After a long winter, the crack of the bat and pop of the glove have finally returned. All Major League Baseball players have reported to spring training camps, and baseball fans can once again feel the buzz of another season just around the corner. Even more exciting: The 2021 MLB season is scheduled to be a full 162 games, unlike 2020’s abbreviated 60-game season.
Spring training games––which start on Feb. 28––will offer the first taste of baseball action in four months. And after another busy offseason of trades and free agent acquisitions, everyone is eager to see which teams and players hit it out of the park (and which ones strike out). Here are five storylines that we’ll be following closely this year.
Can the Dodgers Become the First Repeat World Series Champs in Two Decades?
After seven consecutive seasons of playoff heartbreak, Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers finally broke through in 2020 and won the World Series. Can they do it again? Not since the New York Yankees won three straight between 1998 and 2000 has there been a repeat World Series winner. But if there’s a team to snap this two-decade dry spell, the 2021 Dodgers are it.
The Dodgers not only retained most of their key position players––including star shortstop Corey Seager and MVP outfielders Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger––but they also made a huge offseason upgrade by signing 2020 National League Cy Young award winner Trevor Bauer. Adding Bauer to an all-star pitching staff that already features players like Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and David Price is borderline unfair. It’s a long season and there will undoubtedly be twists and turns, but at least on paper, the Dodgers are poised to make a serious run at going back-to-back.
Will the San Diego Padres Live up to the Hype?
About 120 miles south of Dodger Stadium lies the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a Dodgers World Series win––the San Diego Padres. 2020 was a breakout year for the Friars: They finished the 60-game season with a .617 winning percentage and won their first postseason series since 1998. Beyond collecting Ws, the team, fueled by dynamic young shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr., quickly established itself as one of the most exciting clubs to watch.
This offseason, the San Diego front office doubled down on their success and put the Dodgers on notice. The team added a trio of frontline starting pitchers including Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove. Additionally, they locked up their 22-year-old star shortstop with a whopping 14-year, $340 million contract. Combine these offseason moves with a very talented roster––don’t forget about former Dodger Manny Machado––and we are set for a West Coast duel between two top teams. Buckle up.
The American League’s Wide Open Battle for Supremacy
While many baseball experts put the Dodgers and Padres at the top of the heap in the National League, the American League is a much tougher call.
Even so, the AL East once again seems like the favorite to produce a World Series contender. The New York Yankees are in a good position after adding DJ LeMahieu and Corey Kluber to their already deep roster. However, they’ll have to prevail over the analytics-based approach of the Tampa Bay Rays (the reigning AL champs) and the powerful bats of the Toronto Blue Jays, who added George Springer this offseason.
The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox in the AL Central could also make a run, along with the Houston Astros in the AL West. Losing Springer was a blow to the Astros, but they still have enough roster firepower and experience for a shot at the title.
A New Baseball
Home run counts have skyrocketed over the past few seasons and even prompted several high-profile pitchers to complain about juiced baseballs. While MLB officials would never admit that they had intentionally changed the baseball, the stats seemed to prove otherwise. After increasing home run counts each year, the most recent 162-game season (in 2019) saw the ball leave the yard 6,776 times––a new record.
This has led to a significant shift in the game. There has been sizable growth in strikeouts, walks, and home runs, and that has led to longer games with less action. To combat this home-run-or-bust approach to batting, MLB announced it would be “deadening” baseballs for the 2021 season. Teams were told this adjustment would mean a ball hit over 375 feet would fly about one to two feet shorter than before. Time will tell whether this effort will make a dent in home run counts or affect how the game is played, but it will be monitored closely as the season progresses.
The Return of the Fans
There’s no getting around it: The 2020 MLB season was awkward. Watching teams play in front of cardboard people was very strange. The silence after game-winning home runs? Even stranger. But now that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has begun, teams and fans alike are hoping for more life in ballparks across the country in 2021.
Once the regular season begins on April 1, fan attendance will be subject to local guidelines. For teams that do allow fans, they will have to sell tickets to pods of fans and keep those groups physically spread out.
As the vaccine becomes more widely available, there is hope that attendance levels will be allowed to increase. And if the 2021 MLB season concludes with some sense of normalcy, that will be a big win for the sport—and for all of society.
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