2021 MLB Preview

For the baseball fan, there is always a certain anxiety that comes with spring. Yes, it is the season of hope and new beginnings, the season where all things seem possible. But it is also the season when one starts to fret about one’s favorite team, imagining all the things that could go wrong in the coming months. Will the manager use a sub-optimal batting order? Can the starting pitchers stay healthy? How will the bullpen survive with only one proven lefty? Will key players send out cringe-worthy tweets and bring ill-repute upon the organization?

Of course, not everyone frets to the same extent. If your team is terrible and everyone knows it, then the fretting is minimal. Don’t get me wrong, you still fret (will our young players develop? Will our owner ever decide to prioritize winning?), but it is more of a general, low-grade fretting about the future, rather than an acute fretting about the present.

For fans of the mid-tier teams, the fretting is a little more intense. Your team is decent—maybe more than decent. You figure on at least a .500 season with the playoffs a distinct possibility if a few things fall just right. In fact, if you squint hard enough, you can even see your team making a deep run in the postseason. All of this is undoubtedly exciting, but also cause for concern. You can’t help but fret about the future, just like fans of the bad teams, but now you also fret about the present. You imagine all the little things that could go wrong, all the ways the tantalizing possibilities of the coming season might fail to materialize. Your only solace is knowing that while the best-case scenario (winning a pennant) may not happen, your team will likely avoid the worst-case scenario (finishing in last place) as well.

Fans of the upper-tier teams are the highest-level fretters. These are the people who root for teams projected to make the playoffs. Within this group, there are two subgroups. First, the fans of powerhouse teams, who will be severely distraught should their club falter. Second, fans of the other playoff contenders, who will be gravely disappointed (which is one level down from severely distraught) if their team falls short. Both groups have a lot to lose because expectations are high. Their teams are supposed to win and the pressure is intense. To be a fan of a top team is to engage in near-constant fretting for the majority of the season.

We can quantify these various levels of fretting with a simple five-level scale. Those of us who watched 1980s action movies are familiar with the term DEFCON, which refers to the defense readiness condition, or state of alert, for the United States Armed Forces. DEFCON 5 is the lowest level of threat, essentially a state of peace. DEFCON 1 is the highest level of threat, denoting a current or imminent nuclear war. In the same vein, let me introduce FRETCON: the scale that measures the fret condition, or state of alert, of a major league baseball team’s fanbase. FRETCON 5 is the lowest level of fret, the kind of normal fretting that every fan experiences from time to time. FRETCON 4 and FRETCON 3 denote increased levels of fretting, steadily becoming more serious. FRETCON 2 is an extremely high level of fret, generally reserved for fans of championship-caliber teams severely underperforming. FRETCON 1 indicates that a catastrophic organizational meltdown is imminent or has already begun. I am happy to report that no team’s fanbase is currently at FRETCON 1, as far as I can tell.

Now, there are certainly ways to minimize one’s fretting during the season. If you are a fan of a rebuilding team or a team underperforming, try reading a book about the team’s glory days to take your mind off the present. Detroit fans could try Sridhar Pappu’s book, The Year of the Pitcher, which focuses on the 1968 season when the Tigers triumphed over the Cardinals in the World Series. St. Louis fans might console themselves with David Halberstam’s book, October 1964, which tells of the Cardinals’ World Series victory over the Yankees. If a book about a past season doesn’t work, try a biography of a favorite player, historic or relatively modern. Fans of the Giants can read 24: Life Stories and Legends from the Say Hey Kid by Willie Mays and John Shea. The Philadelphia faithful can try Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay by Todd Zolecki. If a bit of humor is the only thing that will take your mind off your team’s troubles, try George Plimpton’s Out of My League, or perhaps Bill Geist’s Little League Confidential.

While reading may offer a necessary distraction from current events, true baseball fans won’t be able to resist following the highs and lows of the current season. With that in mind, I’m providing in what follows a preseason projection, division by division, of how each of the 30 MLB teams will finish the season. Perhaps more important than the projected win-loss record for each club is the current FRETCON level for each fanbase. I have also included a few brief comments for each team.

AL East

New York Yankees98642
Tampa Bay Rays94683
Toronto Blue Jays82803
Boston Red Sox76863
Baltimore Orioles611015

Comments: Fans of the New York Yankees find it hard to believe their team has not advanced to the World Series at least once during the last three years. This year, they begin the season ranked second in all of baseball in total combined WAR, according to Fangraphs. The sky is the limit, but continued bad luck with injuries could derail any championship hopes. The fanbase is definitely at FRETCON 2 (in fact, the Yankees’ FRETCON machine may not actually include any other levels). The Tampa Bay Rays could finish as low as fourth, but I trust their pitching and plethora of average and above-average players all over the field to get them past the 90-win threshold. They are a bit boring, but they always seem to win plenty of games. FRETCON 3 seems about right for the team, given the expectations of another playoff appearance after having made it to the World Series last season. I don’t know what to make of the Toronto Blue Jays. Fangraphs has them tied for fifth in all of baseball in total combined WAR. I just don’t trust their starting pitching (which is projected to be much weaker than their hitting). It probably all comes down to their much-hyped prospects of a few years ago, who are now (hypothetically) ready to become stars. If we are still reading articles titled “Will Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ever fulfill his promise?” at midseason, the Blue Jays have probably already moved to FRETCON 2. In another division, I might be higher on the Boston Red Sox. Even after losing Mookie Betts, they have a strong core of position players. It is just a tough division to be in at the moment and I don’t think the Red Sox have the top-end talent on the pitching side to leap-frog the Rays or the Jays. Somehow their World Series win in 2018 seems a long time ago. I can see fans shifting into FRETCON 2 with another mediocre season. Finally, the Baltimore Orioles continue their rebuild and will remain a bad team this year. There are small joys to anticipate (a surprise Adley Rutschman call-up, perhaps?), but mostly fans will endure another sub-par season in most every aspect of the game. At least the fret level is fairly low at the moment (how high can expectations really be?), although it will increase exponentially if time continues to pass with no apparent payoff for the time spent rebuilding.

AL Central

Chicago White Sox92702
Minnesota Twins90722
Kansas City Royals81814
Cleveland Indians75873
Detroit Tigers611014

Comments: I generally don’t side with the team earning lots of hype in the off-season, but it is hard to argue with the overall talent level of the Chicago White Sox. They have as high a ceiling as anyone not named the Dodgers, Yankees, or Padres (though perhaps slightly less now with the Eloy Jimenez injury). In addition, they have Tony La Russa to keep us entertained between innings and during press conferences. I’m excited by their offensive potential, but even more encouraged by their under-the-radar pitching, which is quietly ranked fifth by Fangraphs in total projected WAR. Chicago fans can taste it this season: let the fretting begin. The Minnesota Twins will not be far behind the Sox and could easily win the division. Things could also go terribly wrong. Is it really so hard to imagine their talented and oft-injured center fielder missing half the season? What about their 40-year-old DH falling off a cliff? I admit the Twins have a fairly strong roster across the board, but I think they fall just short this season (and might even miss the playoffs, a thought which has the fanbase at a solid level of FRETCON 2). Fans of the Kansas City Royals are feeling frisky this spring. The team has made some solid, if unspectacular pick-ups in the offseason and has the potential to surprise people with a pretty good product on the field. There is also the Bobby Witt Jr. excitement, which doesn’t seem to be dissipating even though he’s been sent down to the minors. Of course, the Royals also signed soon-to-be 31-year-old Salvador Perez to an expensive, long-term contract extension, which doesn’t seem the most forward-thinking course of action. All things considered, there is plenty of mild fretting to be done, but Kansas City fans should feel pretty good entering the season. I’m not sure what to say about the Cleveland Indians. They could have kept the playoff window open another few seasons, but decided it would be more fun to trade their superstar shortstop and not spend any significant money in free agency. Now, a playoff berth is unlikely, to say the least. Perhaps the Cleveland fanbase is resigned to this by now, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of fretting (and cursing). Finally, the Detroit Tigers will flirt with 100 loses once again as they continue their ongoing rebuilt (which, let’s be serious, isn’t going as well as the organization would have hoped). Oh well, at least they have those classic uniforms to look forward to (as well as some promising pitching prospects).

AL West

Los Angeles Angels88742
Houston Astros85772
Oakland Athletics84783
Seattle Mariners77853
Texas Rangers591034

Comments: I know, the Los Angeles Angels are probably not going to win the division. Still, it is not completely out of the question. The offense is actually pretty good and maybe their collection of #3 and #4 starters have just enough magic in them to edge out the Astros. The clock is ticking on Mike Trout’s prime and Los Angeles fans will operate at a high state of alert throughout the season, especially if the team is mired in third place. The Houston Astros are still a good team, though the pitching is severely diminished from a few years ago. It would seem to be poetic justice if the Astros crashed and burned this year, but the offense is probably strong enough to keep that from happening. Houston fans have it rough at the moment: a roster that doesn’t look as shiny as it once was and lots of other fans calling their team cheaters. This definitely amounts to FRETCON 2 status. While they may not be as good as last year, the Oakland Athletics will likely be in the hunt for a division title once again. They are middle of the pack when it comes to total projected WAR on Fangraphs (the pitching pulls them down), but they always seem to find a way to grind out enough wins to stay competitive. I’m not sure what fans are thinking at this point. Are they content to be merely competitive every year? Do they have higher aspirations? Is there angst over never advancing far in the playoffs? FRETCON 3 seems about right. I feel bad for the Seattle Mariners. They haven’t been to the playoffs in forever (2001, to be exact) and they had a good deal of negative press this offseason. There are also some who felt the Mariners should have spent some money this offseason to try and improve the roster. Instead, fans will fret about whether young players are developing as hoped for and how long it will be until the next Mariners playoff appearance (if it doesn’t happen in the next five years, something has gone terribly wrong). How did the Texas Rangers become so bad? It is a bit shocking when you consider how many top position player prospects they seemed to have just a few years ago. Fangraphs has their total offensive WAR at 3.0 (not a typo). I think they will have trouble avoiding a 100-loss season. I suspect fans realize they are in for some rough waters ahead.

NL East

Atlanta Braves92703
New York Mets87752
Philadelphia Phillies82802
Washington Nationals79834
Miami Marlins70924

Comments: The Atlanta Braves are solid across the board. They may not be the sexy pick to win the division, but I think it is theirs to lose. Fans will likely be anxious about the Mets for the next few years, but they can take solace in the stable core the Braves have developed. Speaking of the New York Mets, it must be nice to have an owner willing to spend money commensurate with being a big-market team. Their offense could be deadly and their pitching solid, despite the perennial problem of not having everyone healthy at the same time. The big weakness is the defense. The numbers are pretty brutal across the diamond, aside from shortstop. New York fans are already fretting about all the ways the defense could let them down and ruin a perfectly good season. I have sympathy for the Philadelphia Phillies. No matter what they seem to do each offseason, they always enter the spring with no serious prospects of winning the division. I’m not saying a division title is completely out of the question, but there is a clear drop-off in overall talent when you compare the Phillies with the teams above them. Another season floating around .500 will not be popular amongst the Philadelphia fanbase. The Washington Nationals don’t have too much to complain about. They won the World Series in 2019, they have one of the most exciting young players in baseball (Juan Soto), and they should remain competitive in their division. Fans may fret about the health of the pitching staff, but with a little luck, the Nationals might still have a lethal top three in their rotation, which could pay dividends if they somehow sneak into the playoffs. Finally, the Miami Marlins will enter the season fresh off their playoff appearance in 2020 (which probably had no chance of happening in a full season). As other commentators have pointed out, the Marlins have a young and exciting pitching staff and a not-so-young and relatively unexciting offensive core. Add it all up and you have a team that will probably finish last in the division, but who does have the potential to surprise some people.

NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals87753
Milwaukee Brewers85773
Chicago Cubs83793
Cincinnati Reds76863
Pittsburgh Pirates581044

Comments: This division is a three-team toss-up, but I’m picking the St. Louis Cardinals to emerge victorious, mostly because of their depth and excellent defense (even with the loss of Kolton Wong). Their outfield is still bad offensively (which could be a big problem for them), but watching Dylan Carlson develop should be fun. The Milwaukee Brewers are solid both offensively and defensively. In some ways, they are a lot like the Cardinals, but with weaker defense (especially in the infield). I like the promise of their pitching staff and will be curious to see if wildcards like Freddy Peralta can have breakout seasons. Despite an offseason that had to be discouraging for fans, the Chicago Cubs remain in the mix because they still have a lot of offensive talent. The pitching, however, could be a disaster. Fans will be at DEFCON 2 fairly quickly if things start to come off the rails. Weren’t the Cubs supposed to be building a dynasty? I guess not. The Cincinnati Reds feature a truly terrible defensive unit which won’t do their pitchers many favors this season. Bad defense can sometimes be forgiven if the offense is good enough, but I’m not sure that is the case with this group. The Reds were poised for a run to the top of the NL Central just last year, but events conspired against them and now they seem to be looking up once again at several teams ahead of them. Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have much to look forward to this season, but I think they realize their expectations need to be low. At least their farm system is ranked among the top-10 in baseball, which provides some hope for the future. In the meantime, fans can enjoy watching Ke’Bryan Hayes (and pray that the Pirates can somehow sign him long term).

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers108542
San Diego Padres98642
San Francisco Giants77854
Arizona Diamondbacks76863
Colorado Rockies69932

Comments: Had the Los Angeles Dodgers not won the World Series last year, fans would be finding it hard to function right now. Even with a flag already flying at Chavez Ravine, the expectations for the Dodgers remain high. With the enormous talent up and down the roster, anything less than a return to the World Series will be a disappointment. While the Dodgers should still comfortably win the division, the upstart San Diego Padres will do their best to mount a worthy challenge. After an eventful offseason, which included a young superstar signing a massive contract extension and a key contributor being stabbed in the back (literally) in a strip club parking lot, there is a lot of buzz heading into the season. Expectations are through the roof and fans of the Friars are already nervous about underperforming. The San Francisco Giants always seem to find a way to win games despite an old roster and a lack of upper-tier star power. They could finish in last place this season, but I think they grind their way to a third-place finish (assuming the old roster can keep injuries at bay). I see potential in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ roster, but at best, it will earn them a third-place finish without a playoff berth. The Diamondbacks are generally competent at every position, but don’t have the high-end talent to carry them through rough patches. Still, they could be a dangerous club, especially once Zac Gallen returns from injury. Much has been written about the train-wreck that is the Colorado Rockies organization. It has to be dispiriting for fans to watch the Rockies dole out disastrous free agent contracts over the last several years and trade star players for little return. I’m not sure there is much hope for the Rockies this season (or the next several seasons). Fans are currently at FRETCON 2, but FRETCON 1 is a real possibility if they trade Trevor Story for an assortment of spare parts midway through the year.

Happy Opening Day! Let the fretting begin!

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