1 MLB Team from Each Division That Will Be Better Than You Think in 2021

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 29, 2021

1 MLB Team from Each Division That Will Be Better Than You Think in 2021

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    Don't write the Chicago Cubs off just yet.
    Don't write the Chicago Cubs off just yet.Matt York/Associated Press

    By virtue of the notorious unpredictability of baseball, the only safe prediction for the 2021 MLB season is that surprises are going to happen.

    For instance, some teams are going to be better than you think.

    We've picked out one team from each division that we think will fit the bill in 2021. Though these clubs are going into the new season with generally low expectations, they have enough talent to make a run at the playoffs or at least make things interesting in their respective division races.

    We'll start in the American League East and end in the National League West.

American League East: Boston Red Sox

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 24-36 (5th in AL East)

    The Boston Red Sox seemed doomed from the start last year, and they ultimately were. Specifically, they were just never able to overcome a pitching staff that coughed up the most runs in the American League.

    But, hey, at least Alex Cora is back in the manager's chair after spending last season in exile. And if nothing else, the Red Sox should hit a ton in 2021.

    Xander Bogaerts is one of the best hitters in baseball, and the Red Sox could have as many as five 30-homer sluggers if J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers and newcomer Hunter Renfroe bounce back from rough 2020 seasons while youngsters Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis continue their spring breakouts.

    Though pitching is still a gigantic question mark, it helps Boston's cause that Eduardo Rodriguez is back after missing all of 2020. If healthy, Nathan Eovaldi and newcomer Garrett Richards boast top-of-the-rotation upside. Likewise, fellow newcomer Adam Ottavino was unhittable as recently as 2019.

    There's probably no scenario in which the Red Sox contend for the AL East crown this season. But if enough things break right for them, they could land in the 90-win range and, by extension, the wild-card race.

American League Central: Kansas City Royals

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 26-34 (4th in AL Central)

    This season will likely see the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins stage a two-horse race for the AL Central lead while Cleveland does its best to keep up sans superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor.

    Will the Kansas City Royals crash the party and steal the AL Central? Probably not. But they should at least pester the division's top three teams.

    The Royals have been putting on an impressive offensive show this spring, leading all teams in home runs and slugging percentage. And that isn't altogether a mirage, as Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier and other projected regulars have been doing much of the heavy lifting.

    Eventually, top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. should arrive and give the Royals yet another talented bat. Fellow prospects Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar are candidates to join the club's rotation, which already features an exciting trio in right-handers Brad Keller and Brady Singer and newcomer left-hander Mike Minor.

    After four straight losing seasons, the Royals might at least salvage a .500 record this year. If Cleveland is unable to get going in the post-Lindor era, Kansas City could even finish in third place.

American League West: Seattle Mariners

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 27-33 (3rd in AL West)

    After finishing smack in the middle of the AL West last season, the Seattle Mariners are poised to play second fiddle to the Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics and the new-look Los Angeles Angels in 2021.

    Still, count them out at your own peril.

    Between reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, spring star Ty France and upside-laden supporting characters like Evan White and Dylan Moore, Seattle's lineup has a solid core. It will, of course, be that much more solid if Mitch Haniger stays healthy and recaptures the form of his All-Star 2018 season.

    What's more, wunderkind outfielder Jarred Kelenic will be an AL Rookie of the Year contender as soon as he gets the call. Fellow prospects Logan Gilbert and George Kirby should also get a chance in a rotation that's presently headed by a strong trio in Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield and ol' friend James Paxton.

    The Mariners didn't even need all these pieces in place to beat expectations in 2020. So if said pieces all fall where they should in 2021, they might at least be a player on the fringes of the wild-card race.

National League East: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 28-32 (3rd in NL East)

    Because the NL East is the deepest division in MLB, there really isn't a true dark horse to be found there.

    We'll nonetheless put in a good word for the Philadelphia Phillies, who might just be more than an also-ran behind Atlanta and the newly refurbished New York Mets.

    The Phillies were a very good offensive club in 2020 even though Bryce Harper greatly underperformed his expected slugging percentage and star rookie Alec Bohm only played in 44 games. It's therefore reasonable to expect Philly's offense to achieve an even higher gear this season.

    Pitching-wise, aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are back after teaming up for a 3.10 ERA in 2020. Newcomers Matt Moore and Chase Anderson have looked good this spring, and it's just a matter of time before top prospect Spencer Howard gets another shot.

    The big "yeah, but..." here concerns the Phillies bullpen, which frankly needed more of an overhaul than the one it got after it posted a league-worst 7.06 ERA in 2020. But if the club's lineup and rotation do their job, the Phillies should at least be in the wild-card hunt.

National League Central: Chicago Cubs

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 34-26 (1st in NL Central)

    Sure, the Chicago Cubs won the NL Central last year. But then they parted ways with Theo Epstein and began something resembling a rebuild, in which ace Yu Darvish was but one of many departures. 

    But while the Cubs are now understandably being regarded with a sense of indifference, now isn't the time to bury them.

    This will require much to go right on the mound, yet there's hope in that arena. Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies and Trevor Williams have done excellent work this spring. And while Craig Kimbrel has had a tough time in Chicago, something clicked for him as he whiffed 13 and walked zero in eight appearances last September.

    Otherwise, there's simply no way that Kris Bryant and Javier Baez will be as bad in 2021 as they were in 2020. If they get back on track and newcomer Joc Pederson stays as hot as he's been this spring, those three plus Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Ian Happ will form a dangerous offensive core.

    Granted, the Cubs probably aren't better than a 90-win team even in the best-case scenario. But in this year's NL Central race, even that could be good enough for the lead.

National League West: San Francisco Giants

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 29-31 (3rd in NL West)

    The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta had the two best-run scoring offenses in baseball last year, but the latter actually finished behind another NL West team in OPS+.

    That was the San Francisco Giants, and their 116 OPS+ wasn't just good by 2020 standards. It was also the best in their history.

    There's bound to be some regression there, but it won't be too bad if Mike Yastrzemski keeps hitting at a star-caliber level with enough support around him. Some of the support should come from newcomer Tommy La Stella and Buster Posey, who's back after opting out of 2020.

    Whether the Giants will pitch well enough is a fair question, but there's some upside there. Kevin Gausman is back after pitching like an ace in 2020, and the Giants picked up two good reclamation projects in Anthony DeSclafani and Aaron Sanchez. An eye should also be kept on Logan Webb, who's dominated this spring.

    Look, we're not about to suggest the Giants can take down the Dodgers or the San Diego Padres. But after just missing last year, they might be able to nab a wild-card spot if enough goes right for them.


    Spring stats courtesy of MLB.com. Other stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.