It all begins today. Every team was scheduled to begin play on the first day of the MLB season — the way it should be every season — before weather forced a rainout in Boston and the Nationals-Mets opener was postponed due to COVID-19 issues.
The Los Angeles Dodgers begin their chase for history. They are trying to become the first team since the 2000 New York Yankees to win back-to-back World Series titles. Behind a power-packed starting rotation, maybe they even have a chance at the single-season record of 116 wins — their 162-game pace from 2020 equated to … 116 wins. Then they added Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.
We’re back to a normal 162-game schedule and 10-team playoff format. Winning the division and avoiding the wild-card game again becomes paramount. On the field, the biggest issue teams will face is getting their pitchers through the season as their workloads increase from 2020’s short schedule. Many in the game feel the 2021 season will be a battle of attrition. Stay healthy and you have a chance. We have new rules that remain from 2020 (like a runner starting on second base in extra innings) and old rules that are back from 2019 (pitchers hitting).
As Yankees starter Gerrit Cole said Wednesday about Opening Day: “It’s always a special day because there are a lot of different emotions. Everyone is tired of spring training, ready for Opening Day. There’s a lot of hope, there’s a lot of excitement, there’s a lot of projections, there is a lot of baseball out in front of you. You just want the gates to open. It’s an important day, but it’s the first of many.”
Things will not be fully normal, however, at least not yet. Fans are back in ballparks, although at limited capacity to begin the season (the Rangers will allow full capacity for their home opener, but then deploy socially distanced seating).
We have plenty of time to get into all that stuff. For now, let’s enjoy the first day of the season. Here’s a look at all 15 games:
Jump to a game:
Biggest storyline: The American League East favorite against the team that loaded up to make a run for the top. Two Cy Young contenders. Two powerful lineups. Yankee Stadium on Opening Day (even if it won’t be full). A great kickoff to the season.
Opening Week is here! You can watch the 2021 season begin Thursday with an ESPN Opening Day schedule packed with some of baseball’s biggest names and best teams.
1 p.m. ET: Blue Jays at Yankees
3 p.m. ET (ESPN+): Braves at Phillies
4 p.m. ET: Dodgers at Rockies
10 p.m. ET: Astros at A’s
For all the deserved concern about the durability and results of new rotation members Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, it’s worth pointing out that the Yankees’ offense is absolutely loaded — if everyone stays healthy. They led the AL in runs per game last season even though Stanton and Judge combined to play just 51 games in the 60-game season while Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez both struggled. They are without major league home run leader Luke Voit, who starts the season on the injured list after knee surgery. If any team challenges the Yankees for best offense in the AL, it might be the Blue Jays, with the additions of George Springer (who will miss the opener with an oblique strain) and Marcus Semien, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. poised for a big breakout.
Prediction: Both starters dominate and then we see how the bullpens hold up. Yankees pull it out 4-2 with two late runs.
Biggest storyline: Shane Bieber begins defense of his Cy Young Award. He has made six career starts against the Tigers and allowed no runs in three of them. On the Detroit side, manager AJ Hinch returns to the dugout after serving his 2020 suspension from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
Key number: Cleveland is 65-20 against Detroit over the past five seasons, including an 18-1 record in 2019.
After going 8-1 with 1.63 ERA and holding batters to a .167 average, the question isn’t whether Bieber can get better — that’s basically impossible — but simply whether he can perform close to that level over 32 starts and 200-plus innings. His strikeout rate has improved from 24.3% as a rookie to 30.2% to a ridiculous 41.1% in 2020. He’s my AL Cy Young pick.
Prediction: Bieber tosses seven scoreless innings. Cleveland wins 5-1.
Thursday’s Orioles-Red Sox game was postponed to Friday due to rain in Boston.
Biggest storyline: Which Christian Yelich will we see in 2021?
Key number: Yelich finished fourth in the majors in wRC+ in 2018 and second in 2019 … and then collapsed to 70th in 2020.
I love, love this pitching matchup. Kenta Maeda finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2020 and, take this for what it’s worth, probably had the best spring training of any starter in the majors. One thing that will create a comfort level for all Twins pitchers: Byron Buxton in center field and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop. If those two stay healthy, which has been an issue for both, Minnesota’s up-the-middle defense will be tremendous. Brandon Woodruff throws as hard as almost any starter in baseball and projects as a sleeper Cy Young contender.
Prediction: Maeda continues to stay hot and Buxton robs a home run and hits one as the Twins go home happy with a 2-1 victory.
Biggest storyline: The walk-year Cubs begin their final run together, This is a storyline that will hover over the team all season. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant will be free agents next winter, along with the one-year guys the Cubs brought in, such as Joc Pederson and Zach Davies.
Key number: Rizzo, Baez and Bryant hit a combined .210 in 2020.
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The Cubs will be one of the most fascinating stories of 2020, in a season that new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said will be “a little more focused toward the future than usual.” They traded Yu Darvish, and many expect some or all of the impending free agents to be dealt during the season, which leads to the potential conundrum of what the Cubs do if they’re in the thick of the National League Central race in July.
Prediction: Pederson continues his hot spring with two home runs, Rizzo and Baez each hit one and the Cubs romp 9-2.
Key number: The Phillies haven’t finished over .500 in any of the past nine seasons.
It’s hard to believe, but the Phillies now own the second-longest playoff drought in the majors, with only Seattle having a longer one. The Braves and Mets are the consensus co-favorites in the NL East, but the Phillies certainly have the talent to make a run. The key will be the bullpen, which posted a 6.92 ERA in 2020 that was the second-worst mark in MLB history.
Only the Dodgers led more games than the Phillies in 2020, but the pen went 9-14 and had 13 blown saves. Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler and hard-throwing Sam Coonrod are the key new arms along with Vince Velasquez moving from the rotation to the bullpen. The Phillies will be tested early: Their first 16 games are against the Braves (6), Mets (7) and Cardinals (3).
Prediction: It seems we have more great pitching matchups than normal even for Opening Day. This is another one. Both teams have to figure out their bullpen pecking order. Harper, who has five career Opening Day home runs, hits one and Aaron Nola goes six strong … but the bullpen blows it with the Braves rallying for a 6-5 victory.
Biggest storyline: Yu Darvish makes his Padres debut, but all eyes will be on Fernando Tatis Jr. — the owner of a shiny new 14-year, $340 million contract.
Key number: Tatis is the only player in MLB history with at least 35 home runs and 25 steals in his first 150 career games (he has 39 and 27 in 143 games). He turned 22 in January.
The Padres are the third-highest betting favorite to win the World Series — but predicted to finish second in their own division. Can they snap the Dodgers’ eight-year stranglehold on the NL West? That aspiration will depend heavily on the performances of rotation newcomers Darvish and Blake Snell, along with the continued MVP-caliber performance from Tatis and Manny Machado that we saw in 2020 and the offensive improvements from Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers.
Prediction: Tatis goes 3-for-4 with a home run and a stolen base, and Darvish fans 11 as the Padres win 6-2.
Biggest storyline: The Dodgers begin defense of their crown as Kershaw makes his ninth Opening Day start.
Key number: Including the postseason, the Dodgers outscored their opponents by an average of 2.19 runs per game in 2020. That’s the fourth-highest total in MLB history since 1903, trailing only the 1939 Yankees (2.71), 1927 Yankees (2.45) and 1936 Yankees (2.19).
How loaded are the Dodgers after adding Trevor Bauer to their rotation? David Price and Tony Gonsolin will begin the season in the bullpen. L.A.’s over/under of 104.5 wins is tied with the 1999 Yankees for the highest in the past 30 years. Those Yankees were coming off 114 wins, and while they won “only” 98 games, they did win the World Series. Maybe the Dodgers get wrecked by a bunch of injuries and don’t even beat out the Padres, although it’s hard to envision a scenario in which they don’t make the playoffs. More likely, the deepest pitching staff and best lineup in the league will carry them to a ninth straight division title — and maybe the first repeat World Series championship in 21 years.
Prediction: Clayton Kershaw allowed eight runs and nine hits in 3.1 innings in his final spring start. He struggles again, while German Marquez pitches a gem in a 5-3 Rockies win. It will be the only time all season the Dodgers are under .500.
Biggest storyline: Nolan Arenado makes his Cardinals debut.
Key number: The Reds hit .212 in 2020, the lowest team batting average since the 1910 White Sox hit .210. The Cardinals, however, actually had the lower team OPS.
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This is another must-see pitching duel between potential Cy Young contenders, but also a fascinating matchup between two clubs that leave spring training with some issues.
The Cardinals are scrambling a bit in the rotation. Dakota Hudson was already out for the season after Tommy John surgery, and now Kwang Hyun Kim (back tightness) and Miles Mikolas (shoulder soreness) won’t be ready to start the season. Carlos Martinez, whose last good year as a starter was 2017, is now in the rotation, and he wasn’t great this spring.
The Reds, desperate for a shortstop, moved third baseman Eugenio Suarez there late in spring training, plus starters Sonny Gray and Michael Lorenzen are out with what are hopefully just minor injuries.
Prediction: Luis Castillo dominates with two hits over six innings, and Suarez blasts a home run and makes three routine plays in the field. Reds go home happy with a 4-1 victory.
Biggest storyline: The battle of Florida! The Rays start defense of their AL title. The Marlins play their first official game under new general manager Kim Ng.
Key number: Randy Arozarena had a 1.022 OPS after his call-up last September and then belted 10 home runs in 20 playoff games.
After the trade of Snell and departure of Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow is one of the most important players of 2021. The Rays really need him to step up and dominate for 30 starts, not just in short flashes like we’ve seen. Likewise, Arozarena gives the Rays’ lineup a potential impact bat. They will also have to work around the loss of their best reliever, as Nick Anderson is out for at least half the season with a partially torn elbow ligament. Don’t assume the Rays will be the best team in Florida, however. The Marlins have an exciting young rotation to build around. They’re another team that will be tested early as their first four series are the Rays, Cardinals, Mets and Braves.
Prediction: Glasnow strikes out 13 and, yes, Arozarena homers in a 7-3 win for the Rays.
Biggest storyline: The underrated Brad Keller starts things off for what could be a sneaky solid rotation and sneaky playoff contender.
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If the Twins and White Sox falter, and neither team should be viewed as a playoff lock, you can see a path to success for the Royals if the young starters in the rotation improve and the projected meat of the lineup all improve from their 2020 performance. Throw in a dose of Bobby Witt Jr. at midseason and this could be your surprise team of 2021. A fast start in April will be key. Thirteen of the Royals’ first 18 games are at home, and then they go on the road to face projected last-place teams in Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Keller gets 16 ground ball outs in his six innings of work and Soler — on his way to another home run crown — drives in five runs on two homers. Royals 8, Rangers 0.
Jeff Passan breaks down how Francisco Lindor was able to secure his 10-year, $341 million extension with the Mets.
Thursday’s Mets-Nationals game was postponed due to COVID-19 issues.
Key number: 51⅔ — that’s the number of innings Ohtani pitched back in 2018, the most he has pitched in a season since 2016 in Japan.
Ohtani was the talk of spring training with his electric performance at the plate (.552, five home runs) and flashes of brilliance on the mound, leading to some MVP talk. As thrilling as it would be if Ohtani succeeds in both roles, as he did during the first two months of 2018, I’m skeptical about the pitching side of things working out. Yes, he was throwing hard in spring training but also allowed 14 runs with 10 walks in 10⅓ innings. He just hasn’t shown any consistent ability to throw strikes since his return from Tommy John surgery. If he struggles on the mound, it will be interesting to see how long Joe Maddon sticks with him.
The White Sox, meanwhile, have to work around Eloy Jimenez‘s injury, which could include playing Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Vaughn in left field.
Prediction: Ohtani goes yard, but that’s not enough to overcome Lucas Giolito’s otherwise brilliant performance. Luis Robert backs him up with a home runs, and Nick Madrigal hits three opposite-field singles. White Sox 5, Angels 1.
Biggest storyline: This time with fans! How much will the Astros hear it from Oakland fans? (The A’s will begin with 20% capacity, or about 9,400 fans.)
Key number: In 2019, the Astros led the majors in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. In 2020, they fell to 20th, 16th and 16th in those categories.
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Let’s get ready to rumble. The A’s ended the Astros’ three-year run atop the AL West with their first division title since 2013 — only to lose to the Astros in the division series. The Astros lost outfielder George Springer in free agency and then starter Framber Valdez in spring training because of a broken finger. They get slugger Yordan Alvarez back, however, after he played just two games last year. The A’s lost shortstop Marcus Semien and closer Liam Hendriks, but are looking for better offensive seasons from Matt Chapman and Matt Olson in the middle of the order. This is the first of 19 matchups of what promises to be one of the best rivalries of the season.
Biggest storyline: Jarred Kelenic, Kiley McDaniel’s No. 3 overall prospect, isn’t on the Opening Day roster for Seattle, but Taylor Trammell, No. 84, earned a job with a nice spring.
Key number: 20 — the number of years since the Mariners last made the postseason.
The Giants and Mariners are in a similar position. They’re not tanking like the Orioles or Pirates, but it will take just about everything to go right for either club to be interesting. That might be more likely in Seattle’s case because the M’s aren’t in a division with the Dodgers and Padres. Where they are not similar is where they are in the rebuilding cycle. The Mariners have some young players on the brink of becoming big-time contributors — not just Kelenic, but starter Logan Gilbert and outfielder Julio Rodriguez, with Gold Glove winners J.P. Crawford and Evan White already on the big league roster — while the Giants will once again roll out one of the oldest lineups in the league.
Prediction: The underrated Gonzales pitches like he’s in midseason form with seven good innings, and 2021 batting champ Ty France begins his season with three hits. Mariners 4, Giants 3.