October Isn’t Everything: Storylines to Keep an Eye on in the American League

When the Cubs’ 2021 schedule came out, I circled May 17-20. That otherwise unremarkable four-game series with the Nationals would mark the return of 2016 World Series heroes Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber to Wrigley Field. I knew they would receive an epic welcome from fans and I felt like I needed to be part of it.

The Cubs are pretty far removed from the juggernaut that won 103 games on the way to the team’s first championship in 108 years. While a relatively weak division means it’s certainly possible they could go on a run that would keep Jed Hoyer’s front office from being sellers at the deadline, it is far from guaranteed. Our playoff odds give the Cubs a 35.1% chance of making the postseason. It has left me looking for those moments of joy that fall short of the ultimate goal of hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season but are still meaningful.

It occurred to me that I am far from the only fan looking for moments to celebrate beyond the expectation of playing in October. So I started looking for all of the silver linings to 2021’s cloudiest seasons. I identified all of the teams with less than a 20% chance to make the playoffs per our odds, then dug into the prospect lists, record books and clubhouse storylines to see what I might circle on the calendar for the sport’s less fortunate faithful. So here they are, a few moments of joy for the fanbases that may still be holding out hope that their team will channel its inner 2019 Nationals, but suspect they won’t. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s what struck me as notable. Today, I’ll take a look at the American League, with a National League post to follow next week.

Baltimore Orioles, Playoff Odds: 0.0%

Ah, the Orioles. They last appeared in the postseason in 2016 when we all silently (or maybe not so silently) pleaded with Buck Showalter to put Zach Britton, then the most unhittable pitcher in the league, into the game. Showalter opted to leave Britton in the ‘pen. The Orioles lost the Wild Card game, and that was that.

Since then, they have finished fifth in the AL East three times while losing 100-plus games twice. 2021 does not look better when it comes to their postseason chances; the Orioles are 13 games out of first in one of baseball’s most competitive divisions. But even if they lose 100 games again (we currently project them to finish 65-97) and John Means proves not to have another no-hitter in him, fans have a lot to cheer for every time Trey Mancini suits up to play first base. On March 12, 2020, as most of baseball was coming to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to the cancellation of spring training and the delay of Opening Day, Mancini was coming to terms with a Stage III colon cancer diagnosis, a harrowing experience he detailed for The Players’ Tribune last April. Fifteen months later, he’s not only reached his goal of coming back to play in 2021, he’s posted a .278/.349/.524 line and a 141 wRC+ so far this season. Prospects like Adley Rutschman loom, but until they arrive, Mancini is an easy guy for Orioles fans to root for.

Detroit Tigers, Playoff Odds: 0.1%

As our own Ashley McLennan recently detailed, the Tigers’ struggles run deep. It’s been a long five years (or longer, depending on your perspective) of rebuilding with no end in sight. But there are things to cheer for in Detroit. Matthew Boyd looks resurgent after a forgettable 2020, and while it’s unlikely he’ll get back to the 11.56 K/9 he put up in 2019, strikeouts aren’t everything. Boyd’s ERA is almost a run and a half lower than that 2019 season, and while some of that is luck (we might expect a few more fly balls to leave the yard as the season goes on), not all of it is; his xERA and FIP are both also about a run lower than in 2019. And he’s not the only pitcher who’s shown signs of brilliance. Spencer Turnbull no-hit Cleveland last week; the 28-year-old looks impressive with a 3.12 ERA, 2.88 xERA, and 2.81 FIP. And then there is Miguel Cabrera, the 38-year-old designated hitter and occasional first baseman who is 109 hits away from 3,000 and a mere nine home runs away from 500. Cabrera isn’t the fearsome hitter he used to be, but if his numbers pick up, it could be a wild summer in Detroit as fans hope to chance on Cabrera’s 3,000th hit or 500th home run. Watch his 491st home run, a go-ahead grand slam, below:

Texas Rangers, Playoff Odds: 0.3%

I admit, this one was a challenge. The Rangers are one of three unfortunate teams who have been no-hit twice in 2021, and they are the only team to be no-hit by a pitcher they traded for the year before. That deal sent Delino DeShields and Emmanuel Clase to Cleveland, only to have Corey Kluber throw one inning for the Rangers before suffering a shoulder injury in 2020. But even in the suburbs of Dallas, where the Rangers play in a ballpark that many fans thought looks more like a big box store, there is a reason to tune in each night. While all of baseball has been busy fawning over rookie sensations Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Yermín Mercedes (both of whom absolutely, positively deserve every second of your fawning), the rookie hitter atop our qualified leaderboards is none other than Texas’ Adolis García, who is slashing .288/.324/.619 with 16 home runs, 41 RBI and five stolen bases. García was a non-roster invitee to Rangers camp after struggling in the Cardinals system (where he was also as a non-roster invitee in 2017). After four seasons of minor league struggles and few major league chances, García has hit his stride. Watch him make this robbery of a would-be Shohei Ohtani home run look easy:

Seattle Mariners, Playoff Odds: 0.6%

The future is starting to arrive in Seattle after a rough start to 2021 (and a rough 19 seasons before that) for the Mariners. It began in the offseason when the team’s now former president and CEO Kevin Mather seemingly failed to realize he was being recorded on a Rotary Club zoom call during which he said all of the quiet parts out loud. The Mariners somehow got off to a hot start and found themselves a mere two games out of first place on May 5 when they were no-hit by John Means and the Orioles. Since then, the Mariners are 4-11 and were again no-hit, this time by the aforementioned Spencer Turnbull. Hitting has been difficult across the majors this season — the league has dipped below the mark set in the Year of the Pitcher by hitting .236 so far — but it has been abysmal in Seattle, with the Mariners batting .202 as a team. And yet, the joy on Mariners Twitter was palpable as prospectpalooza began with Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert making their debuts on May 13. These arrivals mark the beginning of the next wave of Mariners talent, as the team still has four additional top-100 prospects according to Eric Longenhagen’s rankings. The team may finish 73-89 as our projections show, and Julio Rodríguez, Emerson Hancock, Noelvi Marte, and George Kirby aren’t guaranteed to debut this year, but Mariners fans have to be enjoying the preview of what will hopefully be a much brighter future on the field.

Kansas City Royals, Playoff Odds: 7.7%

The Royals got off to a hot 15-8 start but quickly came back to Earth. Unlike some of the other teams listed here, the Royals’ top prospects are not knocking on the door of the majors, though with recent prospect graduates Brady Singer and Kris Bubic currently in the rotation, there are young players to dream on. Kansas City had two prospects in the preseason top 25 in Bobby Witt Jr. and Asa Lacy, but Witt is in Double-A while Lacy is in High-A. They also don’t have any particularly memorable player milestones coming up, though it is worth noting that Carlos Santana just hit his 250th home run and Salvador Perez is a mere six would-be larcenous runners away from catching his 200th base thief; the feel-good homecomings for Wade Davis and Greg Holland are unlikely to result in either man celebrating a save or strikeout record. For a brief moment while researching this article, I wondered if the Royals would thwart my effort to celebrate them, apart from appreciating their activity over the offseason and their apparent desire to be competitive now. But just as I was about to throw in the towel, I realized the Royals are exactly 50 wins away from their 4,000th franchise victory and that our projections have Kansas City forecast for 56 more wins this season to finish up with a 79-83 record. That means sometime in September, hopefully at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals will post their 4,000th win. With any luck, they’ll bust out the fireworks for that one.

Minnesota Twins, Playoff Odds: 11.4%

The Twins are not supposed to be on this list. Going into the season, half of our staff predicted they would win the AL Central. For my money, of all the teams here, they have the best chance to pull a 2019 Nationals. But as of Wednesday, they were 8.5 games out of first place and our projections show them finishing at a very pedestrian 79-83. Things have been bleak in Minnesota, particularly with news that Byron Buxton suffered a setback on his way to a rehab assignment after a remarkable .370/.408/.772 start to his 2021. But there is reason for cautious optimism. Top prospect Alex Kirilloff returned to the lineup at the end of last week after a sprained wrist threatened his season. Seeing if Kirilloff can deliver while the Twins hope for a Buxton return probably doesn’t feel like a win in Minnesota after such high expectations during spring training, but both are still compelling reasons to watch the team this season.

Los Angeles Angels, Playoff Odds: 11.5%

No one wants the Angels to be on this list. They have the fifth highest payroll in baseball, the best player on the planet in Mike Trout and a once in multiple generations superstar in Shohei Ohtani. Yet here we sit, with the Angels 6.0 games out of first place in the AL West as of Wednesday, trying to absorb the crushing news that Trout could miss 6-8 weeks with a calf strain. Our projections show the Angels will finish 80-82, looking up at .500. Despite that mediocrity, you should still tune into an Angels game every chance you get because what we are seeing from Ohtani in 2021 may never happen again in our lifetimes and it isn’t his fault that he can only help the Angels pitching once every six or seven starts. Ohtani is 26 years old and is the 11th best hitter by wRC+ in the American League, with a 160 mark. He’s not quite qualified for the pitcher leaderboard because he starts less frequently as a two-way player, but if we adjust that leaderboard for players with at least 30 innings pitched (Ohtani has 30.1 IP as of this writing) he’s sixth in the league in K/9 with a 13.35 (his 34.9% K% is 10th). I’ve already circled September 14, 15, and 16 on my calendar so I can see Ohtani (and hopefully a rehabilitated Trout) in person when the Angels play the White Sox in Chicago.

One of the things baseball taught me in 2020 is that there is always a reason to tune in and cheer. During the 131 days (yes, I counted) we didn’t have baseball last season, I came to appreciate the victories large, small and metaphorical that occur on a diamond throughout the season in a way I never had before. Some of us might not have much hope for a parade at the end of the season, but all of us have players, milestones and prospects that keep bringing us back to the old ballpark. What else are you looking forward to for the rest of the season? Let us know in the comments.

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2 years ago

Santana hit his 250th homer