Thursday, April 1, 2021

2021 Pre-Season Profile: St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals pulled off a blockbuster trade to man the hot corner for the foreseeable future.  Is that enough to get this back to elite?

#11 - 2nd in NL Central
MIH - Paul Goldschmidt
MIP - Miles Mikolas
PTW - Dylan Carlson

2020 Results
#12 - 30-28, 2nd in NL Central, lost in Wild Card Round
The Cardinals had a typical Cardinals season.  They were quiet enough that many people forgot about them, but they were still good enough to make the postseason and almost spoil the magical Padres in the Wild Card Round.  They were led in 2020 by Paul Goldschmidt, possibly the quietest of all of baseball's superstars, which makes him the perfect star for St. Louis.

Additions / Subtractions
The Cardinals really only made one move over the offseason, but it was a big one.  They pulled off the blockbuster trade that sent them third baseman Nolan Arenado from Colorado.  Outside of letting second baseman Kolten Wong sign with Milwaukee and trading outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Angels, the Cardinals didn't do much else other than get healthy.

Most Important Hitter
Paul DeJong
Entering his 5th season as the starting shortstop in St. Louis, Paul DeJong got out to a hot start to his career, finishing 2nd in Rookie of the Year in 2017 and making his first All Star Team in 2019.  However, 2020 proved to be a struggle for DeJong.  If the Cardinals are going to have a dangerous and deep lineup, they need DeJong to bounce back and show he can get back to that All Star level.

Most Important Pitcher
Jack Flaherty
In 2020, Adam Wainwright emerged as the go to ace of the Cardinals' staff.  With Wainwright entering his age 39 season, he can't really be counted on to be that good again in 2021.  That means it is time for Jack Flaherty to emerge as the consistent dominant ace the Cardinals need.  He was outstanding in 2019, finishing in the top 5 in Cy Young voting, but 2020 was a struggle.  With some of the injuries the Cardinals are facing in their rotation to start the season, the 25 year old Flaherty needs to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, which is not a stretch considering his how good he has shown he can be.

Prospect to Watch
Dylan Carlson
When the Cardinals traded Dexter Fowler, they were basically announcing that the outfield would be super young and athletic.  Harrison Bader and Tyler O'Neill can be expected to be out there every day, but the best of the group might be Dylan Carlson.  Ranked the 14th best prospect in baseball, Carlson played in 35 games in 2020 with little success, but the Cardinals believe in him, and his tools show that he can be a star.

2021 Prediction
1st in NL Central, win World Series
Here are my World Series champions!  It is definitely an outside-the-box pick, but with the way the Cardinals always find a way to be better than anyone realized, and the add of Arenado, this team is going to surprise everyone.  Arenado and Goldschmidt are the perfect superstars to play in St. Louis, and they are going to become one of the best combos in any lineup in the league.  Every few years, the Cardinals emerge as one of the best teams in baseball, and they are due.  Also, can you imagine the storylines of a Tony La Russa vs. the Cardinals World Series?  And a World Series win would almost certainly send Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright off into retirement on top.  Perfect!

Fearless Prediction
Jack Flaherty wins the NL Cy Young Award.
Like I said, Jack Flaherty has the capability to be one of the best pitchers in baseball.  He is going to be the surprising star everybody knows from this team by the end of the season.  A Cy Young and a World Series ... sounds like a successful season to me.

2021 Pre-Season Profile: Chicago White Sox

The Chicago White Sox have some of the most exciting young talent in the league.  Can a strong offseason turn a playoff appearance last season into a deep postseason run in 2021?

#15 - 2nd in AL Central
MIH - Eloy Jimenez
MIP - Lucas Giolito
PTW - Luis Robert

2020 Results
#8 - 35-25, 2nd in AL Central, lost in Wild Card Round
The Chicago White Sox continued to grow in 2020 as their young roster cracked the postseason.  The season was highlighted by the play of first baseman Jose Abreu who won the AL MVP.  They may not have advanced past the first round, it was an encouraging step in the right direction for this team that is starting to see the fruits of a rebuild that started a few years ago with the trade of Chris Sale.

Additions / Subtractions
The White Sox had one of the most active and fascinating offseasons leading into 2021.  They updraded their rotation by trading for Lance Lynn from Texas.  They upgraded their bullpen by signing one of the best closers in the league in Liam Hendriks.  They added some veteran leadership to their lineup by signing former White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton.  Then came one of the most talked about moves of the winter in the hiring of 76 year old Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa after a decade of retirement.

Most Important Hitter
Yoan Moncada
Yoan Moncada broke out in 2019 with a stellar season, hitting .315 with 25 homers and finishing with a career high 139 OPS+.  He followed that up in 2020 with a rough season, only hitting .225 and a 93 OPS+.  Especially with the injury to budding star Eloy Jimenez who will most of the season, Moncada needs a bounce back season to add depth to this lineup.

Most Important Pitcher
Dallas Keuchel
Back in 2015, Dallas Keuchel won a Cy Young for the Astros.  After that season, he had varying success from 2016-2019 before signing with the White Sox leading into 2020.  Last season, Keuchel was outstanding and made a great 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with Lucas Giolito.  Now he needs to repeat that success of last season.  If he does, this rotation could be really good with Giolito at the top, Lance Lynn and Keuchel as the veteran 2-3, and the young phenoms filling up the back half.

Prospect to Watch
Nick Madrigal
The White Sox have 4 prospects in baseball's Top 100 Prospects, all of which will have opportunities to make a big impact on the big league roster.  #13 prospect Matthew Vaughn will get at bats to start the season to try and fill the hole left by Eloy Jimenez, while #18 Michael Kopech and #89 Garrett Crochet have already seen the big leagues and will look to help either in the rotation or bullpen as they are two of the hardest throwers around.  The player that will have the most opportunities to have a big year is second baseman Nick Madrigal.  The 36th best prospect in baseball, Madrigal may be small at 5'8" but he knows how to hit.  He got in 29 games last season and hit .340 in that time.  He will start Opening Day at second and looks to be a fixture at the top of their lineup for years to come.

2021 Prediction
1st in AL Central, lose in World Series
This is my team to make the big leap in 2021.  They seem to have a perfect roster to compete deep into the postseason with a great mix of veterans and budding stars both in their lineup and rotation.  The injury to Eloy Jimenez does hurt, but their lineup should be deep enough to absorb that loss.  I also love the addition of Tony La Russa who knows how to win.  Over the last decade, he has been working in front offices around the league so he hasn't just been sitting at home.  He knows the game better than almost anyone, and he will lead this team to new heights.

Fearless Prediction
Tony La Russa wins AL Manager of the Year.
If the White Sox are as good as I think they could be in 2021, this is an obvious win for Tony La Russa.  What a way to make a comeback for the Hall of Famer!

2021 Pre-Season Profile: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers finally broke through and took the top prize in 2020 for the first time since 1988.  Is this the start of a new dynasty in LA?

#1 - 1st in NL West, win World Series
MIH - Corey Seager
MIP - Julio Urias
PTW - Dustin May

2020 Result
#1 - 43-17, 1st in NL West, won World Series
I will once again brag that I correctly predicted the World Series matchup and result!  The Dodgers have been one of the most talented teams in the league for awhile now, but finally they took the top prize.  They seem to only ever get better and stronger and deeper.

Additions / Subtractions
Even after winning the World Series, the Dodgers couldn't be content.  They had to get better, especially after seeing the crazy moves made by the division rival Padres.  Enter 2020 Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer.  If any team didn't need another starting pitcher, it was the Dodgers.  Now they have the most elite rotations in memory with Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Dustin May, David Price, and Tony Gonsolin all in a position to get starts throughout the season.  In terms of the lineup, they re-signed third baseman Justin Turner while they let second baseman Kike Hernandez sign elsewhere, clearing room for former top prospect Gavin Lux to start every day.

Most Important Hitter
Will Smith
The Dodgers lineup is loaded with at least three potential MVP candidates in Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, and Corey Seager.  However, the key to their lineup might be catcher Will Smith, not necessarily for what he brings offensively but what he brings behind the plate.  Smith is entering his third full season in the big leagues, and he has always been able to hit.  His work defensively will be much more crucial as he looks to be the everyday catcher in 2021, especially considering the dream team pitching staff that is throwing to him.

Most Important Pitcher
Kenley Jansen
The starting rotation is deep and elite.  The bullpen is just as deep, but there are definite questions as to how elite they are at the back end.  Kenley Jansen has been the closer in LA for almost a decade.  His peak was in 2017 where he had 41 saves, a 1.32 ERA, and earned both Cy Young and MVP votes.  The last three seasons have been borderline average for Jansen, so much so that there has been talk of hi keeping his closer job.  Now the 33 year old is looking for a bounce back season to keep his job and keep the rest the back end of that bullpen elite.

Prospect to Watch
Keibert Ruiz
Along with bringing in some top talents through trades and free agency, the Dodgers have been incredibly good at building from within in recent years.  Whether it is Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Will Smith, Walker Buehler, or Julio Urias, the Dodgers constantly develop talent into stars and rarely trade away their top prospects.  Not many of the top prospects are projected to help the big club this season (and with the veteran depth they have, that's no surprise).  The one most likely to have an impact in the majors is top catching prospect Keibert Ruiz.  Ruiz is one that the Dodgers have been protecting the last few seasons in the big trades they have pulled off.  Now he will either be the trade chip they need to make another big splash or provide some depth behind the plate behind Will Smith and Austin Barnes.

2021 Prediction
1st in NL West, lose in NLCS
Are the Dodgers the most talented roster in the league?  Yes.  Are they the defending champions?  Yes.  Are they the favorites to repeat?  Yes.  With all that said, only twice in the 21st century have the defending champs even made the World Series the next year (2001 Yankees, 2009 Phillies).  No one has repeated as champs since the 1998-2000 Yankees won three in a row.  The last seven seasons have even had seven different champions.  The Dodgers have the talent to have that kind of run, but it is extremely hard to do.  There is enough parody in baseball right now that I think the Dodgers fall short of the Fall Classic in 2021.  At the same time, this year might be the easiest year to repeat with their depth and the short season in 2020.

Fearless Prediction
This is the last year Clayton Kershaw wears Dodger blue.
Clayton Kershaw is going to go down as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.  He is entering a contract year as a 33 year old, and looking at a roster filled with megadeals and superstars looking for megadeals.  At some point the Dodgers have to run out of money, right?  They just paid Mookie Betts last year, they paid Trevor Bauer this year, they need to decide who will be their shortstop of the future and give him a big payday (whether it is Corey Seager or one of the other superstar free agent shortstops), young stars like Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler will need to be paid soon, and they still have some other big contracts on the books like A.J. Pollock and David Price.  You have to think Kershaw will either need to take a huge hometown discount or move on to a team that needs a star, like Kershaw's hometown Rangers.

2021 Pre-Season Profile: New York Yankees

The New York Yankees once again bring a star-studded roster into the season, but they haven't found their way into Fall Classic in over a decade.  Will 2021 be the year they return to the World Series?

#5 - 2nd in AL East, WILD CARD, lose in ALDS
MIH - Giancarlo Stanton
MIP - James Paxton
PTW - Clarke Schmidt

2020 Results
#10 - 33-27, 2nd in AL East, lost in ALDS
The Yankees must be scratching their heads after spending all that money on all their superstars, and then they watch the small market Tampa Bay Rays win the division and knock them out of the playoffs.  Despite all their talent, the Yankees seem to be stuck and keep coming up short of the pennant, let alone a World Series championship.

Additions / Subtractions
This proved to be an interesting offseason in the Bronx as they tried to improve their team without being huge spenders.  They re-signed D.J. LeMahieu who has become the quiet heart and soul of the team.  On the pitching side, three veterans left the rotation in J.A. Happ and James Paxton signing elsewhere and mainstay Masahiro Tanaka returning to Japan.  They replaced them by signing former Cy Young winner and bounce back candidate Corey Kluber and by trading for Jameson Taillon.  In the bullpen, they traded Adam Ottovino to the Red Sox (what?!?) to save money (WHAT?!?!?!?) and replaced him with veteran Darren O'Day.

Most Important Hitter
Gleyber Torres
Gleyber Torres was anointed as the next Yankee superstar almost before he played a single game in the big leagues.  As a second baseman, he burst on the scene in 2018 and 2019, making the All Star Team both seasons.  In 2020, he moved to shortstop and his production took a dip.  Was it a young player having a down year?  Is Torres better suited to be a second baseman?  Well, he's back at short, but only entering his age 24 season.  If he bounces back, he is a really important weapon in that lineup.

Most Important Pitcher
Corey Kluber
The ace of the Yankees is Gerrit Cole.  That's a given.  What happens after him in the rotation is going to be fascinating to watch.  The Yankees are relying a lot on a guy like Corey Kluber that has only thrown 36.2 innings over the last two seasons to probably be their #2.  By all indications, the 34 year old starter is entering the season fully healthy for the first time in awhile, but the Yankees need him to be back to his old self, win double digit games, be an All Star candidate, and throw 150 innings.  Otherwise, their rotation runs the risk of being Gerrit Cole and that's it.

Prospect to Watch
Deivi Garcia
One pitcher that also might help with that rotation depth is Deivi Garcia.  He got a chance to start 6 games in 2020 for the Yankees with marginal success.  This 21 year old righty is the 87th best prospect in baseball entering 2021 and has the opportunity to add the depth the Yankees lost in free agency.  You don't normally see the Yankees rely so heavily on rookies, but you get the idea that the Yankees didn't work harder on filling holes in their rotation because they are counting on contributions from Deivi Garcia and fellow prospect Clarke Schmidt..

2021 Prediction
1st in AL East, lose in ALCS
The talent of the Yankees is undeniable.  I know the small-time Rays beat them out in 2020, but in a full season with that lineup, the Yankees are going to take the division.  With that said, the pitching is going to catch up with them in the playoffs and cost them a shot at returning to the World Series in 2021.

Fearless Prediction
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will hit 100+ home runs combined.
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are the big boppers (emphasis on "BIG") in the middle of the Yankees' lineup, however their storyline as teammates has been defined more by injuries than their on-field production.  Judge has only played one full season in his career, and Stanton has only played 41 games over the last two seasons.  When they play full seasons, their home run totals are some of the highest in baseball (Judge led the AL in 2017 with 52 as a rookie, Stanton led the NL in 2017 with 59 in his MVP year and last year in Miami).  I think this is the year they both finally play a full season together, and if they do, it could be scary.

2021 Pre-Season Profile: Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays' young roster went through a tumultuous 2020 season and still made the playoffs.  Was that a sign of things to come for the team to the North?

#20 - 3rd in AL East
MIH - Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
MIP - Hyun Jin Ryu
PTW - Nate Pearson

2020 Results
#11 - 32-28, 3rd in AL East, lost in Wild Card Round
The Blue Jays benefitted from the expanded playoffs by sneaking into one of the last two spots made available.  After having a winning record and playing their home games in their AAA stadium in Buffalo, the young Blue Jays had to be excited about the success they saw.  The team of baby boomers is filled with second generation MLB talent ready to burst into stardom.  They took huge steps forward in 2020 that have to excite Blue Jay fans.

Additions / Subtractions
The Blue Jays made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason by landing centerfielder George Springer in a major free agent deal.  He will serve as a veteran presence with a lot of postseason experience to lead this team of kids.  They also surprised by signing shortstop Marcus Semien to come in and man second base.  As far as the pitching is concerned, mid-season acquisition Taijuan Walker signed a free agent deal with the Mets so the Mets traded Steven Matz to the Blue Jays.  The Jays also signed Kirby Yates to be their closer, but a recent injury will require Tommy John surgery and put him out for all of the 2021 season at least.

Most Important Hitter
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
It almost feels like some people are ready to give up on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as the can't miss phenom everyone thought he was going to be.  People thought he would hit the big leagues and immediately win a Triple Crown.  Instead, he has been good but not great, having 106 and 116 OPS+ totals in his first two seasons.  Not having the immediate success everyone thought has led to him being passed up by some of his young teammates like Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.  With as long as we have been talking about him, it's easy to forget that Vlad Jr. is only 22 years old.  He entered camp this year in the best shape of his life, losing a lot of weight in the offseason.  Although the Blue Jays saw success in 2020 without the best version of Vlad Jr., seeing him fulfill his potential is one of the ways this team takes the next step forward.

Most Important Pitcher
Steven Matz
The new acquisition was originally touted as one of the Mets phenoms when he came up alongside the likes of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard.  It seems like the high expectations that Steven Matz never quite met required a change of scenery to breathe life back into his career.  Now he has that fresh start on a rising team.  Hyun Jin Ryu established himself as the ace last season, and several others from the rotation are starting the season injured.  It definitely gives Steven Matz an opportunity to make an immediate impact on his new club.

Prospect to Watch
Nate Pearson
He had a chance to make a huge impact in 2020 for the Blue Jays, but flamethrower Nate Pearson only saw the field for 5 games in the shortened COVID season.  With that said, he did make the postseason roster and pitched some critical innings.  Now, this 6th best prospect in all of baseball is ready to start the season in the rotation for the Jays (after a hopefully short stint on the IL) and be a crucial part of this team's pitching staff.

2021 Prediction
2nd in AL East, WILD CARD, lose in ALDS
In 2020, the Blue Jays snuck into the playoffs and couldn't win a game once they got there.  Now they have a taste of the postseason and want to get back.  George Springer I think is possibly the most impactful signing of the offseason as he brings that veteran experience while still being in his prime to such a young team.  It will be interesting to see if there is any impact with the Blue Jays once again not being allowed to play in Toronto to start the season thanks to border restrictions.  I see this lineup taking off and leading them to the ALDS regardless of where they play.

Fearless Prediction
The Blue Jays will trade for a closer before Memorial Day.
With Kirby Yates going down for the year, it leaves a huge hole in the back end of the Blue Jays' bullpen.  Before Memorial Day, they will identify a top end reliever with a hot start on a team that won't be competing this year (maybe someone like Craig Kimbrel for the Cubs?), and they will pull off a deal to make sure their bullpen doesn't cost them a chance to have a special team in 2021.