2021 Atlanta Braves: Staying Atop the NL East

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The 2021 Atlanta Braves come into the season as back-to-back-to-back NL East Champions, but the other teams of the NL East are making moves this offseason to try and dethrone the Braves. In this article, we’ll go over what moves the 2021 Atlanta Braves division rivals have made and what the Braves can do to win the division for the fourth time in a row.

2021 Atlanta Braves Offseason Overview

So far during the offseason, we have seen the Atlanta Braves make a few moves. At the beginning of the offseason, several Braves players from the 2020 season became free agents. Some notable names include Marcell Ozuna, Adam Duvall, Tyler Flowers, Nick Markakis, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon.

The Braves have made a few additions, such as in November signing SP Drew Smyly and eight days later signing former Braves prospect SP Charlie Morton, both to one-year contracts.

The 2021 Atlanta Braves also avoided arbitration with Max Fried, A.J. Minter, Johan Camargo, Luke Jackson, and Grant Dayton.

While these moves have put the Braves in the right direction to claim the NL East title in 2021, a few other NL East teams have been busy this offseason. The 2021 Atlanta Braves must make a few other moves to solidify their spot atop the NL East for the fourth year in a row.

Notable New York Mets Moves

The team in the NL East that has made the biggest splash this offseason is without question the New York Mets. By now we are all aware of the blockbuster trade that brought SS Francisco Lindor and SP Carlos Carrasco to Queens, but new Mets owner Steve Cohen hasn’t stopped there.

The Mets avoided arbitration with several players. Three notable position players that avoided arbitration with the Mets are outfielders Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, and 1B/OF Dominic Smith, who in 2020 were worth a combined 5.3 fWAR and averaged a wRC+ of 156 ⅔.

The New York Mets also avoided arbitration with pitchers Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, and Edwin Diaz. Dellin Betances and Brad Brach also remain on the team after accepting their player options for 2021.

The Mets lost veteran catcher Wilson Ramos but signed James McCann to a four-year contract. McCann was widely seen as the best catcher in the free-agent class not named JT Realmuto. They also signed free-agents RP Trevor May and OF Jose Martinez, adding even more depth.

Lastly, as of January 18th, the Mets were a part of a three-team trade that sent Padres SP Joey Lucchesi to Queens. Lucchesi had a tough 2020 and was optioned to the alternate site after only 5 ⅔ innings, but as recently as 2019 threw 163 ⅔ innings with a 4.18 ERA.

The Mets are clearly making moves to put them in contention for the NL East crown, and FanGraphs 2021 standings projections currently have the Mets finishing with a .571 winning percentage to the 2021 Atlanta Braves .537 winning percentage.

Notable Washington Nationals Moves

The Washington Nationals, only one season removed from their 2019 World Series title, still have a very good roster. A rotation that features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin is enough to make any team worried. Add a hitter like Juan Soto to the lineup, who since the 2018 season is fifth in wRC+ among all MLB position players with 152, and it doesn’t take very much more for the Nationals to be competitive.

To add to their team, the Nats traded for power-hitting first basemen Josh Bell. Bell had a rough 2020, but his four seasons prior saw a wRC+ above 100 each year, and in 2019 he tied for ninth for home runs in the NL with 37.

The Nationals promptly avoided arbitration with four players: the aforementioned Josh Bell, Juan Soto, SS Trea Turner, and SP Joe Ross. Having Juan Soto and Trea Turner locked up helps the Nats immensely moving forward making moves, as Soto and Turner are cornerstones for the franchise. In 2020, the pair put up a combined fWAR of 5.1 and averaged a wRC+ of 178.5.

The Nationals also added free-agents OF Kyle Schwarber and SP Jon Lester. Both of these are seen mostly as bench or depth pieces, but Schwarber will look to bounce back from a disappointing 2020 while Lester looks for the chance to add one more ring to his World Series collection before riding off into the sunset.

The Nationals have been contenders for a while now, but after a tough 2020 that saw them finish dead last in the NL East, the Nats will be looking to be competitive in the last year of three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer’s contract.

Notable Philadelphia Phillies Moves

Coming into 2021, the Phillies are now nine seasons removed from the last time they won the NL East. In those nine seasons, they have finished with a record below .500 seven times and have finished exactly .500 twice. 2021 will be their last opportunity to put together a winning season before going an entire decade without one.

The Phillies had several players become free agents such as SS Didi Gregorius and top catcher of the free-agent class, J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies may bring one or both players back, but as of right now they are still free agents.

Where the Phillies have mostly put their attention this offseason is the bullpen. In 2020 they had the worst ERA (7.06), third-worst FIP (5.56), and a combined bullpen fWAR of -0.9. To fix this problem in 2021, the Phillies made a multitude of relief pitcher releases and replaced them with names such as José Alvarado and Archie Bradley. Alvarado hopes to get back to his 2018 form when he posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.1 fWAR in 64 innings, while Bradley looks to continue on his success from 2020 where he posted a 2.95 ERA and 0.6 fWAR in only 18 ⅓ innings of relief.

Fixing the bullpen is a must for the Phillies, but unless the offense is built up around star outfielder Bryce Harper, the Phillies look to finish their 10th season without a winning record in 2021.

Notable Miami Marlins Moves

Miami had a 2020 season that saw them take a wildcard spot in the expanded playoffs, but haven’t made many moves to bolster their roster. They avoided arbitration with key players Brian Anderson, Garrett Cooper, and Jorge Alfaro, and exercised the club option on OF Starling Marte, but other than that there is not much to get excited about.

2021 Atlanta Braves Needs

The biggest threat to the 2021 Atlanta Braves’ reign of the NL East looks to be the Mets, and they will definitely need to make a few more moves before feeling comfortable about the 2021 season.

First and foremost, is the signing of or replacement of 2020 Silver Slugger Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna had a fantastic 2020 and is one of the top free-agents of this class, but the unknown of the universal DH rule in 2021 has made teams wary of signing Ozuna who’s defense has declined drastically over the past few years.

There are options out there to help the Braves compensate for Ozuna if they do not resign him, but no matter what the Braves will need to add at least one big bat to keep their hold on the NL East.

In 2020 the Braves had a bullpen that was widely considered one of the top pens in the league. However, relief pitchers Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day have become free-agents. Those three combined for 66 ⅔ innings and averaged an ERA of 2.16; none had an ERA above 3.00.

Replacing the production these arms gave the Braves in 2020 will be paramount to the 2021 Atlanta Braves success. It is possible that Melancon and Green, and to a lesser extent, O’Day, will be brought back for the 2021 season. It is also possible that the Braves will try to use their plethora of prospect arms to fill bullpen holes left, but in the past, they have been particularly wary of using prospects who project as starters in relief roles.

Lastly, to fully address all holes in the roster, something must be done at third base. Since bursting onto the scene with rookie power to rival Pete Alonso, Austin Riley has been very unreliable at the hot corner. He’s only been able to amass 503 plate appearances between 2019 and 2020 due to the 2020 COVID-19 shortened season, so most likely the Braves are going to see what production he puts up in a full 162 game season. But should he post similar numbers in 2021 to his career numbers (87 wRC+), the Braves may move on.

It is encouraging that from 2019 to 2020 Riley decreased his K% by 12.6%, but the lack of free swings in 2020 also decreased his slugging percentage from .471 to .415. If Riley cannot find his groove and consistently bat at least league average and be an average defender at third, the Braves may be surpassed by the Mets star power.

Overall, the Braves need to sign or replace Ozuna, add to the bullpen, and at least have mid-season contingency plans for third base if Riley struggles.

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Garrett Allen is a recent college graduate from Valdosta State University and is now pursuing a Masters of Science in Strategic Sports Analytics at the California University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Georgia, he is an avid Braves fan and has a particular interest in prospect development.