It is hard to believe that the 2021 baseball season will begin, for most teams, this Thursday April 1st. After a crazy year last year, with the Covid rules in place, and, a shortened season of only 60 games, this year will be back to a full 162 game schedule, and a return of most of the rules as we know them.
There will not be a DH in the national league, this year, but it is coming soon. Teams will start the 10th inning, and every inning thereafter, with a runner on 2nd base until someone wins. Pitchers must still face a minimum of three batters. Mound visits are limited still, so use them wisely, otherwise it is baseball as usual.
Wednesday I will have my season picks, award winners, and complete divisional wrap-up column. Today I want to focus on the teams that I will be keeping an eye on all season. I will of course be watching all teams throughout the season and writing about the interesting things I've noticed as the games go on.
Let's start with the busiest team in baseball this off season, the San Diego Padres. The upstart Padres in 2020 have turned themselves into the deep and formidable PADRES of 2021.
They still have the new face of baseball in Fernando Tatis Jr, along with his infield pals of Manny Machado at third, Jake Cronenworth at second, and Eric Hosmer at first. A really solid, and occasionally spectacular, infield to be sure. Their outfield is average with Wil Myers in right, Trent Grisham in center, and Tommy Phan in left. Jurickson Profar gives them some depth off the bench.
They added former Cubs catcher Victor Caratini, and still have Austin Nola catching, a revamped, and really good, starting pitching staff. Yu Darvish came over with Caratini in a blockbuster trade with the Cubs, Blake Snell signed as a free agent, and they still have three superb young arms in Chris Paddack, Drew Pomeranz, and Dinelson Lamet. Mark Melancon and Joe Musgraves will be the likely closers for the solid bullpen and you've got a team to watch.
The question is, can they catch, and beat, the team two hours, and 120 miles, north of them.
The defending World Series champion, Los Angeles Dodgers. As if this team wasn't scary enough they went out and added Trevor Bauer and David Price to their starting pitching staff that already included Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urias. Oh, and still fighting for the 4th and 5th spots are Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, along with Price and Urias. Can you say deep staff?
Like many teams, their bullpen is a question mark. Kenly Jansen has had his ups and downs the past two years as closer. They have brought back Joe Kelly just in case and Blake Treinen is a possibility too. Before getting to those guys they have a lot of hoping and wishing but when you score a million runs a game it rarely matters.
In the outfield they have three all-stars in Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, and AJ Pollock. The infield is dependable with Max Muncy at first, Gavin Lux at second, Corey Seager at short, and Justin Turner at third. They also have Chris Taylor as supersub who can fill in both in the outfield and infield. Austin Barnes and Will Smith share catching duties and are OK.
These guys have been unstoppable for three years now and they have done nothing to make anyone change their mind about them being the best team in baseball.
Over in Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, North San Diego California and Baja Mexico, may finally be on the brink of getting the best player in baseball to the playoffs. Finally. Time for Joe Maddon to earn his money.
This team starts with their outfield, and in particular their centerfielder, Mike Trout. If you haven't seen this guy play then you have to find the time to do so. He is the best player in baseball right now and maybe of all time. Yes, he's that good. He has Justin Upton and Dexter Fowler next to him and a nice addition off the bench in Juan Legares.
The infield is pretty snappy too. Anthony Rendon at third, Jose Iglesias at short, David Fletcher at second, and the combo of Albert Pujols and Jared Walsh at first will stop balls from leaving the infield, and will make balls leave the park, at the plate.
As is always the case with the Angels, starting pitching is a crap shoot, but improved. Adding Dylan Bundy to Alex Cobb, Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning, and back from the injured list, Shohei Otani makes them competitive finally. Raisel Iglesias as closer gives them a chance to finally make a run in the playoffs. They are also one of the only teams to have two Iglesias' on the roster.
It is criminal that Trout has not been able to showcase himself in the playoffs since coming into the league and baseball needs to see this guy on the big stage before his skills erode. I'm pulling for them to figure it out this year and make a run.
The most exciting team in baseball, East of San Diego, are the Chicago White Sox, even with Eloy Jimenez out for the year. The biggest question mark for this team is in the dugout. Can Tony LaRussa come back, after being out of baseball for a few years, and still be able to run today's baseball players? We'll see.
What I do know, is that in spite of anything he may do to try to screw things up, he has one of the most talented teams in the American League. Tim Anderson at short is the real deal, and a vocal leader. Yoan Moncada is back and healthy at third, Nick Madrigal and Leury Garcia will share second base, and MVP Jose Abreu is solid at first base.
Luis Roberts in centerfield pretty much catches anything from foul pole to foul pole, (https://youtu.be/M0pqWA1zNyo), so they don't really need anyone in left or right, but Adam Eaton is solid in right, and youngster Andrew Vaughn will be given his chance to play left with Jimenez hurt.
Catching will be good but boring, which is what most managers want, with Yasmani Grandal doing the bulk of it. The DH position will be filled by a few guys. Look for Abreu to get a few days off his feet this year.
Starting pitching got way better with the signing of Lance Lynn, an inning eater. They still have Cy Young candidates in Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, and Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodon are perfectly slotted in the fourth and fifth spots.
Bringing in Liam Hendricks to close was huge because it pushed everyone else down where they belong. Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet, and Michael Kopech will be the main guys out of the pen for a Sox team that will be formidable and fun in 2021. Ohh - I just created their slogan.
Finally, the beloved.
2016 seems like five lifetimes ago. Fans are angry. Fans want to see money spent to improve this team. Fans will be sorely disappointed once again. The joys of being a Cubs fan continue.
It will not all be gloom and doom up on the "nortside". The infield is still pretty strong with Anthony Rizzo at first, David Bote/Eric Sogard at second, Javier Baez at short, and, until they trade him, Kris Bryant at third. I expect bounce back years from a couple of these guys.
The outfield was improved with Joc Pederson coming on board and adding Jake Marisnick off the bench. Ian Happ in center, and Jason Heyward in right, look much better this spring, so there is hope. Willson Contreras behind the plate gives them one of the top catchers in baseball.
The starting rotation will be the slowest pitching staffs in baseball. Slow in terms of ball speed. Only newly named fifth starter Adbert Alzolay can hit 90 mph, the rest rely on baseball witchcraft and pitching skills. Kyle Hendricks is the ace of this group, Jake Arrieta returns for one final glory year, Zach Davies was brought over from San Diego in the Darvish trade, and along with Trevor Williams as the fourth starter, they have some experience to help them along this year.
The bullpen will be exciting to be sure. Their closer, Craig Kimbrel, had a rough start to his spring training but was ok in his last two appearances. I'm more encouraged, in the last week, than I was early in the spring, for the rest of the pen. Dillon Maples, Alec Mills, Brandon Workman, and Andrew Chaffin look solid. The rest will see limited action so hopefully when called they can perform.
So, there are the five teams I will be watching this season, and frankly it can't start fast enough for me. Southern California and Chicago will be the action spots this summer and don't be surprised if one, or more, of these teams makes it into the World Series. For that, you'll have to come back Wednesday and see who I've got winning.