There’s still far too many unknowns – regarding a pandemic, the fragile state of relations between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association and other concerns – to lay out with any certainty how the 2021 season will unfold.
We do know that 162 games will be played (hopefully).
That the designated hitter won’t be used in the National League (until it is).
That the playoffs won’t be expanded (but sleep with one eye open until April 1 on that one).
Nonetheless, USA TODAY Sports is ready to boldly go forth with its annual ritual and project records for all 30 teams, an exercise rendered moot in barely a month last year.
Ultimately, 162 games gave way to 60, a season was completed and plenty was learned about navigating the coronavirus while playing baseball. This time, the advantage of experience and the hope of vaccine distribution frame the season far more than any winter transaction.
With that, a look at how our six-person panel sees the season playing out – at least between the white lines:
Nobody won this division in the off-season, but the Yankees did less to lose it: Retaining DJ LeMahieu while the Rays shipped off Blake Snell and shed a half-dozen other members of their pennant-winning club. But Tampa Bay’s unmatched depth will keep it just a tick above the Blue Jays, who made this a top-heavy and far more delightful division with George Springer the cog around which their young core shall rotate…The Red Sox remain in no man’s land, but should field a more representative squad this season and possibly welcome future contributors, such as outfielder Jarren Duran, to the mix. … Alas, the Orioles remain in the business of shedding rather than adding, with Adley Rutschman’s march to the big leagues the most compelling issue this season.
The White Sox have the reigning MVP and significant sex appeal but wresting the division title from the Twins will require Jose Abreu’s renaissance to continue and growth, not regression, from burgeoning stars Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez. … Minnesota can never be counted out, and may yet run away from the division if Byron Buxton and Josh Donaldson avoid significant injury…There’s plenty of life after Francisco Lindor in Cleveland; if Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie join Cy Young winner Shane Bieber to form a dominant 1-2-3, this supposed last season as the Indians may be a surprisingly successful one…While the Andrew Benintendi trade drew eyeballs to Kansas City, a long parade of near-ready pitching prospects that began last season will define the Royals’ season…Same goes for the Tigers, who with four projected everyday players 29 or older still aren’t showing many vital signs five seasons into a rebuild.
George Springer is gone, Carlos Correa may be next, but a largely intact championship core augmented by steady young starters keeps the Astros atop the division…Unfortunately for the Athletics, their “win curve” has been roughly in lockstep with Houston’s over the years; losing Marcus Semien, Liam Hendriks and other bullpen pieces likely leave them scampering for a wild card … If veterans Dylan Bundy, Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb all pitch to their ceilings, the Angels could be a factor. At the least, this should be among their more watchable teams in recent years. … Bolder moves on the pitching market might have made the Mariners relevant; a young everyday core that saw Kyle Lewis and Dylan Moore emerge may add uber-talented outfielder Jarred Kelenic. … The Rangers were granted another year to create an appealing product before paying customers entered their new stadium. Other than Joey Gallo’s home-run swing, there’s still not much to see here.
A winter of sound and fury across the division still finds the Braves sitting atop it, rich in pitching – even if Mike Soroka misses several weeks – and with a lineup potentially punishing from 1 to 9 … You might have better luck hitting the trifecta at your local dog track than properly aligning the Mets, Nationals and Phillies. For now, that’s how we see it, subject to significant volatility, most notably the health and performance of several pitchers. Marcus Stroman and Carlos Carrasco, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, Zach Eflin – all will figure heavily in how this plays out … We’ll never doubt the Marlins again, but hanging with the aforementioned quartet over 162 games will be a far greater task than last year’s 60-game, COVID-stricken heroics.
What a time to be the Cardinals – finding a franchise player at virtually no prospect cost at the same time four division rivals aren’t exactly breaking the bank. Oh, the Cards are still vulnerable even with Nolan Arenado – particularly in the rotation – but the pack has weakened … The Brewers love slow-playing free agency, and thus their projected 83 wins could get a bump with some endgame magic. As it stands, they should pitch and catch the ball exceptionally well. … We’ll see how those “biblical” losses during 2020 and the subsequent mini-purge affect the Cubs, who best break quickly out the gate lest any more 2016 heroes – Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez are all pending free agents – get shipped out … After a two-year buildup, the Reds tapped the brakes a bit, losing Trevor Bauer, trading Raisel Iglesias and bargain shopping at shortstop. Career-like years from Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo would keep them in the fight … It may be worse than it looks for the Pirates, whose shortened-season .317 win percentage translates to 51-111 over 162 games. And that’s before they traded Joe Musgrove.
They lose some platoon magic with the departures of Enrique Hernandez and Joc Pederson. But a staff where the No. 7 starter is better than many teams’ No. 2 will play just fine for the Dodgers … Sure, the Padres can catch their nemeses up the coast. But it seems likelier their own, deep pitching staff sees some regression rather than the optimal performance they’ll need to win the division. … Madison Bumgarner’s readiness from the get-go will be reason enough for the Diamondbacks to improve on a grim 2020. An unproven bullpen may give back some of those gains. … It’s the “last dance” for Giants championship heroes Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, and possibly Buster Posey, for whom the club holds a 2022 option. The old guard will cluster toward the bottom of a lineup that’s still largely a creative mix of castoffs at the top. … Competent pitching may save the Rockies from a disastrous season, but the morale-killing of the Arenado trade and pending loss of Trevor Story can’t be measured.