The NL East is loaded with talent and should be even more challenging in 2021 than it was in 2020. The Mets will be improved. So, too, should be the Nationals, a year removed from a World Series hangover and likely with a better offense.
The Braves are the class of the division, having won it three years in a row with a record of 222-162. They, too, should be even better in 2021 with more starting pitching health and the additions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.
These five teams are in very different places in their cycles of contention. The Braves and Mets are clearly in win-now mode. The Nationals have taken a step back because of the top-end talent they've lost and their weak farm system. The Phillies, not in much of a position to spend this offseason, probably won't make up the ground necessary to supplant the Braves in the short-term. The Marlins are just trying to continue making progress after an unexpected berth in 2020's expanded eight-team NL playoff field.
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On an NL East roundtable podcast earlier this week, an analyst from each NL East team went over their team's current status and what would represent failure in 2021.
For the Phillies, failure would be losing J.T. Realmuto, missing the playoffs again, having a 10th straight non-winning season, further frustrating the fanbase and potentially Bryce Harper. Truthfully, each piece of that worst-case scenario is plausible given the context of the offseason and division.
What about the Phillies’ four NL East rivals?
Kevin McAlpin on the Braves: Not making it to the World Series
"They had really good steps in the right direction this year. These guys were tired of the narrative that they get to the playoffs every year but can't win a series. Well, they won two of 'em this year, the wild-card series and the division series.
"Look, 1995 was a long time ago and they've had a lot of really good teams since then. Certainly, winning the division is great, but now the expectations have been raised. At least getting to a World Series, in my opinion ... if they can't do that with this group, something's gone wrong because they have a really, really talented ballclub."
The Braves' big question this offseason is whether they can retain Marcell Ozuna, who signed a one-year deal in Atlanta and nearly won the Triple Crown, hitting .338/.431/.636 and leading the NL with 18 HR and 56 RBI. Ozuna was even better for the Braves than slugger Josh Donaldson was on a one-year deal the season before.
Mike Vaccaro on the Mets: Wasting another year of Jacob deGrom's prime
"Playoffs are imperative for them, not just because of Steve Cohen coming in, but because the Mets have their own Mike Trout in Jacob deGrom. And they have really done a great job of wasting the prime of Jacob deGrom's career.
"He was spectacular in the 2015 playoffs and he hasn't been back. The Mets made it back the next year but he was hurt. And during the last three years he's been practically indomitable and he can barely have a winning record, much less pitch a playoff game.
"I think for that alone, they feel a clock ticking in terms of taking advantage of having a guy who's probably gonna be one of the best two or three starting pitchers in baseball and of course to fulfilling the ambitions that (Cohen) has now that he owns the team."
The Mets have been aggressive this offseason, even without yet signing a player from the top tier. They've added catcher James McCann (4 years, $40.6M) and reliever Trevor May (2 years, $15.5M), while keeping Marcus Stroman via the one-year, $18.9M qualifying offer.
Todd Dybas on the Nationals: Another season like 2020
"A worst-case scenario is a repeat of the flop this year. You had Juan Soto go crazy last year, you don't want to lose too many Juan Soto seasons before he hits free agency in 2025. This is your last year, for sure, of the Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg-Patrick Corbin situation.
"The worst-case situation for them is obviously missing the playoffs again, dealing with injuries again and kinda being stuck in this space where they're waiting for their farm system to catch up and they're not spending to fill the voids in the interim and they're just kinda turning their wheels.
"Their defense stunk last year. Their outfield defense was bad. They need to be better with the dreaded little things, which we've heard from Davey Martinez so many times. But it's true because their margin of error won't be what it was in the past, it will be reduced."
Soto hit .351/.490/.695 this season, leading the majors in OBP and slugging. He reached base 96 times and didn't reach base 100 times. With pretty much every player in baseball, you'd say those numbers are completely unrealistic over a 162-game season. But with the 22-year-old Soto? Maybe not.
The Nats' farm system is really bad. In Baseball America's most recent rankings of the 30 teams' farm systems, the Phillies were 26th and the Nationals were 28th. The Braves, despite graduating impact players every year, were 7th. The Marlins were 9th and the Mets were 20th.
Jordan McPherson on the Marlins: Going backward
"Their goal this year is to build on the momentum of last year and prove that it wasn't a fluke of making the playoffs just because it was a 60-game schedule and an expanded field.
"They're going in knowing it's Year 4 of a rebuild constructed by Derek Jeter. They're at the point where they can't just be relying on selling hope and the farm system. They need the results and the results have to start coming now.
"The fact that they had the concrete results of 2020, if they start receding again, it's just going to start raising some flags among the fanbase who they're still trying to win over three years down the road. If it's not a playoff run, they're definitely going to have to still be in contention post-trade deadline, going into September at the very least."
A full season of Starling Marte should help. Over the last two seasons, the Marlins are 17-12 against the Phillies and 71-122 against everyone else.