Posting baseball predictions before April Fool’s Day is a fool’s errand. A 162-game season is fill of surprises, from hot rookies to cold veterans plus unanticipated injuries.
In the closing days of spring training, the Toronto Blue Jays lost their anointed closer, Kirby Yates, to Tommy John surgery while the Chicago White Sox, another title contender, watched leftfielder Eloy Jiménez tear his left pectoral muscle while trying to prevent a home run. The promising Dominican slugger could be out for the season.
In addition, the New York Yankees are starting without reliable lefthanded reliever Zack Britton (elbow surgery), first baseman Luke Voit (knee surgery), and starting pitchers Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ (all free agents who signed elsewhere).
Last year’s American League champions, the Tampa Bay Rays, need pitching after trading Blake Snell and watching Charlie Morton waltz to Atlanta as a free agent.
The league has lots of faces in new places, including George Springer and Marcus Semien in Toronto, Lance Lynn and Liam Hendricks in Chicago, Andrelton Simmons and Alex Colomé in Minnesota, Trevor Rosenthal and Elvis Andrus in Oakland, and two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in New York.
Assuming no interruptions over Covid concerns or labor disputes, here’s how the teams figure to finish:
American League East
After a winter of wheeling and dealing, Toronto found everything but its home ballpark. Barred from Rogers Centre until the pandemic subsides, the Jays should be an offensive juggernaut with Springer, 31, and Semien, 30, joining a lineup that already includes youthful infielders Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio plus outfielders Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. and Silver Slugger winner Hernández, with Rowdy Tellez the top DH and rotund rookie Alejandro Kirk behind the plate. Another rookie, Nate Pearson, boosts the rotation behind Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, and lefties Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. All the Jays need is a competent closer.
The Yankees, seven games behind Tampa Bay last year, have a Cy Young Award contender in Gerrit Cole but not one other key starter who won a game last year. Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo Germán combined for one inning pitched last year, making a June return by Luis Severino (Tommy John surgery) even more critical. Fortunately, the bullpen led by lefty Aroldis Chapman is strong even without Britton or Adam Ottavino (traded to Boston). Manager Aaron Boone, now armed with a pace-maker, will have pace-setters in batting champ DJ LeMahieu (.364) and injury-prone sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Two men to watch are catcher Gary Sánchez, who slid to .147 last year, and shortstop Gleyber Torres, who’s better at second. A return by Didi Gregorius, who stayed with the Phillies, would have been nice.
The budget-conscious Rays, whose manager carries the ironic surname (Kevin) Cash, will again play their under-the-radar game of manufacturing runs, preventing others with potent pitching and dynamic defense, and creating innovative ways to win. Other teams are copying such ideas, initiated by the Rays, as using relievers to open games. The team’s top prospect, Wander Franco, is back in the minors but its postseason stud, Randy Arozarena, has emerged as a Rookie of the Year favorite. Kevin Kiermaier, Mike Brosseau, Austin Meadows, and Manual Margot anchor the offense while newcomers Rich Hill, Chris Archer, and Michael Wacha try to make fans forget Snell and Morton. It won’t be easy – especially now that closer Nick Anderson is out ’til June with a torn elbow ligament.
Also out like a light are the title chances of the once-proud Boston Red Sox. Deflated by the trade of Mookie Betts, the retirement of former MVP Dustin Pedroia, and the injury to Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery), the Sox are counting too heavily aging DH J.D. Martinez, rookie slugger Bobby Dalbec, and retreads like Kiké Hernández, Marwin González , and Hunter Renfroe. At least center-fielder Alex Verdugo and infielders Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers will give fans something to cheer about – especially since the injury-riddled pitching staff looks like a persistent problem. A comeback by former 19-game winner Eduardo Rodríguez (covid, heart problems) is crucial but he’s already been scratched from his Opening Day start.
Baltimore sneaked ahead of Boston during the virus-shortened 2020 campaign but could drop back to the bottom this season for the fourth time in five years. The O’s lost slick-fielding shortstop José Iglesias but will benefit from the return of Trey Mancini (colon cancer) and promotion of catcher Adley Rutschman, No. 1 pick in the 2019 amateur draft, and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who had five homers in 126 at-bats last year but retains rookie status. Too bad the Birds have such bad pitching that Matt Harvey cracked the rotation. Other starters are John Means and Dean Kremer, the only major-leaguer ever to hold dual Israeli-American citizenship.
American League Central
After finishing one game behind the front-running Twins last season, the Chicago White Sox spent the winter beefing up for the return to 162 games. Veteran pitchers Lance Lynn, an innings-eating starter, and Liam Hendricks, the best available closer, join a proven staff that already includes former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and rising star Lucas Giolito, who threw a no-hitter last year. Even with Jiménez out, the Sox will score runs with AL MVP José Abreu and a supporting cast that features Tim Anderson, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert, Yoán Moncada, and rookie sensation Andrew Yaughn.
Two years after hitting a record 307 home runs, Minnesota might reach that mark again if Josh Donaldson (calf injuries) stays injury-free at age 35. The Twins also strike terror into opposing pitchers with the likes of Nelson Cruz, Miguel Sanó, and Max Kepler, while adding the capable bat of Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, a .300 hitter in AL Central parks. The Twins have a 1-2 pitching punch of Kenta Maeda, runner-up in last year’s Cy Young voting, and Jose Barrios, backed by newly-acquired J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker plus comeback candidate Michael Pineda, a towering right-hander limited to five games last year. Colomé, who once had a 47-save season for Tampa Bay, takes over as closer at age 32.
After posting the best ERA of all non-playoff teams last year, the Kansas City Royals are back to prove they really are an up-and-coming club. Newcomer Mike Minor joins fellow lefty Danny Duffy and righthander Brad Keller as a solid Big Three, backed by Greg Holland, whose resume shows three 40-save seasons, and erstwhile Royals closer Wade Davis, who struggled in Denver. The team gave Gold Glove catcher Sal Pérez a new four-year contract and expect him to lead an offense bolstered by newcomers Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor. Kaycee gets good speed from Adalberto Mondesi, whose 24 steals in 59 games led the AL last year, and and good power from Jorge Soler, who led the AL with a surprising 48 home runs in 2019.
Like the Royals, the Detroit Tigers will go as far as they kids can carry them. Shortstop Willi Castro returns after hitting .349 (.431 with men on base), switch-hitting Jeimer Candelario feeds on left-handed pitching, and starter Casey Mize gets a full shot after struggling in his debut season (0-3, 6.99). The veteran influence of 38-year-old Miguel Cabrera, closing in on 500 homers and 3,000 hits, will help. Newcomers Nomar Mazara, Jonathan Schoop, and Wilson Ramos should beef up the Bengals’ attack.
No, we didn’t forget Cleveland. The team, on the other hand, is due for a very forgettable season. Gone are their best player, Francisco Lindor; their second-best pitcher, Carlos Carrasco; their flawless lefthanded closer, Brad Hand; their veteran first baseman, Carlos Santana; and their nickname. Still there are switch-hitting slugger José Ramírez, in the walk year of his contract; defending Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber; and Zach Plesac, who plays Robin to Bieber’s Batman. The Indians brought in Eddie Rosario, Amed Rosario (no relation), and César Hernández in an effort to remain respectable.
American League West
They haven’t won a division crown since 2014, a playoff series since 2009, or a pennant since 2002 but this could be the year the Angels finally deserve their halo. The team will score a ton of runs with an offense dominated by perennial MVP contender Mike Trout, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, and former NL rbi king Anthony Rendon, not to mention two-way star Shohei Ohtani and veteran slugger Justin Upton. Rookie general manager Perry Minasian rebuilt the pitching, adding starters José Quintana and Alex Cobb and relievers Raisel Iglesias, James Hoyt, Steve Cishek, Junior Guerra, Alex Claudio, Noe Ramirez, and Tony Watson.
The only team to win more than they lost in the AL West last year, the Oakland Athletics remain wedded to their Moneyball formula. As a result, a quartet of vital veterans left via free agency: Liam Hendricks, Mike Minor, Marcus Semien, and Tommy La Stella. In addition, Khris Davis was traded. The payroll-conscious club still has slugging infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, both poised for comeback campaigns, and a solid catcher in Sean Murphy, who posted an impressive .364 on-base percentage. Newly-signed DH Mitch Moreland brings a big bat while Elvis Andrus and Jed Lowrie form a new DP combination. Mike Fiers, Sean Manaea, and Jesús Luzardo are the top starting pitching, while Trevor Rosenthal replaces Hendricks as closer.
Houston finished two games ahead of Seattle last summer and might have trouble maintaining that advantage. A half-dozen Astros are entering the walk years of their contracts and half that numbers are sidelined with serious injuries. The biggest blows were the defection of George Springer and Josh Reddick (both free agents) and the Tommy John surgery of staff ace Justin Verlander, whose long-shot try for the 300 Club evaporated as a result. Manager Dusty Baker, still without a World Series ring, still has José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Michael Branley, Yuli Gurriel, comeback candidate Yordan Álvarez (double knee surgery), and Kyle Tucker, a kid who led the league with six triples, but the biggest star figures to be Carlos Correa, who led AL shortstops in fielding and hit .362 with six homers in the playoffs. Zack Greinke and newly-extended Lance McCullers Jr. head a shaky rotation.
The only team that has never won a pennant, the Seattle Mariners aren’t about to stop that ignominious streak. A young team with a trade-happy general manager in Jerry DiPoto, the M’s finished third in the weak West last year but won’t be so lucky this time. The team has a good 1-2 pitching punch in Marco Gonzales and James Paxton, good young players in Evan White and AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, and solid veterans in Kyle Seager and comeback candidate Mitch Haniger (assorted injuries that required surgery).
Injuries are also an issue in Texas, where newly-acquired DH Khris Davis will open on the IL after straining his left quad trying to beat out a bunt in an exhibition game. The team is banking heavily on left-handed slugger Joey Gallo, who once had consecutive 40-homer campaigns, and Jonathan Hernández, a right-handed strikeout artist who takes over for injured closer José Leclerc (Tommy John surgery). Newcomers Dane Dunning, who pitched well for the White Sox, and Mike Foltynewicz, a former All-Star who fell on his face with the Braves, are key members of a reworked rotation. The team also has high hopes for Nate Lowe and David Dahl, winter pick-ups positioned to be lineup mainstays.
FEARLESS FORECAST 2021:
AL East / Blue Jays, *Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Orioles
AL Central / White Sox, *Twins, Royals, Indians, Tigers
AL West / Angels, A’s, Astros, Mariners, Rangers
Wild-Card Game / Twins over Yankees
ALDS / Blue Jays over Angels; White Sox over Twins
ALCS / Blue Jays over White Sox
World Series / Braves over Blue Jays
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