Opening Day is finally here. A day that is bigger than Christmas, Easter, the 4th of July, and Pulaski Day all rolled into one. Everyone seems to have a little extra pep in their step today as we get set to embark on this six-month journey that will consume us for every day until now and the end of the World Series. So how's it going to play out this year?
I think we can all agree that the senior circuit is the stronger of the two leagues heading into the 2021 season. We have the two superpowers on the West Coast, the defending champion Dodgers and the rapidly ascending Padres, who engaged in quite the arms race this winter in order to continually one-up the other.
The new-look Mets, who now have the richest owner in the sport backing them, are looking to make a statement and did just that last night with the news of a ten-year/$340 million extension for Francisco Lindor, whom they acquired this winter.
The Braves are the three-time defending NL East champions while still being loaded with young talent that possesses tremendous upside, and an already strong pedigree of success as a group.
Then you come to the NL Central. Each team tried to do the bare minimum this winter, but someone has to go to the playoffs from this group by default, whether they deserve it or not.
The National League's top four teams -- Dodgers, Padres, Braves, and Mets -- could be the top four teams in the sport and they are going to make winning the pennant the equivalent of a WWE Elimination Chamber match for the ages. After those teams, however, you have a hodgepodge of clubs that could be good if a few things break their way, including the entire Central division.
Here's how I see things ending up after the regular season:
*Denotes Wild Card 1, **Denotes Wild Card 2
The Dodgers' organizational depth proves to be too much for the rest of the league once again, as they are able to clinch their ninth consecutive NL West title. The Padres put up a valiant fight but fall a few games short, forcing them into the dreaded coin-flip game despite finishing with the second-best record in the league. The rest of the division is in varying stages of rebuilding or retooling.
The Braves continue their winning ways capturing their fourth consecutive NL East title as the Mets don't quite put it all together to topple the team from down south. The Nationals run shows it's finally coming to its conclusion, and a great run it was beginning back in 2012, but a lack of firepower ultimately dooms the team from the nation's capital. The Phillies' pitching still stinks overall, and Joe Girardi's veins fully pop out of his head this year. The Marlins' young pitching makes strides but isn't ready to be taken seriously, yet.
In the Central, the Cardinals' addition of Nolan Arenado proves to be the difference, and being paired with Paul Goldschmidt creates a powerful force in the middle of the redbirds lineup. The Brewers' pitching almost pushes them past St. Louis, but in the end, a lack of consistent offense sends Bernie Brewer sliding home for the winter. The Cubs stumble out of the gate and eventually move more pieces from that one team that did something once, leaving only the memories. Cincinnati takes a major step back, and the Pirates challenge the 2003 Tigers for the worst team in the modern era.
Mets over Padres: Cinderella's magical journey comes to an early end at the hands of the best pitcher going today, as Jacob deGrom sends the Mets out west for a battle with the Dodgers.
Dodgers over Mets, 3-2: This is perhaps the best Division Series matchup featuring star-studded pitching duels, but having deGrom for only one start undoes the boys from Gotham.
Braves over Cardinals, 3-1: The Braves' overall balance is too much for the Cardinals as the series isn't particularly close.
Dodgers over Braves, 4-3: For the second consecutive year, the Braves push the Dodgers to a decisive seventh game only to fall short. The Dodgers have the most complete roster in the sport and it's on full display as they head back to the Fall Classic.
The junior circuit is fascinating this year. There are five teams that you can really make a compelling case to win the pennant (sorry Toronto and Los Angeles of Anaheim of California of the Pacific Time Zone, you can't slug your way to the pennant, you still do have to get people out). Each team has flaws, whether it be depth concerns, questionable injury histories, young and unproven talent, or a laughable recent history of postseason futility. In reality, it wouldn't shock me to see anyone from the group of the White Sox, Yankees, Rays, Astros, or the team from south of Canada get to the Fall Classic.
Here's how I see it unfolding:
*Denotes Wild Card 1, **Denotes Wild Card 2
The Yankees have a vaunted lineup, when healthy. We are already seeing issues with that as slugging first baseman Luke Voit will begin the season on the injured list due to a meniscal tear in his knee. There is always high injury risk with Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton as we have seen through recent years. However, they have more firepower than the rest of their division foes and will take the East this year.
The Rays are forced to reshuffle the deck, like always, and they seemingly find a way to make it work. Is Michael Wacha this year's reclamation project that gets down to Florida and figures out how to be good again? It's something to keep an eye out for.
The Toronto Blue Jays are a sleeper team for many, but when fully healthy this team was going to struggle to get 27 outs. They already lost their closer and are dealing with injuries to their rotation and prized free-agent acquisition, George Springer. There is a lot of young, exciting talent with this group, but not nearly enough of it standing 60 feet 6 inches from home plate.
The Red Sox look to have a promising offense, but even a returning Chris Sale can't save them in 2021. The Orioles, still exist.
I don't know what to make of the AL West. Despite losing George Springer, the Astros still have a lineup that should score plenty of runs and some young pitching that took steps forward in 2020. Dusty Baker proved to be a calming influence nearly guiding this team to a pennant last year, and I think they do just enough to take the division back this season.
The A's had an interesting offseason, losing their starting shortstop and closer to free agency while trading their long-time slugging DH. They play musical chairs with the roster but something just feels off with this group that I can't explain.
The Angels still refuse to give Mike Trout a representative pitching staff. Any team fronted by Dylan Bundy isn't serious in my view. The Mariners start to see some of their young prospect base arrive and show glimpses of what this team could be in the future. The Rangers, well, they have a ballpark in Texas with air conditioning.
Now, for what most of you came here for, the division that matters most.
Ten days ago, I had the White Sox winning the American League Central. I believe 1-13 they have the best group of pitching in the AL and that even takes into account the uncertainty in the back end of the rotation. I believe this will be the best bullpen in the sport, and it will actually be their run prevention that is their driving force this season. The front three of the rotation can be matched up against any team in the league and I expect them to show it, beginning with staff ace Lucas Giolito who wants that paper!
However, the loss of Eloy Jimenez cannot be overlooked. It creates a gap in this lineup and eliminates a player whom I felt relatively confident in providing 40 homers with an outside shot at breaking Albert Belle's club record and being the first in franchise history to surpass 50. There is a boatload of potential upside with this group, however, it is unproven relative to their main division foe who resides south of the Canadian border. The loss of Eloy does shorten the lineup and I think ultimately is the deciding factor in this division race.
For all the talk about the Bomba Squad, the Twins have quietly been one of the best run prevention teams in the sport the last two years. I think that can continue, particularly given their remade defense with Andrelton Simmons now manning shortstop. If things are close in July, the Twins have the prospect depth to get a significant piece, even with the injury to Royce Lewis, something I'm not as confident saying about our White Sox.
I wouldn't be shocked if the White Sox young positional core of Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal, and even Andrew Vaughn surpass expectations and take significant steps forward in their development, pushing them to the top of the division. I just can't assume it will automatically happen, however.
The heat in this rivalry is undoubtedly back, and I want nothing more than to be wrong, but I think the loss in the middle of the lineup creates enough of a gap to cost the White Sox the division. The Indians will pitch the hell out of the ball again, but I'm not sure how they cross the plate aside from Jose Ramirez hitting the ball out of the park. The Royals will be pesky and annoying this year as their young talent continues to develop. The Tigers' young rotation will gain more experience, and perhaps last year's top pick, Spencer Torkelson, makes his way to the Michigan city that should be a landfill at this point.
White Sox over Rays: Our Sox get some revenge for 2008 #WhatAboutDanks as Tony La Russa outmanages Kevin Cash and KenWo goes on the Twitter rant of all Twitter rants.
Yankees over Astros, 3-2: Pitching will not be at a premium in this series, and ultimately I think the short porch at Yankee Stadium comes into play as the Bronx Bombers finally get over the hump against the Astros in October.
Team Who Shall Remain Nameless over White Sox, 3-1: Remember earlier where I said the loss of Eloy would decide the division? Well, that comes into play as the White Sox only have Lucas Giolito for one start in this series. I simply can't bring my head to say what my heart wants, that the Sox can win a series on the road against these clowns. A certain postseason streak of futility ends against our beloved White Sox, adding salt to the wound as I will be the most miserable human on the planet this winter.
Yankees over Team Who Shall Remain Nameless, 4-1: They finally win a game against the Yankees in October, then they realize who they are and allow the pinstripes to walk all over them as is customary.
We get the classic all-time World Series matchup featuring the Dodgers and Yankees for the first time in my life. The Dodgers prove to be too much again with a roster filled with competency and star power. They become the first team since the last Yankee dynasty to be repeat champions.
MVP: DJ LeMahieu (AL), Ronald Acuna Jr. (NL)
CY Young: Gerritt Cole (AL), Jacob deGrom (NL)
Rookie of the Year:Adley Rutschman (AL), Ke'Bryan Hayes (NL)
Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker (AL), Jayce Tingler (NL)
That's it, folks. I hate this column and I'm sure you do too, and I want nothing more than to be wrong.