Happy 2021 to all. A new year calls for a new batch of entertainingly dubious and dubiously entertaining baseball predictions.
Ordinarily, the difficulty of such predictions comes down to the results. But in these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in, you’d have just as much difficulty predicting whether fans will be able to attend, the rules, the roster sizes, the playoff format and the schedule itself.
Yikes. I’m not even going to attempt to address all of that. With so much still uncertain in our world, let’s just stick to baseball with these nine bold predictions for the 2021 season.
1. Only two of the 2020 division winners will repeat.
But you already know this, because you read my way-too-early division picks, right? Right.
Still, just in case you somehow don’t remember, it’s the Blue Jays, White Sox and Mariners winning their respective divisions in the American League, and the Braves, Cardinals and Dodgers in the National League. That would leave the Dodgers and Braves as the only repeaters, and it would mean monumental rises for the Blue Jays and Mariners.
In case you are wondering, no, I am not actually comfortable with any of this. The Blue Jays pick is aggressive, and the Mariners pick is REALLY aggressive, and the Padres have significantly bolstered their rotation -- and made themselves a greater threat to the Dodgers -- in the time since I wrote that linked piece. But my rationale is contained within the previously linked piece, and I already put my name to it. Once something goes on the internet, it is permanent, as the creators of the “Space Jam” website can attest.
2. The Wild Card winners will be ...
The Yankees and Twins in the AL, and the Padres and Mets in the NL.
Unless it’s a 12-team playoff field, in which case you can add in the Rays in the AL and the Brewers in the NL.
Unless it’s a 14-team playoff field, in which case you can add in the A’s in the AL and the Nationals in the NL.
Unless it’s a 16-team playoff field, in which case you can add in the Astros in the AL and the Marlins in the NL.
Unless it’s a 30-team playoff field, in case you can add in the Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Royals, Tigers, Rangers and Orioles in the AL and Giants, Phillies, Reds, Cubs, D-backs, Pirates and Rockies in the NL. So Mike Trout makes the playoffs!
3. The MVPs will be Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto.
Vladdy Jr. has seen the light. He’s lean and mean and ready to reclaim and earn the limelight that accompanied his Major League arrival. He will do as his daddy did with the 2004 Angels, powering a team to an unexpected division title with monster offensive output. And yes, this means betting against Trout, which might not be quite as outlandish as it was before his rare finish as a non-finalist in 2020 but still feels uncomfortable.
As for the NL, I’m just going to keep predicting either Soto or Ronald Acuña Jr. for the MVP until one of them wins it. That’s the safest strategy. Considering Soto’s historical comparable at this juncture is literally Ted Williams, I’ll take him.
4. Gerrit Cole will get his Cy Young.
The truth is that he might have gotten it in 2020 had it been a full season. Though Shane Bieber had it in the bag by that point, Cole was just beginning to find his form with a 1.00 ERA in September and a positive pairing with personal catcher Kyle Higashioka. Having acclimated to his new environment and maintained his elite velocity, spin, whiff and walk rates, Cole will be handed the hardware that has thus far eluded him.
(Not all predictions have to be bold predictions.)
It's the NL that’ll have the more surprising Cy: Brewers right-hander Brandon Woodruff. Over the last two seasons, he has 195 1/3 innings pitched and a 3.08 fielding independent pitching mark. The only pitchers in that span with that many innings and a lower FIP are Bieber, Cole, Charlie Morton, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. It was an .897 opponent OPS the third time through the order that held Woodruff back from a truly elite season in 2020, and that’s an issue that’s going to have to be addressed to justify this lofty prediction. But with a legit five-pitch mix, improved spin rates and two distinct varieties of fastball, I like Woodruff’s ability to make that adjustment and edge out Mets teammates deGrom and Trevor Bauer (yes, I snuck another prediction in here).
5. Randy Arozarena will NOT be the AL Rookie of the Year.
This is an award in which preseason consensus typically seems to be shaken up by season’s end, and it’s pretty clear that the consensus will side with Arozarena after his historic October. Though it took fewer days of service than ever to lose rookie eligibility in 2020 and Arozarena played 19 games for the Cardinals in 2019 and 23 for the Rays in '20, he still qualifies.
The downside to Arozarena’s incredible postseason output (10 homers, three doubles and a triple) is the target it places upon him moving forward, and he’ll probably run hot and cold as pitchers focus on exploiting his weakness down and in.
So while Arozarena will still be a very good player on a very good (albeit different) Rays team, it will be some other rookie’s turn to attract attention. I see outfielder Jarred Kelenic coming up for the surprisingly good Mariners (and making Mets fans miserable) with an AL Rookie of the Year run. Meanwhile, Ke’Bryan Hayes will build on his quietly great September with the Pirates to win the NL honor.
6. Charlie Montoyo and Jayce Tingler will be the Managers of the Year.
Easy process here. If you pick a surprise division winner, you have to pick that team’s manager for Manager of the Year. And while Scott Servais’ Mariners were also a surprise division-winner pick here, that was an especially bold selection even by bold selection standards. Montoyo and the Blue Jays have a better percentage chance.
In the NL, all of my division-winning managers -- Brian Snitker (Braves), Mike Shildt (Cardinals) and Dave Roberts (Dodgers) -- have won the award in the last half-decade. So as stipulated in the U.S. Constitution (it’s near the bottom somewhere), they are disqualified. Therefore, it’ll go to Tingler for the Padres’ playoff repeat.
7. The Blue Jays will be the American League champs.
Do I know if they’ll even be playing in Toronto? No! But I know they’ll be playing in the World Series.
Well, OK, I don’t really know that, either. But having come this far, I might as well keep going. Looking at the rest of the teams that comprised the 2020 AL playoff picture: The Yankees are terrific but beatable (and picking them to win it all, as I’ve done the last couple years, feels boring), the scheduling conditions that helped the Rays maximize the value of their pitching staff will hopefully not be as stark in 2021 as they were in 2020, the Astros and A’s are compromised by free-agent departures, the Twins and White Sox are still unproven in October, and the Indians are scaling back.
So no, it’s not completely crazy to think that an upstart can emerge and grab the AL pennant (it’s only like 65% crazy). And even if there hasn’t been any real action yet, the Blue Jays have thus far been one of the most aggressive pursuers of talent in this winter market. Imagine, for instance, if they wound up with Francisco Lindor in their infield and either George Springer or Jackie Bradley Jr. in their outfield and perhaps one more starting arm of significance. Combine all that with their burgeoning core, and the Blue Jays, who will take down the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, are ready to soar.
8. The Braves will be the National League champs.
They had the Dodgers on the ropes in the 2020 NLCS, and this time they will finish the job ... but this time against the Padres (the Dodgers will get upset early).
What happens to the Braves’ run production if Marcell Ozuna leaves and/or we get a firm declaration that the NL will not have the DH in 2021? Look, my crystal ball can’t tell us everything, OK? But I still think this is as good a trade fit for Kris Bryant as any team in baseball, or maybe free agent and contact hitter extraordinaire Michael Brantley fits the bill.
With the aggressiveness Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos has once again shown to patch holes in the rotation and Mike Soroka coming back from an Achilles injury, this should be one of the most pitching-rich teams in the game, and the offense was already ample. So Atlanta will reach the World Series for the first time this century.
9. The World Series will have a rare result.
And so the 2021 season will bring us a repeat of the Fall Classic in 1992 -- the year a team from north of the border won it all for the first time and the World Series MVP honor went to (appropriately enough) a guy named Borders (as in Pat).
Having thought long and hard about this, I’ve decided it wouldn’t be right for me to tell you how the 2021 World Series plays out. We’ve had so many bad surprises in the last year, so I don’t want to spoil a good one.
But I’ll leave you with this: The 1939 Yankees, 1959 Dodgers and 1977 Yankees are the only teams in history to win the World Series in a year in which their ballpark hosted the All-Star Game. I believe we will have an All-Star Game in 2021, and I believe those teams will soon have new company.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.