The 2021 World Series Contenders Who Could Dethrone Dodgers or Rays
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays were the two best teams in MLB in 2020 practically from wire to wire.
The coronavirus pandemic shortened the season by nearly 63 percent, seemingly challenging the integrity of the game. But the Dodgers and Rays navigated an unprecedented year and the expanded postseason to reach the Fall Classic.
These clubs should be factors for some time. The Dodgers solidified their future by inking outfielder Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million extension this summer, and most of the Rays' marquee players are under team control for years to come.
But how many clubs could realistically challenge L.A. and Tampa Bay for pennants in 2021?
Here are nine squads capable of making a World Series push. The teams were chosen based on their possible offseason moves in addition to the current foundation of their clubs.
Atlanta appeared to be steamrolling toward the World Series after taking a 3-1 lead over the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
But L.A. seemingly made all of the big plays down the stretch, while Atlanta struggled to convert with runners in scoring position.
However, there is no question Atlanta will be back.
The team has one of the strongest core groups in baseball. Freddie Freeman is arguably the NL MVP this season. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies are locked up for years to come, and the pitching duo of Max Fried and Ian Anderson looks promising moving forward.
Then there's this tidbit: Atlanta did not even have ace Mike Soroka for essentially the entirety of the 2020 season after the 23-year-old tore his Achilles in his third start.
Having the youngster—who posted a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts in 2019—will be a major boon.
This will be an important offseason for general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
The organization should do everything it can to re-sign Marcell Ozuna, who provided crucial lineup protection, hit an NL-leading 18 homers and posted a 1.07 OPS.
But the team will also likely need to spend on back-end rotation help Alternatively, it could throw larger one-year offers at front-end starters like Trevor Bauer and Kevin Gausman. Its rotation recorded a 28th-ranked 5.51 ERA in 2020. It could also use bullpen reinforcements.
Of course, Atlanta does not have to spend in free agency. The organization also has prospect capital it could move, though guys like Anderson and Cristian Pache are probably mainstays rather than trade bait.
In any case, Atlanta will be one of the top contenders in the NL, particularly if it re-signs Ozuna and adds quality starting pitching.
The Astros became just the second team in MLB history to force a Game 7 after being down 3-0 in a playoff series, but they ultimately fell short to the Rays in the ALCS.
Though they missed out on their third World Series berth in four years, the Astros will likely be in the picture once again in 2021.
Houston does have some pressing issues, notably in the outfield. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick will all be free agents, and there is not a lot of depth outside of Kyle Tucker. But the Astros are likely to sign one of Springer or Brantley and can probably look for minor upgrades in the outfield free-agent class.
It is also important to remember Houston will get Yordan Alvarez's bat back in the lineup. Alvarez played just two games in 2020 because of knee surgery, but last season's AL Rookie of the Year is one of the best young hitters in baseball.
Guys like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa might have struggled during the regular season, but they both showed what they were capable of come October. Plus, it is unlikely these two immensely talented players will continue to be bogged down. The same can be said for Alex Bregman, who looked like a shell of his 2019 self in part because of a hamstring injury.
The biggest question will be the pitching staff.
Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier did emerge as legitimate arms, a major plus for a Houston team that seemed to lack young talent entering the season. However, Justin Verlander could miss the campaign as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
That said, Houston's window of contention is still wide-open. Failing to re-sign Springer could have an impact on production at the top of the lineup, but the Astros still have one of the deepest big league talent pools.
San Diego Padres
The Padres might have the most enviable future in the game.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is a bona fide star and should be MVP candidate after just his second year. Then there are guys like Jake Cronenworth (.831 OPS) and Trent Grisham (.808 OPS), whom the Friars pried away from the Rays and Milwaukee Brewers, respectively.
Manny Machado returned to MVP form after a down 2019, and both Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer had bounce-back campaigns in the middle of the order. There will be questions as to whether Myers and Hosmer can have sustained success, given their track records.
For now, however, the Padres have one of the most dangerous and varied lineups.
The pitching staff is also promising. Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet gave fans pause with late-season biceps issues, but AJ Cassavell of MLB.com reported neither will need surgery this offseason and should be at full health by spring training.
Clevinger is as good as any pitcher in the game when healthy. Meanwhile, Lamet ranked fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (12.1) while posting a stellar 2.09 ERA (also fifth) in 12 starts.
The top two are legitimate anchors, but the rest of the rotation will define the team's success. Can Chris Paddack bounce back after giving up 14 homers in just 59 innings last year? Will Zach Davies continue to leverage high ground-ball rates into more success?
What about the youngsters? Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore are expected to be front-line starters for the Padres eventually, but it remains to be seen whether they will have an impact on next year’s rotation.
General manager A.J. Preller is likely to prioritize back-end starters and late-game relievers this offseason. If he feels a trade is available, it would not be surprising to see Preller continue to dip into the team's farm system.
Regardless, the Friars have the pieces to make a deep run next year.
New York Yankees
The New York Yankees cannot seem to get over the hump, having experienced playoff disappointment in each of the last four campaigns.
And general manager Brian Cashman faces some tough challenges this offseason.
DJ LeMahieu has been an offensive anchor for the Bronx Bombers in the last two years, slashing .336/.386/.536 with a 145 OPS+. He is also a free agent and will likely have one of the best markets of any position player this winter.
This could be a conundrum for the Yankees, who desperately need more starting pitching and will see both Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton hit the open market.
It is fair to wonder just how much teams will be willing to spend given the financial fallout from the pandemic, but if there is one franchise that would spend big this offseason, it would be the Yankees.
Moreover, New York has options.
Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported recently that the Yankees were "open" to trading catcher Gary Sanchez ahead of the August deadline. What if the Yankees can flip Sanchez for pitching? Plus, outside of Trevor Bauer, it is unlikely many pitchers entering the free-agent market would command long-term deals (though Bauer has said he only wants to do one-year contracts).
The Yankees might be willing to offer large one-year commitments and eat the tax bill for 2021 while still keeping their books relatively clean for the future.
This is all a way of saying there is a path where the Yankees bring back LeMahieu and still make multiple plays for pitching in the middle and back end of the rotation.
If New York can successfully do that, it will once again be one of the top contenders in 2021.
We should start with the elephant in the room: The Minnesota Twins have lost 18 consecutive playoff games dating back to the 2004 ALDS. Fortunately, they are still in a pretty enviable position in terms of their future.
Aside from Nelson Cruz—whom the Twins will likely try to re-sign—all the marquee pieces are under contract. Jake Odorizzi and Marwin Gonzalez are coming off the books, which opens up opportunities.
Perhaps the Twins will make a big play for Bauer, who would likely thrive in Minneapolis given his strikeout stuff and the big dimensions at Target Field. Plus, he has plenty of familiarity with the AL Central after spending his early years with Cleveland.
Even if they miss on Bauer, the Twins will need to address the rotation.
Minnesota could choose to let Odorizzi walk after an injury-riddled season in which he posted a 6.59 ERA. The Twins might try to re-sign Rich Hill for cheap, and Randy Dobnak looks like a rotation fixture in addition to Michael Pineda, whom they should get a full year from in 2021. But they could use another top-end starter to complement Kenta Maeda, who sparkled in his Twins debut with a 2.07 ERA in 11 starts.
The bullpen will also need revamping. Tyler Clippard and Trevor May will both be free agents, and the team has a club option on Sergio Romo. Clippard seems like a good candidate to return on a short-term deal, given he will be 36 in February and had a 2.77 ERA.
Minnesota will also hope for improvement from guys like catcher Mitch Garver, first baseman Miguel Sano and shortstop Jorge Polanco.
The Twins have shown they are not afraid to spend big, including with the four-year, $92 million Josh Donaldson signing last winter. Minnesota has the cap flexibility to make some impact moves and build upon a team that has won consecutive AL Central titles.
Oakland still has the makeup to contend next year, though the Athletics will have to navigate a tough offseason with a number of pieces heading for free agency.
The A's finally won a playoff series by defeating the Chicago White Sox in the Wild Card Round, but they did not have the pitching to get past the Astros in the ALDS.
Moreover, bullpen staples Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria and Yusmeiro Petit will be free agents, as will starters Mike Minor and Mike Fiers. Double-play combination Marcus Semien and Tommy La Stella are also headed for free agency, as is switch-hitting outfielder Robbie Grossman.
The A's seem likely to pursue Soria and Petit on short-term deals, and La Stella might also return given some past comments from executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane, per Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. The rest could easily walk.
However, this franchise has excelled at a plug-and-play strategy in the past few years.
Perhaps the A's will go after Didi Gregorius to play shortstop or replace Semien with the slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons in the hopes he can stay healthy. There is also no shortage of starters for the A's to consider.
Realistically, though, Oakland will benefit from internal improvement. Matt Olson and Ramon Laureano both underwhelmed in 2020, and Frankie Montas struggled mightily to a 5.60 ERA.
But Olson's power numbers were still there (14 homers), and Laureano hit .288 with an .853 OPS over his first 171 games in the bigs. Both should be fine. Montas struggled due to a spike in both homer rate and walk rate, but his strikeout rate remained high (10.2 per nine). It is also important to remember he was coming off a suspension last year and will have a full offseason to make adjustments.
The A's will also hope young left-hander Jesus Luzardo can still develop into an ace, and fellow left-handed prospect A.J. Puk should also be in the picture next season.
Oakland will have to bolster the pitching staff and increase positional depth, but it is still in a good position to contend.
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox are sort of like the Padres of the AL. They arrived ahead of schedule and are hoping to take the next step as one of the more talented clubs in baseball.
It starts with the managerial hire. General manager Rick Hahn stressed the need for a manager with championship experience, and it seems Tony La Russa, AJ Hinch and Alex Cora will all be in play, per James Fegan of The Athletic.
The White Sox have an excellent core, one that could get even better if Yoan Moncada bounces back after a poor 2020 amid his fatigue after COVID-19.
Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel will be at the top of the rotation, but the main offseason questions relate to the pitching staff after them.
Dylan Cease has good velocity, but he struck out just 6.8 opponents per nine innings and walked an AL-high 34 hitters. Dane Dunning had an impressive debut and will likely be extended over the course of a full season. Michael Kopech should also be returning from Tommy John surgery. But both Dunning and Kopech lack the experience one might hope for in a championship rotation.
The White Sox will probably try to sign one of the top starters. Bauer would be a fit in addition to maybe a Kevin Gausman or even Marcus Stroman, though the latter's ground-ball-heavy style might not play as well in front of a somewhat suspect infield defense.
Chicago will need to decide whether to re-sign closer Alex Colome, and there are some questions as to who will play right field. Nomar Mazara struggled, and Adam Engel is probably better as a platoon option.
Still, the White Sox could be a few pitching moves away from being legitimate World Series contenders.
Cleveland's status is dependent on whether it tries to trade star shortstop Francisco Lindor and/or someone like right-hander Zach Plesac.
But if the team retains its key pieces, it could make a push.
Cleveland's pitching staff led baseball in WAR, per FanGraphs. Shane Bieber is the likely the 2020 AL Cy Young winner, and Carlos Carrasco had a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts. Plesac showed tremendous development (2.28 ERA), and Triston McKenzie looks like the latest quality arm in the pipeline.
Cleveland's bullpen is equally sturdy, with Brad Hand and James Karinchak dominating the later innings and guys like Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton and former Padres reliever Cal Quantrill holding own the middle frames.
The offense remains a question mark. The team has a $17.5 million club option on first baseman Carlos Santana. Veteran backstop Roberto Perez has a $5.5 club option.
But that does not account for the primary issue: a lack of outfield production. Cleveland's outfielders ranked 29th in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), per FanGraphs, and the organization can't go with another makeshift option.
A reunion with Michael Brantley could be in the cards. Brantley will command a high average annual value (AAV), but he is unlikely to get more than a one- or two-year deal given he will be 34 in May and has defensive limitations.
Or, perhaps the team—ever wary of payroll issues—will try to get a bargain out of someone like Grossman or veteran outfielder Nick Markakis.
Cleveland just needs to add at least one or two run producers. The question is: Does the organization commit to another push or blow it up now?
Picking an NL contender outside of Atlanta and Dodgers is a bit of a nightmare.
The Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are interesting in the NL Central. But the Cubs rotation is unstable, and the future of their core is up in the air. The Cardinals and Reds do not have nearly enough offense, with Cincinnati likely needing to spend big on pitching in free agency if it wants to retain Bauer.
In the NL East, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets are both franchises in transition in leadership (or ownership), and both rosters have major question marks.
So, why not the 2019 World Series champs?
Washington disappointed in 2020. The rotation was a mess, made worse by an early-season injury to Stephen Strasburg. But any rotation headlined by Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin is intriguing.
The Nats also unearthed a potential gem in the bullpen in Wander Suero, and Tanner Rainey should only get better if he can prevent the long ball.
How will Washington deal with its impending free agents and club options? It seems likely the Nats will decline options on Anibal Sanchez ($12 million) and Adam Eaton ($10.5 million) in addition to their mutual options on Eric Thames.
Washington will need to make moves to replace these guys while adding bullpen depth, and the Nats do not have a ton of flexibility. Still, there are some free agents general manager Mike Rizzo could sign on one- or two-year deals who could make a major impact.
Justin Turner could be an ideal option to play third base. A return to L.A. could certainly be in the cards, but Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times reported in May the two sides had not talked about an extension, and it remains to be seen whether the Dodgers will invest another year in Turner with Gavin Lux hungering for big league at-bats.
Josh Reddick could be an interesting guy to possibly replace Eaton in right field, and Gausman, Brett Anderson or James Paxton might help solidify the rotation.
The Nationals have a lot of maneuvering to do, but they seem like as good a bet to bounce back as any team given the guys in the rotation and the presence of a generational superstar in Juan Soto.