Tuesday, September 26, 2023

21 things I really want to see during the 2021 MLB season

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Baseball is back, and almost back to normal. 

This season won’t be a COVID-mandated 60-game dash to October. There won’t be cardboard cutouts substituting for fans, and there won’t be only piped-in cheers during big moments. No, this will be the closest thing to business as usual since the 2019 season — and it only looks to feel more normal as the season goes along.

But what will the season hold? What major storylines will emerge? It’s a long way to October, so the possibilities feel almost endless. But I do have a few specific asks. Here are 21 things I want to see during the 2021 MLB season:

MORE: Opening Day schedule for all 30 MLB teams

1. I want to see the Padres give the Dodgers a real challenge. The Padres are the bandwagon darlings of MLB, and with good reason: So much talent, young and veteran, and an energy and swagger that’s been missing from baseball for a long time. In some ways, the Padres are talked about more than the Dodgers, the reigning World Series champs and their biggest stumbling block to deep October postseason. So this season, I want the Padres to really give the Dodgers a run. I’m not convinced that San Diego won’t end up with a division title. But even if that doesn’t happen, it should be an exciting race, especially head-to-head.

2. I want to see a player emerge as baseball’s newest cult hero. One of the best things about baseball is its ability to produce out-of-nowhere star players. Or, at least, a player who becomes a fun storyline for a short to medium stretch during a season. Think Randy Arozarena in last year’s postseason, or Whit Merrifield when he had his 31-game hitting streak from 2018 to 2019. Sometimes it’s a major unexpected storyline, such as when Pete Alonso hit 53 homers as a rookie in 2019. These guys don’t appear every year, but that’s part of the fun — the waiting, the wondering.

3. I want to see Mike Trout in the postseason. Every baseball fan wants this, and we’ve wanted it for a long time. In his already Hall of Fame career, Trout — still regarded by most as the best player in baseball — has played in just three postseason games, all in the 2012 ALDS. The Angels, in a perpetual state of low-end mediocrity, have wasted most of his prime, as the team hasn’t even sniffed postseason contention since 2015. Will that change this season? Some preseason projections say they’ll be in a good position. Don’t screw this up, Angels.

4. I want to see Ronald Acuna Jr. have a 40/40 season. Acuna came so close to this milestone in 2019 before a mild slump late in the season limited his chances to swipe bases (he finished with a league-leading 37 stolen bases to go with 41 homers). But all the ingredients are still there for Acuna to pull this off, perhaps even by mid-September. 

5. I want to see the universal DH. I know it’s not happening, but I still want to see it. Nobody wants to watch pitchers hit. If fact, I’d go so far as to say that if MLB wants to attract new fans, it cannot be devoted to unexciting, automatic outs in the lineup. Not to mention the prospect of pitcher injuries related to swinging the bat, running the bases or getting hit by a pitch.

6. I want to see stadiums full of fans by July. With vaccinations ramping up across the country, and with data showing the benefits of the vaccines as they relate to the spread of COVID, it’s looking more and more like things will feel very close to normal at some point during the summer. Most teams will stay conservative early in the season as far as attendance limits, but most also plan to review those guidelines and adjust them as warranted. Baring a drastic surge in COVID cases or something else unforeseen, it wouldn’t surprise me at all for most teams to be near or at full capacity by mid-season. There will likely still be some COVID protocols in place, but even a masked-up sellout crowd is better than no sellout crowd. Related …

7. I want to see normal All-Star Week festivities. The Braves have already said that they plan to be at full capacity for the All-Star Game, which is a positive sign. A few months ago, I had visions of a Home Run Derby in front of cardboard cut-outs, or perhaps a few thousand fans, or perhaps just a scaled-down version of the usual All-Star Game activities. It was a less-than-exciting though. But it doesn’t appear that will be the case, which is a pleasant surprise. We’re still a few months away from July, obviously, but things look good at the moment. Speaking of All-Stars …

8. I want to see Juan Soto get even better. He’s already great. He’s basically a 10, but I want to see him turned up to 11. Some even legitimately believe that he’s the next Ted Williams. Whether he’s the next Williams or just the first Juan Soto, he’s an incredibly talented player who’s fast becoming a top draw in baseball. His lefty power swing looks so effortless, seemingly just a flick of the wrist that sends balls 400-plus feet. And he’s still just 22, so he’s probably not even in his prime yet. Speaking of guys still not in their prime …

9. I want to see Fernando Tatis Jr. get even better. This guy is just fun to watch. He’s got talent, he’s got swagger, he doesn’t care about silly unwritten rules and, with his 14-year mega-contract, he’s very likely going to be a face of baseball for a long time. Still, he’s yet to play a full “normal” season thanks to injury (2019) and the pandemic (2020). But he’s offered countless flashes of what we can expect long-term, with his .956 career OPS being perhaps the greatest indicator. He’s another guy who baseball fans should make an effort to enjoy. Speaking of players we enjoy …

10. I want to see Shohei Ohtani stay healthy and wow us. There were times during the 2018 season when Ohtani’s performance just boggled the mind — a modern player able to throw triple-digit fastballs and nasty breaking stuff, but also able to hit 400-foot bombs as a DH. A true two-way phenomenon whose existence could potentially change the way players are developed. But then arm injuries interrupted that 2018 AL Rookie of the Year season and limited his mound time in 2019, too. And then he was just bad in 2020 on both ends (minus 0.5 WAR combined). He looked strong in pitching outings this spring, though he exited his last start with a blister, and he was a monster with the bat (five homers, 1.701 OPS). Who knows whether the two-way thing will continue for the long-haul, but he’s giving it another go this season with no restrictions to start the season. I look forward to it. Sticking with the Angels …

11. I want to see Albert Pujols go out with a bang of some sort. Pujols is, by all accounts, about to begin his final season. He’s far removed from his prime, and he’s barely a replacement-level MLB player at this point — his past three WAR totals: 0.8, 0.5, minus 0.1 — but he can still get into one every now and then and hit the ball a long way. We shouldn’t expect even an All-Star level season from him in 2021, but it would be nice to see him have a decent final bow. Baseball Reference projects him to club 18 homers, which would be plenty solid. That would put him at 680 for this career, which would keep him at fourth all time. The guy’s a first ballot Hall of Famer, so we should enjoy every at-bat we get to see this season. On the other end of the career spectrum …

12. I want to see Cristian Pache become a star. After a brief but memorable showing in the postseason last year, Pache appears to have earned the full-time center field job for the Braves. Touted as the second coming of Andruw Jones — and even wearing Jones’ No. 25 — Pache is an elite defender who can change the game with his range and his arm. His bat is the only question right now, but that should come around sooner than later. Even with the expected growing pains, Pache will be fun to watch and could become one of the new emerging stars in the National League. Speaking of emerging stars …

13. I want to see the most hyped rookies live up to the hype. We’re in the middle of a golden age of young MLB talent, and that pool looks to get deeper in 2021. There are the aforementioned Pache and Arozarena, plus guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes in Pittsburgh, Andrew Vaughn in Chicago and Ryan Mountcastle in Baltimore, all of whom gave us glimpses of the future during the 60-game 2020 season. But that’s just the start. There are a slew of other names who could get serious 2021 Rookie of the Year consideration, which only adds to the intrigue the season will offer.

MORE: Five reasons we’re very excited for Opening Day

14. I want to see a blockbuster midseason trade. I’m talking one that makes us say, “Holy crap. This changes everything.” The trade deadline is always fun, in part because everyone’s waiting for a huge deal to drop. But it doesn’t always happen, which often causes deadline day to pass with a whimper and a sigh. But maybe this year we’ll get that true “WOW” move. I don’t have any candidates or suggestions, just hope.

15. I want to see progress made toward a new CBA. A work stoppage is pretty much expected after the CBA expires in December, but maybe it won’t happen. Maybe both sides will actually try their best to avoid the nastiness and begin discussions during the season to find common ground and get a deal done. It would certainly be a nice chance of pace. Perhaps the chance of this happening is slim, but I’m choosing to be optimistic. Along those lines …

16. I want to see a plan for a better expanded postseason. As is, the normal 10-team format appears to be in place for this season, but discussions about an expanded format will be ongoing.I’m not opposed to an expanded postseason. I just want a better one. The 16-team format of 2020 was too much. The normal 10-team format is probably too few. So what’s the best number? Whether including 12 or 14 teams, or even some odd number, any expanded playoff format needs a way to reward division winners during the wild card round — perhaps with some sort of bye or maybe only requiring them to win one game out of three. Related …

17. I want to see a team surprise us. This is pretty much an evergreen wish for me. Baseball is always more enjoyable when good surprises emerge. The 2020 Marlins were a good example of this — expected to be terrible, but ended up being pretty good. I also think back to 1989, when the Orioles, after losing 107 games in 1988, came within two games of winning the AL East. Or in 1991, when both the Braves and Twins went from worst to first. Unexpected thrills are always welcome.

18. I want to see an MVP race that’s so close, we don’t have a good idea of who might win until the final weekend. This could go any number of ways in either league: For argument’s sake, let’s say Tatis, Soto and Acuna take turns leading the league in various categories all season. Let’s say their teams are in the race from wire to wire. Wouldn’t it be great to get to September and have every at-bat by each one of those guys be must-see TV (I mean, even more than usual)? Maybe there’s a fourth player involved, someone we’re not expecting right now. That added bit of drama in the final days of September would be delicious. Speaking of mystery players …

19. I want to see the Mets be a major factor in the NL playoff hunt. At least on paper, and in the minds of hope-starved New York baseball fans, the Mets don’t appear to be the Mets any longer. New owner Steve Cohen has pledged to build a winner, and he’s taking those steps — the trade for superstar Francisco Lindor the biggest step so far. So the Mets should be a factor this year, which is good for baseball. Baseball is better when the Mets are good. The NL East, especially, is better when the Mets are good. The old Braves-Mets rivalry is only interesting when both teams are good. Baring injuries — especially the weird kind that have bitten the Mets in recent years — the Mets should be in the race the whole season, and that’s good.

20. I want to see all 162 games. After a 60-game season in 2020, a lot of people came to believe that the MLB season could stand to be shortened, perhaps to 150 or so games. I was one of them. But now, with Opening Day here, I’m back on Team 162. Seriously, Team 162 forever. I love the constant that baseball provides nearly every day for six months. It’s always there, and that’s part of its charm. Maybe I’ll feel differently come the dog days of August, but right now I like the idea of baseball being there every day.

21. I want a rowdy-crowd, crazy October. I tend to be an optimist about most things, and I’ve tried to remain optimistic about COVID from the beginning. That’s why, given the increasing vaccination rate and all we’re learning about the spread of the virus among those who’ve been vaccinated, I’m very optimistic that by October things will feel very different than they do now. I’m no medical expert, but I’m hopeful that enough persuasive data will be out there by the postseason to allow most fans to feel comfortable cheering and “fan-ing” the way we used to: having fun, being loud, and with no fear of getting seriously ill or making others seriously ill. That will be the most normal we’ve felt in a long time.


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