Philadelphia Phillies' J.T. Realmuto, right, celebrates his solo homer with...

Philadelphia Phillies' J.T. Realmuto, right, celebrates his solo homer with Bryce Harper during the 10th inning in Game 1 of the 2022 World Series against the Houston Astros. Credit: AP

Before pencilling in the Dodgers for the World Series, or being wooed by Steve Cohen’s nearly-half-billion-dollar Mets’ investment for 2023, consider the Phillies’ wobbly path to the NL pennant a year ago.

Get off to a 22-29 start. Trail the division leader by a dozen games. Fire manager Joe Girardi. Barely squeeze into the playoffs with the second wild card (87 wins). Shock the world in October.

We’re not saying that’s a proven formula for repeated success. But there are a few lessons that were reinforced, namely the randomness of a baseball short series and the relative unimportance of going full throttle for a 101-win regular season, which only earned the Mets a wild-card berth anyway.

What does it all mean? In sorting out the National League this year, look to the ultra-competitive dogpile in the East, where the Mets, Phillies and Atlanta all have something to prove again. Take your pick when it comes to winning the division. It’s truly a toss-up.

Or seemed that way. Until the sport’s best closer, Edwin Diaz, was lost for the season to a knee injury at the World Baseball Classic, where he was hurt during a postgame on-field celebration. Is that enough to tip the scales in a division that was decided on a tie-breaker last season? Definitely.

Chances are, Cohen won’t let it, so the Mets shouldn’t be conceding the East just yet. As for the defending NL champs, the Phillies made some big upgrades this winter, adding Trea Turner on a $300 million deal along with former Met Taijuan Walker ($72M), then should get a nice pre-deadline pickup when Bryce Harper (elbow) returns around the All-Star break. Girardi’s replacement Rob Thomson also had the interim tag in mid-October, so let’s see how Philly operates in a less-chaotic environment this time around.

Atlanta ripped out the Mets’ heart on the season’s final weekend a year ago and should be the scariest contender of this bunch on paper. GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled off another one of his trade/extension deals in getting catcher Sean Murphy from the A’s and then signing him to a six-year, $73 million deal. That, along with Mike Siroka’s (presumed) return elevates an already loaded Atlanta roster.

Out West, are the Padres ready for a changing of the guard atop the division? They made a strong case last October by stunning the 111-win Dodgers in the Division Series, and San Diego’s ownership — much like the billionaires up in Chavez Ravine — will spare no expense in pursuing a World Series crown. Counting Manny Machado’s $350 million extension in February, the Padres spent more than $837 million on players this winter, pushing their payroll to $275 million (for luxury tax purposes) behind the Mets ($374) and Yankees ($292M). Xander Bogaerts was the marquee free-agent pickup, but San Diego also added some New York flavor in former Met Seth Lugo and former Yankee Matt Carpenter.

The Dodgers lost three key pieces in the defections of Turner, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner, but made some financially modest (for them) pickups in Noah Syndergaard ($13.5 million) and J.D. Martinez ($10M) with Jason Heyward (remember him?) working his way into the outfield mix this spring. As non-WBC-injuries go, the Dodgers suffered a doozy in the first week of Cactus League games when Gavin Lux tore up his ACL, knocking him out for the season, and he’ll likely be replaced by Miguel Rojas as they look for outside help.

The Giants missed out on Aaron Judge, so pivoted to outfielders Joc Pederson, Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto -- for a savings of about $260 million. Carlos Rodon also bolted for the Bronx, but Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling were imported to bolster the rotation. The Diamondbacks have the early edge on the Rockies in this plodding race back to relevancy, based on a bumper crop of young talent led by Corbin Carroll.

It’s hard not to see the Cardinals as the favorite in the middling Central, powered by their twin-MVP-caliber engines in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Also on the rise in the St. Louis talented outfield scramble is top prospect Jordan Walker, a 6-5 slugger drawing Judge comparisons. Two former New York lefties again will help bolster the rotation in Steven Matz and Jordan Montgomery amid the farewell tour for longtime ace Adam Wainwright. Willson Contreras takes over for Cardinals icon Yadier Molina behind the plate.

Behind St. Louis, it’s got to be the Brewers, who screwed up with last year’s head-scratching trade of Josh Hader to the Padres and are trying to avoid another similar mess with Corbin Burnes, who wasn’t a happy camper this spring over his unsettled contract situation. Getting All-Star catcher William Contreras from Atlanta in the three-way Sean Murphy swap was a nifty grab to boost the offense.

The Cubs showed signs of trying again this winter by signing Dansby Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million deal and also bringing in Cody Bellinger, the former MVP whose offense has deteriorated in recent years (but glove remains elite). Two teams that aren’t trying? The Pirates and Reds, of course. Pittsburgh is on track for an Opening Day payroll of $75 million, with their highest-paid player Ke’Bryan Hayes making $10 million this year (43-year-old Rich Hill is next at $8 million). Cincy isn’t much better, at $82 million for this season, with Joey Votto taking up $25 million of that meager total (Wil Myers is runner-up at $6 million).

National League rankings to begin 2023

1. Padres

2. Atlanta

3. Mets

4. Phillies

5. Dodgers

6. Cardinals

7. Brewers

8. Giants

9. Diamondbacks

10. Cubs

11. Marlins

12. Rockies

13. Pirates

14. Reds

15. Nationals

All the best of the National League for 2023


1. Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals. Already the gold standard at his position, Goldschmidt went next level in winning the MVP last season, a performance that certainly wasn’t hurt by having Nolan Arenado protecting him in the St. Louis lineup. Also earned his fifth Silver Slugger to go with four Gold Gloves in his 12-year career.

2. Manny Machado, Padres. My top pick for MVP last year, based on a combination of his impressive stats (32 HRs, 102 RBIs) and being the primary offensive engine of a Padres team that scrambled to make up for the loss of Fernando Tatis Jr. Consider that the springboard for his new 11-year, $350 million contract.

3. Justin Verlander, Mets. The three-time Cy Young winner gets the nod here, even at age 40, because two of these awards came in the last four years -- and he missed one recovering from Tommy John surgery. If Verlander pitches the Mets to a title this season, he’ll cement his status as baseball’s Tom Brady.

4. Freddie Freeman, Dodgers. Had a chip on his shoulder last season after his controversial exit from Atlanta, and once Freeman got comfortable in Chavez Ravine, he responded with an MVP-caliber performance (MLB-high 199 hits, NL-best .407 OBP).

5. Nolan Arenado, Cardinals. Maybe Arenado doesn’t have to shoulder the load himself in St. Louis, but he’s capable of carrying any team, as last season’s 30-homer/103-RBI performance can attest. Also won his 10th straight Gold Glove and fifth Silver Slugger.

Best manager: Buck Showalter, Mets

Best GM: A.J. Preller, Padres

Best hitter: Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals

Best leadoff hitter: Trea Turner, Phillies

Best power: Pete Alonso, Mets

Best in the clutch: Freddie Freeman, Dodgers

Best baserunner: Tommy Edman, Cardinals

Most exciting: Manny Machado, Padres

Best infielder: Nolan Arenado, Cardinals

Best infield arm: Oneill Cruz, Pirates

Best outfielder: Mookie Betts, Dodgers

Best outfield arm: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta

Best catcher: J.T. Realmuto, Phillies

Best catcher arm: J.T. Realmuto, Phillies

Best starting pitcher: Justin Verlander, Mets

Best setup: A.J. Minter, Atlanta

Best closer: Josh Hader, Padres

Rookie to watch: Corbin Carroll, D-backs

Best home uniforms: Cubs

Best stadium: Oracle Park, Giants

Best mascot: Mr. Met

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