This season has not started in ideal fashion for the majority of last year’s 16-team playoff field. While the Dodgers, Brewers and Athletics boast terrific records at roughly the 20-game mark, everybody else who qualified for the postseason in 2020 is, at best, hovering around .500. Eight of those clubs currently have more losses than wins (we’ll get to them in a bit).
With a 162-game schedule instead of a 60-game slate, slumping teams have far more time to rebound from slow starts this season. On the other hand, only 10 clubs will make the playoffs in 2021, so teams can ill afford to dig early holes for themselves.
Twins (2020 record: 36-24; 2021 record: 6-11):
- The Twins are coming off an 0-4, COVID-interrupted road trip that came to a horrific end with a 13-12 loss Wednesday, when sloppy defense led to an extra-innings collapse against the A’s. Reliever Alex Colome – the Twins’ keynote bullpen acquisition of the offseason – took the loss, continuing a rough start to the year for him. Meanwhile, ace Kenta Maeda turned in his worst performance of the season (seven earned runs in three innings) and has only gotten past the 4 1/3-frame mark in one of his four starts. The Twins will likely need the Maeda of old back if they’re going to push for a third straight AL Central title, though Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda have helped pick up the slack in their rotation so far. Meanwhile, the Twins’ offense hasn’t been a juggernaut (Josh Donaldson, Max Kepler and Andrelton Simmons have missed time with health issues), but Byron Buxton may be in the early stages of a breakthrough year at the plate and Nelson Cruz isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
Yankees (2020 record: 33-27; 2021 record: 6-11):
- The Yankees were pegged as serious World Series contenders entering the season, but they have looked like bottom-feeders so far. What was supposed to be a high-powered offense has totaled the AL’s fewest runs and put up its second-worst wRC+, owing in part to the absence of injured 2020 home run king Luke Voit. The Yankees’ pitching has been much better than their hitting, but that’s largely thanks to the work of their bullpen – which hasn’t had many leads to protect. Gerrit Cole and, to a much lesser extent, Jordan Montgomery have carried their rotation, while offseason acquisitions Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon haven’t been all that effective coming off injuries, and Domingo German has struggled mightily in his return from a domestic violence suspension. The Yankees should get former ace Luis Severino back from Tommy John surgery during the summer, but there’s no telling how he’ll perform in the wake of two straight injury-wrecked seasons.
Blue Jays (2020 record: 32-28; 2021 record: 8-10):
- The Jays have dealt with a rash of injuries to their pitching staff, including in their rotation – an area that could be a significant question mark even if everyone’s healthy. They have also had to go without their main offseason acquisition, center fielder George Springer, though he shouldn’t be far off from returning from a quad strain. To the Jays’ credit, they’ve essentially tread water thus far, and their plus-10 run differential does rank third in the AL.
Astros (2020 record: 29-31; 2021 record: 7-10):
- The Astros sneaked into the playoffs last year with a sub-.500 record, though they still came within a game of reaching the World Series for the third time in four seasons. However, the team then got weaker in the offseason with the loss of Springer, whom it didn’t adequately replace, and was dealt another blow when starter Framber Valdez suffered a serious finger injury at the beginning of the spring. The Astros reacted by signing veteran Jake Odorizzi, who has delivered miserable results through his first two starts. Aside from Zack Greinke and Luis Garcia, Astros starters have not gotten the job done, while their bullpen has also been a letdown in the early going. Fortunately, even without Springer, a healthy version of Houston’s offense still brings plenty of firepower to the table.
Which of the above four AL teams do you believe has the best chance to rebound and make the playoffs? (Poll link for app users)
Braves (2020 record: 35-25; 2021 record: 8-10)
- The back-to-back-to-back NL East champions have fallen behind in April, thanks in part to injuries to starters Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Drew Smyly. The Braves overcame a series of health problems in their staff last year to earn a trip to the NLCS, of course, but an elite offense led the way then. Their attack has been above average again this year, though Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman are their only regulars who have offered star-caliber production. Conversely, Marcell Ozuna, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Travis d’Arnaud have gotten off to brutal starts at the plate.
Cubs (2020 record: 34-26; 2021 record: 8-9)
- The most significant move the Cubs executed over the winter was one that weakened them, at least in the short term. The team said goodbye to Yu Darvish, sending the 2020 NL Cy Young finalist to San Diego for fellow righty Zach Davies and a few prospects. Cutting costs was part of the motivation for that trade and in general when it came to the Cubs’ offseason; as a result, many were bearish on their chances heading into 2021. So far, the preseason pessimism has been warranted. The Cubs have not hit much, evidenced by bottom four National League rankings in runs and wRC+, and their pitching staff owns the NL’s third-highest ERA. Of their starters, only Jake Arrieta and Alec Mills have managed to post an ERA south of 5.00 so far. Surprisingly, the club’s best pitcher has been closer Craig Kimbrel, who’s back in dominant form after he was largely written off before the season.
Cardinals (2020 record: 30-28; 2021 record: 8-10):
- The Cardinals pulled off one of the ultimate headline-grabbing moves of the offseason in acquiring star third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Rockies. The hope then was that Arenado would lift an offense that finished 2020 with a less-than-stellar wRC+ of 93. Arenado has indeed notched solid production so far, yet the Cardinals’ wRC+ sits at an almost identical 94 through 18 games. Meantime, the bottom-line results of the Cardinals’ starters have been a far bigger problem, as their rotation – which is missing the injured Miles Mikolas – has recorded the NL’s fifth-worst ERA.
Marlins (2020 record: 31-29; 2021 record: 8-9):
- As an unexpected playoff entrant a year ago, the Marlins entered this season having to prove themselves all over again. While their record isn’t impressive, the Marlins have outscored their opposition by four runs, logged the NL’s fourth-highest wRC+, and gotten a strong effort from a rotation missing injured righties Sixto Sanchez and Elieser Hernandez. Their starters have handed off to a bullpen that has been a mixed bag – Dylan Floro, Yimi Garcia, John Curtiss, Ross Detwiler and Adam Cimber have kept hitters at bay, but offenses have had their way with Zach Pop, Anthony Bass, Richard Bleier and Paul Campbell.
Which of the above four NL teams do you believe has the best chance to rebound and make the playoffs? (Poll link for app users)