A Challenger Emerges in the National League

In the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League West had the two best teams in the majors during the 2021 regular season. But after winning the N.L. East (again), the scrappy Atlanta Braves knocked off the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series and then upset the Houston Astros in the World Series. While hoping for a repeat, Atlanta faces a daunting challenge in the form of Steven A. Cohen’s massive bank account, as the Mets’ owner seems determined to spend whatever it takes to get his childhood favorite team its first title since 1986.

Here is a team-by-team look at the reasons for each N.L. club to be optimistic and pessimistic this season.

Around the Horn

  • National League East
  • National League Central
  • National League West
  • Staff Predictions

National League East


Last season: 77-85 | Key additions: Max Scherzer (P), Chris Bassitt (P), Starling Marte (OF), Eduardo Escobar (3B), Mark Canha (1B/OF), Adam Ottavino (P) | Key subtractions: Michael Conforto (OF), Kevin Pillar (OF)

Half Full: While Jacob deGrom will likely be out for multiple months with a shoulder injury, the additions of Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt make losing deGrom sting far less than it did last year. The team also addressed its offensive depth. With Steven A. Cohen paying the bills, there is also the expectation that there will be more additions as the season progresses.

Half Empty: Despite his high price tag, Starling Marte is not a good defensive center fielder, leaving that position a bit shaky. When factoring in Scherzer’s age and deGrom’s injury history, there is the potential for a huge off-season to end up as a very expensive letdown.

Atlanta Braves

Last season: 88-73 | Key additions: Matt Olson (1B), Kenley Jansen (P), Collin McHugh (P) | Key subtractions: Freddie Freeman (1B; face of franchise), Jorge Soler (OF)

Half Full: Atlanta rebuilt its roster on the fly last season and most of the team is back, with huge reinforcements coming in the form of first baseman Matt Olson and outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. A two-time All-Star, Acuña is targeting May for his return from knee surgery. Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh add to an already-strong bullpen, and the team’s rotation could be better than expected if Max Fried and Ian Anderson continue to develop and Mike Soroka gets back on the field after an Achilles tear last season.

Half Empty: Jorge Soler had a huge World Series, but his loss will barely make a ripple compared to the massive wave of hard feelings at the departure of Freddie Freeman, a beloved fixture in the team’s lineup for more than a decade.

Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber take some of the pressure off of Bryce Harper in Philadelphia’s batting order. Unfortunately, one of them will have to play the field.Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Philadelphia Phillies

Last season: 82-80 | Key additions: Nick Castellanos (OF/D.H.), Kyle Schwarber (OF/D.H.) | Key subtractions: Andrew McCutchen (OF)

Half Full: The additions of Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber should dramatically increase the team’s run production, while the development of the lefty Ranger Suárez could give Philadelphia a solid No. 3 starter behind the right-handers Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola.

Half Empty: Have you ever seen Castellanos or Schwarber play defense? Until the N.L. allows two designated hitters per game, the Phillies will be in for some miscues.

Washington Nationals

Last season: 65-97 | Key additions: Nelson Cruz (D.H.), Dee Strange-Gordon (2B/OF) | Key subtractions: They traded nearly everyone last July and Ryan Zimmerman retired.

The M.L.B. Lockout Comes to an End

  • A New Agreement: After a contentious labor dispute, the league and players’ union struck a deal that would allow a full season to be played starting April 7.
  • Looking Ahead: If the end of the lockout results in a better game, the acrimony will have been worth it, our national baseball columnist writes.
  • A Frayed Relationship: M.L.B.’s commissioner ​​called the deal “an olive branch.” Could it also be the start of better relations between the league and the players?
  • Lockout and Doping: The work stoppage led to the suspension of the league’s drug testing program, offering players ample time for foul play.

Half Full: It is absolutely exhilarating to watch outfielder Juan Soto play baseball and Washington’s rotation has enough talent to win some games even if the rest of the offense doesn’t do much.

Half Empty: After trading away Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber last season, the team signaled that a big rebuild was in the works. It does not appear that it is anywhere close to done.

Miami Marlins

Last season: 67-95 | Key additions: Jorge Soler (OF/D.H.), Avisaíl García (OF), Joey Wendle (INF), Jacob Stallings (C) | Key subtractions: Derek Jeter (chief executive)

Half Full: Despite a reputation for avoiding spending money, the Marlins made some definite upgrades through free agency. Jorge Soler in particular could thrive in the middle of the team’s batting order.

Half Empty: Those expensive upgrades were necessary because Miami traded away most of its notable players last year. That Derek Jeter decided to walk away is not a good sign for the team’s direction.

National League Central

Andrew McCutchen hit 27 home runs for Philadelphia last season. Milwaukee is hoping he can help improve the team’s offense.Credit…Allan Henry/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Milwaukee Brewers

Last season: 95-67 | Key additions: Andrew McCutchen (OF), Hunter Renfroe (OF) | Key subtractions: Jackie Bradley Jr. (OF), Brett Anderson (P)

Half Full: The band is back together, with no significant departures from a team that easily won its division last year. Andrew McCutchen and Hunter Renfroe are solid additions in the outfield and a top-notch starting rotation returns three aces in Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes, the 2021 Cy Young Award winner.

Half Empty: Outfielder Christian Yelich has spent two years struggling after he won the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2018 and finished second in the award’s voting in 2019. It is unclear if his days of stardom are over.

St. Louis Cardinals

Last season: 90-72 | Key additions: Steven Matz (P), Albert Pujols (1B/D.H.), Corey Dickerson (OF) | Key subtractions: Andrew Miller (P) and Jon Lester (P) retired

Half Full: The team — which briefly looked dominant in a 17-game winning streak down the stretch last year — hopes a shift to Oliver Marmol at manager will help even things out in 2022. Albert Pujols’s return is mostly symbolic but the left-handed pitcher Steven Matz could be a huge addition to the starting rotation.

Half Empty: Former superstars returning to their original club in their 40s is not usually a recipe for success and many of the Cardinals’ problems from last year — a top-heavy lineup, a thin rotation, a questionable bullpen — are still very much there regardless of who is managing.

Outfielder Seiya Suzuki already draws a big crowd. The Chicago Cubs hope his power translates to the American game.Credit…Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Chicago Cubs

Last season: 71-91 | Key additions: Seiya Suzuki (OF), Marcus Stroman (P), Yan Gomes (C), Clint Frazier (OF), Jonathan Villar (3B) | Key subtractions: None of note after the trade deadline

Half Full: The team got a massive rebuild started early by trading away the core of the 2016 championship team last summer — even some non-core players were sent packing — and is now in build-back mode with the additions of Seiya Suzuki, a power-hitting outfielder from Japan, and the right-handed pitcher Marcus Stroman, who was an All-Star for the Mets last season.

Half Empty: The roster is not barren but it is unrecognizable after so many franchise mainstays, like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, were sent packing. Considering the high price tags each of those core players fetched in free agency, they may have made the right call but it could be a while before Chicago is a contender.

Cincinnati Reds

Last season: 83-79 | Key additions: Jake Fraley (OF), Justin Dunn (P) | Key subtractions: Nick Castellanos (OF), Jesse Winker (OF), Eugenio Suárez (3B), Amir Garrett (P)

Half Full: If you can ignore the rest of the team, second baseman Jonathan India, the 2021 N.L. rookie of the year, is delightful, and first baseman Joey Votto is a true professional on an unconventional path to potential Cooperstown induction.

Half Empty: The rest of the team — stripped bare in a series of cost-cutting moves — is still there.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Last season: 61-101 | Key additions: Roberto Pérez (C) | Key subtractions: Jacob Stallings (C)

Half Full: Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes has the talent to be a star and outfielder Bryan Reynolds already is one after hitting .302 with 24 homers last season. Even better: Reynolds has said he’d like to stay in Pittsburgh long-term.

Half Empty: The Pirates, as the Pirates do, have indicated that Reynolds, 27, may be too old to be part of the team’s long-term future, so the starting center fielder in last year’s All-Star Game could be on the move soon.

National League West

It will take a while before Freddie Freeman looks normal in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform.Credit…Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Los Angeles Dodgers

Last season: 106-56 | Key additions: Freddie Freeman (1B), Craig Kimbrel (P), Kevin Pillar (OF), Andrew Heaney (P), Daniel Hudson (P) | Key subtractions: Corey Seager (SS), Max Scherzer (P), Kenley Jansen (P)

Half Full: If you can lose an All-Star shortstop, but you already had another one, and you can lose an ace starter, since you have two others, you are the Dodgers. A team with outrageous depth built through years of shrewd moves (and outrageous spending), Los Angeles might not even take a step back thanks to the addition of Freddie Freeman.

Half Empty: Even after they addressed the departure of closer Kenley Jansen by trading for Craig Kimbrel, the Dodgers are placing an awfully large bet on Andrew Heaney being able to hold down a rotation spot until Dustin May can return from injury.

San Francisco Giants

Last season: 107-55 | Key additions: Carlos Rodón (P), Joc Pederson (OF) | Key subtractions: Buster Posey (C), Kris Bryant (3B/OF), Kevin Gausman (P)

Half Full: Coming off a 107-win season, the Giants have developed a system of developing talent at the major league level that has continued to churn out success stories. In the former White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodón, they added a left-handed starter who could challenge for a Cy Young Award if everything goes right.

Half Empty: An aging team said goodbye to its longtime leader, catcher Buster Posey, who retired, and the addition of Rodón is offset by the loss of Kevin Gausman. The team’s aging roster, and a sense that nearly everyone had career years in 2021, makes a repeat as division champions seem unlikely.

Joe Musgrove thrived in his first season as the ace of the San Diego Padres rotation.Credit…Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

San Diego Padres

Last season: 79-83 | Key additions: Luke Voit (1B), Jorge Alfaro (C) | Key subtractions: Mark Melancon (P)

Half Full: A starting rotation with Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell should make the Padres competitive at all times, and it seems like the team’s luck almost has to be better than it was last season when they went from World Series hopefuls to not even finishing at .500.

Half Empty: The wrist injury Fernando Tatis Jr. sustained in a motorcycle accident takes San Diego’s biggest bat out of its lineup for the foreseeable future and calls into question the judgment of one of the game’s brightest stars. Even worse: Wrist injuries have a tendency to linger with power hitters.

Colorado Rockies

Last season: 74-87 | Key additions: Kris Bryant (3B/OF), Randal Grichuk (OF), Alex Colomé (P), José Iglesias (SS) | Key subtractions: Trevor Story (SS), Raimel Tapia (OF), Jon Gray (P)

Half Full: The Rockies recognized the extreme value of Ryan McMahon, rewarding the versatile infielder with a $70 million contract. He and outfielder Charlie Blackmon are rock solid and outfielder Kris Bryant could be a monster at Coors Field if he can get back to where he was offensively a few years ago.

Half Empty: Letting Trevor Story depart to Boston as a free agent after failing to trade him at the deadline last year was tough and it is hard to see the team competing in a top-heavy division even with a few solid off-season additions.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Last season: 52-110 | Key additions: Mark Melancon (P), Ian Kennedy (P) | Key subtractions: Kole Calhoun (OF), Tyler Clippard (P), Joakim Soria (P)

Half Full: Ketel Marte is a very good baseball player.

Half Empty: You can almost imagine the Diamondbacks’ front office acquiring veteran relievers like Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy with a plan already in place to trade them away to contenders in July.

Staff Predictions

Credit…Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Tyler Kepner, columnist

A.L.C.S.: Chicago White Sox over Tampa Bay Rays

N.L.C.S.: San Diego Padres over Los Angeles Dodgers

World Series: Padres over White Sox

The Padres and the White Sox spent years building for an opportunity like this. Both organizations are loaded with pitching, power and prospects, and continued to make aggressive, win-now moves, even late in spring training. The White Sox will have a clear path to repeat as champions of an improving but still-thin American League Central — and with a strong bullpen and deep lineup, they’ll have an edge in October. The Padres fell apart late last season, but their new manager, Bob Melvin, is a highly respected, experienced leader who can bring that clubhouse together. The Dodgers may be better across a six-month season, but watch for the Padres to peak at the right time and win the first championship in franchise history.

James Wagner, reporter

A.L.C.S.: Tampa Bay Rays over Toronto Blue Jays

N.L.C.S.: Los Angeles Dodgers over Atlanta Braves

World Series: Dodgers over Rays

Making predictions is an impossible task, particularly ahead of a six-month regular season and a new postseason format. As you read these, I’ve likely second-guessed myself dozens of times since. (The past few years, I thought Milwaukee would make another deep playoff run.) No team is perfect, but it’s hard to pick against the Dodgers winning their second title in three seasons given their talented roster and their front office’s track record of aggressively seeking upgrades.

David Waldstein, reporter

A.L.C.S.: Blue Jays over White Sox

N.L.C.S.: Mets over Dodgers

World Series: Blue Jays over Mets

The Mets will go on a tear once Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer recover their health and Francisco Lindor recovers his groove. Steven Cohen, Billy Eppler and Buck Showalter will take their bows and the N.L.C.S. will evoke images of 2015, 1988 and “The Bad Lieutenant.” And then right before the World Series, deGrom will go down again, Scherzer will be gassed, Lindor will slump, Showalter will over-manage and Cohen will over-Tweet. The Blue Jays will outpace the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Rays on their way to their third title to provide solace for Torontonians after the Maple Leafs choke away a series they will lead, 3-1.

Benjamin Hoffman, baseball editor

A.L.C.S.: Toronto Blue Jays over Houston Astros

N.L.C.S.: Los Angeles Dodgers over Mets

World Series: Dodgers over Blue Jays

The depth the Dodgers have built in recent seasons just can’t be matched. Not only can they plug any gap they encounter with their bench and their minor league system, they are also unafraid to spend even more if the need arises. Eventually the Mets could overtake them (Steven A. Cohen’s billions will come in handy), but the Dodgers had too big of a head start on roster construction for that to come this year — particularly with Jacob deGrom likely out far longer than most fans likely expect.

Scott Miller, contributor

A.L.C.S.: Toronto Blue Jays over Chicago White Sox

N.L.C.S.: Los Angeles Dodgers over Atlanta Braves

World Series: Dodgers over Blue Jays

After two seasons of gallivanting around the minor league outposts of Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo while the pandemic mostly kept them away from home, the Blue Jays will take the love affair they rekindled with their fans when they finally did return to Toronto late last season and build on it to epic proportions behind Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s thump, Matt Chapman’s leather and Bo Bichette’s swag. The Dodgers will turn the tables on Atlanta and ultimately win a World Series in front of a Dodger Stadium crowd for the first time in decades after their neutral-site triumph in 2020 in Texas.

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