Ranking the 6 Most Captivating Rivalries in MLB This Year

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IApril 7, 2021

Ranking the 6 Most Captivating Rivalries in MLB This Year

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Rivalries make sports entertaining.

    There is something about the anticipation and high intensity of a big game that can lend itself to causing friction or bad blood.

    Where will those heated moments come from this year? 

    The following is a breakdown of the six most highly anticipated rivalries for the 2021 season. These rivalries were ranked on factors like projected team success and star power. Any recent history between the clubs also loomed large in the order.

    Because a team like the New York Yankees could appear up to four times on this list, we limited teams to one rival. We also avoided prioritizing historic rivalries. The Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants matchup has spanned decades, but it is not quite as interesting in 2021. The same can be said for the otherwise iconic Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry.

    Let's get to it.

6. Minnesota Twins vs. Chicago White Sox

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox had a fierce rivalry during the 2000s. Things are about to heat up once again.

    Minnesota outlasted Chicago by one game to capture its second straight American League Central crown in 2020. But the White Sox and their young core put the rest of the division on notice: They are here to stay.

    White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson lit the fuse early this year. He told White Sox Talk in February (h/t NBC Sports Chicago) that Chicago was "hands down" the best team in the division. He then said later that month the White Sox were "way more athletic" than Minnesota in his first media session of spring training, also saying the South Siders had a "good shot of whooping" the Twins.

    Thus, the stage is set.

    The White Sox have the young talent and a tremendous bullpen. Minnesota has more of a veteran feel, but the Twins provide plenty of excitement with the long ball and play tremendous defense up the middle with Andrelton Simmons and Byron Buxton.

    There are plenty of characters. Anderson has a big personality. Josh Donaldson is a force in the other clubhouse. Both are capable of energizing their teams.

    Minnesota will also likely be hungry to assert its dominance with so much of the offseason discourse tracking the White Sox and their supposed ascendance to the ranks of the elite clubs.

5. Atlanta Braves vs. New York Mets

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    There has not been a whole lot to the Atlanta Braves-New York Mets rivalry since the late 1990s. However, as is the case with the Twins and White Sox, this one is likely to heat up quite a bit. 

    New York's busy offseason prompted most of the projections to shift in its favor. FanGraphs projected the Mets to have the third-best record in baseball, as did PECOTA (via MLB.com). But projections are imperfect, and the Braves can use them as bulletin-board material after coming within a game of reaching the World Series in 2020. 

    The Braves offense was stagnant in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies this past weekend. But it is the same lineup that led MLB in OPS in 2020. The rotation should be improved with the insertion of Charlie Morton and the eventual return of Mike Soroka (Achilles).

    But the Mets also have offense and pitching. New York ranked third in OPS+ in 2020 and bolstered the rotation by adding Carlos Carrasco (who's nursing a hamstring injury) and Taijuan Walker to a group that already included Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman and will get Noah Syndergaard back when he returns from Tommy John rehab this summer.

    It's also impossible to ignore the positional talent on both sides. All of deGrom, Francisco Lindor, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman could be the best players at their respective positions in 2021. 

    Star power and depth abound, with the Mets hoping to end Atlanta's streak of three National League East titles.

4. St. Louis Cardinals vs. Cincinnati Reds

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs have typically been the headliners in terms of National League Central rivalries. But the Cincinnati Reds and Nick Castellanos have something to say about that. 

    Castellanos sparked a benches-clearing scuffle in the second game of the season. Cardinals pitcher Jake Woodford drilled the Reds outfielder in the fourth inning of Saturday's contest in apparent retaliation for Castellanos' strut following his homer on Opening Day.

    Castellanos would come around to score on a wild pitch later in the inning, and he flexed on Woodford after standing up from his slide. Chaos ensued, with Redbirds catcher Yadier Molina grabbing Castellanos and both teams coming together. The relievers even scuffled in the outfield when heading back to their respective bullpens. 

    These teams actually have some history. Unsurprisingly, Molina plays a prominent role. The clubs were involved in an infamous brawl in 2010 when Molina met former Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips in front of home plate prior to the first pitch.

    Cincy has been involved in some major dust-ups in each of the past couple of seasons, twice squaring off with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019 and engaging the Chicago Cubs in a fracas last summer. The animosity from opening weekend seems to have set the tone early for Cards-Reds, which could well emerge as one of the top rivalries in 2021.

3. New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays lost some shine this offseason with the departures of Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, and expectations are generally lower for the defending American League champions.

    But their clashes with the New York Yankees will still be must-see TV.

    The tension between the franchises had steadily been building in recent seasons. Things came to a head when Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph high heater over Rays utility man Mike Brosseau's head last September. The incident prompted Rays manager Kevin Cash to tell reporters, "I got a whole damn stable of guys that throw 98 miles an hour."

    The teams met in the ALDS last October. Naturally, the series came down to a pivotal moment in Game 5, with Chapman on the mound and Brosseau at the dish. That 10-pitch encounter resulted in a Brosseau homer, which sent the Rays to the ALCS.

    There is no doubt Yankees-Rays will remain one of the fiercest rivalries in baseball in 2021. Some might argue the Yankees and Houston Astros could have more drama, but those teams only play six times this season. Divisional rivalries boast more explosive potential.

    Tampa Bay will be gunning for the favored Yankees (per FanGraphs and PECOTA projections), and there is already tons of built-up tension from past encounters.

2. Houston Astros vs. Oakland Athletics

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Just like Yankees-Rays, the Houston Astros-Oakland Athletics rivalry had a 2020 regular-season brawl that preceded a postseason showdown.

    Tempers flared in an early August series that featured some hit batsmen. Ramon Laureano took exception to being hit for the second time in one of the games, the latter instance by then-Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos. The A's outfielder eventually charged Houston's dugout after apparently being goaded by 'Stros hitting coach Alex Cintron.

    Some of the lesser known elements of that incident include the fact that the Astros traded Laureno to the A's, something former Oakland ace and World Series MVP Dave Stewart made sure to point out when he thanked the "cheaters" for their contribution to the A's roster while talking to NBC Sports.

    That initial brawl made it all the more intriguing when the A's and Astros met in the ALDS, which featured tons of long balls. But the intensity has already ratcheted up in 2021.

    Astros shortstop Carlos Correa appeared to throw a shoulder at A's third baseman Matt Chapman on Friday. Oakland also played Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" in advance of Saturday's showdown. 

    This could well be titled "Houston vs. Everybody" since the Astros are likely to hear it from opposing fans wherever they go. But their recent history with the A's and the fact that the two teams could battle for the AL West crown makes this a bona fide grudge match.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Diego Padres

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Fernando Tatis Jr.'s left shoulder injury threatened to take some of the allure from this budding rivalry, especially if he were lost for the season. But he will not need surgery, at least not yet.

    However, the reloaded San Diego Padres were already built to pose a challenge to the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.

    The Friars boast a strong rotation, with Yu Darvish and Snell at the top and Joe Musgrove looking terrific in his Padres debut. The lineup still could produce plenty of runs even without Tatis, as both Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers have yet to show any signs of regression, and Manny Machado remains as dangerous a hitter as any in the bigs.

    Of course, the Dodgers have a terrific rotation that features Julio Urias and Dustin May at the back end, a terrifying prospect for NL West opponents considering how well both pitched in their first starts. Los Angeles still has one of the deepest, most prolific lineups in baseball.

    Pressurized moments have already created friction. The two clubs were barking at each other after Cody Bellinger's tremendous robbery of Tatis in Game 2 of the 2020 NLDS. That moment came after Padres center fielder Trent Grisham drew L.A.'s ire following a home run in September.

    Characters abound, from Tatis and Machado to Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler and Mookie Betts. The Dodgers and Padres could be forming a rivalry that might define baseball for years.