The 2021 season is going to feel like a return to normalcy. Fans will return to the ballpark, at least in limited capacity, and teams will play a full 162-game schedule. But that doesn't mean weird things won't happen. If anything, there are more opportunities for the unexpected to occur. With one week to go before Opening Day, it's time for bold predictions.
Every year except one since the wild card format began in 1995, we have seen teams make the playoffs the season after posting a losing record. Fully 25% of all playoff teams had losing records the previous year. With that in mind, I’ll give you two losers from last year who will be playing postseason baseball this year: the Mets and Angels. Both may be looking at the wild card as means of entry. New York is not within five games of Atlanta, and Los Angeles has not quite closed ground on Oakland.
Granted, the Mets in the playoffs doesn't seem like such a bold prediction. So I’ll give you another losing team from last year that is going to be the surprise of this year—though not quite a playoff team: the Kansas City Royals. Mike Minor and Andrew Benintendi are good bounce-back candidates and the team has young talent that should take a step forward to keep it in the wild card hunt for five months.
The Angels will make the playoffs. I don't believe in this enough to make it one of my actual picks, but it feels appropriately bold. L.A. has assembled a contending team around perennial MVP Mike Trout exactly once, in 2014, when the Angels were swept out of October. Shohei Ohtani debuted in 2018 as a two-way player amid talks he could be the missing piece, but injuries have limited him to 254 games over that span and inspired questions of whether anyone can really pitch and hit. The concerns are valid. And yet ... Ohtani says he is healthy, and he's back to hitting 100 mph on the gun and homering over the batter's eye at Tempe Diablo Stadium. It's time to start dreaming.
"The Royals will be good" is too bold even for a bold prediction by my tastes. But I think they can be ... better than projected. (Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA has them down as 71–91; FanGraphs likes them a little more at 77–85.) Their acquisitions this winter were modest, but several have real potential upside, including Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana and Mike Minor. That doesn't even touch on the fact that, if all goes well, the season might eventually hold a promotion for top prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. Is that enough to make them competitive? No. But could it be enough to put them within reach of .500? I think it just might.
In 2015, the Golden State Warriors won their first NBA championship in 40 years and followed it up with the best regular season in league history. Last year, the Dodgers won their first World Series in 32 years. I think they'll follow it up with the best regular season in MLB history, topping the 116-win record shared by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners (L.A.'s winning percentage last year was .717, already a tick better than Seattle's .716 mark in 2001, and they added Trevor Bauer). I also think, however, that they'll follow in the footsteps of the 2015-16 Warriors and 2001 Mariners by succumbing to the randomness of a postseason series and fail to win a championship. Two predictions in one for the reigning champs.
It's well established that no team since the 1998-2000 Yankees has won the World Series in consecutive seasons, but don't overlook how difficult it has been for teams to follow up their World Series win with a division title. In the last 20 seasons, only five World Series champions have won the division in their title-defense season.
For this and other reasons, the Padres, not the Dodgers, will win the NL West in 2021. San Diego has three aces (Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Dinelson Lamet), two MVP candidates (Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.) and the perfect mix of youth and experience to go toe-to-toe with and ultimately overthrow the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.
Shohei Ohtani will homer and earn a win in the same game. Over his first three years with the Angels, Ohtani has been handled with excruciating care to ensure his other-worldly talents are not held back by injuries. Despite the best laid plans, health has not been a luxury enjoyed by baseball's two-way star. Manager Joe Maddon has vowed to largely do away with the "Shohei rules" for 2021, and even batted Ohtani leadoff in a game he also started on the mound earlier this spring—the first time a player has done that in 120 years. The Angels likely won't make a habit of having him pull double duty each time he takes the mound, but here's betting it happens at least once. Ohtani appears to be full go this spring, and if the eased restrictions unleash his full potential, we could be in store for quite a Sho this season.
Multiple Yankees will hit 40-plus home runs. Deadened ball be damned, this Yankees lineup appears primed to lead baseball in homers, and we could see multiple Bronx Bombers compete for the American League home-run crown. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are obvious candidates if they can log anywhere near 140 games, though don't discount Gleyber Torres (or even Gary Sánchez) as potential 40-homer candidates this season. New York's shaky pitching staff could prevent a run to the World Series, but as for the regular season, expect the Yankees to bash their way to the AL East crown.