BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
After topping the National League West for eight straight seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally won the World Series in 2020, their first championship since 1988. They chased the demons associated with thirteen straight playoff appearances without a title, firmly establishing the franchise as the best in baseball. The lineup that won the World Series might actually improve, as Gavin Lux, Baseball America’s 2019 Minor League Player of the Year, steps into an everyday role for the departed Kike Hernandez, who left for Boston as a free agent. Through his first 333 plate appearances, Will Smith rates as the best hitting catcher of all-time, and his .268/.363/.574 line is just a notch above former Dodger Mike Piazza on that list. Lux and Smith compliment a batting order that includes Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger, who won league MVP Awards in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and Justin Turner, who returned to Los Angeles on a two-year, $34 million deal this winter.
If the offense that led the NL in runs and HR last season isn’t clicking on any given night, the best pitching staff in the league should be able to step up. The Dodgers led the NL in ERA in 2020, their 3.02 mark nearly a full run better than the second place Padres. To that stellar staff, Los Angeles splurged to sign LA native and UCLA graduate Trevor Bauer, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2020 following his 5-4, 1.73 campaign with the Reds. He’ll join Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias to give manager Dave Roberts an embarrassment of riches to choose from on the mound. The only potential weakness may lie in the bullpen, where closer Kenley Jansen appeared vulnerable at times last season. If he falters, the Dodgers may use Dustin May and his 100 MPH heater late in games. With the highest payroll in baseball at $240 million in 2021, Dodger fans expect a repeat of their title, and the birth of a dynasty.
The San Diego Padres franchise have the worst record in baseball history. Of the 30 teams currently in the major leagues, the Friars have the lowest all-time winning percentage (.461), just behind the Miami Marlins. Since taking the reigns of the club in 2014, President of Baseball Operations and General Manager AJ Preller has made it his mission to bring the fans of San Diego a championship caliber club. Following an offseason that saw Preller trade to acquire Yu Darvish (2020 NL Cy Young runner-up), Blake Snell (2018 AL Cy Young Award winner) and Joe Musgrove in three separate transactions, the Padres are gearing up to challenge the Dodgers stranglehold on the NL West.
Their pitching staff will include those three imports, as well as 2020 breakout star Dinelson Lamet (3-1, 2.09), and may be the only rotation capable of going toe-to-toe with the defending champions. Their bullpen will be anchored by lefty curveballer Drew Pomeranz, who is balanced by righties Emilio Pagan and Mark Melancon, both of whom have late inning pedigrees. The focus of Preller’s offseason trades may have been on the mound, but he also committed significant resources to locking up the future of the team, signing franchise icon Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year, $340 deal. Despite that expense, the Padres have a $161 million dollar payroll in 2021, the highest in franchise history, but only the ninth highest total in MLB. If 2020 breakout young players Jake Cronenworth and Trent Grisham join Korean free agent infielder Ha-Seong Kim to provide support for Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, the Padres may well dethrone their rivals to the north.
The San Francisco Giants were surprisingly good in 2020, finishing just two games under .500 in a year when star catcher Buster Posey opted out due to concerns over COVID-19 and his twin baby daughters. Their 2021 lineup will include the 34-year-old Posey back behind the plate, and the team hopes to have prospect Joey Bart apprenticing under him by the end of the year. Top producers Mike Yastrzemski, Brandon Belt and Alex Dickerson each had an OPS of 947 or better last season, and will look to carry the Giants offense again in 2021. The club’s primary offseason free-agent acquisition was the versatile Tommy La Stella, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal, and should lead off most nights. The Giants lineup is quite long in the tooth, and of their projected starting position players, only Mauricio Dubon, 26, is under 30.
The pitching also has veterans at the top, as Kevin Gausman accepted a qualifying offer to return to be the Giants ace, fronting a staff that includes Johnny Cueto and emerging righty Logan Webb, who just threw 11 scoreless innings in the Cactus League to earn his rotation slot. Free agent Jake McGee figures to be the closer, set up by Tyler Rogers and the hard throwing Reyes Moronta, who will return following a 2020 season lost to shoulder injury.
The Arizona Diamondbacks struggled to score runs in 2020, and this year figures to be no different. Only two Arizona batters, outfielders Kole Calhoun and Starling Marte, had an OPS north of 800 last year, though the club expects Ketel Marte, arguably their best player, to bounce back from a down year to help fuel the offense. He’ll need to do just that, since the Snakes traded his brother Starling to Miami to help lower payroll.
The 31-year-old Madison Bumgarner will once again get the Opening Day nod for Arizona despite a horrific first year in the desert that saw the former Giants ace struggle to a 1-4, 6.48 season, his worst as a professional. Luke Weaver, 27, attempted to outdo his veteran mentor last year, leading the NL in losses while going 1-9, 6.58. Both Weaver and Bumgarner should improve this year, but the best starter on the roster, Zac Gallen will begin the season on the injured list with a fractured forearm. Closer Archie Bradley was dealt to the Reds in the middle of last year, and 36-year-old Joakim Soria was imported on a free agent deal from Oakland to take over ninth inning responsibilities. He’ll be set up by righty Stefan Crichton, but in the rugged NL West, Arizona may not have many leads to protect.
The Colorado Rockies had what can be charitably described as a difficult winter. When the best player on the roster becomes so disgruntled with the direction of the team that he characterizes the General Manager as “disrespectful,” as Nolan Arenado did in reference GM Jeff Bridich before the 2020 season, it’s only a matter of time before the relationship ends. Bridich dealt Arenado to the Cardinals this winter, fearful that their superstar would trigger the opt-out clause in his contract after the 2021 season. Bridich failed to import any impactful additions to offset the loss, and while the team will still include Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story in the middle of the lineup, trade rumors continue to swirl around Story, who will be a free agent after this season.
The Rockies pitching ranked last in the NL in ERA in 2020, but in 25-year old right-handers German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela, both of whom had ERA’s south of 3.75 last year, they have competent arms atop the rotation. Their closer will be Daniel Bard, who was the 2020 NL Comeback Player of the Year, and whose success last season was arguably the most unlikely of anyone in the major leagues. Bard had last pitched in the majors for one inning in 2013 before struggling with his command, and bounced around the minor leagues with several franchises before getting a shot in Colorado, for whom he finished with six saves and a 3.65 ERA. He’ll be set up by Yency Almonte and Mychal Givens who will attempt to protect what leads the Rockies starters can bring to them for safe keeping.
NL East: Mets
NL Central: Brewers
NL West: Dodgers
Wild Cards: Padres, Braves
NL Pennant: San Diego Padres
World Series: Padres over Yankees in Six