Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Baseball 2021 Predictions


The whole world changed in 2020, and baseball changed more than it has in more than a century. 2020 was the shortest MLB season ever, the shortest season of major league baseball in America since the 1800s. Watching the short 60-game season last year, I felt grateful just to have any baseball on TV and the playoff rounds were often thrilling to watch, but it's hard to take the results of the 60-game regular season all that seriously. Now as the schedule goes back to 162 games in 2021, the big question across baseball is how much the load of this innings increase will wear down pitchers. MLB has implemented some new rules, some of which are unfortunate like adding a runner on second base in extra innings and 7-inning double-headers but at least these changes might actually mitigate the innings load on pitchers and lead to fewer injuries. I'll be watching the games regardless, but baseball needs to figure out how to tweak some aspects of its gameplay to make the basic flow of things slightly less boring without further disturbing the sport's core equilibriums. Most agree the problems boil down to one thing: the ball needs to be put into play more, give fielders more chances. That's always the most potently contingent instant of a game when a ball is hit into play and there's a mad scramble around the bases while fielders rush to react. 

Going from a 60-game season to a 162-game season for the first time ever ensures 2021 baseball will be full of surprises. Then you factor in the expected changes made to the baseball in attempt to make it less bouncy and the league potentially cracking down on Trevor Bauer types who covertly use substances to increase spin rate on pitches, plus the impact that could come from the new rule changes. There's so much we don't know about what's gonna happen in major league baseball this year. On the other hand, there are some things we can be sure of---the Dodgers will be really good, the Yankees will be really good, the Pirates will suck, the Orioles will suck. The league has become noticeably stratified with very obvious bottom-feeders, an upperclass of likely power-houses and a group of higher variance teams in the middle. But injuries and your typical baseball weirdness can throw everything askew, this is why we watch. I'll be rooting for the weird and unexpected stuff to happen because that makes it watchable, but some results to consider for six months from now do seem predictable. 

In this post I will share the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection for each team and pick an over/under for each. (Note that the PECOTA projections include decimals in the win numbers, but I'm rounding those up.) More than ever I think nobody has any idea how this MLB season will turn out because of variance and all the new contributing factors but baseball fans always enjoy making their picks before the long season and the same goes for me, so here are my picks for how each division will stack up with my thoughts about the chances for each team in 2021. 

AL East

1. Yankees
PECOTA: 100 wins
My Pick: Under

The bullpen remains among the league's elite, the lineup power-heavy as ever, and the rotation has a bunch of question marks but also appears stocked with enough depth to weather the storm of inevitable attrition from the innings ramp-up. Certainly lots of upside with Gerrit Cole and Corey Kluber (2x Cy Young winner, coming back from a shoulder injury) atop the rotation, but it's the depth of having impressive young prospects like Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt primed to fill in as their #6 or #7 starters that makes me think this team is stacked enough to win the AL East this year. The Yanks of the last few years have consistently succeeded despite injuries leaving their best hitters on the shelf, but if guys like Judge or Stanton or Gleyber Torres can stay healthy this team will cruise. With all those injury risks alluded to though, this doesn't feel like a 100-win team to me.

2. Rays
PECOTA: 86 wins 
My Pick: Over 
(Wild Card)

After knocking off the Yankees and Astros to take the AL pennant last year, the Rays tore down and rebuilt their always deep and complicated pitching staff including bringing back Chris Archer in a surprise move, while mostly keeping intact last year's defensively versatile yet streaky lineup, with baseball's #1 prospect, infielder Wander Franco, expected to add a jolt in 2021. This organization stays keeping it weird, they don't care if you understand or enjoy their strange moves and strategies, they just stay steadily competing and succeeding shrewdly (cheaply). The Rays, like other elite MLB baseball orgs, excel at not-easily-measured things like player development and coaching and tend to overachieve expectations, coaxing the best out of guys they discover or develop. I'm saying don't be surprised if Wander Franco does come up to mash and the Rays extract some degree of excellence out of the veteran arms they took flyers on like Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Archer or Collin McHugh. There's also an embarrassment of riches in young MLB-ready pitchers behind those guys and an elite fielding (and base-running) team reliably keeping games close. Despite losing closer Nick Anderson to an injury, I think the Rays' pitching is as good a bet as any team in MLB to steer steadily through the upcoming innings bump.

3. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 85
My Pick: Under

The lineup has the looks of a perfect storm of burgeoning talent coming together all at once. Adding George Springer and Marcus Semien to a group of young sluggers like Vlad Jr, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is likely to wreak havoc on pitchers. They'll put up numbers for sure but the pitching for Toronto looks really shaky. South Korean southpaw Hyun Jin Ryu is an ace but he's an injury risk and there are no great pitchers behind him (Mets fans know what to expect from Steven Matz, solid 4 starter). I'm expecting slugfests and late inning collapses because their bullpen lacks arms with elite stuff too. Should be entertaining to watch, though.

4. Red Sox
PECOTA: 80 wins
My Pick: Under

The Mookie Betts trade will continue to loom over this franchise for a while as Betts launches himself into the national consciousness wearing Dodger blue, having snatched a second championship ring in a career that could potentially finish with him among the best baseball players ever. This version of the Red Sox may not totally suck, they've still got Xander Bogaerts and new additions like Enrique Hernandez and Hunter Renfroe seem ideal fits to mash in Fenway Park, but the pitching side of things doesn't look promising at all and they don't have the depth to make it through what'll be a grind of a season in a competitive division. If things go south, the Sox might sell off every piece they can.


5. Orioles
PECOTA: 65 wins
My Pick: Under

The aggressive teardown and tank job continues. Preemptively surrendering a major league season.


AL Central 

1. Twins
PECOTA: 91
My Pick: Over

Marginal tweaks made to improve an already very good team. They added Alex Colomé as closer, added JA Happ and Matt Shoemaker at the back of the rotation, brought back 40-year-old DH Nelson Cruz, and in an important move they shifted Jorge Polanco off shortstop following his season-turning defensive lapse in the ALDS, replacing him with defensive rock Andrelton Simmons. I think Simmons also fits nicely into this slugger-heavy lineup as a high-contact, high batting average hitter. The Central in AL & NL is pretty lame but the Twins-White Sox-Cleveland battle should be exciting (yea, I'm high on Cleveland this year). Don't lose sight of the Twins' regular season dominance though---this team has played at a higher than .600 win percentage the last two seasons, that core remains in place and they've supplemented it nicely. The Twins have become something of a pitching powerhouse with a system that emphasizes off-speed stuff (Minnesota ranked 29th baseball in fastball % last year), supplemented by great fielders. Plus they hit lots of dingers. All that and they've also got enviable depth at the catcher position. The Twins' window remains wide open.

2. Cleveland Ballclub
PECOTA: 85 wins
My Pick: Over (Wild Card)

Even as a Mets fan, I think the Francisco Lindor trade was shameful, but it fits a recent pattern of MLB teams trading off franchise icons rather than signing them long-term (same with Mookie Betts/Red Sox, Nolan Arenado/Rockies), wealthy owners depriving their fanbases to save a few bucks. Now, with that out of the way, I must admit the Cleveland front office manages to keep on cobbling together competitive teams with the meager resources they're given. They clearly have a knack for developing pitching and the rotation looks to be a strength once again, despite trading away Carlos Carrasco. They've now completely dismantled the Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer rotation that carried them to many playoff runs yet they've once again developed an impressive pitching staff. Shane Bieber is likely to be a Cy Young candidate again and prospects like Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill appear almost ready to advance into mid-rotation contributors. I like that they've already turned Amed Rosario into a centerfielder and though he probably won't hit as much as Lindor, Andres Gimenez fits perfectly on this team as a versatile infielder with some power upside who plays great defense. Jose Ramirez is one of my favorite players in the sport, he's fun to watch every game, and this Cleveland ballclub has not had sluggers of the caliber of Franmil Reyes and Eddie Rosario in their lineup in a while. They also still have one of the game's elite defensive catchers in Roberto Perez. Young stud relievers like Emmanuel Clase (who deploys straight gasoline to the tune of 101 mph) and James Karinchak (who's an intense maniac with a funky windup that racks up K's in abundance) are stepping into endgame roles in the bullpen. The floor is high with this team, the question is whether their ceiling puts them amid the realm of the higher upside Twins and White Sox. 

3.White Sox 
PECOTA: 82 wins
My Pick: Over

Lucas Giolito is a good pick for 2021 Cy Young and the ChiSox have superstar caliber players manning key up-the-middle-spots, shortstop (Tim Anderson), centerfield (Luis Robert), and catcher (Yasmani Grandal). Even though they made a few solid additions in the offseason, they needed to add another good outfielder and instead they brought back Adam Eaton. Now that Eloy Jimenez will be on the injured list for most of the season, their corner outfield situation looks especially weak. I think Yoenis Cespedes would make a great fit on this team (with four Cuban players already on the roster), but as of right now I feel like this is a team with a good rotation and interesting bullpen but a flawed lineup. The Sox also brought in a perpetually sloshed retiree (and active Hall of Famer) to manage things from the dugout which could turn out to be disastrous. I'll take the over, but not by much. 

4. Royals
PECOTA: 71 wins
My Pick: Over

They'll almost certainly finish below .500 again but at least they're going through the motions of trying to improve the team, unlike so many other clubs in their position. Adding Carlos Santana and Hanser Alberto were nice moves. They've shown a definite loyalty to pitchers who've had any recent success for them, but overall the pitching looks shaky for KC. Hopefully top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. joins the big league club at some point this year because he's got that spark-plug type of style, he was really fun to watch in spring training.

5. Tigers
PECOTA: 65 wins
My Pick: Under

Every time I've seen Willi Castro play he's been a beast at the plate, not sure if that means anything. A depleted Miggy Cabrera remains in the lineup taking his cuts. Maybe top draft pick Spencer Torkelson will get a chance to hit dingers for the big club. Detroit's also got a few top young pitching prospects on the way but they haven't shown a knack lately for developing young talent into good major leaguers. Likely to lose 100 games or more, but somehow still kinda interesting.


AL West

1. Athletics
PECOTA: 83 wins
My Pick: Over

This division is really interesting to me. The A's won it last year after the Astros had a shaky regular season, but then the Stros snuck into the playoffs and caught fire, made it to Game 7 of the ALCS on the strength of their young pitching. The A's and Astros had a highly entertaining slugfest in the ALDS, shattering home run records for a playoff series, with the Stros edging out the A's. Now the A's completely rebuilt their bullpen such that it might even be a better unit than last year, while the Astros have lost George Springer and only made minor moves to improve the team. 

I'm high on Oakland this year for several reasons. While Krush Davis had a nice little career with the A's his power had faded the last couple years, and I'm optimistic over his replacement at DH Mitch Moreland. Moreland for his career as a visiting player in Oakland has a .859 OPS with 15 home runs. They lost their dominant closer Liam Hendriks to free agency but picked up a solid replacement in Trevor Rosenthal, who throws 100 mph and owns the lowest rate of HR-per-9 innings of any active pitcher in MLB. Yes, there was roster churn as usual with the A's. They lost local kid Marcus Semien which was a bummer, and the new middle infield (past-their-prime vets Elvis Andrus and Jed Lowrie) is uninspiring. Despite not having a highly-ranked farm system, they do have some solid pitching depth on the 40-man roster. If lefty AJ Puk can start in the rotation alongside Jesus Luzardo, that's an A's fan's dream. Then their 6th thru 10th spots in starting pitching depth (guys like Cole Irvin, Daulton Jeffries, Grant Holmes, James Kaprelian) are all prospects seemingly sorta low on upside but higher in likelihood to be solid back-of-the-rotation starters, especially pitching in the Coliseum in front of this excellent defense. The A's excel at cobbling together great bullpens (I feel like Sergio Romo could have a good year pitching in the Bay once again, they brought back essential fireman Yusmeiro Petit, and they've still got Jake Deikman who was unhittable last year), the rotation has upside and depth, and they still have a lineup with dudes who hit dingers like Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Mark Canha. Their homegrown catcher Sean Murphy is a big dude who hits for power, too. I've also been enjoying watching their latest Rule 5 draft pick Ka'ai Tom, a shorter guy with a compact swing and plenty of power. Full name Blaze Ka'ai Tom from Hawaii, he impressed in spring training, displaying some power from the left side (much needed in a RH-heavy Oakland lineup), a disciplined approach and the athleticism to play center field. A's are also managed by Bob Melvin, 3-time manager of the year. Lots to like still here.

2. Astros
PECOTA: 92 wins
My Pick: Under

On paper the Astros still have the best lineup and best rotation in this division. But I expect they will struggle to replace George Springer, especially what he brought out of the leadoff spot in that lineup. Their lineup performing at an elite level also hinges on DH Yordan Alvarez who's got nagging knee problems. They definitely have lots of really intriguing starting pitcher prospects as we saw in their playoff run last year, but I don't think they will have the depth offensively or pitching-wise to hang around the playoff picture all season.

3. Angels
PECOTA: 86 wins
My Pick: Under

I often fall for the Angels and their big off-seasons when I do preseason predictions, not going to this year. Sure, they rebuilt the bullpen, adding a good closer Raisel Iglesias and picking up a bunch of other fungible relievers for depth. They brought in yet more #4 starters (Jose Quintana, Alex Cobb) to a rotation full of #4 starters. There are scenarios where the Angels make the playoffs, they've got three superstars in Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and the incredible Shohei Ohtani, and who knows maybe the Astros or A's take a step backward. More likely the Angels' rotation is subpar and hampers their hopes at sticking in the playoff race.

4. Mariners
PECOTA: 70
My Pick: Over

Kyle Lewis has been fun to watch and they have a bunch of exciting prospects in the system likely to come up at some point this season. But the Mariners haven't done a great job turning prospects into big leaguers and they're not making much of an effort to compete this year, following an offseason in which their dickhead CEO was recorded in a speech to a rotary club meeting saying a bunch of shamefully dumb, hateful and racist stuff (bragging about manipulating rookies' service time, mocking the org's top young Dominican outfield prospect for his English). Weirdly boneheaded stuff, yet not entirely surprising that a board member of an MLB team turned out to be a malign jackass.

5. Rangers
PECOTA: 66
My Pick: Under

Maybe they could finish ahead of the M's? Regardless, even the absolute worst teams in baseball tend to win something like 60 games. Might be some entertainment along the way watching (watching... that is, if MLB.TV didn't black out all the Texas games for me!) Gallo hitting dingers, Kiner-Falefa making plays as a rare shortstop/catcher hybrid, and adding outfielder David Dahl was a nice pickup. That's all I got, they're gonna suck.


NL East

1. Braves
PECOTA: 83 wins
My Pick: Over

As an avowed Mets fan I'm well aware of how good these Braves are. I've seen the Mets regularly get pummeled by Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr, Ozzie Albies, and the beating Marcell Ozuna laid on the Mets last year (1.071 OPS in 10 games) is fresh in my memory. You know Mets' GM Sandy Alderson must be irritated his successor ditched Travis d'Arnaud only to see him turn into a slugger for the Braves. This Atlanta team nearly toppled the Dodgers last year, falling one win shy of the World Series, and they've added hardboiled vet Charlie Morton to a pitching staff led by young aces Ian Anderson and Max Fried. I think this is still one of the best teams in baseball and I wouldn't bet against them.

2. Mets
PECOTA: 92 wins
My Pick: Over (Wild Card)

With the acquisition (and subsequent 10-year contract extension!) of the best shortstop in baseball, Francisco Lindor, an all-around superstar player in his age 27 season being added to a deep Mets lineup that seemed to be one quality shortstop away from being a good team, I'm as thrilled as ever with the Mets roster. I love the players on this team, so many of whom are homegrown talents like Dom Smith, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso, and of course the Mets' pitching version of Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom. Can't forget Syndergaard is set to return. The lineup has enormous potential, especially with Lindor in the top third of the order. Despite bad results the last two years, the Mets of 2019-20 were often really fun to watch. Replacing their weakest fielders with Lindor at shortstop and James McCann at catcher ought to produce a noticeable impact on defense, despite legit questions about the Mets fielding arrangement overall. I love the depth this team has assembled, lots of major league quality players available if injuries hit. Once Carlos Carrasco returns from a hamstring injury, they could have an elite rotation. Only reason I'm picking them to finish below Atlanta is because I've watched the Mets go 17-31 against the Braves the last three years. I think this Mets team will be extremely entertaining to watch, I can't wait to see Stroman and Lindor playing on the same field together in front of fans in Queens and I'm happy that Sandy Alderson gets another go at a winning a ring with this incredible core he helped build. Of course I'd be thrilled to see the Mets steal this division but they do have some unaddressed weaknesses in the bullpen and lack of universal DH hurts them. 

3. Nationals
PECOTA: 83 wins
My Pick: Over

It seems like a lot of people are down on the Nats this year, but I think they've got plenty of pop in that lineup now that they've added Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell. They still have Juan Soto aka Childish Bambino dominating like a young Barry Bonds at the plate, including Soto leading MLB in intentional walks last year. A lineup with Soto near the top of it will be scary, plus Trea Turner atop the lineup is a relentless pain in the ass for opponents. And while their rotation lacks depth they still have a top-3 as good as any other top-3 in baseball. They signed Brad Hand who's never stopped being a top-tier closer despite shedding some velocity recently. The LH-heavy Mets lineup could struggle in comeback attempts against the lefty. I don't think they'll be a playoff team, but I don't expect the Nats to be terrible barring injuries to their stars.

4. Phillies
PECOTA: 84 wins
My Pick: Under

The Phils have a nice core with JT Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, and solid veteran keystone combo of Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura. Leading the rotation is a true ace in Aaron Nola and the rest of the rotation is nothing terrible. But this is the Phillies, their bullpen is a horror show every year and this same core that has intrigue and potential has struggled to stay around .500 the last few seasons. Bringing in Dave Dombrowski to the front office makes sense as a final gasp of breath for a team in their position, but I expect the Phils to choke.

5. Marlins
PECOTA: 70 wins
My Pick: Over

I think they've got the pitching depth to pounce on a potential Phils or Nats collapse and climb into the top three in the division this year. Much more likely to finish last though.


NL Central

1. Brewers
PECOTA: 90 wins
My Pick: Under

The NL Central is pretty bad but I'm high on the Brew Crew this year. I'm looking for a bounce back year from Christian Yelich, plus the upside of young infielders Keston Hiura and Luis Urias is exciting to me. The Milwaukee ballclub leaned heavily into its greatest strength over the offseason, supplementing their defense, adding elite defenders Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. There are two sleeper Cy Young candidates atop the rotation in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, both dudes who work with straight fire. Back-end of the bullpen also looks ridiculous, the duo of Josh Hader and Devin Williams has unhittable stuff. I dig the pitching depth overall, this Brewers team seems to be built around run prevention and what they've assembled is impressive. Between the rotation, bullpen, and defense, the Brewers' run prevention unit is as promising as anything else this division has to offer.

2. Cards
PECOTA: 80 wins
My Pick: Over

The Arenado trade finally gives them the steady offensive bat they've needed for a while. But Goldschmidt needs to mash too though, because this team doesn't have many good hitters. Who else do they have, Paul DeJong? Dylan Carlson hasn't looked great in against major league pitching thus far* and unless you're a big fan of Harrison Bader or Tyler O'Neill which I'm not, it doesn't look like Arenado/Goldschmidt have much help on the offensive side.   

*There's a trio of bat-first outfield prospects (the three are Dylan Carlson of the Cards, Alex Kiriloff of the Twins, and JJ Bleday of the Marlins) who are highly ranked on prospect lists but haven't started producing in the majors yet, and I connect the three in my head because evaluators are high on all of three yet none of them looked that impressive to me in the at-bats I've seen so far. 

3. Cubs
PECOTA: 85 wins
My Pick: Under 

A pitching rotation full of soft-tossers in an era of flame-throwing pitchers, and there's some appeal in a team trying to be different. I'm interested to see what kinda numbers Joc Pederson will put up if he gets a full-time role (he had put up video game numbers playing full-time as a minor leaguer and consistently mashed against righties in the platoon role he had with the Dodgers). If Kris Bryant can get back to form, the offense could be the best in this division. Tons of weak spots on this team, though, especially on the pitching side.

4. Reds
PECOTA: 79 wins
My Pick: Under

They do have some potential for good pitching with guys like Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo in the rotation, and the lineup looks alright on paper but the offense underperformed last year and they didn't do much to improve that. Unless one of the Cards, Cubs, or Brewers implode I don't see Cincy finishing higher than 4th.

5. Pirates
PECOTA: 62 wins
My Pick: Under

Whole lotta nope. They play in one of the nicest ballparks in major league baseball and Ke'Bryan Hayes is really fun to watch, that's about it. 


NL West

1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 104 wins
My Pick: Over

The short season was weird and flukey but I felt like the playoff schedule, with few off-days and neutral ballparks actually ended up producing some amazing and meaningful baseball last October. The top two teams played in the World Series and the series was extremely fun to watch, that all made the Dodgers' championship feel legit. Coming back from the brink in the NLCS and then overcoming a huge collapse in Game 4 of the World Series to beat the Rays, this team earned it. While they're 1 for 3 in the World Series, this team is in the midst of a dynasty and remains a good bet to win the World Series this year. They've got 3 different former MVPs on the roster, 3 former Cy Young winners, more depth than any team in baseball. The Padres should at least provide some competition (and if their NLDS battle was any indication, some heated brouhahas) but the Dodgers are still the best team in baseball. At this point, they're almost boringly efficient at being great.

2. Padres
PECOTA: 95 wins
My Pick: Under (Wild Card)

Nothing boring about these Padres. Having spent a few years living within walking distance of Petco Park (go back to the archives of this blog from 11 years ago to read more), I'm excited for the city of San Diego to get experience a must-watch baseball team. I went to many games at Petco against the Dodgers in those days and the crowd was always big and relatively rowdy (for SoCal), so it'll be cool to see this rivalry heat up now that San Diego has built a legit contender. Adding two ace starters, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, to the top of the rotation is an enormous upgrade, as big of an upgrade as any team in the majors made this offseason (the Mets adding Lindor and Carrasco is up there, too), and the Padres already have the most exciting young player in baseball in Fernando Tatis Jr, plus Manny Machado hit like an MVP last season and will likely be fired up for the battles against the Dodgers. Can't wait to watch this team play. Despite all that, I don't know that the Padres are as good as the Dodgers because there may not be any team in MLB as good as the Dodgers.

3. D'backs
PECOTA: 79 wins
My Pick: Under

Really boring, but somehow not terrible, that's how I see the D'backs. Solid defense and pretty good pitching can keep a team in games, but aside from the potential for Ketel Marte to recapture the MVP-level form he showed in 2019, there's not a whole lot to be excited about for fans of the Snakes.

4. Giants
PECOTA: 74
My Pick: Over

The projection for 74 wins seems on point, but I'll take the over because they made enough interesting moves to keep this roster from being abysmal. If they get out to a slow start they'll likely try to get rid of their expensive veterans in the final years of their deals.

5. Rockies
PECOTA: 62
My Pick: Under

Still a laughingstock. They traded away superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado for minimal return and might trade away Trevor Story this season. At least they've finally got some pitchers who don't suck. In all seriousness, the story of Daniel Bard's comeback from completely losing his control and confidence and going into retirement from pro baseball in 2017 only to return to MLB dominance in 2020, that's a really cool story. 

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