Bold Predictions Between Now and the 2021 MLB Trade Deadline
The summer brings separation to baseball. MLB's contenders separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and the great players separate themselves from the good ones as the heat of the division races mimic the heat outside.
Summer also means the trade deadline. It's more than just a deadline to move players. As the date gets closer, teams have to decide whether they have enough firepower to justify loading up for a title run or determine whether it's best to address their deficiencies now or later, and the best route to addressing to do so.
The 2021 MLB trade deadline is July 30, so teams have already had more than a month to establish themselves and will have a couple more. A lot can happen between now and then, so let's pull out that crystal (base)ball to look into the future and make some predictions for what kind of chaos could ensue around the league before the trade deadline.
The Washington Nationals Will Be Forced to Trade Max Scherzer
The 2019 World Series champs have been trying to keep their championship window open for a run at a second title. The Nats finished last in the NL East last season with a 26-34 record (it tied the New York Mets for the worst record in the division, but the Mets held the tiebreaker), but it was a strange, coronavirus pandemic-shortened season. The Nationals were without Stephen Strasburg for most of the season (he made two starts), and it was difficult for a lot of teams to get into any sort of rhythm.
But the Nationals have gotten off to a terrible start in a winnable division. Washington is 14-19 and five games behind the division-leading Mets. Even more troubling is the 3-7 record in the last 10 games. At the end of April, the Nats strung four straight wins together, but that's their longest winning streak. It shows some serious inconsistency.
FanGraphs gives the Washington Nationals a 9.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Is the championship window closing sooner than anticipated? Maybe, but it would benefit the Nats to try to keep it open a little longer.
Strasburg and Juan Soto have been injured for portions of this season, which hasn't helped matters, but they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Strasburg is signed through 2026 and has a full no-trade clause in his contract. Soto is under team control through 2024 and is due for a big payday and a long-term contract on par with his peers in Atlanta (Ronald Acuna Jr.) and San Diego (Fernando Tatis Jr.). Patrick Corbin will likely be in the rotation through 2024. Trea Turner has another year of team control before he hits free agency.
So, how do the Nationals keep the window of contention open in order to capitalize on their homegrown talent? They trade Mad Max.
Trading Scherzer would expedite the retooling process. He'll be a free agent following this season, he's 36 years old and his 1.1 fWAR suggests he's valuable enough to command a prospect package that might have some MLB-ready talent.
A Favorite Will Fade in the AL East
The hottest teams at the start of the season inevitably cool off at some point. Even the Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending World Series champs, have hit a rough stretch after starting the season 13-2. They sit in third place in the NL West, a position few would have predicted at the start of the season.
Teams have to ride the ebbs and flows of the season and make the necessary adjustments or risk falling behind.
The AL East is primed for some summer shuffling.
The Yankees righted the ship after their cold open, though they still could use some rotation reinforcements. The Toronto Blue Jays have a legitimate MVP candidate in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., plus they will be getting outfielder George Springer, the prize of the 2020-21 offseason, back from a right quad strain at some point. The center fielder has been limited to five games this season because of the injury, but he hit two home runs in 15 at-bats.
Where does that leave the Boston Red Sox, the team occupying the top of the division standings? It leaves them with giant targets on their backs. The Red Sox could find themselves in a battle for positioning not because of any major strength or weakness of their own, but because of the strength of the other teams in the division.
The Red Sox have the top OPS in baseball (.761) but they'll have to be able to out-hit their pitching. The metrics don't favor the Sox: PECOTA gives Boston a 2.5 percent chance of winning the division and FanGraphs gives the Red Sox a 16.2 chance percent chance.
The San Francisco Giants Will Stay on Top
The NL West was supposed to be a battle between the Padres and Dodgers this season, and it may still end up that way come September. But, right now, it's the team further north dominating the division.
The Giants are seven years removed from their last World Series title. That dynasty was built mostly on players who have since retired, with the first of their three won within five years coming in 2010. But much like when the New York Yankees retained their "Core Four" players to bridge the gap into a new era and win a World Series in 2009, the Giants have a similar situation right now with three players left from the 2014 championship team and two other key veterans having resurgent years.
First baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford and catcher Buster Posey were all drafted the organization, and third baseman Evan Longoria came to San Francisco in 2018 chasing the championship that eluded him in Tampa Bay. Right-hander Kevin Gausman is having a career year.
They are all in their 30s, so you have to wonder if their success is sustainable. Even some of the newcomers, such as outfielders Mike Yastrzemski and Mike Tauchman and infielder Tommy La Stella, are in their 30s as well. But the Giants have had impressive pitching and timely hitting. The roster has some depth, and they clearly have chemistry.
September might be a different story, but McCovey Cove will be the place to be this summer, just as it was from 2010-2016.
The Angels Will Aggressively Pursue Pitching
The Los Angeles Angels cut a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in Albert Pujols last week, with the rationale that playing Jared Walsh at first base and using Shohei Ohtani as the DH will be the best for the team. It's too bad Pujols can't pitch because the Halos could use an arm or two.
The Angels have had so much money locked up in heavy hitters like Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout that pitching has been an afterthought for the last decade. But the club faces a make-or-break moment. Two of the best players in baseball are playing in Anaheim in Trout and Ohtani. The playoffs are a must this season, but the Angels won't get there unless they can revamp their pitching staff on the fly.
First-year general manager Perry Minasian should be aggressive in targeting pitchers ahead of the trade deadline to climb the AL West standings. The Anaheim bullpen is the fourth-worst in baseball (5.27 ERA) and the rotation is the worst (5.20). The Angels are last in the AL West and 5.5 games behind the Oakland A's. Time is running out.
Do the Angels end up with Scherzer? Maybe it's Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Richard Rodriguez.
Another pitcher they could target is Detroit Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd. With one more year of team control before he hits free agency, he wouldn't come cheap, but he's 2-3 with a 1.94 ERA over seven starts this season.
Guys Will Get Plunked
The secret to pitching in the big leagues is no secret these days: Throw hard. The average fastball velocity is up to 93.6 mph this season. Mets ace Jacob deGrom is somehow throwing harder than ever at age 32.
However, not every pitcher can command their fastball like Jacob deGrom. The best pitchers like deGrom and Trevor Bauer throw an arsenal of breaking pitches and know when to throw them, but because those pitchers are such rarities, the game has moved toward one that values power pitching over all else. The finesse pitchers and the pitchers who made their livings off precision location seem to be a thing of the past as teams collect pitchers who throw really, really hard.
Many of those hard throwers are not locating those high-velocity fastballs. Three MVP candidates have been lucky enough to avoid serious injuries this season. Acuna was hit in the left hand, Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was hit in the elbow and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper was drilled in the face with a 97 mph fastball by St. Louis Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera and missed seven games because of it.
In a scary sequence, Cabrera, a 24-year-old left-hander, hit Harper in the face and wrist and then hit shortstop Didi Gregorius in the back with a 94 mph heater. He clearly had no idea where he was throwing.
Harper forgave Cabrera, and it was clear the pitcher was rattled as well. He didn't intend to injure anyone. It was also clear he should not have been left in the game, but the three-batter minimum rule necessitated his facing another batter. Manager Joe Girardi wanted him ejected, but making that point only got Girardi himself ejected.
This is becoming a trend. Consider this stat, which was unearthed by The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal: Acuna has been plunked 22 times in 347 games. Hank Aaron played 3,298 games and was hit 32 times.
But not everyone is as forgiving as Harper. Benches will clear, mounds will be charged. This could be a summer of brawls. The lost art of locating a fastball is bringing players' safety into question, and there will be anger all around as players continue to get drilled by high fastballs at a high rate.