Just about a year ago the sports world (along with everything else) shut down due to COVID. Fans didn’t know what to expect going forward – would games be played? If so, would there be fans? Would seasons be cut short? Finished at all? A year later and overall, it’s been a mixed bag. Baseball in 2020 crowned a world series champion (the Dodgers, who were clearly the best team all year), but it was a strange season with no fans, expanded playoffs and some quirky rule changes. The 2020 Summer Olympics were cancelled and may not be rescheduled. The NFL did the best job of any of the major sports in terms of maintaining the status quo despite COVID restrictions, and the NBA and NHL are soldiering on admirably as they reach (or approach) the halfway mark of their 2020-2021 seasons.
Hopefully Major League Baseball can keep the ball rolling, but of course there are significant challenges ahead. Baseball has the longest season, a fan base generally suspicious of change, and a players union possessing the worst relationship with ownership since Jimmy Hoffa was giving out Teamster’s loans. The 2022 season is very much in jeopardy since the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of this season, so fans may be deprived of baseball soon regardless of the potential for herd immunity. All in all, my advice (not that anyone asked) is that fans should enjoy the 2021 baseball season as much as possible. Fans will be in the stands (how many remains to be seen), and a full season has at least been scheduled. It’s a start. So what should we expect to see in 2021? Glad you asked. Here are the teams to watch this season.
It’s amazing how fast sports narratives can change. If the Dodgers lost to Tampa Bay in the World Series last Fall, they would still have zero titles since 1988, despite being (for the most part) the best team in baseball over the last 5-6 years, and would start being compared to the Braves teams of the 1990’s that only won one World Series (losing 3 others) and (even worse) the Bills football teams of the 1990’s that never won a super bowl despite 4 straight appearances. They would be known as chokers, led by Clayton Kershaw who can never come through when it matters in October. But they beat the Rays, now they’re on the verge of being one of the great teams in baseball history, they are loaded with talent at both the minor league and the major league level, are the epitome of a well-run franchise, and few would be surprised if they won a couple more rings in the next several years. They added Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to an already lethal rotation, they have probably the best offense in the National League (led by Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Corey Seager), and their only flaw is…well…it’s hard to win the World Series twice in a row. They are as much of a lock to make the playoffs as anyone in baseball.
Can the Yankees get over the hump?
On the subject of Gotham baseball teams, the Yankees have as high a ceiling as any team in baseball (Dodgers fans may respectfully disagree). If healthy, the offense is utterly ridiculous. Their starting lineup doesn’t have a single weakness, and there isn’t one position on the diamond where the Yankee regular isn’t a threat to post an OPS over .900. They have multiple legitimate MVP threats (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu), and if Gary Sanchez remembers he’s supposed to be the best hitting catcher since Mike Piazza, they may outslug some pretty good slow pitch softball teams. The issue for the Bombers of course is the pitching staff, but the upside is high there as well. Gerrit Cole is the ace of course, but they made some low risk, short term offseason signings (Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon) that could reap huge rewards if they can stay healthy. Add to that their talented young arms (Garcia, German), a typically loaded bullpen, and the eventual return of Luis Severino, and if they get a few breaks in the injury department (they are overdue for a couple), they could be every bit as loaded as Los Angeles.
San Diego Padres
How long does it take to turn a baseball franchise around? That’s a key question every year for at least a third of all teams. Do you tank for years, accumulate draft picks, and hope to compete 5 seasons into the future? Worked for the Houston Astros. Do you spend like crazy and buy everything in sight, and hope it works out? How competitive do you try to be while you’re rebuilding? Well, the complexity of these questions and the difficulty of navigating that landscape is why the people running baseball teams are no longer all former players, and now usually have advanced degrees and IQ’s in the 150’s. But turning around a franchise, and quickly, CAN be done. Exhibit A is the Padres, who lost 92 games in 2019 and now look like the biggest threat to the Dodgers juggernaut. Fernando Tatis Jr. is a generational talent, Manny Machado seems to be back to being the superstar he was in Baltimore, and they added Cy Young award winners Blake Snell and Yu Darvish in the offseason. They are going for it in 2021. They may be the second best team in baseball. And they are almost certainly only the second best team in their own division. As a Red Sox fan, I’m familiar with the feeling (though I WISH we were the second best team in our division today).
New York Mets
The Mets are a popular pick to surprise some people in the National League (though really, if you’re a popular pick, wouldn’t it not be that much of a surprise?), with a solid offense made stronger with the addition of Francisco Lindor (who, after Opening Day, will be the greatest shortstop in team history), a high-ceiling pitching rotation led by ace Jacob deGrom and potentially solid Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman. Plus, they will get the God of Thunder (Noah Sydergaard) back sometime this summer once his Tommy John surgery rehab is completed. Their defense is suspect, but the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in 2020 with a suspect defense so…. Yeah OK that’s not really relevant, I’ll admit that. Lindor certainly helps, and maybe the best thing the Metropolitans have going for them is a rich owner that wants to win, and win NOW. If there is a team most likely to add a major piece or two at the trade deadline, then they probably play in Queens, NY. LGM!
Which team will make the LEAP?
I’m guessing the Chicago White Sox, who play in the not too impressive American League Central, and have the best collection of young talent east of California. Luis Robert looks like an MVP candidate, Yoan Moncada is well on his way to becoming the elite hitter he was projected to be when he entered the Red Sox’ minor league system, Tim Anderson is BY FAR the best shortstop you’ve never heard of, and Jose Abreu won the MVP last season. They also added catcher Yasmani Grandal, lefty starter Dallas Keuchel and DH/masher Edwin Encarnacion in the offseason. They have one of the AL’s best starters in Lucas Giolito, and if Michael Kopech finally comes back from his arm injuries (as he is expected to), he could have a big impact on the bullpen in 2021. If you’re looking for a dark horse American League pennant winner, this could be your team. Other candidates for Most Improved Team of 2021 include the Milwaukee Brewers, who have such an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen that they may not be able to resist trading lefty fireballer Josh Hader, or the Oakland A’s, if for no other reason than they gave up star shortstop Marcus Semien this winter, and when they do things like that, Billy Beane usually finds a way to be a lot better than people expect the next season.
OK, I understand, he’s not a team. But bear with me for a minute. It has been said many times that while Babe Ruth was probably the greatest baseball player of all time (since he was an excellent pitcher as well as a legendary hitter), and Willie Mays was the best “all-around” position player (a true 5-tool guy, who could hit for average, hit for power, field, run and throw at an elite level), Ted Williams was the greatest hitter ever. Nobody was better than Teddy Ballgame when it came to just pure hitting – see a strike, hit it hard. I wish I could have seen him hit in his prime, and can only just imagine what his numbers would have been had he not lost multiple seasons to two wars, and if he had played in a park better suited to his game (Fenway is known as a hitters park, but it’s hard on lefties, especially dead pull lefties like Williams). So why am I talking about Ted Williams? Because he basically plays left field for the Washington Nationals now. Watch Juan Soto if you get the chance. Last season he had a slash line of .351/.490/.695. And he’s 22 years old. There’s a legitimate chance that 25 years from now this era will be thought of as the era of Mike Trout and Juan Soto (much like how earlier eras were defined by Ruth and Gherig or Mays and Mantle). Or maybe it will be Soto and Tatis. Or Soto and Ronal Acuna, Jr. Or Soto and Luis Robert. You get the idea.
So, I did an EXCELLENT job forecasting the NFL playoffs (allowing shrewd bettors to go against my picks and reap huge rewards for doing so), so it’s the least I can do to let everyone know who will be getting new jewelry in October. You’re welcome.
AL East Champion – New York Yankees; AL Central Champion – Chicago White Sox; AL West Champion – Houston Astros; AL Wildcard Teams – Minnesota Twins, Oakland A’s. NL East Champion – Atlanta Braves; NL Central Champion – St. Louis Cardinals; NL West Champion – Los Angeles Dodgers. NL Wildcard Teams – New York Mets, San Diego Padres. American League Pennant Winner – New York Yankees. National League Pennant Winner – Atlanta Braves.
World Series Champion – New York Yankees.
Here’s hoping I’m still a jinx.
Commercial Real Estate Broker/Sports Fan
Staff writer at Six Feet Apart, commercial real estate broker for CBRE, Inc., and most importantly, a father of two.