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The Most Exciting Team Rivalries in Each MLB Division For 2021

Examining the most polarizing (and hopefully most relentlessly competitive) inner-division rivalries for the upcoming 2021 MLB season.

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Photo by K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune

Like most other professional sports during the year 2020, and now into 2021, the only true element of consistency will be inconsistency. When the Major League Baseball season rolls around on April 1st, things should be no different (though perhaps a few less masks). The games will be played, but potentially at an unstructured pace, just as we’ve seen in the NFL, NBA, and NHL to date. As the other leagues/associations can attest, COVID has certainly left it’s chaotic mark and has presented scheduling nightmares, disrupting any sense of normalcy in the fans viewing appetites.

But enough with the negative stuff. Baseball, and with it, the Spring season, is almost here! As meaningless Spring Training games are currently being played and with teams are envisioning their blank regular season slates, an abundance of individual storylines reel us in completely. Hook, line, and sinker (or a 12-6 curve if you prefer).

So let’s explore 2021’s most exciting inner-division rivalries. Those two teams in each division that should provide the most fireworks, competitive fire, and matchup intrigue. Acknowledging that the MLB regular season is a true marathon, some of these almost certainly won’t pan out to be the tightest of races. But hey, all of these right now, look F.U.N. on paper.


American League East

Blue Jays vs. Yankees

Let’s first acknowledge the elephant in the room: Yankees-Red Sox is currently on life support. That’s not to say it won’t be revived again in the very near future, but right now, this age-old rivalry doesn’t exactly get the competitive juices flowing like it did a decade ago. And this is coming from a guy that hates both of these teams. The Yankees are the proverbial toast of the division, while the Sox are in a state of flux. Well, “re-tooling” is how they’d like to frame it. But the fact that the organization can basically print money means a rebuild will be short-lived.

The Rays also have to be mentioned, who finished with the second-best record in all of baseball last year (40-20). In terms of excitement, do they register on anyone’s radar? Not so much. While historically, they’ve been able to produce wins out of a dirt cheap roster, they did lose several key pieces this offseason and the likelihood of a regression is probable.

Baltimore? Riiiiiight.

The Blue Jays on the other hand, a playoff team last year, house a roster full of charismatic young talent, upside, and sons of former MLB players, that could pose the biggest threat to the much more matured Yankees, within the division. They also made a couple of splashes in free agency by bringing in George Springer and Marcus Semien. While both offenses should produce fireworks, the Yankees will have the edge in pitching, particularly at top of their rotation where they brought in Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon this offseason, as well as their highly-touted bullpen.

If the past inclination is true about chicks digging the long ball, women will have no qualms about watching these two teams trade blows, as they’ve each featured some of the most captivating power in the entire league over the past five years. Check out the gaudy 2016-2020 home run totals:

Team’16’17’18’19’20*
Blue Jays22122221724788
Yankees18324126730694
League Average18720418622677
* 60-game season due to COVID

With two of the most heavily armed lineups in baseball, and the “youth versus experience” narrative engrained, I dare you to make the case that this won’t be the most exciting rivalry in the AL East this season.

American League Central

Twins vs. White Sox

Does any casual baseball fan outside of Michigan or Missouri truly care about the Tigers and Royals? It’s unlikely. And sorry Kansas City, but the St. Louis Cardinals, with their Nolan Arenado acquisition, will rule baseball in the state of Mizzou anyway this season. At least you still have Pat Mahomes.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Professional Baseball Team, with the departures of some star players, has fallen on some harder times. While they have high quality starting rotation, the projected everyday lineup just has far too many question marks. Despite their success last year, I don’t even think Terry Francona can keep the soon-to-be-renamed Cleveland franchise competitive within the division this season.

That leaves the Twins and White Sox, who were separated by only a single game last season and primed to duke it out in this upcoming one. This should ultimately be a two-team race. Both of teams have been active in free agency and the trade market over the past couple of season, helping to shape dangerous offensive lineups and above-average pitching.

While both teams display quality on both sides of the diamond, the angle that I personally like in this matchup is the Twins hitting versus the White Sox pitching. I think Minnesota possesses the higher quality lineup from 1 through 9, especially with a healthy Josh Donaldson, with Nelson Cruz signing on for at least one more year, and with the potential breakout of outfielder Alex Kirilloff. Though don’t forget that Chicago is home to the reigning AL MVP in Jose Abreu.

Lucas Giolito is now a bona fide ace. | Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast (Associated Press)

On the other side, a pretty filthy rotation has been established in Chicago, led by ace Lucas Giolito, who’s developed one of the most reliable and electric arms in the league. Dallas Keuchel also returned to Cy Young form last season (6-2, 1.99 ERA, 2 HR allowed in 63.1 IP). If that 1-2 punch wasn’t enough, the team brought in Lance Lynn from Texas to add even more depth to the rotation. And they should even have quality at the back end as well. In the bullpen, the Sox signed Liam Hendriks, who put together two absolutely dominant seasons in Oakland, to close ball games for them.

Overall, with what’s become the tired division narrative in recent years, there isn’t a surplus of excitement lurking in the American League Central. However, the prize fight for the division crown between the Twins and White Sox, should be the exception.

American League West

Angels vs. Astros

Baseball fans might remember the explosive donnybrook that took place last August between the Astros and Athletics:

Well that was last season. About three weeks after this, the two teams stood in unity, essentially ending any bad blood. Regardless, the A’s eventually ran away with the division and any form of “rivalry.”

Fast forward to 2021, where the Astros, who were “cheated” out of their tour of shame in opponents’ ballparks, are still relevant. They’ve lost some pieces, but should still contend for the division title. But this time, their main source of competition could/should be the Angels of Los Angeles. Mike Trout, the game’s best all-around player, Shohei Ohtani, perhaps the game’s biggest enigma, along with slugger Anthony Rendon, lead an Angels team absolutely desperate to finally make the playoffs, after sitting out since 2014. On the other side, Houston still has firepower, and for the excitement factor, they still have villains, with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa as public enemies number one, two, and three.

With no disrespect intended toward the A’s, they’ve lost a few pieces of their own and don’t exactly move the needle in terms of star power or employ an exciting brand of baseball. Apologies, but the Mariners and Rangers are in the same boat. But Astros versus Angels? I’m tuning in to those head-to-head games, and certainly if they’re neck-and-neck coming down the stretch in the AL West. Besides, Mike Trout deserves better.

National League East

Braves vs. Mets

Between the Braves, Mets, Nationals, and Phillies, you could roll a four-sided dice to determine who might be left standing in this division at the end. The AL East waters are murky. While the Nats still have a nice rotation and the Phillies are known for turning promise into disappointment, they don’t scream EXCITEMENT. That’s why the most intriguing inner-division rivalry for this particular season should be Braves and Mets.

The Braves employ the 2020 National League MVP in Freddie Freeman, one of the games best young players in Ronald Acuna Jr., and Marcell Ozuna decided to return to the club. They also feature an elite front-end of the ration with Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and newly-acquired Charlie Morton. Atlanta has won the NL East three straight years and have all the tools to not only capture it for a fourth straight season, but to do it in exciting fashion with an effective balance of young guys with established vets.

The Mets’ freshest new face. | Photo by Pub Sports Radio

The Mets, after re-tooling this past offseason with the acquisition of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, pose the biggest threat. And they have some fun dudes on this roster. They’re rotation might be the best in baseball 1 through 5, with plenty of quality arms to use in spot start scenarios. Just look at this for a rotation: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard (eventually), Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, and Taijuan Walker. Their bullpen is also a plus, with some minor tweaks during the offseason. To pair with Lindor in the lineup, do NOT forget about 2019 Home Run Derby champion Pete Alonso as an absolute masher, and all-around fun guy.

The Braves, seeking a fourth straight division title, and the Mets, seeking any form of relevant success, is the most exciting rivalry that could exist within the NL East for the 2021 season.

National League Central

Cardinals vs. Reds

Whichever rivalry you fancy in the NL Central, the Cardinals have to be on one side of it, right? The Nolan Arenado addition alone makes them worth watching and favorable to be in the running for division honors. So let’s pencil them in. The other side, well that’s a little more complicated. Here are some projections for the division from FanGraphs:

TeamRecordRun DifferentialRS/GRA/G
Cardinals80-82-124.564.63
Brewers79-83-184.534.64
Cubs78-84-324.835.03
Reds77-85-394.674.91
Pirates65-97-1554.205.16
Projections via FanGraphs

The Cubs, fresh off of winning the division last season, still pack a punch with the Bryant-Rizzo-Baez trio infused in their lineup. But they did nothing to shore up their pitching and let their rotation fall apart (bringing back Jake Arrieta is not the answer). Now, they aren’t any more exciting than the next team. Meanwhile, the Brewers still employ one of the game’s best hitters in Christian Yelich. But looking at the depth chart, are we sure they have enough to contend in the division? I’m not so sure, though the recent Jackie Bradley Jr. signing does help. The rotation and bullpen are pluses, but I don’t see anything that speaks to a fun rivalry with the Cards. And the Pirates? Well they’re the Orioles of the National League, so expect a dead last finish (again).

That leaves the Cincinnati Reds. Man, I’d love for this team to be good. It’s been too long, and dammit, can we get Joey Votto a playoff appearance? I was on these guys two years ago as a sleeper when they finally landed a couple of notable free agents. It didn’t pan out. Thought they did lose NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to the bright lights of Los Angeles, the rotation still features some quality arms and should be slightly above average. Around Votto, the lineup has some bangers in Eugenio Suarez, Nick Castellanos, and Mike Moustakas, who are all capable of swatting 30-40 home runs in the middle of the lineup. If Nick Senzel takes another step forward, the offense could produce a lot of runs. This team has the upside to go toe-to-toe with the Cards (or anyone else in the Central for that matter).

But in a division that’s less than thrilling, I’m looking forward to Cardinals and Reds the most.

National League West

Dodgers vs. Padres

Saving the very best rivalry for last. This one will be the pinnacle of the 2021 season. The new “Red Sox-Yankees” if you will. The star power is abundant, the level of elite ability up and down the depth charts is overflowing, and the depth, especially in each’s starting rotations, is indisputable. In one corner, you have the defending-champion Dodgers, who are basically bringing back the same championship roster, but added NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer and will have David Price at their disposal, who sat out last season. If this team doesn’t win at least 100 games, something will have had to gone horribly wrong from an injury standpoint. It’s that automatic.

Then you have the San Diego Padres, who, by a landslide, have been the most active team in the free agency and trade markets over the past two seasons. Who hasn’t this team signed or traded for? To build around their cornerstone marquee player in Fernando Tatis Jr. (recently given a 14-year, $340 million dollar contract), the team brought over Eric Hosmer, Manny Machado, Tommy Pham, Wil Meyers, and now Japanese stud Ha-seong Kim. This offseason, they loaded up on pitching by obtaining the services of former AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove. On paper, this roster is stacked from top to bottom. But to compete with the Dodgers, they’ll have to execute upon the wizardry that the front office has created.

So who’s actually better?

FanGraphs projected NL West standings

We all witnessed what the Dodgers could do last season, before they added another elite arm(s) to the rotation. Last year, in a shortened season, the teams finished six games apart, measured against a much smaller sample size than a typical MLB regular season. Projecting out 2021, FanGraphs estimates them to be only three games apart, which is a small enough window where anything can happen.

For the Padres, while the names and resumes look great on paper, we haven’t seen it all come together just yet. We can all agree that these are both are sure-fire playoff teams. But when it comes to who’ll capture the division crown this season, this rivalry should be intense, and hopefully come down to the season’s final week. This is easily the best division rivalry in 2021, and likely beyond. Given the talented youth on both sides, this is an ideal replacement for “Red Sox-Yankees” if we allow it to be.


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