By Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writers
Happy Opening Day, everyone!
The 2021 season is underway, and with it comes a whole new batch of storylines, developments, happenings and trends.
With so much going on around Major League Baseball, we wanted to zoom in on some of the topics we can’t wait to see this year.
We like to open our hearts and let the baseball joy come pouring in, so without further ado, here are 21 things we’re excited to see in the 2021 season.
1. The Fernando Tatis Jr. show
The future is now, and its name is Fernando Tatis Jr. After inking a 14-year commitment to the Padres over the offseason, El Niño comes into 2021 as the face of the franchise, the face of San Diego and the face of baseball. Tatis is lightning let out of its bottle, a superhuman bat-flipping highlight reel, a vessel of pure baseball joy.
This is the game’s brightest star since Ken Griffey Jr., point blank, plain and simple. He does things on a baseball field you’ve never seen before, things you’ll never see again, that is, until tomorrow’s Padres game. He can run, he can throw, he has the grace of a gazelle, the power of a supernova and a supermodel’s charm. The sky’s the limit for Tatis, and we can’t wait to watch him ascend beyond the stars. – JM
2. The last hurrah of pitchers hitting
After MLB instituted a designated hitter in the National League during the abbreviated 2020 season, NL pitchers are back at the plate for what is likely one last ride in 2021. With a new collective-bargaining agreement on the horizon after the season, it’s an industry-wide assumption the DH will be universal come 2022. That means this year is the last chance for big-league hurlers to prove themselves at the dish.
Are pitchers going to try harder than they usually do? Will there be more home runs from pitchers than normal? Are pitchers on bad teams going to be swinging out of their shoes for one last shot at glory in September? We’re pro-universal DH – pitchers suck at hitting, and we’d much rather watch actual hitters hit – but we’re stoked to see all the weirdness before pitchers are banished from the batter’s box forever in 2022. – JM
3. Shohei Ohtani
Can Ohtani finally do the thing? We got a taste of it in spring training with his gargantuan dingers over the batter’s eye and 100-mph heat on the mound. But doing it for a whole season – or even a month or two – while staying healthy and effective on both sides of the ball is a totally different beast.
The talent is no longer in question, but the physical toll it seems to take on the Angels phenom remains significant. No matter how it goes for Ohtani, he remains must-see TV. – JS
4. The Twins’ playoff curse
Who knows whether it’s better to have loved and lost, or to have never even loved at all? All we know is the Minnesota Twins have lost 18 consecutive postseason baseball games. That’s a lot of loving and losing.
Heading into 2021, Minnesota looks primed for yet another October excursion. The lineup should continue to drop an avalanche of taters. Kenta Maeda should remain an ace after his second-place finish in the AL Cy Young race last year. There’s always a 10 percent chance a healthy Byron Buxton is the best player on this spinning rock.
Either they’ll win the division, guaranteeing them three bites at the streak-ending apple, or they’ll finish behind the White Sox, relegated into the one-game Wild Card coin flip. Maybe one win is all that’s needed to open the floodgates and send Minnesota on a magical run, or maybe this time next year we’ll be writing about their 21-game postseason losing streak. – JM
5. The “Field of Dreams” Game
Whether you think “Field of Dreams” is a good movie or not (personally we think it’s aggressively average), you have to admit an actual MLB game amidst the Iowa corn stalks will be a must-see experience. The matchup between the Yankees and the White Sox was supposed to happen last summer, but the pandemic pushed things to Aug. 12, 2021.
We’ve seen pop-up games in unique locations before like the Fort Bragg Game and the Little League Classic – but Dyersville, Iowa, is about as out there as it gets. The evening is sure to produce some bizarre and unforgettable images and maybe we’ll see Tim Anderson literally turn one into a corn cob. – JM
6. Can the Dodgers win 117 games?
The 2020 Dodgers finished with a mind-boggling .717 winning percentage in the shortened 60-game season. Over the course of a full 162-game slate, that works out to 116 wins, which would have tied the all-time record for most dubs in a season set by the 2001 Seattle Mariners.
The 2021 Dodgers are running it back with basically the same group of dudes, minus Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson, but plus David Price, Trevor Bauer and a full season of former top prospect Gavin Lux. They’ve gotten decently close to the record before, most notably in 2017 where they were on pace to reach 117 until a late-season 1-16 stretch torpedoed that dream.
If anyone in baseball can make the ‘01 Mariners sweat it’s Mookie, Cody and the rest of this Los Angeles juggernaut. – JM
7. Padres fans get to watch the Good Padres
If it feels like the Padres have been the undisputed “Most Fun Team In Baseball” for a while now, that’s only because the last year of our lives has crawled by like 12 eternities. In reality, the most recent 162-game edition of the Fathers put up a measly 70-92 record in those underwhelming navy uniforms. That means San Diegans have yet to actually watch their rejuvenated, brown and yellow symphony of baseballing passion in person.
Hopefully, by the end of the season it’s safe to have Petco Park at more than 20% capacity, and those patient Padres fans finally get to make that place feel like a cauldron of joy. You watched so many boring baseball games, Padres fans. You waited at home for a whole extra year and now you get to watch the Cirque du Soleil of baseball. You’ve earned this. Happy for you. – JM
8. The Blue Jays return to Canada
We don’t know when (or if) this could happen for sure, but it’s extremely exciting to think about the idea of the Blue Jays returning to Rogers Centre at some point this summer, especially if they are in a pennant race. After playing all of last season in Buffalo, the Jays haven’t played at home in Canada since the end of 2019.
In fact, 11 of the 26 players on the Opening Day roster have never played a home game at Rogers Centre. Kudos to Canada for being smart and limiting international travel, but if the Jays can safely be back home for a division title race against the Yankees, you know that stadium is going to be rocking. – JS
9. César Valdez
We know what you’re thinking: “Oh, these new dudes over at FOX Sports are asking me to care about a 36-year-old long reliever ON THE ORIOLES?” Yes, yes we are.
Valdez is the ultimate journeyman. He has pitched in six countries over 15 years, and before last season had only 20 MLB appearances. So when the lowly O’s signed our dude out of the Mexican league, it didn’t look like a game-changing transaction. But then Valdez went out and dominated in his nine appearances out of Baltimore’s bullpen in 2020.
But it’s not really about what Valdez did, it’s how he did it. He threw his magical changeup, nicknamed “The Dead Fish,” a whopping 83 percent of the time last season, far and away the highest percentage in baseball. He essentially uses the pitch as a knuckleball, floating it toward the dish, daring hitters to do damage. Could Valdez and his Dead Fish change be the second coming of R.A. Dickey? Or will hitters figure out his magical party trick? Who knows, but it’s definitely worth watching to find out. – JM
10. Jazz and the ‘Lins
The Marlins were a highlight of the 2020 season. The Hot Fish persevered through a nearly two-week COVID pause to make their first postseason appearance since 2009. Despite a promising young roster, all indications point to Miami returning to earth’s atmosphere in a full 2021 season.
However, Jazz Chisholm provides an ample reason to put the ‘Lins on your TV screen. The 23-year-old Bahamian is a superstar in the making. He has an elegantly violent swing, the moxie to rock blue hair on Opening Day and the support of an entire nation behind him. Who says Gen Z doesn’t like Jazz? – JM
11. The great shortstop free-agent class of 2021/2022
It has been talked about for years, but the ultra-hyped group of five (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javier Baez and Corey Seager) is now officially down to four after Lindor signed his mega-extension with the Mets.
The others, meanwhile, remain squarely in the spotlight for vastly different reasons. Correa and Seager are coming off spectacular postseasons, and both seem unlikely to sign an extension at this point. Story is almost certainly going to be the best player traded this summer. If Baez looks like 2018 Baez, he could be in line for $200 million this winter, but if he looks like 2020 Baez, he might not even get half that. We’d be excited to watch these guys anyway, but the stakes are even higher in 2021. – JS
12. Miguel Cabrera Going For The Big Round Numbers
Miggy’s traditional counting stats might not catch your eye quite like they used to, but he’s still crushing the ball about as hard as anyone, finishing in the 97th percentile in average exit velocity in 2020.
Cabrera sits 13 homers away from 500 and 134 hits away from 3,000. We’d love to see home run No. 500 and hit No. 3,000 happen simultaneously, but his Opening Day dinger suggests No. 500 will likely be happening much sooner. – JS
13. Zack Greinke 10 and 10
Speaking of future Hall of Famers chasing milestones, Greinke is on record about his desire to join the 10 homer/10 steals club before the universal DH is likely introduced in 2022. That “club” might sound lame until you learn that only Bob Gibson has achieved both marks as a pitcher since 1920.
The biggest problem: The Astros are only scheduled for 10 road games at NL parks in 2021, so his chances will be severely limited. I’m not betting against him getting the one steal and one homer he needs, though. – JS
14. Acuña goes for 40/40
Only four players have ever hit 40 homers and stolen 40 bases in a single season. Bonds, Canseco, A-Rod and Alfonso Soriano. Ronald Acuña Jr. was on pace to reach that iconic mark back in 2019 before a minor injury in late September moved him to the IL down the stretch and left him at 37 steals.
We know Acuña has the pop to smash 40 and the speed to swipe 40, but it all depends on whether he can stay healthy enough to play a full season – and whether the Braves give him the green light to run wild. Again, it’s absurdly hard to pull this off – Trout has never done it, Griffey didn’t either – but Acuña has been close before and could totally become the fifth member of that exclusive club. – JM
15. Who goes No. 1?
Vanderbilt is no stranger to churning out first-round picks, but could be on the verge of something truly historic this season. Co-aces Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are mercilessly carving up every opponent set before them this spring. They could become the first pair of pitchers from the same college team ever selected No. 1 & No. 2 overall in this July’s draft.
Who goes first and who goes second? Unless you can find a way to crawl into Pirates GM Ben Cherrington’s brain (Pittsburgh has the first pick) you’ll have to wait until All-Star Weekend to find out. – JS
16. Trout passing literally Ken Griffey Jr. in WAR
You don’t need us to explain how preposterously good Mike Trout is, but monitoring his place on the all-time WAR leaderboard is a surefire way to remind yourself how fortunate we are to watch him play baseball, no matter how disappointing the Angels are every year.
Trout enters 2021 at 74.1 career WAR, just above Reggie Jackson and a shade below Johnny Bench. He doesn’t turn 30 until August. Some guy named Ken Griffey Jr. is at 83.6, which normally would not be considered in range for a single-season performance, but we’re talking about Mike Trout, so … yeah, that’s in play. Mike Trout, y’all. What a thing. – JS
17. The White Sox take over Chicago
The 2020 season marked the first since 2012 when the White Sox finished with a better record than the northside rival Cubs, and both enter this season with vastly different vibes. The Sox were already loaded and added even more this winter, planting themselves firmly in the AL contender conversation.
Meanwhile, the Cubs roster we watched break the curse in 2016 has already begun to dissipate with the departures of Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber, and more change with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Baez all free agents this coming winter. The Cubs could still be good in 2021, but the White Sox seem poised to overtake them as the best team in the Windy City. – JS
18. Geriatric Giants
The focus in the NL West will obviously be on L.A. and San Diego, but this San Francisco roster is truly something to behold in one particular category: age. Let the kids play? No thanks.
Seven of the Giants’ eight projected starters are in their 30s, and it sure is quite the mix: the veterans from the glory days (Posey, Crawford, Belt), imported former superstars (Longoria), uber-late breakouts (Yastrzemski, Dickerson, Solano), and of course, a good old-fashioned mid-tier free agent (La Stella). Good luck to 26-year-old Mauricio Dubon on explaining TikTok to his elderly teammates. – JS
19. High-velo kings (who throws the hardest, especially with Hicks back?)
For many years, Aroldis Chapman held the undisputed title of Hardest Thrower In MLB. But with Chapman’s ever-so-slight decline in heat over the last couple of seasons, some intriguing new challengers have arrived. Velocity is at an all-time high for all pitchers, but it’s time for one to seize the crown.
Who will it be? Cardinals flamethrower Jordan Hicks is back from Tommy John. White Sox rookie sensation Garrett Crochet was regularly touching triple-digits in his debut in 2020. If you haven’t heard of Royals reliever Josh Staumont, you best get yourself acquainted. Oh, and Jacob deGrom WAS THROWING 102 IN SPRING TRAINING?!?!? – JS
20. The 20,000th MLB player
In the 2020 NLCS, Padres left-hander Ryan Weathers became one of the rare players to make his MLB debut in the postseason. He was also the final MLB debut of the 2020 season – and the 19,902nd in MLB history.
That’s right – if every player who ever appeared in a major-league game was at Dodger Stadium, it wouldn’t even fill half the seats. Reaching the big leagues for any amount of time is spectacular accomplishment, and we can’t wait to see who Major Leaguer No. 20,000 is. – JS
21. The Juan Soto Show
We’re at the point now with Soto where we can casually throw around Ted Williams comparisons with no hesitation or hyperbole. He really is that good, and now we just get to sit back and enjoy a 22-year-old hitting savant terrorize opposing pitchers en route to some outrageous triple slash like .336/.468/.621 or whatever.
It’s Juan Soto’s world and we’re just living in it – JS
Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman, creators of the Twitter account at Céspedes Family BBQ, write about all things baseball for FOX Sports.
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