1 Reason for Every MLB Fanbase to Be Optimistic in 2021
Welcome to 2021, Major League Baseball fans.
With any luck, this year will return to something resembling normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic forced a season unlike any other in 2020. Or so we can hope, anyway.
While we're here having high hopes, we thought we'd share one thing that each fanbase should be excited about in 2021. These cover a wide range of topics, from teams that are ticketed to contend to players who might bounce back or break out.
We'll proceed in alphabetical order by city.
Arizona Diamondbacks: They're Loaded with Bounce-Back Candidates
The Arizona Diamondbacks were unraveling as they finished in last place in the National League West in 2020. Nonetheless, manager Torey Lovullo has high hopes for 2021.
"We're a good baseball team, we're a good organization with good baseball players," Lovullo said in December. "I want that to shine through next year."
Lovullo's confidence could prove to be well placed if a few things that went wrong for Arizona go right again in 2021. Namely, if key incumbents get their acts together.
It would help if Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Carson Kelly reversed the 225-point dropoff in their combined OPS from 2019 to 2020. The Snakes likewise need $85 million ace Madison Bumgarner to stay healthy and improve on last year's 6.48 ERA. Luckily, possibilities such as these aren't long shots.
Atlanta: Starting Pitching Won't Be a Problem Again
Atlanta won its third straight NL East title in 2020 and ultimately came within a win of the World Series.
Simply by virtue of these realities, Atlanta fans should have high hopes for their team in 2021. And yet we'll offer a more specific reason: The club's starting pitching should be more reliable this time around.
Though Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson pitched brilliantly, Atlanta starters finished the regular season with an ugly 5.51 ERA. It didn't help that Mike Soroka (Achilles) and Cole Hamels (shoulder) suffered injuries, while other starters just plain struggled.
Soroka, however, is on track to rejoin Fried and Anderson in the rotation by Opening Day. The club has also signed Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, both of whom can rack up strikeouts when they're on.
Baltimore Orioles: Adley Rutschman Is Coming
The Baltimore Orioles actually beat expectations in going 25-35 last year, in part thanks to breakout turns by 20-somethings like Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander.
Going forward, it shouldn't be long before Adley Rutschman also gets his shot.
The O's chose Rutschman with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. He's now rated as our No. 11 prospect, for reasons that Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde summed up well: "He's gonna be a special defender, he's going to hit from both sides of the plate with power and the knack to put the barrel on the baseball."
The Orioles are planning on starting Rutschman off at Double-A in 2021. If he acquits himself well there, he could potentially leap right to the majors sometime next summer.
Boston Red Sox: They're Also Loaded with Bounce-Back Candidates
The Boston Red Sox all but asked for a bad year when they traded Mookie Betts in February. They got one, going 24-36 and landing in last place in the American League East.
Yet the Red Sox took a step in the right direction in November when they re-hired Alex Cora—whom they fired in January after he got wrapped up in the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal—as their manager.
Like the Diamondbacks, Boston can now hope to benefit from a few bounce-back seasons in 2021.
On the pitching side, aces Eduardo Rodriguez (heart) and Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery) will return after sitting out all of 2020. On the hitting side, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi and newcomer Hunter Renfroe will each be looking to rise above the low points they experienced last year.
Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant and Javier Baez Should Be Better, Anyway
Though the Chicago Cubs will never admit it, there should be no mistake that they're now rebuilding.
Theo Epstein stepped down as the club's head of baseball operations in November, and the club then deliberately added Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. to its shockingly long list of free agents. More recently, the Cubs sent ace right-hander Yu Darvish packing in a trade to the San Diego Padres.
But given the current power vacuum in the NL Central, the Cubs might still pull off a return to the playoffs in 2021—especially if Kris Bryant and Javier Baez bounce back.
After combining for an .877 OPS in 2019, the two sluggers managed just .616 OPS in 2020. The former number is surely a better indicator of their true talent.
Chicago White Sox: They Can and Should Improve on 2020
Last year was a resounding success for the Chicago White Sox, who rode Jose Abreu's MVP-winning performance to a 35-25 record and their first playoff berth since 2008.
And all this was just a tease of what these White Sox should be capable of in 2021.
Though the Chicago lineup was one of the best in baseball after August 15, it'll be even better if Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert improve on their relatively tame .722 combined OPS. The White Sox also stand to get a boost from top prospect Andrew Vaughn, who might slot in at designated hitter.
On the mound, the White Sox scored a major upgrade for their rotation when they traded for Lance Lynn. Along with Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Giolito, he's now part of arguably the best 1-2-3 punch in the AL.
Cincinnati Reds: For Now, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo Are Still Around
After ending a seven-year playoff drought in 2020, the Cincinnati Reds are now in a precarious position in the NL Central.
They reportedly won't be re-signing reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. They've also traded closer Raisel Iglesias and are willing to entertain offers for aces Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo.
For now, though, Gray and Castillo—each of whom has pitched at an All-Star level across the last two seasons—are still with Cincinnati. And as long as that's the case, the club will have a path to the NL Central title in 2021.
Things have gone nowhere but south for the Cubs recently, and the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals each have red flags aplenty in their own right. The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, are coming off an MLB-worst 19-41 season.
Cleveland: If Nothing Else, Starting Pitching Will Still Be a Strength
We'd love to tell Cleveland fans that they can expect more offense out of their team after it scored just 4.1 runs per game in 2020. Alas, we can't do that in good conscience.
Carlos Santana has already left town via a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Royals. If rumors of his inevitable departure are true, superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor will also be on his way out before long.
But hey, at least the starting pitchers will be worth watching in 2021.
After winning the AL Cy Young Award on the strength of a 1.63 ERA, Shane Bieber will be back atop the Cleveland rotation. Following him will be Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie, who teamed up for a rock-solid 3.39 ERA last year.
Colorado Rockies: If He Stays, Nolan Arenado Is a Major Bounce-Back Candidate
After back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the NL West, it's hard enough to have confidence in the Colorado Rockies to do anything of note in 2021.
It'll be even harder if the Rockies trade star shortstop Trevor Story or superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado, both of whom are reportedly available. A deal of either one would effectively push the Rockies into a rebuild.
If Arenado does stick around, he should give Rockies fans at least one reason to tune in this year. Because if his left shoulder heals well, he may revert to the 40-homer dynamo he was between 2015 and 2019.
Detroit Tigers: The Kids Should Be Ready to Make an Impact
Though they ended 23-35, the Detroit Tigers were over .500 and in the AL playoff hunt as late as the first of September.
That was good stuff for a rebuilding team that has yet to establish a youth movement. This ought to inspire optimism for what will happen when said movement begins in earnest this year.
After earning major league experience in 2020, prized hurlers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal will enter 2021 with a chance to pitch every fifth day. Likewise, third baseman Isaac Paredes and right fielder Daz Cameron will be fighting for spots in the lineup.
The season should also feature the arrival of right-hander Matt Manning and maybe even third baseman Spencer Torkelson, whom Detroit selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft.
Houston Astros: Their Lineup Should Return to Form
Though the Houston Astros made it to the doorstep of the World Series, few things came easy for them during their 29-31 regular season.
More specifically, Houston's runs-per-game output fell by more than a run from 2019 to 2020. It's hard not to connect that to the revelation of the team's sign-stealing ways. And sans free agents George Springer and Michael Brantley, the future lineup is easy to doubt.
And yet we propose that it could return to form in 2021.
Given that their combined OPS declined by 249 points from 2019 to 2020, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are surely bounce-back candidates. Provided his surgically repaired knees hold up, 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez should also put himself back on the map.
Kansas City Royals: Brad Keller and Brady Singer as a 1-2 Punch
But since we're still not convinced the Royals are ticketed for their first winning season since 2015, we're instead shining a light on what we think will be the team's most exciting feature: the one-two punch of Brad Keller and Brady Singer.
With a 3.59 ERA over 57 starts, Keller has been flying under the radar since 2018. Singer debuted in July and initially had a hard time but found his footing with a 1.50 ERA and 25 strikeouts over his last four starts.
If these two can pick up where they left off, the Royals will enjoy one of the AL's better ace duos in 2021.
Los Angeles Angels: Their Lineup Could Be One of MLB's Best
At least until they do something to deepen their starting rotation, the Los Angeles Angels figure to have a hard time improving on the 5.52 ERA that group produced in 2020.
But if nothing else, their lineup should be fun to watch.
Unsurprisingly, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon lived up to the hype in combining for a .955 OPS in 2020. Yet they also had help in the club's last 30 games, in which it had the fourth-best offensive output in MLB.
The underrated David Fletcher hit .319 in that stretch, while Max Stassi and Jared Walsh broke out. With more of the same from them and better things from Shohei Ohtani and Jo Adell, the Angels could be an offensive juggernaut.
Los Angeles Dodgers: They're the Defending World Series Champions
As we'll discuss later, the San Diego Padres loom as a real threat to deny the Los Angeles Dodgers their ninth straight NL West title.
Then again, the Dodgers aren't just the reigning division champions.
They're also coming off an MLB-best 43-17 record and, at long last, their first World Series title since 1988. As reflected in how they led MLB in runs per game while finishing second in runs allowed per game, they were that good.
Though Justin Turner and other free agents are absent from the mix, the Dodgers are set to bring back Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw and most of the key pieces from their 2020 squad. And given that they only had to play 78 games all season, they might not have to worry about a World Series hangover.
Miami Marlins: Another Wave of Young Talent Is on the Way
The Miami Marlins were perhaps the biggest surprise of 2020, as they overcame an early-season coronavirus outbreak to earn their first playoff berth since 2003.
Their young pitching led the way, as only Cleveland got more fWAR out of 25-and-under starters. None is more exciting than fire-balling right-hander Sixto Sanchez, who has Cy Young Award upside.
What the Marlins will need in 2021 is more from a lineup that was never better than passable in 2020. Fortunately for them, that's where they have still more kids waiting in the wings.
Shortstop Jazz Chisholm and outfielder Jesus Sanchez—our No. 48 and 54 prospects—should be ready to make impacts this year. So might outfielder JJ Bleday (38), who's known for his prodigious power.
Milwaukee Brewers: No Greater Bounce-Back Candidate Than Christian Yelich
If the Marlins were the biggest surprise of the pleasant variety in 2020, perhaps the biggest surprise on the opposite side was the disappearance of Christian Yelich.
The Milwaukee Brewers' superstar didn't literally disappear, mind you, but his MVP-caliber production sure did. After slashing .327/.415/.631 with 80 home runs across 2018 and 2019, he managed just a .205/.356/.430 line and 12 homers in 2020.
There's no ignoring the possibility that Yelich wasn't fully recovered from the broken kneecap that ended his '19 campaign in September. Or, maybe the 29-year-old simply buckled under the weight of the $215 million contract that he signed last March.
Whatever the case, Brewers manager Craig Counsell surely isn't alone in thinking that Yelich isn't going to struggle again in 2021.
Minnesota Twins: They're Sitting on a Gold Mine of Young Offensive Talent
The Minnesota Twins' lineup wasn't the same in 2020 as it was in 2019, in which it powered a 101-win season with 307 home runs. And now, Nelson Cruz and Eddie Rosario are absent from the ensemble.
At least for now, this puts the Twins at a disadvantage in the AL Central. But if there's one thing that could eventually tip the scales in their favor, it's the three young sluggers they have standing by.
These would be infielder Royce Lewis and outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, who rank as our No. 16, 24 and 65 prospects, respectively. Each of the three carries dynamic offensive potential that could be realized as soon as 2021.
At the least, Kirilloff should be ready for the spotlight after debuting opposite the Houston Astros in the Wild Card Series last October.
New York Mets: Steve Cohen's Billions Have Barely Been Put to Use
Following their 26-34 showing in 2020, the New York Mets entered the winter in need of upgrades. In November, Robinson Cano's suspension for performance-enhancing drugs expanded their shopping list.
However, November was also the month in which ownership of the Mets passed from the Wilpons to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. He's already sunk $40.6 million into catcher James McCann and $15 million into reliever Trevor May.
The Mets' remaining free-agent targets include Trevor Bauer, George Springer and DJ LeMahieu, while their trade options include Nolan Arenado. To these ends, Cohen's only word of warning is that he doesn't necessarily want to go over the $210 million luxury-tax threshold for 2021.
But lest any Mets fans worry about that, the team is currently about $60 million in average annual value away from that mark.
New York Yankees: Their Lineup Is Better Than It Showed in 2020
The New York Yankees failed to live up to lofty expectations in 2020, going "just" 33-27 and bowing out of the playoffs in the American League Division Series.
Now their rotation is full of holes after $324 million ace Gerrit Cole, while reigning MLB batting champion DJ LeMahieu is afloat on the free-agent waters. But while these needs certainly require action, LeMahieu's absence doesn't portend doom for the Yankees lineup.
The Yankees had one of the top outfits of 2020, scoring 5.3 runs per game with an AL-best 117 OPS+. And that was despite down years from Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez and injury-shortened seasons for Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
If those four find better fortune in 2021, the New York lineup will be a nightmare.
Oakland Athletics: Their Young Core Is Still Intact for Now
Though the Oakland Athletics are coming off a third straight playoff season, their list of free agents spells some trouble for them going forward.
Missing from the mix are shortstop Marcus Semien and closer Liam Hendriks, plus capable role players like utility man Tommy La Stella and outfielder Robbie Grossman. Until the A's re-sign or replace these guys, their depth will be lacking.
It's a good thing, then, that their core of young stars is about as good as it gets.
Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are still on the corners, and Sean Murphy and Ramon Laureano are still up the middle. On the mound, the trio of Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and Jesus Luzardo has ability well beyond the 4.72 ERA it posted in 2020.
Philadelphia Phillies: Bryce Harper Might Actually Be Underrated Now
The Philadelphia Phillies still haven't made the playoffs since 2011, and their offseason to-do list involves fixing a broken bullpen and re-signing or replacing catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Even for now, though, the Phillies have enough stars to at least be watchable in 2021. These include co-aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, up-and-coming third baseman Alec Bohm and especially Bryce Harper.
Though it feels like the 28-year-old has drifted from the center of attention since signing a 13-year, $330 million deal in March 2019, he's quietly been red-hot for more than a year. Go back to Aug. 1, 2019, and you find him with a .967 OPS and 30 home runs in 109 games.
Traditionally, Harper has been seen as MLB's most overrated player. Dare we say he's actually underrated now?
Pittsburgh Pirates: A Full Year of Ke'Bryan Hayes
After they finished with an MLB-worst 19-41 record in 2020, we'd love to say that better things are in store for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021. But we just...can't.
The Pirates will have at least one rooting interest this year, though: It will be Ke'Bryan Hayes' first full season in the majors.
The 23-year-old was an absolute joy to watch after the Pirates called him up Sept. 1, as he hit .376/.442/.682 while playing excellent defense at the hot corner. It's noteworthy that his offensive performance was underscored by stellar batted ball metrics such as his 55.4 hard-hit percentage.
Hayes will still have rookie eligibility in 2021, which means he could become Pittsburgh's first NL Rookie of the Year winner since Jason Bay in 2004.
San Diego Padres: They Were Elite Even Before Adding Blake Snell and Yu Darvish
The San Diego Padres look like the best team in baseball right now.
Perhaps this statement doesn't need defending, but we'll offer one that begins with their offense and defense. In 2020, the Padres ranked third in OPS+ and first in outs above average. Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and all the other key members of those efforts will be back in 2021.
With Blake Snell and Yu Darvish now aboard alongside fellow ace Dinelson Lamet, San Diego's rotation is headed by a trio that would have combined for a 2.35 ERA and 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 2020.
Factoring in how Chris Paddack is a potential ace in his own right and the possible impact of young arms like Adrian Morejon and top prospect MacKenzie Gore, the Padres are covered on just about every front for 2021.
San Francisco Giants: They're Bringing Back a Low-Key Offensive Juggernaut
The San Francisco Giants didn't make the playoffs in 2020, but it's to their credit that they came close despite barely having a functional pitching staff.
How did they do it? Mainly by quietly hitting the crud out of the ball.
By OPS+, the 2020 Giants actually tied the Barry Bonds- and Jeff Kent-led 2000 Giants for the best offensive effort in the team's history. Brandon Belt and Mike Yastrzemski each had a huge season, while Donovan Solano, Alex Dickerson and Wilmer Flores also hit well.
These guys will all be back in 2021, and opt-out returnee Buster Posey and top prospect Joey Bart promise to further deepen the San Francisco lineup. So even if the club's pitching doesn't come around, the bats could lead the way to October.
Seattle Mariners: Jarred Kelenic Will Join an Already Exciting Youth Movement
It may feel like the Seattle Mariners only just started rebuilding, but the fruits of their effort are already making a difference at the major league level.
Seattle's 27-33 run through the 2020 season featured not only a Rookie of the Year-winning performance by Kyle Lewis but also Gold Glove defense from Evan White and JP Crawford. On the pitching side, left-hander Justus Sheffield broke through with a 3.58 ERA in 10 starts.
Now it's just a matter of time before Jarred Kelenic also gets his shot in the majors.
The 21-year-old put himself on the map with a huge season—i.e., a .904 OPS, 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases—in the minors in 2019. Now he's our No. 10 prospect, with a timeline that should see him make his debut early in 2021.
St. Louis Cardinals: Dylan Carlson May Be Primed for a Breakout
The St. Louis Cardinals made the playoffs in 2020, but the effort involved playing only 58 games and the fewest total innings of any team.
The Cardinals' situation hasn't improved since the season ended. This may be the end of the line for longtime battery mates Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. The club's free agents also include a solid platoon bat (Brad Miller) and Gold Glove defender (Kolten Wong).
Yet one bit of good news for St. Louis is that the NL Central looks wide-open. Another is that Dylan Carlson seems ready to break out after breaking in last season.
Tampa Bay Rays: A Full Year of Randy Arozarena, with Help from His Young Friends
Last year was an enormously successful one for the Tampa Bay Rays, who went an AL-best 40-20 and eventually made their way to the World Series for only the second time in their history.
Since then, however, the Rays have focused on cutting costs. Charlie Morton and Hunter Renfroe have departed via free agency, while Blake Snell and Jose Alvarado exited via the trade market. The Rays look all the worse for it.
On the plus side, they still have Randy Arozarena and a comically deep cache of prospects.
Arozarena turned himself into a household name by racking up a 1.273 OPS and 10 home runs during Tampa Bay's postseason run. He'll still have rookie status in 2021, though it might actually be shortstop Wander Franco who carries the most intrigue among the prospects in the club's top-ranked system.
Texas Rangers: Joey Gallo and Willie Calhoun Should Bounce Back, Anyway
The Texas Rangers went an AL-worst 22-38 in 2020, and now they're without their best pitcher after shipping Lance Lynn to the Chicago White Sox.
Frankly, it's hard to imagine any scenario in which the Rangers' 2021 season isn't a bleak one. But they should have their share of bright spots, including Joey Gallo and Willie Calhoun.
It looked in 2019 like the two had the potential to become a dynamic offensive duo, as they needed only 153 total games to combine for a .910 OPS and 43 home runs. But in 2020, they slipped to a .616 OPS and 11 homers.
Calhoun, though, can look forward to a healthier 2021 after suffering a scary hit-by-pitch and a hamstring strain in 2020. For his part, Gallo might simply benefit from having more time to get in a groove.
Toronto Blue Jays: They Can and Should Improve on 2020
Though they didn't break out as emphatically as the Chicago White Sox or San Diego Padres, the Toronto Blue Jays nonetheless brought their own rebuild to a close in 2020.
The Jays' 32-28 performance was all the more remarkable because of the club's nomadic state. Canada barred them from playing at the Rogers Centre, and they didn't get to play any "home" games in Buffalo until Aug. 11.
A proper return home would only help the Blue Jays improve in 2021. Let's also not discount the potential of their youth-laden lineup, which hasn't yet seen the best of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
This year could also see Nate Pearson become Toronto's No. 2 behind Hyun-Jin Ryu. Though he never found his footing in the majors in 2020, memories of his blistering fastball underscore why he's our No. 14 prospect.
Washington Nationals: Their Ace Trio Should Bounce Back
The Washington Nationals' title defense never really got off the ground in 2020, as they were never above .500 en route to a 26-34 finish.
But in trading for Josh Bell, the Nats have already made one major upgrade for 2021. In tandem with Juan Soto and Trea Turner, the 2019 All-Star should be part of a dangerous trio at the heart of Washington's batting order.
Speaking of trios, the Nationals can also hope for a return to form on the part of aces Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in 2021.
Scherzer wasn't quite his usual dominant self in 2020, while Strasburg (hand) and Corbin (4.66 ERA) struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, respectively. After handling the bulk of Washington's innings during the 2019 postseason, all three should benefit from getting a chance to rest this offseason.