TORONTO – As it turns out, none of our bold predictions for the 2020 MLB season were quite bold enough. Who could have foreseen a pandemic-shortened 60-game season featuring next to no fans, a temporary realignment of schedules and some rule changes that may be here to stay? Only the result – a Los Angeles Dodgers win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series – was in any way predictable.
After a year like that, baseball fans can’t be quite sure what to expect next. Surely 2021 will be more typical than 2020 was, but there’s still all kinds of uncertainty as we look ahead, both on and off the field. Unsettling though that may be, it leaves room for a wide array of possibilities.
As we learned this year, no prediction is too bold. With that in mind, brace yourselves for the unexpected and count on these five predictions to come true over the course of the coming year…
1. The Chicago Cubs will finish below .500
Of all the divisions in baseball, the NL Central might be the weakest. The Pittsburgh Pirates are rebuilding, the Milwaukee Brewers have regressed and the Cincinnati Reds are paring back spending. But despite such weak competition, I expect the Chicago Cubs to take a step back as well.
Sure, they won the division in 2020 – their fifth playoff appearance in the last six years – but this team isn’t what it once was. It's not just the loss of veterans Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Kipnis, it's the fact that core players like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant took worrying steps in the wrong direction. Were it not for Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, the 2020 Cubs would have been lost.
While no one’s conceding anything publicly, there seems to be a realization within the Cubs’ front office that the time for change has arrived. Don’t expect president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer to hold onto this core for the sake of sentiment; more change is likely coming in Chicago, and it means the year ahead won’t be an easy one.
2. Ke’Bryan Hayes will hit 30 homers and win Rookie of the Year
An impressive 2020 debut suggests much more success awaits Ke'Bryan Hayes, one of the few bright spots on an otherwise awful Pirates team. The 23-year-old son of former big-leaguer Charlie Hayes hit five homers in 24 games while posting a 1.124 OPS this summer.
That was enough for a sixth-place finish in NL Rookie of the Year balloting, but he’s still eligible to win it again in 2021, and win it he will. Expect a 4.0 WAR, 30-homer season from Hayes — not that it’ll be enough to change the fortunes of the Pirates all that much.
3. Mike Trout will hit 50 homers for the first time
Over the years, Mike Trout has led the league in everything from stolen bases to RBI to runs to intentional walks to WAR. But after 10 years in the majors, he has never led the American League in home runs.
This is the year that changes. As long as teams are able to play a full season (say, 150 games per club or more), Trout will set a new career high while leading the AL with 50-plus home runs.
4. Carlos Correa will be the most coveted free agent next off-season
This year wasn't a particularly good one for Carlos Correa. He hit just five regular-season home runs with a .709 OPS. Yet by this time next year, he'll be the most coveted free agent available.
At 26, he's very much in his prime. And as he showed with six home runs and a 1.221 OPS in the playoffs, he's as good as anyone when he's healthy. Granted, health has been an issue for Correa, who has played more than 110 games in a season just once, but as long as that changes, his talent will do the rest in 2021.
5. The Dodgers and San Diego Padres will both win 100 games
Okay, it’s not all that bold to say the Dodgers will win 100 games. They’re the defending champs, and they’ve won 100-plus times in two of the last three full seasons. But since 1994, when MLB first moved to three divisions per league, only two divisions have ever featured multiple 100-win teams: the 2001 AL West (Mariners & A's) and the 2018 AL East (Red Sox & Yankees).
In 2021, the NL West will join that club, as the Padres emerge as a legit powerhouse alongside the Dodgers. San Diego has all kinds of talent and there are plenty of weak teams to beat up on in the NL, including the West’s Rockies and Diamondbacks.