Bleacher Report's 2021 MLB Season Preview and Predictions

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 1, 2021

Bleacher Report's 2021 MLB Season Preview and Predictions

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    Can the Los Angeles Dodgers be stopped?
    Can the Los Angeles Dodgers be stopped?Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Welcome to the 2021 Major League Baseball season, which will be exactly 102 games longer for each team than last season. Hallelujah.

    Allow us to pretend we know exactly what's going to happen.

    In our quest for ultimate know-it-all-ness about the 2021 season, we've left no stones unturned. We have previews and predictions for everything from breakout players to trade targets to statistical leaders to, naturally, playoff teams and the World Series champion.

    Per the established wisdom concerning blind squirrels and nuts, at least a couple of these are bound to come true. For now, we offer them as sacrifices to the baseball gods.

Post-Hype Breakouts: Jesus Luzardo and Gavin Lux

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    Jesus Luzardo
    Jesus LuzardoAssociated Press

    American League: Jesus Luzardo, Oakland Athletics

    In the wake of his eye-popping debut in 2019, Luzardo entered 2020 as arguably the guy to beat for AL Rookie of the Year. But he ended up being just OK, posting a modest 98 ERA+ over 59 innings.

    Yet the left-hander showed ace-caliber stuff in a 95.5 mph average fastball and a curveball and changeup that both drew plentiful whiffs. Those things plus his anti-Ricky Vaughn maneuver for 2021 could show his way to a true breakthrough performance.

               

    National League: Gavin Lux, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Speaking of guys who popped eyes in 2019, Gavin Lux was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year on the strength of his .347/.421/.607 line at Double-A and Triple-A. But then he all but disappeared in 2020.

    Following that "learning experience," Lux looked more like his '19 self as he hit a sturdy .314 in spring training. If he can keep that up, he should settle into a regular job at second base and perhaps mount a run at an All-Star berth.

Biggest Names Traded: Gallo, Marte, Paxton, Soler and Story

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    Trevor Story
    Trevor StoryDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    RF Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers

    The Rangers control Gallo through 2022, but their major league roster is in disrepair, and they need more top-tier talent in their 13th-ranked farm system. His power and Gold Glove-winning defense are bound to be available come July.

            

    CF Starling Marte, Miami Marlins

    After making the playoffs for the first time in 17 years last season, the Marlins are hoping to get back to October. But if they struggle to keep up in a stacked NL East race, they'll surely look to rent out Marte before he reaches free agency.

              

    SP James Paxton, Seattle Mariners

    This summer's market could be thin on pitching, but Paxton will be an intriguing rental option if he recovers from a rough 2020 season. Something like his 2019 season, in which he averaged 95.5 mph on his fastball as he compiled a 119 ERA+, would do the trick.

           

    DH Jorge Soler, Kansas City Royals

    Even though they've been rebuilding for several years, the Royals have been reluctant to cash in star players on the trade market. But if Soler builds on his red-hot spring and recaptures the form that led him to 48 home runs in 2019, that plus his looming free agency could force the club's hand.

           

    SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies

    The Rockies didn't look so good even before they traded Nolan Arenado in February. Now they look atrocious. For Story, the bright side is that he's all but certain to be traded to a new team before the season ends and he hits the open market for the first time.

Batting Leaders: Guerrero, Soto, Harper, Trout, Acuna and Tatis

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    Bryce Harper
    Bryce HarperNick Wass/Associated Press

    Batting Average: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

    Surely, DJ LeMahieu or Juan Soto would be a better pick than a guy with a .269 career average. But after hitting .421 in spring training, it seems as if Guerrero is ready to make the most of his strong contact and exit velocity skills.

            

    On-Base Percentage: Juan Soto, Washington Nationals

    He topped a .400 OBP in each of his first two seasons and then blew away his peers with a league-best .490 OBP in 2020. It's almost as if he's the best young hitter baseball has ever seen.

           

    Slugging Percentage: Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies

    He's somehow fallen into "better than you think" territory, and he likewise deserved an even better slugging percentage than the .542 mark he achieved last year.

        

    Home Runs: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

    He's hit more home runs than anyone since 2017, so the only question is if he can do something he hasn't done since 2016: play in more than 150 games.

           

    Stolen Bases: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta

    He isn't the fastest runner in the league, but he's one of the fastest. Because he's likely to be on base roughly 40 percent of the time, he should steal a ton of bases in 2021.

          

    Wins Above Replacement: Fernando Tatis Jr.

    The safe pick is Mookie Betts or Trout, who rank 1-2 in rWAR over the last five seasons. But given that Tatis ranked in the 100th percentile with his hard-hit rate and outs above average in 2020, he has upside as an absolute WAR machine at shortstop.

Pitching Leaders: Giolito, Cole, Rosenthal and deGrom

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    Jacob deGrom
    Jacob deGromAssociated Press

    Wins: Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox

    This prediction comes in part courtesy of the ZiPS projection system, which projects Giolito to co-lead in wins with Gerrit Cole. He's a very good pitcher who's backed by a powerful offense and an excellent defense, so why not?

            

    Earned Run Average: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

    He led MLB with a 1.70 ERA in 2018, and he's only "regressed" to marks of 2.43 and 2.38 over the last two seasons. He'd therefore be a good bet for the ERA title even if he hadn't been throwing gas during the spring.

          

    Strikeouts: Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

    Since the Houston Astros un-broke him in 2018, he's whiffed 61 more batters than any other pitcher. Between that and the reality that he struck out 326 batters two years ago, the over/under for him this year is right at 300 strikeouts.

         

    Walks/Hits Per Inning Pitched: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

    He's the only pitcher who's done better than a 1.00 WHIP in each of the last three seasons, so we're playing the percentages.

         

    Saves: Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland Athletics

    If this is a question of which closer is really good and figures to pitch in a bunch of close games, Rosenthal is our guy. Regarding the latter, the A's offense doesn't have as much upside sans Marcus Semien, Robbie Grossman, Tommy La Stella and Khris Davis.

         

    Wins Above Replacement: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

    He leads all pitchers in rWAR over the last three seasons, and it isn't close. For insight into how he does it, see above.

American League Awards: Ohtani, Giolito and Arozarena

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    Shohei Ohtani
    Shohei OhtaniAssociated Press

    AL MVP: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

    The prophecy that he'll be baseball's best two-way star since Babe Ruth hasn't been fulfilled, so perhaps this is wishful thinking. But he was unreal in spring training, posting a 1.604 OPS and five homers as a hitter and striking out 17 batters in 10.1 innings as a pitcher.

    If Ohtani can stay healthy—which is admittedly a big if—he'll have a shot at both 20 home runs and 200 strikeouts. Even the Bambino never did that.

         

    AL Cy Young: Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox

    If he stays on his current track, Giolito will be an All-Star-caliber pitcher in 2021. His 41 starts over the last two seasons have yielded a 132 ERA+ and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

    Even better would be if Giolito stays on the track that led him to a 2.46 ERA and 73 strikeouts over his last 51.2 innings of 2020. Extrapolate that out over 200 innings, and you've got a Cy Young Award winner.

         

    AL Rookie of the Year: Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays

    He played 43 games between the regular season and the postseason last year and hit a stunning .333/.406/.745 with 17 home runs. He can't sustain that...right?

    Probably not. But knowing the numbers he put up last year were backed up by equally impressive metrics, his regression shouldn't be too steep.

National League Awards: Tatis, deGrom and Anderson

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    Fernando Tatis Jr.
    Fernando Tatis Jr.Associated Press

    NL MVP: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

    If nothing else, health is one reason to be worried about Tatis. He missed a good chunk of 2019 with hamstring and back injuries, and he's had a scare with his shoulder this year.

    Otherwise, there's little question the Padres' young star has MVP-caliber talent. All he's done in 143 major league games is put up a 155 OPS+, 39 home runs and 27 stolen bases. He also greatly improved his defense in 2020.

            

    NL Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

    Because he had the best expected metrics of any pitcher in 2020, Trevor Bauer may well make a run at a second straight Cy Young Award in 2021. Also in the mix will be guys like Yu Darvish, Luis Castillo and Aaron Nola, plus ol' standbys like Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.

    But for reasons mentioned earlier, the NL Cy Young Award is deGrom's to lose. And if he does win it, that'll make it three out of four as he continues his late-blooming rise to Cooperstown.

            

    NL Rookie of the Year: Ian Anderson, Atlanta

    At the outset of 2020, Max Fried held strong amid the struggles that engulfed the rest of Atlanta's rotation. But by the time the club was deep into October, it was the Ian Anderson show.

    All told, the young right-hander made 10 starts and racked up a 1.59 ERA with 65 strikeouts and only three barrels allowed in 51 innings. Those are the numbers of an ace in the making.

AL East Champs: New York Yankees

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees went into last season as the heavy favorite to win the AL East but finished seven games out of first place.

    Disappointment might find the Yankees again if sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton continue their recent pattern of missing significant time with injuries. Likewise, newcomer aces Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon come with injury red flags of their own.

    But in light of their MLB-high 908 home runs since 2017, the Yankees should be an offensive powerhouse no matter what. They also have solid starting pitching depth with Domingo German back, Luis Severino due to return from Tommy John surgery and prospects Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt waiting for their turns.

    The Yankees should be no worse than a 95-win team. By contrast, that's probably the ceiling for the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, both of whom have questions on the mound.

AL Central Champs: Chicago White Sox

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Chicago White Sox suffered a significant blow when they lost slugging left fielder Eloy Jimenez for possibly the entire season with a ruptured pectoral tendon.

    That's a clear opening for the Minnesota Twins in their pursuit for a third straight AL Central title. With an offense headed by Nelson Cruz and a rotation captained by Kenta Maeda and Jose Berrios, they arguably didn't need an extra advantage.

    However, anyone who underestimates the White Sox does so at their own peril. If top prospect Andrew Vaughn pans out, they'll still have a ton of power in an offense that led the AL in home runs last year. They also have two more aces behind Lucas Giolito, plus arguably baseball's best bullpen.

    Even sans Jimenez, it's easy enough to pencil the White Sox into first place, the Twins into second place and Cleveland into a distant third place in this year's AL Central race.

AL West Champs: Los Angeles Angels

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The AL West has been dominated by the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics in recent seasons, but both clubs suffered heavy losses in free agency over the winter.

    That could be the opening the Los Angeles Angels need to break through after five straight losing seasons.

    The Angels will score plenty of runs as long as Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon stay healthy, though it wouldn't hurt if Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton stay hot after dominating the spring. Ohtani is also part of a six-man rotation that's pretty strong from top to bottom.

    Depth is perhaps the biggest red flag hanging over the Angels, but the Astros and A's aren't much better in that regard. If Ohtani joins Trout and Rendon in contending for the AL MVP, the Angels' superstars could give them an edge in what figures to be a tight race.

AL Wild Cards: Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Wild Card 1: Minnesota Twins

    If the division races go as we expect—this is where we cross our fingers and stroke a rabbit's foot—the Blue Jays, Rays, Twins, Astros, A's and maybe Cleveland and the Boston Red Sox will be in the wild-card hunt.

    By virtue of playing in the relatively weak AL Central, the Twins have a leg up. Even if their offense was awful this spring, it is deep and powerful enough to ensure the club doesn't waste that advantage.

           

    Wild Card 2: Toronto Blue Jays

    Speaking of deep and powerful offenses, Toronto's lineup looks like loads of fun. George Springer, Marcus Semien and incumbent stars like Teoscar Hernandez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio? That's a yes from us.

    What could make or break the Jays' postseason chances is somebody emerging as a No. 2 behind Hyun Jin Ryu. If his bothersome groin behaves, that could be fastball god Nate Pearson.

NL East Champs: New York Mets

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The NL East has been Atlanta's domain in each of the last three seasons, and the club still looks like one of the Senior Circuit's superpowers.

    In particular, there's plenty to like about a Freddie Freeman-led lineup that ranked second in runs and home runs in 2020. Atlanta also has a deeper, more talented rotation than the one that coughed up a 5.51 ERA last season.

    And yet the New York Mets will challenge Atlanta. Losing Robinson Cano but gaining Francisco Lindor, James McCann and a reinvigorated Pete Alonso is a net positive for a lineup that had the division's highest OPS+ in 2020. The Mets also have talented hurlers in between ace Jacob deGrom and closer Edwin Diaz.

    Though Atlanta and New York will likely jockey for the division lead all season, the Mets' many stars should make the difference in delivering the club's first NL East title since 2015.

NL Central Champs: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    After sending four of its five teams to the playoffs in 2020, the NL Central now looks like baseball's worst division after an offseason talent exodus.

    The Cincinnati Reds (Trevor Bauer) and Chicago Cubs (Yu Darvish) certainly suffered the biggest losses. Bully for the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, who are hoping to cash in after being more active on the market.

    Despite a couple of recent injuries to pitchers, the Cardinals have had eyes on the division crown ever since acquiring Nolan Arenado in February. The Brewers have injury concerns of their own, but their upside is underscored by a potential return to form for Christian Yelich and the ace duo of Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes.

    There probably isn't a favorite in the division, but the latter reasons—not to mention the dynamic relief duo of Devin Williams and Josh Hader—tip the scales ever so slightly in Milwaukee's favor.

NL West Champs: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The NL West is shaping up to be a two-horse race, and there's no hyperbole at play when we say both horses have 100-win potential.

    The San Diego Padres were the second-best team in the NL last year on the strength of a Manny Machado- and Fernando Tatis Jr.-led lineup that co-led the majors in OPS+. And now they have an ace-laden rotation after adding Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers, of course, won 43 games and the World Series in 2020. They still have Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger left over from last year's MLB-best lineup, and now they have reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to help Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler.

    In addition to those stars, the Dodgers also still have a frankly silly amount of depth from which to pull. Since the Padres aren't quite as well off on that front, they should play second fiddle again.

NL Wild Cards: San Diego Padres and Atlanta

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Wild Card 1: San Diego Padres

    Even if the Padres don't finish ahead of the Dodgers, the odds they will miss the playoffs entirely are somewhere between slim and none.

    This isn't just because they have talent to spare on the mound and at the plate. There's also the reality of their intradivision schedule, which will feature 38 games against the mediocre Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants and another 19 against the woeful Colorado Rockies.

            

    Wild Card 2: Atlanta

    For its part, Atlanta won't have the luxury of a soft schedule. The Mets are elite, and the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins will also be eyeing October.

    Yet even despite that, it's 95 wins or bust. With the amount of talent Brian Snitker has to work with, our confidence is firmly in the former scenario.

American League Champs: Chicago White Sox

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    AL Wild Card Game: Minnesota Twins over Toronto Blue Jays

    The Twins would have home-field advantage in this one, and Kenta Meada or Jose Berrios would have the platoon advantage opposite the Blue Jays' predominantly right-handed lineup. Assuming Hyun Jin Ryu gets the call for Toronto, he'd have no such edge.

         

    AL Division Series: New York Yankees over Minnesota Twins

    It's been nearly two decades since the Twins beat the Yankees in the playoffs. With a superior lineup and the best pitcher (Gerrit Cole) on either team, New York would be able to extend Minnesota's misery if the two clubs meet again this October.

            

    AL Division Series: Chicago White Sox over Los Angeles Angels

    In Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels would have the three most talented players in a series against the White Sox. It's too bad for them, however, that Chicago would have a deeper lineup and more star pitchers to deploy.

         

    AL Championship Series: Chicago White Sox over New York Yankees

    If the White Sox and Yankees do indeed meet in the American League Championship Series, the only sure thing is that a team with pinstripes would win.

    But if Eloy Jimenez returns in time for the playoffs, Chicago would be at least an even match for New York at the plate. More specifically, it wouldn't hurt that its lineup can hit high-velocity hurlers such as Cole, Luis Severino and Aroldis Chapman.

    Between their three aces and their Liam Hendriks-, Garrett Crochet- and Michael Kopech-led bullpen, the White Sox would arguably have the pitching edge as well. So even without home-field advantage, Chicago could still capture its first pennant since 2005.

National League Champs: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    NL Wild Card Game: San Diego Padres over Atlanta

    Though the Atlanta is arguably as good as San Diego's, the former's does have one flaw: It's not immune to strikeouts. Whether Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet or Joe Musgrove is on the hill, that would spell trouble in a one-game playoff.

         

    NL Division Series: Los Angeles Dodgers over San Diego Padres

    Alas, a showdown between the Dodgers and Padres in this year's playoffs would deserve better than a mere best-of-five series. And since the Padres will have burned one of their aces in the Wild Card Game, the Dodgers would have an edge that could prove crucial in leading them to victory.

            

    NL Division Series: New York Mets over Milwaukee Brewers

    Because of their Brandon Woodruff-Corbin Burnes ace duo and Josh Hader-Devin Williams relief duo, the Brewers would be an upset threat under other circumstances. But not against the Mets, who would have the better lineup and more than enough arms to counter Milwaukee's best hurlers.

         

    NL Championship Series: Los Angeles Dodgers over New York Mets

    When the Mets dispatched the Dodgers in the 2015 NLDS, it was largely thanks to two dominant starts by Jacob deGrom.

    He's still around, and he would be the best pitcher on either side if the Mets meet the Dodgers in this year's National League Championship Series. On the whole, though, the Boys in Blue would have a wider assortment of talented hurlers to throw at the Mets.

    Between Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, David Price and others, the Dodgers would specifically have the left-handers to counter New York's key lefty hitters: Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith and Jeff McNeil. More than anything, that could be their ticket back to the World Series.

World Series Champs: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    No team has repeated as World Series champions since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees, as each of the 19 teams that tried succumbed to hangovers of various strengths.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers, though, might be spared from that in 2021. Whereas the typical champion has to play at least 173 games in a season, the Dodgers played only 78 in 2020.

    Beyond that, the Dodgers would likely have home-field advantage in a tilt with the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. That would help neutralize a comparison of lineups that, because of the designated hitter, would arguably favor the White Sox otherwise.

    The White Sox would have to hope for their star hurlers to make up the difference. What could upset that plan, however, is if multi-inning firemen Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet are burned out come late October. The former hasn't pitched since 2018, while the latter isn't even a year removed from being drafted.

    Since the Dodgers' overwhelming depth shields them from similar concerns, they could simply be too much for the White Sox as they make it two championships in a row after going 32 years without one.

            

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.