Where should Braves rank among National League teams now?

Credit: Leo Willingham/AJC

The Braves have won three straight National League East division titles, a number they hope to extend to four in 2021.

Credit: Leo Willingham/AJC

Braves players report to spring training Feb. 17 – less than two weeks away. While much remains unsettled, from health and safety protocols to the rules to roster construction, the report dates are certain.

There will be changes to rosters between Super Bowl Sunday and opening day (which for the Braves is April 1). But for now, here’s how I rank the National League ahead of spring training.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a power-rankings guy. I find them useless during the season, but they are worthy thought-provoking exercises before the first pitch is thrown. Point is, you won’t see me doing these in May, July or September.)

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

The defending world champions will rightfully be the favorites again. They signed Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer on Friday, meaning their rotation now features three Cy Young winners and young ace Walker Buehler - a true embarrassment of riches. They could another move to make as well, be that re-signing third baseman Justin Turner or replacing his bat. It’s a good time for the Dodgers, who instead of trying to end their string of October horrors are now focused on becoming the next dynasty.

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2. San Diego Padres

Give the Padres credit. The mighty Dodgers are in their division and just up the road from them geographically, but the Padres aren’t backing down. They have been baseball’s most aggressive team since the 2020 trade deadline, and there’s a strong case that they’ve positioned themselves as the Dodgers’ greatest threat. The Padres re-made their rotation with Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove (with top prospect MacKenzie Gore coming soon). They re-signed infielder Jurickson Profar and signed infielder Ha-Seong Kim, who was playing in South Korea. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado remain among the sport’s best lineup duos. After years of irrelevancy, the Padres are a force and arguably the most electric team in MLB.

3. Braves

Even before re-signing Marcell Ozuna, the Braves still should’ve been considered the favorites in the NL East, a division they’ve won for the past three seasons. With Ozuna back in the fold, the Braves retained a key piece of arguably the best offense in team history. Additionally, they added Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to fortify their rotation, which features a fair bit of upside. Along with Ozuna, MVP first baseman Freddie Freeman returns, and young stars Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies will be healthier. There are concerns, but none great enough to deter one from viewing the Braves among the top teams in the league.

They rank third here because, until they prove it, they should not be considered better than the Dodgers. The Padres won two more games than the Braves last season and considerably improved their roster since, so they also get the nod ahead of Atlanta right now. But keeping Ozuna was an important development and prevents the Braves from having any glaring holes. They’re firmly on the short list of teams that can realistically shoot for a World Series title.

4. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals fleeced the Rockies for superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado, which should do wonders for their offense and defense. They are the heavy favorites in a weak NL Central. St. Louis should maintain its strong defense and pitching, and with Arenado, the offense should improve. It’s not a perfect team, but the Cardinals are well-positioned for another postseason run. I gave them the nod over the Mets here because I think the Cardinals have a higher floor (and I trust them more not to inexplicably implode), though New York has a superior roster talent-wise.

5. New York Mets

The Mets have had a busy offseason. New owner Steve Cohen injected life into the franchise, and roster-wise, the Mets have done a nice job. They kept starter Marcus Stroman with a qualifying offer. They swung the blockbuster trade with Cleveland for shortstop Francisco Lindor and starter Carlos Carrasco. They plugged holes by signing catcher James McCann, adding reliever Trevor May and acquiring lefty Joey Luchessi, who can help as a starter or reliever, via trade. It’s likely they’ll make another addition before opening day, too. I’m buying the hype (how could it go wrong?), and I think the Mets are the Braves’ biggest challenger in the division.

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6. Washington Nationals

When looking for a bounce-back team, the Nationals are the most obvious candidate. They had a lot go wrong in 2020, leading to their plummet to the bottom of the division just after winning the World Series. They’ve added Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell to their offense while plugging Jon Lester into the back of their rotation and Brad Hand into the bullpen. Health will be key for them, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they surged back into the postseason.

7. Philadelphia Phillies

Veteran executive Dave Dombrowski took over as the Phillies’ president of baseball operations this winter. He (finally) re-signed catcher J.T. Realmuto – much to the delight of everybody in Philadelphia, including teammate Bryce Harper – and shortstop Didi Gregorius. The Phillies added relievers Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado, along with veteran starters Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. To this point, their offseason has been about retaining last year’s team and making a few tweaks. I think they’ll be better, but will it be enough in the loaded NL East? We know the offense is good, so it will come down to their pitching again. Perhaps they’ll add another bench bat and/or reliever before opening day.

8. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are entering a transition phase, having non-tendered Schwarber and traded Darvish. Third baseman Kris Bryant, oft-mentioned in trade rumors the past two winters, is still on the team entering the final year of his deal. Superstar Javy Baez also needs an extension. From the outside looking in, there are not a lot of positive vibes around this Cubs team, but maybe they will make one more run with the players remaining from the 2016 World Series core. Many didn’t expect them to be that good last year, either.

9. Cincinnati Reds

Not long after an all-in push, the Reds have hit a wall. Bauer is gone. Starter Sonny Gray, among other veterans, has reportedly been shopped but remains in Cincinnati for now. Will they keep slugger Eugenio Suarez (who, by the way, would look good in a Braves uniform)? Braves fans saw the Reds’ feast-or-famine offense firsthand in the postseason, and it didn’t impress. The Reds are a tough team to solve right now, but it’s simply hard to get excited about them following this offseason. They could still move those players in the next month as well, which would drop them further down this list.

10. Miami Marlins

No longer MLB’s punchline, the Marlins have accumulated some impressive young pitching talent, headlined by Sixto Sanchez. Miami surprised as the NL East runner-up last season, making the expanded playoffs and eliminating the Cubs at Wrigley Field before being swept by the Braves in the NL Division Series. Can Miami build on that success and make the non-expanded postseason? It will be difficult, but the Marlins are trending upward. It could be considered disrespectful to list them as the worst team in the NL East, but I need to see them in a larger sample size than 60 games. Despite going 31-29, the Marlins had a minus-41 run differential, third worst in the NL (the Braves were responsible for some of that with their 29-9 thumping of Miami in September).

If these rankings are realized on the field, the NL East would feature five of the top 10 teams in the league. That doesn’t seem farfetched considering the rest of this list. The NL East is by far the best division in the NL - and possibly overall.

11. Milwaukee Brewers

It’s tough to be stuck in the middle, whether it’s MLB, the NFL or the NBA. The Brewers are a treadmill team. They grabbed the final seed in the NL playoffs last season at 29-31, which earned them the pleasure of getting swept by the Dodgers. Christian Yelich had a down season, but you’d think he’ll rebound. Josh Hader – another perpetual trade candidate – is stellar, as is fellow reliever and reigning rookie of the year Devin Williams. Corbin Burnes might’ve had the most underrated season by a starter in 2020. There is some real individual talent here, but the team’s prospects of making a run seem low.

12. San Francisco Giants

The Giants came one game from making the expanded postseason. They haven’t quite returned to relevance, but it feels like their hibernation is nearing its end. After winning three World Series titles in the 2010s, the Giants have now posted four consecutive losing campaigns. But with money coming off the books after this season, and management that will surely see an opportunity to accelerate the rebuild, the Giants could be back in a big way soon. In 2021, however, they don’t project as a serious threat.

13. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks went from popular sleeper pick to forgotten in the past year. The Madison Bumgarner signing was a disappointment in his first season, but he could turn it around. Arizona has tried to balance winning in the present and rebuilding – an unpopular path in today’s sports landscape – and it’s had mixed results. Before last season, the Diamondbacks posted three consecutive winning campaigns. They could rebound in 2021, but their ceiling is third place in their division.

14. Colorado Rockies

The Rockies shipped Arenado to St. Louis, and while they refuse to use the term “rebuild” for their current situation, it’s apparent the team won’t be competitive. The immediate question here revolves around shortstop Trevor Story: Will the Rockies re-sign him, or could he become a massive trade chip? Their plans, even after moving Arenado, aren’t clear. Denver sports discourse should center on whether Drew Lock can become a franchise quarterback for the Broncos and the Nuggets’ championship hopes -- because the Rockies aren’t going to be a fascinating conversation.

15. Pittsburgh Pirates

Not much to say here. The Pirates had the worst record during the shortened 2020 season and are undergoing a complete teardown. On paper, this probably is the worst roster in the majors. The Pirates won’t be a factor for a while, but at least they’ve committed to an extensive rebuild. A local note: They’re commonly linked with Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, a North Oconee High School product, because the Pirates hold the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

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