Five biggest questions for final week of 2021 MLB season: Division races, 50-homer mark, more

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By this time next week, Major League Baseball will have concluded yet another regular season. In many respects, 2021 marked a return to normalcy for the league. Teams still had to be mindful of COVID-19 (and there were still outbreaks, particularly among teams with lower vaccination rates), yet the league managed to finish a 162-game schedule, complete with an All-Star Game and full crowds.

Of course, there will be plenty of time for reflection over the coming months — especially if this winter’s Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations take a wrong turn. For now, let’s welcome this final week of regular-season baseball by highlighting five storylines we’ll be monitoring between now and Sunday’s final out.

1. Who wins the NL East, West?

There are only two divisions whose champion remains in doubt. Both, coincidentally, are in the National League.

In the East, the Atlanta Braves are attempting to hold on to a 2 1/2-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies, thereby securing their fourth consecutive division crown. The Braves will have a chance to dispose of the Phillies by their own devices, as the two sides will meet in Atlanta for a three-game set beginning on Tuesday. The Phillies have not won the East — or made the playoffs — since 2011.

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Out in the West, the San Francisco Giants are nursing their own two-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two sides won’t meet again, meaning the Dodgers will need help. The Giants are scheduled to play the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres; the Dodgers will meet the Padres and the Milwaukee Brewers. The Dodgers have won the West every season since 2013.

2. Can the Yankees hold on?

The American League lacks divisional drama, but it remains unclear who will represent the league in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees capped off a sweep of the rival Boston Red Sox on Sunday night, leaving the Bronx Bombers a game up in the standings and in good position to take one of the two wild-card slots.

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners continue to loom, though, and they could take advantage of favorable scheduling. The Red Sox will play the lowly Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals, giving them an easy pathway to October. The Yankees, conversely, will face the Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays, giving them the toughest remaining road of the four relevant teams. 

As for the Blue Jays, they’ll get the Orioles to end the season. The Mariners, for their part, will wrap up the year with the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels.

Strength of schedule doesn’t always make the difference, but it’s certainly a consideration in tight races like this one.

3. Will anyone hit 50 home runs?

Round numbers are the best numbers in baseball. While 50 home runs isn’t unheard of — Pete Alonso launched that many in 2019, and Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge both cleared that mark in 2017 — it doesn’t happen as frequently as it did during the Steroid Era. Indeed, the next 50-homer season will be just the sixth since 2008.

Three batters have a realistic chance at cracking 50 this season: Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (46), Royals catcher Salvador Perez (46), and Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani (45). Marcus Semien (43) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (41) are both over 40, but it seems highly unlikely either hits the half-century mark.

Should Guerrero, Perez, and Ohtani each find a way to hit 50, it would mark the first time since 2001 that at least three hitters pulled off the feat. 

4. Who gets the No. 1 pick?

The drama of the final week isn’t reserved for teams at the top of the standings. Rather, the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks are competing to finish with the worst record in the majors, thereby locking up the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. They enter the final week of the season with identical 50-106 records.

The Orioles would appear to have the tougher slate — a good thing when viewed through this context — as they’ll play the Red Sox and the Blue Jays. Fresh off a weekend series against the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks will play the Giants and the Rockies to close out the year. 

Next year’s draft is shaping up to be a good one. If the draft were held tomorrow, Florida prep outfielder Elijah Green would likely be the No. 1 pick.

5. Which managers will be fired?

Not everything is fun and games. Unfortunately, the end of the regular season means that some individuals will lose their jobs, including managers.

It seems more likely than not the Yankees will retain Aaron Boone regardless of how the next week plays out. That leaves Jayce Tingler (Padres) and Luis Rojas (Mets) as the two managers worth keeping an eye on. Both teams entered the spring with sky-high expectations, yet neither will make the postseason. It probably doesn’t boost either’s chances of retaining their jobs that the Padres are in the midst of overhauling other parts of their organization, while the Mets are seeking another new general manager.

For more on the hot seat, CBS Sports’ Matt Snyder ranked the four managers most likely to lose their job.

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