Quick trivia question for you: How many repeat division winners were there in 2020? The answer is three: Minnesota, Atlanta and the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The year before, there were also three: Houston, and, again, Atlanta and Los Angeles. That’s two consecutive years that half the defending division champions won again, and half that didn’t. Will the same happen in '21?
It stands to reason there at least should be more variance in 2021: The teams that won last year’s division titles only played 60 games, after all. But will there be? Today, we take a look at the six division title winners from '20 and rank them by their likelihood of doing so again in '21. And it’ll likely turn out that once again only half of them make it … if that.
It’s a pretty good sign that we should expect considerable turnover among division champions in 2021 that the Dodgers, who have had the Padres firing arrows at their back the entire offseason, are still the safest bet here. There are questions with the Dodgers; who’s going to play third base, whether the bullpen has enough arms, what they’re going to do with Gavin Lux. But they’re still the Dodgers, and they’ve won the division eight times in a row at this point. It’s a little scary that maybe the second-best team in baseball is also in their division, but we’ll believe the Dodgers are anything but a first-place team when we see it.
See what I mean? Using Fangraphs' current predicted standings, the Dodgers are the only defending champion that’s favored to win their division in 2021. That’s some good variance! It’s tough to come up with No. 2 pick here, but I’ll go with the the Twins because:
A: It took a while, but Nelson Cruz will be back.
B: Josh Donaldson looks ready for a rebound season.
C: The addition of Andrelton Simmons adds an elite glove to their infield defense.
D: Cleveland has essentially dropped out of the running.
The White Sox are obviously the major challenger here: There’s a reason the projection systems have them as the favorites. But the Twins are still quite formidable, and may even be better positioned for the long season than the White Sox. This is a close one, but the Twins get the nod.
The Mets have landed some major roster additions this offseason, but the Braves are still setting the bar of this division, right? They’re probably short a big bat without Marcell Ozuna -- though they could still re-sign him, of course -- but they still have the reigning MVP Freddie Freeman and MVP-to-be Ronald Acuña Jr. The rotation should be better with Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, and full seasons from Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright should help solidify it. And this could be a breakout year for Cristian Pache. The Braves are loaded with talent and might not be done adding.
The Mets are right there, maybe even square with Atlanta. But the idea that the Mets have secured their spot atop the division is belied by the fact that the Braves have won this division for three straight seasons now. The depth of this division -- the Phillies, Nationals and Marlins are all good -- makes predicting any winner a fool’s errand, but the Braves, clearly, aren’t going anywhere.
This offseason has gotten away from the A’s a little bit. They’ve lost many key pieces from their division-winning 2020 team, from Liam Hendriks to Marcus Semien to Tommy La Stella, and there’s still some frustration that they weren’t able to get past the Astros in the AL Division Series. But it’s not like the rest of the division has taken massive steps forward. The Astros, who finished under .500 last year, lost George Springer; the Angels are trying to improve but still finished 10 games behind the A’s last year in a season of only 60 games; the Mariners are still building; the Rangers might be tearing down. The A’s look like they’ll be worse than they were in '20, but there’s not a lot of evidence that the rest of the division is ready to take advantage.
Other than maybe the Rockies, no fan base has had as discouraging an offseason as Cubs fans, whose team celebrated a division championship by non-tendering a World Series hero (Kyle Schwarber) and trading away its ace (Yu Darvish). And they might not be done.
They also watched their rival, the Cardinals, bring in Nolan Arenado, a move that’s the precise opposite of what the Cubs have been doing all winter. That said: Before the Arenado trade, I argued the Cubs might still be the division favorites, and my colleague Mike Petriello made a compelling argument that this division is far from settled.
Joc Pederson is sort of a perfect addition for this team, and even with the all the rotation issues, the lineup is strong. And it’s not like this is a titanic division: The Reds and Brewers have been even quieter than the Cubs have. The Cardinals may now be favorites. But the margins all around here are slim.
The amusing part about this exercise is that it’s possible the Rays are the second-best team on this list. Sure, they are without their two best starters from 2020, with Morton off to the Braves and Blake Snell to the Padres, and they sure are counting a lot on Randy Arozarena to remain the Randy Arozarena of October. There’s reason to think they’ve taken a step back. But they’re still an organization that has a ton of talent, and at some point this year Wander Franco is going to show up and just start wrecking things.
But the problem for the Rays is that, well, the Yankees have improved their rotation -- they may have nine pitchers to choose from -- and are due, at last, for some injury luck. And the Blue Jays, a team that made the playoffs last year anyway, went out and got the best free agent on the market in George Springer. (Not to mention Marcus Semien.) The Yankees and the Blue Jays are going for it, and hey, the Red Sox haven’t vanished from the face of the earth, either. The Rays are still good. They just might be going in the wrong direction … at least for 2021.