The wait for the 2020 season felt like an eternity. So, in many ways, it’s hard to believe 2021 Opening Day is already just around the corner. Regardless of your team’s outlook for 2021, a 162-game season is a welcome sight for all. One of the best parts about a new season is the clean slate that comes with it. Before Opening Day, any outcome you can imagine is still possible. With that in mind, I introduce to you my 2021 bold predictions. Agree? Disagree? Have your own predictions to share? Let me know what you’re thinking for the 2021 season in the comments section.
1. Juan Soto wins the National League Triple Crown
Since 1968, there has been exactly one player, Miguel Cabrera, to win the Triple Crown in either league. Suggesting a player will join the likes of Cabrera, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams among others certainly qualifies as bold. It is, however, a testament to Juan Soto‘s prodigious talents that historic feats like the Triple Crown all feel like they are within his range of outcomes. Over 47 games in 2020, Soto managed to make a .351/.490/.695 line with 13 homers look absolutely effortless. Even more impressive, he posted the league’s best walk rate in his age-21 season. While those stats are potentially aided by a small sample, Soto’s skillset makes a similar full-season outcome possible.
Winning a Triple Crown is, at least partially, a product of your lineup circumstances. Soto’s Triple Crown hopes would be best served with Trea Turner in front of him and resurgent seasons from Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber behind him. Regardless of lineup construction, Soto has the pure abilities to produce a Triple Crown quality season. ATC projects Soto to finish in the NL’s top three in runs, homers, and RBI. If everything breaks right, Soto could join the shortlist of the game’s greats.
Soon after entering the league, Mike Trout became the preeminent preseason leader in the clubhouse for AL MVP. Predicting anyone other than the Millville Meteor for MVP feels like the wrong answer. Enter Tony Two Bags. Anthony Rendon has long been lauded as one of baseball’s most underrated and underappreciated superstars. The smooth fielding third baseman is finally receiving long-overdue recognition after a 2019 season where he finished third for NL MVP and served as the centerpiece of the Nationals’ World Series title. While he performed well in his first season with the Angels, I expect another 2019-like campaign in 2021.
Rendon possesses perhaps the game’s prettiest swing and is known for his advanced approach at the dish. He’s also in an enviable spot batting cleanup in the Angels lineup. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rendon lead the league in RBI with the likes of David Fletcher, Shohei Ohtani, and Trout all batting in front of him. Trout is, without question, the more talented hitter. His skills are so profound that MVP voters often appear to hold him to a higher standard than other candidates. I believe Rendon will sway voters with his run production, elite plate discipline, and Gold Glove defense to win the MVP. Something tells me Trout wouldn’t be too disappointed with this outcome.
3. James Paxton outperforms his 2019 season stats
James Paxton is the one pitcher I will always hold out hope for. Pax’s career has been riddled with a myriad of IL trips and he has only reached 160 IP in one season. But, oh man, that potential. A healthy Paxton has no-hit type stuff that is anchored by 97 MPH gas. Big Maple enters the season healthy, evidenced by two strong Spring Training starts. I entered the season skeptical of Paxton’s ability to regain his velocity and stuff. It took less than nine innings in the Cactus League and I’m back on board.
I’m predicting we see vintage Paxton this season. He finds himself back in Seattle, a much friendlier environment for a fly ball pitcher than the Bronx. Seattle will also be employing a six-man rotation to start the season. Paxton will get more rest which will hopefully reduce the chances of an IL stint. In his first season in New York, the lefty tallied 150 innings with 186 Ks, a 3.82 ERA, and 1.28 WHIP. Although 186 Ks might be tough given a closely monitored workload, I think we’ll see Paxton improve upon 2019’s rate stats and finish the year as a top 40 SP.
4. Clint Frazier is a top-30 outfielder
Clint Frazier will finally get his first full-season crack as a starting outfielder in 2021. The road has been long and winding for Frazier since joining the Yankees. His growth to fully earning the organization’s trust feels surprisingly under-discussed. I’ve found myself writing about Frazier twice this Spring, once as a player who flashed improved plate discipline and a second time as one of my 2021 sleepers. While Frazier might receive an occasional day off to get a lefty like Brett Gardner or Mike Tauchman in the lineup, Frazier has the upside potential to make those days few and far between. The left fielder has elite bat speed, makes hard contact, and has shown the ability to make incremental improvements each year. Put me down for 25 homers, 85 RBI, and a top 30 OF finish in fantasy leagues.
5. Gavin Lux is a top-eight second baseman
Gavin Lux is a prospect with pedigree in a loaded Dodger lineup. This prediction, however, is more a product of the current state of second base. DJ LeMahieu headlines the group with Ozzie Albies and Whit Merrifield following close behind. Ketel Marte has strong Statcast numbers and one elite season under his belt. Behind them, there are older bounce-back candidates and younger players with experience who haven’t put it all together. The position does not have depth and is prime for a sleeper candidate to enter the upper echelon in 2021.
The Dodgers haven’t given Lux consistent playing time since his big league debut and, as a result, he’s fallen a bit under the radar in drafts. There should, however, be more opportunities for Lux this season. With the departure of Kiké Hernandez, there is one less option for Dave Roberts to write in on the lineup card at the position. Lux’s primary competition at second, Chris Taylor, is a flexible utilityman who can also play outfield and shortstop. It would not be surprising to see Lux see more than the ATC projection of 113 games. If the PT is there, Lux could hit 20 homers and steal 10 bags at a position where it would move the needle.
6. Brendan Rodgers enters next season as a top-120 pick
This prediction is, at least partially, based on the same logic behind Lux as a top-eight second baseman. There are just not enough quality 2B-eligible players, so those with potential ascend up draft boards. What makes me bullish on Brendan Rodgers, especially when he’s starting the year on the IL? In short, he’s shown some pop in the minors and he’ll be playing half his games at Coors Field. While Rodgers has disappointed in his initial stints in the majors, he was turning some heads this spring. The highlight of Rodgers’ spring has been setting a new max exit velocity of 115.6, an absolutely impressive feat for a player of his stature.
When Rodgers recovers from his hamstring injury, there should be no roadblocks to everyday ABs. If the middle infielder can flash the potential that made him a third-overall pick and highly regarded prospect, he’ll see his fantasy stock rise quickly. In addition to the benefits of Coors Field, Rodger’s above-average sprint speed creates the allure of potential stolen bases as well. I’ll predict Rodgers for 18 HR, 50 RBI, 8 SB, and a ton of breakout hype entering 2022.
7. Will Smith leads the majors in saves
It seems like each year the league leader in saves is someone we don’t expect. Predicting the saves leader is tricky to pin down because it combines luck, skill, opportunity, and a manager’s philosophy. RP stats also vary more from year to year. With that being said, it actually doesn’t seem all that bold to project Will Smith to lead baseball in saves. The “bold” aspect of this prediction is that Smith has not officially been named the closer. For what it’s worth, however, Smith is being paid like a closer. Furthermore, Brian Snitker used Mark Melancon in a typical closer role last season. While there is a risk Smith will be deployed against opponents’ best lefties, the Braves have at least two other lefties in the pen in Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter.
I expect Smith to put together a stronger performance than 2020’s 4.5 ERA. In fact, outside of 2020, Smith has not posted an ERA over 3.35 since 2015. The Braves should find themselves with narrow leads in a competitive NL East, setting up a wealth of save opportunities. Smith should be the beneficiary of the lion’s share of ninth-inning chances and has a clear path to leading the league in saves.
8. At least four shortstops finish with higher rotisserie value than Fernando Tatís Jr.
Fernando Tatís Jr. is unquestionably one of the most exciting and talented players in baseball. He blends unique power, speed, and energy in what should be a top-three lineup. As a result, Tatís is currently the second player off the board in the FantasyPros consensus ADP. Optimism around Tatís is warranted, but we may be underestimating the potential risk. While Tatís showed durability in 2020 with 59 games played, there were signs for concern in 2019. A hamstring strain and stress reaction in his lower back both sent the shortstop to the IL his rookie year. In addition, Tatís also has experienced shoulder discomfort this spring. For a player whose exceptional athleticism is part of his game, you are hoping these injuries are not a sign of things to come.
It’s easy to believe in Tatís after he cut down his strikeout rate in 2020, the biggest concern entering last season. I believe in Tatís’ ability to sustain these gains, but we haven’t seen it over the course of a full season. If he isn’t able to convert 2020’s 59-game sample into a full season, there is a deep pool of shortstops who could top San Diego’s young phenom. Trea Turner and Trevor Story are the likeliest of the bunch as they have bona fide, five-category production. Behind them, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Xander Bogaerts all have elite skills at the plate, and would not be a total shock if they exceed Tatís’ production in a given year.
9. The Kansas City Royals are buyers at the trade deadline
The incentive systems in place for teams across Major League Baseball are warped. A few clubs embrace full-on tanking, others sit on the sidelines during free agency, and some hold back potential difference-makers in the minors to gain an additional year of service time. And then, there’s the Kansas City Royals. They’re not a big market team and their next title window is not yet open. Despite this, they’re employing a novel strategy: trying to build a strong culture and a winning baseball team.
At the height of the pandemic, when most clubs were enacting furloughs and layoffs, the Royals announced they would not release any minor leaguers or layoff/furlough any team employees. They promoted Brady Singer and Kris Bubic to the major league team to continue their development in a 2020 season where they were quickly out of contention. This spring, they openly discussed being “open-minded” on 20-year old Bobby Witt Jr.’s path to the majors. During the offseason, they brought in veterans Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor on short-term deals. They took a chance on Andrew Benintendi via trade, hoping to unlock some of the potential that he’s struggled to unlock the past few years in Boston. They rewarded their team leader, Salvador Perez, with the largest contract in team history.
This is all to say, the Royals are actively trying. Their lineup is serviceable and can hopefully cover up some of the shortcomings in their rotation. If Kansas City gets off to a hot start, it would not be surprising to see GM Dayton Moore have the green light to make a small move or two before the deadline. I’m not bold enough to predict them for a Wild Card berth, but I think they’ll continue to make small upgrades where possible.
10. Germán Márquez starts Game 1 of a playoff series for the Angels
For my final prediction, I asked myself, “What would finally get Mike Trout back into the playoffs?” So, this might be more wishful thinking than a bold prediction. For the money LA has spent on their lineup, it hasn’t led to the production one might expect. A healthy core of Trout, Ohtani, and Rendon in the top half of the lineup should alleviate some of those woes. The issue, as it has been for some time now, is the Angels’ rotation. Dylan Bundy was a revelation in 2020, but is likely more of a number two or three starter for a playoff team. Ohtani has electric stuff, but his command issues and injury woes make it hard to depend on him for a full season. If baseball fans are to see Trout under the brightest lights in October, it looks like I need to find them a new starter.
We haven’t hit Opening Day, yet it feels like a near certainty that Germán Márquez will be traded by the deadline. In fact, if Colorado’s management wasn’t too busy this offseason alienating the face of the franchise (enjoy St. Louis, Nolan Arenado!) or pretending they don’t have money to sign their current superstar (enjoy the open market, Trevor Story!) they likely would’ve prioritized trading Márquez already. The 26-year-old righty, who is under contract through 2024, is perhaps the team’s biggest trade chip. The Rockies seem intent on tearing it all down and the Angels need another starter. It’s a perfect match!
I don’t have the faintest idea what a package would take to get Márquez to the Angels. Assuming Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh are off the table, they might not have enough for a deal. I’m holding out hope though that the Angels can build the team around Trout that he deserves. To add icing on the cake, it’s always a treat to see Márquez pitch outside of Coors. While this is likely the most outlandish of my bold predictions, let’s hope they get it done!
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire/ All-Pro Reels/flickr | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)