Breaking Down Best MLB Storylines to Watch Early on in 2021 Season

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 31, 2021

New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor warms up before a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros, Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

"Pay him 400."

Remember those words from New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso as we head into the 2021 MLB season. As the Mets and star shortstop Francisco Lindor continue to haggle over the details of a long-term contract, one of the most passionate players to have ever worn a Mets uniform thinks Lindor is more than a $325 million player.

Alonso thinks he's a $400 million player.

"Absolutely," Alonso said over Zoom on Tuesday. "Not only is he a superstar on the field, but he pays attention to his teammates. And not only does he have the quantifiable numbers of a superstar, but he has the X-factor. What he brings to a clubhouse is tremendous, and it can't be measured—along with his superstar talent.

"I hope they pay him $400 million. He's worth every penny of what he decides."

The Mets want to give Lindor a 10-year, $325 million contract extension. Lindor wants a $12-year, $385 million deal. And he doesn't want to negotiate past Opening Day, which gives the Mets less than 24 hours to make something happen. 

It would be quite a story if Mets fans turned on Lindor before the season even starts or if they turned on their new owner, Steve Cohen, but this is the Mets we're talking about. Stranger things have happened.

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A new season means new stories, and Lindor is one of many, so with that said, let's go division by division and take a look at some of the top storylines in each.

        

AL East

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

• Jay Bruce is playing first base for the New York Yankees with Luke Voit starting the season on the injured list after undergoing surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus. The 2020 AL home run leader is expected to be back in May, so Bruce will get another shot at first base in the meantime.

Bruce briefly played first base for the Mets in 2017 and 2018, but it was not the smoothest transition. He didn't want to be the person who made mistakes, and former manager Terry Collins wanted to be careful with his best bat and not make him too uncomfortable.

But the 33-year-old Bruce appears to be more comfortable now, having played 54 games at the position, primarily with the Mets, since 2017.

"I'm confident that I can play a very adequate first base, and with more practice, I think I can be good over there," he said on a recent Zoom press conference. "Sounds like I'm going to get a lot more of an opportunity to be there pretty exclusively for the foreseeable future here, and I look forward to being able to focus on that."

• Trey Mancini is the feel-good story of the season. The Baltimore Orioles outfielder/first baseman beat stage 3 colon cancer and will meet his goal of being on the field for Opening Day when the Orioles play in Boston on Thursday. Joe Trezza of MLB.com recently detailed his journey through chemotherapy, his recovery and his newfound passion for early cancer screening advocacy.

• Speaking of the Red Sox, they've slid under the radar all winter. Rarely does this happen to any team from Boston, but especially not the Red Sox. Alex Cora is back in the dugout for his second term as the manager, but still, no one knows what to expect from this team.

• It's looking more and more like the Blue Jays will be without their big offseason acquisition, George Springer, for the start of the season as he recovers from a Grade 2 oblique strain. The Jays are also still sort of without a home. The team will play at least the first three homestands at their spring training park in Dunedin, Florida.

• The Tampa Bay Rays are hoping Michael Wacha and Chris Archer can make up for the losses of Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks, who are both out for the season while they rehab from Tommy John surgery.

             

AL Central

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

• The balance of power could be shifting in this division.

The Minnesota Twins are looking for a three-peat, but the Chicago White Sox could knock them off their throne. The Sox have three aces (Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn) and a big-time closer (Liam Hendriks) on staff, plus the reigning AL MVP in Jose Abreu. Andrew Vaughn, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft, made the roster as a left fielder, with a spot opening up when outfielder Eloy Jimenez underwent surgery for a torn pectoral, which could keep him on the shelf for five months or more.

Vaughn had a fantastic spring, slashing .271/.377/.458 with two home runs. He hit .278 with an .832 OPS in 55 minor league games across three levels in 2019.

Also, Tony La Russa is back on the south side for the second time. The 76-year-old doesn't seem like a manager for today's game, but it's tough to argue with his Hall of Fame credentials.

• Are the Kansas City Royals back on the upswing? They hit more home runs than anyone in spring training (48) and had the best slugging percentage (.501) and the fourth-best OPS (.829).

• The Detroit Tigers are still in the midst of a rebuild, but they do have A.J. Hinch at the helm, so that's something.

• The Cleveland baseball team has a big question it needs to answer: Where will the offense come from without Lindor and Carlos Santana? Jose Ramirez can only do so much.

            

AL West

• The Houston Astros might be the best team in the division, but the biggest story is still Mike Trout and whether the Los Angeles Angels can get to the postseason. New general manager Perry Minasian made some good moves to upgrade the roster at key positions, and Shohei Ohtani will play both ways this year, improving the Angels' odds.

Ohtani absolutely mashed his way through the Cactus League, hitting a ridiculous .571 with five home runs. It's spring training, so take it with a grain of salt, but his splitter should be taken for all its worth. If he stays healthy enough to keep throwing it, it could be worth a trip to the playoffs in September.

• You can't talk about the Seattle Mariners without mentioning Jarred Kelenic and Kevin Mather. As you may remember, Mather resigned from his post as team president after he openly admitted to manipulating the service time of the team's young prospects, among other things, in a rotary club speech earlier this year.

Even prior to his admission, Kelenic's agent, Brodie Scoffield, accused the Mariners of not acting in good faith when the club refused to call him up in 2020 because of service-time reasons. General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais can give any reason they want, but it won't make a difference. No one will believe that Kelenic, one of the best prospects in baseball, is starting the season in Triple-A for any reason other than service-time manipulation, especially after he went 6-for-20 with two home runs, two doubles, five RBI, four walks and a 1.140 OPS in spring training.

• The Oakland A's are selling full-season, luxury-suite packages for one bitcoin. Seriously. "Bitcoin Ball" doesn't quite have the same ring to it as Moneyball, but leave it to the A's to give it a try. 

• As for the Astros, they appear to be at a stalemate with shortstop Carlos Correa. With the two sides unable to come to terms on a contract, Correa could be one of many stellar shortstops to hit free agency after the season. A departure from Correa could mean the Astros' championship window is closing, but it's still open right now.

       

NL East

• The biggest story in the NL East might not have anything to do with any of the teams. Some fans are calling on commissioner Rob Manfred to move the 2021 MLB All-Star Game from Atlanta's Truist Park to make a statement condemning Georgia's new voting law, which severely restricts the rights of citizens to vote. Some have gone as far as to call it voter suppression, and moving the game out of Atlanta would be a strong rebuke from a powerful sports league.

Similar moves have been made in the past. The 1993 Super Bowl was moved out of Tempe, Arizona, when Arizona voters decided not to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official state holiday. North Carolina's controversial "bathroom bill," a law that restricted the rights of LGBTQ and transgender citizens, led to the loss of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game and seven NCAA championship events.

The league has yet to address the matter, but at some point it will be unavoidable.

• Mark Appel, one of three former No. 1 draft picks to never reach the major leagues, is trying to cut that list down to two. The 2013 first overall pick is headed to minor league camp with the Philadelphia Phillies to try to see if he can restart his career now that he's finally healthy.

• Juan Soto needs a contract extension from the Washington Nationals. And it will need to be a big one, with the contract of Fernando Tatis Jr. setting a precedent (14 years, $340 million).

• If you're looking for Mets news of the non-Lindor variety, they are bringing back the black uniforms, wearing them for Friday night home games.

• The Miami Marlins finally sold the naming rights to their ballpark, which is probably not a big deal, but it has garnered some interest on Twitter. No one seems to understand the stylizing of loanDepot park.

        

NL Central

• Critics say third baseman Nolan Arenado has to prove he can hit outside Coors Field. Now a member of the St. Louis Cardinals after a blockbuster offseason trade, he did his best to silence those doubters by pulling a Babe Ruth and calling his own shot in the Grapefruit League finale.

But those splits were drastic: .322/.376/.609 at home and .263/.322/.471 on the road. His .239 spring average didn't do much to deter his detractors, either.

• This could be the end of the Chicago Cubs' World Series core. Third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo don't have contracts past the 2021 season. Rizzo asked his agents to end negotiations with the Cubs to be able to focus on the season.

• The Milwaukee Brewers want to keep Josh Hader in a conventional ninth-inning closer role instead of having him work earlier innings or multiple innings as he has in the past. It's taxing for high-leverage pitchers to be used the way the Brewers used Hader, and they have the bullpen depth to deploy him like a typical closer.

• The Cincinnati Reds can avoid being an also-ran in the division if they capitalize on a soft schedule to start the season. April and May feature games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Arizona, San Francisco and Colorado. Otherwise, Cincinnati may be a seller at the trade deadline.

• The Pirates aren't done with their rebuild yet, but third-base prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes will bring some much-needed excitement to Pittsburgh this season.

        

NL West

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

• All you really need to know about the NL West is the Los Angeles Dodgers. The reigning World Series champs are so stacked and so loaded at every position that a former Cy Young Award winner will be relegated to the bullpen. Dustin May beat out David Price for the No. 5 spot in a rotation headlined by Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw, who have four Cy Young Awards between them. Their lineup has three MVP candidates in Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager.

• The San Diego Padres have supplanted the San Francisco Giants as the Dodgers' biggest rival. The small-market club spent the offseason building like a big-market team. They signed Fernando Tatis Jr. to the longest major league contract extension in history, and they traded for multiple Cy Young candidates. The club has talent coming through the pipeline, so there is a chance this team could be good for years to come.

• The Giants could be coming to the end of an era with Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford both free agents after the season. Their former teammate, Madison Bumgarner, is looking for a bounce-back season with the Diamondbacks after the worst season of his career (6.48 ERA in nine starts). The Rockies are without Nolan Arenado and without any hope of getting past the "big two" in the division.

• Better luck next year, or maybe in five years for the Giants, Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Dodgers and Padres have things locked up for the next few.