The 2021 MLB season has begun, but most sportsbooks still offer player and team futures a few days into the year. Coming off a shortened 2020, information is scarce and projections are unstable, leaving more potential for finding value in lines than ever before.
Cincinnati Reds UNDER 81.5 Wins
The Reds were a borderline .500 team in 2020 that has since lost the NL Cy Young winner and replaced him with Jeff Hoffman. If that’s not enough to convince you on the under, what steers me most towards this team total is the club’s intent. After going all-in in 2020, the Reds seem comfortable, if not determined, on taking a step back this year. They teased us with offseason trades of Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo that haven’t happened (yet) and considered cap dumps of Mike Moustakas and Joey Votto. Though the Reds 2021 roster construction isn’t much different from 2020, the goalposts have moved.
According to FanGraphs’ preseason projections (which have the Reds winning 78 games), Cincinnati is the second worst team in the NL Central, ahead of only the Pirates. Though the division is messy with mediocrity, anything but a blistering start to the season should instigate some in-season selling that will push Cincinnati under .500 and well below 82 wins.
St. Louis Cardinals OVER 86.5 Wins
Picking the Cardinals to win more than 86 games, is, in almost every way, the other side of the Reds coin. St. Louis has clear intent on winning this year — they brought in arguably the best 3B in baseball and are trying to take advantage of the Reds and Cubs’ indifference to winning.
To me, the Central is a clear two-horse race, with the Brewers and Cardinals on pretty equal footing and St. Louis posing the higher upside. The Cardinals had a 84-win pace in 2020 and return three of their four one-plus WAR players in Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman, and Harrison Bader. They can expect better seasons from Jack Flaherty, Paul DeJong, and Matt Carpenter, and added Nolan Arenado (who has averaged 6.3 WAR since 2015). St. Louis’ only real loss was Kolten Wong, but his departure opens up a clear spot for Tommy Edman, who slashed .378/.404/.422 in spring, to build on his 2019 breakout.
Houston Astros OVER 87.5 Wins
Fans missed an opportunity to jeer the sub-.500 Astros in 2020, and Houston won’t give them the chance this year either. Jose Altuve and most of the trash-can gang had down seasons last year, but they still made the playoffs, and, for the fourth year in a row, made the ALCS.
A 60 game sample size of .500 play shouldn’t overshadow what we know, and the playoffs showed, the Astros still are. The return of Yordan Alvarez and rebounds from Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel can be expected, and their pitching staff will be surprisingly good despite the losses of Forrest Whitley and Frambler Valdez to injury — a Greinke/Odorizzi/McCullers/Javier/Urquidy rotation has the perfect balance of stability and upside. George Springer’s departure will prevent Houston from being a borderline 100-win team, but they should easily surpass 90 wins if they don’t suffer further pitching injuries.
Shohei Ohtani AL MVP +2000
Being at or near the top of most rate and counting statistics is a must to be in MVP contention, but, whether voters admit it or not, so is a good narrative. There could be no better 2021 MLB storyline than Ohtani staying healthy and finally putting both aspects of his game in a full season. An .850 OPS hitter and mid-threes ERA starter, Ohtani has a higher ceiling than any other player in baseball. With just 10 starts and 367 PA in 2019, Ohtani posted 3.8 bWAR, and with a full, healthy, season of work he can easily touch seven or eight. The biggest thing working against Ohtani for MVP is that he plays on the same team as the best player in the world, but Mike Trout’s +220 odds are just way less fun (and profitable).
Juan Soto NL MVP +700
Soto led baseball in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage last year and somehow came FIFTH (!?) in MVP voting because he missed 13 games. This year, voters will right their wrong. He clearly has the stats, and, like Ohtani, he will have the narrative to win an MVP. He is flashy, just the right amount of cocky, and if the Nationals are going to make the playoffs this year, Soto will have to drag them there himself.
Andrew Vaughn AL ROY +700
After Eloy Jimenez’s injury, Vaughn for AL Rookie of the Year is not even remotely controversial, but somehow the opening week odds were still at a profitable +700. Vaughn broke camp with the White Sox listed as an INF/OF, and started two of the White Sox games in the opening series. He hasn’t hit above A+, but posted a .834 spring OPS in 72 PA and has been turning heads since 2019. Though there are a swath of admirable ROY candidates, Vaughn is one of the few (unlike Jared Kelenic or Wander Franco) who will have a chance to get full-season at bats.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to lead the MLB in hits +6500
It isn’t a hot take to predict that this is the year Vlad finally lives up to his prospect hype, but I think this hits prop is the best way to take advantage of it. Guerrero Jr. hit .331 across his minor league seasons, and has been more of a contact/line drive hitter than embracing the launch angle revolution. Even early on this season, Guerrero has shown an improved approach, taking walks and lining balls back up the middle. Slim Vlad hit .421/.511/.737 in 2021 spring training, and if he can stay in the lineup every day there is no reason he can’t hit over .300 and lead the league in hits.
C.J. Cron OVER 24.5 HR
Cron’s raw power + Coors Field + a Rockies team that will have no one better to trot out at first base seems like a recipe for forty homers — so 25 should be lock, right? Despite playing in only 14 games last year Cron had four homers (a full-season 50 HR pace), and he chose the best possible destination for his career and for dinger-lovers in 2021.
Ian Happ OVER 80.5 Runs
After years of bouncing around the crowded Chicago lineup, Ian Happ has found himself as a staple in the Cubs outfield and atop the batting order. Despite a down 2020 by many Cubs hitters and some selloffs by management in the offseason, Chicago’s lineup still remains potent. If Happ can retain his .361 OBP and leadoff spot, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and company should cash him 80+ times.
Joey Gallo UNDER 38.5 HR
Gallo is one of the best pure-power hitters in the league, but his new home is working against him. After years of hitting in a bandbox, Gallo and the Rangers’ new Globe Life Field was home to the sixth-lowest HR factors in baseball last year and Gallo’s 162 game HR pace dropped to 28. The lefty slugger could lead the league in home runs, but factoring in an allegedly “dampened” ball, this number is too high and there are too many paths for the under to hit.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)