Major milestones that might fall this year

Last year, we saw Albert Pujols tie and then pass Willie Mays for fifth-most home runs all-time and Mike Trout reach 300 career home runs to become the Angels’ all-time leader, among various career milestones. With each new baseball season, there are always more milestones to look out for -- and 2021 is no exception.

Here is a look at some major milestones on the horizon for 2021 and beyond, along with a breakdown of each player’s chances of getting there this year.

Miguel Cabrera: 500 home runs, 3,000 hits

These two milestones were on the list for Cabrera last year, too, but both were long shots in a 60-game season. He hit 10 homers in 2020 to raise his career total to 487. His impressive career already includes a Triple Crown, two MVP Awards and 11 All-Star selections, not to mention a World Series title in 2003 with the Marlins. But 500 homers would put him into even further rarefied air. Twenty-seven players have hit 500-plus homers, and Cabrera’s current .313 career batting average would rank fourth among that group behind Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx -- just ahead of Manny Ramirez’s .312, and with full understanding that Cabrera’s career average is subject to change.

Cabrera is also likely to be the next player to reach 3,000 hits. He enters 2021 with 2,866, putting him 134 shy of becoming the 33rd player in Major League history to reach the mark. And if he accomplishes both milestones? He'll be just the seventh player to do so, joining Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Willie Mays, Rafael Palmeiro and Eddie Murray.

Will it happen?

Cabrera needs 13 home runs to reach 500. Beginning with the year after his rookie campaign in 2003, Cabrera hit at least 13 homers each year through 2017. Since then, he topped out at 12 in 2019, when he played in 136 games. The other outlier years were ‘18, when he hit three in 38 games, and ‘20, when he hit 10 in 57 games, as noted above. If he stays healthy in 2021, he seems likely to at least reach the 500 mark.

The 134 hits he needs to reach 3,000 seems feasible, too, given that he had 139 in 2019. On a rate basis, though, it is worth noting that his .250 batting average in 2020 was the second lowest of his career, behind only his .249 average in '17, when he notched 117 hits in 130 games. It isn’t a first-half target, but Cabrera certainly has a chance to reach 3,000 hits, too, by the end of ‘21.

Albert Pujols: ninth all time in hits, third in total bases and extra-base hits

These aren’t round numbers, like 600 homers, nor are they committed-to-memory digits like Willie Mays’ 660 or Babe Ruth’s 714, but Pujols is approaching the top 10 all-time in hits and top three for both total bases and extra-base hits. He enters the year 14th in hits, with 3,236. The next few names on the list, according to the Elias Sports Bureau:

8) Carl Yastrzemski: 3,419
9) Paul Molitor: 3,319
10) Eddie Collins: 3,313
11) Willie Mays: 3,283
12) Eddie Murray: 3,255
13) Nap Lajoie: 3,252

Pujols enters the year with 5,923 career total bases, trailing only Barry Bonds (5,976), Mays (6,066), Stan Musial (6,134) and Hank Aaron (6,856). And he has 1,347 career extra-base hits, fifth behind only Babe Ruth (1,356), Musial (1,377), Bonds (1,440) and Aaron (1,477). The context here needs very little parsing: an all-time great can continue to climb some noteworthy lists.

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Will it happen?

Each of these seems within reach for Pujols in 2021. He needs 84 hits to vault from 14th all-time to ninth, passing Molitor. As noted above, passing Yastrzemski would take another 100 hits -- so that eighth-place mark is likely for 2022 and beyond. But aside from the shortened 2020 season, Pujols has never played a season where he totaled fewer than 101 hits, so the 84 he needs for 3,320 seems likely.

Those total bases and extra-base hit milestones seem very reachable as well. From 2017-19, even as his production faltered, Pujols averaged 210 total bases per season. That total on the dot would give him 6,133, putting him one total base from tying Musial for second most. At the very least, he’s 54 shy of passing Bonds for fourth and 144 shy of passing Mays for third -- which are both certainly in reach. Similarly, his 2017-19 average of 41 extra-base hits per year would give him 1,388, which would be good for third on the list behind only Aaron and Bonds. He’s 10 shy of passing Ruth and 31 shy of passing Musial.

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Max Scherzer: 3,000 strikeouts

Scherzer enters the year 23rd on the all-time strikeout list, with 2,784. That means that 3,000 is very much on the radar for him over the course of the season. The last pitcher to join the 3,000-strikeout club was Scherzer’s former teammate Justin Verlander, who became its 18th member. The 3,000 mark is certainly elite territory: Of the 18 pitchers to reach it, the only ones not in the Hall of Fame are Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, plus CC Sabathia and Verlander, who are not yet eligible.

Will it happen?

Scherzer needs 216 strikeouts for this milestone, which seems quite likely barring anything unforeseen. Before 2020, the last time Scherzer failed to strike out 216 batters was in 2011, when he had a 4.43 ERA in his second season with the Tigers and fourth in the Majors overall. Reaching 3,000 would propel him from 23rd on the list to 19th -- passing Cy Young, Mike Mussina, Mickey Lolich and Jim Bunning along the way. Verlander is next on that list, with 3,013 at the moment. To begin his ascent up the list, Scherzer first has to pass Young at 2,806.

Clayton Kershaw: Dodgers’ all-time strikeout leader

Another that isn’t a round number you’d know to look for on a player’s page, Kershaw is approaching Don Sutton’s franchise record in strikeouts. Sutton notched 2,696 during his time in Dodger blue. Kershaw enters the year at 2,526, having surpassed the 2,500 threshold last year. The only active pitcher who is his team’s franchise strikeout leader is Stephen Strasburg, at 1,697, more than anyone else in a Nationals or Expos uniform. It’s worth noting that Félix Hernández is the Mariners’ all-time strikeout leader, but he is no longer on the team, nor does he currently have a Major League contract with any team.

Will it happen?

Kershaw is 171 strikeouts shy of passing Sutton, which feels very likely as long as he stays healthy. Setting 2020 aside, Kershaw struck out 172 batters in each season from 2009-19 except for ’18, when he had 155 K’s in 26 starts. He isn’t the lock for a 200-strikeout season that he used to be, but this still feels like a milestone we’ll be celebrating for him by the latter part of the season.

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Yadier Molina: 2,000 games caught and beyond

Molina caught all 42 games he played in 2020, bringing his career total to 1,989 games caught. He’s sixth all-time on the list, after passing Tony Peña last season. Every game he catches adds to his legacy at this point, and it’s fitting that he signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals this offseason to build upon it.

Will it happen?

Molina enters the year 11 games shy of 2,000 caught for his career, 37 shy of passing Jason Kendall for fifth all-time and 68 shy of passing Gary Carter for fourth. Molina will turn 39 in July, which is certainly a consideration here, but the only year where he caught fewer than 100 games, other than 2020, was in 2004 as a rookie, when he caught 51. Of course, that rookie season was a long time ago at this point, but all indications are that Molina is the Cards’ primary catcher again this year -- putting 2,000 games and moving up the list very much within reach, barring injury.

Joey Votto: 300 home runs, 1,000 RBIs

Votto enters the year with 295 career homers and 966 RBIs. He’s already second among Canadian-born players all-time in home runs, but reaching an even 300 would put him in rarefied air on the list with Hall of Famer Larry Walker, who hit 383. Votto is third on the all-time RBI list among Canadian-born players, trailing Justin Morneau (985) and Walker (1,311), so he could be the second to reach the round-number mark of 1,000 here, too.

Will it happen?

These both seem very doable for Votto. He needs five homers to reach 300, and has just one season of his career with fewer than that: 2007, when he made his MLB debut and hit four homers in 24 games. He needs 34 RBIs to reach 1,000, and considering that he racked up 22 in 54 games in 2020, it seems likely. He’s had at least 47 RBIs in each year of his career when he played 100 or more games.

Aroldis Chapman: 300 saves

Chapman pitched in 13 games in 2020, notching three saves in five opportunities. He enters 2021 with 276 career saves. His 276 saves are third most among active pitchers behind Craig Kimbrel (348) and Kenley Jansen (312).

Will it happen?

He enters the season 24 saves shy of 300, which seems like a realistic mark to reach and surpass in 2021. Chapman’s career-high saves total was 38 in 2012 and '13 with the Reds, and he had 37 as recently as 2019. Those 24 more saves would make him the 31st pitcher to reach at least 300 career saves.

Jon Lester: 200 wins

After six years with the Cubs, Lester signed a one-year deal with the Nationals in the offseason. He recorded three wins in 2020 and enters the season with 193 victories in his career.

Will it happen?

Lester is seven wins shy of reaching 200, which seems like a fair mark to expect in 2021. He’s part of the Nationals’ rotation and can expect the usual 25-plus starts if all goes well. As noted above, he won three of his 12 starts in 2020, but prior to ‘20, he hadn’t won fewer than seven games in a season since 2007, when he had four wins in his second year in the Majors. If the Nationals are to compete in 2021, Lester being a solid part of the rotation will likely factor in, and it could facilitate this milestone happening.

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