We're roughly a week into the 2021 MLB season and excitement is high in cities across the country. While so much is understandably going to change between now and the fall, let's take a look at 25 individuals who could play an important part in deciding how the 2021 postseason will unfold.
Unless the expected 2021 MLB season detours vastly from the script, the Los Angeles Dodgers should head into October as a strong bet to repeat as World Series champions. The Dodgers boast a deadly offensive attack, incredibly capable depth, and a starting rotation that if firing on all cylinders will be as good as any in the league. Enter arguably the sport's most eclectic player, Trevor Bauer. The defending NL CY Young winner signed a massively lucrative contract here as a free agent this winter, and as someone who still owns a career ERA close to four, he'll be under as much pressure as any pitcher in baseball. Pressure that will only ramp up in the playoffs.
Speaking of recent Cy Young winners. Blake Snell took home the prestigious award as a member of the Rays in 2018 and was sensational again last year leading Tampa Bay to the American League pennant. The lasting image from last fall's World Series was a cruising Snell being pulled early in game six, and walking off the mound disgusted. The Dodgers quickly took the lead following his exit, and a few innings later were celebrating a World Championship in the middle of the diamond. A few weeks later Snell was traded to the Padres, who enter 2021 as probably the most intriguing team in the game. The lefty is undoubtedly anxious for another postseason opportunity.
San Diego's superstar young shortstop has already proven to be everything and more than scouts projected him to be while coming up through the Friars system. At just 22-years-old Tatis has already emerged as one of the best players in the entire sport. But now equipped with a fresh 14 year/$340 million contract extension, expectations will understandably be through the roof. The Padres are expected to give the Dodgers a run for their money in the NL West, and at the very least make the playoffs as a Wild Card in the National League. And if they do, Tatis will certainly be expected to perform on the big stage.
The Mets enter 2021 with a ton of hype thanks to a new ownership group and a plethora of offseason additions--headlined by superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor. But make no mistake, the backbone of this team is still their pitching staff which is led by the game's best starter, Jacob deGrom. New York's ace looked like a man on a mission during spring training, and he's the hands-down favorite to capture his 3rd NL Cy Young award in the last four seasons. If the Mets overhaul propels them back into the postseason the way they hope it does, nobody in the National League is going to be happy about facing deGrom in a short series.
While the Mets--and the Nationals for that matter--are improved, the Atlanta Braves are not going to give up control of the NL East without a fight. Excluding the Dodgers, Atlanta has been the premier team in the National League for several seasons now, and they're hoping 2021 is the year they get over the top. They very well may have happened a season ago had their ace, Mike Soroka, not been lost early in the season with an Achilles injury. In 37 Major League starts Soroka owns a tremendous 2.86 career ERA in 214 innings, and both he and the Braves are undoubtedly looking forward to getting him back on the mound in the season's most important games.
The face of the Mets expected return to relevance is undoubtedly Francisco Lindor, whom they acquired in a high-profile winter trade with Cleveland. The 27-year-old is everything you could ever hope to have on your team. Young, five-tool superstar, in his prime, with all the intangibles and then some. New York believes the shortstop will team with Pete Alonso to lead this team's offense for years to come, and if things go to plan they'll be playing lead roles on the October stage.
While Atlanta's first baseman Freddie Freeman captured the 2020 NL MVP award, don't let all the attention he (deservedly) got from that, distract you from just how good his teammate, Ronald Acuna Jr., really is. Acuna will more than likely capture at least one MVP award of his own before too long, as he boasts the type of skill set that is nearly impossible to find. In 2019 he nearly became the first 40/40 player since Alfonso Soriano in '06. Entering the upcoming campaign the young outfielder has a sour taste in his mouth, however, thanks to a disappointing .217/.333/.370 slash line in 12 postseason games from last October. Look for him to turn that chip on his shoulder into a massive 2021.
No Dodger could've been happier about winning the World Series in 2020 than Clayton Kershaw, who had to feel an enormous weight lifted from his shoulders the moment the last out was recorded. The future Hall-of-Famer has won three Cy Young awards and been named to eight all-star teams, but postseason success had proven elusive for him. Until last October. In five playoff starts Kershaw turned in a 2.93 ERA with a 0.91 WHIP en route to getting the proverbial monkey off his back. Now, what can he do for an encore?
Edwin Diaz was historically good as the Mariners' closer in 2018, but saying he failed to build on that after being traded to the Mets the following season is a colossal understatement. The '19 campaign could not have gone any worse for the righty, as he blew seven saves and surrendered an insane 15 long balls in only 58 innings. While New York fans still feel a level of PTSD when he enters the game, he rebounded nicely a year ago. Now on a club with massive expectations, the Mets simply need Diaz to be a lights-out force at the end of games, particularly with the rest of the team's bullpen a question mark.
Manny Machado is already entering his 3rd season as the Padres' third baseman, and while he's been good in San Diego, they will need him to be even better in 2021. The Friars' expectations are as high as any team in baseball right now, and if they don't become a major factor in the '21 NL postseason it will be a massive disappointment. If they do qualify for the playoffs, though, Machado will simply have to step his game up on the national stage. In 29 career playoff games, the veteran owns just a .200/.250/.383 slash line.
While the Mets' acquisition of Francisco Lindor got more publicity, the Cardinals adding star third baseman Nolan Arenado could shake up the National League hierarchy just as much. The NL Central is likely more wide open than any division in baseball, and while it may be a dogfight for the entire six-month campaign, St. Louis probably does have the most talent on paper. Arenado's ability to prove his offensive numbers have not been overly inflated by playing half his games at Coors Field will go a long way in determining just how good the Redbirds can be.
Speaking of the Cardinals and their chances of coming out of the NL Central, there may not be a more important player on their roster than right-hander Jack Flaherty. In both '18 and '19, the 25-year-old was one of the best starters in the NL, but the truncated 2020 campaign did not go quite as well for him. In nine outings Flaherty finished with a troubling 4.91 ERA and failed to even average five innings/start. St. Louis will need him to get back on track moving forward if they're going to hold off Chicago and Milwaukee.
The Bronx Bombers have spent a decade now trying to get over the hump, and their best chance to do just that in 2021 rests squarely on the right arm of ace Gerrit Cole. The UCLA product is easily the best pitcher in baseball not named Jacob deGrom, and on a Yankees team loaded with talent, he is the premier player on the team. And also the guy with the most pressure on him. Behind Cole in the rotation, New York has massive question marks, and if he fails to stay healthy or is inconsistent in any way, this team is in trouble. If they do charge into the postseason the Yankees just will not go very far without winning Cole's starts, it's as simple as that.
When Toronto signed George Springer as a free agent, they added one of the most accomplished postseason players in recent memory to an already exciting young core. Seducing Springer away from the Astros who had been the premier team on the junior circuit for the last half-decade, and inserting him onto the 'Jays could end up representing a huge shift in the AL's balance of power. Should Toronto fulfill their spring promise and qualify for the playoffs, they'll have a guy who crushed 19 playoff homers since 2015.
Staying north of the border. With the additions of Marcus Semien and the aforementioned George Springer, the Blue Jays quite clearly boast an offensive attack that should be able to keep up with anyone in 2021. Their bullpen may not have defined roles yet so to speak, but they should have enough back there for the group to be steady. The only thing potentially standing in the way of their success in '21 is the starting rotation, where behind ace lefty Hyun Jin Ryu there are questions. In his first year with the 'Jays Ryu did live up to the hype, posting a 2.69 ERA across 12 starts en route to All-MLB 2nd Team honors. In his one postseason outing, however, the southpaw was disappointingly knocked out in the 2nd inning. This time around if Toronto is going to make noise in the American League, they'll have to win most of Ryu's starts, especially down the stretch.
There has been an inordinate amount of drama and speculation around outfielder Clint Frazier's status seemingly since the day the Yankees acquired him at the 2016 trade deadline. The right-handed hitter came with enormous offensive potential, but his outfield defense left something to be desired and some even questioned his attitude. Blocked for a long time in the New York outfield by longtime Yankee Brett Gardner, Frazier's name was endlessly bantered about in trade rumors. But heading into 2021, his time is finally now. The starting left field job in the Bronx is now his, with Gardner relegated to the bench, and it's time for the 26-year-old to take advantage of his opportunity. If he hits the way the Yankees feel he can look for this season to be his formal introduction to the national audience.
As the 2021 season kicks off the Astros already find themselves a little behind the eight ball so to speak. Their outfield is absent two long-standing members of their pennant-winning teams in George Springer and Josh Reddick, and ace righty Justin Verlander is slated to miss most if not all of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. This is why if this team is again going to win the AL West, they'll need a big year from Lance McCullers Jr., who will need to be a reliable number two for them behind Zack Greinke. McCullers was solid in 2020 after missing the entire previous season due to his own Tommy John procedure, and Houston rewarded him in March with a nice five-year extension. If the Astros make their way into the playoffs again later this fall though, while they are confident in Greinke at the top, just how far they can go will likely be determined by how McCullers follows him up.
The burden of offsetting some of the offense the Astros lost over the winter will fall on the clubs veterans like Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Yuri Gurriel, and especially Carlos Correa. Houston's shortstop is coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign by his standards, as in 58 contests he slashed just .264/.326/.383 with only five home runs. He turned it up significantly in the playoffs, blasting six bombs in 47 at-bats and that is the production Houston needs for a full season. Correa will be a free agent at years' end and extension discussions do not exactly sound like they're going well. The carrot of a lucrative new contract should provide enough motivation, and if this team is in the thick of things in September and potentially October, you can bet Correa will be a key reason why.
Minnesota's top prospect, Alex Kirilloff somewhat surprisingly made his Major League debut in the postseason last October, and the expectation was that he'd anchor left field at Target Field for years to come. A disappointing spring led to him being optioned to the minor leagues just ahead of opening day, but Twins fans should not fret. The 23-year-old is going to be a major part of this team for a long time, and he'll be up sooner rather than later. And if he can produce at the highest level the way his minor league resume says he can, this could be the next American League star.
Along with the Blue Jays, the White Sox are considered the next 'it' team in the AL, and this season has a strong chance to be the one where they take control of the AL Central and don't let go for a while. Losing slugging Eloy Jimenez to a fluke injury is disappointing, but the offense will be able to withstand that if prized prospect Andrew Vaughn lives up to the hype. The Chi-Sox bullpen is loaded, and their rotation--headlined by Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn--will be strong. But if left-hander Dallas Keuchel can duplicate his terrific 2020 season that watched him pitch to a 1.99 ERA this team will be downright scary. And extremely intimidating to face in a short playoff series.
We touched a little on the White Sox offense in the last slide, but it's important to appreciate the value of their best hitter for a second. First baseman Jose Abreu has been a dynamic run producer since coming to the Major Leagues in 2014, but the '20 season was easily the best of his career. Playing in all 60 of Chicago's contests he slashed .317/.370/.617 with 19 homers and 60 RBI. He deservedly was named AL MVP, and the White Sox are hoping he can anchor a line-up that will cause serious issues for opposing pitchers all season long.
Part of the increased optimism surrounding the White Sox has to do with a somewhat stunningly under-the-radar addition to the back of their bullpen. Chicago signed former Oakland closer Liam Hendriks to a huge free-agent pact over the winter, and in the last two years, there simply has not been a better reliever in the American League. Last season the veteran nailed down 14 of his 15 save chances with a tremendous 1.78 ERA. Chicago plans on playing high leverage games in September and October, and if Hendriks can essentially shorten the game to eight innings it will really benefit them.
The Twins don't intend to surrender the AL Central reigns in 2021, but it's looking increasingly likely that the White Sox will give them all they can handle. A guy who stands out as a potential wild card in the race is Minnesota third baseman, Josh Donaldson, whose first season in the Twin Cities was a major disappointment. After a dominant offensive season with Atlanta in '19, Donaldson struggled to stay healthy for his new team, and when he was on the field he hit only .222 with eight extra-base hits. For Minnesota to accomplish the things they hope to in the months ahead they'll need the veteran slugger to stay healthy and be productive, and he certainly has the capability to get hot and put a team on his back down the stretch.
Another Twin who could play a huge part in preventing the White Sox from overtaking them in the Central is righty Jose Berrios, who is immensely talented but has yet to fully fulfill the promise that led many to look at him as a future ace. In 115 big league starts the 26-year-old owns a lifetime 4.19 ERA with less than a strikeout/inning. He pitched well in his one postseason start last fall, but if Berrios can really break out in 2021 the Twins chances of being a serious factor in the American League would skyrocket.
New York is extremely anxious to finally break through and capture its first American League pennant since 2009. The Yankees have --at least on paper--an offense that should be good enough, a dynamic bullpen, and a rotation anchored by the best pitcher in the American League. But what's held them back in large part is injuries, particularly to sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. Stanton in particular has failed to stay on the field way too much, but his October production last fall showed just how deadly he can be when healthy. In seven playoff games the veteran hit .308 with six homers and 13 RBI, and the Yankees sincerely hope he can deliver that type of encore later this calendar year.
Justin Mears is a freelance sports writer from Long Beach Island, NJ. Enjoys being frustrated by the Mets and Cowboys, reading Linwood Barclay novels, and being yelled at by his toddler son. Follow him on twitter @justinwmears.