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

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 30, 2021

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

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    Nolan Arenado might not save the St. Louis Cardinals.
    Nolan Arenado might not save the St. Louis Cardinals.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    As much as everyone likes a good Cinderella story, it's at least as likely that there will be an anti-Cinderella story for each of Major League Baseball's six divisions in 2021.

    So after presenting our picks for clubs that could beat expectations, it's now time to take a look at which ones will be worse than expected this season.

    To some degree or another, these six clubs are all going into Opening Day (which is Thursday, by the way) with hopes of playing in the postseason. But due to such things as talent deficiencies and key injuries, disappointment may await them instead.

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

American League East: Tampa Bay Rays

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 40-20 (1st in AL East)

    As last season saw them achieve the American League's best record before making it to their second World Series, it was arguably the greatest of the Tampa Bay Rays' 24-year history. 

    It did, however, take some overachieving for the Rays to win two-thirds of their games. They therefore might have some bad luck coming due in 2021, though that's hardly their only worry.

    The Rays lost aces Blake Snell and Charlie Morton over the winter, and they didn't make up for it by adding fallen aces Chris Archer, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill. They also have a disconcerting number of injured pitchers, including closer Nick Anderson (elbow tear).

    With their pitching depth in a diminished state, the Rays will need a bigger lift from their offense to make up the difference. That's an iffy proposition, as they'll only have three star-caliber hitters—hats off to Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena—until top prospect Wander Franco arrives.

    Further complicating matters is that the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox pose more of a threat to Tampa Bay than they did in 2020. It all adds up to a likely move down the AL East standings.

American League Central: Cleveland

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 35-25 (T-2nd in AL Central)

    Granted, Cleveland gave everyone a go-ahead to lower expectations for the club's 2021 season when it traded superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor and ace Carlos Carrasco in January.

    And yet this is the league's third-winningest team over the last five seasons. And if there's one reason to believe Cleveland will keep it up in 2021, it's that the team still has some talented arms.

    Topping the list is, of course, reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale are capable starters in their own right. And with James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase and Nick Wittgren at the back end, Cleveland's bullpen at least has a solid core.

    Yet all this good pitching will be for naught if Terry Francona's offense doesn't do its job. That's a serious concern following a season in which it posted an 86 OPS+ and only 4.1 runs per game even with Lindor. Without him, the supporting cast around 2020 AL MVP runner-up Jose Ramirez is seriously lacking.

    It's ultimately hard to see Cleveland overcoming the Chicago White Sox or Minnesota Twins. And if the Kansas City Royals make good on their sneaky potential, even third place might evade Cleveland.

American League West: Houston Astros

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 29-31 (2nd in AL West)

    In context of their 311 wins between 2017 and 2019 and last year's trip to the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros' regular-season record from 2020 might seem like a mere blip.

    Then again, maybe if it wasn't?

    It's not out of the question that Houston's offense won't fully recover from last year's subpar 94 OPS+. George Springer is gone, and what hitters are left (especially Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel) have badly struggled this spring. Plus, Alex Bregman has already run into hamstring trouble again.

    The Astros also aren't the pitching juggernaut they used to be. Veteran ace Justin Verlander and top prospect Forrest Whitley will both miss 2021 with Tommy John surgery. Josh James (hip) and Framber Valdez (finger) are also out of the picture for the foreseeable future.

    This isn't a 100-win team. Heck, it could only be a 90-win team at best. If the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels live up to their high expectations, the Astros might not even be a playoff team in 2021.

National League East: Miami Marlins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 31-29 (2nd in NL East)

    The NL East features two legitimate powerhouses in Atlanta and the New York Mets, and the other three teams are October hopefuls in their own right.

    But of the trio, it's hard to see the Miami Marlins' playoff odds as anything other than long.

    To its credit, Miami's pitching staff has looked mighty good this spring. With Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez leading their rotation and their bullpen completely remade since last year, there's a good chance of that fine work carrying over into the regular season.

    But much like Cleveland, there's a question of whether Miami's offense will come through. It didn't last year as the club managed only an 89 OPS+ and 4.4 runs per game. Because OBP straggler Adam Duvall was the club's only major addition over the winter, more of the same may be in order for 2021.

    It's likewise hard to ignore the reality that the Marlins' playoff run in 2020 was largely the result of a divisional power vacuum as the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals played below expectations. Chances are that's not happening again.

National League Central: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 30-28 (2nd in NL Central)

    Save for the Pittsburgh Pirates—for whom expectations are lower than the Mariana Trench—every team in the NL Central has a chance of disappointing in 2021.

    But perhaps none more so than the St. Louis Cardinals. Because even after making arguably the biggest splash of the winter with their deal for Nolan Arenado in February, they still have real problems.

    Because Arenado is playing away from Coors Field for the first time, it isn't the best omen that he's been part of a teamwide offensive slump this spring. And with center fielder Harrison Bader (forearm) on the injured list, the club's defense has already suffered a significant blow.

    Meanwhile, starters Miles Mikolas (shoulder) and Kwang Hyun Kim (back) have joined Dakota Hudson (Tommy John surgery) on the IL for the start of the season. With Carlos Martinez, who had a 9.90 ERA in 2020, now in the No. 3 slot, the Cards rotation is looking accordingly grim.

    Depending on what happens with the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals might still have a shot at the NL Central title. But for the moment, they look like a merely .500 team.

National League West: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 25-35 (5th in NL West)

    The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres look like the two best teams in all of MLB, and the San Francisco Giants made our "better than you think" list.

    So, the choice here is between the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Whereas the former is blatantly terrible, the latter is hoping for a bounce-back season that frankly isn't very likely.

    With Zac Gallen (forearm) on the IL, the D-backs will be without their best pitcher for the start of the season. There's thus even more pressure on Madison Bumgarner to put his difficult 2020 season behind him, so it isn't encouraging that his spring returns include a 6.35 ERA.

    After they ranked 29th in home runs in 2020, Arizona sorely needs a power boost for 2021. The good news is that Ketel Marte has hit more homers (three) this spring than he did in 2020 (two). But especially with Kole Calhoun (knee) sidelined, there just isn't a lot of power potential in the Snakes lineup.

    Because of Colorado's many predicaments, the Diamondbacks should at least avoid another last-place finish. It will nonetheless be a surprise if they finish higher than fourth in the NL West.


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