With the baseball season starting Thursday, it’s time for the annual Fearless Forecast. We’ll start with the National League since the World Series trophy currently rests with an NL club.
Whether the Los Angeles Dodgers can repeat is subject to conjecture, however. The Dodgers did add the league’s reigning Cy Young Award winner in Trevor Bauer, who inked a three-year deal worth $102 million, but the San Diego Padres countered by trading for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, veteran starters coming off good seasons.
San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. has a short resume but a long contract – at 14 years, the longest in baseball history. Teamed with Manny Machado, another long-term signee, on the left side of the Padres infield, the 22-year-old Tatis is a five-tools talent with MVP aspiratons.
The Padres, six games out last year, also hope to close the gap in the NL West with the help of Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, and Korean import Ha-Seong Kim, plus pitchers Joe Musgrove and Chris Paddack.
Los Angeles won 43 of its 60 games last year, survived the expanded 16-team post-season, and won its first World Series since 1988. The most versatile team in the majors, the Dodgers could also score the most runs for the second year in a row. Their attack features former MVPs Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger, fellow sluggers Corey Seager, Max Muncy, and Justin Turner. Buoyed by Bauer and returning David Price, a covid opt-out, the top Dodger starters are Clayton Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, and Julio Urias, with newcomer Corey Knebel aiding Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen in the bullpen.
Although the Dodgers used to look north for their biggest rival, that won’t be the case in 2021.
The San Francisco Giants are showing their age. Even the return of covid opt-out Buster Posey, a six-time All-Star, isn’t enough to help a lineup headed by Mike Yastrzemski, Brandon Belt, and Alex Dickerson. The team needs comebacks from pitchers Johnny Cueto and Alex Wood plus more sturdiness from Kevin Gausman. New lefty closer Jake McGee will be busy.
Former Giant Madison Bumgarner, a lefty who managed a lone win in his first year with Arizona, might be Arizona’s best-known player. The D’backs finished fifth a year ago and don’t figure to do much better. The team needs comebacks from Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, better production behind the plate, and a fountain of youth from Asdrúbal Cabrera, suddenly thrust into regular service at third base.
Speaking of the hot corner, filling it in Denver will be a Mission Impossible following the one-sided swap that sent Nolan Arenado to St. Louis. Shortstop Trevor Story, also playing on an expiring contract, could soon follow him out of town. Even though they still have Charlie Blackmon, Story, and pitchers German Márquez and Antonio Senzatela, the Rox are a lock to drop from fourth to last.
Arenado’s arrival in St. Louis, meanwhile, has celebratory churchbells clanging nonstop. The third baseman has eight Gold Gloves, five All-Star rings, and three home run crowns – a big help to a team that finished last in home runs last year. He and Paul Goldschmidt will form a fine 3-4 punch in the order, helping pitchers Jack Flaherty and Kwang Hyun Kim, a lefty who made a solid impression in 2020. The Cards even managed to keep Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
After finishing a distant fourth last year, the Milwaukee Brewers might emerge as the biggest threat to the Cards. Former MVP Christian Yelich is the top Comeback of the Year candidate in the league, Lorenzo Cain returns after opting out for covid, and Jackie Bradley Jr. rounds out the best defensive outfield in the league. The Brewers also boosted their defense by signing former Cardinal Kolten Wong to play second base. Travis Shaw returns to play third, while Kestin Giura shifts from second to first. Milwaukee gets strong pitching from starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes and closers Josh Hader and Devin Williams.
Too much age and too many expiring contracts could plague the Chicago Cubs, who lost Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber as free agents and Yu Darvish in a trade. If they’re not traded, it could be a last hurrah at Wrigley for Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, and closer Craig Kimbrel, though the club still has Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, and starting pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, and Jake Arrieta, returning after a sojourn in Philadelphia.
Just when it seemed like Cincinnati’s fortunes were on the rise, covid raised its ugly head and kept fans from ballparks. Without game-day revenue, teams like the Reds were forced to pare payroll. The Reds made no effort to keep Bauer or fellow pitchers Archie Bradley and Raisel Iglesias, a pair of productive closers. The team would like to move the contracts of Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas too. There’s much infield flux and uncertainty over Nick Senzel, a prospect who stumbled last season. Trades could break up a rotation led by Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and comeback candidate Wade Miley. New closer Sean Doolittle will help.
Ah yes, the Pirates are still in the league – just barely. Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, and Chris Archer are gone, with prospects in their place. Ke’Bryan Hayes, a third baseman who can hit, could be in the conversation for NL Rookie of the Year.
We’ve saved the best for last: the National League East will be dogfight, with four times fighting their way through the 162-game schedule and a fifth seeking to stay out of the cellar after a rare postseason experience a year ago.
Without the universal DH, the Atlanta Braves will be forced to return Marcell Ozuna to left field, where he’s barely passable because of a bad shoulder. But he led the NL in total bases, home runs, and RBIs last year, providing such a righthanded lineup threat that the lefthanded Freddie Freeman, batting in front of him, won his first MVP award. Ronald Acuña Jr., another MVP candidate, says he’s hoping to become baseball’s first 50/50 man but needs patience from No. 2 hitter Ozzie Albies.
Other than Ozuna, the Braves are the strongest defensive team in the division, which is why they’re likely to win their fourth straight title. They also have Cy Young Award contenders in Max Fried, Mike Soroka, veteran Charlie Morton, and rookie righthander Ian Anderson, who could duplicate the Fernando Valenzuela feat of winning Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors in the same season. Hard-throwing lefty Will Smith takes over as closer.
The Mets made major moves during the winter but went 0-for-4 on the top available free agents. On the other hand, they made a deal as lopsided as the Arenado swap in acquiring five-tools shortstop Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco (now injured) for four surplus bodies. Lindor, newly-signed catcher James McCann, and rightfielder Michael Conforto are solid defenders but too many other regulars are not. The team also needs a strong comeback from Pete Alonso, victim of the sophomore jinx last season.
Once Noah Syndergaard returns from Tommy John surgery in midseason, the Mets figure to have a formidable rotation that also includes two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and diminutive righthander Marcus Stroman. Much rides on which version of closer Edwin Diaz appears this year: the struggling 2019 edition of the new and improved 2020 product.
Like the Mets, the Washington Nationals are wishing for good pitching. But that might be to much wishful thinking for a team that wages constant battles with age and injury. Adding 37-year-old lefty Jon Lester to a rotation led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin might not generate a good return on investment, though signing southpaw Brad Hand should shore up a woeful bullpen brigade.
The Gnats have two of the game’s best players in Juan Soto and Trea Turner, plus notable newcomers in Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison, and Alex Avila. But centerfielder Victor Robles may run himself ragged between Soto and Schwarber.
Washington, which won a world championship in 2019, hasn’t been quite the same since Bryce Harper took his act to Philadelphia two years ago. But Harper hasn’t been quite the same either.
The 28-year-old right-fielder should be hitting a lot more home runs in the bandbox ballpark he now calls home. Maybe he feels the burden of carrying the whole club, which otherwise relies on Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen, like Harper a former MVP.
The Phils have a strong 1-2 pitching punch in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler but only one left-handed starter in late-signing Matt Moore. The team has also beefed up its beleaguered bullpen by signing bearded right-hander Archie Bradley to a one-year, $6 million pact.
Even the Marlins were surprised they made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2003. But a young pitching rotation headed by Sixto Sánchez, Pablo López, and Sandy Alcántara sowed its oats when it counted most. The Fish spent the winter scouring for help, signing slugger Adam Duvall and Kim Ng, the first female GM. Youth, speed, and defense fuel Don Mattingly’s charges, who finished second last year with a 31-29 mark before bowing to the Braves in the NLDS.
Lots of teams will be bowing to the Braves this year. Sports Illustrated picked the team not only to win its first pennant since 1999 but also to win its first world championship since 1995.
NL East / Braves, *Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Marlins
NL Central / Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Reds, Pirates
NL West / Padres, *Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies
Wild-Card Game / Dodgers over Mets
NLDS / Braves over Cards, Dodgers over Padres
NLCS / Braves over Dodgers
World Series / Braves over Blue Jays
Coming tomorrow: American League
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