Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2021 MLB Playoffs and World Series
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the World Series and claimed their first Commissioner's Trophy since 1988.
So now it's time to...make predictions for the 2021 MLB postseason?
Sure, why not!
It's way early, to state the obvious. Over the next few months, trades and free-agent signings will shift the balance of power in both leagues. And we don't know what, exactly, the '21 regular season and playoffs will look like amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But based on where things stand—plus a healthy dollop of forward-gazing speculation—here's a guess at how next October might unfold.
National League Qualifiers
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Chicago Cubs
4. San Diego Padres*
5. St. Louis Cardinals*
* Wild-card team
Let's assume MLB goes back to the pre-2020 playoff format for at least one more season before the collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2021 campaign.
The Dodgers are well positioned to win a ninth straight National League West title with most of their championship core set to return, including Mookie Betts and burgeoning ace Walker Buehler. A few key players, including third baseman Justin Turner, are ticketed for free agency, but L.A. has the financial resources and organizational depth to remain atop the NL pecking order.
Atlanta should make an effort to re-sign slugger Marcell Ozuna even if the universal designated hitter goes away in 2021. But the defending NL East champs can bank on rising star Ronald Acuna Jr. and right-hander Ian Anderson, who pitched like a Cy Young Award contender in the postseason, among others.
The NL Central is one of the most up-for-grabs divisions in baseball with only the Pittsburgh Pirates likely to be a non-factor. The Chicago Cubs won it in 2020 and could go all-in for a repeat, though they have decisions to make regarding a number of players—such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber—who will reach free agency after the '21 campaign.
As for the two wild-card slots, the San Diego Padres should lock one up behind an emerging core featuring Fernando Tatis Jr.
The second spot could go to any number of clubs. Really, other than the Pirates, no team is far outside the bubble. But we'll toss a dart and pick the steady St. Louis Cardinals, who almost always find a way to contend.
American League Qualifiers
1. New York Yankees
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Houston Astros
4. Tampa Bay Rays*
5. Los Angeles Angels*
The New York Yankees battled injuries in 2020 en route to a second-place finish and division-series exit. Health will again be a key factor next season.
If sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton can avoid the injured list after the Yanks spend what it takes to bring back free agent Masahiro Tanaka and add other impact arms behind ace Gerrit Cole, they should be able to win the AL East.
The Chicago White Sox made the leap from rebuilder to contender in 2020 and are poised to take over as division favorites behind emerging stars such as Luis Robert, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada and right-hander Lucas Giolito. They could also be players for the offseason's top free agents.
Out west, the Houston Astros finished under .500 in the shortened season but proved they've got plenty of fight in them by pushing to Game 7 of the ALCS. They'll be without ace Justin Verlander, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and will need to add pitching to augment both the starting rotation and bullpen. They should also make a strong play to retain outfielder George Springer, who will be the top outfielder on the free-agent market.
If they check those items off their to-do list, the 'Stros should be able to unseat the penny-pinching division-champion Oakland A's, who are likely to lose closer Liam Hendriks and shortstop Marcus Semien to free agency.
The Tampa Bay Rays will bring back most of the key players who vaulted them to Game 6 of the World Series and should challenge New York for supremacy in the AL East. If they fall short of another division title, a wild-card berth is likely—if not assured.
As for the second wild card, we'll go out on a limb and say the Los Angeles Angels will be aggressive offseason players after missing the postseason and wasting another year of Mike Trout's prime. One target who makes particular sense for the pitching-hungry Halos? Free-agent ace and Southern California native Trevor Bauer.
National League Playoffs
Wild Card Game
St. Louis vs. San Diego
The Padres could toss out a number of strong arms in a winner-take-all Wild Card Game, including 2020 trade-deadline acquisition Mike Clevinger and right-hander Dinelson Lamet. The Cards could counter with righty Jack Flaherty. We'll bet on the Friars to win this hypothetical tilt with big bats Tatis and Manny Machado making the difference.
Chicago vs. Atlanta
After coming tantalizingly close to an NL pennant in 2020, Atlanta will be especially hungry if it gets back to the postseason. Anderson proved his October bona fides alongside Max Fried, and if right-hander Mike Soroka returns healthy and effective after Achilles surgery, Atlanta will have a loaded staff to pair with its dangerous lineup. A second straight trip to the NLCS should be in the offing.
San Diego vs. Los Angeles
San Diego is nipping at the heels of Los Angeles in the NL West and could surpass the Dodgers in the not-too-distant future. Until further notice, though, the Dodgers are the superior squad. L.A. swept the Friars out of the division series in 2020. This time, the Pads could put up more of a fight. But we'll tap the defending champs to again exert their dominance behind Betts, Buehler et al.
Atlanta vs. Los Angeles
If the 2020 NLCS was any indication, this would be a must-see rematch. In the '20 edition, Atlanta jumped out to a 3-1 series lead before the Dodgers came roaring back. Surely, Atlanta will be out for revenge. It would be no surprise if this one went the distance.
The Buehler-Anderson matchup, in particular, could make for a classic playoff pitchers' duel, and Betts and Acuna are two of the game's brightest stars. We'll put our money on the Dodgers to prevail, although this would be another tough test on their road to a repeat.
American League Playoffs
Wild Card Game
Los Angeles vs. Tampa Bay
The Rays will be a team on a mission in 2021. If they end up in the Wild Card Game, they could hand the ball to left-hander Blake Snell, who will have an extra-large chip on his shoulder after being controversially pulled in Tampa Bay's Game 6 loss. If the Angels were to acquire Bauer, they could counter with an ace of their own. But we'll pick the Rays to advance.
Houston vs. Chicago
The Astros showed they don't mind wearing the villain hat and could again be a dangerous playoff opponent, especially if they add pitching this winter. The core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Springer, if Houston re-signs him, is playoff-tested. But the ChiSox boast a gaggle of hyper-talented players who now have October resumes of their own. The South Siders should begin a deep 2021 run here.
Tampa Bay vs. New York
With the Boston Red Sox rebuilding, the Rays are currently the Yankees' biggest division rival. The squads share some bad blood and met in a hard-fought ALDS showdown this season, which Tampa Bay won in five. If the Yankees are healthy and do what it takes this offseason to support Cole in the starting rotation (both admittedly major "ifs"), we'll pick them to flip the script and bounce the Rays.
Chicago vs. New York
This would be a star-studded matchup with Judge and Stanton on one side and the likes of Robert and Moncada on the other.
New York would be trying to reach the Fall Classic for the first time since 2009, which counts as a protracted drought in the Bronx. A lot may depend on which club does more to gild its roster this offseason, but we like the White Sox's combination of youthful exuberance and recently earned playoff experience.
This one would likely go a full seven games and could tip either direction. But Chicago has that emerging-powerhouse aura after finishing 35-25 in 2020 and pushing the Athletics to the full three games in the first round, which means the Yankees' drought might continue.
Winning consecutive World Series is hard. Only two teams have accomplished the feat since 1979.
So the Dodgers would have their work cut out for them no matter what opponent they face in the 2021 Fall Classic, assuming they make it that far.
The White Sox would represent an especially worthy foe. Giolito and left-hander Dallas Keuchel front the pitching staff. Robert, Moncada, Anderson and veteran slugger Jose Abreu headline a toolsy and potent offense. And the White Sox may well be willing to spend what it takes this winter to add more weapons to the lineup, rotation and bullpen.
But now that the Dodgers have gotten a taste of win-it-all glory, they should be motivated to do it again. If 2021 is in fact a full 162-game season, it would give them a chance to shed any talk of 2020 being a truncated anomaly.
L.A. could probably repeat as presently constructed with Buehler and Dustin May joining a still-effective Clayton Kershaw in the rotation and Betts, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger forming a dangerous offensive trio. But don't be surprised if president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman goes for broke by, say, swinging a trade for Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor.
No matter what, this would be an epic World Series. Our way-too-early crystal-ball prediction has the Dodgers repeating.
In the meantime, warm your hands by the hot stove—and feel free to disagree.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.