Another action packed winter has come and gone and at long last, baseball is back. Bleachers across the country are being dusted off as all 30 ballparks welcome back their fans for what they hope to be a season to remember. Some teams expect to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy in October while others are simply hoping to find a way to put together 81 wins. Whether or not your team dominates or struggles this season, we’re just glad that teams will take the field on time this year. With every season comes predictions. These are the boldest ones that if they pan out, could shock the baseball world in 2021.
1. Liam Hendriks tops 50 saves, gets Cy Young votes
In one of the more underrated moves of the offseason, the up and coming White Sox inked the league’s best closer in Liam Hendriks to stabilize their bullpen. This was the best fit for the former Oakland Athletic as with Chicago having the money to spend and the need for a shutdown closer, they also have one of the league’s best lineups complete with 2020 AL MVP Jose Abreu, rising star Luis Robert and the prolific switch hitting of Yoan Moncada. With this offense, runs will no doubt be plentiful on the South Side. However, with Hendriks being the only proven right handed option coming out of the White Sox bullpen, Chicago might have trouble limiting runs in the later innings and could find themselves in more high scoring games than usual. With this, Tony La Russa will use Hendriks very often with his old school style of trusting talent over matchups. His impressive four pitch arsenal and everyday consistency he put on display with Oakland will carry over to his new home where he will be the only top tier option, unlike his role out west. Hendriks will be used in more situations this year and given less days off as Chicago’s bullpen doesn’t match that of Oakland’s in terms of depth and talent, meaning that he will be relied on more than ever before. With his elite four pitch arsenal though, he will have no problem dominating day in and out for the black and white pinstripes. Liam Hendriks will put together a 2016 Zack Britton like season this year as a near lock to dominate the ninth inning while striking out the world and making runs hard to come by throughout the summer. In 2021, Hendriks will be right up there with Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole as the most dominant pitchers in the American League and will be a vital component to the White Sox playoff aspirations.
2. The Cubs tear it down and rebuild, Bryant and Rizzo traded at deadline
It’s been 5 years since the Cubs broke their 108 year World Series drought and it’s time that they realize they need to move on. Ever since that championship, Chicago hasn’t gotten back to the World Series nor have they even advanced in the playoffs since 2017, going out in embarrassing fashion in 2018 and 2020 while not even making it in 2019. With their best pitchers from those years in Yu Darvish and Jon Lester out of town, Kyle Hendricks is the only reliable option in the rotation with little to brag about behind him. The bullpen is also a serious weak point as a washed up Craig Kimbrel is being trusted as the closer, despite his 5.90 ERA with the team over the last two seasons. While the lineup is still a plus and should produce, the continued concerns over Kris Bryant’s durability cast some doubt, especially after a horrible 2020 season. With the lack of pitching, Chicago will struggle to get through the dog days of summer no matter how well they hit. A competitive division and the eighth hardest schedule in baseball (based off 2020 records), will likely have Chicago spiraling by July. Hopefully, this will signify to the front office that the glory days are over and it’s time to start again. With Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez all being free agents, Chicago has no choice but to trade at least two of them as they won’t be able to afford the big extensions all three will look for. Due to age, Anthony Rizzo will likely be shipped out with teams such as the Red Sox, Marlins and Blue Jays being possible suitors with enough value to take in a deal. Kris Bryant will likely be out the door too as his name has already been thrown around on the rumor mill this past winter with contenders such as the Mets, Braves and Phillies all being logical fits with good assets to give in return. Baez should be the one that Chicago opens the checkbook for to sign long term due to his age and talent but with very little reinforcements coming from the minors, El Mago will likely find himself as the lone survivor on a struggling Cubs team for years to come.
3. The Astros collapse and Carlos Correa is traded at the deadline
With the sign stealing scandal still fresh in the minds of baseball fans, 2021 will be a year of reckoning for the Astros. Not only will they finally get their well deserved boos from every stadium they play in, they will be faced with this adversity with a much less talented roster than year’s past. While Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Zack Greinke are still here, some of this team’s biggest pieces from the last few years are out. Aging phenom Justin Verlander is sidelined for the entire season with Tommy John surgery. 2020 breakout Framber Valdez is also expected to miss the start of the 2021 campaign with a fractured finger. George Springer, the franchise center fielder, left for Toronto this past winter. Ace Gerrit Cole cashed out in the Bronx last year. With two key pitchers both on the shelf to start the season, the weight will be on an aging Zack Greinke and a wild card in Lance McCullers to carry the load. While Jake Odorizzi was a nice pick up, he struggled mightily in 2020 and was only signed out of desperation. Losing Roberto Osuna as the closer is also a big blow and the bullpen now lacks a true force. I expect these losses on the pitching staff to be a major detriment to the team and with Greinke not getting any younger, Houston will give up a lot of runs this year. While they can still hit, losing Springer at the top of the order will be a huge blow. This year will be Houston’s last chance to truly contend and as we saw with Toronto in 2017 and Milwaukee post 2018, teams in these situations usually struggle especially with new competition in the division which Houston will face with Los Angeles and Oakland this year. And with the news of Houston’s extremely lowball offer of just 6 years, $120 million to a top five shortstop in baseball, Carlos Correa could very well be joining the exodus from H-Town. With this lack of pitching, overall less threats at the plate and the heavy adversity the team must face, Houston will falter off this year and their reign as one of the league’s best teams will end. With Bregman and Yordan Alvarez due for big extensions soon, Carlos Correa will likely be gone midseason as his frustrations with the team have been well known all offseason and the Astros will want to get something back for the former first overall pick as tension between him and the organization grow. Houston will be able to get a quality return of prospects for him though as the Yankees, Braves and Reds could all make a play at the all star shortstop. In the end, Carlos Correa’s inevitable departure from Houston will begin the downfall of one of the most controversial championship teams in the history of sports.
4. Juan Soto hits 55+ home runs, leads league in IBB, wins NL MVP
The start to Juan Soto’s career has been one of the most remarkable in the history of baseball. At just 22, he already has a World Series title under his belt and has clubbed more home runs than some of baseball’s greatest ever in Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle at his age. And in 2021, he will firmly mark his place as the best pure hitter in baseball. With that sweet lefty swing and ungodly amounts of pop in his bat, Soto certainly has the skillset at the plate to make that happen. Combine that with his situation this year, and knowing that he can thrive under pressure, he should only improve. With the loss of Anthony Rendon and over 100 games last year, Soto is now the Nationals focal point on offense. He will be the three hitter and Washington’s undisputed ride or die on offense. While Trea Turner and Josh Bell are both also plus hitters, they are nowhere near the level of Soto. As long as he’s healthy, Soto will dominate any pitcher put in front of him for the first several weeks, putting himself on an unprecedented pace in terms of single season home runs. While he will taper off a bit as pitchers start to pitch more carefully (or not at all) to him, long balls won’t come as easy but Soto will easily take advantage of any pitch that’s there. If he can hit at this kind of clip, don’t be surprised if he gets the Barry Bonds treatment and gets the most free passes among hitters this year, as his left handed power like Bonds is so rare and hard to exploit. If he can play 140+ games, which his durability hasn’t been a concern yet in his career, the Childish Bambino will club homers all summer long and be the engine of the Washington offense. His ability to use the entire field and take advantage of the foul lines will allow for increased home run totals, especially in his home of Nationals Park. When all is said and done, Soto will end the season as the most feared hitter in baseball as he claims his first of many NL MVP awards in his career, compiling at least 55 home runs and another 140 RBI’s to go with it. By the way, he has the ability to do this at the age of 22. NL East, BEWARE.
5. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton play 130+ games each, hit 100 combined home runs and lead the Yankees to 28th World Series title
Saving the boldest for last. Since 2008, the New York Yankees have been searching for their 28th World Series title but have continuously come up short in October as they haven’t even gotten back to the Fall Classic since. In 2021, there is no excuse for them not to break that pennant drought as for the first time in years, they are the undisputed best team in the American League at least on paper. While injuries, lack of pitching depth and a group of cheaters from Houston have held them back, all of those aspects are now out of the way this year. The Yankees enter Opening Day relatively healthy, compared to season’s past. While breakout slugger Luke Voit will start the year on the sidelines, the Yankees other power hitters are healthy and ready to produce. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are both 100% and have been crushing dingers all spring long, striking fear in the hearts if any team that has to pitch to them. Both have held up very well thus far in the spring and have displayed improved plate discipline, each hitter’s biggest weakness at the plate. With last year’s abbreviated season, both superstars have been given more time to heal up and I believe that will come into effect this year as their durability improves. With the modern day bash brothers on the field and considering that their strikeout rates are on the downswing, New York will add at least 40 home runs a piece to their lineup with full seasons from Judge and Stanton. And with the notorious short porches down the lines in the Bronx, those totals will inflate to triple digits between the two. Behind the big boppers and a deep pitching core behind ace Gerrit Cole, the Yankees should easily take the division and with the Eloy Jimenez-less White Sox being their biggest threat for the AL pennant, it’s fair to say the Bronx will finally host the World Series for the first time in 13 years. In the Fall Classic, the Yankees will be able to take advantage of an exhausted Dodgers team, who were taken the distance by the Mets and Braves in the NLDS and NLCS respectively. With elite production from Judge and Stanton, the Yankees will be able to outhit LA while Cole, a revitalized Corey Kluber and a returning Luis Severino hold the defending champs in check as New York captures its 28th World Series championship on the backs of their two cornerstone outfielders.