With Opening Day fast approaching, all 30 MLB teams believe they have a chance at the postseason. Naturally, 20 teams will miss the playoffs, and only 10 will play into October. Whom will those 10 be?
Let’s start with the 2021 American League.
An asterisk (*) indicates the two wild card teams.
2021 American League East:
No.1: New York Yankees (2020: 33-27, 2nd in AL East)
As usual, the Bronx Bombers are led by some of the biggest names in the sport. DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit were top 10 in AL MVP voting in 2020 while Gerrit Cole finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting. LeMahieu in particular had a ridiculous season, slashing .364/.421/.590, leading the AL in average, on-base percentage, OPS, and OPS+. Voit led the Majors with 22 home runs as he slugged .610.
The key to the Yankees returning the AL East crown is Aaron Judge. In Judge’s only full season, he led the AL in walks and home runs, posting a preposterous 1.049 OPS and 171 OPS+. When Judge is on the field, he is as good as any player in baseball. He is an excellent fielder in right, and few can match his power output. If Judge is healthy, the Yankees might be the best team in baseball.
Despite Masahiro Tanaka returning to Japan, New York fortified the rotation with Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. Kluber is a two-time Cy Young winner with a career ERA of 3.16 and ERA+ of 135. Taillon escaped the dumpster fire of Pittsburgh. He does not have the reputation of Kluber (3.67 ERA, 112 ERA+), but he possesses filthy pitches and strong velocity. If there is a team in baseball that can get the most out of Taillon, it is the Yankees.
The Yankees are the favorites to win the 2021 American League pennant for good reason.
No.2: Toronto Blue Jays* (2020: 32-28, 3rd in AL East)
The 2020 Blue Jays enjoyed explosive campaigns from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez, compensating for a slightly disappointing season from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Hyun Jin Ryu adapted to the American League beautifully, finishing third in Cy Young voting and posting a 2.69 ERA.
However, the strength of the Blue Jays is the youth. Alongside Guerrero, the Blue Jays boast the electric duo of Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette on the left side of the infield. Both Biggio and Bichette had an OPS+ in the 120s, and both are in the 20s. Rowdy Tellez is entering his age-26 season, and he just had an OPS+ of 139 that even beat out Gurriel. Additionally, flame thrower Nate Pearson is in the 90th percentile for fastball velocity, and he could be a scary chess piece as a bullpen arm if he does not crack the rotation.
Toronto added Marcus Semien and George Springer in the offseason. Semien finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019 before taking a step back in 2020. Springer is a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and playoff legend with the Astros. Toronto will have one of the best lineups in baseball while having several high upside arms in the rotation with Ryu and potentially Pearson.
No.3: Tampa Bay Rays (2020: 40-20, 1st in AL East)
Tampa Bay rode the best record in the American League to the World Series where they came up short to the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers. The Rays traded Blake Snell to San Diego and let Charlie Morton sign with Atlanta. Former All-Star Chris Archer is back in town after a disastrous 33 starts in Pittsburgh (85 ERA+).
The Rays have one of the best infields in baseball with Ji-Man Choi, MVP candidate Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, and Yandy Diaz. Top prospect Wander Franco is waiting in the wings to take over at shortstop. Additionally, Tampa Bay has the modern-day Babe Ruth: Randy Arozarena. Across 23 regular-season games with the Rays in 2020, Arozarena slugged seven home runs, slashing .281/.382/.641 to finish with a 1.022 OPS and 179 OPS+. Somehow, he was even better in the playoffs, hitting 10 home runs and posting OPSs of 1.556, 1.371, 1.152, and 1.234 in Tampa Bay’s four series.
Likely, no team benefitted more from the 60-game season than the Rays. Tampa Bay has the requisite star power to contend in the AL East, but the Yankees and Blue Jays have higher upsides. Even if Lowe and ace Tyler Glasnow have superstar-caliber seasons, it may not be enough if the Yankees and Blue Jays reach their potential.
No.4: Boston Red Sox (2020: 24-36, 5th in AL East)
The Red Sox scored the fifth-most runs in the AL in 2020. The pitching, on the other hand, posted an ERA that was only 0.05 better than the abysmal Tigers. Ouch. Eduardo Rodriguez returns as the ace, and Chris Sale may play in 2021, but the pitching staff as a whole is less than stellar.
The Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts outfield is no more as all three have new homes. Instead, Alex Verdugo leads the line. Verdugo had an OPS+ of 126 and even finished 12th in AL MVP voting, however. Beyond Verdugo, the Red Sox have a talented infield with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and rookie Bobby Dalbec.
No.5: Baltimore Orioles (2020: 25-35, 4th in AL East)
Over a full season, the Orioles will likely sink back to the AL East cellar. The team has exciting pieces; Ryan Mountcastle could win AL Rookie of the Year, but they are several seasons away from contention. Outside of John Means, the Orioles lack a competent rotation. The lineup will be bolstered with the return of Trey Mancini, but the Orioles will be looking to the future.
The future is extremely bright. For as good as Mountcastle was in 2020 (140 OPS+), he is the fifth-ranked Orioles prospect on MLB.com. The No.1 prospect, Adley Rutschman, is the second-ranked prospect in all of MLB. The switch-hitting catcher has an ETA of 2021, and he might be the best player in Baltimore the day he gets called up; he’s that good.
Baltimore will be exciting at times in 2021, but the wins are unlikely to come until 2022 or beyond.
2021 American League Central:
No.1: Chicago White Sox (2020: 35-25, t-2nd in AL Central)
Even with James McCann heading to Queens, the White Sox have one of the best rosters in baseball. Jose Abreu and Eloy Jimenez are studs. Tim Anderson is a perennial batting title contender. His infield partner, Nick Madrigal, is the No.3 prospect in the White Sox farm, and he can rake (108 OPS+). Luis Robert might be the best defensive centerfielder in baseball, and he ranked in the 85th percentile in barrel percentage.
The pitching is spectacular as well. Lucas Giolito is among the favorites for AL Cy Young after finishing seventh in 2020. 2015 AL Cy Young Dallas Keuchel had a dominant 2020 (1.99 ERA, 224 ERA+) and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. These 2020 White Sox sandwich newcomer Lance Lynn who finished sixth in Cy Young voting. Three Cy Young vote-getters are not enough; Chicago has a fourth. Liam Hendricks, who was ninth in Cy Young voting and 13th in MVP voting, joins the Chicago bullpen. He has been named to both All-MLB teams: a second-place finish in 2019 and a first-place finish in 2020.
The White Sox have an exceptional lineup, an exceptional pitching staff, and even several top prospects. Chicago has three prospects in the top 40 with Madrigal being joined by righty Michael Kopech (No.39) and first basemen Andrew Vaughn (No.14). The future is now and in the future for this loaded White Sox team.
No.2: Minnesota Twins* (2020: 36-24, 1st in AL Central)
Not to be outdone, the Twins have assembled quite the roster of their own. Nelson Cruz is an ageless wonder, posting an OPS of .992 in his age-39 season. Catchers Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers rip the cover off the ball. The infield is solid with Miguel Sao and Josh Donaldson providing pop at the corners and Andrelton Simmons and Jorge Polanco providing above-average hitting upside through the middle. Centerfielder Byron Buxton has received MVP votes twice in his career, and he is coming off a 124 OPS+ season. Max Kepler hit 36 home runs in 2019.
Kenta Maeda was quietly one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2020.
He posted a WHIP of 0.750. While 2020 was a significantly shorter sample size than any season in modern MLB history, only 2000 Pedro Martinez has had a lower WHIP while qualifying for the ERA title. Maeda is joined by 2018 and 2019 All-Star Jose Berrios, 2020 130 ERA+ pitcher Michael Pineda, and newcomer J.A. Happ. Taylor Rogers is a competent door-slammer for the bullpen.
No.2 prospect Alex Kiriloff (No.26 in MLB) might join the Opening Day roster, but he is likely to be the left fielder for much of the season. Kiriloff’s MLB debut came in Game 2 of the 2020 AL Wild Card round. He should be an exciting player down the stretch as the Twins battle for AL Central supremacy.
No.3: Cleveland Indians (2020: 35-25, t-2nd in AL Central)
The Indians are in a weird spot. On one hand, they retained their four best players (by bWAR) from 2020. On the other hand, Nos.5-8 play for the New York Mets, New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, and San Diego Padres. Jose Ramirez and Shane Bieber may be the best players at their respective positions in MLB, but missing the likes of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco will hurt. Cleveland has added Andres Gimenez to replace Lindor at shortstop and Eddie Rosario to have some sense of outfield hitting. The “Franimal” Franmil Reyes has the power to lead baseball in home runs.
Few words can describe what Bieber did in 2020. Bieber waltzed to the Triple Crown, leading all of baseball in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. His 281 ERA+ and 2.07 FIP also paced baseball. After finishing fourth in 2019 AL Cy Young voting, Bieber was the unanimous selection in 2020. Bieber is joined by Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac as well as No.2 prospect Triston McKenzie. Cleveland may have one of the best rotations in baseball, and the bullpen is spearheaded by strikeout wizard James Karinchak (17.7 K/9).
2021 will likely be some sort of a rebuilding year for Cleveland. Bieber and Ramirez should continue to shine, but the rest of the roster is unclear. The rotation should be great, but Civale and Plesac are hardly guaranteed.
No.4: Kansas City Royals (2020: 26-34, 4th in AL Central)
The Royals will be competent, but not good, in 2021. Salvador Perez had a monster 2020 season (161 OPS+) and got a massive extension in return. Kansas City has several talented hitters with Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler in the lineup. Nicky Lopez is a slick-fielding second baseman that needs to figure out how to hit. Kansas bought low with Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana whom both batted below .200 in 2020. Hunter Dozier is a solid hitter (OPS+ of 120 since 2019).
The Royals have an intriguing rotation with Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Danny Duffy, and newcomer Mike Minor. Beyond the main four, the likes of Kris Bubic, Jakob Junis, and Ervin Santana will consume innings for Kansas City. Singer and Keller are in Kansas City for the long haul while Duffy could be a deadline deal. The newly reformed duo of Greg Holland and Wade Davis at the end of the bullpen is not quite as formidable as it was the Royals went to the 2014 and 2015 World Series, but they are solid options.
As Bobby Witt Jr. begins the season in Triple-A, it seems like a good time to point out that the Royals are playing the long game.
No.5: Detroit Tigers (2020: 23-35, 5th in AL Central)
The Tigers will have two main storylines: Miguel Cabrera and the farm. Cabrera sits 13 home runs away from 500 and 134 hits away from 3,000. Cabrera will spend much of the season at designated hitter, but he might play first base from time to time while MLB’s No.3 prospect Spencer Torkelson gains minor league experience. Beyond the prospects of Cabrera getting to the 3,000-hit and 500-home run clubs, the Tigers have little going for the offense. Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro had exciting 2020 seasons and should be exciting in 2021.
Similarly, the story of the pitching is the prospects. Detroit has three pitching prospects in MLB.com’s top 30, and each should play in 2021. Casey Mize is the cream of the crop, but he struggled in the Majors last season (ERA+ of 67). Tarik Skubal Wass slightly better (83 ERA+). Matt Manning will likely join the pair at some point in 2021.
The Tigers will likely be the worst team in the 2021 American League, but at least they have youth to look forward to.
2021 American League West:
No.1: Houston Astros (2020: 29-31, 2nd in AL West)
In 2020, the Astros had one position player who had 10 plate appearances and a 130 OPS+: George Springer. Springer is now a member of the Blue Jays. Houston slipped to a sub-.500 record in 2020, but it seems that was a bit of a fluke as they plowed through the AL playoffs before falling in Game 7 of the ALCS. To replicate the success, the infield will need to be better than the OPS+ of 76, 71, 92, and 116. Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley are good hitters in the corner outfield spots, and Yordan Alvarez turns baseballs into missiles.
Justin Verlander? Out for the season. Gerrit Cole? With the Yankees. Houston’s rotation does not pack quite the punch it did in 2019, but Houston returns most of its starts from 2020. Framber Valdez will miss the season, but Jake Odorizzi will replace him in mid-April. Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy are competent pitchers. If Odorizzi/Brandon Bielak can be average, Houston will have one of the better rotations in baseball.
Houston needs the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa to step up. In a fairly weak AL West, Houston has the inside path to their fourth division title in five seasons, but if the infield struggles again, they might open the door for the …
No.2: Oakland Athletics (2020: 36-24, 1st in AL West)
Oakland cruised to the division crown in 2020. While the A’s lost several pieces (namely Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks) from the division-winning 2020 unit, they will get a full season from Matt Chapman. Matt Olson and Chapman will be Silver Slugger-caliber hitters and Gold Glover-caliber fielders.
The pitching staff is deep with Chris Bassitt blossoming into an ace in 2020. He is backed by Mike Fiers (currently injured), Jesus Luzardo, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, and No.2 prospect A.J. Puk. If Bassitt stays at a high level (181 ERA+, eighth in Cy Young voting) and the A’s get one more starter to step up, they could steal the AL West from Houston. The bullpen was rocked with the loss of Hendriks, but a variety of arms including Trevor Rosenthal and Sergio Romo will be chess pieces for Bob Melvin to use.
The A’s are the only team without a member of the MLB.com top 100 prospects, so the time to compete is now.
No.3: Los Angeles Angels (2020: 26-34, 4th in AL West)
The Los Angeles Mike Trouts will live up to the name in 2021.
Trout is coming off his worst season since his rookie year (granted, it was an OPS+ of 168, third in the AL in 2020). Anthony Rendon, Justin Upton, and Shohei Ohtani will take turns whacking baseballs deep into the Angel Stadium stands. On the non-star player front, Los Angeles will hope Max Stassi matches his .886 OPS/139 OPS+ in a full season. They also hope that Jo Adell does not play like the worst player in baseball again (31 OPS+, -1.4 bWAR).
The rotation is not inspiring. Holdovers Andrew Heaney, Dylan Bundy, Griffin Canning, and Ohtani are joined by Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb. Ohtani was curb-stomped (37.80 ERA, 14 ERA+, 13.99 FIP, 6.600 WHIP, 43.2 BB/9) in his 1.2 innings in 2020, but he will return to the mound in 2021. Ohtani is the Angels’ only hope of a star, but the rest of the rotation has the potential to be competent.
With a depleted prospect pool and the GDP of several countries invested in the roster, Los Angeles must compete now. Sadly, they cannot clone Trout.
No.4: Seattle Mariners (2020: 27-33, 3rd in AL West)
While the rest of the AL West has dire prospects, the Mariners are loaded. Seattle has more top 100 prospects than the rest of the division combined. Jarred Kelenic is an AL Rookie of the Year front-runner when he comes up, and Julio Rodriguez will follow him in 2022. For the rest of the lineup, Kyle Seager and Kyle Lewis are pretty certain to be the main mashers. Evan White and J.P. Crawford are Gold Glove-caliber fielders, but neither had an OPS above .700 in 2020. Dylan Moore had a huge 2020 (even better than the Kyles), and he will need to keep it up in 2021.
Marco Gonzales and returning starter James Paxton will lead the line. Yusei Kikuchi had an ERA north of 5.00 in 2020, but his underlying metrics (FIP of 3.30, SIERA of 4.34) tell a positive story. Justus Sheffield had an ERA+ of 118 in 2020; he will be back in the rotation. Seattle relied on a six-man rotation in 2020, and they could do the same in 2021. Expect Nick Margevicius and Justin Dunn to fight for the No.6 spot behind Korean import/former Met Chris Flexen.
Seattle could be a wild card thief in 2021, but the expectations are that Seattle will contend in 2022 and beyond while the other teams try to replenish the farm.
No.5: Texas Rangers (2020: 22-38, 5th in AL West)
It takes talent to be worse than the Orioles and the Tigers, and the Rangers were worse in 2020. Of the nine players to receive 100 plate appearances for Texas in 2020, none of them had a league-average OPS+. Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Joey Gallo won Gold Gloves, and they were the only bright spots on an otherwise disappointing team. As mentioned in the Mariners blurb, the Rangers join the Astros, A’s, and Angels near the bottom of the prospect barrel.
Similar to the lineup, the rotation is disappointing. Lance Lynn and Mike Minor are gone. Texas hopes their production is replaced in some part by reclamation project Mike Foltynewicz. Foltynewicz is a former All-Star, but he was tattooed in his lone appearance in 2020 (ERA of 16.20). Jose Leclerc is back as the de facto closer for the Rangers, but it seems highly unlikely that he will get many save opportunities, even in a full 162-game slate.
Opening Day is a time for optimism. The other 14 American League teams have something to look forward to, a good team, good prospects, or superstar players. At least Texas plays in a beautiful stadium.
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