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National League power rankings 2021

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. reacts after

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. reacts after making a catch during spring training on Feb. 27, 2021, in Peoria, Ariz. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Rarely does a relationship come together as successfully as the pairing of the Dodgers and Mookie Betts last year.

These days, Chavez Ravine feels like Fort Knox. And Betts, a brilliant talent looking for what he believed to be fair compensation, was transported there by the Red Sox when talks about a new contract broke down.

The rest is history. Before Betts saw a single pitch in a Dodgers uniform, he was handed a 12-year, $365 million extension. Nearly four months later, the Betts-led Dodgers edged the frugal, tiny-market Rays for their first World Series championship since 1988.

The lesson? Follow the money.

"I don’t care if you’re working at Waffle House or for the Red Sox or for the Dodgers," Betts told GQ this March. "You should just get paid what you’re worth."

And for the Dodgers, who are trying to do something that hasn’t been done since the 1998-2000 Yankees, we know exactly what a chance to repeat is worth. Their price tag for that opportunity is a projected $255.5 million, according to spotrac, a site that details such things.

For the record, the Dodgers currently are the only team playing above the $210 million threshold for 2021. They’re not apologizing for it, either. Amid all the pandemic belt-tightening, the Dodgers bucked that trend by swiping Trevor Bauer away from possibly signing with the Mets with a creatively structured three-year, $102 million deal, brought back franchise favorite Justin Turner for $34 million over two years and bolstered an already deep bullpen by signing Blake Treinan Treinen for two years and $17.5 million.

Greed worked last season for the Dodgers. There’s no reason to think it won’t do so again, especially when all that money is backed by what feels like an endless reserve of elite prospects.

"I think our primary focus is on doing everything we can to defend our title," president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters in February. "Trade discussions, I’m sure, will take place during spring training, but it’s not something that’s front of mind for us in terms of moving money. The moves and things that we’ve done the previous three years gave us a little bit more flexibility right now. I think from our standpoint, we feel really good about the team we have in place.

"We know that there’s some added costs associated with it, which is not ideal, but it is a cost. But we feel like with where we are with the team we have that the reward kind of outweighs that."

We already mentioned Bauer joining the L.A. rotation, but it’s easy to forget David Price, who was traded along with Betts last year but chose to opt out because of COVID-19 concerns. Price, a former Cy Young Award winner, currently slots in as the No. 4 starter behind Clayton Kershaw, Bauer and Walker Buehler. Not bad. And there’s plenty more talent behind that foursome.

Offensively, Betts remains the sparkplug, but he’s surrounded, top to bottom, by dangerous, versatile hitters. What else could he want? In his first season with the Dodgers, Betts got super-rich and a World Series ring. Now it’s just a question of how many more he'll earn.

2. SAN DIEGO PADRES

"Slam Diego" made plenty of noise last season in reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2006, even if the joyride ended in a Division Series loss to the eventual champion Dodgers. The Padres already had a super-talented core fronted by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, but general manager A.J. Preller — the pride of Huntington Station — is not one to rest on his laurels. Still smarting from the loss of Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet to injuries before the postseason, Preller plucked Blake Snell from the Rays, Yu Darvish from the Cubs and Joe Musgrove from the Pirates during the offseason, creating the deepest, if not best, rotation in the sport. On top of that, the Padres signed KBO slugger Ha-Seong Kim. Not that Preller needed to make any more statements, but giving Tatis a 14-year, $340 million contract pretty much solidified the Padres’ commitment to winning the franchise’s first title since it started in 1969.

3. ATLANTA

Even with the universal DH in limbo, Atlanta chose to get the band back together for 2021 by re-signing Marcell Ozuna to a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $65 million. Atlanta led the majors with an .832 OPS last season, thanks to a lineup stacked with MVP Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and yes, Travis d’Arnaud. It’s not that d’Arnaud’s post-Mets rebound should be all that surprising; this is what he was always supposed to be in Flushing. He batted .321 with a .919 OPS last season, hitting nine homers and driving in 34 runs in 44 games. No wonder Atlanta quickly re-signed him in November, giving him a two-year, $16 million deal that feels like a bargain, even for a 32-year-old catcher. Rotation-wise, Atlanta is in great shape, thanks to the emergence of Max Fried and Ian Anderson and the signing of Charlie Morton — with ace Mike Soroka on the horizon as he recovers from an Achilles tendon repair.

4. NEW YORK METS

The Mets’ biggest offseason acquisition was new owner Steve Cohen, a hedge-fund titan worth an estimated $14 billion who also happens to be a lifelong fan of the team. And once you have someone like that running the franchise, anything is possible, even ending a 34-year title drought in Queens. That’s not out of the question for this season. Maybe Cohen wasn’t able to get one of the Big Four free agents (DJ LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, Trevor Bauer) during the offseason, but the trade for Francisco Lindor — which included Carlos Carrasco — actually was better than signing any of the top talent available on the open market. The Mets still have the sport’s best pitcher in Jacob deGrom, whose fastball somehow seems to gain mph with each passing year, but the rest of the rotation has something to prove. The wild card is Marcus Stroman, who opted out of last season because of COVID-19 concerns. Much of the Mets’ fortunes in a very tight NL East could hinge on closer Edwin Diaz.

 

5. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Last year, the Cardinals’ toughest opponent was COVID-19. A lengthy shutdown forced them to play 11 doubleheaders, an impossible task during the already compressed 60-game season. They took advantage of the expanded playoffs, ultimately losing to the Padres in the wild-card round, and entered the offseason with serious concerns on offense, finishing second-to-last in the NL with a .694 OPS. Well, general manager John Mozeliak took a big swing at fixing that problem by trading for Nolan Arenado, the disgruntled slugger who wanted out of Colorado, taking advantage of a Rockies team that was anxious to dump his contract. St. Louis took on the remaining $199 million left on Arenado’s deal, but the Rockies still chipped in another $50 million, making the five-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger a relative bargain at that price. With the weakened state of the NL Central, the Cardinals are poised to cash in.

6. WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Celebrating the 2019 championship was short-lived for the Nationals, who returned for their victory-lap season to find the cheering had stopped because nobody was home. Nothing saps the momentum from a title run like an empty ballpark, unless you count losing World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg after only two starts because of surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome. From there, it was a difficult climb back, and despite a valiant attempt, even Juan Soto couldn’t shoulder the weight on his own. Soto, who won't turn 23 until October, finished fifth in the MVP voting after leading the majors with a 1.185 OPS and the National League with a .351 batting average. If Fernando Tatis at age 22 ended up with a $340 million contract, Soto — with Scott Boras as his agent — certainly will be eying a number that begins with a four. As Soto gets richer, however, the Nationals could be fading in the NL East, with Max Scherzer turning 37 this July and more questions beyond that.

7. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies went all-in for 2020, with a pre-pandemic payroll of more than $200 million, then watched everything dissolve during the shortened season. They finished four games under .500 and third in the division. The primary culprit was the historically terrible bullpen (all-time-worst 6.92 ERA) as manager Joe Girardi had nowhere to turn for answers. When it was over, general manager Matt Klentak took the fall — he officially "resigned" after five years on the job with two years left on his contract — and was replaced by Dave Dombrowski, a notoriously big spender with a track record of burning farm systems on the path to a title. With Dombrowski on board, the Phillies soon brought back J.T. Realmuto (five years, $115.5M) and Didi Gregorius (two years, $28M), but are Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Sam Coonrod and Brandon Kintzler enough reinforcements for the leaky pen?

8. MILWAUKEE BREWERS

The biggest question surrounding the Brewers last season leads into a similar one for 2021. What was wrong with Christian Yelich, and is he fixed now? We know it’s a small sample size, but Yelich’s .205 batting average and .356 on-base percentage were the worst marks of his career, and his .430 slugging percentage hadn’t been in that neighborhood since 2015. Not what anyone expected from the 2018 MVP. Yelich’s steep regression probably made the Marlins feel slightly better in retrospect after looking so stupid for dealing him in the first place. Oh, and then there were the strikeouts. Yelich whiffed 30.8% of the time — up nearly 10% from his career mark — but given the pandemic, it’s easy to dismiss as an aberration. On the flip side, 2020 also featured the arrival of spectacular reliever Devin Williams — the author of the "airbender" pitch — with a 17.7 K/9 ratio that helped him earn Rookie of the Year honors and finish seventh in the Cy Young Award voting.

9. MIAMI MARLINS

This was a team that defied explanation in 2020, and in a way defined the challenges involved with playing baseball during the pandemic. The Marlins were the first roster decimated by COVID-19, yet patched together a club of reserves to keep them afloat, then rallied to reach the postseason before losing a playoff series for the first time in franchise history (in their only two previous postseason appearances, they won the World Series in 1997 and 2003). So what can Don Mattingly & Co. possibly do for an encore? To answer that, it’s important to look backward, as the Marlins made history in the offseason by hiring Kim Ng as MLB's first female general manager. Ng was long overdue for such a title, but winning in Miami isn’t easy despite the long odds the Marlins conquered a year ago. They showed they were serious by trading for Starling Marte at the deadline, and he’s back to anchor centerfield. Infielder Jazz Chisholm is among the many young prospects who will be pushing for time this season.

10. CHICAGO CUBS

Theo Epstein's decision to step down as president of baseball operations was an ominous start to the Cubs’ offseason and signaled the end of the franchise’s championship aspirations. Then again, Epstein already had accomplished his mission of bringing a World Series title to the North Side, and chasing that once-in-a-generation feeling evidently grew old, just as it did after ending The Curse of the Bambino in Boston. With Epstein now consulting for commissioner Rob Manfred, replacement Jed Hoyer is left to pick up the pieces — otherwise known as finding trade partners for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, as all three are pending free agents. The Cubs already released Kyle Schwarber and dealt Yu Darvish, so there’s no reason to believe similar moves won’t continue, especially if the team gets off to a slow start. On the nostalgia front, the Cubs did bring back Jake Arrieta, signing him to a one-year, $6 million contract, but rekindling the good vibes from 2016 ain’t happening at this point.

11. CINCINNATI REDS

Remember when the Reds were everyone’s sleeper pick for 2020? Yeah, well, that’s not happening again this season, mostly because they let Trevor Bauer walk in free agency and failed to do anything to improve the roster, which doesn’t feel as buzzworthy as a year ago. Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo came up in trade discussions during the offseason but both are back, so at least that’s a promising start. And there’s plenty of other talent as well, including slugging third baseman-turned-shortstop Eugenio Suarez (49 homers in 2019) and franchise fixture Joey Votto, who was sidelined briefly in spring training after testing positive for COVID-19. Trading closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels, however, was not a move typically done by a team serious about contending. Former St. John’s hoops product Amir Garrett will take over that role.

12. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

This is basically a turn-the-page season for the Giants, who are stuck hopelessly below the Dodgers and Padres in the NL West and merely waiting to get some big contracts off the books after 2021. Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt and Kevin Gausman are pending free agents, with the group representing roughly $93 million of this year’s payroll. Could this be a last hurrah, a final push for a few of the key components left over from the 2014 World Series championship team? That may help sell a few reduced-capacity tickets, but not much else. In these parts, consider Mike Yastrzemski a local story for Long Island, considering that his Hall of Fame granddad Carl started his career playing for Bridgehampton High. Mike finished eighth in the MVP voting last season after hitting .297 with 10 homers, 35 RBIs and a .968 OPS in 54 games.

13. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Under the Jeopardy format, Arizona is the answer to the question: What team does Asdrubel Cabrera play for now? In a related note, Cabrera was the only major-league contract handed out by the Diamondbacks to a free agent this winter, at a whopping cost of one year and $1.75 million, so you get the idea that this is not a franchise with designs on toppling the Dodgers or Padres in the NL West. What can the Diamondbacks do? They should be able to pitch somewhat, assuming that Madison Bumgarner bounces back from a woeful debut in the desert (1-4, 6.48 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) after signing a five-year, $85 million contract the previous offseason. Bumgarner may have the championship rings, but in Arizona, it’s Zac Gallen’s show, as the 25-year-old proved himself to be the ace of the staff last season with a 2.75 ERA in 12 starts.

14. COLORADO ROCKIES

The trade of Nolan Arenado tells you all you need to know about the Rockies entering the 2021 season. When a franchise suddenly dumps its best and most popular player only two years after signing him to a $260 million contract, that team’s commitment to winning deservedly comes into question. Part of that probably is due to the juggernauts in Los Angeles and San Diego, but "We Surrender" isn’t a very marketable slogan in trying to recoup some revenue after the pandemic-related damages. On the other hand, if money indeed is tight, the Rockies had better start saving up for shortstop Trevor Story, who will become a free agent after this season. Story looked entirely unaffected by last years’s disruptions, hitting .289 with 11 homers, a league-best 15 stolen bases and an .875 OPS while playing in 59 of the 60 games. It won’t be surprising if he wants to follow Arenado out of town, but the Rockies could very well trade him before that anyway.

15. PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Folks in Pittsburgh are just counting the days until the Steelers open camp. If the Pirates aren’t going to care about the 2021 baseball season, why should the fans? During the offseason, they traded away their few legit players in Jameson Taillon (Yankees), Joe Musgrove (Padres) and Josh Bell (Nationals), signaling that this year is pretty much over before it begins. As for the future, all eyes will be on top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, the 24-year-old third baseman who — if the Pirates ever plan on fielding a competitive team again — should be there for quite some time. After their 111-loss pace a year ago (thank goodness for a 60-game season), the Pirates should be on target for that again this season, even in the lowly NL Central.

The Best of the Best in the National League for 2021

BEST PLAYER: Mookie Betts, Dodgers

Everything came up Mookie in 2020, from the $365 million contract extension in Los Angeles to finishing second in the MVP voting to helping the Dodgers win the World Series for the first time since 1988. Betts again showed why he’s one of the most electrifying players in the game. From spectacular wall-climbing catches to brilliant baserunning, he’s the total package.

2. Freddie Freeman, Braves

3. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres

4. Juan Soto, Nationals

5. Francisco Lindor, Mets

BEST MANAGER: Craig Counsell, Brewers

BEST GM: A.J. Preller, Padres

BEST HITTER: Mookie Betts, Dodgers

BEST POWER: Pete Alonso, Mets

BEST CLUTCH: Freddie Freeman, Braves

BEST BASERUNNER: Trea Turner, Nationals

MOST EXCITING TO WATCH: Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres

BEST INFIELDER: Nolan Arenado, Cardinals

BEST OUTFIELDER: Jackie Bradley Jr., Brewers

BEST CATCHER: J.T. Realmuto, Phillies

BEST STARTING PITCHER: Jacob deGrom, Mets

BEST SETUP MAN: Devin Williams, Brewers

BEST CLOSER: Josh Hader, Brewers

BEST UNDER AGE 25: Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates

BEST HOME UNIFORMS: Cardinals

BEST BALLPARK: Dodger Stadium

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