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8. William Hill

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Baseball Is Back!

The shortened 2020 season brought plenty of drama before the Los Angeles Dodgers finally landed the World Series crown, delivering on their huge payroll and ending their run of postseason agony after coming so close in 2017 and 2018. The Dodgers will be eyeing a repeat too, with stars like Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger hitting their prime.

This year, MLB is back to its full 162-game schedule – and a group of contenders is standing by to challenge the Dodgers. Many of last year’s playoff teams should remain in the mix, while offseason spending has vaulted others into the chasing pack.

With the uncertain health landscape, there are no guarantees on scheduling and availability either, and teams will again be expected to deal with challenging external factors. If anything, that could pave the way for more surprises and a wide open playoff race.

Recapping The Offseason

  • Padres strengthen for a World Series run: Building off their impressive performances last season, the Padres swooped for Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to add three aces to the top of their rotation. With rising superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. now inked to a 14-year, $340M extension, San Diego have real momentum.
  • Dodgers make their move by adding Bauer: One of the lingering postseason questions was around where free agent pitcher Trevor Bauer would land. In the end, Los Angeles made yet another win-now move to bolster the starting rotation.
  • Mets land Lindor: The NL East race got a little more intriguing when the Mets pulled off a blockbuster deal for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Corrasco this summer. Lindor is the elite franchise-altering talent that the Mets have been craving.
  • Springer joins Blue Jays: Something special is brewing in the Toronto clubhouse, with a surging young core now supplemented by the addition of George Springer, who signed a lucrative six-year deal and will add pop to the top of the lineup.
  • Rockies move on from Arenado: There were times when a contender seemed to be forming around Nolan Arenado in Colorado, but the Rockies opted to usher in a new era this summer, trading the third baseman to the St. Louis Cardinals.

American League East

Despite their ongoing injury woes, the New York Yankees are the team to beat in the AL East this season. They can count on Gerrit Cole to spearhead the pitching rotation, but there are question marks over the rest of the starting pitching. And how many at-bats will Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton log? Though there is ample depth all over the roster, and the re-signing of DJ LeMahieu is a huge plus, the Yankees can ill afford a repeat of their slow start last season. While it has become unwise to question the Tampa Bay Rays’ transactions and ability to compete with the league’s best teams, parting with Snell and Charlie Morton would weaken any team – and there is a chance that the Rays take a small step back in 2021.

That would open the door for the Toronto Blue Jays, who are looking to make the leap from feel-good story to a genuine contender. Adding Springer and Marcus Semien to an already dangerous batting lineup promises fireworks, though the pitching rotation still has something to prove. Still, a wildcard spot should be in play. Elsewhere, the Boston Red Sox have signalled their intent to re-tool, with 2021 likely to be a year for steady improvement, and the Baltimore Orioles are in the midst of a longer rebuild. In this division, the Orioles could be looking at a 100-loss season.

Predicted Division Winner: Yankees – with the Blue Jays as a wildcard team

American League Central

This feels like a two-horse race between the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. The White Sox finally put it all together in 2020, but now have to show they can replicate that form over a full regular season. With powerful hitters like Jose Abreu and a rotation led by Lucas Giolito, the signs look good. The Twins, who edged this division last year, will be in contention again, especially if pitcher Kenta Maeda maintains the form that made him a Cy Young candidate. But their reliance on some older and/or injury prone players could be a slight red flag.

It may take some time for the Cleveland Indians to adapt to life after Lindor – and that likely puts them on the fringes of the playoff race. There is still talent on this roster (Shane Bieber, Jose Ramirez) but Cleveland may end up as sellers at the trade deadline. The Kansas City Royals are making strides with their rebuild and are a sneaky outside bet to reach the playoffs, though their depth is limited. Expect the Detroit Tigers to prop up the division once again, but there was at least optimism with the hiring of A.J. Hinch as manager. That should soften the blow of another tough season.

Predicted Division Winner: White Sox

American League West

This could be the last year for the Houston Astros to run it back and chase another World Series crown with this core as a pitching overhaul looms. Even without Springer, the Astros have elite hitters, led by Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and the re-signed Michael Brantley, and there is enough quality in the rotation – even without the injured Justin Verlander – to suggest that top spot in the AL West remains within reach. The Oakland Athletics earned that honour in 2020, only to fall to Houston in the postseason. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson will keep Oakland on the scoreboard, but can the pitching hold up? The A’s were strangely quiet during the offseason at a time when they could have taken a stranglehold on the division.

The pitching situation is an even bigger talking point for the Los Angeles Angels, who have put big bats alongside Mike Trout but arguably not enough high quality pitching, though the return of Shohei Ohtani will help. A postseason berth would be a major surprise, just as it would for the Seattle Mariners – though both teams will be fueled by front office pressure to make the playoffs. The Texas Rangers appear to be the favourites to prop up the AL West, but that could yet change if some of their youngsters hit their stride.

Predicted Division Winner: Astros – with the A’s as a wildcard team

National League East

Even after the New York Mets completed their landscape-shifting deal for Lindor, a case can be made that the Atlanta Braves remain narrow favourites in this division. The Braves picked up Morton to bolster their pitching and bring back an explosive batting lineup headlined by Ronald Acuna Jr, while the new-look Mets have a deeper rotation with Carrasco slotting in next to Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman. Both teams should be in the thick of the playoff race.

There is a path for the Washington Nationals to get back to the postseason if their trio of aces – Stephen Strasburg, Maz Scherzer and Patrick Corbin – stays healthy to support Juan Soto’s continued rise. But the likelier scenario is a record closer to .500, with limited hitting depth behind Soto. The Philadelphia Phillies are similarly top-heavy. If Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are firing, the Phillies remain a dangerous team, but their lack of depth is a concern. The Miami Marlins were 2020’s surprise package with a young core exceeding expectations – but they are still a work in progress and it feels unlikely that the Marlins will keep pace in a tricky division.

Predicted Division Winner: Braves – with the Mets as a wildcard team

National League Central

Pairing Arenado with Paul Goldschmidt should provide the St. Louis Cardinals with the offensive spark they need to take the next step. After leaning heavily on a solid pitching rotation the past few years, expect the Cardinals’ offense to click into gear in 2021. But the NL Central is always extremely tight – and that should be the case again this season. The Chicago Cubs bring back a roster of familiar faces, along with urgency to make another World Series run before some potential roster shakeups. Again, much depends on the bats of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and the pitching depth behind Kyle Hendricks is shaky.

The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds will both be eyeing the postseason too. For the Brewers, the same old storyline persists: where are the runs coming from aside from Christian Yelich? And even Yelich struggled in 2020. Solid pitching backed by a fearsome bullpen gives Milwaukee a chance of hanging in the wildcard race. Meanwhile, the Reds showed improvement last year but losing Bauer will hurt the rotation and it is tough to see Cincinnati finishing much above .500. That leaves the Pittsburgh Pirates as the likeliest candidate for bottom spot as they reshape their roster. The loss of Musgrove coupled with a low-scoring offense spells trouble.

Predicted Division Winner: Cardinals

National League West

The Los Angeles Dodgers have ruled the NL West for numerous years (eight straight titles) and, with the pressure off after finally getting over the hump in the World Series, they could hit new heights in 2021. David Price is back after opting out of last season and he joins Bauer, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw in an imposing rotation. The offense should again score bags of runs, with Betts among the favourites for NL MVP. That said, the San Diego Padres have signalled their intent to make this a real divisional race. Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Jake Cronenworth had already ignited the offense – and now three star pitchers have arrived to make the Padres legitimate World Series contenders. Even if San Diego cannot wrestle the NL West crown away from Los Angeles, this is a team no one will want to face in the playoffs.

Beyond those two juggernauts, the rest of the division is unlikely to generate many headlines. The Arizona Diamondbacks probably have the best shot at muscling into the playoff race if Madison Bumgarner rolls back the clock and Zac Gallen continues to develop. But it is hard to see Arizona climbing much above .500. The same can be said for the San Francisco Giants, who have enough solid contributors to stay competitive, though their most established stars’ best years are likely behind them. After trading Arenado, this could be a painful year for the Colorado Rockies – and further moves could lie ahead.

Predicted Division Winner: Dodgers – with Padres as a wildcard team

American League MVP

The pick: George Springer, Blue Jays

Trout is understandably the runaway leader with the bookmakers, but might we see voter fatigue if the Angels again fall short of the postseason? While it is surely still his award to lose, we are looking further down the list for an upside pick. The Blue Jays have high expectations this year and the narrative will write itself if Springer is the catalyst for Toronto to climb to the top of the AL East.

National League MVP

The pick: Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres

All eyes will be on San Diego this season and Tatis Jr. has proved he is fearless in the spotlight. His odds are slightly higher than the other leading contenders and there is every reason to think that he can crank his production up another level or two in 2021. The Padres look set to have one of the league’s best records this season and that will only help Tatis Jr.’s chances here.

American League Cy Young Winner

The pick: Lucas Giolito, White Sox

While Cole is the favourite here, there are plenty of value picks to be found further down the list, including Giolito, who will lead the White Sox rotation again in 2021 and should have plenty of run support. Plus, the AL Central should offer opportunities to pad his numbers. Hyun-Jin Ryu is an interesting longer shot, with the Blue Jays poised to contend this year.

National League Cy Young Winner

The pick: Jacob deGrom, Mets

Again, there is a crowded field in this category but we are leaning towards the favourite given the way deGrom has pitched the past few years and the jolt of optimism that should be flowing through the Mets’ clubhouse after their offseason upgrades. As a slightly longer shot, look for Snell to arrive in San Diego with a point to prove and put up stellar numbers.

World Series Winner

The pick: Padres over White Sox

We are picking a somewhat surprising World Series matchup for a somewhat strange season. The Dodgers and Padres appear to be on a collision course in the National League – and there is upset potential there with a hungry young challenger. The American League looks wide open, giving a budding White Sox team an opportunity to rise to the top.

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