The 2021 Major League Baseball regular season is fast approaching. Spring training action being on Sunday. While spring games are fun in their own way, I think we're all eager for meaningful baseball. Francisco Lindor in New York, Trevor Bauer in Los Angeles, George Springer in Toronto (err, Dunedin) ... there are a lot of faces in new places this season.
As always, each MLB team will face a different amount of pressure in 2021. Pressure is unquantifiable but you know it when you see it, and you definitely know it when you feel it. Some teams feel pressure to win. Others feel pressure to simply make progress and get out of the rebuilding phase. And other teams feel a different kind of pressure entirely.
With the 2021 season fast approaching, let's rank the 30 MLB teams based on the amount of pressure they feel to win the World Series this year. Here are our definitive rankings, starting with the teams that feel the least pressure to capture a championship and advancing to the teams under the most pressure.
30. Pittsburgh Pirates
29. Baltimore Orioles
28. Detroit Tigers
27. Texas Rangers
26. Colorado Rockies
Five rebuilding teams (or, rather, four rebuilding teams plus whatever the Rockies are doing) that will go into 2021 with basically zero expectations. These five teams are not just making no effort to improve their MLB roster, they've been actively getting worse by trading away productive big leaguers. No pressure to win here. No one expects anything from these teams this year.
25. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners belong in the rebuilding group but deserve their own section because they're a special kind of pathetic. They've been so bad for so long now, Jarred Kelenic blows the doors off spring training so the Mariners look extra foolish when he begins the season in Triple-A.. Kevin Mather said, in no uncertain terms, the Mariners will manipulate the service time of their top prospects this season, because when you haven't been to the postseason since 2001, apparently the priority is making sure you will still control your players in 2027. Mather did not resign because he held those views. He resigned because the organization holds those views and he got caught saying them out loud. Let's all hope
24. Kansas City Royals
23. Miami Marlins
Two rebuilding teams that are making an effort to improve. What a concept. The Marlins did make the postseason last year, though I'm not sold on them being Actually Good just yet. Still, they're making an effort. They traded for Starling Marte last season, signed Adam Duvall and Anthony Bass this offseason, and traded for John Curtiss and Dylan Floro. That's something.
The Royals signed several free agents (Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor, etc.) and traded for Andrew Benintendi, and have all that young pitching coming. GM Dayton Moore was asked recently about putting together a competitive team in this environment and his answer was refreshing. From Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times and Alec Lewis of The Athletic:
"We don't know any other way. You're trying to inspire people to follow your team. You're trying to inspire young people to be a part of this game and want to play this game. I think what we've always tried to do is be as competitive as we possibly can. Everybody will tell you whatever our budget is financially, we've taken it right to the max every single year. We've spent whatever has been given to us. It's really important to try to win each and every year. I remember having a conversation with Adam Wainwright many years ago. I had the same conversation with Khalil Lee when we did the Benintendi trade. I said, 'Look, here's the deal. You're going to be a major league player some day. When you're in the clubhouse you're going to realize you're one of 26 guys who has a very small window of opportunity to win a championship. And you're one of 26 guys who has a small window of opportunity to maximize the financial rewards of this game. So you're going to want to be a part of an organization and a team and ownership that's going to do everything they can to put the best team on the field to support those players and coaching staff and manager, who has to put their professional reputation on the line each and every night and answer questions multiple times a day about what went right and wrong.' To be a great steward of the game, and to continue to the grow the game in the ways that are the most healthy, you've got to bust your tail for the good of the players, the fans, the coaching staff and ownership and everybody surrounding the game, and put the best team you can on the field. Period. That's what it's all about."
As far as pressure to win the World Series in 2021, the Royals and Marlins don't really have any. They are at least making an effort to win games this year and that lands them ahead of the other rebuilding clubs. That's a good thing. Wear this ranking as a badge of honor.
22. Arizona Diamondbacks
21. Cincinnati Reds
Last season went about as poorly as possible for the D-Backs, who looked like a preseason favorite to win a wild-card spot. Instead, they went 25-35 and had a thoroughly uninspiring offseason (Asdrubal Cabrera, Tyler Clippard, and Joakim Soria are their only notable additions). There's enough talent on the roster, including a legitimate star in Ketel Marte and the sneaky-great Zac Gallen, that Arizona should feel at least a little pressure to win in 2021, even though their best-case scenario is the second wild-card spot.
The Reds went to the postseason last year, scored precisely zero runs in the Wild Card Series, then spent the offseason cutting payroll. Archie Bradley and Brian Goodwin were non-tendered, Raisel Iglesias was salary dumped, Trevor Bauer left as a free agent, and they're talking about playing Dee Strange-Gordon or Kyle Farmer at shortstop. I dunno. The thing is, Cincinnati has talent on offense (Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, etc.) and on the mound (Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, etc.), and the NL Central is so very winnable. The Reds should feel a little optimistic heading into 2021.
20. Boston Red Sox
19. San Francisco Giants
The Red Sox and Giants are in similar situations. They're historic franchises that typically run very high payrolls, and they're kinda sorta maybe starting to come out of a down phase. Their offseasons can be described as quantity over quality ...
- Giants: Signed John Brebbia, Curt Casali, Anthony DeSclafani, Tommy La Stella, Jake McGee, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Wisler, and Alex Wood to major-league contracts.
- Red Sox: Signed Matt Andriese, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Perez, Garrett Richards, Hunter Renfroe, and Hirokazu Sawamura to major-league contracts, added Franchy Cordero and Adam Ottavino in trades.
... but small upgrades add up. Both clubs have incumbent talent on the roster (Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Buster Posey, Mike Yastrzemski, etc.) and they spent the winter making incremental improvements all over the roster. Do I expect the Giants or Red Sox to seriously contend in 2021? Do I think they realistically have World Series aspirations? No, not really. I don't think either team will be a pushover though, and their status as marquee franchises comes with inherent pressure.
On the bright side, the A's finally won a postseason series in 2020. It was their first since 2006, six postseason trips ago. The bad news is payroll is coming down and the club lost key contributors Liam Hendriks and Marcus Semien to free agency. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are starting to get expensive through arbitration and team history suggests they will be traded soon. Maybe not this year and maybe not even next year, but eventually. Given their payroll and stadium situations, the A's will forever be an underdog, but make no mistake, there's real pressure to win here. They've been really good for a really long time and yet don't have anything to show for it, and the clock to win a ring with this core is ticking.
Any pressure Milwaukee feels to win the World Series this year stems primarily from two players: Josh Hader and Christian Yelich. Hader is a regular in trade rumors these days because he's getting expensive through arbitration ($6.675 million salary in 2021) and it feels like only a matter of time until his salary becomes untenable for a small-market team. The Brewers want to win with Hader while they can. He remains a lockdown reliever and an asset in the late innings.
As for Yelich, he is simply one of the best players in the sport (2020 notwithstanding), and he turned only 29 in December, so he is right smack in the prime of his career. Milwaukee's best chance to win a championship involves having Yelich at the height of his powers, which is right now, not three or four years down the line. The Brewers have Hader and they have Yelich, and they have other strong pieces in Lorenzo Cain and Brandon Woodruff. They don't want this window to turn into, well, what the A's have going on, where they make the postseason pretty much every year but have nothing to show for it.
Obviously the Nationals feel less pressure to win a World Series now that they won a title in 2019. That got their monkey of their back and they no longer have to sweat going through the Juan Soto era without a title like they did the Bryce Harper era. There is still pressure to win in 2021, of course. Max Scherzer is entering the final year of his contract -- Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million contract will go down as one of the best free agent signings in history -- and they still have Soto, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, and Trea Turner in their primes. That's a championship-caliber core and we can point to 2019 as evidence. Josh Bell, Jon Lester, and Kyle Schwarber were solid additions with upside, particularly Bell and Schwarber, and in Lester's and Schwarber's case, they bring championship pedigree.
The most exciting time for a franchise is when a team makes the jump from rebuilder to contender, like the upstart Blue Jays did last year. There's nothing better than contending when you weren't expected to contend. The most stressful time can be those first few years as a no-doubt contender, when everyone expects success. That's where Toronto is now. The young core is dynamite and they spent big to add George Springer, an impact player with postseason chops, to supplement that young core. I would've liked to see the Blue Jays do a little more on the pitching side (Jake Odorizzi is still out there, dudes), but they have talent on the mound. Point is, you don't sign Hyun-Jin Ryu last offseason and sign Springer this offseason and not expect to feel some pressure to turn those contracts into a championship. The heat is officially on.
The Francisco Lindor era is over and the only remnants of the 2016 pennant-winning team, a team that on multiple occasions was literally one swing away from the franchise's first World Series title since 1948, are Roberto Perez and Jose Ramirez (and Adam Plutko, technically). The rotation remains fierce, with Shane Bieber becoming Cleveland's fifth Cy Young winner in the last 14 years last season, though the offense appears to be less than championship-caliber. The window to win a title with this core is barely open at this point and it's only a matter of time until Ramirez is traded away like Lindor, Corey Kluber, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Roberto Alomar, et al. Payroll came down over the winter (again) and I'm not sure many folks expected Cleveland to be a serious World Series contender in 2021, but the club should feel some pressure to win. Quite a bit of it, in fact.
13. Chicago White Sox
12. Minnesota Twins
11. Atlanta Braves
I'm lumping these three teams together because they're all in a similar place, I believe. They were all postseason teams in 2020, first and foremost, and they all have the sort of young cores that suggest they will remain in contention for the foreseeable future. The White Sox have Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, and Luis Robert all locked up long-term. The Braves have Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies on those insanely team-friendly contracts. The Twins will have Max Kepler, Kenta Maeda, Miguel Sano, and others around for the long haul.
That said, there is pressure to win this year on all three teams. The Braves are the three-time defending NL East champs and they spent a good deal of money to a) retain Marcell Ozuna, and b) import Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to reinforce a young rotation. Atlanta is a perennial contender now, and while pushing the eventual World Series champs to seven games in last year's NLCS was a fine accomplishment, it's nothing a team with championship hopes should hang its hat on. It's time for the Braves to get over the hump and win something more than a division title.
The Twins have to win a postseason game before they can win a championship (Nelson Cruz turns 41 in July, Josh Donaldson turned 35 in December and is making big money, and guys like Kepler, Maeda, Jose Berrios, and Andrelton Simmons are in their primes right now. This is team trying to win a World Series, not simply get to the postseason.), but this is the big leagues, and there are no moral victories. Minnesota has been to the postseason three times in the last four years and nine times in the last 19 years, and we're still waiting for them to do something more than become a punchline.
As for the White Sox, we know they're looking for a World Series title in 2021. We know that not only because they traded for Lance Lynn and signed Liam Hendriks, but also because they hired Tony La Russa. Do you hire a just turned 76-year-old Hall of Fame manager who hasn't actually managed in a decade because you want to take baby steps and win a year or two down the line? No. No you do not. You hire someone like La Russa out of retirement because you want to win a World Series right now. Chicago's core is so good and so young that they figure to contend for years to come, but they put a target on their backs with the La Russa signing. They ratcheted up the pressure on themselves.
You don't trade for a player like Nolan Arenado and not expect to feel (a lot of) pressure to win a World Series right away. It comes with the territory. The Cardinals added Arenado, brought back franchise icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, and have reasons to believe Jack Flaherty will bounce back from his disappointing 2020 season. There are enough health questions in the rotation and enough questions in the outfield in general that qualifying for the postseason, let alone making a deep run, is not a given in 2021. The NL Central is wide open though, and Arenado is a balance of power player. He can change a division race all by himself. This might be the last opportunity for St. Louis to win another title with Molina and Wainwright, so yeah, the pressure's on.
The Phillies didn't hire Dave Dombrowski to oversee their baseball operations because they want to rebuild. You hire Dombrowski because you want to win right away, and are willing to spend money and trade prospects to do it. The Phillies don't have many prospects to trade these days, but they do have money to spend, and they spent it on re-signing Didi Gregorius and J.T. Realmuto not long after Dombrowski took over. Philadelphia has not been to the postseason (or even had a winning record) since 2011, the longest drought in the National League. Step 1 toward winning a title is punching your ticket to October, but when you spend big on Realmuto and Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler, and hire baseball veterans like Dombrowski and Joe Girardi to run the team, you're telling us you're already looking beyond Step 1 and are focusing on Steps 2, 3, and 4. The Phillies have pressure to end the postseason drought and real pressure to win a World Series this year. It's time.
Mike Trout will turn 30 in August and that would scare the living daylights out of me if I were the Angels. He is not a once-in-a-generation player, he is a once-in-a-lifetime player, and thus far the Angels have played three postseason games in his MLB career. That is straight up unacceptable. And yet, their offseason involved another round of low-upside pitching moves (Alex Cobb and Jose Quintana this time) and doing not quite enough to be seen as a favorite for a wild card spot, let alone the AL West title. Trout will turn 30 this year and Anthony Rendon will turn 31 in June, and the AL West is as winnable as it's been in years. Anaheim's best chance to win a World Series will be when those two players are in their primes and that is right now. Their offseason moves don't exactly hint at extreme urgency to win in the short-term, but they should feel the pressure. The clock is ticking on the Trout era.
Life is good when you're widely considered the team that "always finds a way" despite making only two postseason trips in the last seven years. The Rays are graded on a curve like no other team, and that's understandable given their financial limitations, but at some point they have to actually win something, you know? And usually when a team falls two wins short of a championship, they add pieces to strengthen the roster in the offseason, not subtract pieces like Tampa did this winter. The Rays have the sport's best farm system and that's great. You can't always play for two years down the line though, and this, right now, is the franchise's most prosperous era. Until they win a championship, the Rays are the 2010-11 Texas Rangers with better branding.
These two teams are going to be connected at the hip for the foreseeable future. The Dodgers snapped their 32-year World Series drought last year, buying them a bit of a grace period, but not much. Don't blame me. The Dodgers put the target on themselves by blowing through the $210 million luxury-tax threshold to sign the reigning NL Cy Young winner in Trevor Bauer. You don't do that unless you're looking to repeat. And let's be real here, the Dodgers are a juggernaut, and no one is going to care how many NL West titles they win. This era of Dodgers baseball will be judged solely on the number of championships, as their roster is littered with future Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars. Coming out of this era with one single World Series title would viewed as a disappointment, I reckon.
The Padres had a dynamite offseason and supplemented their impressive young core with high-end pitching, and they have more talent on the way in their still-excellent farm system. San Diego is behind the Dodgers in these rankings because their track record as an elite team is much shorter, but being as high as they are is a testament to how quickly and aggressively they've transitioned from rebuilder to contender. I wish more teams would operate this way. Rather than hold the line or make incremental upgrades, the Padres embraced the challenge of being in the same division as the powerhouse Dodgers, and attacked it head on. They put pressure on themselves, no doubt, and they did it in the best way possible.
It was not nearly as brazen as former GM Brodie Van Wagenen's "come and get us" declaration, but new owner Steve Cohen did make headlines during his introductory press conference when he said, "If I don't win a World Series in the next 3-5 years -- I'd like to make it sooner -- I would consider that slightly disappointing." Cohen put his money where his mouth is and allowed his team to add Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco in a blockbuster trade, and sign multiple free agents, though not any big names (James McCann over J.T. Realmuto, Taijuan Walker over Trevor Bauer, Kevin Pillar over George Springer, etc.).
Big-name free agents or no big-name free agents, Cohen and the Mets made it clear that they are trying to win right now, while Michael Conforto and Jacob deGrom are in their primes and under contract, and others like Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, and Dominic Smith are productive and affordable. They finally have a payroll commensurate with their market size -- the Mets are flirting with the $210 million luxury-tax threshold after years of sitting closer to the middle of the pack in payroll -- and with that payroll and with the busy offseason come expectations. The Mets were a last-place team a year ago, remember, but now anything short of a deep postseason run will be considered a disappointment.
3. Chicago Cubs
2. Houston Astros
Two recent champions entering what figures to be the final season with their World Series cores as we know them. The Cubs said goodbye to Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Kyle Schwarber over the winter, and Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo will all become free agents after the season. The Astros lost George Springer and Josh Reddick to free agency this offseason and next year Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., and Justin Verlander will hit the open market. An end of two eras is upon us.
The Cubs slashed payroll over the winter, most egregiously with the Yu Darvish trade, and chairman Tom Ricketts doesn't get to set the curve his team is graded on. The Cubs are a historic franchise in a big market, they're the reigning NL Central winner, and much of the core that won them the 2016 World Series remains in place. Heck, Chicago considered 2021 so important that they manipulated Bryant's service time (and endured a nearly five-year long grievance process) to ensure he'd be around this season. Ricketts may be cutting payroll and trying to downplay expectations, but with the talent on hand and the division being so weak, the Cubs absolutely should feel pressure to win in 2021. Settling for one championship during the Bryant/Rizzo era would be a letdown.
As for the Astros, they ushered in the hard tanking era that has become central to the ongoing labor strife between MLB and the MLBPA, and they were this perfect little petri dish of a franchise built from the ground up. If Houston comes out of this era with just one championship -- a championship they won in a year they were discovered to have cheated unrepentantly and in increasingly sophisticated ways -- wow would that be a disappointment. Last year Jose Altuve said the Astros "will be in the World Series again," and they proceeded to go 29-31 and lose in the ALCS. This season is their last chance to win a World Series with the core they tanked to build, and have it be considered anywhere close to genuine. Don't get mad at me. The Astros brought it on themselves.
Now that the Dodgers have won a championship, the Yankees take over as the team with the most pressure to win the World Series, and they will remain atop these rankings until they win a title. Since the current Aaron Judge-led core emerged in 2017, New York has lost in the ALDS twice and in the ALCS twice, and much of that happened after bringing in huge-money reinforcements like Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole. At the moment, the current Yankees core peaked with a Game 7 loss in the 2017 ALCS.
For reasons I will never understand nor take a face value, the Yankees chopped approximately $50 million off payroll for the second time in four years this offseason, which is not something you'd expect from a team that has embraced the "World Series or bust" mentality throughout much of its history. Bottom line, the young core is inching closer to free agency (Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino can hit the market after 2022) and the high-profile additions (Cole, Stanton, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, etc.) only have so many prime years remaining. No team in the sport feels more pressure to win the 2021 World Series than the Yankees, and I don't think it's all that close either.