In honor of Pitcher List launching the 6.0 version of our website, the We Love Baseball team is putting together a series of some of the best 6.0 things across baseball.
The 2020 MLB season was an incredible, weird, unprecedented year of baseball, and it’s going to be remembered for a long time to come. In fact, I think every aspect of 2020 is going to be remembered, as there will almost certainly be countless documentaries, retrospectives, and deep dives in the future on perhaps the weirdest year in recent human history. It will be kind of tough to have a year as memorable as the one we just had, but maybe 2021 can be a brighter year. Here are the 6.0 things I’m most looking forward to in 2021 that give me hope that this can be one of the best seasons of baseball we’ve had yet.
The AL East Division Race
Let’s start with what should be the most interesting division in the American League. That’s not a slight at the Central, which features both the Twins and the White Sox as solid AL contenders, but there are three teams in the AL East that could contend for not just the division title but also could vie for World Series contention if things go right for them.
One team has already been to the WS this decade, and even though it appears that they have taken a few steps back this offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays are an organization that has proven time and time again they cannot be counted out. Yes, they traded away Blake Snell, let Charlie Morton walk in free agency, and have lost a decent amount of bullpen depth, but they have shown that they know how to make the most out of unheralded players and can manage a bullpen with the best of them. Their lineup features a lot of productive hitters, including the reigning Mr. October in Randy Arozarena, and at some point, this year should also include top prospect Wander Franco. The Rays are certainly going to be in the mix for the crown in the AL East.
Then you have the New York Yankees, a team that was certainly disappointed to go home in the ALDS last year. Their biggest need was starting pitching, and they’ve made a few very interesting moves to address that, acquiring Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber, who have combined to make just 15 starts since the beginning of the 2019 season. There’s no doubt that they are talented pitchers when healthy, though, and the Yankees are banking on them to be healthy (along with ace Luis Severino) to give them a strong enough pitching staff that can keep up with their bats. This is one of the best offenses in baseball, and with DJ LeMahieu back in town alongside Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Giancarlo Stanton, they will be feared again in 2021.
However, the team that I will be watching the most closely is the Toronto Blue Jays, who have one of the most exciting young cores in baseball that continue to take steps forward every season. Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio isn’t just the best trio of sons of former MLB players; they are also three of the most exciting rising stars in the league. Lourdes Gurriel and Teoscar Hernandez have also flashed star power at the plate. Add George Springer to the mix, and it’s possible the Blue Jays will have the best offense in this division. Their pitching is certainly suspect, but the Blue Jays’ internal development will be fascinating to watch, and I think they could surprise people the way the Padres surprised people last season.
The NL East Division Race
The only division that might be more interesting to me this year than the AL East is the NL East, where, in my opinion, there will be four teams vying for the title. Let’s start with the least likely team for me, and that’s the Philadelphia Phillies. They have some of the most interesting players to watch, with Bryce Harper still being one of the faces of the league, star catcher J.T. Realmuto returning after signing a 5-year, $125 million deal in the offseason, and rising star Alec Bohm manning the hot corner.
Their rotation may not be deep, but who doesn’t love Aaron Nola? Plus, their pair of Zac(h/k)s are solid pitchers, giving them a nice three-man rotation for the playoffs. The bullpen was by far their downfall last season, but relief pitchers are very inconsistent by nature, and it’s hard to believe that with the talented pitchers they have in their bullpen, it will come back to bite them again.
The Washington Nationals are also a team that should be in the NL East mix, even if, on paper, they don’t look to be as strong as some of their division rivals. But how can you say no to a lineup that features Juan Soto and Trea Turner and just added Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber to give the lineup quite a bit more power? Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom are also players to keep an eye on, as both have been highly touted prospects and should still have more growth in their game.
The rotation might be one of the oldest in baseball, but if they can stay healthy and not fall victim to Father Time too much, then a rotation of Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, and Jon Lester can very much still be one of the best in the league. This will certainly be a team that I will have a close eye on.
Then there is the incumbent, the Atlanta Braves, a team that truly struck fear into my heart as a Dodger fan back in October. I don’t think there’s a batter I’ve feared more at the plate than NL MVP Freddie Freeman, who always seemed to come up clutch whenever he was needed. All that, and he may not even be the best hitter on his team in 2021, as Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna have both shown the talent to hold that title this season. Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson are fantastic up the middle, and top prospect Cristian Pache should get an opportunity in the outfield as well.
While there are plenty of questions among the pitching staff, it’s at least about interesting players like Max Fried and Ian Anderson. I actually think the Braves will win the NL East again, but there’s a team making big splashes both on and off the field that will make them must-watch in 2021.
The New York Mets
You absolutely knew the Mets had to be one of the most interesting storylines of 2021. There’s so much to factor in here. Let’s start at the top, with new owner Steve Cohen. First off, he’s not in the Wilpon family, and that right there is already an immediate win for the Mets. But then it became clear that he would be an owner that we had never seen before, engaging with the fanbase personally and consistently on Twitter. Not driving the engagement through a team social media account, or only speaking at team press conferences, but really reaching out and talking to fans everywhere.
He asked fans for what improvements they would like to see with the Mets’ experience (and was replying to plenty of people in the thread as well), making jokes about the blockbuster trade they made for Francisco Lindor, and even proposing that they make a real spectacle and create “Bobby Bonilla Day” to celebrate the infamous annual $1.2 million check they give to Bonilla every July 1st. No other owner in baseball has this level of personal engagement with the fans. And then, before we can even get to Opening Day of Cohen’s first season as owner of the club, the huge GameStop stock market bonanza took off, which directly affected Steve Cohen’s hedge fund, and the fallout from that led to Cohen leaving Twitter altogether (citing death threats to him and his family as the reason, which is absolutely deplorable that anyone would do that).
Before you think, wow, that’s quite the offseason scandal, remember—it’s not even the biggest one, as Jared Porter barely made it one month into his tenure as GM before being fired for sexually harassing a female reporter back in 2016. I mean, the Mets have been through more in just that one paragraph than all the other 29 teams combined have this offseason, and I haven’t even gotten to what has happened with their actual baseball team!
On January 7th, the Mets made the biggest move of the offseason by far, acquiring superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco from the Cleveland Indians for a package of prospects. This trade not only made the Mets lineup much stronger but also gave them one of the best rotations in baseball once Noah Syndergaard returns. Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball, and Carrasco, Syndergaard, and Marcus Stroman give the team a deep rotation. Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, and Dominic Smith give the Mets a strong lineup, and this team is considered by many to be the team to beat in the NL East.
Slam Diego vs. Bleed Blue
I may be biased towards the reigning World Champions (boy, does that feel good to say), but even I can’t deny that this is going to be the toughest division title yet for the Dodgers. Since they started their run atop the NL West in 2013, only a few teams have really pushed the Dodgers for the title of best team in the west. Obviously, you have the EYBS Giants of 2014, and the 2018 Colorado Rockies forced a Game 163, but other than that, it’s been a relatively easy reign for the boys in blue. However, between the internal development that the Padres have made over the past few seasons, and their splashy offseason, they have a legitimate chance to be seen as the new best team in the west.
Let’s start with pitching, an area where both teams have made big moves this offseason. The Padres struck first, acquiring the Rays ace Blake Snell, 2018 Cy Young Award winner, and more importantly, someone who shut down the Dodgers offense across 10 innings in the World Series, as well as Yu Darvish, who probably should have won the Cy Young last year. Add to that breakout-star Dinelson Lamet, a couple of solid back-end arms in Joe Musgrove and Chris Paddack (both of whom have the potential to be more than just rotation depth), and, of course, top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore, and the Padres have what looks to be one of the best rotations in baseball.
And yet, it may somehow not even be the best rotation in their own division. The Dodgers rotation features a top-3 that absolutely stands toe-to-toe with Snell/Darvish/Lamet, as they have two Cy Young winners of their own in Clayton Kershaw and newly-signed Trevor Bauer, as well as one of the top young pitchers in baseball in Walker Buehler (who could easily wind up being the best pitcher in this division in 2021). And when it comes to depth, the Dodgers are no slouches either, with the rest of the rotation being filled out by some combination of David Price, Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, and Dustin May, all of whom have shown that they can be counted on as reliable starting pitchers in the past few years.
With all that firepower added in the rotation, it’s almost easy to overlook these two teams’ offenses. That is, until you remember that these are two of the best offenses in baseball as well. Both teams ranked in the top-5 last season in home runs, OPS+, and runs scored, and neither team has lost anyone of note. These two lineups look dead-even, with the Dodgers featuring MVP winners Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger and the Padres touting some of the most electric players in baseball in Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado.
We can’t ignore the intangibles of it all either. These two teams represent the two major areas of Southern California, with San Diego wanting to be seen as more than the little brother of the southern half of the state. These two teams faced off in the 2020 NLDS, with a Dodger sweep over the Padres that certainly has Slam Diego seeking revenge. And whether you love or hate these guys, there’s no denying that Tatis, Machado, and Bauer are seemingly always at the center of some headline or another, and there will 100% be trash talk between these two teams throughout the season.
In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see a brawl break out at some point this season, with the same kind of heated rivalry energy that we saw from Boston/New York in the mid-2000s. I think there’s a very good chance that these are the two best teams in baseball this year and that we will see it play out in the NLCS come October.
Besides, who doesn’t want to see a second Slam Diego diss track?
Let’s just start with the obvious one: this should be the year we finally see Wander Franco at the major league level. This is someone we’ve all been excited about since 2017 when his signing with the Tampa Bay Rays made headline news as he was the #1 international prospect in 2017. Baseball America had Franco as the 4th-best prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2019 season. The whole baseball world collectively held their breath when Franco was placed on Tampa Bay’s taxi squad for the playoffs. We want to see what the kid can do so badly, and 2021 should finally be the year we get it.
It’s not just Franco that we are all waiting for. Pretty much the only thing Seattle Mariners’ fans are looking forward to this season is the debut of top prospect Jarred Kelenic, who they received in the Edwin Diaz/Robinson Cano trade. Kelenic ranks as the #4 prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, and he looks like a five-tool player in the making. He probably won’t start the season with the team (do any top prospects get the call that early anymore?), but he’ll almost certainly be the Mariners starting outfield somewhere by Memorial Day.
Baltimore Orioles’ fans might be feeling a bit of deja vu, but I don’t think the flashbacks to Matt Wieters will hold them back from falling over themselves in excitement for top catching prospect Adley Rutschman. Some scouts have even said he’s already the top catcher in baseball, which is a lot to put on someone who has never played at the major league level before. Regardless, Rutschman absolutely rakes, and that’s always fun to get at the catcher position. I hope we don’t get Wieters 2.0 and instead get the player that Wieters was supposed to be all those years ago.
Finally, the debut we will all probably tune in for (especially here at Pitcher List) is the top pitching prospect in all of baseball, the Padres’ MacKenzie Gore. We love pitching debuts around here, and you will certainly find a column from Nick Pollack breaking down Gore’s debut when it finally happens. What we’re hoping to see is his plus secondary offerings (slider, curveball, and changeup) translate to the big league level, as that is where Gore truly shines. His deep repertoire will hopefully keep hitters guessing all season long.
Finally, there are big milestones ahead for some of the league’s most accomplished players, as Max Scherzer, Albert Pujols, and Jon Lester are potentially joining some great company this year. Scherzer is just 216 strikeouts away from 3,000, a club that Justin Verlander is the only other active member of. 3,000 career strikeouts would place Scherzer at 19th all-time, just behind Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Bob Gibson. 216 strikeouts may sound like a lot and a bit of a reach, but this is a number that he surpassed in every full season since 2012.
Albert Pujols is just 138 games played away from reaching 3,000, which would put him at 9th all-time, ahead of Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. This one is less likely to happen this season, as the last time Pujols played 138+ games was in 2017, but he reached 131 in 2019, so it’s not impossible. This is an incredible sign of the longevity of Pujols’s career (only marginally aided by the 10-year contract he signed in 2012). It will be interesting to see if Pujols can reach that number this year, as he will be a free agent this offseason, and there is no telling what the 41-year-old might choose to do come next winter.
Lastly, Lester is just 7 wins away from the 200 win club, which would make him only the third active pitcher to reach that mark, behind Verlander and Zack Greinke. Pitching for the Nationals should give Lester plenty of chances to get those 7 wins, and reaching 200 would be quite the feather in the cap for Lester’s illustrious career.
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter)