After a 60-game season in 2020, MLB is set to begin a complete 162-game schedule on Thursday with a full slate of 15 matchups, starting in New York with the Yankees hosting the Blue Jays (1:05 ET, ESPN).
Can the Los Angeles Dodgers repeat, or will they be challenged by the upstart San Diego Padres in their own division? Will the Yankees be the class of the American League, or can the Chicago White Sox take the next step and contend? Can the New York Mets compete with the Atlanta Braves in the competitive National League East?
From among our columnists, writers, researchers, editors and TV commentators, we polled 37 of ESPN’s leading baseball experts to see what they expect, asking them about who’s going to win their respective divisions, leagues and the World Series, and who will walk away with individual awards.
Our pick: Yankees (30 votes)
Who else got votes? Blue Jays (4), Rays (3)
Why did you pick the Yankees?
The Yankees remain one of the most stacked teams in baseball, but much of their success will again be dependent on the health of guys like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. I’m really curious to see how Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon fit into the rotation mix, especially with the departure of Masahiro Tanaka. Both Kluber and Taillon come with high talent pedigrees and could prove to be some of Brian Cashman’s most valuable pickups heading into the 2021 season. While the Yankees certainly face formidable competition from the Rays, the upstart Blue Jays and potentially the Red Sox, I think their top-tier talent will win out. — Joon Lee
Our pick: White Sox (28)
Who else got votes? Twins (9)
Why did you pick the Twins?
The Twins won the division the past two years and are one of the best-run teams in baseball. The White Sox have a higher upside and are more exciting, but I’ll lean toward track record, efficiency and more prospect capital for upgrades, though it should be very close. — Kiley McDaniel
Our pick: Astros (18)
Who else got votes: Angels (10), A’s (9)
Why did you pick the Angels?
Look, I’m as surprised by this pick as you are. I was not necessarily impressed by the Angels’ moves to bolster their pitching staff this offseason. But then I watched Shohei Ohtani navigate a two-way role and Justin Upton begin to resemble his old self again this spring, and I began to feel as if the Angels were owed some of the good fortune that has eluded them over this last half-decade. Simply put: This is not a good division. I think the Angels will be in the thick of it in July, at which point they’ll be aggressive enough to add the pieces to finally get Mike Trout back into the playoffs. — Alden Gonzalez
AL wild cards
Votes: Twins (21), Blue Jays (16), Rays (9), A’s (8), Yankees (7), Angels (5), White Sox (5), Royals (2), Astros (1)
Why did you pick the Angels and White Sox for the AL wild card?
It’s hard to believe, but in Mike Trout’s nine full seasons with the Angels, they’ve finished over .500 just three times (last in 2015) and made the playoffs just once (in 2014). There are legitimate concerns about the lack of a No. 1-type starter in the rotation and the bullpen depth. But they have two superstars in Trout and Anthony Rendon and maybe three if Ohtani contributes on the mound. The AL West looks weaker at the top and, well, the Angels are simply due to get a few breaks. As for the White Sox, many are picking them to still win the division, even without Eloy Jimenez, and I still like the top of the lineup, the top three in the rotation, the bullpen depth and believe the AL East beats up on each other, allowing the two wild cards to come from the softer West and Central divisions. — David Schoenfield
Our pick: Braves (25)
Who else got votes? Mets (7), Nationals (3), Phillies (2)
Karl Ravech previews what to expect this season from the loaded NL East.
Why did you pick the Braves?
With the possible exception of position player depth, there isn’t a department in which Atlanta ranks behind any of the other teams of a very good division. That list of advantages includes traits that give them a high floor, like speed and defense, that should help them withstand regressions in the homer category or in the bullpen, should they occur. It’s just a very complete team with a consistent track record of high-level winning. — Bradford Doolittle
Our pick: Cardinals (23)
Who else got votes? Brewers (12), Cubs (1), Reds (1)
Why did you pick the Cardinals?
It’s really difficult for me to parse between the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals in that division. In the end, it might ultimately come down to health. But I think Nolan Arenado is a difference-maker offensively, defensively and in the clubhouse. And I still think Jack Flaherty is capable of establishing himself among the game’s greatest pitchers, not to mention the best in the NL Central. Those two might make the difference. — Gonzalez
Our pick: Dodgers (34)
Who else got votes? Padres (3)
Why did you pick the Padres over the Dodgers?
Repeating is tough to do, especially for as long as the Dodgers have dominated the division, and the Padres can match the champions across the board, with their powerful lineup and deep pitching staff. Nobody is saying the Dodgers will struggle, but they know they can coast a bit for six months while the Padres want to prove a point during the regular season. — Eric Karabell
NL wild cards
Votes: Padres (33), Mets (23), Braves (9), Nationals (3), Dodgers (3), Phillies (1), Giants (1), Cardinals (1), Brewers (1)
Why do you think the Padres are such a huge favorite to earn a wild-card spot?
Well, this isn’t exactly going on out on a limb — in fact, I predict a franchise-record 100 wins for the Padres. Unfortunately, that will only be good enough for second place behind the Dodgers. And the Padres’ reward for 100 wins may be deGrom or Max Scherzer or Aaron Nola in the wild-card game. Congrats. (Note to MLB: Can we please dump the one-game wild card?) — Schoenfield
AL and NL champions
Our pick: Yankees (19)
Who else got votes: White Sox (10), Twins (4), Angels (2), Rays (1), Astros (1)
Why did you pick the Twins as AL champs?
Only the Dodgers have more wins than the Twins the past two regular seasons, so this is hardly a surprise pick. The lineup is loaded yet again, led by sleeper MVP pick Nelson Cruz, the defense was upgraded with Andrelton Simmons, and both the rotation and bullpen are better than prior seasons. This team is finally ready for playoff success. — Karabell
Our pick: Dodgers (20)
Who else got votes? Braves (7), Padres (6), Mets (2), Cardinals (2)
Why did you pick the Cardinals as NL champs?
Baseball has been too chalky in October lately, so it’s time for a lower-seeded playoff team to pull off some upsets. Grueling regular-season battles in the NL East and West will leave their mark on the teams that come out of those divisions while the Cardinals — with the addition of Arenado — will quietly find their way back to the Fall Classic. — Jesse Rogers
World Series champion
Our pick: Dodgers (17)
Who else got votes? Padres (6), Braves (6), Yankees (5), Mets (2), Cardinals (1)
Why did you pick the Dodgers?
Really, how could you favor anyone else? The question isn’t so much whether L.A. is the favorite to win it all again, but whether you’d take the Dodgers or the field. There are no sure things in baseball but this is a dominant organization that manages to improve with each iteration of itself. — Doolittle
Not only will the Dodgers become the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back championships, but they will threaten the regular-season benchmarks of the ’98 Yankees — who won 114 — and the ’01 Mariners, who won 116. The starting rotation depth is extraordinary and they will feast on what should be a very polarized National League, which will have a lot of really bad teams after the midseason sell-offs. — Buster Olney
Yeah. It’s boring. It’s chalky. I don’t care. The Dodgers are the best team by a fairly reasonable margin, and the best team is the right pick for World Series champion (for more picks from Jeff Passan, check out his 20 Questions ahead of the season). — Jeff Passan
Why did you pick the Yankees?
It’s their turn. The Yankees have built a powerhouse AL team, but various injuries and other factors have derailed their chances in recent years. Yes, the pesky Rays are one of those factors but their loss of Blake Snell and the comeback season for Corey Kluber in New York will be difference-makers this year. As for October, who’s better and more experienced in the AL? — Rogers
Why did you pick the Padres?
At a time when most teams seem to be trying to cut payroll, San Diego went out and added a lot of top-tier talent this offseason, highlighted by Blake Snell and Yu Darvish. I think the Dodgers are going to top the Padres in the division during the regular season, but the nature of the postseason often creates chaos. While the Dodgers are more talented on paper, this young Padres team has an exciting mix of rising stars and veterans with formidable playoff experience and can make another leap after reaching the postseason in 2020. — Lee
Why did you pick the Mets?
I’ll preface this by pointing out that last year I had Dodgers over the Rays in six in spring training, Dodgers over Rays in six in July, and Dodgers over Rays in six at the start of the postseason. So listen up, my friends, the Mets are going all the way. The primary reason: This will be the Year of Jacob deGrom. He will dominate in the regular season. He will dominate in the playoffs. He will dominate in the World Series. The Mets will score runs with that offense, they get Noah Syndergaard back in the second half, they have one of the best players in the game in Francisco Lindor and they have the resources to add at the trade deadline. Picking the Dodgers? Boring! Picking the Mets? Exciting! — Schoenfield
Most Valuable Player
American League: Mike Trout (22 votes)
Jeff Passan reacts to the top four spots on the MLB top 25 best players list going into the 2021 season.
Why did you pick Trout?
I know it’s boring to say, “Because he’s the best player in baseball and has been for a while,” but it’s still the truth. I don’t love picking chalk on all of my preseason predictions, but I’m fine doing this until he’s not the best player, which very well could be the case by the end of this season. Predicting when the Angels make the playoffs again? I feel fine betting against that until it happens. — McDaniel
Why Anderson over some of the others?
Tim Anderson. I expect the White Sox to be this year’s version of the Padres, an incredibly young and exciting team that makes the leap into serious World Series contender. For all of the exciting talent on this team, including Lucas Giolito and Luis Robert, Anderson represents the heart and soul of the fun-loving South Side squad. The 27-year-old native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has been slowly rising up the ranks of the best players in the sport, hitting .322/.357/.529 with 10 homers in 49 games in 2020, and I think his ascent continues in 2021. New White Sox skipper Tony La Russa recently compared Anderson’s calm on the field to that of Stan Musial, high praise from a baseball lifer. — Lee
National League: Juan Soto (14)
Why Acuna Jr. to win NL MVP?
Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto will be appointment television all year. And ultimately Acuna — the elder statesman at 23 years old — will be the one who separates himself, if only slightly. Over the past three years, only seven National League position players have accumulated more FanGraphs wins above replacement. Last year, only five of them had a higher weighted runs created plus. This year, Acuna will take another big leap forward on a Braves team that might be the sport’s best outside of the Dodgers. –– Gonzalez
Why deGrom for MVP?
With apologies to Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber and a couple of others, he’s the best pitcher in the game — the perfect modern starter, mixing high-octane velocity (he hit 102 in spring training) with excellent command of four pitches. Batters have hit .200/.249/.303 off him the past three seasons, and his strikeout rate was higher than ever in 2020. The Mets will finally give him the run support that he’s missed in recent seasons, so I see 20 wins with an ERA around 2.00. Voters have shown in the past decade that they will vote for a pitcher for MVP (Justin Verlander in 2011, Clayton Kershaw in 2014). If the Mets win the division, that will help his case. — Schoenfield
Cy Young Award
American League: Gerrit Cole (22)
Why Giolito for AL Cy?
Why not Giolito? He’s so comfortable in his own skin, has an offense that will let him relax and just pitch and has dominant stuff. Remember the only no-hitter in the AL last year? That was Giolito. He’s at the point in his career where almost nothing fazes him. You need that quality to stay great over 32 starts. — Rogers
National League: Jacob deGrom (21)
Why Darvish for NL Cy?
Darvish was the Cy Young runner-up to new Dodger Trevor Bauer and ahead of deGrom last season, but the voting could have gone his way. Darvish has made a ridiculous transformation with his control since the 2019 All-Star break, issuing a mere 21 walks (in 25 starts!) versus 211 strikeouts, and you know the Padres will be scoring plenty of runs. –– Karabell
Rookie of the Year
American League: Randy Arozarena (18)
Why Arozarena for Rookie of the Year?
Rookie of the Year races are always a tough call because you have the complex issue of opportunity meshing with player readiness. Just because a player flashes potential that lands him high up on the prospect lists doesn’t mean he’s ready to produce at a winning level right off the bat. Arozarena is the rarest of rookies in that we’ve already seen him excel at the highest level of the game when the stakes are at their highest. — Doolittle
National League: Ke’Bryan Hayes (15)
Why Hayes for Rookie of the Year?
Playing time is always a huge factor for predicting ROY, and we know Hayes will be starting from day one. Beyond that, he can play. He came through the minors with a good glove reputation, and scouts are already raving about his defense. His September numbers in 2020 (.376/.442/.682) were driven by an unsustainable BABIP, but the power was the big surprise (five home runs and 14 extra-base hits in just 85 at-bats). His combination of high exit velocity and contact ability means he has a chance to hit .300. — Schoenfield