First and foremost, the Braves will have to take care of business in the NL East. The Mets look primed to take a significant jump in 2021; the Nationals, who should be much healthier and added Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber this offseason, are also a threat to end the Braves run of three consecutive division titles. Even the Phillies and Marlins could provide some problems. However, just as it’s been for the last decade, whoever wins the National League will have to go through the Dodgers, and they got even better this offseason.
Los Angeles was mostly quiet this winter. That is until they landed the prized free-agent of the offseason. Trevor Bauer inked a three-year contract with the Dodgers earlier this month — a deal with an opt-out after each season and will pay him nearly $40 million annually. With him in the fold, the Dodgers could have assembled one of the best starting rotations ever.
Bauer won the NL Cy Young last season, but you could argue he’s the third-best pitcher on his own team. Walker Buehler is a machine and one of the most talented young arms in the game. You also can never count out Clayton Kershaw. But Bauer isn’t the only boost the Dodgers are receiving coming into 2021. David Price is returning after choosing to opt-out last season. Los Angeles also has two young live arms that can round out the rotation — Dustin May and Julio Urias — along with Tony Gonsolin. Kudos to what the Padres have done this offseason, but this is undoubtedly the best rotation in baseball on paper.
Lineup-wise, the Dodgers were able to keep the whole gang pretty much together too. Enrique Hernandez is heading to Boston, but Los Angeles re-signed Justin Turner, who is much more vital to their success. Offensively, they will still be able to match anybody run for run.
That’s a lot to keep up with, but the Braves proved last season just how close they were, and they have plenty of reason to believe they will be much better in 2021 as well, even if Liberty Media isn’t making it easy for them.
The most impactful addition to the roster from last year’s NLCS wasn’t even brought in through free agency. Mike Soroka is well on track to make his return by May from the ruptured Achilles injury he suffered last August. I fully expect there to be some growing pains, but Soroka could be another potential ace at the top of the Braves rotation by the end of the season. Had he been healthy, the Braves would have finished the job in 2020.
Charlie Morton will also give Atlanta’s rotation a jolt, and Drew Smyly should as well. However, if anyone doesn’t pan out as the Braves hope, they have the depth to make adjustments. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson both showed the potential they had last season. They’ll be waiting in the wings to jump on any opportunity available. And who knows what other prospects or young arms might step up that have not to this point.
Think about it: the Braves gave Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson… and freaking A.J. Minter starts in last year’s NLCS (credit to Wilson and Minter; they were fantastic in their respective outings). Those spots will now be filled by Soroka, Morton, and possibly even Smyly. Regardless, the depth gives Brian Snitker so much more to play with, and the likelihood of him being confident in whoever he chooses to start will rise exponentially.
The Braves didn’t upgrade significantly offensively, but they did bring back one of their most essential pieces, Marcell Ozuna. With him in the fold, the offense can rival any in the majors, even the Dodgers.
There is the likelihood of some regression. It will be nearly impossible for Freeman and Ozuna to replicate their offensive production over a full 162-game slate. However, there could be some upgrades from within as well. Cristian Pache should be much better offensively than Ender Inciarte, and Austin Riley could make strides in his first full season. If Riley doesn’t, the third base competition might open back up, or the Braves could look to make a trade at the deadline.
The bullpen lost a couple of pieces. Mark Melancon signed with the Padres, and Shane Greene remains a free-agent. Perhaps the Braves still bring back for Greene, but it shouldn’t move the needle much either way. Greene has been rocky in Atlanta, and the Braves do have plenty of numbers to fill bullpen spots. They might be better off seeing what they have over the first half of the year, and if they need to make a move, acquiring bullpen help at the trade deadline is not difficult to do.
Overall, the Braves and Dodgers both improved significantly this offseason. Bauer may not end up living up to his hefty contract, but he’ll be a weapon come the postseason, as he has been over his career. He, Buehler, Price, and Kershaw will be tough for any team to beat in a seven-game series. On the other hand, the Braves went from having arguably the worst rotation in baseball to one of the best. The gains they made in the starting pitching department will far outweigh what they lost in the bullpen. And offensively, neither team should miss a beat; these two teams will score and score in bunches.
The bias in me really wants to say the Braves have a better chance to beat the Dodgers in 2021. The additions of Mike Soroka, Charlie Morton, and Drew Smyly will be an incredible boost to the rotation. Still, bringing in Trevor Bauer and getting David Price back only makes the Dodgers more dangerous. They should not only be the heavy favorites to win the National League but the whole damn thing as well. They have spent the money and put together the best roster in baseball — bar none. The Braves won’t need a miracle to overcome them in October (assuming they make it that far), but they will undoubtedly have to play much better than they did in 2020, which is a frightening thought.