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Five Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2021 Season

Two weeks in April is almost nothing in a 162-game season. But that doesn't mean what's happened thus far doesn't matter.

Baseball season provides so many games that weird trends are bound to happen. Early in the 2021 season, numerous different story lines have begun to take shape. Some will persist. Others won’t. Let’s take a look at some of them and make five way-too-early predictions for the rest of the season.

Apr 14, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA;  Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (10) singles in a run in the first inning of the game against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers Offense Will Be Better Than it Was Last Year

If you were to pick one aspect of the Dodgers to be better than last year, you’d probably say the pitching—they added Trevor Bauer, last year’s NL Cy Young winner, to an already loaded rotation. The same can’t be said with the lineup, though. Losing Joc Pederson and Kiké Hernández while also having to compete against a stacked Padres pitching staff and the possibility of a World Series hangover all could’ve pointed to a slower season from the Los Angeles offense.

Well, that hasn’t happened. So far, Los Angeles has a 143 OPS+, up from 121 last year. Of course, it’s early and things could change, but the Dodgers have done this without being at full strength. Two of their best players, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts, have both missed time due to injuries. Bellinger played in just four games before landing on the IL with a left calf contusion. Betts is back in the lineup after recovering from a stiff lower back, but because of the injury, he’s played in just eight of their 13 games. No matter, he’s slashing .323/.447/.581 in his second season with Los Angeles.

Max Muncy has started the season on a tear, as have Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Chris Taylor. The Dodgers are even receiving production from unexpected sources like Zach McKinstry, a 25-year-old playing his first full season in the big leagues who didn’t have a home run in his entire college career at Central Michigan. Entering play on Friday, he’s hitting .297 with three homers in 37 at bats.

Part of what makes the Dodgers such a well-oiled machine is their depth, and that’s been on display so far this year, particularly on offense. If the stars continue to be stars and role players continue to produce, it’s hard to see how this offense can be stopped in 2021.

Apr 4, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA;  Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) hits a double in the first inning as Milwaukee Brewers catcher Manny Pina (9) watches at American Family Field.

Byron Buxton Will Make a Run at the Triple Crown

The Twins might not have the same level of depth as the Dodgers, but they do have Byron Buxton. Since selecting him second in 2012, he has struggled to live up to his potential—with several seasons derailed by injuries. But so far in 2021, he’s made a case not only to be an early-favorite for league MVP, but also to potentially make a run at the first offensive Triple Crown since Miguel Cabrera’s in 2012.

Through nine games, Buxton ranks second in the AL with five home runs, while hitting .469 with nine RBIs.

This isn’t a fluke. Buxton has crushed the ball this season—he’s in the top 1% of the league in hard hit rate and barrel percentage and second in average exit velocity. Sure, he won’t maintain a .469 batting average, but the advanced metrics suggest the success he’s had is sustainable. With his skill set, all he needs to do is stay healthy, and he’ll finally showcase the talent baseball fans have waited to see for a long time.

Verducci: The Long-Awaited Breakout Season for Byron Buxton Is Finally Here

Apr 14, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez (9) walks back to the dugout after striking out in the fourth inning during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field.

The Cubs Will Have a Historically Bad Offense

Cubs fans waited a long time for a World Series championship. Now, the jubilation of hoisting that trophy feels like eons ago. Through 12 games, the Cubs have scored 32 runs (2.7 runs per game). When the Astros lost 111 games in 2013, they scored more runs per game than Chicago has thus far.

Of course, this is a small sample, but manager David Ross should be worried. The Cubs haven’t scored more than five runs in a game, and they’ve played six games against a Pirates team expected to lose more than 100 games.

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Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are the team’s only two hitters with an OPS over .800 (MLB average last year was .740). As a team, Chicago ranks dead last in MLB in batting average (.163), on-base percentage (.254), slugging percentage (.307) and OPS (.561).

Focal points of past Cubs lineups, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, have yet to turn things on. In addition, offseason acquisition Pederson has the second-lowest batting average and fourth-worst OPS among qualified hitters.

Since the start of last season, this nucleus of players just hasn’t gelled together. Unless Rizzo and Báez turn things around quickly, it’ll be a long season on the North Side.

Apr 15, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez walks back to home after making a play in the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals Will Be Playoff Contenders

After the first weekend of the 2021 season, the highest team OPS in baseball didn’t belong to the Yankees or the Dodgers; it belonged to the Royals.

Sure, they faced a Rangers pitching staff that could be historically bad this season, but the Kansas City offense has continued to score. The Royals are scoring 5.09 runs/game this year, fifth-most in the majors entering play on Friday. If they keep this up, the Royals will find themselves in the playoff hunt throughout the season—ahead of schedule.

After winning the World Series in 1985, Royals fans had to wait 30 years for the next championship. General manager Dayton Moore is doing all he can to make sure the next trophy comes much sooner.

The Royals tore things down after finishing 80–82 in 2017. But after two 100-loss seasons, Kansas City has a new window of success on the horizon. Many probably don’t expect it to start in 2021, but a lineup with this kind of talent cannot be overlooked, especially in a weaker division. The Royals enter Friday first in the AL Central with a 7–4 record.

Whit Merrifield was on pace to reach 190 hits for the third straight season last year and provides consistent speed atop the lineup. Jorge Soler led the majors with 48 home runs in 2019, while Hunter Dozier added 26 that year as well. Kansas City also added Andrew Benintendi, who had a brilliant start to his Red Sox career before cratering over the last two seasons, and Carlos Santana, who is one of the most adept hitters at finding a way on base. And, of course, the Royals still have Salvador Pérez behind the plate.

This team likely will only go as far as its lineup takes it, but that could be enough to have the Royals in playoff contention all year long.

Apr 3, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA;  Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes (39) throws a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at American Family Field.

Corbin Burnes Will Win the NL Cy Young Award

Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes has done everything in his power to try to keep his team in playoff contention. He’s made three starts this season; he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Twins, and then tossed six shutout innings against the Cardinals and Cubs. Overall, he’s struck out 30 hitters and hasn’t walked any in 18 1/3 innings of work. He’s the first pitcher since at least 1901 to strike out as many hitters without issuing a walk in his first three games.

After starting nine games (and pitching in 12 overall) for Milwaukee in 2020, Burnes flashed his potential by striking out 88 hitters across nearly 60 innings (nearly 1.5 K/IP).

Burnes’s arsenal of pitches has proven effective because he throws few four-seam fastballs. Most of his hard stuff sinks or cuts, making him difficult to square up. His cutter sits at about 96 mph and his sinker at 98 mph. Add to that a good changeup, a slider and a curveball, and the 26-year-old isn’t only a Cy Young candidate but also a frontrunner to win the award this season.

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