It’s been five months since the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series, and whether that feels like five minutes ago or five years ago to you depends entirely on your perception of time in a world where time seems to have lost all meaning. Except for one particularly important date, of course. April 1 isn’t just “Opening Day,” though it is of course that, too. It’s the first time in nearly two years we’ve had April baseball. It’s the first time since 1968 that every team in the bigs starts their season on the same day. Most ballparks will have some fans to witness it. As far as Opening Days go, this one feels just a bit more impactful.
So, as we look ahead to a promising 2021 season that will, fingers crossed, span a traditional six months and 162 games, it’s time to split the 30 teams up into seven tiers. At the top, we’ll have the teams that will view anything less than a ring as a disappointment. At the bottom, the teams that are hoping to find members of their next great team in an otherwise trying season. In the middle? That’s where it gets fun.
Remember, importantly, that this is not a 1-to-30 power ranking. As we said last year, there’s not much difference between, say, team 21 and team 23; what’s more important is what group of teams you’re in, what your expectations are for the year. Every team wants to get somewhere in 2021. That “somewhere” just isn’t the same place for everyone. To that end, when we split teams into tiers, we’ll list them alphabetically within that tier.
Here’s what we’re looking at:
Tier 1: Top dogs
Tier 2: World Series hopefuls
Tier 3: Solid contenders
Tier 4: Interesting third-place teams
Tier 5: Stuck in the middle
Tier 6: Enjoyable teams who are a year away
Tier 7: Future hazy. Check back next year.
These are The Big Three, the three clubs that FanGraphs gives a 90% or better chance of making the playoffs. These are not the only teams who could win it all, but they’re the ones that are in a class of their own. One of them, obviously, cannot win their own division, because the Dodgers and Padres, who might be the two best clubs in the game, have the slight complication of fighting each other for the NL West. But they also might be the two best teams in baseball. That’s going to be some kind of race. Maybe one you’ve never seen before.
The Dodgers … did just win the World Series, and the last eight NL West titles (eight!), and dating back to the start of their run in 2013, have won 41 more regular-season games than any other club. You will be shocked to know that they are projected to be excellent once again in 2021.
It’s not like they quietly sat around this winter, either. While they did bid farewell to longtime players like Joc Pederson, Pedro Báez and Enrique Hernández, you may have noticed they went out and signed the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Trevor Bauer. Since they’re expecting David Price to finally make his long-awaited Dodgers debut as well, and Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías round out the starting five, their rotation is so deep that Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, who might be top-end starters on other clubs, will be mere depth arms here. (Unless Price just works out of the ‘pen himself.) They brought back Justin Turner, and can you believe Mookie Betts has only played 55 regular-season games for them? The Dodgers, like every year, look both talented and deep; even with the Padres around, they’ve got 98% odds of making the playoffs. They always do.
The Padres … “won the offseason,” if there was an award for such things. (There is not.) But really, did anyone else go out and get Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, breakout-waiting-to-happen Joe Musgrove and Ha-Seong Kim? No. The Padres were arguably already the second-best team in baseball in 2020, and while you might be focusing on Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado — understandably so — to do so is to put yourself at risk of ignoring how good Trent Grisham, Wil Myers, Jake Cronenworth, Dinelson Lamet and Drew Pomeranz were, are, could be.
Now, is it a problem that starting catcher Austin Nola is dealing with a broken finger? Sure. Is there risk in the rotation, especially with Lamet trying to pitch past an elbow injury? Sure. Is it impressive that last year’s Opening Day starter, Chris Paddack, is their No. 5 this year? Is it hilarious they have MacKenzie Gore and Adrian Morejon just kicking around waiting for a turn? You better believe it.
The Yankees … had a good offseason. That probably shouldn’t need to be said, and yet here we are. They went long on bringing back DJ LeMahieu (six years), gave their annual one-year deal to Brett Gardner and took some risks on pitchers coming off of injury (Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon). It’s fair to point out that three-fifths of their rotation just departed (Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton), and now they’re without Zach Britton for the first part of the season due to elbow surgery. The worries about the staff’s ability to stay healthy are real.
Still, every team aside from the two ahead of them here has to worry about that to some extent, and the Yankees are better prepared than most to handle them. No, you probably wouldn’t bet on Kluber and Taillon to each stay healthy for 30 starts and 180 innings, but the staff isn’t set up depending on them to be, either; right-now, depth aside, do remember that Luis Severino ought to be available later this summer. Anyway, we’ve fallen into the trap, too; we’re just talking about pitching. We should probably remember that the Yankees’ offense, as it always does, will absolutely mash, especially if Giancarlo Stanton can stay healthy. Or even just healthi-er.
Tier 2: World Series hopefuls
• Blue Jays
• White Sox
Here we have five teams and, we would wager, two division winners, because the AL Central and NL East each appear to be a race between two potentially very good clubs within this group. (Remember, again, that within tiers, teams are discussed alphabetically, not ranked.)
The Blue Jays … are making it clear they’re ready to make some noise. Last year, it was adding top starter Hyun Jin Ryu, who helped them to a 32-28 finish, their first winning season since 2016. This year, it was adding George Springer and Marcus Semien. We’re not trying to look past those additions, because they’re big deals — especially Springer — but we’re most interested in seeing if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can break out, if outfielders Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can maintain their 2020 breakouts, if Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio can really be one of the best left-side infield pairs in baseball and if Rowdy Tellez gets the chance to show the huge strikeout cut he just had is for real. We think they can; this offense is going to mash.
So why aren’t they in the top tier? Questions about their pitching depth, really. Ryu was excellent, but he’s rarely durable; he’s thrown 160 innings in a season just twice, and one of those was as a rookie back in 2013. Flame-throwing Nate Pearson is full of promise yet has a checkered health history; this year, it’s a groin strain. You can see reasons why you might like Tanner Roark, Steven Matz and Robbie Ray, yet that trio has a 4.94 ERA over the past two years. Kirby Yates is already likely out for the year. There’s a ton of depth. There’s a lot to like. Is there enough to count on?
The Braves … are the three-time defending NL East champions, and they’re going to be good again in 2021. There are probably no more divisive projections in baseball than the ones that don’t have them as the clear favorites, though as we recently detailed, there’s good reason for that. (Short version: Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna and Ian Anderson all dramatically overperformed expectations in 2020; Max Fried somehow lowered his ERA from 2019 despite worse strikeout/walk/home run numbers; three key relievers in Darren O’Day, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon have moved on; and it’s a very open question as to whether rookie center fielder Cristian Pache will hit enough.)
Let’s not focus on the possible downsides, though. Sometimes it feels like we talk so much about young stars Juan Soto and Tatis that we forget about the third member of that triumvirate, Ronald Acuña Jr., who is an MVP candidate every year. While we don’t think Freeman is quite as good as his 2020 line, we found ourselves optimistic he can retain some of that improvement after digging into it. Mike Soroka will be back at some point early on, and they’re betting big on Drew Smyly’s late-season velocity increase being for real. We’ll probably all underestimate Atlanta in 2021, like we do, every year, and we’ll end up regretting it.
The Mets … promised big splashes this winter, and they did just that, even if they didn’t land Bauer or Springer or J.T. Realmuto. Put another way: It might not have been the winter Mets fans wanted, but, after landing Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor May, James McCann and Taijuan Walker, plus returning Marcus Stroman, who didn’t pitch in 2020, it was still a good winter. It might be a better summer, depending on when Noah Syndergaard returns. If there’s an issue, other than the general Metsiness that has torpedoed their past few seasons, it’s the defense. Lindor is excellent, so that’s an improvement. McCann will be a step up on Wilson Ramos. But the outfield is still somewhat ill-fitting, and J.D. Davis isn’t strong at third, and Pete Alonso is below average at first while a superior first baseman, Dom Smith, is below average in left.
You get the idea. No team needed a DH more. But also, who else can boast Lindor and Jacob deGrom atop their roster? No one, that’s who.
The Twins … were the “it” team in 2019, when “the Bomba Squad” set the all-time home run record and Minnesota won 101 games. But 2020 seemed a lot more disappointing, even though the Twins won the AL Central again, and maybe that’s because they still have not won a playoff game since 2004. (Not a series. A game.) So for 2021, it’s easy to think the White Sox have them out-hyped in the Central, and maybe they do, but that doesn’t diminish how good this team still is. Signing Andrelton Simmons, which pushes Jorge Polanco to second base, makes a good defense all the better, and everyone’s excited to see if Kenta Maeda’s 2020 excellence can be continued throughout a full year. (We think it can.) The rotation has been durable and productive this spring; camp has been buzzing about Randy Dobnak’s new slider.
Just imagine if this is the year Byron Buxton stays healthy all year? It has to happen sometime, right?
The White Sox … had a decent enough winter. It’s not a small thing to sign Liam Hendriks, who might be the best reliever in baseball, and their search for a third reliable starter brought them Lance Lynn, who has pretty quietly been a durable ace for the past few years. The bullpen is full of no-name quality arms; the lineup was already exciting and could be even better if Yoán Moncada rebounds from his bout with COVID, if Luis Robert’s late-season slump was only growing pains, if rookie Andrew Vaughn can mash right away and if Nick Madrigal can give a full season of high-contact plate appearances. You probably heard they brought back Tony La Russa.
This team will be good. So what’s holding us back here from being all-in? The reunion with Adam Eaton wasn’t exactly the high-upside outfielder anyone was hoping for, there’s no catching depth behind Yasmani Grandal, who is dealing with a knee injury, and there’s very little rotation depth beyond Lucas Giolito, Lynn and Dallas Keuchel. Vaughn is being asked to step in as the DH without having a single plate appearance at Double-A or Triple-A, and there’s not much of a backup plan behind him. The top end of this roster can compete with any in baseball. What about the middle, or the back of it?
There’s reason to like each of these clubs, in part because four of them are battling for two division titles, meaning it’s all but certain that one or two of them will make the playoffs, at which point anything can happen.
The A’s … had a bad winter, until maybe they didn’t. Hendriks departed, and Semien departed, and so did Robbie Grossman and Tommy La Stella and Mike Minor and Joakim Soria. For a team that had consistently won 60% of its games over the past three years, a 97-win pace, it seemed like a disappointingly quiet offseason. But then it perked up, a little. Oakland imported Mitch Moreland, Sergio Romo and Trevor Rosenthal, who turned his career back around last year. They brought back Mike Fiers and Yusmeiro Petit, and traded Khris Davis to Texas for a real live shortstop in Elvis Andrus.
As importantly, though, they won 60% of their games in 2020 with: down years from Matt Olson and Frankie Montas, an injury-shortened year from Matt Chapman and uninspiring years from Stephen Piscotty and Ramón Laureano. Jesús Luzardo was OK; A.J. Puk didn’t pitch at all. We can all but guarantee some of those players will be better, perhaps most of them. Given the lack of a clear top team in the AL West, it’s not hard to see the A’s surprising us once again.
The Astros … were, earlier this winter, looking like a good “under the radar team,” an odd descriptor of a club that’s been under an intense spotlight for the past five years. But with Justin Verlander injured and Springer off to Toronto, it seemed like it’d be easy to say this was the end of an era, especially if you only looked at “29-31” last year and not “came within a game of the World Series.” But, we figured, there was plenty of reason to believe they’d get more from Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, and Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley would be back, and even if the rotation depth was thin, Framber Valdez looked like a breakout star, and a top four of him, Zack Greinke, José Urquidy and Lance McCullers Jr. would be pretty good.
The Brewers … are going to surprise some people this year. Their offense wasn’t good last year, and it probably won’t be great this year, but Lorenzo Cain is back and Christian Yelich is a pretty easy rebound candidate from a down 2020 (by his standards). But then think about how good the defense should be, with Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. joining Cain. Think about how strong the pitching could be — Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Devin Williams, Josh Hader and Freddy Peralta are stars, and there’s more behind them — and this might just be one of baseball’s most dominant run-prevention units.
Will they hit enough? It’d be nice if Keston Hiura, now playing first, mashed like he did in 2019. We expect Yelich will be great. They’re short an infield bat and no, it’s not too early to wonder how Trevor Story might look in blue and yellow. That’s more of a July proposition, though. The arms and gloves ought to keep them afloat until then.
The Cardinals … traded, as you may have heard, for Nolan Arenado. Exciting! (Yes, his numbers will dip a little away from Coors. No, it’s not going to be a big deal, though concerns about his shoulder and declining Statcast metrics will exist until he answers them.) We’re pretty bullish on Jack Flaherty returning to his 2019 ace-like self. Otherwise, though, this is mostly the same club as they had last year, with Arenado, minus Wong and Dexter Fowler.
The Rays … traded away, as you may have heard, Blake Snell to San Diego. Disappointing! Teams that just made it to Game 6 of the World Series do not usually trade away high-quality 28-year-old lefties. Not that the Rays are known for operating “usually,” of course, and the return they got back was considered to be impressive, but losing Snell and Charlie Morton, while the Blue Jays and Yankees improved, wasn’t a great look.
So there’s that. There’s also this: The 2021 Rays are still going to be good. Not as good as they’d be with Snell and Morton, no, but as we wrote recently, there’s a lot of reason to think their offense is going to be considerably better. (More Randy Arozarena, better Austin Meadows, and the promotion, at some point, of Wander Franco.) The pitching might not be better, but it’s likely to be deeper, and it was already deep. We have them a tier below the Blue Jays here, and to be honest, we’re already second-guessing ourselves. You may not like the way the Rays operate, but write them off at your own risk.
Tier 4: Interesting third-place teams
These teams all have chances, between 20% and 40% playoff odds at FanGraphs, and much of the difference there can be explained by the different levels of competition in their various divisions. They’ll be competitive, and occasionally very fun.
The Angels … still have Mike Trout, and he is still wonderful, and so is Anthony Rendon. But if we were to write “maybe this is the year they get enough pitching, and maybe this is the year Shohei Ohtani pulls it all together, and wow, Albert Pujols is still there?” it would both be accurate and the exact same thing you could write about them every year. Jared Walsh is projected to be their fourth-best hitter. It’s not clear if that says more about him — and he was impressive in 2020 — or everyone else. They still don’t have enough pitching.
The Cubs … took some pretty clear steps back, and it’s easy to forget they are the defending NL Central champions playing in a pretty winnable division. The rotation, without Yu Darvish, is likely to be the softest-tossing group in baseball, and they’re putting a lot on Jake Arrieta’s ability to rebound. That’s the bad news. The good news is simple: It’s very easy to see each of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez having better hitting seasons than they just did, Joc Pederson is probably an upgrade on Kyle Schwarber, and the defense ought to be very good. The NL Central, again, is not strong. It’s not unreasonable to see them winning it. They are just clearly not the favorites.
The Indians … traded away Francisco Lindor. (Carlos Carrasco, too, and did not retain Brad Hand.) That, for many, is the start, middle and end of their winter. In a division that is getting better, Cleveland did not. But there’s still enough top-end talent here that it’s difficult to look past the Tribe entirely. José Ramírez is a top-5 player in the AL. Shane Bieber might be the best pitcher in baseball — sorry Mets fans — James Karinchak might be the next great closer, and there’s a ton to like about pitchers Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie and Zach Plesac. Maybe Andrés Giménez is the next great shortstop! Maybe Josh Naylor’s great brief postseason is the start of something real! Maybe, too, they’d be better with Lindor.
The Nationals … well look, if we’re talking about top-end talent, please do note Juan Soto (have you heard he’s Ted Williams?), Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Hand are all very good to great. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber are capable new complementary pieces; there are a few relievers to like. But where’s the depth? Strasburg is already dealing with a calf injury; Scherzer is nearly 37. The lack of rotation depth was a huge problem in a short 2020, and adding 37-year-old Jon Lester doesn’t exactly assuage those worries for 2021. Their third basemen are projected to be the 28th-best; the second basemen, 30th. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a very good core.
Tier 5: Stuck in the middle
“Where are these teams now?” you might ask, or more importantly, “Where are they going?” They all have some high-level players. None is likely to finish last. None is likely to finish first, either, and they all had winters where they mostly stood still. They are Schrödinger’s baseball teams.
• Red Sox
The D-backs … at least have the excuse of sharing a division with the Dodgers and Padres, which is why, despite not being one of the three worst teams in baseball, are one of only three teams with 0.0% odds of winning the division. To their credit, they haven’t torn it down, and there’s considerable reason to be optimistic that Madison Bumgarner and Ketel Marte will bounce back in 2021. Of course, you’d be a whole lot more optimistic about that surprisingly interesting rotation if not for the news that Zac Gallen has a hairline fracture in his right (pitching) forearm. If he’s limited this year, that rotation looks a lot less intriguing, and it was going to need to be in order to overcome Arizona’s main question: Where is the offense coming from?
The Phillies … did make some moves, at least in the sense of retaining free agents J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius, and an offense that was just pretty good should still be so, especially with a full season from Alec Bohm and likely more production from Scott Kingery. Consider them the anti-D-backs, in that the offense will probably be fine, but last year’s considerable pitching questions remain. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are each very good, of course, but there remain a ton of questions about the back of the rotation and the entire bullpen, despite some much-needed churn in the reliever core.
The Reds … are putting a great deal of faith in the idea that their incredibly disappointing 2020 offensive performance (they scored the fourth-fewest runs) will not be repeated, and to be honest, it’s not a terrible bet. Jesse Winker is probably the only hitter who had a season he’s proud of, and it’s very easy to expect more from Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suárez, Nick Senzel and Shogo Akiyama. They also have a popular breakout pitcher in Tyler Mahle, though replacing Bauer’s performance won’t be an easy ask. Still, a top three of Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo and Mahle could be solid enough. As always, the lack of a great team in the NL Central factors in, though the fact that there was no clear reason for the offensive underperformance makes it difficult to assume it can’t happen again.
The Red Sox … have a lot of the same questions they did headed into 2020. The shock of trading Mookie Betts doesn’t seem to have worn off yet, and now the entire 2018 World Series outfield trio is gone, with Jackie Bradley Jr. off to Milwaukee and Andrew Benintendi traded to Kansas City. Benintendi not having actually been productive since the Red Sox raised the trophy makes trading him off reasonable enough, but this still looks like an offense that has Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo and a ton of questions. (Which, to be fair, Bobby Dalbec seems to be trying his best to answer.) But the pitching could still be a problem, even with more Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez — who has a “dead arm” and won’t pitch on Opening Day — than they had last year. These are not your older brother or sister’s Red Sox.
Tier 6: The enjoyable teams who are a year away
We’d be very surprised if any of these teams make it to the postseason this year — none has playoff odds higher than 8% — and yet we understand that Royals fans think they’ve improved (they’re right) and that Marlins fans point to the fact they made the expanded playoffs last year (they’re right, too). But there’s a big difference between teams we don’t think will win, and teams we don’t think will be interesting. (We’ll get to those.) These five clubs are all headed in the right direction.
The Giants … are building something. Not something that’s necessarily likely to lead to a great deal of 2021 victories in a top-heavy NL West, but something that sets the foundation for the next good San Francisco team. We dug into this recently; the Giants are becoming a team that knows how to make their players better, or find players they can turn into stars. At the end of 2021, depending on the choices they make, they may be free of about $100 million worth of the old guard, heroes of the past like Johnny Cueto, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Buster Posey and (the more recently added) Kevin Gausman. The farm system is better. The support staff is better. The tide is turning.
The Mariners … are waiting for something, and that “something” would be outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, who could comprise two-thirds of the outfield by 2022. It’s not just them, of course; it’s also Cal Raleigh and Taylor Trammell and Logan Gilbert and so on, as well. It’s waiting to see what kind of bat Evan White really has, and what kind of ceiling Justus Sheffield, Kyle Lewis and J.P. Crawford have, and, to be honest, what teams Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger get traded to. This isn’t the year the Mariners break their interminable playoff-free streak. It might be the year that helps define when they do.
The Marlins … have young pitching. That’s what the Miami conversation always begins with, that Pablo López, Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcantara, Elieser Hernandez, Trevor Rogers and friends are the core of what might be a really good and youthful starting rotation. There’s no argument on that from there. The larger issue is how the lineup is going to support them, because this team had the sixth-weakest slugging percentage in MLB last year, and they didn’t do a whole lot to fix that aside from adding veteran Adam Duvall. We’re pretty interested in what the 2022-24 or so Marlins look like. The 2021 group might be baseball’s most exciting 92-loss team.
The Royals … are going to be better, and more interesting. They added Mike Minor, Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi, which are all steps in the right direction, even if there’s considerable disagreement about what kind of player Benintendi really is going forward. They brought back old friends Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Jarrod Dyson and Ervin Santana, which is nice, considering that 2021 will be the first time since ’07 that Alex Gordon won’t be around. Like the rest of us, they want to see what Adalberto Mondesi can do, and when Bobby Witt Jr. will make it up, and if Brad Keller can take that next step. We’re comfortable saying they’ll be fun, better, competitive. Those are all great. They might still be a year or two away from true contention.
The Tigers … are finally headed in the right direction. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be good, really, because they’re projected to finish last in the AL Central, as they have three times in the last four years. But this time, at least, it feels different, because a very good farm system (ranked No. 2 overall by MLB Pipeline) is beginning to bear fruit. You’ll see Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize in the Opening Day starting rotation, and Matt Manning should join them later on. We’re pretty optimistic that Jeimer Candelario is mid-breakout, and Willi Castro showed a lot in 2020. Miguel Cabrera might hit his 500th home run this year, which is a lot of fun if you can look past the fact that he somehow still has four more years left on his contract. Again, this team isn’t going to make the playoffs, but you’ll look back on this collection as maybe the group that propelled the 2023-ish Tigers there.
Tier 7: Future hazy. Check back next year
The Orioles … might be on the way back. They were historically bad in 2018, then were better in ’19 and better than that in ’20. Trey Mancini’s comeback season should be one of the better stories of the year, we might see top prospect Adley Rutschman and there’s considerable interest in how John Means pitches. Wouldn’t you like to see Félix Hernández and Matt Harvey again? Camden Yards remains a delightful place to experience baseball.
The Pirates … have Ke’Bryan Hayes, and that’s not nothing, because he already looks like a star. (He might be the presumptive favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award.) He isn’t exactly well-supported right now, but Ben Cherington is still relatively new to the GM job, and it was a task that required a ground-up rebuild. They have the No. 1 pick in the Draft, which may land them Jack Leiter or Kumar Rocker. PNC Park remains a delightful place to experience baseball.
The Rockies … traded Arenado in a very unpopular deal, and they will probably do the same with Trevor Story and Jon Gray at some point in 2021. Their strength is their rotation, but now there’s considerable concern about Kyle Freeland’s shoulder. As is true with the D-backs and Giants, they’re in a difficult spot having the Dodgers and Padres in their division, but it’s also hard to know what direction they’re going in because they don’t seem to know what direction they’re going in. Never in their history have the Rockies lost 100 games, yet this feels like the season it happens. Coors Field remains a delightful place to experience baseball.
The Rangers … hired a new GM in Chris Young, and they made the trade they needed to make in moving Lance Lynn to the White Sox. They did actually have something of an interesting winter, adding David Dahl and Nate Lowe, while shipping off longtime shortstop Elvis Andrus to Oakland for Khris Davis. You should see a lot of younger players like Leody Taveras and Josh Jung. Maybe this is the year Joey Gallo stays healthy and mashes all season. Globe Life Field seems like a delightful place to experience baseball, though few people have had the opportunity yet.