One cannot deny that baseball in 2021 will be one of the most interesting seasons on record.
Discussions seem to fluctuate on whether the National League will have a DH next year or if the regular season will even start on time. Every baseball fan will be on the lookout for the next Devin Williams or Randy Arozarena. Free agent acquisitions are still far from over, and the best part of baseball’s Hot Stove is yet to come.
But moves over the past week may have created the most competitive division in all of baseball. Now, each postseason contender has a more difficult road toward a World Series title. In the NL West, 2021 will be an intense shootout but one that writers and fans won’t be able to get enough of.
So, just how talented will teams in the National League West be next year? Look no further than 2020’s World Series champion Dodgers to begin.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Last season saw LA pick up its first title win since 1988. In a season lasting but 60 games, Los Angeles won an astonishing 43 of them and came out on top against a tough Atlanta Braves squad to take the NL pennant.
Across the playoffs, former MVPs Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger led the way with spectacular defensive performances. Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw locked down the pitching staff and stepped up in the season’s biggest moments. Despite the eerie post-apocalyptic feeling fans got after seeing a COVID-positive Justin Turner on the field for LA’s trophy presentation, the third baseman was a critical part of LA’s offensive attack. And Corey Seager reminded fans why he was a former Rookie of the Year after taking home World Series MVP.
The Dodgers own seemingly incomparable depth. Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez may not always have wowed in the field but were always solid contributors at the plate. LA will also get lefty David Price back next season, after he missed the 2020 season and opted out because of COVID-19. Having pieces like Price, Max Muncy and Joe Kelly at Dave Roberts’ disposal no doubt will inspire Dodger fans with confidence next year.
Of late, the team has been connected to infielder DJ LeMahieu in free agency, who would only further cement LA’s dominance. Infield prospect Gavin Lux also headlines a deep Dodger minor league system. The Dodgers are an early favorite to repeat as World Series champions next season, and that hype is clearly deserved.
Other free agents like Liam Hendricks or Trevor Bauer might even be persuaded to sign in LA next season. Andrew Friedman and Dodgers’ ownership has made title contention their clear priority over the past several seasons. The team has a massive $254 million to prove how serious they are.
So who could possibly fight the Dodgers for a division crown next season? That answer became a lot more interesting after some recent high profile acquisitions
San Diego Padres
A team with exciting prospects? Check. An offense with a legitimate superstar in the making? Check. Making two major trades and a free agent signing that immediately put the team in World Series contention? That’s a bold and italicized triple check.
Just two weeks ago, the San Diego Padres were a second place team with hopes of a bright future. They won their first playoff series since 1998, but were swept by division rival Los Angeles in three games. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. was growing into a superstar while Manny Machado was demolishing baseballs and playing hard. 2020 was well and good for the Friars, but there was still a clear separation between them and first place in the NL West.
Fourteen days later, San Diego’s general manager has turned the division on its head.
It began with reports of a trade for Tampa Bay ace Blake Snell. Yes, it was the same Snell that manager Kevin Cash prematurely lifted in the sixth inning of this year’s Game 6 of the World Series. The Rays went on to blow their lead and lost the series. Cash’s move faced intense scrutiny then, as it does now. In San Diego, Snell will immediately have the opportunity to avenge that loss and once prove himself a top quality pitcher.
But Snell was not the only missing piece added by GM AJ Preller. KBO import Ha-Seong Kim, one of the top international free agents in this year’s free agent class, adds to a Padres lineup that is now officially stacked. The 25-year-old hit .306/.397/.523 for the Kiwoom Heroes last season with 30 home runs and 109 RBIs.
And in a stunning final development, the Padres also acquired former Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish in a trade from Chicago. Darvish finished second in NL Cy Young voting a year ago and had a league-leading eight wins. His acquisition gives San Diego pitching two legitimate aces in 2021, and three after next season, when Mike Clevinger will return from Tommy John surgery.
As I was saying:
Padres rotation 2021:
Padres rotation 2022
Gore may be the best pitching prospect in baseball and doesn't have a clear spot. https://t.co/FOcrNAGkd4
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 29, 2020
All the talk of Snell and Darvish doesn’t even acknowledge Dinelson Lamet, who pitched masterfully in his own right this season. His modest 3-1 was deceiving, but finished with a 2.09 ERA in 12 starts and adding 93 strikeouts.
An exciting lineup and a prolific starting rotation are now the biggest resources San Diego can rely on to contend for a division title. In an offseason where many teams are choosing to forego making risky moves, the Pads are ready to become an immovable force next season.
However, the questions most fans will ask next season are pretty realistic ones. ‘How close can San Diego come to LA’s win total?’ and ‘Are all the acquisitions enough?’
The Best of the Rest
As for the rest of the division, other teams will be a distant third place. But that doesn’t mean what happens in the next year won’t be meaningful or interesting.
The Giants have plenty going for them, and most of those begin with Mike Yastrzemski. The outfielder hit bombs and took names in his second MLB season, finishing with 10 home runs and an eighth-place MVP finish. And journeyman Donovan Solano surprised everyone by hitting .326 at the dish last season and winning the Silver Slugger for NL second basemen.
The Giants’ pitching staff needs some work, but San Fran has made some great additions, including John Brebbia, Anthony DeSclafani and Matt Wisler. If some of the Giants prospects can play up to expectations in the next few seasons, they should be a fun team to track in the West. As for this season, though, it is clearly a two-team race.
Colorado and Arizona enter next season with many more questions than answers. Will the Rockies fold and finally trade Nolan Arenado? Does that leave an opening for an extension with Trevor Story? Do the Diamondbacks rely on a comeback from Madison Bumgarner after a career-worst year in 2020? Is Ketel Marte more like the 2019 MVP-contending season or his low power, high contact season in 2020? Who is Colorado’s best pitcher after German Marquez? Why did the D-Backs have three starters with an ERA above 6.00?
In all, the bottom of the division is a clear foil to the success and excitement toward the division’s top. If Colorado and Arizona try to rebuild, that could mean exciting trades benefitting other playoff hopefuls. The Padres know just how quickly things can turn; a second-place finish in the division last year after a last-place performance in 2019.
But the crowning achievement of the offseason so far? The NL West is projected for the most wins above replacement of any division next season. No division will be more competitive, full of elite talent, more down-to-the-wire or more fun to watch. And there’s still time for more free agent signings.
Following a year of many disappointments in MLB, that is exactly what fans deserve in 2021.
Featured Image Courtesy of John J. Kim & Chicago Tribune
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