(CBS LA) -- It's been spring for over a week. And the weather in many parts of the country is already starting to warm up. But it won't actually feel like spring until April 1, when MLB opens its 2021 regular season. Thankfully that's only a couple days away.
This week's Spring Training Report looks at Opening Day and the predicted division winners going into the season.
A return to baseball feels like a return to how things should be. And Baseball's Opening Day will seem a lot more normal than it did last year, when the ongoing COVID pandemic delayed it until late July and kept fans out of stadiums. But it still won't be quite like it was in 2019 and before.
Every team will be in action this Thursday, as MLB kicks off what we hope will be a 162-game regular season. And every team will be allowed to have fans in the stands for their home opener. The Texas Rangers will open to a potential capacity crowd of 40,518 fans for their first home game at Globe Life Field. But they're the exception rather than the rule. Most other teams have capped attendance at 25 percent or less to start. All fans will have to social distance and wear masks.
Teams' schedules won't be limited by geography. In 2020's abbreviated campaign, every team only played 60 games over not quite 10 weeks. And they played them against American League and National League teams in their corresponding region. So, the Boston Red Sox only played teams in the East, the Chicago Cubs only played teams in the Central and so on. Those limitations don't exist this season. The playoffs will be scaled back from 16 teams to 10 teams. Those 10 qualifiers will be the six division winners plus two wild card teams apiece from the AL and NL.
Vaccinated players and team personnel will enjoy a little more freedom. COVID protocols will be relaxed for tier-one individuals -- meaning players and those in direct contact with players -- once 85 percent of those in that group are vaccinated. That means, among other things, they can be tested fewer times and associate mask-free with other vaccinated players and personnel in some indoor spaces. Players are strongly encouraged to get inoculated, but they are not required.
Masks and other signs of the pandemic will be apparent wherever you look. A couple of COVID-inspired rules will also remain in place. Games that are part of doubleheaders will continue to be seven innings. And games that go into extra innings will still start each half inning with a runner on second base.
Even so baseball will seem a lot more normal. The designated hitter returns to American League ballparks (at least, for now). Regular season squads revert back to 26 players. And the minor leagues will return before too long. Opening Day starts off the six-month marathon, and the long distraction is certainly welcome.
Predicted Division Winners
The Los Angeles Dodgers won the 2020 World Series, taking down the Tampa Bay Rays in six games. MLB's two best teams in the Fall Classic was a predictable end to an unpredictable season. The Dodgers enter the season as favorites to repeat. The Rays could struggle to keep up with the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays. But it will (hopefully) be a long season, so who knows what can happen?
AL East - New York Yankees
The American League's highest payroll should deliver AL East and eventually a pennant as well. The batting lineup is stacked with power. The pitching rotation includes Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. First baseman Luke Voit could be out for a month or longer, but that probably won't slow a team that doesn't seem to have any weaknesses.
AL Central - Chicago White Sox
After years of rebuilding, the White Sox finally some saw some success last season, reaching the playoffs. José Abreu returns after winning the AL MVP, though Eloy Jiménez's likely season-ending injury will hurt the team. New veteran manager Tony LaRussa should be able to guide a roster that features plenty of veterans and rising starts back to the postseason.
AL West - Houston Astros
Injuries could have derailed Houston's short 2020 season. But the Astros managed to get closer to returning to the World Series than anyone probably expected, with wins in their Wild Card and Divisional Series. George Springer left for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Justin Verlander is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. But designated hitter Yordan Alvarez returns after missing most of the season, and the addition of Jake Odorizzi should bolster the rotation.
NL East - Atlanta Braves
The Braves have won the division three seasons in a row and came just shy of a World Series appearance. First baseman Freddie Freeman, the National League's reigning MVP, and Ronald Acuña Jr. power a strong offense. The pitching rotation is also solid. The Braves should have enough to stay ahead of a bulked-up New York Mets team looking to make a move.
NL Central - St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals' offense was a little lacking last season. But the addition of third baseman Nolan Arenado, traded over from the Colorado Rockies, should help correct that. His defensive prowess at the hot corner -- eight Gold Gloves in eight seasons -- will help as well. While the infield is a team strength, the outfield is a little more of an open question, especially at the plate. Their pitching is also deep, especially in the bullpen.
NL West - Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are the early-season favorites to return to the World Series. They'll just have to fend off the San Diego Padres, the second-best team in the division and maybe the second-best team in all of baseball. This Dodgers roster is loaded from top to bottom, from outfielders Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger to Corey Seager and Justin Turner on the left side of the infield. NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer joins an already stellar rotation. There just aren't any holes on this Dodgers team.
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