The Biggest Winners and Losers of 2021 MLB Regular Season

Brandon Scott@@brandonkscottFeatured Columnist IOctober 3, 2021

The Biggest Winners and Losers of 2021 MLB Regular Season

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The 2021 MLB season did not disappoint. There were a ton of surprises, from the San Francisco Giants' consistency to the St. Louis Cardinals' improbable late-season push.

    There were also massive disappointments, such as the San Diego Padres' failure to even compete for a National League wild-card spot and the Los Angeles Angels' not being healthy enough to consider an American League West run.

    The Chicago Cubs had an incredible fire sale.

    The American League Central and National League East were uninspiring.

    So with the end here, let's go over the biggest winners and losers of this season as we get ready for the playoffs.

Winners: Tony La Russa's Chicago White Sox

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The hiring of Tony La Russa as manager was met with a lot of criticism, but the Chicago White Sox ended up right where they expected. The Sox proved to be the only AL Central team worthy of postseason consideration and match up well against the Houston Astros, their American League Division Series opponent.

    White Sox starters rank in the top five in ERA and WHIP. Their relievers have the best strikeout-to-walk percentage of any group.

    It will be interesting to see how the White Sox mix up their pitching against the Astros, who won five of the teams' seven meetings.

    The White Sox put a playoff-like bullpen outing together Friday night against the Detroit Tigers, as Garrett Crochet, Ryan Tepera, Craig Kimbrel and Liam Hendriks combined to throw four scoreless innings in their fifth straight win.

    The Astros swept the White Sox in June, when they played a four-game series in Houston.

    A month later in Chicago, the White Sox took two of three. Lucas Giolito (complete game) and Carlos Rodon (one hit over seven innings) were dominant in those last two games, and they'll need those kind of performances to advance to the American League Championship Series.

Losers: San Diego Padres

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    This was supposed to be a breakout season for the Padres. They made all the moves to bolster their rotation, acquiring Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove in the offseason, and the lineup was already understood to be one of the best in baseball with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado leading the way.

    But the Padres are 27-42 since the All-Star break, and their once-firm grip on a National League wild-card berth faded quickly as they were eliminated from the postseason in late September.

    It's a far cry from once being 18 games above .500 and competing with the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West title.

    The pitching staff could not stay healthy and underperformed.

    A dugout argument between Tatis and Machado revealed underlying discord.

    Now there are serious questions about whether general manager A.J. Preller and manager Jayce Tingler should keep their jobs.

    "We were hungry for more, and there is no more," one Padres fan told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "No playoffs—it's disappointing. It's a gut punch."

Winners: San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Giants should take a bow. Few, if anyone, believed they had this in them. San Francisco entered the season with questions about whether it could win with this rotation and a collection of aging veterans.

    The Giants' Opening Day roster featured 10 hitters over the age of 30, and Wilmer Flores turned 30 in August. Still, the lineup has been great.

    San Francisco is in the top five in many advanced batting statistics despite barely being league average in hard hit rate. Only the Dodgers have a higher fly ball percentage, and only the Toronto Blue Jays have a higher home run percentage, according to Baseball Reference.

    Buster Posey returned—after not playing in 2020 and having the worst season of his career in 2019—to slash .302/.388/.499.

    Their pitching staff, anchored by starters Logan Webb, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani, also boasts the second-lowest WHIP and has given up the second-fewest runs behind the Dodgers'.

    This Giants group tied a franchise record Friday with 106 wins and has one final shot to rewrite the record books if it wins Sunday.

Losers: Los Angeles Angels

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Remember when fans thought the Angels would win the American League West?

    It did not exactly pan out that way. The Angels, without two of their best players in Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon for 104 games, were no better than the Detroit Tigers.

    The only bright side in Anaheim was that in Shohei Ohtani's fourth year, we finally really saw "Sho Time." For the first time, Ohtani made more than 10 starts and had over 425 plate appearances.

    He became the first player in American League history with 45 home runs, 25 stolen bases and 100 runs. He also leads the majors with eight triples.

    But Ohtani has made it clear he wants more than individual accolades and fanfare. He will hit the open market after the 2023 season, and the Angels can't afford to waste time.

    "I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team," Ohtani told reporters via an interpreter. "But, more than that, I want to win. That's the biggest thing for me. I'll leave it at that."

Winners: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    This is probably still the best team in baseball, which makes the NL West so much more interesting. 

    Losing Clayton Kershaw for the postseason is disappointing, but it says a lot about how much Dodgers pitching has improved that they still have to like their chances against any team. 

    Trading for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner from the Nationals could prove to be the most impactful trade deadline move, which also says a lot, considering how much dealing went on at the time. 

    The Dodgers, a 100+ win team relegated to a wild-card, still boast the league’s highest run differential.

    In the NL, only the Dodgers and Giants have winning records against teams over .500.

Losers: Rest of the NL West

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    For as incredible as the NL West was at the top, the worst of it was just as rough to watch.

    The Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t expected to be world beaters in 2021, but their struggles were even worse than the forecast. 

    They are the antithesis to the Cardinals, losing 17 straight games in June. Their record from May 1-July 17 was 12-56, after starting 14-12 in April.

    The Dbacks are playing footsie with the Baltimore Orioles for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 Draft and it looks like Arizona might at least win that much.

    The Rockies confusingly decided not to trade Trevor Story or Jon Gray before the deadline and had one of baseball’s worst producing outfields.

Winners: Houston Astros and Manager Dusty Baker

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    The Astros just clinched their fourth AL West title in five years and first under manager Dusty Baker. 

    This with all of the backlash from the sign-stealing scandal tied to the 2017 World Series, and fans finally getting to express themselves after missing out on attending games during the pandemic last year. 

    The Astros’ misdeeds came to light just before the pandemic shut things down, and the only time they really answered for it was at spring training in 2020. 

    But fans certainly did not forget when they were allowed back inside stadiums this year. Trash cans were thrown onto fields. Heckling was relentless everywhere they went, especially against the Dodgers and Yankees. 

    Yet all the Astros did was dominate the AL West, which belonged to the A’s last year and was supposed to be the Angels’ this year. 

    Houston’s offense is still among, if not the best in baseball. And Baker is now the only manager to win a division title with five different teams.

Losers: Uninspiring AL Central, NL East

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    It’s interesting how the AL Central had no truly awful team, but only one good one. This division was always going to the White Sox, but not just because they are good. But also because no one else in the Central bothered to be competitive. 

    Similar situations with the NL East, except the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets competed or were at least interesting at some point. 

    These are the only two divisions in which just one team has a positive run differential. Those are the teams winning the division and no other is a threat to sniff the postseason. going to the postseason.

    The AL Central should be better next year, with the Tigers expected to be aggressive in free agency; Cleveland and Kansas City looking to cultivate its young talent; and the Minnesota Twins hoping this season is an outlier. 

    The Mets are in the same boat as Cleveland and Kansas City, hoping their prospects like Francisco Alvarez, Ronny Mauricio, Mark Vientos and Brett Baty are really the future of the franchise. 

    The Phillies will finish with a winning record and can take comfort in finally getting the Bryce Harper they paid for in 2019. 

Winners: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Cardinals sit comfortably in the second NL wild-card spot after a stretch run for the ages. 

    Reminder: St. Louis had just a 1.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason after losing to the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 5. The loss put them eight games out in the race for the second wild-card spot. 

    Then, behind Adam Wainwright’s renaissance performance, a defense better than any other in the game, and some clutch hitting, the Cardinals went on a historic 17-game win streak to clinch a postseason berth. 

    Now, they’re the team no one should want to face, especially in a single elimination game scenario.

Losers: Baltimore Orioles

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The Orioles leaned into spoiler season down the stretch. Their AL East rivals are battling for a wild-card spot with the Seattle Mariners, and the Orioles tried to wreck every party they could. 

    Baltimore beat the Red Sox last Tuesday and publicly conspired with the Mariners to help edge the Yankees and Blue Jays. 

    But this is still the worst team in the American League. They were unwatchable outside of the blossoming Cedric Mullins

    Twice this season, the Orioles lost at least 14 games in a row. All their fans can really lean on is the bright future of their prospects. 

    Adley Rutschman is their top position player prospect. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez is considered the top pitching prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.  

    Until players like those are brought up, this will continue to be one sad outfit.

Winners: Tampa Bay Rays

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    In a division all about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and with the Toronto Blue Jays emerging as a team of the future, all the Tampa Bay Rays did was be better each of them.

    The Rays will finish as the only American League team to win 100 games this season.

    Somehow, they managed to trade Willy Adames and Rich Hill without missing a beat. 

    That’s in part because rookie shortstop Wander Franco, at just 20 years old, is already one of the game’s best players. 

    Franco went on a 43-game on-base streak from July 25 to Sept. 29. So far, he’s lived up to the hype as the No. 1 prospect in baseball and validated the Adames trade. 

    As the AL No. 1 seed, the Rays have one of the key ingredients to excel in the postseason: the best bullpen in baseball. The Rays’ relievers lead MLB with a 7.5 WAR and have pitched more innings than any other staff.

Losers: Chicago Cubs

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    Phil Pavely/Associated Press

    Remember when fans thought the Angels would win the American League West?

    It did not exactly pan out that way. The Angels, without two of their best players in Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon for 104 games, were no better than the Detroit Tigers.

    The only bright side in Anaheim was that in Shohei Ohtani's fourth year, we finally really saw "Sho Time." For the first time, Ohtani made more than 10 starts and had over 425 plate appearances.

    He became the first player in American League history with 45 home runs, 25 stolen bases and 100 runs. He also leads the majors with eight triples.

    But Ohtani has made it clear he wants more than individual accolades and fanfare. He will hit the open market after the 2023 season, and the Angels can't afford to waste time.

    "I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team," Ohtani told reporters via an interpreter. "But, more than that, I want to win. That's the biggest thing for me. I'll leave it at that."

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