Last week, I released my full MLB season preview. The preview spanned over six weeks, with each division receiving its own podcast episode. Throughout the preview series, I included some of my bold predictions for the 2021 MLB season. The bold predictions were spaced out over the course of ten hours. Here's a shortcut to five things that I believe will happen this year, each of which runs contrary to popular opinion.
1) Zach Davies will finish the 2021 season with a lower ERA and more innings pitched than Yu Darvish.
The Cubs have received mostly negative reviews from their fans following the December trade that sent Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres. Fans were hoping a deal centered around the 2020 Cy Young runner-up would yield a package from the Padres consisting of at least one young stud such as Jake Cronenworth, Chris Paddack or MacKenzie Gore. That was never realistic.
The Cubs ended up swapping Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini with Zach Davies and four very young, high-ceiling prospects. The trade — which functioned as a salary dump — has been widely maligned by the Cubbie faithful. But what if an age-28 Davies actually straight-up outpitches an age-35 Darvish?
Davies has quietly been one of the better pitchers in the National League over the last two years, posting a 3.30 ERA in 43 starts, a cumulative ERA lower than Darvish's over 2019 and 2020 (3.39). In fact, over the last four seasons (2017-2020) they've pitched about the same amount of innings (Darvish threw 481; Davies threw 486) and have had a near-identical ERA over that stretch. Darvish's was 3.70, Davies' was 3.74.
If Davies once again rivals Darvish's performance this season, the trade — which saved Chicago roughly $47.37 million in cap flexibility — should be a huge win for the Cubs. Darvish struggled to settle in to Chicago; it took him a little while to get acclimated and pitch his best. It could be a similar story for him in San Diego. At age 35, after already having Tommy John surgery and logging over 1,200 innings in Japan before coming to MLB in 2012, Darvish could soon be trending in the opposite direction of 28 year-old Davies, who is seemingly entering the prime of his career.
The one key needed for Davies to accomplish this feat will be the Cubs' defense. With the Cubs relying on soft-throwing, pitch-to-contact starters such as Davies, Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills and Jake Arrieta, defense will be of the upmost importance.
2) Javier Baez will finish the season with an On Base Percentage lower than .300.
If you have been watching Baez closely over the course of his career, this feat really wouldn't surprise you. As Baez's star has risen over the last two years (making him the cover athlete of MLB: The Show 20), his OBP and OPS have fallen off a proverbial cliff. Baez finished second in MVP voting in 2018, when he batted .290 with 34 homers, 111 RBI's, an OPS of .881, and an OPS+ of 129. Even in his crown jewel season, Baez hardly walked, clocking in with a .326 OBP.
With more and more tape on Baez available to opposing pitchers, Baez has struggled. His inability to draw the walk has exposed him in the batter's box, and his perennially high chase rate has allowed opposing pitchers to exploit him with breaking balls off the plate that he has a difficult time laying off.
There was a seismic shift in Baez's production that occurred in the middle of May of the 2019 season. Prior to May 18, Baez was off to his best start yet, hitting .330, with 11 homers, 30 RBI's, a .370 OBP and a .984 OPS. From May 18, 2019 through the entirety of the 2020 season — a 155 game sample size; essentially a full season! — Baez logged a .225 BA, .268 OBP and 29% K rate. Of course, 2020 wasn't a real baseball season. Yet, if you've watched Baez over the last two years, his struggles have been quite concerning.
In addition to game film working against him, Baez was also more likely to see pitches in the strike zone when he was hitting in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, which he did during the 2018 season. Bryant and Rizzo offered Baez protection, as pitchers didn't want to walk hitters and offer free baserunners to the meat of the Cubs' batting order. Last season, Baez hit behind Bryant and Rizzo, and left a heck of a lot of runners on base. Throughout spring training, Cubs' manager David Ross slotted Baez in the five and six spot of the order, behind Bryzzo, a recipe that I don't believe will set Baez up for success.
Until Baez is able to show that he'll take the walk, he will continue to struggle. And in order for the Cubs to return to the postseason this fall, they will need Baez to return to his 2018 self.
3) The Tampa Bay Rays will win the American League East for the second straight year in 2021.
After losing Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, the Rays are weighing in as a heavy underdog in the American League East this season. Draftkings has their over/under win total set at 85.5, the third-highest number in the division behind the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. America sleeping on the Tampa Bay Rays is now a seasonal tradition. The Rays far exceeded expectations in 2018 and 2019, winning 90 and 96 games respectfully. Their American League best 37-23 record and World Series appearance has been chalked up to dumb luck and the general flukiness of a 60-game season and expanded playoff field. Make no mistake about it: the Rays are no fluke.
Though the Rays lost Snell and Morton this past winter, I believe the Rays are just opening their competitive window of opportunity in the American League. The team has thrived off "bullpen-ing", having been the first organization to embrace Brian Kenny's concept of "the opener". Though Snell and Morton's presence will be greatly missed come October, the Rays' stellar bullpen will once again power the Rays to a win total in the mid to high-90s. Tampa Bay is also expecting not one, but SIX of baseball's top 85 prospects (according to MLB.com) to be contributors at the big league level this summer, including baseball's top prospect, shortstop Wander Franco, who I believe will have a Fernando Tatis Jr.-like immediate impact at the big league level. The Rays, with Franco and middle infielder Vidal Brujan, should be an even better offensive team than it was a season ago. The mid-season call-ups of Luis Patino, Brendan McKay, Shane McClanahan and Brent Honeywell should replenish and reinvigorate the Rays' pitching staff. The team also scooped up veterans Rich Hill, Chris Archer, Colin McHugh and Michael Wacha on the cheap to provide some depth.
For all the preseason chatter surrounding the Rays' questionable pitching staff (or so they say!), the Yankees' rotation may be even less steady. In order for the Yankees to return to their first World Series since 2009, a lot will be asked of Domingo German, Jordan Montgomery, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. I'll take the Rays.
4) Tony La Russa will win American League Manager of the Year for the first time since 1992.
Similar to how it reacted to the Darvish trade, the city of Chicago scoffed at the South Side, when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf brought manager Tony La Russa back to the organization after his first go-round ended 35 years ago. I get it. At age 76, after ten years out of baseball, Tony La Russa was a bit of an outside-the-box hire. Skeptics wonder if he still has it, if he can adapt to the new game, and connect to young players. I'm not concerned about any of that. Tony La Russa brings a Hall of Fame pedigree to an organization that hasn't won a playoff series in over 15 years. La Russa was ahead of his time as a baseball thinker. In 2003, Cardinals' star outfielder Albert Pujols had a shoulder injury that restricted him from throwing. Pujols was the Cardinals' best bat and without a designated hitter spot in the National League, La Russa couldn't afford for Pujols to sit in the thick of a tight-division race with the Chicago Cubs. What did La Russa do? He moved Pujols to first base, risking that at any moment, Pujols could forget, fire a throw home and worsen his shoulder. La Russa rolled the dice and it paid off wonderfully.
La Russa is very capable of adapting on the fly, and his arrival puts the White Sox in win-now mode. It's hard to imagine La Russa managing the Sox for the next ten years, but I expect him to win with an extremely talented team. If the White Sox win the Central and finish with one of the American League's highest win totals, it will be hard not to give Tony his fifth Manager of the Year award, especially considering the scrutiny he's already faced for merely stepping into the situation.
5) Kris Bryant will win World Series MVP... as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
This is the pick I have the least amount of confidence in, by a considerable margin, but what the heck, why not? The Cubs are currently being presented with some difficult financial and personnel decisions. As Baez, Bryant and Rizzo prepare to hit free agency this winter, can they possibly retain all three? Will they? Should they? With him being one of Scott Boras clients, it's hard to imagine Bryant signing an extension before hitting the open market (which doesn't mean he won't resign). Given Rizzo's age, he will probably be the easiest to retain. The relationship between Kris Bryant and the city of Chicago appears to be weakening. Some fans have been calling for a trade of the star third baseman on social media for quite some time now. Bryant's frustration started to boil over last year, when he actually said a swear word when speaking to the press!
If the Cubs know they won't be retaining Bryant and/or Baez, might they trade one — if not both — of them around the trade deadline to get something for them, rather than lose them for nothing? The Cubs could keep their core intact for the whole season; but realistically, are they beating the Dodgers, Braves or Padres come playoff time? Probably not. A trade would help replenish the pipeline and get some new blood in the Cubs' farm system. The Braves will likely need another bat to emerge from their lineup. If Austin Riley can't cut it, Atlanta — who possesses a number of promising prospects — will be in the market for a third baseman come deadline time. Bryant and the Braves could be a match made in baseball Heaven. The Braves have thrived off of players on one-year contracts, and Kris Bryant could be the team's missing piece to a championship puzzle.
(Photos via Michael Reaves/Getty Images, NBC Sports Chicago, Chicago Cubs, and AP Photos)