All 30 teams are actively in their Spring Training homes, and Opening Day is, believe it or not, less than one month away. Rosters are all but set, with no remaining free agent likely to move the needle that much. The National League will have no designated hitter, and the postseason format will be the same two Wild Card setup we had from 2012-19. All of which is to say that the rosters and teams and rules we see right now are likely what we'll see in place when the season begins, and that means it's time to do something fun. It's time to rank World Series possibilities, 1-30.
We got MLB.com's Will Leitch and Mike Petriello together to draft their best title choices, from most likely to "check back next year," just as they did last year. It should be noted that when we did this exercise prior to 2020, Petriello picked both the Dodgers and the Rays in the top six, in case you're wondering which one of our writers actually wrote this introduction. Will goes first. Mike follows. All 30 teams are ranked. Feel free to tweet at Will with your complaints.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Leitch: There’s no reason to get cute here. This is a fully operational winning machine right now, a team that has everything a club could possibly want and then a bunch of other stuff every other team would want solely in reserve, just in case. They’ve got three MVP candidates in the lineup, three, maybe four Cy Young candidates in the rotation and more arms than they have spots for everywhere. They’re also highly motivated to fill any holes that might arise as the season goes on. There’s reason to question some moves -- even if it’s not a very long deal, I can’t help but think that the Trevor Bauer contract has some potential regret baked in, and I don't know if I’ll ever truly trust a Dodgers bullpen -- but this is the best team in baseball by a wide margin. Can they challenge the Mariners’ 2001 win record of 116? I think the rest of the NL is just competitive enough for them to fall short. But when we look back at this Dodgers era in 20 years, I bet this is the team we talk about.
2. New York Yankees
Petriello: I’m not sure if I think the Yankees are better than the Padres. In fact, I think I might be sure they are not. But I do know the Yankees are very good, and as importantly, they don’t have the enormous roadblock that is the Dodgers ahead of them, giving them a clearer path to October. Isn't that what we're after here? Wiinning the World Series? Anyway, I didn’t even think this was possible, but I almost wonder if the 2021 Yankees are somehow under rated. For what it’s worth, they do have the second-highest projected WAR at FanGraphs, and while it’s certainly fair to question the reliability of their rotation, they also have something like eight different arms who are reasonable options to collect starts. (Plus Luis Severino, who may be healthy just in time to replace someone who inevitably is not during the summer.) Do the Blue Jays have fewer rotation questions? They do not.
Put it this way: They’ll be good even if Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton don’t stay healthy. If they do? This is a 100-win team.
3. San Diego Padres
Leitch: I agree with you about that roadblock that is the Dodgers, and remember, it goes beyond just not winning the division. If they can’t pass the Dodgers -- a team, again, I think has a real chance to win as many games as the 2001 Mariners -- that means they’re getting one Wild Card Game, potentially against Jacob deGrom, or Jack Flaherty, or Charlie Morton, or Max Scherzer just for the right to play the Dodgers. That so much is stacked against them makes their offseason moves seem even more impressive. But I’ll still take the bet. This team is stacked, and, more to the point, they sure do feel like they have the wind at their backs. I’m not sure Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers are hitting like they did last year, but I’d put a good bet on Tommy Pham bouncing back.
They’ve got answers for every pick you can nit. Except for maybe that Dodgers one. Though, to be fair, for all the talk about the Padres being in the wrong division … I’m sure the Dodgers aren’t doing backflips either that they’ve gone through all this trouble to construct the best team in baseball only to have the second-best team a short drive away. I can’t wait to watch these teams play 19 games this year. With any luck, they’ll play 24.
4. New York Mets
Petriello: Yeah, I know. We’re too high on the Mets every year. We end up disappointed every year. Meanwhile, the Braves have merely won the last three NL East titles. I get it. I have a lot of faith that Atlanta will be good, but it’s somewhat hard for me to see them being better than the Dodgers or Padres. I have less faith that the Mets hold it together, but if it does go right, they have a higher ceiling? Does that make sense? No? What this Mets team has that previous ones did not -- aside from, you know, Francisco Lindor -- is better pitching depth and a catcher who might actually be able to catch. The defense is improved, if still a problem in the outfield.
But it often seems like recent Mets seasons have fallen apart around, “OK, how many starts are we giving to the guy who right now looks like the No. 4 starter at Triple-A?” This year, with deGrom/Stroman/Carrasco at the top, and David Peterson behind, you start with Taijuan Walker as maybe your No. 5 starter, and Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto floating around if you need them ... and Noah Syndergaard’s return to health looming. It’s a lot better. I love this lineup, too.
I’ll probably regret this by September. I always do.
5. Atlanta Braves
Leitch: Yeah, I’ll take this bet. I agree that the Mets have a higher ceiling. But I think the odds that they reach that ceiling are a lot lower than the odds that the Braves, who are actually a lot steadier year to year than they seem, are better in 2021. And I’ll kind of bet on Atlanta’s ceiling, too? After all, if Mike Soroka’s recovery from Achilles surgery continues to go as well as it’s looking right now, and Ian Anderson can extend out to hold a rotation slot most of the year, that’s legit ceiling-raising right there.
But you know where the real growth is? I think, as great as he was last year, Ronald Acuña Jr. has serious Bryce Harper-in-2015 explosion potential. He’s got enough around him to make sure no one can avoid him, and it sure does feel like the season he might put it all together for a full year. I like the Mets, too. But I still think the Braves are better. I actually think they might be better by a lot.
6. Chicago White Sox
Petriello: I’m going with the White Sox over the Twins here at six, and a lot of the same Mets/Braves reasoning applies. I think the Twins are going to be very good, and I might have a higher confidence in them to just win the American League Central, but I’m going with higher upside here, and if things click for the Sox, they are very legitimately a World Series contender. Remember -- last year, they were already very good, and that was without Liam Hendriks, or Lance Lynn, or Michael Kopech, and with a limited Yoán Moncada, and only a few weeks of Nick Madrigal, and barely any Garrett Crochet. Forget Crochet; you don’t even know who the other non-Hendriks guys in the bullpen are, and they’re an exciting group. I didn’t even like the Adam Eaton signing very much, but I think he’s an upgrade over Nomar Mazara in right field, at least.
It’s not all gravy, of course. Losing James McCann puts more weight on Yasmani Grandal, I don’t think Eloy Jiménez -- while I love the bat -- can actually play the outfield, and José Abreu is likely to be more “reliably good hitter” than “2020 all-world MVP masher.” I’m really not sure how excited I am about Tony La Russa leading a team in 2021. (That’s not entirely true. I am very sure how excited I am about it.) But years of rebuilding has led to this moment. The time is now. The roster is here. I didn’t even mention Tim Anderson or Luis Robert. Good lord, this lineup is loaded.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
Leitch: I can hear it already, and I don’t blame anybody for it: Cardinals guy picks the Cardinals, surprise, surprise. I can’t even disagree! But while I do not, in fact, think the Cardinals are the seventh-best team in baseball (I’d pick, let’s see, the A’s, the Twins, the Blue Jays and the Rays above them, and you can maybe make a case for the Nationals and Phillies), I do think, your fair sentiments aside, that they’re the clear favorite in this division, and the most likely playoff team on the board. I actually do think they’ll sort some of those outfield issues out, with Dylan Carlson primed for a breakthrough year, and while I'm not sure who their leadoff man is (or if I trust Tommy Edman as an everyday player), bringing in Nolan Arenado just solves so many issues this team has had for a few years now. (That Carlson/Goldschmidt/Arenado middle of the order is scary, and I also think Paul DeJong should benefit greatly from those guys batting ahead of him.)
The real question is the rotation. Jack Flaherty should bounce back, but it’s the rest of that rotation that has question marks. Adam Wainwright was excellent last year but is almost 40, Kwang Hyun Kim was effective but doesn’t strike anybody out, Miles Mikolas is coming off an injury and Carlos Martínez is the definition of unpredictable. But there are plenty of options here if one or two of those guys crap out; don’t sleep on Daniel Ponce de Leon either. The point is, the Cardinals have fewer questions, by far, than any other team in this division. I’m approaching this draft as a “who’s most likely to get in the tournament?” I think that’s clearly the Cardinals. I also sure am protesting a lot in this paragraph.
8. Minnesota Twins
Petriello: I am trying to think of reasons to pick the Cardinals over the Twins and I can’t so I will go with: Cardinals guy picks the Cardinals, surprise, surprise. Well said, Will! Meanwhile, because the White Sox had such a good winter, I do think people are sleeping on the Twins, perhaps because they didn’t go out and get any Very Big Names -- and, to be fair, they did not. That’s not to say they didn’t improve; even if Andrelton Simmons is past peak, he’s a huge defensive improvement over Jorge Polanco, and should they ever have Simmons, Josh Donaldson, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler on the field together, there’s the potential for some fantastic defense here. They added pitching depth in Matt Shoemaker, J.A. Happ and Alex Colomé -- though they did lose Trevor May, to be fair -- and, oh, they did bring back Nelson Cruz, still an elite masher at age 40.
But really, this team’s chances come down to the group it already had. There’s real catcher breakout potential, because I’m still buying Mitch Garver is more 2019 than '20, and young Ryan Jeffers looked like the real deal last year. One of these years Buxton is going to stay healthy and have that MVP-caliber season. Miguel Sanó and Donaldson are a fearsome middle-of-the-lineup duo. Hopefully Luis Arraez’s move into a utility role keeps his knees healthy. People don’t pay enough attention to how good Kenta Maeda and José Berríos are atop the rotation. This team was 2019’s breakout club, and I’m not over them yet.
9. Oakland A’s
Leitch: Oh look Twins guy picks the Twins surprise, surprise. (Wait. OK, it does appear I have lost this particular joust.) Well, if I’m pot-committed on grabbing the teams I find more likely to make the playoffs because they’re the favorites in their division -- as opposed to just simply picking the best teams -- the A’s are my last predicted division winner on the board. They did lose a bunch of guys from last year, but unless you think 2021 Marcus Semien is going to be 2019 Marcus Semien (he won’t be) and that Trevor Rosenthal isn’t good enough to replace Liam Hendricks (he is), I’m not sure any of it’s that crippling. This is another good-enough A’s team, with a rotation that has real breakout potential. They could probably use another bat, but who couldn’t? This still looks like the best team in the division to me, and that’s enough for me to grab them here.
10. Houston Astros
Petriello: Oh thanks, this a good reminder that I still plan to pick Houston over the A’s for the AL West, and so if I ought to be focusing on “paths to the World Series,” going with a (potential) division winner is a good path. I do, in a lot of ways, feel like the Astros are somehow underrated right now, that they’re post peak without George Springer, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and so on. (And, you know ... the unpleasantness.) To be clear, those losses hurt. They hurt a lot.
But Dusty Baker also got this team to within one game of the World Series last year, and I’m pretty in on the idea that Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa were better in 2020 than you think they were. Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Framber Valdez (Valdez could miss some time after X-rays performed Wednesday revealed a fractured left ring finger) aren’t big names behind Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr., but they’re also pretty good. You don’t know their relievers, but they’re all interesting. Bringing back Michael Brantley was huge. It’d be nice if they could find an actual center fielder. No one wants to see the Astros win the World Series in 2021. Everyone wants to see Baker win a World Series in '21.
11. Toronto Blue Jays
Leitch: First off, there will be no more fascinating team to watch for the first month or so of the season (at least), considering the Blue Jays are playing in Dunedin, Fla., where there are going to be many, many homers. (Many homers!) The Yankees have three games in Dunedin; the Angels are going to be in Dunedin; the Braves are going to be in Dunedin; there are going to be a lot of homers in Dunedin. But the Jays are going to hit plenty of them themselves, and while the rotation is a point of concern for many people (particularly since they seem to be counting on Hyun Jin Ryu to pitch a full season), any bet you’re making on the Blue Jays has to revolve around that lineup.
And for all the excitement about George Springer, to me, this team’s ceiling centers on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He has been good -- really good! But he hasn’t been the superstar yet, and if he has his oh-man-oh-man-oh-man season this year, Toronto will have an MVP candidate in the middle of a lineup that is already plenty stacked. And why wouldn’t he break through this season? He is, after all, only 21 years old. He’s younger than Adley Rutschman. Hopefully Toronto will get to enjoy its home team this year. But wherever they play, they’re going to be must-watch.
12. Tampa Bay Rays
Petriello: Did the Rays have a popular offseason? Hoo boy, did they not. You may have heard something about “trading your ace starter after a ... well ... controversial decision in Game 6 of the World Series.” Charlie Morton is gone, too. I don’t think Michael Wacha is a replacement for Blake Snell or Morton. I like Chris Archer a lot, but I’m not sure he is, either. Or Rich Hill. Or Collin McHugh. But then I’ve already named four starters without noting Tyler Glasnow -- who I think is going to be an outright monster this year -- or Ryan Yarbrough or Luis Patiño or Joe Ryan or Shane McClanahan or Josh Fleming, or Brent Honeywell, or .. look, the 2021 rotation isn’t better without Snell. They’re worse. But they’re incredibly deep in arms, plus another dozen in the bullpen. (I don’t care that Nick Anderson blew Game 6. He’s still dominant.)
So take all that, and then realize that I’m betting on a huge rebound from Austin Meadows, who was great in 2019 before a completely lost 2020 due to COVID-19 and an oblique issue. Realize that there may be no hitter in baseball I’m more interested to learn more about than Randy Arozarena, who is probably not The Best Hitter on Earth, as he looked in October, but should be comfortably above average. Brandon Lowe looked like a real breakout. Oh, and: Wander Franco looms. I think it’s easy to criticize how the Rays operate, and particularly the Snell trade. I also think focusing too much on that may obscure how successful they just were, too.
13. Milwaukee Brewers
Leitch: Quick: Who had the highest bWAR among Brewers hitters last year? The answer is … Jedd Gyorko. (I have no idea where Jedd Gyorko is right now. Maybe at the Gyork Store.) The point is that the Brewers' offense went bye-bye last year, with literally every hitter in their lineup falling off a cliff at the same time. Never mind just the insanity that Christian Yelich somehow hit .205 with a strikeout rate unlike any in his career. Keston Hiura couldn’t hit; Justin Smoak couldn’t hit; Avisail Garcia couldn’t hit; Eric Sogard couldn’t hit. This team’s third best hitter, behind Yelich (!) and Ryan Braun (!!), was … Orlando Arcia. It was a bad offense, is what I’m saying.
Even with that, they still almost finished .500, and that’s because of an incredible bullpen and a rotation, for all the gruff they’ve gotten for it over the years (I can’t hear “why won’t the Brewers go get an arm??!!” anymore without twitching), had two legitimate horses up top with Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. (Who might be their ace this year.) That was enough, in 2021, to get you a two-game wipeout against the Dodgers. Which isn’t nothing! This year, you have to think there will be some improvement in the lineup, and, plus, Lorenzo Cain is back. That Kolten Wong pickup was smart, surgical: He’s a better on-base guy than people realize, and he, along with Jackie Bradley Jr., who reportedly signed a two-year deal on Thursday morning, is going to help make this defense a possibly spectacular one.
Everything went wrong last year. Nothing everything is going to go wrong this year. (Right? Asking for a friend.)
14. Washington Nationals
Petriello: At this point in the draft, I am here for The Stars. The Nationals, clearly, have The Stars. I wrote about how Juan Soto is the next Ted Williams and I meant every word of it. Trea Turner just out-slugged Fernando Tatis Jr.! I’m pretty in on the idea that you can get one more good run from the aging rotation trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. New closer Brad Hand’s declining velocity worries me a little, but he also has a 2.70 ERA over the last five seasons. Victor Robles is an elite-level defensive center fielder. Reliever Tanner Rainey is really good. If you’re ranking each team only by their “top 5 players,” I bet the Nationals would do quite well.
The problem is the depth, or lack thereof. I should say that I do like their moves to add some competent Major Leaguers in Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, because in 2020, the Nationals had only two good hitters. (They were great hitters, in Soto and Turner, but they were alone.) But I’m relatively down on either looking like their past best versions, and both are weak defenders. I’m really not sure what they’ll get out of second and third base. And the rotation, behind the big three, is really, really thin. All of which is to say: This is a really high-variance team. You could tell me the stars will go nuts and drag this club to October. You could tell me the lack of depth makes them a 95-loss team. I’d honestly believe either. But at least that chance of greatness is enough for me to think about here.
Leitch: As much of a bummer as losing a player with the talent, track record and charisma of a Francisco Lindor is, I’m not sure all is lost here. First off, no team with José Ramírez and Shane Bieber is ever entirely off the map, and that’s not to mention the rest of that rotation; Triston McKenzie sure feels like that next great Cleveland starter that always seems to pop up as the season goes along. The outfield is still mostly an abyss, but at least a likely vengeful Eddie Rosario will be extremely motivated. It sure does feel like Cleveland missed an opportunity these last few years, and it'll be reliving that 2016 World Series for another 100 years, but for what it’s worth, there’s plenty to watch here still. Until they trade it away and break their fans’ hearts again.
16. Cincinnati Reds
Petriello: This is it. This is where I hit the wall. This is where it’s changing from “teams I think could win the World Series” to “there’s still more than a dozen teams left to pick.” Maybe that’s a little too down on the Reds, in part because there’s no clearly great team in the NL Central -- yes, the Cardinals are probably the favorite, but there’s obviously a path here -- and because even without Trevor Bauer, I still like their rotation a lot. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are two of the top 25 or so starters in baseball, and Tyler Mahle feels like a breakout about to happen. Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims are quality relievers. Michael Lorenzen will throw quality innings somewhere. What if they can turn Sean Doolittle around? This is a fun pitching staff.
The offense, to be fair, was bad last year. No qualifying that, just .. bad. Not good. One of the weakest. That, despite some pretty big names in the lineup, some of whom you can expect more from. Nicholas Castellanos should be better. Nick Senzel should be better. Eugenio Suárez should be better. Shogo Akiyama might be better, and Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas could at least repeat what they just did. Jesse Winker was really good. It’s not that hard to see this all coming together, or at least some of it.
Except .. “now starting at shortstop, number 12 .. Will Leitch?” Really? Oh no. That can’t be good.
17. Los Angeles Angels
Leitch: I wanted to go with the Cubs here, but picking three NL Central teams in my first eight picks felt like hedging way too much. (Though I like them more than the Reds.) But there may be no team in baseball I want to dream on more than the Angels. First off, there is obviously Mike Trout, who, uh, Mike, did you realize that Mike Trout is going to be thirty in August? You know all those worries about whether or not the Angels would waste the first part of Trout’s prime by being unable to surround him with a winning team? Well, they’ve already done it. Mike Trout’s almost 30.
I appreciate that they keep spending good money after bad to help him, and it’s worth remembering that 2020 was the first year of the Trout era that he didn’t lead his team in WAR. (That would be Anthony Rendon.) I don’t dislike the low-cost adds of Dexter Fowler and José Iglesias, but the lineup is obviously never the issue here. It’s always the pitching. The Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb additions to the rotation seem to be a better bet than, say, Matt Harvey, but enough to move the needle?
And I know you love Shohei Ohtani as much as I do, but I have to wonder sometimes if he suspects this was not the right choice for him: It’s hard to sneak him in the DH spot, and the team needs a reliable arm for the rotation, not a mercurial one. He ends up being half of one and three-quarters of another, and not enough of a whole anywhere. Like the Angels, he is just a little bit in between of where he needs to be. And now Mike Trout is 30. Maybe this is the year it all comes together; the division is hardly imposing. But they are running out of time.
18. Chicago Cubs
Petriello: You know, it was only a few months ago that the Cubs won the NL Central. I know they got swept out by the Marlins, but that doesn’t really matter. I also know that they traded away Yu Darvish, and that extremely does matter. There’s a version of this where all the heroes of the 2016 World Series team come back to life, really. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez all had down 2020 seasons -- Báez was arguably the weakest regular hitter in the National League, which can’t last -- and it feels pretty reasonable to expect each to be better in 2021. I thought swapping out Schwarber for Joc Pederson was an upgrade, though it may not look that way if they really let him face the lefties he wants. Willson Contreras is still good. Ian Happ’s breakout looked real. Did you notice that in September, Craig Kimbrel had 13 strikeouts and no walks? I can’t say I did. Again: The NL Central is not good. There’s a path.
You’ll notice, also, that in order to get there, I’m banking on a variety of offensive rebounds, and I haven’t mentioned much of the rotation. That’s unfair to Kyle Hendricks, who remains very good. But there are a lot of soft-tossers here, and I’m not terribly high on the prospects of Jake Arrieta coming back to life. The bullpen is quietly interesting, I guess. I’d sure feel better about a rotation that had Darvish, though. Name one of the players they got back for him, Will. I bet you can’t. I can’t.
19. Philadelphia Phillies
Leitch: It’s a good thing that Phillies fans are so notoriously patient; otherwise people might be a little bit upset! After all, after the Marlins’ and Padres’ triumphant returns to the postseason in 2020, the Phillies now have the second-longest playoff drought in baseball, behind only those poor Mariners. And remember, in that time, the Phillies did the sort of teardown/rebuild that ended up winning the Cubs and Astros the World Series. It has … not gone as well for the Phillies. What happens when a team tears down and never gets anything to show for it? Are we sure Philadelphia is the right petri dish to find out?
It’s good that the Phillies have committed to Bryce Harper for so long, and bringing back J.T. Realmuto is the sort of move they had to make to have much credibility as a contender at all. They’ve got a nice 1-2 atop the rotation in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. But everything else here just feels average at best. This is a team that hasn’t gotten better as it has gotten older; it has just gotten older. It’s still not a bad team, but they’re in a division with a terrific Braves team and a Mets team that has fully muscled up. There’s a world where they sneak into a Wild Card spot and maybe even sneak by the Padres before getting waxed by the Dodgers. But that’s the absolute ceiling for this team. And that’s not what the ceiling for this team was supposed to be. Again: They sure are lucky Philadelphia fans are so chill!
20. Boston Red Sox
Petriello: Well, I’m not happy about it. Let’s best-case scenario this one: Xander Boagerts is so good. I know Rafael Devers didn’t have a great 2020; I also know he was fantastic in 2019 and will play this year at just 24 years old. J.D Martinez will bounce back at least a little, and Eduardo Rodríguez and Chris Sale ought to throw more innings than they did in 2020, which is to say “zero innings.” Alex Verdugo had a good first season in Boston. I was pretty down on Andrew Benintendi anyway, and don’t view his loss as a big one. Maybe my long-held love for Franchy Cordero pays off! Maybe Tanner Houck is really going to break out! Maybe Alex Cora brings back the magic! … and maybe Tom Brady comes back to New England to play center field.
But that’s sort of it, isn’t it? There’s still a considerable amount of top-level talent here, especially if Sale looks like he used to coming off Tommy John surgery. Yet in the post-Betts world, they’re not surrounded by nearly enough of a supporting cast, especially in an AL East where they are, at best, the No. 3 or No. 4 team. They didn’t really address the right side of the infield well enough. The cover-your-eyes-bad bullpen from 2020 isn’t meaningfully different. There’s just not … enough. There’s not enough there there. This team won 108 games three years ago. Wild.
21. Kansas City Royals
Leitch: We’re doing a lot of divisional-grading-on-a-curve here. But I liked what the Royals did this offseason. Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor are hardly stars, but they’ve still got upside in them and the Royals didn’t spend much to get either, and Carlos Santana is the OBP bat that the team has been needing for a while now. Heck, I’m not even against the “take a flyer on Wade Davis and Brad Brach” bullpen plan; it’s not like they went all Rockies on either. And the new additions do lengthen out the lineup, which already had Whit Merrifield at the top, Jorge Soler in the middle and Salvador Perez … actually, let’s stop there for a second. Did you see what Perez did in his final 15 games last year? .371/.391/.806. Perez is a free agent after this year, and he’s only 30. If he re-establishes himself as a regular and hits anything at all like he did last year, the offense is no joke.
The rotation, though, well, I suppose I’m not laughing at that either, but only because I feel bad. There’s reason for hope in a couple of years with the young pitchers coming up, maybe, but that doesn’t do them much good now. It’s no wonder Danny Duffy said he wanted to be buried a Royal: It’s the only place he’d be a No. 1 starter. The Royals will score a lot of runs this year, and they’ll be feisty. Who knows? Maybe Cleveland implodes, the White Sox turn on La Russa and Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton are hurt all year in Minnesota. More likely: The Royals are a little better than you think they are, but not nearly good enough.
22. San Francisco Giants
Petriello: I really like what the Giants have cooking by the bay. I understand they haven’t had a winning season since 2016, but you’re starting to see the fruits of what Farhan Zaidi and friends can do. If I can borrow from our friends at The Athletic, referring to what the 2020 Giants just did: “Their year-over-year improvement is among the most dramatic by any Major League team since the mound was lowered and divisions expanded in 1969.” So there’s that. That’s a combination of team-wide plate approach changes, and unearthed gems like Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson, and Donovan Solano. The pitching hasn’t quite been as productive, but you saw what they did with Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, right? Are you betting against them to do the same with Alex Wood, or Aaron Sanchez, or Anthony DeSclafani, or Jake McGee, or Scott Kazmir? I’m not.
But the timing, really, is all wrong. We chose two NL West teams among our top three, and haven’t returned to the division since. There’s no path I can see where the Giants top the Dodgers and/or Padres in 2021, and that’s not really the plan. The plan is to keep improving the overall talent level, in anticipation of the fact that Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey -- you know, the three remaining heroes of the World Series years -- will reach free agency after 2021, as will Johnny Cueto. (Evan Longoria follows after 2022.) You can’t wait for the Dodgers (and, now, the Padres) to stop being good, because that’s unlikely to happen soon. A year from now, expect they’ll start the work of adding bigger names to the next good Giants team. So even if we’re a year too early on the Giants, there’s still something happening here.
23. Miami Marlins
Leitch: Let’s give a little love to the Marlins, who, after all, did just reach the NL Division Series in their first postseason appearance since 2003. They weren’t particularly spectacular doing it -- the cascading implosions of the Mets, Nationals and Phillies did a lot of the work for them, and the Cubs were happy to oblige them again in the Wild Card Series -- but there they were, in the NLDS, when there were just eight teams left. Was your team one of those eight? It likely was not.
The problem is that the rest of the division seems a lot less likely to give them a pass this time around. That rotation is still spicy and subtle, and Sixto Sánchez has top-of-the-rotation stuff, though who knows how many innings of these guys are going to be able to throw this year. The franchise, on the whole, is a far healthier place, with more grownups in charge, than they were just a few years ago. (Also, secret confession time: I’m glad they got rid of the structure.) But while last year might have been a happy blip, this is still a team building for a season of contention that is not necessarily this one. With the serious blowup potential of a couple of teams in their division, that does not strike me as the worst plan.
24. Detroit Tigers
Petriello: I am excited to watch the 2021 Detroit Tigers. I really am. That’s not the same thing as saying I think they’ll be very good, because I don’t really -- they did just lose 114 games in 2019, and have one winning season in the past six years -- but at this point in our draft, I’m mostly interested in “do you have players I would like to watch play baseball?” and “are you building the core of the next good team?” Those things don’t have to overlap. In Detroit, I think they might.
For example: Are you interested in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning pitching in the bigs? I am. Are you interested in seeing if Spencer Turnbull can take the next step, or if Michael Fulmer and Matthew Boyd can rebound? Surely, yes. I would like to take the opportunity to enjoy Miguel Cabrera while we still can, and I think Jeimer Candelario’s mini-2020 breakout could be the start of something big. We won’t see Spencer Torkelson in 2021, probably, but I do like saying “Spencer Torkelson.” This won’t, to be clear, likely be a good and winning and competitive team. But it does feel like they’re doing more than just treading water, too. There are a lot of players I would like to see. I haven’t always been able to say that here in recent years.
25. Seattle Mariners
Leitch: The Mariners were below .500 again last year, but it was the most fun Mariners season in a while. Maybe it was the low expectations going in, but the Mariners weren’t disappointing at all in 2020. They were just a normal not-great team that still gave their fans a few things to be excited about, most notably Kyle Lewis, the sort of player that your kid is always pretending to be in the backyard. Throw in some young developing talent and a couple top-shelf prospects hanging around, and the Mariners -- despite an unfortunate recent incident with their former CEO -- sure look like they are coming into 2021 with some momentum. The playoffs probably won't happen this year, but soon.
26. Arizona Diamondbacks
Petriello: I don’t know. I like some parts about this Arizona club, really. The D-backs probably shouldn’t be this low; that they are is probably a lot about the Dodgers and Padres dominating the West. I just can’t say I thought about them very much this winter. Maybe that’s again because of the Dodgers and Padres, but also Arizona just seemed to be doing a lot of standing still. I can say this, anyway: Zac Gallen is a stud, the best pitcher you don’t know, and Madison Bumgarner’s disaster 2020 at least ended on a high note, one that might last into 2021. I like Caleb Smith and Luke Weaver. This rotation could be pretty good. I just don’t see the offense here, even if I do buy Ketel Marte as a good rebound candidate. It’s a rough division to be in, but I’m also not sure what direction they’re going in anyway.
27. Texas Rangers
Leitch: As we predicted in this space last year, the World Series trophy was raised in Arlington in 2020. We are grand oracles! OK, so we didn’t predict that, and we certainly didn’t predict (all of everything), but that’s par for the course: Nothing has really quite worked out the way the Rangers have been trying to get it to for a few years now. It really wasn’t long ago that this looked like one of the sharpest, most well-run organizations in baseball. Now the Rangers haven’t had a winning record since 2016, and even the guys who were supposed to be stars -- remember when we were all so high on Rougned Odor? -- ended up not really panning out as hoped. I honestly thought Joey Gallo was about to rampage through this league over the last couple of seasons; now I’m worried the Rangers have already missed their window to trade him. It just isn’t working out here. And I’m not sure what their next move is supposed to be. I’m not sure they know either.
28. Colorado Rockies
Petriello: I’m taking the Rockies here just so that Noted Cardinals Guy Will Leitch doesn’t get a second chance to tap dance all over the inexplicable trade that sent Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals for ... well, he’s gone, anyway. For what it’s worth, I’ll go to the wall for starter Germán Márquez, the best pitcher no one pays attention to. As has been the case for most of the past few years, a rotation led by him, Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland could be a good one. Here’s the problem (OK, here’s one of the problems): Gray is a free agent after 2021. Trevor Story, all-world stud shortstop, is a free agent after 2021. Charlie Blackmon is 35 in July. ESPN just ranked their farm system 27th. They weren’t going to contend this year, with or without Arenado. Next year, they’re likely to lose two of their top two remaining players. I have no idea how long it’s going to take to see them back on the plus side of the ledger here, except to say that they’re going to hit their 30-year anniversary in 2023 without a single division title to their name.
29. Baltimore Orioles
Leitch: Oh, hey, now that I have you, did you see that Nolan Arenado went … d'oh, Mike just stole my thunder. Probably for the best. I’ll try to remember the wise words of Aaron Altman:
So yes: I’ll just keep this one to myself and talk instead about the Orioles. On one hand, they were actually kind of fun last year, with a not-terrible bullpen and just enough hitting to keep you from changing the channel. On the other hand, the brass wasn't fooled by winning those few extra games and didn’t let it affect their long-term plan, such as it is, one whit. This is going to be a rebuilding team, probably for a couple of more years at least, but you can start to see the outline of what they are trying to build. With this franchise, that’s progress. And it keeps them out of the final pick of our draft.
30. Pittsburgh Pirates
Petriello: Ke'Bryan Hayes is already one of the top 10 third basemen in baseball. I know he’s only 24, and has only 95 plate appearances to his name, and that the hot corner is loaded. But he’s that good.
Hey, is it bad that we talked about how lousy the NL Central was for the other four teams, and that it pulled them up in our rankings, and yet the 30th team is … from the NL Central? It’s bad, right? Seems bad. To end on a positive note, there’s this: ESPN did rank their farm system fourth overall, up from 11th last year. “Having a good farm system ranking” doesn’t win you any games in 2021. (They will not win many games in 2021.) Might give you some hope for the future, anyway.