9 storylines that will define the 2021 MLB season

After some serious skepticism about the timeline, MLB’s pitchers and catchers are reporting on schedule and beginning spring training in Florida and Arizona.

Following a completely restructured and condensed 2020 season, the league will try to play a mostly normal 2021 season under health and safety protocols to control COVID-19. There is still plenty of uncertainty springing from the pandemic and a tense labor situation, but a 162-game season is, for now, a go.

Let's take a look at nine plot lines to watch in baseball in 2021.

Pitcher workloads

Every season wreaks some level of havoc on pitchers’ arms. The 2020 season, though, appears to have done more damage than usual. After an abrupt halt in spring training, pitchers were thrust into a period of suspended uncertainty, then asked to ramp up for a shorter burst of real competition. Injuries were up.

Now, a new question: What will happen when the entire sport returns to the planned 162-game grind? Are pitchers at an even higher risk? Could they actually benefit, in aggregate, from having less mileage added to their shoulders and elbows last year?

Also unclear is which types of pitchers need to be more carefully monitored. Is it the armada of young starters who are already used to intermittent rest and soft-pedaling? Or could the whole situation be more jarring for metronome-like starters such as Jon Lester who have conditioned themselves to start 30 major-league games a year. Before 2020 struck, Lester had maintained a habit of throwing at least 170 innings a year, every year, dating back to the George W. Bush administration.

At least some teams are preparing to mitigate the shock of the full slate, and it could further accelerate the muddying of the traditional starting rotation.

Dodgers vs. Padres

The best show baseball has to offer in 2021 will run for at least 19 episodes, and could put a different star in the leading role of every one. After Fernando Tatis Jr.’s effervescent brilliance made the San Diego Padres the breakout team of 2020, GM A.J. Preller spent the winter trying to add as much firepower as a 26-man roster would allow. An already dynamic lineup will now back a completely remade starting rotation fronted by Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove.

All those stars would probably be enough to hold an upper hand in five of the six divisions. Just not the one the Padres are in. The reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers signed the often infuriating, but talented, NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer. In an update of the early 2000s Yankees-Red Sox aesthetic, these NL West rivals might well be baseball’s two best and most watchable teams. And no one would be surprised if they wound up extending the drama into October.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts celebrates his RBI single against the Tampa Bay Rays during the fourth inning in Game 3 of the baseball World Series Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Mookie Betts' stature within the game is only growing after leading the Dodgers to a World Series. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Sorting the next generation

Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball since 2012, and it hasn’t even been up for debate since about 2014. “Best player in baseball” is practically part of his name now, but his run embodying that honorific won’t last forever. Trout turns 30 on Aug. 7, and by his ridiculous standards 2020 counted as slippage.

This isn’t to say the handoff is coming in 2021, or that anyone is even ready to challenge him. The candidates for the crown are becoming clear, though. Tatis Jr.’s emergence was maybe the most shimmering display of potential, but for now — until the world allows him to play a full season — the more likely candidates have longer track records.

That group includes 22-year-old Juan Soto, as bizarre as it sounds. The Washington Nationals star strutted into the majors at age 19 with one of the most advanced hitting approaches in the league, then turned the 2019 World Series into his personal showcase. Last season saw him connect for more power more often, which led to a terrifying, Barry Bonds-ish .351/.490/.695 line. He’s moving to right field, and is only an OK defender, but if his offensive evolution continues apace, he will be the consensus best hitter in the game by season’s end. Soto’s potential at the plate is dramatic enough that it could carry him to the top of the game regardless of his defense.

Ronald Acuña Jr. is the youthful candidate with a more all-around game. He would play center for the Atlanta Braves if not for the impending wizardry of Cristian Pache, and he’s an asset in a corner. But mostly: He’s a fantasy baseball fever dream come to life. He hits homers and steals bases, constantly. His 41-homer, 37-steal 2019 felt like it sprung from a different era. In 2020, he boosted his on-base-percentage over .400 by improving his selectivity at the plate. Oh, and Acuña just turned 23 in December.

Still, the odds-on favorite to don that best player in baseball belt after Trout is Mookie Betts. The 28-year-old immediately led the Dodgers to a World Series after being traded from Boston, and has long been the only player in Trout’s stratosphere. He’s only a couple years behind him on the aging curve, yet Betts seems to possess traits that go beyond his absurd athleticism. Yes, he hits and fields, but the moments that pop out from his career are often about ingenuity — he may have more clever, game-changing baserunning plays over the past few years than the rest of the sport combined — and that quality may not age away quite so easily.

Will new shortstop Francisco Lindor lead a Mets revival?
Will new shortstop Francisco Lindor lead a Mets revival? (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

New Mets or same old Mets?

It is supposed to be a new dawn for the New York Mets. Billionaire Steve Cohen bought the team, took control from the much-maligned Wilpon family, and roused the Mets masses — who you’d think were living through a multigenerational spell of losing despite appearing in the World Series in 2015. He upped the ante of expectations and promised to spend for a championship-level team.

They traded for Francisco Lindor, and everything seemed to be proceeding according to Mets fans’ wildest fantasies. But they did not sign any of the top-tier free agents, despite being connected to all of them, or really solve roster quandaries in center field and at third base. They are still projected as the best team in the NL East, a monumental jump forward, but the Braves will not go quietly.

Then there is the management of the team, which isn’t inspiring a lot more confidence. They fired new GM Jared Porter less than two months after hiring him when ESPN reported allegations that he harassed a woman who covered baseball while he was with the Cubs. Then, Wednesday, The Athletic revealed they had quietly cut loose a coach who was reported to the team for alleged sexual harassment in 2018, only to stick with the club until after the Porter firing.

The need for inclusivity and diversity

The Mets are just the most publicly glaring example of how overdue baseball is for a cultural reckoning. How it treats women, how it treats Black people and Latino people. How it so often discourages or flat out excludes them from working in the industry or getting a fair shot if they do.

It doesn’t seem that reckoning is actually happening yet within the game’s ranks. So far, even a report of long-ranging allegations against Angels pitching coach and former Mets manager Mickey Callaway hasn’t resulted in his dismissal, only a suspension and an investigation. Brandon Taubman, the former Astros assistant GM who berated three women working as reporters during the 2019 postseason, has not been welcomed back into the game, but these are just the tips of the iceberg. And they are only being rooted out by media-driven attention and shame. Many, many more are undoubtedly creating toxic environments with no repercussions, as the in crowd of mostly white men stands idly by.

There are still huge barriers for Black kids to play the game at the youth level or get noticed as amateurs. And the league’s reclassification of the Negro Leagues as major leagues has only served to highlight MLB’s deflection of the pain of racial injustice.

When several MLB games were called off amid protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake, the game’s reaction was disjointed. Players like the Mets’ Dom Smith had powerful words to relay, and prominent Dodgers memorably came to the side of Betts, but Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty pointed out the feeling that the sport lacked the solidarity of other leagues, like the NBA.

It is not enough to simply nod along as traumas are relayed. Eventually the sport has to change its ways.

Will fans be there?

The COVID-19 pandemic quieted the 2020 baseball viewing experience, and made it a queasy, uncomfortable venture for many. As vaccines roll out and more people are allowed to go to games across the country, the questions will be numerous. Are the teams and MLB acting responsibly where fans are allowed? Will there be demand to go to baseball games?

Despite the often overwrought complaints from ownership used as weapons in labor battles (more on that later), there are real financial stakes to the impact of the pandemic on fan habits. By the end of 2021, most of the country should have access to vaccinations. Whether MLB can navigate the season safely and find robust interest on the other side is a crucial question heading into a long winter.

Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (28) warms up before a baseball game against the Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Newly acquired Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado could be the difference in a lackluster NL Central. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Does anyone want to win the NL Central?

Beyond the pandemic, teams are actively tamping down fan interest by simply not trying that hard. Nowhere is that more apparent for 2021 than the NL Central. The Chicago Cubs hoisted a figurative white flag over the winter, and it wasn’t flying the W. They dealt away Yu Darvish and non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, and have been constantly rumored to be discussing trades to jettison Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant.

The St. Louis Cardinals made the division’s only positive splash by acquiring Nolan Arenado from the hapless Colorado Rockies for next to nothing, so they have probably cemented themselves as favorites in this tortoise’s race. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system likes the Milwaukee Brewers, but it isn’t on the strength of their offseason, which has featured very little activity. The Cincinnati Reds were probably the best team in the group last season, but have pulled back, dealing away closer Raisel Iglesias and non-tendering trade acquisition Archie Bradley.

The result is a group of teams that all seem overly aware of their meh competition. So the goal is one win more than the rest of the mediocre pack. Not the catchiest rallying cry.

Game of tweaks

Last year, with a 60-game season stuffed into the late summer because of the pandemic, MLB instituted a series of dramatic — for this sport — rule changes to keep the season safer and on schedule. Some of those, though, are sticking around for a 162-game slate in 2021. Meanwhile, the league has told teams it is taking measures to slightly deaden the baseballs after years of questions over inconsistent and homer-happy balls that have altered the aesthetic of games.

The 2020 season had a general air of weirdness. Sure, it was a legitimate championship season, but reality felt understandably skewed and convoluted. A schedule that otherwise feels normal will be a more pressing litmus test for seven-inning doubleheaders and the extra-innings rule that places a man on second to begin every frame, as well as the bedrock assumption that the baseball will behave as we expect.

If, after a whole spin through the grind, the various changes feel natural and becoming of competitive integrity, it would show flexibility not usually attributed to baseball. But, after an offseason spent wondering what the rules would even be, the changes could also compromise the much-needed feeling of legitimacy a 162-game schedule should again impart.

The looming labor war

Even though the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players association does not expire until after 2021, the specter of a work stoppage will hang over everything. From the negotiations to play in 2020 to the staredown over whether to begin the 2021 season on time, every interaction between these two sides points toward a strike or lockout in 2022.

At the most basic level, the players have not seen their salaries rise alongside the league’s revenue. In ramping up toward a CBA negotiation that could change that, the sides have become increasingly hostile toward one another, as evidenced by the endless maneuvering over questions as simple as whether there should be a universal designated hitter.

There is little common ground here, in the all-important conversation that could reshape baseball on the field and as an industry. Which means we could be headed for one 162-game season in a span of three years, and that’s a best-case scenario.

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