We are less than two weeks away 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 National 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 National League in the World Series! This truly is the time of optimism; every team is in first place!
#1: New York Mets
Has there been a more exciting time to be a Mets fan? The fanbase’s long-awaited dream of a new ownership group taking over finally came into fruition, and while some teams were hesitant to spend following revenue losses, they were one of the most active organizations this offseason. Overall, I was actually underwhelmed by their offseason performance, but based on the talent already on the roster and a few big additions, they appear to be the favorite in arguably the strongest division in baseball.
As opposed to signing JT Realmuto, George Springer, or Trevor Bauer, the Mets’ main addition came via the trade market. We’ll see if a long-term extension can be reached, but at least for this season, they’ll have the services of arguably the top shortstop in baseball in Francisco Lindor. Not only does Lindor project comfortably as an above-average hitter, but his defense at shortstop compensates for below-average defense elsewhere, which is important with a ground ball-inducing pitching staff. Thus, the benefit of Lindor isn’t just with him as a player, but the domino effect elsewhere: the ability to have offensive prowess and not worry about defense. In Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo, Dominic Smith, and JD Davis, they certainly aren’t lacking in terms of impact with the bat. Ideally, they would’ve been able to do better for $10 million per year than James McCann, and they don’t have much in terms of offensive depth, but beggars can’t be choosers, and when your lineup has seven above-average hitters, you’re going to score runs.
Meanwhile, New York’s pitching staff appears to be in good shape. Now, it would have been ideal for Carlos Carrasco to be healthy, and you don’t know what to expect when Noah Syndergaard returns, but even then, this is an excellent pitching staff. Obviously, having Jacob deGrom at the top of your rotation is something that no other team can match, but getting back Marcus Stroman was quietly important, and they have some depth between Taijuan Walker, David Peterson, and Joey Lucchessi. By July, you could be looking at a rotation of deGrom, Carrasco, Syndergaard, Stroman, and Walker/Peterson, and that is quite exciting. Plus, for all the pushback there is surrounding their bullpen, they have plenty of high-leverage options: Edwin Diaz, Trevor May, Seth Lugo, and Dellin Betances. Looking for depth? Miguel Castro, Jeurys Familia, and Aaron Loup are fine as middle relief options, and they were quite active signing veteran receivers to minor-league deals. It is very important, particularly after a shortened season, to be as foolproof as possible from a pitching standpoint. The Mets are already being tested, but they are well prepared to handle adversity, and that is something that could not be said in the past.
Outside of trading for Lindor and Carrasco, the Mets didn’t make any splash additions this offseason. Rather, they complemented a strong roster with a lot of depth, and although their methods of acquiring said depth weren’t optimal (a lot of resources spent), having that at their disposal is critical in terms of winning in 2021. As per usual, the Mets have a lot of offense, below-average defense, and star pitching. What they now have, however, is a much deeper pitching staff and a roster that actually complements one another, and for that reason, I like their chances of coming out on top in the NL East.
#2: Atlanta Braves
The presumed favorites in this division would be the Braves, unless you look at other projections. Many outlets haveAtlanta slated for a fourth-place finish, which is a massive disagreement from Vegas odds and public perception. So, who is right in this interesting debate? Really, the answer lies right in the middle.
If you’re looking for star offensive talent, the Braves can definitely provide you with that. Outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. is clearly one of the premier young stars in the sport, first baseman Freddie Freeman is coming off of an MVP season, and outfielder Marcell Ozuna projects very strongly offensively. Add in one of the better second basemen in Ozzie Albies, as well as shortstop Dansby Swanson and catcher Travis d’Arnuad , and they have quite the foundation to build on. Unfortunately, third base and center field are major question marks. I’d love to believe that this is the year Austin Riley breaks through, but he has shown little signs of that coming into fruition, and I’m quite concerned about Christian Pache and Ender Inciarte from an offensive perspective.
Atlanta was active early in the offseason to add starting pitching, signing Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. There are concerns about both – Morton is 37 and Smyly has a very limited track record – but at the same time, Morton hasn’t dropped off in terms of effectiveness and Smyly’s velocity and pitch usage led to tremendous results in 2020. There’s some risk there, while Max Fried, Mike Soroka (coming back from injury), and top prospect Ian Anderson aren’t sure things either, but that’s a pretty strong starting rotation; Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson represent some sort of depth as well. I’m more worried about the depth in the bullpen, where outside of Chris Martin, Will Smith, and AJ Minter, only Tyler Matzek projects to be worth 0.1 WAR. Given that their rotation isn’t likely to eat a lot of innings, that is a little concerning, though they still should be above average from a run prevention standpoint.
The Braves project favorably as an above-average team all around, making a fourth-straight postseason berth a likely possibility. I don’t think they have the depth that the Mets have, but it will be a very tight race between the two teams.
#3: Washington Nationals
2020 did not treat the Nationals kindly. Not only did they not get to celebrate their 2019 World Series championship with fans in the stands, but they finished last in the NL East, dealt with a lot of injuries, and saw some of their critical young players fail to progress. They’re running it back in 2021 and still should be quite competitive, but their window may be closing quickly.
Juan Soto is incredible, and is as likely to be a Hall of Fame as one can be at his age. Meanwhile, shortstop Trea Turner is an all-around strong player and one of the best at his position, especially from an offensive standpoint. The issue has been the depth around those two players, and Washington addressed this by acquiring Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell. At the same time, Bell’s offense looks less impressive as a first baseman, and outside of those four players, there isn’t anyone on the roster that comes close to being even average offensively. Can youngsters Victor Robles or Carter Kieboom make good on their former prospect pedigree? Can a veteran like Starlin Castro, Yan Gomes, or Alex Avila outperform expectations? I’m not optimistic about that happening, which could lead to the team’s overall downfall.
The same applies to Washington’s rotation. As per usual, they’ll be anchored by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. That is quite the trio to build upon, but, at the same time, Scherzer is 36, Strasburg is as much of an injury risk as there is, and Corbin’s velocity is declining. Expecting all three of them to remain healthy and at the top of their peak performance is unlikely, and when your other starting pitching options are Jon Lester, Joe Ross, Austin Voth, and Erick Fedde, that is a serious concern. Heck, even their bullpen is front loaded with Brad Hand and Will Harris, though I’d keep a close eye on Tanner Rainey if his command remains in check.
While most teams have prioritized building their roster with a lot of depth, the Nationals have done the opposite. Considering they have a World Series title under their belt, that approach has mostly worked, but without Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and other impact players, they don’t have enough offensive impact for this to work. The range of outcomes with them are as wide as it gets, and when you add in that they are one of the oldest teams in baseball, and I could easily see things going south in a hurry. With a very barren farm system, it will be interesting how this organization moves forward while they still have Soto and Turner in their arbitration years.
#4: Philadelphia Phillies
After failing to make the postseason once again, there was reason to wonder if the Phillies would finally reboot and shake up their roster. Instead, they decided to keep the band back together, though based on some smaller additions made this offseason and expected positive regression, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them overachieve their betting projections.
In my opinion, the Phillies may have the most undervalued lineup in all of baseball right now. Part of that is due to the under appreciation of Bryce Harper, who has more than made good on the massive contract the team gave to him, and after him, Philadelphia has more talent: arguably the best catcher (JT Realmuto), first baseman Rhys Hoskins, and third baseman Alec Bohm. Heck, particularly from an offensive standpoint, you could do a lot of worse than Didi Gregorious and Jean Segura, while Andrew McCutchen still should be above-average offensively. The center field spot isn’t in great shape between Scott Kingery and Adam Haseley, but that’s their only true weak position. Adding a strong bench bat in Brad Miller, meanwhile, shouldn’t go overlooked
Where the Phillies have always struggled is with their pitching, but they should be at least middle-of-the-pack in that regard this season. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are a very strong frontline duo, and Zach Eflin is a quality #3 option. Now, the depth isn’t great after them, but even then, they should be able to mix and match somewhat between Matt Moore, Vince Velasquez, top prospect Spencer Howard, and Chase Anderson. Are they incredible susceptible to injuries? Yes, but then again, that’s why they only project to be average in terms of run prevention. While we’re focused here, we should take a look at a bullpen that was historically bad in 2020, but, on the bright side, that figures to regress positively for them this season. Furthermore, rather than adding one premier option, they wisely added a lot of depth, and the trio of Hector Neris, Archie Bradley, and Jose Alvarado should make them much more adept to handle high-leverage innings. They’re still a pitcher or too short, but, then again, so is pretty much every team not named the Dodgers, Padres, Yankees, or Rays.
Philadelphia’s defense concerns many, but when you have the offense they do, that doesn’t matter as much. Really where they’re lacking is in terms of pitching depth, but when you factor in the fact that they shouldn’t have such a poor bullpen just by natural variance, and their outlook figures to be much better. I don’t see them getting a postseason spot. However, I do think that having a top-ten offense and average pitching makes you worthy of a higher win total than 80.5, even if I still don’t love their team-building strategy as a whole.
#5: Miami Marlins
In 2020, there were two teams that made the postseason. Obviously, the Braves won the division, but I remained shocked that the other team was the…. Marlins???? Considering that they had a negative run differential, benefitted from COVID-19 scheduling quirks, and don’t project to be even average in any one area, I certainly wouldn’t expect Miami to extend their postseason streak any further.
The excitement with the Marlins is with their pitching staff, which be a lot of fun to watch! Pablo Lopez, and his elite changeup, certainly fit that bill, as do youngsters Sixto Sanchez and Trevor Rogers. If Sandy Alcantara gets back to throwing his power sinker, meanwhile, he should be better than he was in 2020, while Elieser Hernandez is more intriguing than you’d expect from first glance. That’s a pretty strong starting five, and with prospects in the system nearing their debuts, they quietly have some depth. Then, there’s the bullpen. Ideally, Yimi Garcia, Dylan Floro, and Anthony Bass wouldn’t be your high-leverage options, but that’s where Miami finds themselves right now. Plus, although their starting pitchers are exciting, there isn’t much in terms of reliability. Thus, although they will be quality entertainment, they might not move the needle as much as they’d hope from a wins and losses standpoint.
Offensively, Miami also comfortably projects as a below-average group. Brian Anderson and Starling Marte are above-average players at their respective positions, but who else. You’d ideally want more offense on the corners than Corey Dickerson, Jesus Aguilar, Garrett Cooper, and Adam Duvall, and there are some offensive liabilities present in other areas: shortstop Miguel Rojas, second basemen Isan Diaz and Jazz Chisholm, as well as catchers Jorge Alfaro and Chad Wallach. When you have clear offensive liabilities present, you need more front-end talent, and that’s not something the Marlins have right now. They’re an athletic group, but one that isn’t going to be adequate in terms of plate discipline, power, and actually significant areas of play, which is obviously an issue.
The Marlins are very interesting with their young pitching, but they simply don’t have enough there yet, and I’m not as sold on some of their young starters as others may be. Meanwhile, their offense is a massive concern, and in a difficult division, I don’t know how they could not finish last. They are heading in the right direction after a few successful drafts, yet the odds are stacked against them as far as 2021 is concerned.
#1: St.Louis Cardinals
For most of the offseason, the story around the NL Central centered around the inactivity of every team. In many ways, it was reasonable to wonder if any team even wanted to win the division! That all changed, however, when the Cardinals traded for premier trade baseman Nolan Arenado, signaling a commitment to making a playoff run in 2021. The team lacks a clear strength and needed to do more this offseason outside of adding Arenado, but acquiring him gives them the slightest of edges in a very tight division race.
Offense has been a major issue for St.Louis, which is why acquiring Arenado is so important. Outside of him, Paul Goldschmidt is the only other player who comfortably projects as an above-average hitter, and, for the most part, they will adopt a “stars and scrubs” approach to their offense. Thus, Goldschmidt, now 34, will need to avoid any regression, while Arenado will have to prove that the “Coors Effect” was overblown during his time as a Rookie. Then, it’s a matter of hoping for progression. Shortstop Paul DeJong should be at least average with the bat, and there is reason to be optimistic about young outfielder Dylan Carlson and versatile infielder Tommy Edman. Between Carlson, Edman, and outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader, there is too much in the way of unreliable offensive contributions, but the Cardinals are clearly counting on their young players seemingly hitting on their higher ranges of outcomes, respectively.
The Cardinals have invested a lot in their defense, and when it comes at the expense of offensive production, that generally is a poor approach. For their sake, they will hope that it can help them get the most of their pitching staff. Jack Flaherty is a true frontline starter, but the depth behind him is concerning. Kwang-Hyun Kim and Mike Mikolas don’t miss many bats and are both dealing with injuries, Carlos Martinez hasn’t successful been a starting pitcher since 2018, and Adam Wainwright is 39-years-old. If any of them fail, St.Louis is then relying on the likes of Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant, and Jake Woodford. That is far from ideal, to say the least.
Hence, why they’ll need a strong bullpen to come through for them. There is a lot to be excited about regarding the trio of Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, and Jordan Hicks, each of whom will be counted on to pitch high-leverage sitatuons for them, and there is depth present behind them: Ryan Helsley, Tyler Webb, Gant, Ponce de Leon, and Andrew Miller. Reyes, in particular, may be used in multi-inning appearances, which would be critical in terms of taking the pressure off of a thin starting rotation. It cannot be stated how much adding a pitcher in the mold of James Paxton, Jake Odorizzi, or Jose Quintana could have done for them. Even adding more relief pitcher depth would have gone a long way.
The Cardinals may have lucked into Arenado, but their failure to upgrade elsewhere offensively or with their pitching staff could ultimately doom them. While many see them as a World Series contender, it is hard to see a team that is average at best where it counts being able to compete with the likes of the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, and Braves. The overall weak state of the division gives them a decent likelihood of sneaking into the postseason, but their overall team-building philosophies (sacrificing so much offense for defense, not accumulating pitching depth) really have hampered their outlook for 2021.
#2: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are very similar to the Cardinals in that they’ve been a successful team in the past, don’t have a great farm system, and came into the offseason with the chance to be the top dog in the division with a busy offseason. They made same interesting moves later in the offseason, but overall, it appears they also missed their chance to maximize on their potential this season.
Last season, Milwaukee struggled mightily to score runs, and, to be frank, they didn’t address that at all this offseason. They did make a serious run at third baseman Justin Turner, but since they weren’t able to sign him, the only player I can comfortable say will be an above-average hitter for them is Christian Yelich, and even he has some question marks considering he suffered a major knee injury in 2019, declined in 2020, and is starting to come to an end of a player’s typical prime years. He’s not the only player, however, that they’ll need to bounce back. Keston Hiura has clear whiff issues, but his quality of contact (-10% hard-hit rate, per Baseball Savant) declined significantly, and his offense will need to be much better for him to even be a 1 WAR player at first base. Meanwhile, outfielder Avisail Garcia (now a part-time player), catcher Omar Narvaez, and infielder Luis Urias were non factors in their first season with the club, and the team is hoping that not only they improve, but their new additions – second baseman Kolten Wong and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. – do more than just provide strong defense for them. It’s hard to look at this team from a starting lineup standpoint since they have so many options, but outside of Yelich, here are all the players who will likely receive playing time:
- Bradley Jr
- OF Lorenzo Cain
- 1B Daniel Vogelbach
- 3B Travis Shaw
- C Manny PIna
- SS Orlando Arcia
Who can they trust to support Yelich. It isn’t certainly Arcia, who has shown little in the way of offense, while projections aren’t kind to Cain and Bradley Jr. Really, Hiura and Wong are the two other reliable players, but between the two of them, I have them projected to be worth -0.4 offensive runs above average. It truly is remarkable how much Yelich will be asked to carry the load.
Really, Milwaukee is putting all their eggs into their pitching basket. To be fair, they should be quite strong there. I would not be shocked at all to see Brandon Woodruff compete for a Cy Young award, and he’ll be their horse, while Corbin Burnes and Josh Lindblom are enticing from a K-BB ratio standpoint. Even further on, I don’t hate relying on a combination of Adrian Houser, Eric Lauer, and Brett Anderson to fill out their staff, especially with the state of their bullpen. Freddy Peralta and Drew Rasmussen can pitch 3-5 inning stints for them, while Josh Hader, Devin Williams, and Brent Suter all can pitch multiple tremendous innings for them. In fact, what team has a better late-inning duo than Hader and Williams? It’s hard to see Milwaukee losing games in which they have a late lead in, and having Peralta and Rasmussen really take the pressure off of an otherwise questionable rotation in terms of depth. You’re obviously taking a leap of fate in their top three starting pitchers to eat enough innings, but this organization has accumulated a lot of pitching over the years, and their strengths in terms of player development will drive any success they have in 2021.
The Brewers have become a pitching powerhouse from a development point of view, which is how they’ll remain competitive in 2020. Unfortunately, their offense is not in good shape whatsoever, and prioritizing defense, especially when you have more than enough strikeout pitchers on your staff and play in a smaller ballpark, is questionable, though so is any time you neglect to improve a below-average offense. They’re unfortunately relying on too many unknowns in 2021, though that also means they have a higher range of outcomes. Should enough of those “unknowns” regress positively, they’ll win this division. If not, or Yelich declines, it could be a tough season for the Brew Crew.
#3: Chicago Cubs
Whereas the Cardinals and Brewers are trying to win in 2021, the Cubs have taken an approach more geared towards building for the future. With general manager Jed Hoyer now having complete control of the baseball operations department, Chicago did their best to improve their future outlook while keeping enough pieces to remain competitive this season. The result? The purgatory that we call mediocrity.
To be fair, the Cubs do have the best offense in the division. Whereas the Cardinals and Brewers have a combined five players that I project to be above-average, Chicago has six! Notably, that includes Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Ian Happ, all of which are rather reliable at the top of their lineup. From there, outfielder Joc Pederson was one of the better value signings of the offseason, catcher Wilson Contreras is one of the better offensive producers at his position, and it’d be reasonable to expect some sort of bounce back from Javier Baez at shortstop. Second base is a notable weak spot, but whereas Milwaukee’s and St.Louis’ worst hitters figure to be major liabilities, those players for the Cubs are Jayson Hewyard, David Bote, and Nico Hoerner, which is a fine proportion. They likely won’t be an elite offense, but it’s rather deep for a team with a modest projection.
Why then, are the Cubs the third-ranked team in such a weak division? That would be due to their pitching staff, which is not in great shape. After trading Yu Darvish to the Padres, Chicago not only has the softest-throwing rotation, but one that is going to struggle mightily. Kyle Hendricks always beats projections and is a very interesting trade asset to keep an eye of him, and I expect Zach Davies to be a two-win pitcher for them. From there, though, they’re counting on some combination Jake Arrieta, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Williams, and Shelby Miller? Wait, Shelby Miller still pitches? Ideally, Davies would be your #4 or #5 starter, as he was in San Diego, but that obviously will not be the case in the Windy City. With such a weak rotation, perhaps the Cubs can rely on a strong bullpen. To boot, Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Chafin are pretty reliable options for them. Outside of that, however, it’s Brandon Workman, MVP vote getter Ryan Tepera, Roman Wick, and Brad Wieck. That’s simply not enough depth, particularly with the current state of their rotation.
The Cubs are intriguing because they’ll have the best offense in the division, but it’s hard to compete when you have a bottom-five pitching staff. They’re probably planning to evaluate their options at the trade options at the trade deadline, but since they’ll likely be a .500 team that is within striking distance of the division, what do you do at that point? Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez are all free agents at the end of the year, Contreras is in his arbitration years, and this would be the time to get the best return for Hendricks. Cashing in on some of these assets would be their best approach, but is it the one they’ll do given that this is the last chance they’ll have their core together. These are tough decisions that will have to be made given their current situation.
#4: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds surprised a lot of people with their aggressive mindset over the past two offseason, but it hasn’t paid off for them. They now find themselves with a lot of money tied up to players they probably wish they didn’t commit to (thus, not much financial flexibility), and a farm system that has been depleted- trading Josiah Gray and Jeter Downs for Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood certainly did not work out as planned. It is clear that they are ready to take a step back, but by not trading away any assets and also neglecting to add more than one player (Sean Doolittle) to a major-league contract, they are in about as far into the purgatory of mediocrity as there is.
For the Reds to take a swing at winning this division, they will be counting on some of their major investments to make good on the contracts they received. To some end, they should get that. Nicholas Castellanos’ production last year was hampered by a much lower batting average on balls in play than he is accustomed to, so expecting positive regression there is practical, while Mike Moustakas should be much better this season after dealing with COVID-19 last year. Speaking of COVID-19, it’s unclear if Joey Votto will clear protocols in time for opening day, but we’re all hoping his power isn’t completely lost, though it looks like, by all accounts, he won’t be sacrificing quality of contact for a higher frequency of contact any more. Add that to third baseman Eugenio Suarez and outfielder Jesse Winker, and all of a sudden, they have the makings of a deep lineup, right? Wrong. Simply put, they’re about as weak up the middle as you can be. The tandem of Tucker Barnhart and Tyler Stephenson isn’t great behind the dish, nor is relying on Nick Senzel to finally breakout in center field. Yet, between Stephenson and Senzel’s youth and “upside”, there is at least logic there. The same cannot be said about their approach to the shortstop position, which will consist of the following players:
- Kyle Farmer
- Dee Strange-Gordon
- Jose Garcia
- Kyle Holder
I’m sorry, what? Garcia is an interesting prospect, but he has little experience above Single-A and had a weighted-runs-created plus (wrc+) of 3 last year. Remember, 100 is average; Garcia was 97% worse than the average hitter last year. To boot, Farmer, Strange-Gordon, and Holder don’t project well even from being a utility option, so expecting them to thrive with more playing time doesn’t exactly make sense. Now, this could get interesting if Eugenio Suarez can move successfully to shortstop, allowing prospect Jonathan India to play third base. However, while that is their best option in terms of their future and short-term outlook, you’re still likely not getting strong production from India compared to other third baseman. In an offseason with so much up-the-middle-talent available, being stuck in this predicament is inexcusable.
Something the Reds will struggle mightily with is their defense, which makes their offensive issues even worse. On the bright said, though, their defensive woes should be hidden well by their pitching staff, which is built to miss staffs. It’s impossible to not love the duo of Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray at the front of the rotation, and I even like the overall depth behind them. Tyler Mahle is one of the more underrated pitchers and has a lot of underlying traits pointing towards a breakout, and whether as relievers or starters, Michael Lorenzon and Tejay Antone are interesting bulk options for them. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot else to get excited about. Unless Lorenzon and Antone are extended further than expected, Wade Miley will account for a lot of innings pitched, and their bullpen isn’t in great shape after trading Raisel Iglesias. They don’t have one reliever projected to be worth a win, and although I like Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims, I prefer them not as the top high-leverage options. They do have some depth, and I’m very intrigued to see what the move from Colorado to a pitching development powerhouse does for Jeff Hoffman, but I’m not sure the Reds will be able to make up for their position player deficiencies with elite-enough pitching.
As you’d expect given their pitching development prowess, Cincinnati’s hopes stems from a pitching staff that has true horses at the top and a lot of interesting bulk options to complement them. Yet, when your offense is relying on bounce backs from your top options and is as weak up the middle as they are, it’s going to be hard to remain competitive. I’m much lower on this team overall than their win total suggests I should be, and appreciate them sacrificing defense in search of more offense. If you’re doing that, though, shouldn’t you have an average offense? There is a lot to be confused about with this roster, and, at some point, some move needs to be made to shake up this group. Suarez, Castillo, and Gray were all mentioned in trade talks this offseason, and I feel as though it’s only matter of time before the Reds have to somewhat hit the reset button.
#5: Pittsburgh Pirates
Speaking of resets, the Pirates haven’t been shy in tearing down their roster under new general manager Ben Cherrington. After trading away center fielder Starling Marte in the 2019-2020 offseason, they were even more aggressive this past offseason, parting ways with first baseman Josh Bell, as well as starting pitchers Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon. Overall, this was a fantastic offseason for them in terms of the packages they received for these players and the overall progress of their farm system. However, in terms of 2021 success is concerned, they very well may end up with the #1 pick for the second straight year.
We’ve look at some uninspiring overall offenses in this division, but, as expected, the Pirates take the cake. Now, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes looks destined to be a tremendous player, while outfielder Bryan Reynolds is at least average offensively; Adam Frazier is also an interesting versatile player. Outside of that, though, they’ll play a lot of players that are amongst the worst at their position from an offensive perspective:
- 1B: Colin Moran, Todd Frazier
- SS: Kevin Newman, Erik Gonzalez, Cole Tucker
- CF: Anthony Alford, Tucker, Dustin Fowler, Jared Oliva
- RF: Gregory Polanco, Brian Goodwin
- C: Jacob Stallings, Michael Perez, Tony Wolters
Frankly, this is not an offense that pitchers will have to worry about attacking early and often. Plus, I’m not sure any of these players become assets they can leverage in the future. Maybe you have hope for Newman or Polanco, since they’ve shown signs in the past, but who else?
Furthermore, after trading the anchors of their rotation, the Pirates aren’t exactly booming in terms of their pitching staff. That’s not to say they are left without any interesting players, as Mitch Keller and Jonathan Brubaker each are have intriguing qualities about them, while Steven Brault, Tyler Anderson, Chad Kuhl, and even Trevor Cahill are at least as strong of a back-end group as what the Cubs are using. Nevertheless, they don’t have one pitcher projected to be worth two wins, nor anyone that is going to accumulate many innings for them. It’s also often said that you can identify a rebuilding team by their bullpen, and that is clear with the Pirates. Their top high-leverage option (Richard Rodriguez) would certainly profile better in the middle innings, and after that, they’re giving chances to a multitude of unproven options hoping one of them hits on the right side of variance. That may be their best option of getting any more prospects through trades, and with how volatile relievers are, will be something to keep an eye on.
The Pirates have the lowest win total from betting projections in baseball, and it’s easy to see why. They have as many offensive liabilities as any team in baseball, have gutted their pitching staff, and are using this season to hope that one or two players breakout with more playing time. This isn’t a poor approach, and is actually a wise one; the Giants probably aren’t complaining that they gave chances to players like Mike Yasztremski and Alex Dickerson, after all. However, if their players play as they’re projected to, it’s going to be tough to sell them as a “watchable team”, which is obviously one of the drawbacks of this strategy from a public relations standpoint. With the #1 pick, the Pirates are in great position to not only add an elite Vanderbilt pitcher, but have a deep draft given the amount of bonus money they’ll have, and they’ll also be able to do the same in upcoming drafts as well, which have been labeled to be very deep with college prospects. For now, though, the fanbase has no choice but to try to be as patient as possible.
NOTE: If I were a betting man, 59.5 wins is too small of a win total to not bet the over on from a pure mathematical value standpoint. Hey, it would certainly help make them easier to watch/cheer for! Then again, perhaps not if you’re needing them to win games?
#1: Los Angeles Dodgers
I have many principles that I’d follow if I were running a front office, but two of them would be a) don’t go all-in on a concentrated window and b) don’t overreact to postseason results due to overall variance of the playoffs. Well, it’s clear that the Dodgers, under Andrew Friedman, have had a similar point of view. Not only have they remained patient despite consistent shortcomings in the playoffs, but they have consistently been responsible when it comes to maintaining a strong farm system and financial flexibility in an attempt to win sustainably. The end result? Not only did they win the 2020 World Series, but they are the favorites to win it all again in 2021, and could honestly continue to hold that honor for another decade.
Where do we even start with this team? Right now, their offense to have 9 above-average hitters! Seriously, you could make a case they have a top-ten player at every position outside at second base
- Catcher: Will Smith (even in a time share with Austin Barnes)
- First Base: Max Muncy
- Third Base: Justin Turner
- Shortstop: Corey Seager
- Outfield: AJ Pollock, Cody Bellinger, and Mookie Betts
When your weakest spot in at second base with a former #1 prospect in Gavin Lux, who dominated the minor leagues like few others have, you know you’re in a good position. Right now, Chris Taylor would be the third-best hitter on the Cardinals or Brewers. Instead, he’s not even an everyday player for them. Further on, Edwin Rios, Zach McKinstry, and Matt Beaty aren’t exactly poor players, nor is Barnes. This is an absurd amount of depth, especially when you consider they aren’t exactly lacking in star talent; I think they could have at least six All Stars in their lineup, as well as three MVP candidates.
Speaking of depth, have you looked at this pitching staff? Could you imagine not having room for Dustin May or Tony Gonsolin in your initial starting rotation? Well, that is where Los Angeles finds themselves now. They’d have an elite pitching staff just off of the trio of Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Trevor Bauer, but when you add in Julio Urias, David Price, May, Gonsolin, and some of their minor-league pitching depth, and they could feasibly build two strong rotations. Plus, with so many options in the rotation, the two pitchers not initially in the rotation will be able to contribute in the bullpen, where they also should be incredibly strong, regardless of their overall perception. Once again, their abundance of quality options is absurd:
- Kenley Jansen
- Blake Treinen
- Victor Gonzalez
- Brusdar Graterol
- Corey Knebel
- Joe Kelly
When you add in that May, Gonsolin, Gonzalez, and Graterol can each pitch multiple innings, and the Dodgers won’t have any issue accounting for 1458 regular season innings, and whatever comes in the postseason. The top three pitchers can be workhorses for them, but having this depth allows them to not stretch out the back end of their rotation, and they’re obviously well suited to do with any injuries that may come up. This is the product of elite drafting, development, and overall player acquisition.
It is incredible how dominant this Dodgers team can be not only now, but for the foreseeable future. Rather than settling following a World Series title, they added the reigning NL Cy Young award winner and acquired even more bullpen depth, but with how they structured Bauer’s contract (two years), it won’t hurt their financial flexibility at all. They’re paying Betts a lot of money and will soon need to do the same for Seager, Buehler, and Bellinger, but they don’t have a lot of money committed long term, and have a lot of cost-controlled talent both on the MLB roster and in their farm system. This is the product of an elite draft strategy in which they are able to leverage their strengths and accumulate a lot of depth, which was demonstrated in this past draft with them adding multiple pitchers that could serve bulk roles (Bobby Miller, Clayton Beeter) for them soon, while they continue to add a lot of international talent and have a lot of polished bats and pitchers in their system. In other words, this is the premier organization in baseball, and their excellence should be admired. Even with the variance of the postseason, more World Series titles should be expected.
#2: San Diego Padres
Clearly, beating the Dodgers is nearly impossible, but, as the projections show, no team has done a better job assembling a roster capable of doing so like the Padres. It was quite the offseason for them, and, as a result, the prominence of “Slam Diego” should be on full display in 2021.
The Padres have now committed a combined $867 million to four players in their starting lineup: shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., third baseman Manny Machado, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and outfielder Will Myers. Ironically, these players couldn’t more be on different ends of the spectrum in terms of their expected 2021 contributions, as Tatis Jr. and Machado look like the best left side of the infield in baseball right now. Both of them classify as star players, but rather than a “stars and scrubs” approach, the Padres have built their lineup with a “stars and depth” mindset. In fact, the reality that Hosmer and Myers are their worst-projected position players should tell you a lot about their outlook. What don’t they have? Trent Grisham was a top-ten player in the National League last season based on WAR, and should be one of the best center fielders with his plate discipline, power, and defense. Meanwhile, Tommy Pham’s elite plate discipline gives him an incredibly high offensive floor, while the catching duo of Austin Nola and Victor Caratini is an above-average group. Then, there’s their collection of versatile players. Jake Cronenworth, international signee Hae-Song Kim, and Jurickson Profar, all are everyday players, yet San Diego will be able to platoon Cronenworth and Kim at second base, while Profar can be a utility player for them. With 8 above-average hitters, they cannot quite match the Dodgers in terms of depth, but would it should you if Nola and Hosmer were above average? Certainly not. We haven’t even mentioned prospect catcher Luis Campusano, while outfielder Brian O’Grady has been very productive in the minors! This team is well-equipped to handle any sort of adversity with the amount of depth and versatility they have, and that will pan out well over 162-game season.
Yet, the lineup isn’t even the strength of this team! I guess that’s what happens when you trade for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. There is so much intrigue with this top three; Darvish has now been elite for about a full season, Snell simply misses bats, and Musgrove was excellent in a small sample last season after increasing his slider usage. Really, they only skill they are lacking is the ability to pitch 200+ innings, but that’s what depth is for! In what world is Chris Paddack a team’s #5 starter? Meanwhile, even if he misses time due to the injury, having Dinelson Lamet, who should be ready to go, in this rotation as the #4 option is ridiculous. Ditto to the options behind them: top prospect MacKenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon, Matt Strahm, and Ryan Weathers.
Oh, and an exceptional bullpen also helps! Drew Pomeranz is quietly one of the better relievers in the game, and behind him, Emilio Pagan, Pierce Johnson, Keone Kela, Mark Melancon, Tim Hill, and Strahm make out an excellent group, particularly when you add in Gore, Morejon, Strahm, and Weathers. For the most part, too, they haven’t had to invest big in their bullpen, which is the way it should be: a pitching staff built on a quantity of productive, versatile chess pieces, rather than relying on one or two options.
Depth, depth, more depth, and more than enough star talent- the Padres are built incredibly similar to the Dodgers. Now, at the end of the day, Los Angeles is slightly stronger with their offense, which gives them an edge, and they also have fewer overall question marks in terms of reliability both in terms of production and durability. Still, the elite state of this roster cannot be overstated. To have a fighting chance of winning a division with the Dodgers in it is incredible, and a testament to the job general manager AJ Preller has done. I worry a little bit about them being constrained to a specific window given the long-term contracts they have handed out and some of the prospects they’ve trade, but, yet, they still have a lot of young talent in their organization. Their consistent presence on the international market should help compensate for their lower draft position and some of the prospects they have lost, and if they can prove to consistently act like a big-market organization in terms of payroll, then those concerns start to dwindle. As far as this season is concerned, they are going to incredibly fun and are going to win a lot of games. The Dodgers stand in the way, but, who knows, maybe they can be the MLB’s version of the Buccaneers!
#3: San Francisco Giants
For years, the NL West was a blood bath between the Dodgers and Giants, known to be one of the premier rivalries in the sport. However, since the previous regime in San Francisco had the exact opposite approach to team building as Los Angeles did, and, as a result, the days of them winning three World Series in five years are long gone. However, with Farhan Zaidi calling the shots, this is suddenly an organization on the rise.
The Giants have been known for having very poor offenses, but, in 2020, they magically transformed into a top-ten unit. Now, a lot of players played well above expectation, but a lot of credit has to be given to Zaidi. Mike Yasztremski, Alex Dickerson, Tommy La Stella, and Wilmer Flores are all quality hitters that he has added, and behind them, Brandon Belt and Austin Slater are also likely to be above average offensively (especially Belt). That would give them 6 above-average hitters, which isn’t too shabby for a team not expected to be a playoff team. Of course, middle infield tandem of Brandon Crawford and Donovan Solano is less than ideal, especially since Solano is likely due for significant regression, while Mauricio Dubon is probably best served as a utility option than as an everyday center fielder. Then again, that’s why this isn’t expected to be an elite offense, and not getting below-replacement level production from the catching position due to Buster Posey returning should help!
Not reliable but interesting would also be the best way to describe San Francisco’s pitching staff. They can probably count on Kevin Gausman to be a three-win pitcher, but after that, it’s full of dice rolls. Now, I’m quite high on the chances of Anthony Desclafani and Alex Wood bouncing back with better luck and improved pitch mixes, while Aaron Sanchez (improved velocity) and Logan Webb (solid peripherals) are both high-upside options, so perhaps “dice rolls” is too negative. They just have little in the way of proven production, while they’d probably be best served not counting on Johnny Cueto for 150+ innings. However, it’s also somewhat nice to have him in there to eat innings, which allows Sanchez or Webb to work in a bullpen that is, once again, interesting but not reliable. Between Matt Wisler working multiple innings, Jake McGee throwing 96% fastballs, Tyler Rogers throwing 84 MPH, Reyes Moronta being a power pitcher, and Sam Selman making good on his minor-league numbers, this is a fun group! There is definitely a chance that they all come together to form a competent bullpen, but it’s a very high-variance group, and if the bottom falls through, it could look a lot like last year.
The Giants are such a fascinating team right now. Projections are split on them, and it’s easy to see why. Between older breakout players in their lineup and so many bounce-back candidates in their pitching staff, they have the upside to be a very competitive team that even fights for a playoff spot, or they could win 70 games. It’s the perfect approach for a team still looking towards the future but trying to compete right now, and, as a result, they will go into next offseason with practically zero money on the books. With the improvements in their farm system, all of that money, and one of the elite front offices in the sport, this team could very well be a sleeping giant. 2021 may not be their year, but they’re going to be quite good in short time, and when that happens, the quality of this division is going to be in unprecedented territory.
#4: Arizona Diamondbacks
In many ways, the Diamondbacks mirror the Giants: strong farm system, well-regarded front office, never have undergone a full rebuild, and have an interesting, yet not reliable MLB roster. Now, Arizona lacks the financial flexibility that San Francisco has, but they too are a team that could easily over-perform their projections this season.
If you look at Arizona’s lineup based on their 2019 production, you’d think they are a very strong unit. If you look at them based on 2020, however, you’d think they are a downright liability. So, which is it? I’d say this is a slightly below-average group. Ketel Marte is the standout player, and although he wasn’t able to replicate his 2019 breakout season in 2020, his batted-ball metrics stayed the same, which is a very positive sign. Unfortunately, outside of him, only first baseman Christian Walker projects as an above-average hitter. From there, you’re relying on rebounds from third baseman Eduardo Escobar, left fielder David Peralta, and catcher Kelly, but since the first two aren’t as likely to do so given their age and Kelly doesn’t have much of a track record. Daulton Varsho is intriguing as a catcher/outfielder hybrid, and some are high on versatile infielder Josh Rojas, but it’s a very pedestrian group.
The same, for the most part, can be said about the pitching staff, though I’m fairly confident in Zac Gallen being a frontline starter. Bounce backs will be needed from Luke Weaver, Caleb Smith, and Madison Bumgarner, which is possible for Weaver, but less so for the other two; Smith’s peak year was a 5.11 FIP and Bumgarner’s velocity and batted-ball luck figures to continue to decline. If Gallen could be a #2, while Weaver, Smith, Bumgarner, and Merrill Kelly were back-end starters, that’d be ideal, but they’re missing more in the way of quality middle-of-the-rotation impact pitchers. That is especially true with the state of their bullpen. Joakim Soria is their most reliable option, and given his age, he’s not a sure thing. Even if he pans out, Kevin Ginkel, Stefan Crichton, Tyler Clippard aren’t your typical high-leverage relievers.
The Diamondbacks are a strange team in that they’re relatively old, and older players generally struggle more to bounce back. At the same time, they were an 86-win team in 2019, so perhaps there is more left in the tank. Probably not, as they relied a lot on defense, which is unstable, and a lot of players played above expectations. Not having much power or the ability to miss bats doesn’t generally translate well, but this is a team with some depth and some high-variance players, so they could be more competitive than expected. At the very least, I like their future outlook, though consistently winning is going to be quite difficult in this division.
#5: Colorado Rockies
The top four teams in this division are tremendously run in terms of their front office, and then, there’s the Rockies. With an poor farm system, almost zero MLB talent, and easily the worst front office in the MLB, this organization is clearly in the worst spot one can be in.
Colorado’s offense has long depended on a few star players, but since they traded they #1 star (Nolan Arenado), that approach won’t exactly work this year. Trevor Story is great, but it’s not exactly smooth sailing outside of him. Charlie Blackmon is still fine offensively, CJ Cron should have a strong season in Colorado as an everyday first baseman, but outside of that, they have liabilities everywhere:
- Catcher: Elias Diaz and Dom Nunez
- Second Base: Ryan McMahon
- Third Base: Josh Fuentes
- Left Field: Raimel Tapia
- Center Field: Sam Hilliard
- Depth Outfielder: Yonathan Daza
If the Rockies aren’t going to score runs, then they’re obviously going to be in trouble, though the Coors Effect shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the state of their pitching staff. German Marquez is excellent, but in any other organization, where he wouldn’t be locating his fastball down in the zone, you could be looking at a top-ten starting pitcher, and Jon Gray also has been hurt significantly by similar circumstances. Then, there is the depth behind them:
- Kyle Freeland
- Antonio Senzatela
- Austin Gomber
- Ryan Castellani
- Dereck Rodriguez
- Chi Chi Gonzalez
And, then, there’s their bullpen. I like Mychal Givens, Daniel Bard, and Scott Oberg, but the rest?
- Robert Stephenson
- Yency Almonte
- Tyler Kinley
- Carlos Estevez
- Jairo Diaz
- Jordan Sheffield
The Rockies have Trevor Story, German Marquez, and practically an entire roster of teams that are amongst the worst at their position. This isn’t the fault of where they play, this is simply inexcusable. The problems with this organization have been exposed publicly much more following the Arenado trade, and with Story a pending free agent, this is only getting worse. Considering that the Dodgers and Padres aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, the Giants are on the rise, and the Diamondbacks are consistently competitive, I don’t see how they ever get back to being a playoff-caliber team without an ownership change.
Based on these projections, the following bets have the best overall value:
- Reds (Under 82.5 Wins)
- Pirates (Over 59.5 Wins)
- Cardinals (Under 86.5 Wins)
- Phillies (Over 80.5 Wins)
- Mets (To Win The NL East)
These award and postseason picks are more about being fun and exciting that a specific methodical approach:
- For NL MVP, I’ll side with Corey Seager (LAD), who, outside of 2019, where he was coming back from Tommy John surgery, has consistently been an elite player at a premium position. In a walk year, expect him to put himself in position to earn a massive contract.
- It’s not a sure thing he’ll pitch enough innings, but Brandon Woodruff (MIL) is my pick for NL Cy Young, and more people should take a look at how productive he’s been over the past two seasons. Walker Buehler (LAD) and Luis Castillo (CIN) also are players I could easily see winning this award.
- Similarly to the American League, the rookie of the year award has a heavy favorite in Ke’Bryan Hayes (PIT), though I’ll list the following players as other candidates: Spencer Howard (PIT), Mackenzie Gore (SD), and Jonathan India (CIN).
- Drew Pomeranz (SD) is my reliever of the year pick, as he’ll pitch a lot of high-leverage innings and has quietly been dominant during his time as a reliever
- By winning the NL East, Luis Rojas (NYM) will win NL Manager of the Year.
NOTE: The postseason is a crapshoot, so let’s have some fun!
- Wildcard: SD Over ATL
- NLDS: SD Over LAD (5 Games), NYM Over STL (4 Games)
- NLCS: SD Over NYM (6 Games)
- Prediction: SD Loses To NYY In World Series (6 Games)
With that, I wish you all a very happy 2021 MLB season! There are so many questions to answer and so many fun storylines to monitor, but most of all, there will be a lot of baseball! I don’t know about you, but a world with a lot of baseball is one I want to be a part of!