Too soon? Predicting the '21 division winners

November 15th, 2020

One year ago, I had a revelation: Why wait until March to make flawed predictions about the upcoming baseball season when I can get out in front of everybody else and make flawed predictions in November? That’s why I wrote way-too-early division predictions for the 2020 season.

This was an oddly diabolical approach. I didn’t get swayed by Hot Stove happenstance or Spring Training storylines. I wound up nailing four of six divisions (which might not sound great, but, well, was pretty good for me). The only ones I missed were the White Sox in the American League Central (they only fell short by one game) and the Reds in the National League Central (they only fell short by three games).

Oh, and I didn’t predict that the season would be shortened to 60 games and that teams would only play others in their geographic region and that 16 clubs would reach the playoffs due to a global pandemic.

Point is, division predictions are much more fun this way. So let’s do it all again with this way, way, way too early look at 2021.

AL East: Blue Jays
The Rays are the defending AL champs, which earns them esteem (and Blake Snell won’t have to worry about any hangover effects from his October innings log, because, well …). The Yankees are a perennial power that, in all likelihood, will be the AL East favorite again, regardless of 2020 outcome.

But Toronto … er, excuse me … the Blue Jays took a big step forward in 2020. And I would argue they did it without their young lineup reaching its full offensive potential. To justify this lofty prediction, they would need to add an established, impact bat to the mix, plus at least one impact arm to a rotation that has little experience -- outside of Hyun Jin Ryu and Robbie Ray -- but high upside in Nate Pearson and others. That’s a tall offseason order, but it’s one I feel the Blue Jays are in a better position than most to fulfill because of their financial flexibility and deep farm system.

One can never be certain when a rebuild project will fully crystallize at the big league level, and the Blue Jays’ situation is further complicated by the continued uncertainty as to whether they’ll even be able to play in their home ballpark (and country) in 2021. But fortune favors the bold, picking the Yankees is boring, and, anyway, both you and I will probably forget I made this prediction by Opening Day, which is an eternity from now.

AL Central: White Sox
I went a little White Sox crazy with my predictions last winter. I picked them to win the Central. I picked Yoán Moncada to, at the very least, vie for the AL MVP. I picked Rick Renteria to win Manager of the Year (I basically locked myself into that one when I picked the Sox to win the Central). Well, Moncada was not in the MVP discussion (though his teammate, José Abreu, ended up taking home the hardware). Renteria, who parted ways with the club and was replaced by Tony La Russa, was a finalist for the Manager of the Year Award.

Still, I regret nothing. The Sox are young, fun and very much capable of commanding the Central moving forward, so I’ll take them again for ’21. The Twins have the back-to-back division crowns but showed some vulnerability in 2020, particularly with Josh Donaldson hobbled. Minnesota had the seventh-oldest average position player age in MLB and the third-oldest pitching staff, per Baseball Reference. And the Central’s other contending club, the Indians, have an elite rotation but are very much in the midst of going younger and cheaper, which of course does not necessarily equate to getting better.

The Sox have work to do. They need another viable starter and need to upgrade their offense in right field and at designated hitter. How or whether they’ll spend in the midst of the pandemic is an open question. But they could get a boost from within by the return of one-time hot prospect Michael Kopech and current No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, Andrew Vaughn.

AL West: Mariners
Will this really happen? Well, no, probably not. But honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure anybody is going to win the AL West next year.

The A’s -- as predicted right here! -- won it in 2020 but have 10 free agents, including their starting shortstop (Marcus Semien), their closer (Liam Hendriks), their midseason second base acquisition (Tommy La Stella) and two-fifths of their rotation (Mike Minor and Mike Fiers). That’s a lot of ground to cover for a low-budget ballclub.

Houston’s obviously in transition. The Astros won’t have Justin Verlander (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and might not have George Springer and Michael Brantley (both free agents). They certainly outperformed what you’d expect with all the hits to their pitching staff in 2020, but was that a sign of organizational strength moving forward or a last gasp?

The Angels already have a high payroll, which will make any bid by a new-look front office to improve their pitching difficulties. The Rangers expected to take a step forward in 2020, but instead were one of the worst teams in baseball. The Mariners were expected to be one of the worst teams in baseball, but instead took a step forward.

With everything so up in the air, I might as well take a total longshot gamble here, in the hope that it’ll make me look like a genius 11 months from now. The Mariners played better than expected in 2020, are beginning to graduate their young talent to the big leagues (including MLB Pipeline’s No. 9 overall prospect, Jarred Kelenic, who should debut in 2021) and only have $43.5 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for the upcoming season. Whether that means they’ll actually try to accelerate their timetable remains to be seen, but the AL West is wide open, and the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports has to end one of these years.

NL East: Braves
What made the NL East so fascinating in 2020 is that it had four teams -- the Braves, Nationals, Mets and Phillies -- that seemed to have a legitimate chance of reaching the postseason. So what happened? The Braves repeated as division winners, and the Marlins -- the Marlins! -- made the playoffs while the others went home.

Now, a bunch of factors combine to make the East compelling. You’ve got the Braves trying to decide what to do as one of their best bats, Marcell Ozuna, hits free agency with the DH position potentially no longer available to them. You’ve got the Phillies undergoing a change in general managers after their win-now roster disappointed yet again. You’ve got the Fish feeling themselves and entering 2021 with hardly any guaranteed money on the books. You’ve got the Nats in the midst of major transition so soon after winning it all. And above all else, you’ve got the Mets inspiring hope of a spending spree with their ownership change.

If the Mets do go nuts, there will be particular reason to pick them. They’ve got the best pitcher in baseball in Jacob deGrom, and they have a lineup that, according to context stats like weighted runs created plus and OPS+, was comparable to that of the Dodgers in 2020.

But let’s not sleep on the Braves, who came within one win of the World Series with a starting staff held together by duct tape and used gum. Give them a modicum of health moving forward (most prominently with the return of Mike Soroka from an Achilles injury), and they’ll find a way to piece together another run, even if they have to fill an Ozuna-sized hole.

(Besides, at least a couple of the 2020 division winners have to repeat, right? Right?!)

NL Central: Cardinals
The Central provided four playoff teams in 2020, but, much like the AL West, this looks like a very winnable division.

The Cubs claimed it in the shortened season, but they are likely to shake up a core that fell far short of dynastic expectation. The Cardinals survived a schedule made dramatically more difficult by their COVID outbreak, but they might not be willing to spend what it would take to improve offensively. The Reds greatly underperformed offensively in 2020, and they could lose ace Trevor Bauer in free agency. The Brewers were a sub-.500 team and declined a $4.5 million option on their best offensive player from 2020 (Jedd Gyorko), which basically shows where they’re at. The Pirates are, um, probably not contenders.

When in doubt, take the team with the most depth of pitching. For me, that’s the Cardinals, who, whether or not they re-sign Adam Wainwright, have Jack Flaherty and Kwang Hyun Kim to form the makings of a solid rotation and good relief arms aplenty in Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller, Austin Gomber, Tyler Webb and others. So St. Louis is my pick (that I am not at all confident in).

NL West: Dodgers
Ordinarily, I assume a baked-in letdown after a World Series run. After all, only two of 10 World Series champs from the 2010s won their division the following year.

But the shortened schedule and reduced wear and tear on the arms mitigates much of that concern. And of course, there is the Dodgers’ enviable system depth and spending power, which guards them against some of the attrition others have encountered. The gap in the West tightened a great deal in 2020 with the rise of the Padres, who are very much built to last. But as of now, I don’t see a compelling reason why that gap should close completely.

Though I do leave the door open for Padres GM A.J. Preller to make 15 trades between now and Opening Day that make me feel otherwise, for now I am expecting the Dodgers to win their ninth straight division title. Are you sick of them yet?