In truth, however, that would be slighting the Braves, the three-time division champs who in 2021 might just have their best team yet in this latest run, after coming oh-so-close to knocking off the Dodgers last October. They took a 3-1 lead in the NLCS before letting it get away.
Indeed, if there’s one statistic that is a starting point for debate about how the 2021 NL East stacks up at this mid-winter moment, I’d point to this one: In 2020, the Braves won the division handily at 35-25 even though their starting pitchers posted the worst ERA in the National League at 5.38.
That’s how good their offense was, scoring the second-highest total of runs in the league — only one run behind the Dodgers. And the same went for their largely unheralded bullpen, whose 3.50 ERA was also second in the NL to the Dodgers.
But here’s the thing: the 2021 Braves are expected to have one of the best starting rotations in the majors. For all the excitement around here about the Mets, in fact, folks in Atlanta believe this is the year their young, home-grown starting pitching comes of age to join forces with that dynamic lineup and produce dominance from start to finish.
We’ll see. The Mets have improved significantly, and they’re not done spending Steve Cohen’s money.
Also, let’s not rule out a return to power by the 2019 world champion Nationals, who have beefed up their lineup, or even the Phillies, unless they are truly bent on cutting payroll.
And, no, I haven’t forgotten the Marlins made the surprise run to playoffs last year: they can no longer be dismissed as a non-factor even if they’re probably another year away from being true contenders over a 162-game season.
In any case, in the wake of the Lindor/Carrrasco trade, it seems like a good time to take stock of the NL East. For each team, I offer my own odds on winning the division and the one big move they could still make to improve those odds, starting with the division winners a season ago:
As I was saying, unsightly ERA last year aside, starting pitching is what gives the Braves the edge over the Mets at the moment.
After injuries weakened their rotation during the regular season, the Braves offered a glimpse of their future in the postseason when rookie Ian Anderson and breakout lefty Max Fried were nearly enough to get the Braves to the World Series.
So, if Mike Soroka returns to form after his Achilles injury and free-agent signee Charlie Morton doesn’t get old overnight, it’s more likely the Atlanta rotation will post something closer to the best ERA in the NL than the worst.
Meanwhile, the likes of Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson assure they’ll have plenty of offense again, though it’s worth noting that they’ll take a hit if they don’t re-sign Marcell Ozuna, who was a major factor for them.
ODDS THEY WIN THE NL EAST: 2-1
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Re-sign Ozuna, who led the league with 18 HRs, put up a 1.067 OPS and offered important right-handed protection behind NL MVP Freeman. (A return of the DH in the NL would be important in this regard, since Ozuna was used mostly in that role).
They’ve had an impressive offseason already, obviously. The deals for Lindor and catcher James McCann provide much-needed improvement defensively up the middle, in addition to the 30-home run power that Lindor offers at shortstop.
Meanwhile, Carrasco and Marcus Stroman, who opted out last season, upgrade a starting rotation that was the biggest reason the Mets went 26-34, pitching to a 5.37 ERA that ranked 13th in the NL. But they could use more depth, especially if they’re planning to return Seth Lugo to the bullpen, where he has been his most dominant.
If Lugo does relieve again, the bullpen is solid with the smart signing of Trevor May, though counting on Edwin Diaz to dominate again based on his strong finish last year might be presuming too much.
And while the Mets’ lineup looks strong, considering their .807 OPS was third in the NL last year, it’s worth remembering that their failures in the clutch were a glaring issue, as was their too-often boneheaded baserunning.
ODDS THEY WIN THE NL EAST: 4-1
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Sign George Springer. It might be tricky now, especially if Cohen wants to stay under the luxury-tax threshold. But as a center fielder with a track record of hitting elite pitching in the postseason, he would both complete the Mets’ up-the-middle defensive transformation and officially make the lineup a beast.
Will they bounce back from the post-championship hangover that saw the Nats start slow and never even sniff the expanded playoffs in 2020?
Getting Stephen Strasburg back, after a wrist injury limited him to two starts, would be a huge step toward making that happen, especially if Max Scherzer has another big year in him at age 36/37 and Patrick Corbin finds his 2019 form as well.
Offensively, they’ve made a couple of significant moves. On Saturday, the Nats signed Kyle Schwarber, and together with their trade for Josh Bell, that will add some muscle to the Nationals’ lineup. It will also provide much-needed help for Juan Soto, their young superstar who is emerging as the best hitter in baseball after hitting .351 with a league-best .695 slugging percentage.
ODDS THEY WIN THE NL EAST: 5-1
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Sign J.T. Realmuto. That was a hot rumor in December and the star catcher would make the Nats a much more complete team.
They’re reportedly in financial distress related to the pandemic-related loss of revenues, but it’s hard to believe they hired a win-now gunslinger like Dave Dombrowski as their new head of baseball operations to sit on his hands this winter.
Maybe they’re just waiting out the market like so many teams at the moment, but in any case, they need to get busy if they’re going to be a real threat in 2021.
Re-signing Realmuto, the best catcher in baseball, is an obvious starting point. But even more important, they need to repair a disastrous bullpen that put up a 7.06 ERA, by far the worst in the majors.
Even with all the bullpen problems, they did finish ahead of the Mets and Nationals at 28-32, with solid starting pitching and an offense that scored the third-highest total of runs in the NL, as $330 million man Bryce Harper put up a .962 OPS.
ODDS THEY WIN THE NL EAST: 10-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Realmuto aside, the Phillies desperately need to sign a couple of top relievers, say Liam Hendriks and Brad Hand, if they’re serious about trying to win a championship.
Their 31-29 record and surprise playoff appearance that included a beatdown of the Cubs in the postseason was a great story, but would the Marlins have held up over a 162-game season? It still seems unlikely, but they’ll get a chance to prove otherwise in 2021.
They’ve done nothing so far this winter to improve, and it seems clear owner Derek Jeter is still going to play the long game, waiting for his improving farm system to add to the blossoming talent at the major league level.
The Marlins’ strength is their young starting rotation, which should give them a chance to compete for the post-season again. But they need a better bullpen and more pop offensively to be genuine contenders.
ODDS THEY WIN THE NL EAST: 15-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: They’re clearly not going to spend big, so they should take a high-upside gamble on Kirby Yates, whose splitter made him a dominant closer for the Padres in 2018-19 before needing surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow in 2020.