There are some teams going all-in on the 2021 season because they’re talented, and of course they should go for it. If you’re a team like the Dodgers, Padres, Yankees or Braves, you’ve got the type of roster most teams in baseball dream of.
Some teams would certainly like to win games, but their goal is not necessarily to win right now. They’re building for the future. If it turns out to be a losing season for, say, the Orioles, Pirates, or Tigers, no one will throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But for some teams, 2021 seems particularly important. Either they’ve built everything up for this year, and this year specifically, or they’ve fallen just short for several years in a row now. Or they’re older and potentially facing a reckoning right around the corner, so ’21 will act as a referendum for their whole plan, a true make-or-break season. Win — like the Padres did last year — and you are set up for a new era of success. Lose, or fall just short of expectations, and it may be time to reevaluate everything.
Here are five teams with everything on the line in 2021.
It always feels like, as long as Mike Trout is in his prime, the Angels have as much pressure on them as any team in baseball, and maybe all of sports. But it really does need to be asked: How many years of Trout’s prime do they have left? Trout will turn 30 in August — man, that makes me feel old typing that — and it’s fair to think he has to slow down eventually, right? The Halos have done their best to build around him, even if this year’s lineup additions were helpful but minor (Dexter Fowler, José Iglesias) and their rotation adds (José Quintana, Alex Cobb) are serviceable at best.
The Angels’ challenge has been building a winning team around the best player in baseball, and that challenge has proven, to this point, too difficult. What happens when they don’t have the best player in baseball anymore? Trout will not get his first postseason victory before his 30th birthday. Why would his next decade be any more fruitful than his last one?
You can forgive the Nationals for last season going off the rails. It was a weird year anyway, and it also happened to be the one directly after they won their first World Series championship and thus maybe took their foot off the gas a bit. But now the Nats are a year removed from that title — they still haven’t got to celebrate it in front of their fans yet — and the rest of the National League East has risen up around them.
The Mets are aggressive in a way they haven’t been in a decade, the Braves are the three-time defending NL East champs, the Marlins reached the NL Division Series last year and the Phillies … well, we’ll get into the Phillies in a second. And for all the young talent the Nats have — any team would want to build around Juan Soto and Trea Turner — their rotation is old, incredibly rickety and relying way too much on Stephen Strasburg being all the way back from offseason surgery.
The Nats’ strength has always been their rotation, but if they can’t stay healthy — and when can old pitchers ever stay healthy? — this team looks incredibly middling. If they finish last in the NL East again in 2021 — and that is always possible — what is the next step for this franchise?
This has always been the nightmare scenario: A team tears everything down in order to compete in the future, preaches patience to its fans and then … never actually contends. The Phillies now have the second-longest postseason drought in baseball and a fan base that is extremely tired of waiting around. (Not to mention a superstar signed well into the next decade in outfielder Bryce Harper who left the Nationals and then watched them win the World Series in 2019.)
There’s obviously talent here, from Harper to the recently re-signed J.T. Realmuto to Aaron Nola. But is there as much talent as the Braves? The Mets? It’s even a little close between the Nationals and the Marlins.
The Phillies, more than any other team, needed the postseason to be expanded this year. (They also needed to make it last year, now that we mention it.) If they fall short for the 10th consecutive year, how much patience would anyone have, let alone the notoriously cantankerous Philadelphia fans? No team needs to make the postseason more than the Phillies do this year. But “needing to” and “doing so” are two different things.
The Twins had another terrific season last year, and once again, they didn’t advance in October. Minnesota last won a playoff game in 2004, having lost a jaw-dropping 18 straight postseason games, the longest such streak in baseball history.
The bet the Twins have made is a good one: Get to the postseason and hope good stuff happens. But that bet keeps not paying off. And now, the rest of the American League Central is catching up to them. The White Sox are hot on their tails, the Royals are making smart additions to a solid core and even the Indians are still hanging around.
How much longer can the Twins be the class of this division? And how much will it matter if they can’t get past the first round of the postseason? Or even win one playoff game? Minnesota should be good this year. But forgive Twins fans for waiting until October to get too invested.
This might seem like a strange team to add here. They are, after all, a young and clear up-and-coming team that had a huge breakthrough last year. Why would this season, in particular, be so urgent for them? The answer, of course, can be found in the dugout. New manager Tony La Russa is a wild card for the White Sox in every possible way.
La Russa hasn’t managed a game in nearly 10 years — and he was considered sort of old back then — and he has been known to clash with younger, brasher players, exactly the sort he has in Chicago. Then again: La Russa is the third-winningest manager in baseball history, and if he makes it through June, he’ll pass John McGraw for second place. The guy wins, and that’s what the White Sox want more than anything.
This could be a disaster. But it could also be exactly what the White Sox need. Either way, it’ll blow up in everyone’s faces or be the perfect match, and we’ll know for sure in 2021. That’s why this year’s so urgent. Because players are only young for so long. And you’re only an up-and-coming team once.