So many teams had a chance at October baseball last year, and now 2021 could serve up a delicious sequel of standings intrigue. By the projections’ reckoning,
But while some teams are near-playoff locks (the Dodgers, Padres and Yankees quickly come to mind), the future is hazier for others. Below is one club from each division that brings the most volatility into the season. If everything breaks right, it could be a memorable year — but there’s an equal chance of remorse from a missed opportunity.
American League East: Toronto Blue Jays
We know the Blue Jays are very much “going for it,” but what will that ultimately mean? The Yankees remain talented and deep, with the latter trait a potential huge advantage as the season stretches back to 162 games. The Rays ruled last year’s 60-game sprint, and their depth and top-ranked farm system could also bode well for the longer grind.
Make no mistake: this team should mash. It’s not every year that a club adds a top-10 bat like George Springer, and the quieter addition of Marcus Semien could give the Blue Jays one of MLB’s best infields. But can this squad get enough pitching? Toronto has done its due diligence in backing up Hyun Jin Ryu with veterans Steven Matz, Robbie Ray and Tanner Roark, but all of them are coming off down seasons. The bullpen had some bright moments last year, but the jury’s out as to whether it can survive a longer campaign.
Best-case scenario: The shopping spree pays off. Springer super-charges the lineup, Teoscar Hernández goes off again and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. finally unlocks that potential. Kirby Yates shakes off the injury rust and makes Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro look like geniuses, Nate Pearson cashes in on the hype and the bulk arms in Matz, Ray and Roark do enough to back up Ryu.
Worst-case scenario: The high-risk acquisitions in Yates, Matz and Ray don’t pan out, and Toronto’s pitching can’t hang in the high-octane AL East. Vlad Jr. still doesn’t turn the corner, and Blue Jays fans get impatient with his progress. The club is back on the outside in October.
AL Central: Cleveland Indians
Well, seeing Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana and Brad Hand switch uniforms is not what most Cleveland fans would call a pleasant offseason. And yet, two of the most prominent projection systems, FanGraphs (81 wins) and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA (86 wins), have the club still hanging around the AL Central race. Cleveland still has 2020’s best pitcher in Shane Bieber, and impressive young arms Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie gives it a competitive rotation without Carrasco. There’s a lot of potential in the bullpen, too, with breakout star James Karinchak and the returning Emmanuel Clase.
Still, this lineup really struggled last year — and that’s when Lindor was in it. With Nelson Cruz back to power Minnesota’s Bomba Squad 3.0 and the White Sox looking scary, Cleveland might need to really pitch well to overcome its offensive holes.
Best-case scenario: Bieber competes for another Cy Young Award while Plesac, Civale and McKenzie improve to give Cleveland a top-flight AL rotation. José Ramírez gets help in the lineup, as Franmil Reyes, Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor step up and provide some much-needed pop. Karinchak doesn’t slip at all, and pitching coach Carl Willis manufactures another quietly effective bullpen.
Worst-case scenario: The post-Lindor malaise sets in. Maybe Bieber isn’t quite as dominant, and 2020 represented the hottest two months of his career. His regression exposes the youth in the rest of the rotation, and it sorely misses Carrasco’s steady hand. Cleveland’s outfield remains historically woeful at the plate, Reyes doesn’t slug enough in his DH at-bats, and the club falls behind Minnesota and Chicago’s high-powered attacks.
AL West: Los Angeles Angels
This club has Earth’s best player in Mike Trout and another top-10 player in Anthony Rendon, but it also has so many question marks after that.
The Shohei Ohtani two-way experiment is back on for 2021, but is that wise, considering the value Ohtani has shown just as a slugger? Who is scaring opposing pitchers once they get through Trout, Rendon, Ohtani and David Fletcher at the top — especially if 33-year-old Justin Upton is winding down?
Of course, we haven’t gotten to the recurring question in Anaheim: can this team get even average-level production from the rotation? Dylan Bundy made big strides in 2020, but Los Angeles desperately needs him to maintain those gains, because he and Andrew Heaney are its only projected 2+ WAR starters. New general manager Perry Minasian did well to add established closer Raisel Iglesias, but the rest of the bullpen looks largely unproven.
Best-case scenario: Bundy remains a stud, Heaney outperforms expectations and, let’s be honest, the Halos add at least one more quality starter before Opening Day (Jake Odorizzi? Taijuan Walker?). Trout and Rendon do what they do, Upton and Albert Pujols don’t go gently into that good night and the Ohtani experiment pays off, giving the Angels a roster advantage over the rest of the sport.
Worst-case scenario: The Ohtani experiment does not pay off, and he goes down with another gutting injury. Speaking of injuries, another fluke ailment takes Trout off the field for significant time. Offseason acquistitions Alex Cobb and José Quintana run out of gas, depleting L.A.’s rotation depth yet again, and the Halos can’t find a stud to anchor the bullpen. Another prime Trout year ends without a postseason berth.
NL East: Philadelphia Phillies
There was a temptation to pick the Braves here, given their polarizing projections, but it still ultimately feels like Atlanta will be battling the Mets atop the NL East. Can the Phillies join them?
There’s a lot to like from Philly’s top-five scoring offense last year; Dave Dombrowski’s front office did what it needed to in bringing back J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, and Bryce Harper remains (a somewhat underrated) force. Rookie Alec Bohm enjoyed a lot of BABIP luck, but he created some of his own luck, too, with strong contact-quality metrics.
Combine that lineup with a rotation topped by two prime studs in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, and there’s plenty to be excited about. But then there’s that bullpen, a unit that probably hurt the Phillies more than any single unit hurt any other contender last year. And there’s the defense — another Achilles heel — which returns many of the same actors for 2021.
Best-case scenario: Credit the Phillies for taking steps to fix that ‘pen, adding Archie Bradley, José Alvarado, Sam Coonrod and (reportedly) Brandon Kintzler. If those new faces help that unit return to even average performance, that’s a huge boost. The lineup keeps mashing, Nola and Wheeler are outstanding and No. 3 starter Zach Eflin keeps improving.
Worst-case scenario: Maybe Philadelphia didn’t do enough to address the bullpen, and that unit struggles again. Potential holes in left field (with the aging Andrew McCutchen) and center field rear their ugly heads over a longer season — especially on defense, which hurts the rotation. Defense and late-game struggles sink another talented Philly club.
NL Central: Cincinnati Reds
If momentum is real, it doesn’t appear to be blowing behind Cincy’s sails. Yes, Cincinnati is coming off a postseason appearance, but its .212 team batting average wouldn’t have made that cut in any other season, and then it failed to score a single run in the NL Wild Card Series. This winter, the Reds didn’t seem to make a serious run at retaining Trevor Bauer, they traded longtime bullpen ace Raisel Iglesias to the Angels and they popped up in plenty of other trade rumors surrounding stars like Eugenio Suárez, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray.
But this roster still has lots of talent. Castillo and Gray are a 1-2 combo most teams would covet. The lineup should have serious punch with sluggers like Nick Castellanos, Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Jesse Winker and Suárez. The bullpen that looked great on paper last year still has swing-and-miss potential with arms like Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims and Tejay Antone. But can all of this click at the same time?
Best-case scenario: Castillo and Gray are lights-out, leading the way while Tyler Mahle takes the next step toward a top-end starter. Castellanos and Moustakas deliver on the promise they brought into 2020, and Suárez comes back healthy and ready to slug. The bullpen holds it together.
Worst-case scenario: That bullpen falters (again) and Castillo or Gray get hurt, causing the Reds’ rotation depth to collapse without Bauer. The offense is sluggish again, with Votto moving into the twilight phase of his career and Castellanos and Moustakas proving too streaky to carry the lineup.
NL West: San Francisco Giants
The Giants stayed in last year’s playoff race longer than many expected, but they’ll have their work cut out for them thanks to the Dodgers and Padres. Still, while the Giants haven’t added a headliner to keep pace with those titans, we’re starting to see president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi’s thumbprint with some savvy moves. Tommy La Stella could be a great addition to a Giants offense that woke up in 2020, thanks to Mike Yastrzemski’s breakout, Brandon Belt’s resurgence and surprising contributions from Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano. Now Buster Posey is back in the mix, too.
Still, it’s hard to look past this Giants rotation that looks pretty thin behind Kevin Gausman, who was already experiencing elbow troubles toward the end of 2020. San Francisco is also missing a proven lockdown closer in the bullpen.
Best-case scenario: The little additions pay off big for Zaidi and the Giants. Yastrzemski shows 2020 wasn’t a fluke, emerging as the superstar San Francisco needed. Gausman stays healthy while Johnny Cueto and Alex Wood turn back the clock. Submariner Tyler Rogers becomes the bullpen ace that manager Gabe Kapler thought he’d see last year.
Worst-case scenario: The old guard — Belt, Posey, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria — all decline at once, and Dickerson, Solano and Yastrzemski can’t capture 2020’s lightning again. All those splitters take their toll on Gausman’s elbow, and Cueto and Wood show their miles. A largely anonymous bullpen can’t compete with Los Angeles and San Diego’s mighty lineups.