mets-dodgers.png
Getty Images

The calendar has flipped to 2021, and the only thing you can say about Major League Baseball's competitive landscape is that it looks an awful lot like it did last year. The Padres and Mets gave the hot stove a much-needed jolt these last two weeks, otherwise things have been very quiet. Only 12 of our top 60 free agents have signed, including only one of the top 14.

Spring training is scheduled to begin in five weeks, though there's a chance it will be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. MLB is pushing for a delay to avoid playing games without fans while the MLBPA wants a full season with full pay. History tells us the two sides will continue their bickering publicly over the next few weeks. Hopefully hot stove action provides a nice distraction from the labor war.

Now that we're in a new year, let's take a look at the National League's competitive landscape. It's important to note this is only a snapshot in time, because rosters will change between now and spring training, whenever that is. We tackled the American League last week, and now it's time to cover the Senior Circuit (teams are listed alphabetically within each tier).  

The powerhouses

As they've done under GM Alex Anthopoulos the last few years, the Braves again struck quickly this offseason and signed Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to one-year contracts in November. They'll join Ian Anderson, Max Fried, and a hopefully healthy Mike Soroka in the rotation. Atlanta still has needs in the outfield -- at the moment they have Abraham Almonte, Ender Inciarte, and Cristian Pache penciled in alongside Ronald Acuna Jr. -- and questions about third base (why not call Cleveland and ask about Jose Ramirez at this point?), and re-signing or replacing Mark Melancon and Darren O'Day rather than winging it with internal bullpen options wouldn't be a bad idea either. The core of the team that won the last three NL East titles remains intact. The Braves just need to supplement that core with another outfielder and maybe a third baseman. There's little reason to think they will be anything but one of the best teams in the league again in 2021.  

It has been a relatively quiet offseason for the defending World Series champions. The Dodgers re-signed Blake Treinen, traded for Corey Knebel, and signed Tommy Kahnle (he signed a two-year deal and will miss 2021 while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery), and that's about it. And, truth be told, I'm not sure the Dodgers need to do a ton more than that. They could use a third baseman -- I still think a reunion with Justin Turner is inevitable -- though Matt Beaty and Edwin Rios are viable in-house options. Los Angeles could probably live with them at the hot corner. A versatile fourth outfielder type to replace Joc Pederson figures to be on the shopping list as well. The Dodgers were the best team in baseball all last season and, on paper, I think they'll again be the best team in baseball going into next year. Patch up third base and the outfield, and off they go.  

I was all set to put the Mets in their own "burgeoning powerhouse" tier, then they went out and added Carlos Carrasco and Francisco Lindor without giving up anything they'll miss, so into the powerhouse tier they go. The Mets still lack a natural center fielder and there's room for another pitcher. They can sign a starter and put Seth Lugo in the bullpen, or sign a reliever and put Lugo in the rotation. The Mets have flexibility there. Keep in mind the Mets have a ton of players entering their contract year (Lindor, Dellin Betances, Brad Brach, Michael Conforto, Jeurys Familia, Steven Matz, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard). I have to think a Lindor extension is coming. The others will need to be re-signed or replaced. That could make Jackie Bradley Jr. a more sensible fit than George Springer to fill that center field spot. Either way, the Mets have a lot to prove after going 26-34 last year, and adding Carrasco and Lindor (and essentially Stroman, who opted out of 2020) is a huge step in the right direction.   

No team has made more big splashes this offseason than the Padres, and they made all those big splashes in a 24-hour span. Yu Darvish and Blake Snell bolster the rotation, Ha-Seong Kim improves their infield and overall depth, and MLB Network's Jon Heyman reports San Diego made a run at Japanese ace Tomoyuki Sugano before he decided to return to Japan, which tells me they aren't done this offseason (also, the interest in Sugano is not easing my concerns about Dinelson Lamet's health). I think the Padres have the most complete roster in the National League right now. They could use another reliever and another bench bat, though they don't have a glaring need like the Braves and their outfield, the Dodgers and third base, or the Mets and center field. San Diego had the third best record (37-23) and second best run differential (plus-84) in baseball last year and they've added significantly this winter. They are no longer an underdog. They're a bona fide powerhouse.  
The division no team wants to win

The Brewers snuck into the postseason with a 29-31 record last year, and with all due respect to Luke Maile, they've done nothing this offseason. They traded Corey Knebel -- traded him only because they were going to non-tender him, I should note -- and declined several club options, most notably Ryan Braun's, and that's it. The roster at this point is slightly worse than last year's and last year's roster was one of the worst offensive teams in the sport. It's not unreasonable to expect more from Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura in 2021, plus Lorenzo Cain will return after opting out, though Milwaukee has obvious needs all around the infield and in the bullpen. There is some merit to sticking with Orlando Arcia, Daniel Vogelbach, and Luis Urias. It's just that with the NL Central so wide open, it wouldn't take a whole lot to vault the Brewers into the mix for the division title, so make an effort. There are clear ways to improve this roster and the reward could be significant.    

If we include Rule 5 Draft picks, the Cardinals are the only team in baseball to not add a player to their 40-man roster from outside the organization this offseason. They declined Kolten Wong's affordable option and that's it, folks. That is the extent of the changes to their MLB roster. Last year's Cardinals were pretty mediocre (30-28 with a plus-11 run differential) and having a full year of top prospect Dylan Carlson should help, ditto a Jack Flaherty bounce-back year, but gosh, what an uninspiring offseason this has been for St. Louis. Yadier Molina is likely to return at catcher -- I'll believe he will sign with another team when I see it -- yet there are still needs on the infield (second and third bases), on the bench, and at the back of the rotation. Might be time to get on that, Cardinals. The division is there for the taking.

Fun fact: The Cubs won the NL Central in 2020. That's a real thing that happened. And yet, as the folks at Bleacher Nation showed, Chicago's payroll is down $75 million -- $75 million! -- from last year thanks to trades (Victor Caratini and Yu Darvish), non-tenders (Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber), and free agency (Tyler Chatwood and Jon Lester). Payroll could drop even further should the Cubs trade Kris Bryant and/or Willson Contreras. The Cubs badly need another outfielder, an innings-eater for the back of the rotation, most of a bench, and a reliever or four. The crazy thing is this roster, as it currently sits, could win the NL Central in 2021. There's still talent on the roster and every other team in the division is cutting back. I get it, the pandemic has cut into revenues and teams all around MLB are reducing payroll, but no big-market team has done it as shamelessly and as much to the detriment of their contention window as the Cubs this offseason.  

On this very site we praised the Reds for their efforts to build a winner in recent years. It is disappointing then to see them cutting costs this offseason. Trade deadline pickups Archie Bradley and Brian Goodwin were non-tendered, Raisel Iglesias was traded in what amounts to a salary dump, and cornerstone players like Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Eugenio Suarez have appeared in trade rumors. They're also going to lose Trevor Bauer to free agency. What a bummer, especially after the offense no-showed (literally zero runs scored) in the Wild Card Series. Cincinnati desperately needs a shortstop, and a couple of relievers wouldn't hurt either. Will they spend what it takes to address those needs? Their offseason activity to date suggests the answer is no. There's enough talent on the roster as is to win the weak NL Central. I honestly don't think it would take all that much to push this team to the top of the division.
A few pieces away?

Last year was a disastrous worst-case scenario kind of season for the Diamondbacks. Aside from Zac Gallen's great year, pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Arizona won't challenge the Dodgers or Padres for the NL West crown, though a case can be made they already have enough talent to compete for a Wild Card spot, especially if the postseason field is expanded. That would require numerous bounce-back seasons, however, and it's never a good idea to put all your eggs in the "well, it can't be worse than last year" basket. A righty hitter to complement their all-lefty outfield (Kole Calhoun, David Peralta, Daulton Varsho) is a necessity, as is a late-inning bullpen arm and maybe even a back-end starter. More than anything, the D-Backs needs guys like Madison Bumgarner, Eduardo Escobar, Carson Kelly, and Ketel Marte to get back to where they were in 2019. Do that, supplement the roster a tad, and Arizona can be right in the thick of the Wild Card race next year.  

Similar to the D-Backs, the Giants are stuck in the same division as the Dodgers and Padres, though they could contend for a Wild Card spot in 2021. Heck, San Francisco tied the Brewers for the final postseason spot last year, but Milwaukee held the tiebreaker and San Francisco was sent home. Curt Casali, Anthony DeSclafani, and Matt Wisler were sensible pickups and retaining Kevin Gausman was important. The Giants still need one more starting pitcher, and another bullpen arm or two wouldn't hurt either. I thought San Francisco would be in the mix for Francisco Lindor or George Springer, though that hasn't been the case, and they seem content to wait until most of their big contracts (Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Johnny Cueto, Buster Posey) are off the books next winter before diving into the deep end of the free agent pool. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi excels at turning overlooked pickups into key contributors. Work that magic with the pitching staff and the Giants will be in the race for a Wild Card spot again next season.  

How good are the Marlins, really? I'm struggling to figure it out. There is exciting young talent on the roster, undeniably. Sandy Alcantara, Brian Anderson, Pablo Lopez, and Sixto Sanchez can play on my team any day. Miami also has a nice mix of veterans (Jesus Aguilar, Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte) and more prospects on the way (Jazz Chisholm, Lewin Diaz, etc.). At the same time, the Marlins went 10-4 in seven-inning games and 21-25 in all other games last year, so I worry they were a bit of a mirage. You can begin to see the fruits of their rebuild though. An outfielder, a veteran innings-eater, and a late-inning bullpen arm or two could put the Marlins in position to do something in 2021 they've never done in franchise history: qualify for the postseason in back-to-back seasons. They'll likely have to settle for a Wild Card spot but hey, get into the postseason and you can win the World Series. All you need is a spot in the dance.  

The Nationals traded for Josh Bell and signed Kyle Schwarber in recent weeks and that's good, because history suggests a team in which Starlin Castro is a top-three hitter isn't very good. Washington still has an opening at third base, plus there is lots of room for improvement behind the big three in the rotation. The Nationals went 26-34 last year, yet you can see them in the race next year with a few more additions. At the same time, you don't have to try real hard to see this team collapsing in 2021. The roster is very top heavy, so injuries and underperformance could derail them in a hurry. That's pretty much exactly what happened last year. And, if things do go sideways, the Max Scherzer rumors at the trade deadline will be unavoidable. For now, the Bell and Schwarber pickups tell us GM Mike Rizzo plans on making a run with this group next year. He still has some work to do though.

It has now been 10 years since the Phillies last had an above-.500 record, let alone qualified for the postseason. Their most notable addition this offseason is new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, and their most notable on-field addition is lefty reliever and bounce-back candidate Jose Alvarado. Philadelphia is trying to retain J.T. Realmuto and, frankly, losing him would be disastrous, even if they're able to turn around and trade for Willson Contreras. An innings-eater to reduce reliance on Vince Velasquez, an infielder to replace Didi Gregorius and reduce reliance on Scott Kingery, and an almost entirely new bullpen should be on the offseason to-do list. Like most teams, the Phillies are said to be cutting costs this winter, and there may not be much money to play with beyond a Realmuto deal. There's enough talent on the roster as is that you can see this team contending for a postseason berth in 2021. That would require the whole not being less than the sum of the parts yet again.  
The rebuilders

Last spring the MLBPA filed another grievance against the Pirates (and other teams) over their lack of spending. Pittsburgh's full season payroll going into 2020: $66.9 million. Their current projected 2021 payroll: $46.6 million. Yikes! The pandemic gives the Pirates an excuse to cut costs and they are taking full advantage. Josh Bell was traded last month and they have a few other obvious trade candidates (Adam Frazier, Joe Musgrove, Richard Rodriguez, maybe Jameson Taillon depending how comfortable teams are with his health) who could be on the move prior to spring training. The NL Central is baseball's worst division and it would not surprise me to see any team win it in 2021. Any team except the Pirates, that is. They hold the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft and they'll be in the running for the No. 1 pick in 2022 draft as well.  

Let's check in on the Rockies: Nolan Arenado is unhappy, Trevor Story is a year away from free agency, the outfield is a mess aside from Charlie Blackmon, they don't have a first baseman or a catcher, they had their worst winning percentage in six years in 2020, and ownership sent a letter to season ticket holders all but admitting payroll will come down. Oh, and they have to play the Dodgers and Padres a combined 38 times in 2021. Other than that, everything is going great in Colorado! I'm not sure where the Rockies go from here, honestly. Add some outfielders, a first baseman, some pitching depth, and hope you run into a Wild Card spot next year? They haven't committed to a full-fledged rebuild the way the Pirates have, though that seems far more likely to happen than competing for a postseason berth in the near future.