Jeff Passan’s 2021 MLB season preview

17. March 2021

Jeff Passanespan


ESPN MLB Insider

The author’s hand: The secret to the most valuable commodity in sports, worth billions of dollars.

After a month of spring training, baseball players begin to form opinions about the players. Who is real and who is not. Who has changed and who has not. Who is important and who is not.

It was the perfect time to interview more than 30 players, managers, coaches, general managers, scouts, evaluators and other personnel to distinguish between a mirage of a small sample size and a real breakthrough. And so it has shed light on many other areas that need to be analyzed.

So I decided to wear different hats here. It’s for fantasy players, gamblers, amateur prospects, casuals, wannabes, scouts and managers, and especially those who like to go back and call out their predictions on Twitter @OldTakesExposed.

Illustration ESPN

Fantastic hat

My friends in tier 3 fantasy baseball leagues, since about 1991, read every word I write at this time of year, because they like to bid on the players I like. I hate them for that, but my love for you, dear reader – and for the salary – keeps me coming back. And here are some late gems that follow an unremarkable early selection.

Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers: He’s been incredible in the postseason. He returned to the lineup this spring and has become one of the most impressive hitters in the Cactus League. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Seager, who turns 27 in April, becomes the most coveted free agent this winter.

Alejandro Kirk, C, Toronto : It doesn’t get any better than cartoons. …. Kirk is built just like Wibble…. he’s a better hitter. A manager who saw him this spring said Kirk, 22, should not be on the Blue Jays’ roster. He was supposed to be their starting receiver.

Ty France, 2B, Seattle: France is eligible at second base, and given the dearth of at-bats at that position, he’s a tough hire. Listeners have always believed he could hit, and this spring he was too good.

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Josh Rojas, 2B, Arizona: Trading Zach Grein could be a big surprise for the Diamondbacks. Corbin Martin returned from his Tommy John surgery and pitched 98 times. J.B. Bukauskas looks like a dominant reliever in his late career. When the DH comes to the NL, Seth Peter will fall into a cup. First place goes to Rojas, a Swiss Army man whose army bat looks unusual and could well be the latest find in Arizona.

Jameson Talon, S.P., New York Yankees: After his second Tommy John surgery, Tylon is not without risk. But with a revamped delivery that shortens his armstroke and integrates his lower half, Tyler’s stuff looks just as good, if not better, than what he unleashed in his 2018 breakthrough, according to one reviewer.

Logan Allen, S.P., Cleveland: Allen came up after the Trevor Bauer trade, and the Cleveland pitching mill started again. This spring, Allen’s fastball reached 96 mph – more than three ticks above what he was in San Diego and faster than any left-handed starter in the big leagues in 2020 – and that may not even be the most impressive part of his development. Allen added 11 inches to his glove side this spring.

Michael A. Taylor, CFO, Kansas City: You want the stolen bases? Of course you want the stolen bases. Especially from guys you can buy for $1 at auction. Taylor stays in Washington: 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, incredibly fast. Remember, in his final season, he stole 24 bases in 385 appearances. Bonus: He’s also in a good mood this spring.

Ronald Guzman, 1B, Texas: The Rangers traded Nate Lowe last winter, but Guzman has changed his swing and look. Right: Globe Life Field did not play like a hitter’s park. But maybe there’s no stadium that can handle Guzman’s raw power.

Pete Fairbanks, PR, Tampa Bay: This is a place where real baseball knowledge can be gained. Nick Anderson, the Rays’ assistant manager, will be eligible for arbitration after this season. Rivers gets richer by arbitrage as they accumulate savings. Anderson may have played the role, but locking it down is not something everyday for him. That leaves the door wide open for Fairbanks, who is racking up saves in addition to his impressive strikeout rate.

James Karinchak or Emmanuel Claeys, closer, Cleveland: Speaking of heavyweights. Whoever wins this job… Karinchak is the favorite, but Claez’s 100 millimeter knives turn people into puddles ….. It’s a monster with four categories. Cleveland’s closer is almost always a good bet, and with elite raw talent, he’s also decent.

Game cap

You want to get rich? Well, this is not the place for that. But if you’re into sportsbooks and need that knowledge, this is a good place to start. (All quotes are from William Hill’s Caesar Sports book).

Shohei Ohtani, AL MVP, +5,000: His bat seems to be elite. His hand looks normal. MVP voters love a good story, and Ohtani fulfilling his dual destiny is a great story, especially at 50 to 1. Sleep more: Brandon Lowe of Tampa Bay at +8000. He was the AL MVP in the first half of the 2020 season shortened by lockouts. At 80 to 1, that’s phenomenal value.

Juan Soto, NL MVP, +850: Three players are tied for the best odds in the NL: Soto, Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger. Call me Soto. Sleeping: Jacob deGrom for +4000.

Corbin Burns, NL Cy Young, +5,000: His acceleration looks incredible this spring – and he barely throws his slider. Burns has the same chance as Dustin May, who may not even be on the Dodgers’ roster for opening day.

Franmil Reyes and Jorge Soler, Home Run Major League Champions, +3000: Soler won the 2019 AL title with a home run, and Reyes, at 25, is poised to rise to prominence. Sleeping: Low to +15,000.

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Atlanta, NL East champion, +140: Of all the division champions, Atlanta might be the best bet in terms of probability and cost. The Brewers, at +340, are not far behind. Sleeping: Kansas City at +4000. Not to mention that the Royals will win a very competitive AL Central. But at the same price as Detroit, Arizona and San Francisco? This is stupid.

Los Angeles Dodgers, world champions, +350 : Baseball is weird, the playoffs are a small example, blah, blah, blah. If it’s the Dodgers against the field, I can always go for the Dodgers.

Sleeping: Toronto at +2200. Especially with the arrival of Alex Manua earlier than expected. Dark Horse: Milwaukee at +5,000.

Atlanta at 91.5, Baltimore at 63.5: Atlanta won 97 games in 2019 and finished last year with 94.5 wins. She added Charlie Morton and Drew Smiley, brings back Mike Soroka after hamstring surgery, and will spend a full year with Ian Anderson.

Baltimore had 47 wins in 2018 and 54 in 2019, and finished last year with 67.5 wins. The Orioles have done nothing to improve this winter, and the emergence of top prospects won’t help much in the pesky division.

Mets won 30 games against the Yankees (+170): The Mets have 39 games left to play before they face Atlanta, then three games in Miami and four against a struggling Colorado after this series. The Yankees played seven games against Baltimore in April, then Detroit, Houston and Washington, followed by three more against Baltimore and four in Texas. But at -200, the value is bad.

Bo Bichette, the best hitter in the Major League, +2500 hits: It has everything you want in a hit king. Good baseball skills. High output speed. Low running speed. If you can’t do anything with Bichette, Jeff McNeil at +3000 is a good bet.

Freddie Freeman, viewed over 171.5 times: Freeman had 191 visits in 2018. In 2019, there were 176. Last year, he was on 197 hits. Freeman is still a rake, and with the lineup around him in Atlanta, he’ll have some pitches to hit.

Front guard

There has been a lot of talk about contract extensions this spring, and more deals are likely to follow in the coming months. Here’s a taste of both.

Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, SS: Surprisingly, Puerto Rico has produced three notable shortstop men born within a year and a half of each other. According to sources, they are the ones negotiating contracts with their teams this spring. That doesn’t mean Lindor, Correa or Baez will sign an extension. Only that they are open to discussion before they are released in November. Two other mega-shorts in the 2021 class, Corey Seager and Trevor Story, are unlikely to add ink.

Joey Gallo, Texas: The Rangers’ rebuild has begun, and no one on their team is as valuable as the 27-year-old. Texas could wait until winter to sell him, but if Gallo hits like he did this spring – his five home runs are the best in the Cactus League – it makes sense to take him to a contender and add him to a farm system that needs help.

Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs: If the Cubs stumble, Bryant could move at the trade deadline. In addition to Baez, the Cubs have talked to their other major free agent, Anthony Rizzo, about an extension. But if he’s not there, he’ll be on the market. Another Cub that could be popular: Zach Davies, who acquired Chicago with Yu Darvish, has reached a deal with San Diego. And don’t forget the best player in baseball this spring, Joc Pederson, who could move on to Free Agency.

Here’s how a single season trade reveals many of the problems the MLB currently faces. Jeff Passan (ESPN+)

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta: Re-signing Freeman isn’t a done deal, but the industry expects Atlanta to use the savings on the contracts of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies to hand them out generously to the NL MVP.

Josh Hader, PR, Milwaukee: So if Drew Rasmussen is really that good, Devin Williams looks like he did last year, and Brent Stater, Freddy Peralta and Justin Topa remain effective in the bullpen, can the Brewers move Khader, who has been the best reliever in baseball since his debut in 2017? Yes. Yes, they can. Since Hader’s salary of $6.675 million in arbitration could rise to $10 million, Milwaukee could transfer Hader, who is past his prime, and use the spoils to build the next generation of talent.

Andrew Vaughn, 1B, Chicago White Sox: Vaughn didn’t make it to the top division, but that didn’t stop Chicago from doing to him what it did to outfielder Louis Robert, who signed a six-year, $50 million contract with two club options before his top division debut. Vaughn, a 2019 pick after Bobby Witt, was a revelation this spring and will only strengthen a squad full of players with long-term contracts: Robert, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada – and before that, Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, whose club deals started their rebuild. So far, despite talks with Vaughn and Lucas Giolito, the White Sox have failed to add either, according to sources.

Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland: Ramirez’s long-term contract has paid off for Cleveland – and he’d like to sign another one, sources say. Ramirez, 28, defended himself. Cleveland won’t lose any sleep over this. He remains under contract for $9.4 million this season with an $11 million club option for 2022 and a $13 million club option for 2023.

A lot of the Kansas City Royals: If the AL Central animals do what is expected of them, the Royals could be out of the game in time and have a chance to strengthen an already excellent farm system. The top prizes: Catcher Salvador Perez and Jorge Soler, who both become free agents after 2021. Kansas City also has some interesting free-agent opportunities: Jesse Hahn, who was excellent in 2020, and two older rookies, closers Greg Holland and Wade Davis, who were excellent and will likely make the opening day squad. The Royals have been busy this spring, signing Hunter Dozier to a contract extension and discussing a long-term deal with Adalberto Mondesi. The summer could get even busier.

Starling Marte, Kennedy, Miami: The Marlins are in the same situation as Kansas City: young, talented, and probably a year away from the deadline. Marte, who they traded late last year, is by far their most coveted player, although the market for Adam Duvall could also be decent if the new ball takes the power out of the game, and he was still a bopper.

Kevin Gausman, MS, San Francisco: The available weapons this summer may be unclear, and Gausman is positioned as perhaps the best of the bunch – along with Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez and Alex Wood, all of whom are only under contract through 2021. It’s worth keeping an eye on him, especially if he can stay healthy: James Paxton of Seattle. The wild card is Tampa Bay, which is so rich in pitchers that it can sell all of its free agents – Chris Archer, Michael Wacha, Richard Hill and Collin McHugh – and still fill the rotation with young, dynamic arms.

Reconnaissance cap

Many young players have impressed listeners this spring. Here are a few you’ll see this season – and a few more in the years to come.

Nick Pratto, 1B, Kansas City: Pratto, 22, selected 14th overall in the 2017 draft, made a name for himself on the Royals’ bench last year and has done so again this spring. Kansas City signed Carlos Santana to a two-year deal this winter, but with Soler possibly leaving via free agency, Santana could slide into the RT slot and free up the top spot for Pratto in 2022.

Jonathan India, 3B, Cincinnati: The fifth pick in the 2018 draft has stunned the Reds this spring and should find himself in Cincinnati sooner rather than later. The Reds like him so much that they tried third baseman Eugenio Suarez as a shortstop on Tuesday.

Adley Rutschman, C, Baltimore: The Orioles have seen it before – a quality catcher who has it in him to become a star. Baltimore is counting on Rutchman to do what Matt Wieters could never do: turn into him. Evaluators believe it’s only a matter of time before the first overall pick becomes the top receiver in the AL in 2019.

Mickey Moniak, CF, Philadelphia: Two years ago, Moniak went bankrupt. Now, in the midst of a spectacular spring, he’s changing the minds of evaluators. He was expected to start in center field on opening day, said the 22-year-old, whose six hits this spring include two doubles, a triple and two homers.

Aaron Ashby, S.P., Milwaukee: Although his delivery was too difficult and he tended to change his timing, Ashby, 22, has so far impressed assessors. His slider is an absolutely devastating pitch that Ashby can throw for strikes and bury. With a two-foot fastball, Ashby, the nephew of pitcher Andy Ashby, is a rising star this spring.

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Riley Green, CF, Detroit: The 20-year-old Green possesses a composure and presence that is out of this world and has positioned himself as the centerpiece of the Tigers’ next generation. A loser thinks he can play… and play well in the big leagues now. Detroit will take its time getting its young pitchers – Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft – to the big leagues before Green arrives (he was selected fifth overall in what should be a strong 2019 draft) and 2020, when Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 pick, arrives.

Trevor Megill, PR, Chicago Cubs: Megill is a 6-foot-4 giant and weighs 250 pounds, and with a left-handed fastball that hits triple digits, he will almost certainly pitch at Wrigley Field this season. Unlike those before him on this list, Megill is sensible: 27 years old, a Rule 5 pick in 2020 by the Padres and without much real projection about it. It is what it is, and what it is can be good.

Willie Castro, SS, Detroit: The Tigers aren’t sure if Castro, 23, will come up short, but they’re confident he can hit. He hit .349 in 140 appearances last season, and this year will test his versatility for a potential transition, as well as his ability to maintain a reasonable semblance of production during a season where he is positioned in the Greene-Torkelson core.

Jarren Duran, CFO, Boston: Durand’s athletic ability was never in question. It’s just a matter of whether he can hit at a higher level. His swing has been there all spring, and if Franchy Cordero doesn’t play right field, Alex Verdugo could return to the corner where he played last season and open up the middle if the Red Sox farm that slowly builds excellent depth pays off.

Vander Franco, SS, Tampa Bay: Baseball’s top prospect left Major League camp with a titanic home run on his resume and a clear goal of playing in the big leagues this season. If Franco does in Double-A or Triple-A what he did in both Class A’s in 2019, the Rays can’t turn him away. Especially when he excels at second and third base, as if he can handle any other challenge thrown at him.

Fan cover

It’s true that I’m not a fan of a particular team, but that doesn’t have to detract from the baseball experience. There are many other things that are fun to watch. That’s what I’d like to see in 2021.

Bobby Witt Jr. starts the season in the big leagues: No one has impressed more this spring than Witt, the Royals’ 20-year-old shortstop who was picked second in 2019. The son of longtime pitcher Bobby Witt was the first choice of evaluators asked which player impressed them the most this spring. Despite his minor league experience, which consists of 37 games in rookie ball, Witt, the evaluators agreed, is now absolutely ready to play in the big leagues. It’s not an easy decision for the Royals. You don’t want to rush a future star, especially in a year where promotion is expected, but not necessarily in the playoffs.

There are useful considerations, but remember that general manager Dayton Moore tends to make fun of such things – and that’s exactly what he did last year when he rostered his best pitching prospect, Brady Singer, on opening day. Would he dare do the same to Witt, especially with a shortstop full of Adalberto Mondesi, who might force Witt to move to second base, where the Royals would love to have Nicky Lopez’s glove? A better move would be to start him in Double-A and let Witt move on to the big leagues, but that’s not fun. If he wants to hit a 484-foot home run, he’ll have to do it at Kaufman Stadium.

Shohei Ohtani throws a punch: I’m not entirely sure what Ohtani will be like as a pitcher, but I’m pretty sure his bat will be elite – and with a lineup that already includes Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, that’s a terrifying proposition.

Jacob deGrom throws: Cy Young in 2018. Cy Young in 2019. Even better than those two years in 2020. DeGrom catapults himself into rare territory – and given that the quality of his pitches only seems to be improving, perhaps it’s best to sit back, watch and enjoy.

Ki’Bryan Hayes is the setter: The 24-year-old rookie from last season stole NL Rookie of the Year honors in less than 100 plate appearances, setting up WAR-caliber Mike Trout and impressing with a bat as good as his glove. This year, the Pirates have a chance to be a terror of sorts. For Hayes’ sake, a man must be completely different from the historical man.

Fernando Tatis Jr. threw the bat: No explanation is necessary.

Fieldwork by Jose Iglesias : The 31-year-old magician has been with the Angels all spring. He makes the impossible seem ordinary. Better yet, he also figured out how to hit.

Tim Hill on the side hatch: It’s not enough to have Drew Pomeranz and San Diego’s Matt Strahm on the left side. Hill, 31, whose funky delivery from the sidelines has been key to his success, now pitches with a few extra miles per hour of speed. He was already hard to catch due to his low spin and heavy movements. Now it’s a light punishment in a boulevard full of them.

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Pablo Lopez throws a spinning back kick : Most caterpillars have some sort of horizontal crack – or slope, as it is commonly called. Throwing a slider with gyroscopic rotation – think of a baseball spinning like a ball or a well-thrown football – gives it a different action, almost an up-and-down break. He looks a bit like Nick Anderson and Luke Jackson’s slider and pretends to be a hard curveball….. And for Lopez, the Marlins, adding him to an already successful team is almost unfair.

I play Trey Mancini: He is cancer free after being diagnosed with stage 3 last year. Now comes a reward no less deserved than any other: the chance to do what he loves.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is fine: Guerrero, who just turned 22 on Tuesday, has finally come into form this winter and it looks like he can put up the best baseball count he had before coming to Toronto two years ago. It’s not that Guerrero was bad – he hit .269/.336/.442, nearly 10% better than league average – but rather that he wasn’t good. With this Blue Jays team, in this Blue Jays lineup, the time has come for him to put on top performances that seem almost destined.

Swami Hat

After all, this time of year is full of crystal balls. Here, with a nod to Chris Berman, are 10 bold predictions.

Juan Soto will win the Triple Crown: The last winner of the NL Triple Crown was St. Louis. Louis Ducky Medwick in 1937. Soto won the batting title in 2020, finishing second in home runs hit and fourth in RBIs hit. At 22, he would have been the youngest player of all time.

Shane McClanahan will help the Rays stay in the playoff hunt: McClanahan, 31st in 2018, talked about spring training. His fastball is up to 102 mph – from the left side, no less – and he added a 91 mph hard slider this winter. It’s unlikely he’ll start the year in Tampa Bay’s rotation, but he could be an integral part of the Rays’ plans later in the season.

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Cody Hoyer will be the White Sox’s best reliever: And that means something. The White Sox spent $54 million on Liam Hendrix this winter and already have a parade of performers: Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, Matt Foster, Jace Frye, Jimmy Cordero and two other triple-digit talents, left-hander Garrett Hook and right-hander Michael Kopech. This year’s complete package: a 98 fastball, a slider to bury right-handers, and a changeup to steer lefties.

Tyler Maile will be the best pitcher on the Reds team: And that’s no mean feat, considering he’s on a team with Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. If Mahle can cut down on his free runs, he’ll be elite. One of the evaluators who saw him recently said Mahles’ fastball also plays with speed.

Alec Bohm will be the Phillies’ best hitter: With Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Didi Gregorius, Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins in Philadelphia’s lineup, the 24-year-old third baseman has plenty of company. But his debut went no better, and after hitting .338 with 160 strikeouts last year, he’s ready to use his long leverage and power as well.

Drew Rasmussen will allow the Brewers to trade one of their aces: Rasmussen, who survived two Tommy Johns, was rated highly by an evaluator who saw him. The Brewers’ bullpen is already full of Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Brent Suter, Freddy Peralta and Justin Topa. Having Rasmussen with a 98 fastball and three other pitches is not fair.

Shelby Miller will break the Cubs’ rotation: Since 2015, Miller has pitched 183 innings. He has given up on the 2020 season. So his performance in Chicago this spring – seven innings, one earned run, eight strikeouts – was a pleasant surprise. Miller could also end up in Chicago’s bullpen, but if each team wants to have at least seven serviceable starters in case of injury, Miller will end up in the first round sooner rather than later.

Nick Pivetta will finally break through: For years, teams have been excited about the potential of the 6-foot-3 right-hander. The 28-year-old joined Connor Seabold in Boston in 2020 for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, neither of whom stayed in Philadelphia. Pivetta’s performance puts him in good position for a spot in the Red Sox rotation.

Johnny Cueto will become a man again: Cueto’s return after his Tommy John surgery has been a bit bumpy, but his speed is back and his repertoire has always included a healthy dose of the old man’s game. Cueto, 35, is on the final season of his six-year, $130 million contract with San Francisco, and he has pitched well this season. There are few better places to throw than Oracle Park.

No one is going to throw 200 innings in their first full season: The only time in baseball history that no one went 200 innings was last year. Only twice did the league leader fail to reach the goal: Fernando Valenzuela with 192.1 in 1981 and Chuck Finley with 183.1 in 1994. Both were shortened seasons, of course. The desire of teams not to overload their arms with big innings after last season will have an intriguing effect – and one consequence will be that even workaholics like Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole will do less than usual.

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