With Opening Day fast approaching, all 30 MLB teams believe they have a chance at the postseason. Naturally, 20 teams will miss the playoffs, and only 10 will play into October. Whom will those 10 be?
Let’s continue with the 2021 National League.
An asterisk (*) indicates the two wild card teams.
2021 National League East:
No.1: Atlanta Braves (2020: 35-25, 1st in NL East)
The 2020 Atlanta Braves came up one game shy of their first World Series berth since 1999. After going up 3-1 in the NLCS, Atlanta choked away the lead to the eventual champion Dodgers. With the 2020 season behind them, Atlanta is poised to have another strong season in 2021. Atlanta has won the last three NL East crowns, so their sights are set on the World Series. The rest of the division improved over the offseason, but Atlanta is still the team to beat.
The Braves have a loaded lineup featuring 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman, All-MLB 1st-Teamer Marcell Ozuna, and 2nd-Teamer Ronald Acuna Jr. Those three joined Travis d’Arnaud as Silver Slugger winners in 2020.
The pitching staff, while not as fierce, has several strong pieces. Max Fried was named to the 2020 All-MLB 1st Team. Charlie Morton returns to Atlanta after beginning his career with the club. 2019 All-Star Mike Soroka should be back in late April. Ian Anderson had an excellent September and October with the Big League club in 2020, and he has been tearing up Spring Training. The bullpen will be bolstered with the likes of Will Smith as the primary closer. The bullpen is not projected to be as good as it was in 2020, but it is one of the competent bullpens in the 2021 National League.
Atlanta’s top three prospects should appear in 2021. The top prospect, Cristian Pache (MLB.com’s No.12) could be the Opening Day centerfielder for the club. Anderson (No.18) will be a key piece in the rotation. Drew Waters (No.35) is caught behind a logjam in the Big League outfield, but expect to see him late in the season or if Ozuna, Pache, or Acuna get injured. At the least, he could be a competent utility outfielder for the playoff run and a potential defensive replacement for Ozuna in late-inning situations.
No.2: New York Mets* (2020: 26-34, t-4th in NL East)
The New York Met lineup reads like an All-Star team. Of the eight projected starters, Francisco Lindor had the worst 2020 season (OPS+ of 102). Lindor is a four-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and owner of three 30-home run seasons as a shortstop.
And he was the worst projected starter in 2020.
The other newcomer, James McCann had a 144 OPS+ with the Chicago White Sox in 2020. Among returning players, J.D. Davis had the worst season in 2020, a 112 OPS+. Dominic Smith paced the group with a 169 OPS+ season. In between, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, and Pete Alonso could all be All-Stars for the 2021 National League.
No matter how good the Mets’ lineup is, the star in Queens is Jacob deGrom.
The 2018 and 2019 NL Cy Young, deGrom has a 2.10 ERA over the last three seasons, good for an otherworldly 188 ERA+. He has a WHIP under 1.000 as well. 2019 All-Star Marcus Stroman returns to the rotation after opting out of the 2020 season. Beyond deGrom and Stroman, the Mets will use a variety of Taijuan Walker, David Peterson, and Joey Lucchesi to make the requisite 162 starts in 2021.
New York’s top six prospects have an MLB ETA of 2022 or 2023, so they will likely not have any new blood from the farm system in 2021. However, the Big League club can compete with anyone. The offense might be the best in baseball, and deGrom could win the 2021 National League, Cy Young. The Mets have underachieved over the last few seasons, but they are primed for an explosive 2021 campaign. Watch out, Atlanta.
No.3: Washington Nationals (2020: 26-34, t-4th in NL East)
After winning the 2019 World Series, the Washington Nationals slipped back to the pack. Superstar Juan Soto missed a quarter of the season. Despite the designated hitter rule being in effect in 2020, Washington only had three everyday players with an OPS+ above 100 (Soto, Yan Gomes, and Trea Turner). Soto and Turner are two of the best players in baseball, and Washington is getting reinforcements in the form of 2019 All-Star Josh Bell. Slugger Kyle Schwarber (121 career home runs, 113 OPS+) joins Soto and Gold Glove-contender Victor Robles in the outfield.
All eyes will be on Soto, and for good reason. Soto slashed .351/.490/.695 in 2020, his best impression of Barry Bonds. If he replicates the season, he will win the 2021 National League MVP unanimously.
The rotation is top-heavy once again. The trio of Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Stephen Strasburg is as good as it gets. Washington is kicking the tires on five-time All-Star Jon Lester who finished ninth in 2018 NL Cy Young voting. No.5 starter Joe Ross opted out in 2020, but he has an ERA+ of 100 across 335 MLB innings. Washington will need Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg to be healthy in 2021 as Strasburg made only two starts. At their best, the trio can carry Washington to a World Series.
Similar to New York, Washington is built for now. Washington only has one top 100 prospects (No.99 Cade Cavalli), their top seven prospects are unlikely to be called up in 2021. Washington will be carried by its stars in 2021. Soto and Turner are serious MVP candidates while the rotation has three serious Cy Young contenders. If the rest of the lineup or rotation steps up, Washington will be back in the playoffs looking to lift their second Commissioner’s Trophy.
No.4: Philadelphia Phillies (2020: 28-32, 3rd in NL East)
In almost every other division, the Philadelphia Phillies are not a fourth-place team. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto lead the line, but the corner infield pairing of Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm could be the best in baseball soon. Beyond the four stars, Didi Gregorius returns after a 119 OPS+ season as the primary shortstop. These five can compete with any five-some in baseball, but the Phillies will need production from left field, center field, and second base in 2021. Jean Segura (second base) and Andrew McCutchen (left field) had good 2020 campaigns, but they are on the wrong side of 30. Roman Quinn (54 OPS+) and Scott Kingery (37 OPS+) struggled mightily as the center field options.
While the bullpen received most of the headlines (with a horrendous 44% save conversion rate and the most blown saves in the NL), that hides the strength of the Phillies: Aaron Nola. Nola finished seventh in 2020 Cy Young voting and third in 2018. He and Zack Wheeler form a duo of aces that would be two automatic victories each time through the rotation if the bullpen could hold a lead. The bullpen cannot possibly be as bad as it was in 2020, so expect the Phillies to post their first winning season since 2011, even if they finish fourth in the NL East.
Top prospect Spencer Howard (No.42) will join Nola and Wheeler in 2021. Howard has an electric fastball (65th percentile in velocity and spin rate) and could be the No.3 starter at some point in 2021. Beyond Howard, only catcher Rafael Marchan has a projected ETA in 2021. He could backup Realmuto, but it seems highly unlikely that Philadelphia will start him over the best catcher in baseball. As with the Mets and Nationals, the Big League squads are built for the present.
No.5: Miami Marlins (2020: 31-29, 2nd in NL East)
The Miami Marlins feature a trio of former All-Stars in the outfield with 2016 All-Star Adam Duvall joining Corey Dickerson (2017) and Starling Marte (2016). Dickerson and Marte had below-average stints with the Marlins in 2020 (OPS+ of 91 and 86 respectively), but the Marlins will hope to unleash the September 2020 version of Duvall. He had a .925 OPS, a pair of three-homer games, and had an eight-game stretch with a 1.796 OPS.
The star of the infield is Brian Anderson. In his last three seasons, he has an OPS+ of 113 to go with +16 fielding runs. He may not win a Gold Glove while a certain vacuum cleaner plays at Busch Stadium, but he should be a 5.0-WAR player in 2021.
Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez are at the top of the staff, but all eyes are on Sixto Sanchez. Sanchez finished seventh in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020, and he still has rookie eligibility in 2021. Sanchez is the No.15 prospect in MLB, and he is a future ace of the staff. He ranks in the 98th percentile for fastball velocity, and both his xERA and xwOBA figures were in the 86th percentile. If you need a dark horse Cy Young candidate, take the flame-throwing 22-year-old.
The Marlins have five prospects in the top 70, and four are projected to play in 2021. Sanchez will be the No.3 starter. JJ Bleday (No.20) should be the fourth outfielder by the season’s end. Jazz Chisholm (No.66) will be a utility middle infielder, and Edward Cabrera (No.68) will be the future Robin to Sanchez’s Batman. Miami surprised in 2020, earning its first playoff berth since 2003, so they cannot be taken lightly, and they have enough prospect talent to likely prove 2020 was not a fluke.
2021 National League Central:
No.1: Milwaukee Brewers (2020: 29-31, 4th in NL Central)
The Milwaukee Brewers had more rookie relief pitchers (one) accumulate 1.0 bWAR than hitters in 2020. Christian Yelich finished with a 111 OPS+, the worst of his career, and a far cry from the 179 he had in 2019. It was a down year for the Brewers as they slipped into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record and were swiftly dispatched by the Dodgers. However, the 2021 Brewers have a new commitment to defense with the full-season return of Lorenzo Cain and additions of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kolten Wong, former Gold Glovers.
The aforementioned rookie relief pitcher, Devin Williams, had an ERA+ of 1388 in 2020.
1-3-8-8. He was 1288% better than the average pitcher at preventing runs. It is the MLB record for pitchers that pitched at least one inning in a season.
Williams and star closer Josh Hader form the best reliever duo in the sport. In the rotation, All-Star Brandon Woodruff and Cy Young vote-getter Corbin Burnes lead the line. All four pitchers have exceptional strikeout rates and a propensity for forcing soft contact. With a better defense, Milwaukee will be a machine at producing outs.
Milwaukee’s top three prospects have ETAs of 2022 and beyond. Garrett Mitchell (No.65, ETA of 2023) and Brice Turang (No.96, ETA of 2022) should be impactful moving forward, but Milwaukee will not be receiving many reinforcements this season.
No.2: St. Louis Cardinals (2020: 30-28, 2nd in NL Central)
The St. Louis Cardinals are building a mid-2010s NL West All-Star infield. Paul Goldschmidt, a six-time All-Star with the Diamondbacks, and Nolan Arenado, a five-time All-Star with the Rockies, form one of the best hitting and fielding duos in Major League Baseball. Goldschmidt raked in 2020, posting a 144 OPS+. Arenado had a down season, only posting an OPS+ of 86, but he had eclipsed 115 in the previous six seasons. Even if Arenado is not the .300/40-home run/130-RBI hitter like he was at Coors, he will be the best defensive player in the 2021 National League.
After finishing fourth in 2019 Cy Young voting, Jack Flaherty fell back to Earth in 2020. He led the NL in WHIP in 2019, but his line-drive rate spiked as hitters produced much more hard contact. Flaherty ranked in the 27th percentile in xwOBA, xERA, and xBA. He still has an elite whiff rate (88th percentile), but he will need to produce more soft contact in 2021, especially as the schedule difficulty ramps back up to a normal season.
Dylan Carlson (No.13) will be up in the Majors and mashing baseballs in 2021. The switch-hitting centerfielder slashed .333/.571/.444 across 14 plate appearances in the playoffs and he will be a good defensive option no matter where St. Louis deploys him in the outfield. His rookie eligibility is still intact, so he should challenge for the 2021 National League Rookie of the Year.
No.3: Cincinnati Reds (2020: 31-29, 3rd in NL Central)
Outside of Jesse Winker, the Cincinnati Reds struggled to hit the baseball in 2020. Eugenio Suarez and Nicholas Castellanos both posted OPS+ of 99 while Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas barely cracked 100 OPS+. Every other player with more than 100 plate appearances posted an OPS+ below Freddy Galvis‘ 83. Cincinnati will attempt to solve its infield woes by shuffling Moustakas to third base and Suarez to shortstop, but that would require Jonathan India (Reds prospect No.5) to step up at second base.
2020 NL Cy Young Trevor Bauer is now in Los Angeles. Anthony DeSclafani‘s 7.22 ERA is now in San Francisco. 2019 All-Stars Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray had strong seasons in 2020, but they will both slide up in the Cincinnati rotation and be asked to face better hitters than the 2020 AL Central and NL Central had to offer. Gray will open 2021 on the IL, so the early season may feature some tough sledding for the Reds.
The top prospect in the Cincinnati farm is Nick Lodolo (No.59). He may not come up until later in the season, but the lefty should be valuable as a reliever or starter this season. Cincinnati’s fourth-best prospect Tyler Stephenson (No.95) will be the backup catcher for the Opening Day squad, and he could find lots of plate appearances if Tucker Barnhart posts a similar line to his 2020 .204/.291/.388.
No.4: Chicago Cubs (2020: 34-26, 1st in NL Central)
The Chicago Cubs surprised in 2020, finishing on top of the NL Central despite the usually strong Javier Baez and Kris Bryant slipping to OPS+ of 62 and 76 respectively. Ian Happ and Jason Heyward (OPS+ of 135, 133) took strides forward, but they are question marks over a full season. Chicago replaced one underperforming outfielder (Kyle Schwarber) with another underperforming outfielder (Joc Pederson). Pederson has a career OPS+ of 116 and a trio of seasons above 125, but he slumped to an 84 OPS+ in 2020.
Yu Darvish and his ERA+ of 212 are in San Diego. Kyle Hendricks finished top 10 in 2020 Cy Young voting, and he has posted an ERA below 3.50 in six of seven MLB seasons. Hendricks had a stellar 2.88 ERA, 149 ERA+, and the lowest walk rate in baseball in 2020. Chicago added Zach Davies in the Darvish trade, and Davies has been a consistently solid MLB pitcher. He has a career ERA+ of 113 including an ERA+ of 152 across 69 innings last season. He may not be quite as good in 2021, but he should be able to consume about 160 innings for the Cubs.
Chicago has three prospects in the top 100, but only Brailyn Marquez (No.60) and Miguel Amaya (No.89) are projected to play in 2021. Marquez is a flame thrower with a fastball grade of 80 on a 20-80 scale. He could be a key bullpen piece down the stretch if the Cubs find themselves in a division race, or he could be a long-term option as a starter. Amaya, a catcher, is unlikely to supplant incumbent Willson Contreras, but he could spell Contreras from time to time later in the season.
No.5: Pittsburgh Pirates (2020: 19-41, 5th in NL Central)
Welcome to the Ke’Bryan Hayes section of the article.
Hayes led all rookies in bWAR in 2020, and he has rookie eligibility in 2021. While he only had 95 plate appearances, he slashed an otherworldly .376/.442/.682, good for an OPS+ of 199. No matter how good of a hitter Hayes can be, he might be an even better fielder. Hayes plays in the same division as the 2013-2020 Gold Glove winner at third base, but if you are picking Arenado’s successor, Hayes is a great pick. He has a tremendous arm, and he was in the 85th percentile in OAA. Among players that had 50 plate appearances for the 2020 Pirates, many had an OPS+ in single digits like those above 100 (two each).
Perhaps the most exciting pitching narratives for the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates are watching Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove. Taillon now pitches for the New York Yankees. Musgrove now pitches for the Padres. Chad Kuhl (46 innings pitched at an ERA+ of 107) is the most interesting returning pitcher in Pittsburgh.
Hayes (No.9) and Nick Gonzales (No.43) are two infielders for the future. Hayes will. be a star in 2021, but Gonzales has an ETA of 2022. Gonzalez was drafted as a shortstop, but he projects as a second baseman in the Majors. With incumbents Kevin Newman and Colin Moran as reasonable MLB hitters, the Pirates have a strong future in the infield even if the 2021 Pirates may fail to win 60 games.
2021 National League West:
No.1: Los Angeles Dodgers (2020: 43-17, 1st in NL West)
The reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers have 15 players that could be All-Stars if they were not on the Dodgers. Perhaps the only weak spot in the lineup is Gavin Lux at second base. Lux was a consensus top-five prospect entering 2020, so he projects to be better than the 61 OPS+ hitter he was in 2020. In a team with two former MVPs, Will Smith was the best hitter on the team in 2020, boasting a 164 OPS+. Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts will play Gold Glove-caliber defense while being top-tier hitters.
The rich get richer as Trevor Bauer will be pitching in Dodger Blue in 2021.
Clayton Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in baseball still. Walker Buehler would be an ace on 25 of 30 MLB rotations. The likes of Dustin May, Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, and David Price would be top-of-the-line starters for almost every team besides the Dodgers. Two of those four will not be in the top five starters for this loaded Dodgers roster. The 2020 Dodgers were on pace for 116.1 wins, and they got even better in 2021. The 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs might need to look over their shoulders in September.
The Dodgers have a pair of prospects in the MLB top 60, and both Keibert Ruiz (No.57) and Josiah Gray (No.58) should play with the Big League club at some point in 2021. Ruiz is unlikely to replace Smith at catcher, so he might not be in Los Angeles’ plans. Gray would be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher for every team in baseball besides the Dodgers.
No.2: San Diego Padres* (2020: 37-23, 2nd in NL West)
If the San Diego Padres were in any other division, they would be heavy favorites. They must settle for being second to the Dodgers in the NL West. The Padres have one of the best lineups in the NL, headlined by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. Eric Hosmer and Jake Cronenworth join them in the infield. Trent Grisham and Will Myers had massive seasons in 2020, and Tommy Pham was a 127 OPS+ hitter from 2015 to 2019. Grisham is nursing a hamstring injury, but he will be back early in the season.
Chris Paddack was a trendy Cy Young pick heading into the 2020 season. He had an impressive rookie season and was poised to be San Diego’s ace for the next decade. He is now slated to be the No.4 starter as Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove have jumped Paddack.
Darvish is a four-time All-Star who has twice finished second in Cy Young voting. In Snell’s last full season, he had a sub-2.00 ERA, a 217 ERA+, and a Cy Young Award. Musgrove has the most to prove, but he was a strong option for a pitiful Pirates team in 2020 (ERA+ of 118). Musgrove’s Baseball savant page is littered with “great” designations, and his only weak point in 2020 (a 39th-percentile walk rate) is an anomaly.
Another pitcher might jump Paddack: MacKenzie Gore. Gore (No.6) is one of four Padres in the MLB top 100. The lefty projects as a top-of-the-rotation arm, and he is the top pitching prospect in baseball. Gore will be a 2021 National League Rookie of the Year threat when he gets called up. Not to be outdone, CJ Abrams (No.8) would be the starting shortstop for any organization besides the Padres. Abrams has an ETA of 2022, and he will challenge Cronenworth for time at second base.
No.3: Arizona Diamondbacks (2020: 25-35, 5th in NL West)
Star Ketel Marte took a step back in 2020, slipping to a 96 OPS+ after an intimidating 148 OPS+ and a fourth-place MVP finish in 2019. Marte also has been dealing with injuries in the spring. Beyond Marte, the Arizona Diamondbacks have a bevy of solid but not elite players. David Peralta is a good defensive left fielder with a career 114 OPS+. Christian Walker is no Goldschmidt, but he has a 109 OPS+ with Arizona. Eduardo Escobar had 74 extra-base hits in 2019 (10th in the NL), but he struggled to put together a strong 2020 season.
Ace Zac Gallen will miss time early in the season with a forearm injury. Across 152 MLB innings, Gallen has an ERA+ of 162, and he finished ninth in 2020 Cy Young voting. With Gallen out, Arizona will lean on Luke Weaver and Madison Bumgarner early. Weaver posted an ERA over 6.50 with a 1.558 WHIP. Bumgarner was only moderately better in 2020: 6.48 ERA and 1.440 WHIP. Merrill Kelly could be exciting, but his 2020 FIP was 1.40 higher than his ERA, a sign of regression. He had a WHIP under 0.990, but his underlying metrics don’t paint the picture of an ace, and he’s the safest option Arizona has outside of Gallen.
Of Arizona’s top six prospects, the only shortstop Geraldo Perdomo (No.79) is projected to play in 2021. Perdomo is a slick fielder with more walks than strikeouts so far in the minors. If Nick Ahmed struggles as the everyday shortstop, Perdomo could slide into the starting lineup. Daulton Varsho exceeded his rookie eligibility in 2020, but he deserves mention here. Varsho struggled to an OPS+ of 74 in 2020, but he is a solid defensive catcher and centerfielder. He won’t start the season with the D-Backs, but he should be a utility player in no time.
No.4: San Francisco Giants (2020: 29-31, 3rd in NL West)
The San Francisco Giants missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker, overachieving slightly. Every hitter with 100 plate appearances (besides Joey Bart) had an OPS+ of 98 or better. Brandon Belt, Mike Yastrzemski, and Alex Dickerson pounded the baseball for OPS+ of 179, 166, and 159 respectively. Belt could miss the first part of April, but the Giants welcome Buster Posey back into the fray. However much of the San Francisco roster is older than 30 with Mauricio Dubon likely being the only everyday player younger than 30. 2019 All-Star Tommy La Stella fits the mold of the 2021 Giants as he is 32 and coming off a 126 OPS+ season.
Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman once again lead the line for the Giants. Cueto is coming off a year in which he struggled to a 70 ERA+. Gausman posted a sturdy 117 OPS+ across 59 innings. However, both posted better FIP marks than ERA marks, so expect better numbers while the Giants are spared from an entirely AL/NL West schedule in 2020. Anthony DeSclafani had a poor 2020 season with a 69 ERA+, but he has had two seasons with an ERA+ above 120, so there is some pedigree for the 100 career ERA+ pitcher.
The Giants have a quartet of players in the MLB top 100. Top prospect Marco Luciano (No.16) has an ETA of 2023, and he is the heir apparent to Brandon Crawford. The aforementioned Bart (No.23) and Heliot Ramos (No.82) should find some at-bats in 2021 when Posey or Yastrzemski need an off-day. Bart struggled at the plate, but he has Gold Glove upside when he permanently replaces Posey behind the dish. Ramos primarily plays center field, but he may be better off in right field at Oracle Park.
No.5: Colorado Rockies (2020: 26-34, 4th in NL West)
Ouch. The Colorado Trevor Storys are a popular pick to have the worst record in the 2021 National League. The Colorado Rockies play in a premier hitters’ ballpark, but they have players that cannot hit. Among any player to step into the batter’s box in 2020, only Story, Charlie Blackmon, and newly-minted Met Kevin Pillar had an OPS+ of 100 or an OPS above .800. Story is elite at everything on a baseball diamond, but he may not be a Rockie for much longer. On the contrary, Blackmon might be the worst defensive outfielder in baseball, only exaggerated by a spacious Coors Field outfield.
German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, and Kyle Freeland pitched well in 2020, earning ERA+ of 138, 151, and 120 respectively. Marquez is fully healthy. Senzatela is working back from an injury, and Freeland injured himself in the final days of spring training. All hands will need to be on deck for the Rockies to have a remotely competent pitching staff in 2021. Jon Gray had a disastrous 2020, posting his worst ERA+ (78) of his entire career. His strikeout rate dipped from a career average of 24% to an ugly 12.6% mark.
The Rockies farm is barren with only one top-100 prospect, Zac Veen (No.54). Veen was the No.9 pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, and he has an ETA of 2024. However, he is the best prospect Colorado has, even after trading superstar Nolan Arenado to St. Louis. While the Rockies could get some strong prospects back for Story in a potential trade, they only got back three prospects that are now in their top 30. Colorado hopes Elehuris Montero will be a better prospect than his organizational rank of No.9 shows.
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