While the Dodgers' $700 million signing of Shohei Ohtani sent shockwaves through the sports world, it didn't do much to shake up the landscape of the National League because they were going to be one of the top two or three teams for years either way.
This past season, 2023, was a blip on their radar. The Dodgers won 100 games without a starting pitching staff, scoring the second-most runs in baseball until the lack of pitching caught up with them in an NLDS loss to the Diamondbacks.
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The Braves and Dodgers will enter the season with by far the shortest odds to win the NL pennant, followed by the Phillies. There is currently a large gap between the league's projected third-best team, the Phillies, and the next-best club, a tier that includes the D-backs, Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Padres and Mets.
The Mets, who entered 2023 with the highest payroll in major-league history before falling well short of expectations and unloading Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, do not look like a threat entering the season, a substantial change from a year ago. The NL East figures to be a two-horse race in 2024 as the Mets retool, the Nationals rebuild and the Marlins ask for a ton from their young starters as Sandy Alcantara misses the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The layout of the division could be a contributing factor to the Phillies' decision not to be as aggressive this offseason as they've been in winters past. Some of it is the Phils being filled at eight of nine everyday positions, some of it is the huge payroll and number of stars they've signed and some of it is the expectation that they already possess the talent to return to the playoffs and have seen first-hand how much of a crapshoot October baseball can be.
Think about it this way. Cody Bellinger is the top available free agent. If you plopped him onto the Phillies' roster (which isn't happening), would it have a material impact on their ability to win as many regular-season games as the Braves and Dodgers? Perhaps, though they'd still be projected third behind the Braves and Dodgers, and regular-season wins haven't exactly correlated with playoff success since MLB went to its current format. It is likelier that their next big move comes around the trade deadline, when they've better identified what's holding them back.
Looking around at the rest of the league, you can see why there's such a projected gap after the Phils.
The Brewers, winners of 92 games a season ago, have done little this offseason, lost Brandon Woodruff and could trade Corbin Burnes and Willy Adames. They certainly don't appear to be in spend mode at the moment.
The Padres traded their best hitter, Juan Soto, and currently have one of the majors' weakest 6-7-8-9s, three starting pitchers and no bullpen.
The Cardinals have added quantity of pitching but not necessarily quality, unless you think Sonny Gray can be a No. 1 or reach 190 innings for the first time in a decade. Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson should soak up innings but could each have an ERA over 5.00. Paul Goldschmidt is 36, while 32-year-old Nolan Arenado has shown signs of slippage, specifically on defense where he's no longer the unquestioned best in the game.
The Cubs likely still have additions to make, but they lost Bellinger, Marcus Stroman and Jeimer Candelario. They have a decent team that doesn't stand out in any way other than middle infield defense. Modest power, nobody who hits for a high average, incomplete rotation, mediocre bullpen. They've reportedly shown interest in Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor and free agent Rhys Hoskins.
The Diamondbacks will expect to build off the year they had, contending into the future, and they made an important move in signing 30-year-old lefty Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year, $80 million contract. You'll recall that entering the 2023 NLCS, the biggest advantage the Phillies were thought to have was on the pitching staff after Arizona's top two of Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. Then Brandon Pfaadt and the Arizona bullpen shut the Phils down in Games 3, 4 and 7. Rodriguez fortifies the D-backs' roster and was a necessary move because success in baseball is rarely linear. There's an element of fortune in every playoff run and Arizona is likelier to take a step back than to return to the World Series. The same was said about the Phillies after they fell to the Astros in 2022, which made the response of 2023 even more impressive until the eventual collapse. Most of these players feel like they've been going nonstop for two full years.
There are still a handful of potential difference-makers available: Bellinger, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Josh Hader; Glasnow and Dylan Cease on the trade market. Short of one National League team adding three of them, every projection system and sportsbook will likely have the same hierarchy of Braves, Dodgers ... gap ... Phillies ... gap ... followed by the next wave.