By Michael Levitt
As opening day gets closer and teams are figuring out what players they want to carry with them into the regular season, the picture of which teams are likely to make the playoffs gets clearer. With Major League Baseball going back to five playoff teams in each league, the battle for wild card spots will be more important. The National League should have plenty of exciting races to watch since no division has a clear frontrunner.
Any of the five teams in the National League East could end up winning the division, although the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets seem to have the best chance. The Braves have a core of young players who have already proven themselves, like outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and starting pitcher Max Fried. With veterans like first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Marcell Ozuna on the team as well, the Braves should be one of the most dangerous teams in the league. They will be even more dangerous if starting pitcher Mike Soroka can return from his Achilles injury and find his prior success. The Mets could prove to be dangerous too. New Mets owner Steve Cohen showed a willingness to spend money after buying majority control of the team in October, and it could come in handy since the club has four key players, including shortstop Francisco Lindor, eligible for free agency after this season. The Mets are all-in on this season and have pitching to rival the Braves. Their biggest question is whether the hitting can keep up. The other three teams in the division also have a shot at winning the division. The Philadelphia Phillies brought back catcher J.T. Realmuto and still have other good hitters. However, their pitching remains a work in progress. They signed relief pitcher Archie Bradley to bolster the late innings and brought in starting pitchers Matt Moore and Chase Anderson to replace Jake Arrieta, but Moore is not what he once was, and Anderson is coming off a down season in 2020. If the Phillies are going to have a chance at the division title, their pitching needs to come together. The Washington Nationals also need plenty of players to rebound if they are going to compete, and in addition, they need their stars to stay healthy after a couple missed time last year. Outfielder Juan Soto is a special talent and was in the Most Valuable Player conversation despite missing a couple weeks of the shortened season, and if starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg can stay healthy for the majority of the season after missing basically all of last year, the Nationals should be in a good place. What could put Washington over the top is if their new additions settle in nicely and find their place with the team. The Miami Marlins are in a bit of a weird spot. They ended up making the playoffs last year but expected to be in the rebuilding phase. Based off their offseason moves, they intend to continue rebuilding and not mortgage their future. They signed Adam Duvall to give their outfield prospects more time to develop in the minor leagues and acquired Anthony Bass and Dylan Floro to boost the bullpen but did not make many other moves. They already have some proven pieces like third baseman Brian Anderson and starting pitcher Sixto Sanchez who could be a piece of the future, but they need more players to step up. The Marlins are the long shot to win the division and have their gaze on the future, so barring a surprise run like last year, they will most likely take the Mets’ place in the basement of the division.
The National League Central division is also up for grabs, but more because no team has separated themselves from the pack. The St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs could all win the division, and it will likely be a close race. The Cardinals acquired superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado to give them what is probably the best corner infield duo in the league and brought back starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina after both tested free agency. The Cardinals hope that the addition of Arenado will help both the hitters and pitchers and their pitchers can take another step forward. The Brewers acquired outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and second baseman Kolten Wong but did not make any major additions to their pitching. Bradley Jr. could come in handy if Lorenzo Cain misses the start of the season and Wong is a huge upgrade defensively over Keston Hiura, who will shift to first base. However, they need starting pitchers Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes to unlock some more potential and become aces if their pitching is going to compete in the playoffs against the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Braves. The Reds were another team that stayed pat for the most part, and they lost more than they gained. Shortstop Freddy Galvis and starting pitcher Trevor Bauer left in free agency, leaving holes behind that still need to be filled. Michael Lorenzen seems likely to make the transition from relief pitcher to starting pitcher and take Bauer’s spot in the rotation, while the starting shortstop is still undecided, and four candidates are fighting for the job. The Cubs could still compete for the division despite trading away starting pitcher Yu Darvish and losing starting pitchers Jon Lester and Jose Quintana in free agency. This hurts their starting pitcher depth but gives them the opportunity to evaluate the next wave of starting pitchers in their system. It could be a trying year for all four of these teams, and they could remain bunched up until the very end of the season. But what about the fifth team in the division? The Pittsburgh Pirates once again began their yearly tradition of trading their proven players for younger ones with more potential and will almost certainly be in last place this season. This offseason, the Pirates jettisoned Bell to the Nationals, starting pitcher Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees and starting pitcher Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres. They let many players leave in free agency as well, which will leave the roster looking very different from just a couple years ago. However, Pittsburgh does have some solid young players, such as third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and outfielder Bryan Reynolds. This division will likely have one of the tightest races in baseball, so it should be exciting to watch.
But perhaps the most exciting division race will come from the National League West. The Dodgers are coming off a World Series-winning season but will face competition from the Padres, who upgraded their roster in a big way. The Padres traded for three starting pitchers to solidify their rotation, and already had a great offense that has a young star in shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and many pieces to complement him. In order to overtake the Dodgers as the best team in the division, the Padres will need their new additions to mesh well with their holdovers from last year. The Dodgers also improved their pitching by signing Bauer and will get David Price back after he opted out of the 2020 season. They still have probably the best hitting duo in baseball with outfielders Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts, and the team’s versatility is strong as usual. Their knack for developing talent and combining it with free agents who signed is the best in baseball and the reason why they have been among the best teams in baseball for the past 10 years. After those two teams, the other three will likely be fighting for third place. The Colorado Rockies are in a tough spot, stuck between competing for a wild card spot and going all in on a rebuild. They traded Arenado over the offseason but still have shortstop Trevor Story, who will be a free agent after this season and could be traded before the trade deadline. The Arizona Diamondbacks are trying to compete while also keeping players who could help them in the future. That means that players such as second baseman Ketel Marte and starting pitcher Zac Gallen are worth a lot since they are young and have already proven themselves at the major league level. The San Francisco Giants are in a rebuild and are trying to evaluate their younger players while letting their prospects make their way through the minor leagues. Their biggest question is whether to consider outfielder Mike Yastrzemski a part of the future since he is already 30 and has only had one full season in the majors.
All three divisions should be fun to watch and will likely have their own races, not to mention the wild card battle. For the last couple years, the Dodgers were the frontrunner for best National League team, but this year could face some pressure from the Padres or even the Braves for that title. It should be a fun season, and it will be nice to see a full season of baseball once again.
Edited by Emma Moloney