MLB predictions: It’s finally baseball season! Sort of. The Super Bowl wrapped up and spring training has arrived. With Trevor Bauer and Marcell Ozuna signed, the last major free agents, it’s safe to project rosters and make World Series predictions.
It was a strange MLB offseason. Coming off a year that saw teams lose millions of dollars in revenue, many teams tightened their wallets and either didn’t spend or even trimmed their payrolls this winter.
A few teams got aggressive this offseason. The Los Angeles Dodgers made Bauer the highest-paid pitcher and the San Diego Padres built one of MLB’s best rotations with a few moves. Meanwhile, under new owner Steve Cohen, the New York Mets were more active and willing to take on high-priced players than under the old regime. Even the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays are going for it in 2021.
There is the other end of the spectrum. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians traded away talent, especially those with larger contracts, for prospects and players on owner-friendly contracts. At the same time, the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates are slashing payrolls faster than anyone, with neither club spending $50-plus million total on their MLB rosters.
One thing is for certain, there’s a distinct difference between the teams going for it and those who are sitting back in 2021. For baseball fans, that makes the upcoming season and our MLB predictions more interesting.
Updated Weekly: As injuries occur, rookies are promoted and player performance stabilizes, we’ll adjust expected standings. Although relative roster strength between divisions is dramatic, within the divisions themselves there should be exciting competition all year.
MLB Predictions: Picking MLB playoff teams, division winners
National League East champion: Atlanta Braves
On paper, the Braves and Mets are extremely close. New York is slightly ahead in certain projections, though re-signing Marcel Ozuna ensures the Braves are returning all their key players from the past season.
As written earlier in the year, the Braves have better depth and talent in the upper levels of their farm system. Of course, that doesn’t always show up in projections. Still, it’s easy to see a scenario where the Braves pitching staff struggles with injuries, or younger pitchers fail to perform, and Atlanta’s recent record with producing capable starters is a mixed bag.
The Washington Nationals have made some savvy additions; buying low on Josh Bell was a brilliant decision. But they need to get lucky with health and bounce-back performances. The drop-off between Stephen Strasburg, who barely pitched last year due to carpal tunnel syndrome, and someone like Joe Ross is dramatic and could mean the difference between contention and being sellers at the MLB trade deadline.
The Phillies avoided the abyss by re-signing JT Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, but that merely puts them on track for the same .500-ish performance they’ve had recently. A full year of Alec Bohm will help. They also finally addressed the bullpen, which was embarrassingly weak last season.
On paper, the Miami Marlins are far behind the other four. With that said, they have enough high-end pitching that it’s fair to label them a sleeper in 2021. They still have Starling Marte and only need a handful of their boom-or-bust young hitters to pan out to field a competent team. But they’re probably a year or two away from sorting out their keepers.
National League Central champion: St Louis Cardinals
- Key players: Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Nolan Arenado
- Sleepers: Tommy Edman, Josh Lindblom, Luis Urias
The Cardinals are the boring pick and an unappealing winner, with the NL Central arguably the worst division in MLB. That’s in no small part due to teams prioritizing cutting costs and curtailing pandemic-related losses instead of trying to win baseball games.
Last year’s division winners, the Cubs, have slashed their budget almost 30 percent from 2019 levels, shamelessly trading Cy Young contender Yu Darvish in a blatant move to shed future salary commitments. Fan favorites like Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester were also let go unceremoniously.
The Cardinals seemed destined for a similar trajectory, influencing our MLB predictions. Then, out of the blue, they took advantage of the Colorado Rockies and landed Nolan Arenado. In the process, Colorado agree to cover his 2021 salary and St. Louis kept its top prospects. Even if Arenado stops hitting, his defense alone makes the Cardinals a better team. They also finally re-signed Cardinal lifers Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright for one more go-round.
The Milwaukee Brewers have a higher ceiling and a lower floor than the Cardinals. Their pitching staff has a chance to be sneaky-great, with some elite bullpen arms in Josh Hader and Devon Williams putting up video game strikeout numbers. Keep an eye out for Freddy Peralta, who pitched well in a limited sample size last year and has flashed past promise that he could be an above-average starter.
Toward the bottom of the division, we introduce you to the Cincinnati Reds. They did nothing interesting this winter, swapping out closers and bowing out early for Bauer. Thankfully for Reds fans, trade rumors involving Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suarez and Luis Castillo have stopped and all three should be ready to contribute on Opening Day.
The less said about the Pirates, the better.
National League West champion: San Diego Padres
- Key Players: Gavin Lux, Julio Urias, Dinelson Lamet
- Sleepers: Brusdar Graterol, Cory Knebel, Victor Caratini
The Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers are the best teams in MLB. Not only do they sit atop our MLB power rankings, but we’re just as high on them in our MLB predictions. Both teams made significant additions to what were already impressive rosters. They also boast outstanding roster depth. It will allow them to keep their starting pitchers healthy over a full season, play matchups with their lineups and opens the door for more trades.
Most have Los Angeles winning the NL West and finishing atop the MLB standings. With that said, repeating as World Series champions is insanely difficult and the Padres do boast an outstanding bullpen. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Kenley Jansen remains volatile in the ninth.
The Dodgers’ bullpen overall is dependent on their coaching staff and their strong reputation. They’re hoping for a bounce-back from Cory Knebel (see: Brandon Morrow for a previous similar success story) and for young flamethrower Brusdar Graterol to build on his rookie season.
For now, the Padres’ big injury concern is Dinelson Lamet. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018, but recovered nicely with a 2.09 ERA across 12 starts last season. Unfortunately, the righty’s bicep caused him problems in September. While he’s technically healthy for spring training, the volatility of the UCL means there is risk for a torn ligament and a second TJS.
One team has to win at the end of the year, but this is essentially a toss-up.
The other teams in the division are hardly worth mentioning. Both the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks have some interesting pitching and emerging prospects. But the Giants’ aging core offers little upside for 2021 and Arizona seems headed for a rebuild as it slashes payroll.
As for the Rockies, this could be the start of a major overhaul and fire sale. Of course, that’s only if they commit to taking the right approach. Yet, at least for now, they remain committed to “contending” this year despite having a team not capable of it. If the Rockies get lucky, they’ll be able to trade a healthy Jon Gray for prospects at the MLB trade deadline. That’s the best-case scenario for Colorado in our MLB predictions.
National League Wild Card predictions: Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets
- Sleepers: Marlins, Giants
- Busts: Nationals
Whoever loses the NL West will likely be the heavy favorite in a wild-card matchup. But the one-game format means any team with front-end talent, especially an ace, will be tough in a head-to-head matchup.
The Dodgers’ trio of aces (Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Trevor Bauer) looks nasty. Just keep in mind, a few Cy Young arms don’t guarantee postseason success. Los Angeles has the first-hand experience with that, given its Kershaw-Zack Greinke duo in 2015 pitched four out of five games in the 2015 NLDS and still lost.
But the Mets don’t have Daniel Murphy this year.
MLB Predictions: Projecting American League standings, playoff teams
American League East champion: New York Yankees
- Key players: Corey Kluber, Marcus Semien, Nate Pearson
- Sleepers: Clint Frazier, Alex Verdugo, Yandy Diaz
- Original pick: Yankees
The Yankees’ sluggers have been injury prone, but they’ve done a nice job picking up depth options and struck gold with Gio Urshela, who’s gone from a minor league free agent to an All-Star third basemen. Clint Frazier allows the Yankees to mix and match in the DH slot and hopefully keep everyone healthy.
They’ve got a slew of near-ready homegrown pitchers, such as Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt, and they’ll need them too, as the Yankees inexplicably have opted for high-risk bounceback candidates over the dependable Tanaka, who returned to Japan. Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and when he returns, Luis Severino could all be Cy Young candidates. They could all also struggle big time.
The Rays shed payroll and pitching this winter, but don’t be fooled: they’ve got a deep arsenal of prospects and young talent that could coalesce quickly. The Blake Snell trade looks like a step backward, except Luis Patino and Francisco Mejia are ready to step in right away and have loads of potential.
The Blue Jays were one of the winners of the hot stove and have pieced together a scary lineup, but their pitching moves leave them thin behind Hyun Jin Ryu, himself an injury risk. They’ll probably need Nate Pearson to realize his potential in order to make the playoffs.
The Red Sox still have some of their best players from the incredible 2018 team. Chris Sale will also be back at some point. But their additions were underwhelming and giving up on Andrew Benintendi leaves them thin in the outfield. The curse of Mookie Betts is young but powerful.
The Orioles are a team.
Note: the “sleepers” above are all guys who performed well in the short season of 2020, but have yet to demonstrate their full potential over 162 games.
American League Central champion: Chicago White Sox
- Key players: Mitch Garver, Zach Plesac, Byron Buxton
- Sleepers: Adalberto Mondesi, Dylan Cease, Jeimer Candelario
- Original pick: White Sox
Along with the Blue Jays, the White Sox were other AL team that made significant upgrades this winter: in this division, it will probably work. Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks join a team with impressive top-end talent and some guys, including Eloy Jimenez, who are already good but could become next-level stars.
The Twins are still a force, although they’ll have to cross their fingers Nelson Cruz stays ageless. Letting go of Eddie Rosario was disappointing but they have ready replacements in Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach.
Kenta Maeda’s second-place Cy Young finish looks like a career outlier but his peripherals were strong and it’s possible getting out of Los Angeles, where he was buried and jerked around a bit, helped him find a new gear.
The Indians are backpedaling from their peak and the Royals are past their nadir, but neither looks as good as the above two teams. Cleveland was never going to be able to keep Francisco Lindor, but they’ll miss Carlos “cookie” Carrasco. Both teams have enough young pitching to surprise, although as long as Cleveland prioritizes keeping costs down, it will remain a frustrating also-ran.
The Tigers’ outlook is not as depressing as some other rebuilding clubs, but they are in wait-and-see mode on their pitching prospects; they’re a better bet to spend next winter and climb out of their hole in 2022.
American League West champion: Los Angeles Angels
- Key players: Shohei Ohtani the hitter, Jose Altuve, Lance McCullers
- Sleepers: Shohei Ohtani the pitcher, Jose Urquidy, David Dahl
- Original pick: Angels
Is this the year Mike Trout makes his triumphant return to the postseason?
He’s helped by the fact that Houston essentially held serve and Oakland lost it All-Star shortstop, Marcus Semien. Houston no longer has the prospect depth to cover for injuries midseason, and some of their former stalwarts might be missing the magic trash can.
The Angels continue to actively avoid high-upside pitchers, but in Jose Quintana they may have found a dependable innings eater, which will be good enough. Shohei Ohtani is a solid bet to bounce back as an above-average hitter, and a poorer bet to reach his pitching potential, but it’s easy to root for him to become a true two-way star in MLB.
Swapping out Albert Pujols with Jared Walsh or Matt Thaiss would also go a long way. You wonder at what point they simply cut Pujols outright.
The Rangers won’t be good this year but they have done a nice job buying low on some hitters with potential like David Dahl and Nate Lowe. The Mariners did something similar at last year’s trade deadline. Both are a few years away from having competitive lineups.
American League Wild Card predictions: Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins
- Sleepers: Royals, Lindor-less Indians
- Busts: Athletics
- Original picks: Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins
It’s hard not to root for the Twins to overcome their bizarre playoff losing streak, particularly after fielding a string of strong teams in the regular season. The wild card picture will be more competitive in the AL, with the Rays, Twins, Blue Jays close in talent and handful more teams a few breaks away from challenging for the wild card.
As mentioned above, it’s easy to forget the Astros still have the bulk of their mini-dynasty core, and got basically nothing from Jose Altuve or 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez.
Meanwhile, the Indians have shown a real knack for developing pitchers and while it’s annoying to see contenders penny pinching, pop-up guys like Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie will keep them in the mix (unless they trade them too).
So who will win the 2021 World Series?
The Safe/Boring Pick: Dodgers or Padres vs Yankees
The Fun Pick: Dodgers or Padres vs Rays
While predicting a rematch of last year’s World Series would normally be a cop-out, the two pennant winners took on opposite trajectories this winter. The Dodgers added a Cy Young winner and didn’t lose any major contributors. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays traded their best pitcher and gave up their option on Charlie Morton to save money.
But while they now lack established rotation options, the Rays have assembled an army of high-upside prospects and near-ready arms, in addition to some reclamation projects. That gives them a deep roster and the ability to mix-and-match and hand over games to an electric bullpen, which could make them dangerous in the playoffs.
Despite tinkering in dubious ways with the MLB playoff format, baseball has generally found a reasonable mix between rewarding the best regular-season teams and giving others in the playoff bracket a better-than-fighting-chance.
In fact, despite the insanity of having 16 “playoff” teams last year, the two teams with the best short-season record in each league faced each other in the World Series, with the Dodgers beating the Rays. That hadn’t happened since 2013.
In addition, for the past six years at least one of the World Series teams also had the league’s best regular season record.
Right now, the strongest teams in baseball are the Dodgers, Padres and Yankees. So there’s a very strong chance that at least one of those clubs makes it all the way to the World Series.
A Padres-Yankees would be a fun rematch of the 1998 series, with a potential reversal of situations. In that year, the Padres, while strong, were facing a historically good Yankees team, in the midst of the last great postseason winning streak.
This year, the Yankees are strong but vulnerable, while the Padres have the makings of a potential juggernaut. But this is the outlook many weeks before the start of the season, and things can change.
A Yankees/Dodgers World Series would also have fun historic implications. The Yankees and Dodgers last played each other in 1977-1978, and in fact that two-year span is the time the World Series was the same teams in consecutive years.
Some other fun World Series matchups, using the predicted playoff teams, could include:
- Padres/Rays (neither has won a World Series
- Mets/Yankees, Angels/Dodgers (intra-city matchups)
- Twins/Braves (1991 re-match, two teams with long playoff slumps)
- White Sox/Cardinals (Tony LaRussa’s revenge!)
- Yankees/Cardinals (The two franchises with the most World Series rings last faced off in 1964)
MLB Predictions: MVP, Cy Young award picks for 2021
National League MVP prediction
- The boring pick: Juan Soto stands out among a fun class of superstars, including Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna, as his 2020 triple-slash line of .351/.490/.695 draws up memories of Barry Bonds.
- The fun pick: Will Smith could emerge as the best catcher in MLB by midseason. He also led the Dodgers in OPS last season, outperforming Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager
American League MVP prediction
- The boring pick: Mike Trout, especially if the Angels finally make the playoffs.
- The fun pick: Eloy Jimenez seems like a guy who could hit 50 home runs and carry a team to the playoffs. He’s already good, and his pedigree suggests he can be great.
National League Cy Young prediction
- The boring pick: Jacob deGrom might finally have an offense behind him that can score runs. He’s shown remarkable consistency over his 2018-2020 run and led the league in strikeouts.
- The fun pick: Zac Gallen has a 2.78 ERA in 27 starts to begin his career and despite only mild buzz as a prospect, advanced metrics suggest he’s for real.
American League Cy Young prediction
- The boring pick: Gerrit Cole plays for the Yankees.
- The fun pick: Tyler Glasnow would have led AL pitchers in K/9 but he missed qualifying by 3 innings. He was even more impressive during 2019 before his season was cut short by injuries. Now he’s the ace of the Rays.
National League Rookie of the Year prediction
Sixto Sanchez and Ian Anderson looked great in their major league debuts and are highly-regarded prospects. Ke’Bryan Hayes is a rare bright spot on a pathetic Pirates team; his rep in the minor leagues was of a defensive wizard whose bat was merely average, but he showed more than that in his brief look last season. Dylan Carlson didn’t do much in his first taste of big league action, but he will be an important part of the Cardinals team this year.
Christian Pache is a toolsy outfielder who might debut for the Braves by midseason. Ha-Seong Kim is a rookie in the technical sense but he’s coming off a 30-Home Run season in the KBO.
American League Rookie of the Year prediction
Nate Pearson, as mentioned above, has ace potential and his maturation is key to the Blue Jays’ chances this year. The same could be said about Luis Patino for the Rays although he could start the year in the minors. Also on the Rays, playoff hero Randy Arozarena still has rookie status and should hit plenty of home runs.
The third overall pick in the 2019 draft, Andrew Vaughn is pencilled in at first base for the White Sox. Fellow White Sock Nick Madrigal could be an extremely fun and unusual player as a high-contact table setter in the mode of Luis Castillo. The Tigers will sort through some high-end rotation options in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. Tommy John returnee Michael Kopech was one of the hardest throwers in the minors before 2019.
“Fun” fact: I personally attended Kopech’s major league debut at Guaranteed Rate Field. It rained that night and I was late to the game; by the time I got to my seat there was a short delay and when the game resumed, Kopech was gone. Luis Avilan did not generate the same excitement. Both Kopech and the White Sox are in for better times this year.