only MLB franchise that has never thrown a no-hitter. Wednesday, May 19th against the Rockies – book it.
San Francisco Giants: Mike Yastrzemski moves up in NL MVP voting
Yastrzemski was a pleasant surprise as a 28-year-old rookie in 2019, but he managed to up the ante last year, slashing a robust .297/.400/.568 and also providing defensive value at all three outfield spots. He has 161 career MLB games under his belt and has 31 home runs and a 134 wRC+ to show for it. Yastrzemski’s strong 2020 season netted him an 8th-place finish in NL MVP voting. While the Giants aren’t exactly a threat to go on a playoff run, they might be able to stay in the hunt for most of the season, and Yastrzemski would almost surely play a key role in that and once again be rewarded with some MVP votes.