With Opening Day just two days away, we now have a pretty good idea of what all 30 teams’ rosters will look like and how they compare to one another. That means it’s time for our annual preseason power rankings: one last venture into pure speculation before the games start and evidence begins to roll in.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
This is the best team in baseball. I don’t think it’s particularly close. Each of the Dodgers’ eight starting position players could make the All-Star team without anyone finding it remotely remarkable. At least three of those players could mount MVP campaigns. This team has the deepest starting rotation in the league, and it’s probably more likely to break the single-season wins record than to miss the playoffs. I don’t know whether the Dodgers will defend their title successfully, but they’re the team to beat.
2. New York Yankees
Ah, the Yankees are once again heavy favorites in the AL East, sucking up big-name free agents and leveraging their financial might to steal small-market teams’ players in lopsided trades. Nature is healing.
Last year, the Yankees had a great team, but they went into the season with the Rays nipping at their heels, and this column reflected that. But the Rays aren’t the best team in the division anymore, and the Blue Jays, while exciting, are full of holes. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system gives the Yankees an 88.7 percent chance to take the division title and expects them to win 100.1 games. That would be worthy of a spit take in a world in which the Dodgers didn’t exist. That’s almost eight games better than any other AL team, and more than 13 games ahead of the Rays and Blue Jays. FanGraphs is less bullish on the Yankees, but nevertheless has the stripey monument to capitalist excess six wins ahead of any other AL team, and better than 2-to-1 favorites to take the AL East.
3. San Diego Padres
Pretty wild how four years ago the Padres were a total afterthought with boring uniforms, and the team’s two most famous players were the leads in a TV drama that got canceled after 10 episodes. (#BringBackPitch)
The Padres’ offseason spending spree was refreshing to see. The 2020 iteration of this team had tremendous talent—enough to trouble the Dodgers in a short series—and much of that talent was young enough to justify standing pat and hoping their stars would develop naturally. Instead, the Padres went out and traded for one Cy Young winner (Blake Snell) and another superstar pitcher (Yu Darvish) who really should have won a Cy Young by now. Plus they picked up another good MLB starter (Joe Musgrove) and a pair of good relievers (Mark Melancon and Keone Kela) to add to an already stacked bullpen. They signed the top international free agent (infielder Ha-Seong Kim) and promoted at least one top-50 prospect (catcher Luis Campusano). If need be, they could also call on 22-year-old left-hander MacKenzie Gore, who’s widely considered to be the best pitching prospect in the world. Not to mention they locked up franchise shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. through 2034, by which point the Padres will either have won multiple World Series titles, or Petco Park will have fallen into the sea. Perhaps both.
When describing San Diego’s roster overhaul, the phrase “loaded for bear” comes to mind. Who knows whether it’ll be enough to beat the Dodgers—remember, for all the drama of last year’s NLDS, the Padres did not actually win a game—but it’ll be tons of fun to watch regardless.
4. Atlanta Braves
One thing that’s gotten lost in the hoopla about the Dodgers’ dominance and the Mets’ and Padres’ reloading efforts: The Braves were monstrously good last year. They were second in the NL in runs scored (a single run behind the Dodgers), and took the Dodgers to the brink in the NLCS. And there’s no reason to expect them to be worse in 2021.
Sure, players like Marcell Ozuna and Max Fried will probably regress a little, but Ozzie Albies wrote off about two-thirds of the 2020 season due to a wrist injury. Mike Soroka made only three starts, and Ian Anderson made only six. This year, Atlanta is promoting defensive wunderkind Cristian Pache to the starting lineup and bringing in Charlie Morton to help fill out a rotation that went only two and a half deep by the end of the playoffs. The departure of Melancon will leave a hole in the bullpen, but that’s about it. To me, Atlanta is the clear favorite in the NL East.
5. New York Mets
These Mets have plenty of flaws. A defense with Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis at the corners and Dominic Smith in left field brings to mind those supercuts of pandas falling out of trees. Carlos Carrasco’s hamstring injury is cause for concern, and two months from now, the Mets might regret not bringing in another free-agent pitcher.
But even with all that, this team looks really good on paper. All nine projected starters can get on base and hit for power. This team will score tons of runs, and with Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman in the rotation and Edwin Díaz looking like he’s put 2019 behind him, they can get outs, too. Particularly when Carrasco and (possibly) Noah Syndergaard return from the IL.
6. Houston Astros
You’re all going to hate this, but the Astros are probably going to be pretty good again this season. They came within a game of the World Series in 2020 even after their entire pitching staff got hurt, Yordan Álvarez basically didn’t play, and José Altuve played the whole year like he needed new glasses. As fans start to filter back into MLB’s various stadia, I’m interested to see what kind of reception Houston gets. If the past year hasn’t cooled off the public outrage over the Banging Scheme, how long will that incident continue to stain the franchise?
7. Minnesota Twins
I’m very excited to see what the Twins’ defense will look like with Andrelton Simmons playing in front of Byron Buxton. Not only are they two of the league’s best defenders at two of the most important defensive positions in the sport, but also they’ll be playing adjacent to each other. Simmons has played most of his career in front of good defensive center fielders, the best of whom was probably Michael Bourn in Atlanta in 2012. That year, the rookie Simmons played just 49 games but was worth 19 defensive runs saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Are the Twins selling T-shirts with an aerial view of Target Field and “NO-FLY ZONE” written over short center field? If not, they should.
8. Chicago White Sox
I’m very bullish on the White Sox, even after the Eloy Jiménez injury, but it’s puzzling that they didn’t add more outfield depth before the unfortunate events of last week. Even a best-case scenario would have meant plenty of at-bats for Adam Engel and/or utilityman Leury García, both of whom hit well in limited action in 2020 but sported matching OPS+ marks of 82 in their last full season. With that said, it’s a long season, with ample opportunities to make a fortuitous trade or waiver-wire pickup, and it wouldn’t take much for the White Sox to improve on their current plan in left field: A rookie (Andrew Vaughn, God bless him) who’s never played the outfield before. But now that Jiménez is definitely going to miss most—if not all—of the season, Chicago will need to do something.
9. Toronto Blue Jays
Within any ordinal ranking, natural tiers emerge. Here, the Dodgers are in a class of their own, followed by the Yankees, Padres, and Braves as teams I think are going to be extremely good. The next four clubs are all flawed, but I expect them to make the playoffs. The Blue Jays and the eight or so teams that follow ... who knows? Any one of them could win 95 games if everything goes well, or 70 games if everything goes badly.
I’ve gone through the reasons I love this Blue Jays team enough times that I won’t belabor the point. But their shot at contention will require at least mediocre pitching, and early returns have not been promising. Kirby Yates blew out his UCL, Nate Pearson looks more like 2019 Noah Syndergaard than 2015 Noah Syndergaard, and Robbie Ray fell down a flight of stairs and banged up his elbow. Which serves as a reminder that this team is relying on Ray—he of the 6.62 ERA and 7.8 BB/9 ratio last year—to fill a key role in the rotation in the first place.
That said, if the Blue Jays win a bunch of 13-11 games en route to a 20-10 start, that’d only make me love them more.
10. Tampa Bay Rays
The defending AL champions are three or four spots higher on this list than they should be based on their roster, but that kind of bump seems appropriate for the club that picks a Randy Arozarena or a Ryan Yarbrough off a shrub in the front yard once every four months.
Even so, it’s tough to shake the reality that the Rays brought back the entirety of a lineup that exhibited a disturbing inability to score runs last October. They also got rid of their two best starting pitchers and are going to be without all-world closer Nick Anderson until at least the second half of the season. The Rays are banking on an impressive crop of hard-throwing youngsters and reclamation projects like Michael Wacha and Chris Archer to fill the void. Which might well work out, but they’re committed to doing things the hard way.
11. Philadelphia Phillies
Zero idea what to make of this team. Their eerie aggregate consistency—finishing within two games of .500 each of the past three seasons—hides frustrating inconsistency from, well, pretty much everyone except Aaron Nola. But on paper, this is a playoff-quality team.
The Phillies avoided catastrophe this offseason by bringing back J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, reinforcing the bullpen with Archie Bradley, José Alvarado, and Brandon Kintzler, and signing a few new arms for the back end of the rotation, including Matt Moore, who’s freshly repatriated from Japan. As bad as the bullpen was last year, the rotation looks pretty solid; in addition to Nola and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies can also roll out Zach Eflin, who’s on the verge of a breakout season after an inconsistent start to his big league career. (Though there should be a rule against having two teammates who spell “Zac(h/k)” differently.)
Of course, the Phillies have been talented enough to make the playoffs since about 2018. The problem is all of that can go to shit the instant someone leaves a Ouija board in the bullpen or Joe Girardi angers the local witch coven, or whatever bizarre misfortune is going to befall the club this year. We wait with bated breath.
12. Washington Nationals
The Nats’ title defense was barely worthy of the name, but if any team earned a full-season post-championship hangover, Washington did. GM Mike Rizzo has changed out several supporting players since 2019, but this is basically the core of the title-winning team with new tires and spark plugs. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin still make up a killer front end of the rotation, and with Juan Soto and Trea Turner in the lineup, the rest almost doesn’t matter.
Would it have been nice to see Carter Kieboom or Luis García play their way into the Opening Day lineup? Sure. But the Nationals should be more than competitive, even in a brutal division like the NL East.
13. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are the class of the positively nightmarish NL Central. FanGraphs projects that Milwaukee will take the division with 82.8 wins. That would put the Brewers in the same neighborhood as the 2005 San Diego Padres, who won that year’s NL West comfortably with just 82 wins, a record low for a full season during the wild-card era.
Projection systems, by their nature, understate teams’ upside, and there is considerable upside in Milwaukee. The rotation, led by Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, could be extremely good, and with Josh Hader and Devin Williams coming out of the bullpen, the relief corps could be even better. The Brewers offense also looks to be better after a tough 2020 that saw Lorenzo Cain opt out and Christian Yelich, Keston Hiura, and Luis Urías all underperform badly. Plus, the combination of Cain and Jackie Bradley Jr. in the outfield could be Buxton-and-Simmons-level special. It’s just bad times all around for fly balls in the Upper Midwest.
14. St. Louis Cardinals
It’s pretty wild how the Red Sox gave Mookie Betts away for nothing a year ago and every superstar return since has arguably been worse. First was Lindor, and then Nolan Arenado, whom the Cardinals liberated from Colorado for next to nothing. We know Arenado’s going to be great this year; unless something truly bizarre happens, he’ll be the Cardinals’ best position player. But the key for St. Louis this year will be Dylan Carlson.
The 22-year-old Carlson struggled in a 35-game MLB cameo last season (.200/.252/.364), but he’s a good hitter with power from both sides of the plate and enough athleticism that he might be able to handle center field. We’ll find out for sure as he takes over there for the injured Harrison Bader. Any short list of NL Rookie of the Year favorites should include Carlson, and if he plays up to his potential, he could be the extra impact bat the Cardinals need to stay ahead of Milwaukee.
15. Oakland A’s
Oakland also gets a little bit of the Tampa Bay bump, because every year it rolls out a roster that looks like it’s going to go 78-84, and then it somehow ends up in the postseason. But the A’s lost a lot this winter: Marcus Semien, Tommy La Stella, Liam Hendriks, and Joakim Soria all departed as free agents, leaving Oakland with holes to fill and no trade return to help fill them.
Then again (prepares to run toward Lucy holding a football) maybe this will be the year that Jesús Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Sean Manaea, and Frankie Montas are all healthy and effective at the same time. Wouldn’t that be exciting?
16. Los Angeles Angels
As much as things tend to go wrong in Los Angeles of Anaheim, I’m really happy for Dylan Bundy. The former no. 4 pick was maddeningly inconsistent over his seven years with Baltimore, but he was awesome in 11 starts last year after being traded to the Angels. Bundy, who is somehow still only 28, has a chance to make an absolutely ludicrous amount of money next winter in free agency if he can replicate his 2020 form over a full season.
17. Chicago Cubs
It feels odd to be pessimistic about a team that just won its division, but the Darvish trade made it clear that the Cubs’ almost-dynasty is pretty much over. The club is headed for, if not a rebuild, then the end of the time when the Ricketts family authorized payrolls commensurate with a major market.
With that said, the Cubs could absolutely win an NL Central division that could be had for the seventh-best record in the National League. At the very least, we could see an extremely funny situation in which the Cubs are patently bad, but are too close to the playoffs to justify trading Kris Bryant and Javier Báez before they hit free agency. Or better yet, Chicago could trade Bryant and Báez while the team is, say, a game and a half out of first place at the deadline.
18. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox generally exist to swing from juggernaut to discombobulated nightmare without stopping in the middle for gas. Just look at the past nine seasons: Boston has finished first in the AL East four times—including two World Series titles—and dead last four times. The one time they ended up in the middle, in 2019, they cashiered championship architect Dave Dombrowski in September, and followed it up by trading Betts and getting mixed up in the sign-stealing scandal.
But the 2021 iteration just looks … fine, I guess? Which may make this the most boring Red Sox group of the past 20 years. Any team with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez will score a decent amount of runs, and any team that gives Martín Pérez a full season’s worth of starts will give up a decent amount of runs. They’re probably not going to make the playoffs, but with the Orioles in the division, they’re not going to finish last either.
This is unacceptable. For this to truly be a Red Sox season, I need a petty but vitriolic clubhouse blowup, or a front office power struggle, and for every crumb of information to leak to the local media. Or for Nick Pivetta to turn into Tom Seaver and for Boston to come out of nowhere to challenge for the AL East title. Mostly competent mediocrity just won’t cut it.
There’s only a remote chance of Cleveland returning to the postseason this year, because a lineup of José Ramírez, Eddie Rosario, and seven create-a-players from Out of the Park Baseball isn’t going to score that many runs. The Shane Bieber–led rotation will be good enough to extend the club’s streak of eight consecutive winning seasons, but the White Sox and Twins can both hit well enough to drop Terry Francona’s club out of the playoff picture.
In happier news, it looks like Cleveland will end up winning the Corey Kluber trade. That’s a stunning reversal from 12 months ago, when the team’s beloved two-time Cy Young winner was at the front of a formidable Rangers rotation and the big prospect Texas gave up—Emmanuel Clase—was embarking on a season-long suspension for PEDs. But a lot has changed since then. Kluber made just one competitive start for Texas in 2020, and Clase is back to throwing 101 mph.
20. Cincinnati Reds
It feels a little like 2020 was Cincinnati’s big shot, and the Reds missed their chance to cash in when they couldn’t score off Atlanta in the wild-card round. This winter, the team lost Trevor Bauer to free agency and traded closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels. Joey Votto is a year older, leaving the offense a little too reliant on drives into deep left field by Nick Castellanos.
But all is not lost. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray still headline a pitching staff with plenty of depth, and a personal favorite player of mine, Jonathan India, looks to be in line to grab the second-base job. I first watched India when he was a freshman at the University of Florida, playing across the diamond from Pete Alonso. At the time he was an undersized third baseman who was such a pest that I said he had “future St. Louis Cardinal” written all over him. But India grew into his power as a junior and turned into a top-five pick by 2018. Three years later, he’s ready for the majors.
I don’t love this roster overall, but it’s good enough to hang around in MLB’s worst division.
21. Kansas City Royals
I don’t remember the last time the Royals made a big trade or free-agent signing, but I also don’t remember the last time they made a bad trade or free-agent signing. For instance, last July they turned Tim Hill—who’s a perfectly fine middle reliever—into Franchy Cordero; then in February, they turned Cordero and Khalil Lee into Andrew Benintendi. The former Arkansas standout had fallen out of favor in Boston, but he’s only 26 years old and is just two years removed from a 4.5 bWAR season.
The Royals have made buy-low moves like this for Mike Minor, Greg Holland, Michael Taylor, Carlos Santana, and Jorge Soler. In fact, they picked up Soler from the Cubs in a trade for Wade Davis, and then four years later brought Davis back when he needed a place to rebuild his reputation. Kansas City also has a ton of interesting young pitchers, and the Royals run the bases as aggressively as any team in MLB. I don’t know whether this is a better rebuilding strategy than stripping the club down to the studs and losing 105 games a year, but it’s definitely more fun.
22. Miami Marlins
I love Starling Marté. I believe Sixto Sanchez will win at least one Cy Young Award in his career, and he’s not the only good pitcher in this rotation. I think a lot more people would realize Brian Anderson is an established above-average big league third baseman if he didn’t have to share his name with two other recent big leaguers and a current MLB broadcaster. And I’m excited to see what Jazz Chisholm can do in a full MLB season.
I also think last year was a total fluke. The Marlins are going to be intermittently fun, but they’re going to miss the playoffs by 15 games.
23. Arizona Diamondbacks
I actually like a lot of the individual components to this Arizona team, particularly if Zac Gallen’s forearm fracture doesn’t keep him out long, Carson Kelly and Ketel Marte bounce back from down years in 2020, and Madison Bumgarner and Luke Weaver aren’t absolute dogshit.
But the crop of young players the Diamondbacks got in exchange for jettisoning Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke, Archie Bradley, and AJ Pollock hasn’t really produced an impact player. Gallen and Marte have flashed that potential, but both arrived in challenge trades: Gallen from Miami for Chisholm, Marte from Seattle in the Mitch Haniger–Jean Segura deal. An optimistic view of the Diamondbacks places them one or two big free-agent signings from a playoff berth in 2022. But the Southern California stranglehold on the NL West, paired with an ultracompetitive NL East that will clog up the wild-card race, isn’t going to make it easy.
24. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners currently have the longest active playoff drought of any team in the big four North American leagues: 19 years and counting. But you can see the light at the end of the tunnel for Seattle. Or not, if there’s fog coming in off the water.
The James Paxton reunion fills out a pretty good rotation, and even with a few developmental hiccups, the Mariners have managed to put together a promising crop of young position players. Let’s put it this way: By this time next year, Kyle Lewis—the reigning AL Rookie of the Year—could be Seattle’s fourth-best young outfielder if Taylor Trammell, Jarred Kelenic, and Julio Rodriguez continue to develop on schedule.
25. San Francisco Giants
Unless Buster Posey goes off this year and forces the Giants to pick up his $22 million option for 2022, this could be his last year in San Francisco. The Giants have spent two of their past three first-round picks on catchers, which would seem to indicate that Posey at the very least isn’t going to hang on to the starting catcher’s job very long. And as shocking as this might have been five years ago, I’m not sure Posey’s going to make the Hall of Fame.
Posey certainly had a Hall of Fame peak, as a former MVP and the standout position player on three championship teams. When Albert Pujols left St. Louis, Posey stepped into the void as the best position player in the National League. But a year lost to the pandemic and two-thirds of a year lost to a rule-changing home plate collision have kept Posey from inflating his counting stats. It’s not just a matter of reaching hit or home run thresholds. Posey currently has 5,153 career plate appearances; Mike Piazza is the only position player elected in the past 20 years with fewer than 8,000.
At 34, Posey still has plenty of time to pad his numbers, whether that happens behind the plate or at another position—or even with another team. Right now, the most favorable flavors of WAR put Posey’s career total in the low 50s, and the Hall of Fame conversation usually starts around 60. Maybe his peak and dispensation for catchers having shorter careers will make that enough.
26. Colorado Rockies
For about a month last year, I had convinced myself that the Rockies were a playoff-quality team. Then they traded Arenado, revealing that the team’s owner is actually Steve Zissou in a tasteful button-down. Kyle Freeland is hurt, Trevor Story is probably on his way out, and there isn’t really an impact prospect on the horizon to turn things around.
27. Detroit Tigers
Detroit’s pitching staff is a wonderful amalgamation of exciting prospects (Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal), longtime Tigers on the rebound (Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris), and pitchers who make you say, “Oh, so that’s where he went!” Julio Teheran? On the Tigers. Derek Holland? On the Tigers. José Ureña? On the Tigers. Alex Cobb? Not on the Tigers, but he should be.
28. Texas Rangers
Trading Lance Lynn a year before free agency is one thing. Trading Elvis Andrus and demoting Rougned Odor … that feels like the end of an era. Now that Odor—who just turned 27, somehow—is out of the picture, the only holdover from their 2016 postseason campaign will be Matt Bush, who’s been released and re-signed twice since he last pitched in the majors in 2018. Five years turns out to be a long time in the baseball world.
29. Baltimore Orioles
Matt Harvey is Baltimore’s no. 2 starter.
30. Pittsburgh Pirates
I think the Pirates should trade Ke’Bryan Hayes. Sure, he’s the only interesting player on the big league roster, and still a rookie. But he’s already 24, and in three years he’ll be hit arbitration and start making more than the league minimum. Will the Pirates be competitive by then? Probably not. Best to cash out now while they can still get something in return instead of letting him go for nothing when he gets expensive.