We are less than two weeks from opening day!
This time last year, we were left wondering if a baseball season would happen at all. Now, we are looking at the return of a 162-game season!
In theory, this would make projecting the upcoming season much easier than last year, where a shorter schedule leads to more variance. What correlated to winning in 2020 was pretty similar to what it correlates (offense, pitching) in a normal season. However, the variables that go into team success were more likely to not be an overall reflection of the team’s talents; a) teams were all playing different schedules based on their region and b) a shortened season meant that one good/bad streak could essentially make a player’s season.
Thus, I would expect projections to have a slightly higher margin for error overall than usual. Yet, isn’t that the fun in all of this! The future is unknown, and all we can do is try to find out the most likely outcome for each team and player.
That is exactly what we will be trying to accomplish today! To create each projection, I had to estimate each hitter’s expected offensive runs above average (Off) and defensive runs above average (Def), as well as each pitcher’s wins above replacement (WAR). This was done by using the key principles of the Marcel Projection system, originated sabermetrician by Tom Tango, as well as regressing it with other projection systems. Theoretically, this should align very well with projection systems, but perhaps are a little more optimistic with consistent star talent continuing to produce at an elite level.
From there, based on studies in the past, I was able to use each team’s project Off, Def, and pitcher WAR to project how many wins they would be expected to win based on the quality of their roster. Some teams will obviously overachieve/underachieve their run differential, but most of that is due to luck, and as they like to say, luck is a first-order term.
With that being addressed, let’s take project each American League team’s record! All of this is done in objective fashion, but I will be proving commentary on my confidence level of the projection, as well as comparing it to their over/under Vegas win total projections. After that, we will also delve into the best bets to make, potential award winners, while I will take an estimate guess on who will represent the American League in the World Series! This truly is the time of optimism; every team is in first place!
#1: New York Yankees
As evidenced by their win total, which still ranks 2nd in the MLB, there is a slight bit of hesitation around the Yankees, and I’ve even see some suggest that they aren’t the overwhelming favorite to win this season. However, after another productive season by general manager Brian Cashman, they appear to have as strong of an overall roster as there is in the American League.
With the Bronx Bombers, it always starts with their offense, which will, as per usual, hit for a lot of power. Simply put, there are no easy outs. They have three players projected to post 20+ Off (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit), three projected to post above 10 Off (DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks), and another three projected to be above-average hitters (Giovanny Urshela, Clint Frazier, Gary Sanchez). If you’re counting, that’s NINE players- their entire lineup projects to be above-average offensively! Even if injuries persist, they still have a lot of depth to combat it.
Yet, that might not even be the strength of their roster- their pitching, contrary to public opinion, is fantastic. Gerritt Cole is obviously an ace, and we cannot discount the depth behind him. Yes, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon have noticeable injury risk, but they are also very high-quality pitchers when healthy. Usually, the durability would be a concern, but considering they also have depth in the form of Jordan Montgomery, top prospect Deivi Garcia, Domingo German, Clark Schmidt, Michael King, and Luis Severino (once healthy), that risk is definitely mitigated. Plus, even with Zack Britton sidelined due to injury, they still have a rather deep bullpen, and with how many options they have in the starting rotation, filling innings shouldn’t be a worried.
I understand some trepidation with this team due to their recent injury issues. However, is it Aaron Judge’s fault that he got hit in the wrist by a Jakob Junis fastball? Or Corey Kluber’s fault that he got hit by a line drive? Even if the team’s star players were the miss time, they are well-equipped to handle adversity with the amount of depth they have. We talk about whether stars or depth should be prioritized when building a roster, but, as typical for them, the Yankees have it all. Betting over on high win totals is always risky, yet there potentially is value overall with New York.
#2: Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays took advantage of the expanded postseason last year to secure a playoff spot, and with a young core emerging, they came into the offseason hunting to add star talent. Clearly, this is an organization that believes the time is now to compete, and although they remain well behind the Yankees, a playoff spot is well within reach.
For this team to have success, they will rely a lot on their lineup, which, combined with playing in Dunedin (hitter friendly), definitely poses a major threat. The headliner is George Springer, who remains a complete offensive producer, and the reliability he provides is quite the compliment for the rest of their team. The team’s young trio, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., all could take major step forwards in 2021, and if they hit on the right side of variance, the lineup’s outlook could be outstanding. Speaking of variance, that applies to outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, both of whom are statcast darlings but don’t have a long track record of success, while middle infielder Marcus Semien will look to prove that his 2019 breakout season was legitimate in a shortened season. Then, you add in the catching tandem of Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, as well as the depth provides by the likes of Randal Grichuk and Rowdy Tellez, and scoring runs clearly won’t be an issue for this team.
Preventing runs, on the other hand, could be much harder. Hyun-Jin Ryu certainly is a high-quality option, yet he is never a sure bet to stay healthy, while Robbie Ray, top prospect Nate Pearson, and Ross Stripling all have a lot of variance. Behind them, Tanner Roark, Steven Matz and Trent Thornton aren’t inspiring a lot of optimism. I would keep an eye on Ray, whose fastball velocity was improved in spring training, as well as prospects Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather, and Joey Murray, but it’s surprising that this front office didn’t make a stronger effort to sign an impact starting pitcher this offseason. It isn’t as though their bullpen doesn’t have serious variance too, with Kirby Yates coming back from an injury, Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis without lengthy track records, and the depth behind them not great.
There is a world where Toronto’s young hitters take a step forward and their pitching hits the right side of the bell curve in terms of projected outcomes. However, that’s a major “if”, and without substantial depth, the low range of outcomes for them is a bit of a concern. I think overall expectations around this team are fair, and I am simply excited to watch them this year- this will be a pivotal year of growth for them moving forward, and if all goes well, they could be quite scary come 2022.
#3: Tampa Bay Rays
Coming off of a World Series berth, many were hoping that the Rays would commit to maximizing on their chances. Instead, the front office went about business as usually, parting ways with starting pitcher Charlie Morton, trading ace Blake Snell to the Padres, and working the lower levels of free agency to provide value. They overachieved their run differential last year and will likely take a step back this season, but I would keep a close eye on them this season.
It’s always about run prevention for Tampa Bay, and I don’t see that being a major issue for them, even without Morton and Snell. Outside of Tyler Glasnow, who I am really excited to see anchor this staff and pitch a full season, they don’t have any “flashy options”, but it’d be hard to find a staff as deep as them. Ryan Yarbrough could easily outpace his projections as someone who is a command specialist and induces ground balls, Michael Wacha likely will be effective with an increase usage of his changeup workin shorter stints, Chris Archer is back healthy and in familiar territory, while Rich Hill, Collin McHugh, and Josh Fleming all are bulk options for them as well. In the pipeline, premier prospect Luis Patino could absolutely blossom, while Shane McLanahan, Trevor Richards, and Brent Honeywell all cannot be discounted as well. Some of these pitchers can also contribute to their bullpen, but they also have a standout high-leverage trio with Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Peter Fairbanks, as well as quality depth: Ryan Thompson, Oliver Drake, Cody Reed, among others.
Although they won’t be elite offensively, I do think the Rays are being a little discounted in that regard. Particularly after he improved his plate discipline numbers last year, Brandon Lowe doesn’t get enough credit as one of the best second baseman in baseball, while postseason sensation Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows each have a) a lot of “upside” and b) provide them with impact offense at the corner outfield spots. The collection of Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Toshitomo Tsutsugo, Willy Adames, Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, and Mike Brosseau all also cannot be discounted, nor can a potential debut for elite prospect Wander Franco. By scoring enough runs and completing their elite pitching with defense and versatility, there’s a lot to like about their overall lineup construction.
The Rays, as per usual, don’t have star talent, yet they will be able to handle adversity more than anyone. Given their overall youth, they have a lot of variance surrounding their team, but I could easily see them winning 90+ games and going far in the postseason. I am a major fan of their pitching strategy coming off of a shortened season, and if they get enough offense, the results could be fantastic. That said, the amount of “unknown” with them makes them a very difficult team to project this season.
#4: Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox finished with the fourth-worst record in 2020, which certainly didn’t help their public image after trading franchise superstar Mookie Betts. Now with a completely different outfield and a new-look roster, they are trying too balance the future with remaining competitive right now. At the very least, their front office, led by Chaim Bloom, has done enough for them to be projected to have a wining record.
Even without Betts, Boston still has offensive star talent in the form of shortstop Xander Bogaerts, designated hitter JD Martinez, and third baseman Rafael Devers. The problem, is the offense behind them, with outfielder Alex Verdugo being the only other sure bet to provide above-average offense. I’m optimistic about hard-hitting outfielder Franchy Cordero, yet he has already been slowed down by COVID-19 protocols, while Bobby Dalbec and Hunter Renfore are tough to project this season. Meanwhile, while Enrique Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez provide unquantifiable value with their defensive versatility, they are likely to be relied upon to be more than that, which is concerning.
Top heavy would be a way to describe their pitching staff, but even then, Chris Sale isn’t likely to return until June, while Eduardo Rodriguez is coming back from a serious episode dealing with COVID-19. From there, what can we expect from Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Richards? Can Boston get something out of Nick Pivetta? Can Martin Perez continue to be a soft-contact inducer? There are a lot of overall question marks here, even if there is noticeable upside present. Even with the bullpen, Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes are strong backend options, but who can be counted on after them?
The Red Sox are the opposite of the Rays in that they have a lot of star talent, but there should be concern about their ability to endure a 162-game season. They’re essentially the Blue Jays but without enough variance due to overall youth, and even more downside. The star players they have and overall “upside” makes them a decent bet at over 80.5 wins, but even then, I wouldn’t be overly confident. It is clear they still need to build more organizational depth, and with Bloom at the helm, that will come eventually, even if it isn’t this year.
#5: Baltimore Orioles
With an ascending farm system and a well-regarded front office, there should be a time soon where the Orioles are a very competitive team, which the baseball world deserves; their jerseys, ballpark, and announcers are awesome! That, however, will not come this year, and I wouldn’t discount them getting the #1 pick in the 2022 draft.
Right now, the only two players that should be above-average hitters for Baltimore are first baseman Trey Mancini and outfielder Anthony Santander. Their middle infield of Freddy Galvis and Yolmer Sanchez, meanwhile, project to post nearly -30 Off! That is hard to do. Mancini is awesome and his story is fantastic, but outside of watching Ryan Mountcastle, Yusniel Diaz or Austin Hays try to prove themselves as a future piece, there is not much to get excited about with Baltimore offensively.
Despite being projected to rank last in pitcher WAR, the Orioles have a fun pitching staff. John Means contact quality suppression skills could be legitimate and allow him to consistently overachieve his peripherals, and he is now throwing harder than ever and induced more ground balls last year. Meanwhile, young pitchers Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin will be excited to watch progress, while prospects Bruce Zimmerman, Zac Lowther, and Michael Baumann could all get opportunities this season. Of course, they will also be giving innings to Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey, and none of their young pitchers are standout options, but youth = unknown = excitement! As far as their bullpen goes, lefties Tanner Scott and Paul Fry likely will garner a lot of trade interest, and that’s about it in terms of reliable relief options.
Fangraphs gives the Orioles a 0% chance to make the playoffs, and that is spot on. In a very difficult division and with only one player (Mancini) projected to be a top-15 player at his position, they are going to lose a lot of games. I am excited to watch some of their young pitchers, including Means, but this front office needs to hope that no changes are made to the draft ordering in the CBA, based on where they are likely to finish.
#1: Minnesota Twins
How are the Twins not not the favorite to win this division? With a very well-crafted and well-rounded roster, they should be expected to make a serious World Series push in 2021.
I think I am in love with the Twins lineup! Seriously, look at all of the quality options they have:
- DH Nelson Cruz
- 3B Josh Donaldson
- CF Byron Buxton
- RF Max Kepler
- 1B Miguel Sano
- 2B/SS Jorge Polano
- SS Andrelton Simmons
- 2B Luis Arraez
- C Mitch Garver
- C Ryan Jeffers
- LF Alex Kiriloff
Wow! Simmons is the only player I’d project to be a below-average offensive producer and when he is your worst hitters, that’s fine. He’s far from an offensive liability anyways, and given the construction of their pitching staff, his middle infield defense is actually quite useful. Durability with Donaldson and Buxton always needs to be monitored, but the “upside” if they do stay healthy is ridiculous, while Nelson Cruz is back to solidify their lineup. Oh, and Max Kepler is an All-Star caliber outfielder, Miguel Sano is as powerful as it gets, Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez are productive all-around players, they have one of the top catching tandems in the MLB, and Alex Kiriloff projects very well in my prospect models. That is an absurd amount of depth.
Don’t overlook the Twins’ pitching staff either. Jose Berrios quietly made improvements with his pitch usage in 2020 and is someone that should be closely monitored, while Kenta Maeda remains a very underrated pitcher. Between Michael Pineda, JA Happ, Randy Dobank, and Matt Shoemaker the rest of their rotation can best be described as “solid”, and I like their high-leverage options in the bullpen with Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, and Alex Colome. The amount of relievers they have projected to earn 0.2-0.3 WAR is ridiculous, and that adds up over time.
The Twins win total isn’t that low, but as we’ll get to, their division odds have serious value. They are an incredibly smart organization with a foolproof roster, and when you’re going to score the amount of runs they can, have versatile pitching options, and above-average defense, you’re going to win games. For the sake of Minnesota sports fans, let us hope that this is the year they finally can win a playoff series!
#2: Chicago White Sox
There is a lot of hype surrounding the White Sox right now, and it is understandable. They have a lot of exciting young talent locked up for the future, played well in the shortened 2020 season, and made a few splashy moves in free agency. However, that hype has started to lead to what I believe is a false perception on the state of their roster, which is why I agree with them being a step behind the Twins heading into 2021.
When it comes to hitting for power, the White Sox won’t have issues doing that. Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada, and top prospect Andrew Vaughn all hit the ball very hard, which is good. What isn’t as ideal is their on-base skills, as they struggle with plate discipline. Thus, expectations should be tempered with their lineup, particularly since they aren’t exactly proven and have benefitted from a lot of batted-ball luck in the past. If you’re expecting Tim Anderson or Jose Abreu to replicate their recent performance this season, you are likely to be disappointed, and in the end, catcher Yasmani Grandal remains their top overall position player. In fact, Grandal might be their only “sure thing”, and even he is a catcher on the wrong side of 30. I’d love to expect Andrew Vaughn, who was dominant in college, to be a very productive designated hitter, but he also has about 200 professional plate appearances, while Nick Madrigal’s contact skills aren’t as important when you look at his overall quality of contact.
In the end, the strength of the White Sox is actually their pitching. Lucas Giolito is someone that I expect to compete for a Cy Young award. Over the past two seasons, he has improved the quality of his arsenal, and is thus missing bats when when working in the zone, and that overall dominance is likely to be more stable than when relying on chases/nibbling. From there, Lance Lynn is quite the quality complementary option, and although he isn’t a Cy Young contender and his 2020 ERA was deceiving, Dallas Keuchel seems like a strong bet to be worth 2-3 WAR. Meanwhile, their bullpen, headlined by big signing Liam Hendriks but also featuring quality depth – Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, Codi Heuer, Garrett Crochet – should be productive. The problem is filling out their rotation; do Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, and Carlos Rodon inspire optimism? The X-factor here is Michael Kopech coming back from two straight missed seasons, but considering his innings will be limited, it’s inexcusable a team with World Series ambitions failed to add more pitching depth.
As you can see, I’m much lower on the White Sox than consensus. Their plate discipline is poor, they lack depth, and I can’t count on them to develop and maximize their players’ abilities like I can with teams like the Twins, Rays, and Yankees. This is a high-variance team, and I think the downside is more likely than the upside. In terms of overall value, the “under” on their 91.5 win total may be the best value in the entire American League.
Similarly to the Rays, Cleveland came into the offseason after a successful season, but went about business as usual by trading star shortstop Francisco Lindor, hoping to continue to win sustainability. However, they lack the overall offensive impact and pitching depth that Tampa does, and in the end, they appear to be the epitome of an 81-81 team heading into 2021.
Cleveland has always been constructed as a “stars and scrubs” team, and they’ll go into 2021 with a clear superstar in third baseman Jose Ramirez. After that, though, the rest isn’t great. The typical successful team does not go into the season with Franmil Reyes and Eddie Rosario as their #2 and #3 top offensive performers, nor do they generally project to be a bottom-ten offense. I’m a fan of corner outfielder/first baseman Josh Naylor, but he’s the only other above-average hitter on the roster; players like Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez, Oscar Mercado, and Roberto Perez provide quality defense with limited offense. Defense is great, but not when it comes at the expense of competent offense.
Pitching wise, Cleveland is constructed similarly. They have their clear “star” in Shane Bieber, but unless Zach Plesac makes good on his 2020 production or Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill take a step forward, they are limited. Now, I am intrigued by all of these pitchers and would target them in fantasy leagues, yet you’d ideally wish for one more guaranteed 2.5+ WAR option there. The same goes for their bullpen, as James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase provide a strong foundation, but they’d ideally have a little bit more depth, especially since they don’t have a lot of noticeable starting pitch depth outside of their top five.
Cleveland will once again prevent runs with strong pitching and defense, but with that pitching quality declining, their offensive struggles may be exposed more this season. I wouldn’t be shocked if they even finished second in this division given how consistent they are and how smart of an organization they are, but this year appears to a time where they reset and evaluate their personnel as they look to build for 2022.
#4: Kansas City Royals
Whereas Cleveland clearly settled for taking a step back, the Royals were quite aggressive this past offseason, adding veteran players. Based on reports, they believe they can compete for the playoffs this season, and although I see that as a stretch, they at least have separated themselves from the Tigers at the bottom of the division and are becoming a fun team to watch.
I’m used to watching a Royals team that doesn’t draw many walks and lacks overall on-base ability, but that may not be as much the case this year. Signing first baseman Carlos Santana, who walks more than he strikes out, helps with that, but Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier and Andrew Benintendi all should get on base for them. I’m not as high on catcher Salvador Perez, who, outside of a shortened 2020 season has been a below-average catcher, while the team’s up-the-middle players (Adalberto Mondesi, Nicky Lopez, Michael A.Taylor/Jarrod Dyson) could easily be offensive liabilities next season, but at least Kansas City won’t be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to offensive production this season.
The Royals also are interesting when it comes to their pitching staff. Between Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and some of their young pitching prospects, they definitely needed some stability, which is what Mike Minor, who should benefit from a larger ballpark, will provide them with. Also, based on studies that have been conducted by many and the embracement of the seam-shifted wake movement, I’d keep a close eye on Brad Keller, who may not miss bats an elite level but should continue to outperform his peripherals, as most people with his profile do. Their bullpen is a major weak point, but between their young pitchers, Keller, and Minor, they shouldn’t be as deprived from a rotation depth standpoint.
Kansas City’s moves this offseason may be slightly overblown, but they at least are becoming interesting. They could still use a lot more pitching and some competency up the middle, yet they at least are making strides in terms of young starting pitchers and improved plate discipline. Now, whereas teams like the Tigers and Orioles tore down their roster, Kansas City didn’t, so their farm system isn’t as strong. Does that mean that they were in the wrong from a team-building standpoint? No, but one can wonder where they’d be right now had they traded players like Merrifield or Danny Duffy when they were coveted trade assets. Regardless, given how this organization has conducted themselves throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they have definitely have earned my support.
#5: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers, contrary to the Royals, have seen more benefits from their rebuilding efforts. They likely won’t be as competitive this season, but the direction of this organization is becoming much stronger by the minute.
Detroit has been very difficult to watch offensively, but they at least made some attempt to not be a liability there by signing Jonathan Schoop, Robbie Grossman, and Renato Nunez, while Jeimer Candelario progressed well last season. However, none of these players are what one would consider to star players, or even everyday players for contending teams (outside of Candelario). Willi Castro is serviceable at shortstop, but there isn’t much else to get excited about with the rest of the lineup, though there is always a reason to appreciate Miguel Cabrera.
The pitching is what makes the Tigers watchable this season. I am as big of a Matt Boyd fan as there is, and he appears to be committed to throwing more changeups this season. Given his K-BB ratios, I’d be optimistic about him should he be able to simply not locate his fastball over the middle of the plate, while Spencer Turnbull is the opposite type of pitcher as a seam-shifted wake pitcher who induces poor quality of contact. However, if you’re watching a Tiger game this year, it’s probably about their top three pitching prospects. It’s unclear if Matt Manning will be in the big leagues this year, and for the hype he has received as the #1 pick, Casey Mize still hasn’t solidified a rotation spot. However, the true young pitching darling of this organization may be Tarik Skubal. My prospect model is quite high on the former 9th round pick, and after shredding through the minor leagues, he continued to miss bats (12.9% swinging strike rate) in the majors- his fastball is an elite offering. Now, the fact that Jose Urena, Julio Teheran, and Michael Fulmer are their other starting pitching options isn’t ideal, nor is the current state of their bullpen. Still, by July, I definitely will be keeping a close eye on them!
The Tigers don’t have any pitching depth and very little offensive impact. Thus, they will likely once again finish with a top pick. On the bright side, their farm system is improving in a hurry, and if their cost-controlled pitchers hit and their top position player prospects move quickly, they have the money to add more offense. At the same time, you’d perhaps wish for a bit more progress; how many years picking in the top five can an organization undergo in a row? Most likely, they’ll be looking at a fifth year after this season.
#1: Houston Astros
Right now, the Astros do not even have the highest win total in the division. Whether this is due to their poor public perception, the fact they had a losing record in the regular season, or just people being “bored” by them being a top contender, they look likely to outpace their betting projections.
As per usual, the Astros will have no problems scoring runs. If they structure their lineup properly, this is how it could start:
- Jose Altuve
- Michael Brantley
- Alex Bregman
- Yordan Alvarez
- Carlos Correa
- Kyle Tucker
That is quite the scary start to a lineup, and first baseman Yuli Gurriel and the catching tandem of Jason Castro and Martin Maldonado aren’t poor either. Really, the major hole is at center field, where it is difficult to trust Myles Straw, but that’s a hole they can live with given how terrific the top six are.
I really like the balance of this group. Altuve and Correa are difficult to project but are generally undervalued, while Tucker and Alvarez have a lot of variance. Meanwhile, Brantley is as reliable and consistent as it gets, while Bregman projects comfortably as a star. There are a lot of “ifs” with this group, but Altuve and Correa’s postseason success truly should matter given how short last year was, and I’d bet on Tucker and Alvarez being well above-average offensively. The combination of upside and stability with this lineup is tremendous.
Now, pitching is more of a concern for the Astros. Gone are the days of Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander anchoring the staff, while Framber Valdez will miss an extended portion of the season do the injury. Thus, they’re relying on Zack Greinke to continue to fight off the aging curve and Lance McCullers Jr. pitch enough innings, as well as Jose Urquidy putting his poor 2020 season behind him. I’m a believer all of those things happening, but even after signing Jake Odorizzi, depth is an overall concern, which is a concern since only Greinke is a sure bet to provide them with a lot of innings. Furthermore, Ryan Pressly is an excellent high-leverage option for them in the bullpen, but I don’t have another reliever projected to be worth over 0.3 WAR.
The Astros won’t play strong defense and are average in terms of pitching, but that matters much less when you can score runs the way they will be able to. They are a front-loaded roster, but you’re generally as good offensively as your fourth or fifth best guy, and for them, that’s either Correa, Brantley, or Tucker. Meanwhile, although they lack depth, their overall starting rotation is strong, especially if prospect Luis Garcia can make an impact. When you add it all up, and it’s hard to see them not going over their current win total. There is a way that injuries pile up and this could go very poorly for them, but at least for one more season, Houston appears to be the kings of this division.
#2: Los Angeles Angels
Is this the year the Angels make the playoffs with Mike Trout? One can only hope! Overall, they had a quieter offseason than many expected, but my accumulating roster depth, they’ve taken a much better strategy to constructing their roster with a new front office. As things currently stand, they figure to be in the postseason mix.
When you have Trout, you’re always going to be expected to score runs, especially when you complement him with Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani. The key, however, will be getting more offensive production from the players around them. If the team gives Jared Walsh more playing time at first base over Albert Pujols, that would be a start, and they will be counting on veterans such as Justin Upton, Dexter Fowler, and Kurt Suzuki to be league-average producers with the bat. Then, there is the middle infield duo of David Fletcher and Jose Iglesias. This is a very exciting tandem in terms of defense and contact skills, but will they impact the baseball enough? The floor of Trout, Rendon, and Ohtani should lead to a top-ten offense, but ideally you’d get even more from that group.
The Angels generally are seen as a team with a poor pitching staff, but, honestly, it may be the best in the division. After a pitch mix change and a change of scenery, Dylan Bundy comfortably projects as a 2.5-win starter, while Andrew Heaney doesn’t get enough recognition either. After that, their depth may not be exciting, but they are all more than competent options: Jose Quintana, Shohei Ohtani, Alex Cobb, Griffin Canning, and Patrick Sandoval. In fact, they may the most bullet-proof team in the division from a pitching perspective, especially since their bullpen has enough high-leverage options- Raisel Iglesias, Mike Mayers, and Ty Buttrey. They could use more quantity there, which drags down their projection, but it’s easy to talk yourself into liking this staff more than consensus opinion.
Overall, the Angels still have too many aging players that are tough to rely upon, and they could use more bullpen quantity. However, between their offensive stars and starting pitching depth, they should be in the mix for a postseason birth. Do I think that Mike Trout will be in the playoffs? No, as there’s too much downside from relying on the types of position players that they have, but I’m very interested to see how this new front office shapes this roster moving forward.
#3: Oakland A’s
After they won the division in 2020, the A’s are the betting favorites to win the AL West. Unfortunately, after a confusing offseason, my projections don’t share a similar sentiment.
For as long as the organization can afford them, we should all appreciate the corner infield tandem of Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. The power/defense combination they provide is tremendous, though they don’t come without questions: Chapman is coming off of hip surgery and the shift continues to hamper Olson’s overall production. They aren’t the one potential offensive producers, however, as Ramon Laureano, Mark Canha, and Stephen Piscotty formulate a pretty strong outfield, while catcher Sean Murphy and designated hitter Mitch Moreland should at least be average offensive producers. Then, there is the middle infield. The team couldn’t afford to keep Marcus Semien, so they decided to move forward with ……… Elvis Andrus, Chad Pinder, and Tony Kemp? I can’t say I’m a fan of this approach, and when you add in their complete lack of position player depth, and it’s easy to see why they only project to be about average offensively. With so many middle infield options available for cheap info free agency, it’s simply inexcusable that this was the best they could do.
Middle of the pack is the best way to describe the organization’s pitching staff as well. Between Jesus Luzardo and Frankie Montas, I like the top of their rotation, while Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea will provide them with quality-enough innings. I am less of a fan, however, of Mike Fiers being their #5 starter, and the depth behind him is mostly questionable. Having a relatively deep bullpen should help, but they’re also banking a lot on Trevor Rosenthal replicating his 2020 production, as well as some of their other options hitting on the right side of variance. That could happen, but you would ideally hope for more in the way of reliable options overall.
The A’s are about as average of a team as there is. They have enough in the way of overall talent, but their lack of depth is a major concern, and the top end of their lineup likely isn’t good enough to make up for their incredibly poor middle infield tandem. Meanwhile, given the injury risk with several of their starting pitchers, you’d hope for more quantity, and they won’t be able to rely on their bullpen the way they have in the past, especially when you factor in likely regression for some of their returning options. They’re going to be in the playoff mix and always tend to overachieve projections, but them winning less than 87.5 games might be one of the better bets out there.
#4: Seattle Mariners
A few years ago, the Mariners had much little young talent and looked like an organization with no direction. Now, they have a farm system loaded with intriguing prospects and are quickly on the rise. That won’t likely come in the way of finally ending their postseason drought in 2021, but they are becoming much more interesting in a hurry.
I am not expecting a lot from the Mariners offensively. As things stand, outfielder Mitch Haniger, third baseman Kyle Seager, and infielder Ty France are their early only projected above-average hitters, though that could potentially change with a call-up of premier prospect Jarred Kelenic. What about Kyle Lewis, you may ask? Most projections have him regressing significantly, as his peripheral numbers did not back up his overall performance, and I would expect regression from utility player Dylan Moore as well. The beauty of being a team in their position is that they can afford to get more information on Lewis and Moore, and the same goes for first baseman Evan White and shortstop JP Crawford, but in terms of reliable offensive production, they don’t exactly have that.
The pitching staff is similar, but I am actually intrigued by what Seattle has to offer. They are going to operate with a six-man rotation, which makes depth even more of a factor for them. Luckily for them, Marco Gonzales provides them with a lot of innings, and the pitchers behind him are fascinating. James Paxton likely can return to being more of a horizontal pitcher and continuing to be a very efficient pitcher, and behind him, Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield each made legitimate improvements in 2020; Kikuchi had a velocity spike and pitch-mix change, while Sheffield went back to throwing a sinker, which makes sense given the lack of effectiveness with his four-seam fastball. That gives them four solid options in the rotation, and between Chris Flexen, Justin Dunn, and, most importantly, some of their pitching prospects (Logan Gilbert comes to mind), and there’s a decent chance they can be a league-average unit in terms of run prevention, which isn’t typical for a rebuilding team.
With the way the pitching staff is coming together and with the amount of young talent hey have added to their organization, the Mariners are going to be very interesting in 2022 or 2023. This season will be an important year of evaluation for them, and could have a major impact on their direction moving forward. If enough of their young players prove themselves, perhaps 2022 is their year to contend, but, if not, they might need to wait a little longer to maximize on their financial flexibility. Either way, the future appears to be bright in Seattle.
#5: Texas Rangers
In a lot of ways, the Rangers are similar to the Mariners. They too have been stuck in mediocrity for some time, but soon figure to have financial flexibility and have an incredibly deep farm system. They likely will not win many games this season and may end up with #1 pick, but they will be interesting to keep an eye on.
Between Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Rougned Odor, Lady Taveras, Jose Trevino, and some other depth options, the Rangers have a lot of offensive liabilities present. Thus, I’d be shocked if they weren’t one fo the worst offenses in baseball. For them not to be, they will need a renaissance year from designated hitter Khris Davis, but I’m not expecting them to be eager to play aging veterans. Rather, players like first baseman Nate Lowe, second baseman Nick Solak, Taveras, outfielders Willie Calhoun and David Dahl, and potentially third base prospect Josh Jung will be the players they will look to evaluate. Of that group, I only have fate in Lowe, Solak, and Jung emerging, but really, Joey Gallo is the only reliable offensive presence, and even he has been quite inconsistent throughout his career.
Similarly to Seattle, Texas has interesting pitching depth, but not enough in terms of reliability. Kyle Gibson should theoretically bounce back from a poor 2020 season, and the projections are high on rookie starters Dane Dunning and Kohei Arihara. Factor in Mike Foltynewicz, who had a velocity spike, and suddenly, they aren’t in an awful spot; Kyle Cody, Kolby Allard, Taylor Hearn, Tyler Phillips, and Joe Palumbo are among the several young pitchers they have to make up their end of their rotation. Hopefully, they can get enough innings there to allow some of their young options factor in the bullpen, where the outlook isn’t pretty. Following the injury of Jonathan Hernandez, Texas can really only count on Jose LeClerc and Joely Rodriguez in high-leverage situations. Generally, bullpen quality is one of the factors that separate a rebuilding team from a contending one, and that appears to be the case here.
The Rangers are likely to struggle to score runs, play defense, and don’t have enough reliability from their pitching staff, especially in the bullpen. Hence, why they project to be one of the worst teams in baseball. I am more optimistic about the direction of this organization than most, but outside of evaluating some of their young players, there isn’t a lot to look forward to from Texas this season.
Based on these projections, the following bets provide the best overall value:
- White Sox (Under 91.5 Wins)
- A’s (Under 87.5 Wins)
- Astros (Over 86.5 Wins, To Win The AL West)
- Twins (To Win The AL Central)
- Astros and Twins World Series Odds
Projecting award winners and who advances the farthest in the postseason is far less about being objective and more about making a fun guess and trying to go against the grain and make my best guess. With that being said:
- My AL MVP pick is Aaron Judge (NYY), who has the upside with his power/on-base/defense combination to earn more WAR than Mike Trout in a single season. I also like the fact he has started to be more aggressive in the zone. Shohei Ohtani (LAA) remains a dark horse
- For Cy Young, I’ll side with Tyler Glasnow (TB), whose 2020 season looks a lot more impressive when you factor in his slow start being due to getting COVID-19. He’s a high-variance pick based on having to project his efficiency with more innings pitched, and I’d keep a close eye on Lucas Giolito (CHW)
- Randy Arozarena (TB) is the obvious AL rookie of the year pick, and I’ll throw in pitchers Deivi Garcia (NYY) and Dane Dunning (TEX) as dark horse options as well.
- My manager of the year is Dusty Baker (HOU), who may earn sympathy votes in what may be his final season, especially if the Astros indeed win the AL West and 90+ games.
- Picking a reliever of the year is quite difficult, though I’ll pick Ryan Pressly (HOU), who should accumulate saves, has been very productive, and is Houston’s key source of high-leverage innings.
As for my postseason bracket, my best educated guess is:
- Wildcard: Blue Jays Over White Sox
- ALDS: Yankees Over Blue Jays (3 Games), Twins Over Astros (5 Games)
- ALCS: Yankees Over Twins (7 Games)
- Prediction: Yankees Win World Series
This is going to be a very exciting season! There are so many unknowns and questions to answer after last season, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that it is beautiful to be back to a 162-game season! These are the projections, but as they say, the games are played for a reason!