Every single year, it never fails. It’s February and the excitement of pitchers & catchers reporting to spring training means only one thing. Baseball is back.
And with the Major League Baseball Players Association recently formally rejecting the recent proposal from MLB that would have pushed back the season, reduced the regular season to 154 games and expanded the current format of the playoffs the season is to start on time per usual. Spring training is set to open on February 17, with opening day on April 1.
But, regardless if you were someone that was pushing for MLB’s proposal of the expanded playoffs, you have to be happy to have a full season of baseball back, after a 60-game shortened season in 2020. Even in the shortened span, there was a lot of excitement with prospects turning into superstars, becoming the faces of a new generation in baseball and up and coming perennial contending teams asserting themselves that they’re ready to win now.
Which means the stage is set for 2021. A full season of baseball with a plethora of teams ready to make a statement. At any rate, the religious fans and die-hards have been debating how excitement can be brought back to the game to appeal to a wider audience. Well, here are three teams that will bring more excitement back to baseball.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
2020 Record: 32-28, 3rd Place in AL East
Playoff result: Lost AL Wild Card Series to Tampa Bay Rays (2-0)
For starters, the Blue Jays have three players that were sons of former Major League ballplayers. Bo Bichette, son of former slugger, Dante Bichette. Cavan Biggio, his father, Craig, a Hall of Famer. And the most notable of the three, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. His father, Vlad Sr., like Craig has a plaque in Cooperstown. This obviously makes for a fun narrative, especially when these young players aren’t just scrubs, they could be good or possibly be superstars. Bo Bichette was the ninth ranked overall prospect in 2019 and even though he dealt with a right knee sprain midway through the shortened 2020 season, still put up a .301/.328/.512 slashine in 29 games, helping Toronto obtain a postseason berth. Guerrero Jr. was the number one ranked prospect in ‘19 and has been touted as one of the next big superstars in MLB. Cavan Biggio wasn’t a highly-ranked prospect, but he’s shown he can be a productive player for the Blue Jays. He ranked second for the Blue Jays in WAR last season and hit 24 home runs and drove in 107 RBI in 159 games in two seasons.
The most exhilarating part about the Blue Jays is their offense. They ranked seventh in runs scored in 2020. And not just because of the three names I just mentioned. The biggest reason for the Blue Jays success offensively was mainly their outfield. Right Fielder, Teoscar Hernandez, led the team in home runs (16), had a slashline of .289/.340/.579 and had an OPS+ of 146. Left Fielder, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., led the team in total bases (111) and was third on the team in Slugging % (.534) & OPS+ (138). And Center Fielder, Randal Grichuk, was second on the team in home runs (12) and first on the team in RBI (35).
This offseason Toronto has added even more firepower to their offense. They signed one of the biggest free agents on the market, George Springer, to a six-year $150 million contract. Since 2016, Springer has been one of the best power hitting outfielders in MLB, averaging 36 home runs per 162 games, making three All-Star teams and winning two Silver Sluggers. The Blue Jays also went out and signed former Oakland A’s shortstop Marcus Semien. Semien, like Springer, had an MVP-esque season in 2019, hitting 33 home runs & 92 RBI, slashing .285/.369/.522. Semien finished third in MVP voting that year. He had a bit of a down year in the shortened season, hitting .223/.305/.374, but finished very strong in the postseason where he hit .407/.484/.667 in seven games.
If Springer can be the player that he’s been for the last five seasons and Semien can be anywhere close to what he was for Oakland in ‘19, this Blue Jays offense could be very exciting.
As potent as Toronto’s offense could be, their pitching is still a question mark. Their starting staff was middle of the pack in 2020, finishing 16th in ERA (4.55). Outside of Hyun Jin Ryu, who has been a perennial Cy Young candidate the past two seasons, there isn’t too much for the Blue Jays to boast. They did just trade for Steven Matz and signed Tyler Chatwood, but they are two arms who haven’t exactly been consistent in recent years, and you don’t quite know what you’re going to get from them. Their rotation has the potential to be competitive like they were last year, but not a high ceiling.
On the other end, the bullpen was bad. They had the seventh-worst ERA in baseball (4.71) and haven’t done much this offseason to add depth to the bullpen. But, they did sign one of the best relievers in the sport, Kirby Yates, to a one-year $5.5 million contract. Before Yates dealt with a right elbow injury in 2020, he led the National League in saves the year prior, where he made his first All-Star team and finished ninth in Cy Young voting. It’s a start, but they’ll really need to focus on adding depth to the bullpen.
Regardless of the question marks surrounding the Blue Jays pitching, the potential for how good their offense can be this year, factoring in how young they are, makes for a fun team to watch in 2021.
Predicted 2021 record: 86-76 (2nd in AL East)
Three players to watch: George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette
2. Chicago White Sox
2020 Record: 35-25, 2nd place in AL Central
Playoff result: Lost AL Wild Card series to Oakland Athletics (2-1)
Like the Blue Jays, the Chicago White Sox were a young, exciting team that lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The difference between the Blue Jays and the White Sox, people around baseball are saying this team is ready to win a World Series, right now. They have a slew of young talent, with a good mixture of some veterans and players currently in the prime of their careers. A good recipe for a winner.
The offense is loaded. Young fixtures like Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Nick Madrigal helped propel Chicago’s offense to second in the American League in runs scored last year. Anderson, who many people know for his famous bat flip against Kansas City a few years ago, already has a batting title, and in 2020 he finished seventh in MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger. Jimenez finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, and like Anderson won a Silver Slugger in last year’s shortened season. Moncada’s production dipped in 2020, but he’s only 25 years old and the year prior he slashed .315/.367/.548 with a .915 OPS. Both Robert and Madrigal have come into the Majors with high expectations set on them, being they were top prospects, and they both showed their potential last season. Madrigal finished with a .340 batting average, while Robert showed his versatility, hitting 11 home runs and leading the team with 9 stolen bases.
With all these working parts to Chicago’s offense, it wouldn’t have been as great as it was without 2020’s American League MVP. Jose Abreu. It’s a shame 2020 wasn’t a full season because Abreu put up monster numbers in 60 games. He led the American League in RBI (60), hits (76), Slugging % (.617) and total bases (148). Avid baseball fans knew Abreu had this in him, his average has always hovered around .300, he’d driven in 100 runs five out of the six prior seasons, as well as hitting 30 or more home runs in four of them. His hard work paid off, winning AL MVP in 2020.
The White Sox have a high-powered offense, but they have the pitching to compliment. Their starting rotation and bullpen both ranked top 10 in ERA in the Majors last season. Young rising star Lucas Giolito heads the starting staff, as he set a career high last year with a 12.1 K/9 and threw a no-hitter against the Pirates, on his way to finishing ninth in Cy Young voting. Chicago made a big move in early December, trading for Rangers ace Lance Lynn, adding some security at the top of the rotation. Their bullpen has young hard-throwing arms like Garrett Crochet and Codi Heuer, and they made a bold move just a few weeks ago, signing one of the best relievers in the game, Liam Hendriks, to a 3-year $54 million contract. The White Sox adding big names like Lynn and Hendriks show they’re ready to go for a title this season.
The White Sox give you so many reasons to watch them in 2021.
Predicted Record: 95-67 (1st in AL Central)
Three players to watch: Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Liam Hendriks
- San Diego Padres
2020 Record: 37-23, 2nd place in NL West
Playoff Result: Lost NLDS to Los Angeles Dodgers (3-0)
The Dodgers may have just won their first World Series since 1988, but it might be a dog fight to win their own division in 2021. The reason being…the San Diego Padres. Last year, the Padres came into the shortened season being a team that had potential, but not a team that was expected to contend just yet. That all changed when a team led by two MVP candidates in Fernando Tatis Jr. & Manny Machado led the Padres all the way to the divisional series where they lost to the eventual champion Dodgers. They went from a last place finish in 2019, to their first playoff berth since 2006 last season. Now, they’re in the mix to potentially win the National League.
The Padres have a generational talent and one of the most marketable players in MLB in their shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr. He’s only 22 years-old and has completely reinvented the shortstop position. He’s 6’3, has speed, power, and makes defensive plays that seem to defy gravity. He was just announced as MLB The Show’s new cover athlete for 2021, being the youngest player ever to do so. He’s quickly become the face of baseball. He finished fourth in MVP voting in 2020, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 45 runs with an OPS+ of 155. He surely will be fun to watch for years to come.
The other name I mentioned earlier, Manny Machado, finished one spot ahead of Tatis Jr. in MVP voting (third). After four All-Star appearances, two Gold Gloves and three top-10 finishes in AL MVP voting with the Orioles and one World Series appearance with the Dodgers, Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres in February 2019, becoming a franchise player for the Padres. He looked nothing short in 2020, hitting .304/.370/.580 with a 158 OPS+.
Tatis and Machado were a huge reason as to why the Padres offense was third in the Majors in runs scored in 2020.
But, you can’t just have two guys hitting well to rank that high in that category. Veterans like Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer provided some pop, Myers hitting 15 homers and having the highest OPS+ on the team (159) and Hosmer hitting 9 home runs to along with a .517 slugging %. The Padres also had youngsters like Trent Grisham, who hit 10 home runs, stole 10 bases and ranked fourth on the team in WAR (2.4) and rookie phenom Jake Cronenworth, who hit .285/.354/.477 on his way to finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting.
The Padres starting pitching was just as good. They finished third in starting pitching ERA (3.46). Dinelson Lamet led the way with a 205 ERA+ and a 12.1 K/9. Followed by Zach Davies & trade deadline acquisition Mike Clevinger, who each had an ERA+ of 157 & 153, respectively.
And if San Diego’s staff wasn’t already formidable enough they made two huge trades this winter, acquiring Blake Snell from the Rays and Yu Darvish from the Cubs. The Padres gave up Davies in the Darvish deal, but they get a four-time All-Star and a former Cy Young runner up in both the American and National League in Darvish. Snell was the 2018 Cy Young winner and helped the Rays make their first World Series appearance since 2008. Clevinger is expected to miss the 2021 season because of Tommy John Surgery, but the three-headed monster of Snell, Darvish and Lamet is certainly going to be scary for opposing hitters.
Even with the Dodgers recently signing Trevor Bauer to an already stacked World Series defending champion roster, the Padres might not only challenge them for the division but for the very title they earned last year in late October.
Predicted Record: 92-70 (2nd in NL West)
Three players to watch: Fernando Tatis Jr., Blake Snell, Manny Machado
Featured Image: JAY BIGGERSTAFF, USA TODAY SPORTS