By David Mullen
Since 2013, the American League and National League have each won the World Series five times. But unlike the AL, which has seen the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros repeat as champions over the decade, the NL has had five different teams win the World Championship.
If one subscribes to the quote attributed to Malcom Forbes — “He who dies with the most toys wins” — the New York Mets seem to have the most toys and for long struggling Mets fans, the 2023 season is “do or die.”
Last season, the NL East inhabitants the Atlanta Braves and the Mets each won more than 100 games. But it was the third place Philadelphia Phillies that caught playoff fire and represented the NL in the World Series, losing to the Astros 4 games to 2. The Phillies’ success solidified the NL East as the best division in baseball.
Baseball has changed the way the game is played. Pitchers much pitch faster, hitters must get ready quicker, and base stealers will have more opportunities to swipe bases. But most NL teams didn’t have much chance to retool to accommodate the changes.
The few changes the Mets made, thanks to owner Steve Cohen spending money like a Silicon Valley Bank executive, made them better. The Mets lost often injured ace Jacob DeGrom to the Texas Rangers but replaced him with AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and already had former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.
They missed out on free agent shortstop Carlos Correa, but already had Francisco Lindor on their estimated $384 million payroll. Cohen is on the hook for the MLB Luxury Tax due to the highest payroll in baseball history. Even Mr. Met got a raise.
Atlanta acquired catcher Sean Murphy from the Oakland A’s fire sale and solidified their catching. They lost hometown hero shortstop Dansby Swanson, but the team is young, can hit with Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson, Austin Riley and a healthy Ozzie Albies and have had the Mets’ number in recent years.
Built for the new rules, the Miami Marlins have speed, should hit for average with Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Al batting champ Luis Arráez and have excellent young starting pitching led by NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara.
The Marlins will be the surprise team in the NL, but must play in baseball’s best division. The unbalanced schedule instituted in 2023 means less games against division rivals and will benefit Miami.
The Phillies won’t have their star Bryce Harper until late in the season as he recovers from surgery. But they plucked Trea Turner from the Los Angeles Dodgers and may have a decent bullpen, something Phillies fans haven’t been able to claim since the Liberty Bell was solid bronze. The Washington Nationals, just three seasons from the 2019 World Series title, are the worst team in the NL and did nothing in the offseason to improve. It’s like the Washington brass decided against approving the debt ceiling.
The NL West has been dominated by the Dodgers, winners of the division nine times in the last 10 years. But this season, the San Diego Padres have more than a prayer. They are the team to beat.
No team can roll out a lineup featuring the likes of Juan Soto, Manny Machado and newly acquired Xander Bogaerts. If Fernando Tatis Jr. can get his head right, no NL team has better hitting. But their pitching is less formidable. Former Ranger Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Michael Wacha must keep opponents at bay for the Padres to supplant the Dodgers.
In the offseason, Los Angeles let (Trey) Turner, Justin Turner and former MVP Cody Bellinger walk. The pride of Highland Park, Clayton Kershaw, sees his career setting like the sun over Santa Monica Pier. The Dodgers’ championship run is waning, even with all-world OF Mookie Betts.
The San Francisco Giants were also losers in the Correa sweepstakes but got stronger by signing Michael Conforto. Logan Webb and Alex Cobb are perfectly suited to pitch in the San Francisco fog. The Arizona Diamondbacks are banking on young Corbin Carroll to be their first legitimate homegrown superstar. The Colorado Rockies signed ex-Cub and Giant Kris Bryant to a seven-year deal in 2022 and got 42 games out of him last year. There is an avalanche of doubt in the Rockies.
In between two powerhouse divisions sits the NL Central. The Milwaukee Brewers went flat in 2023 on August 1. It was as if their “born-on date” expired. Milwaukee, with a three-game division lead and a 57-45 record, traded closer Josh Hader to the Padres. They lost five of the next six games, two by failing to close out the game and failed the rest of the season.
The St. Louis Cardinals are the NL Central defending champs and got younger by replacing Yadier Molina with Willson Contreras at catcher. Even with the Chicago Cubs good, bad or earmarked for the division middle, and the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates just bad, pundits don’t expect a team in the NL Central to have more than 90 wins.
Even without Hader, the Brewers can pitch with Corbin Burnes leading the way, but must remain hopeful that William Contreras (Willson’s younger brother) can catch, and Christian Yelich, new DH/OF Jesse Winkler and the appropriately named Rowdy Tellez can hit.
The Cardinals always compete, and this year should be no different, given the division quality. They have Tyler O’Neill and potential star Lars Nootbaar. Losing Molina and the great Albert Pujols forced the Cards to get younger.
The Cubs brought in Bellinger, Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini hoping their careers haven’t hit the ivy-covered wall. Chicago did nab Swanson from Atlanta, and the faithful at the corner of Clark and Addison Streets will have a new hero.
The Pirates have been rebuilding forever. Each year, they get kudos for their prospects list but are waiting for a major league star to emerge. The Bucs are hoping that 6-foot, 7-inch shortstop Oneil Cruz will be that player. They brought back 36-year-old OF Andrew McCutchen after a four-team detour following nine years in Pittsburgh.
The once Big Red Machine now looks like a chop-shop Chevy. Joey Votto is in his final season as the modern-day face of the franchise, but his beard is as grey as Cincinnati’s road uniforms. There is nothing to like about this team, meaning the Reds will be in the red on the win-loss ledger.
Despite pushes from the Braves, Phillies, Marlins, Padres, Dodgers, Giants and some team from the NL Central (either the Brewers or most likely the Cardinals), it looks like the NL belongs to the Mets. “The butcher and the baker and the people on the streets, they’re hollerin’ and cheerin’ and they’re jumpin’ in their seats!” Why? To “Meet the Mets,” as the song goes. And they had better win in 2023, because owner Steve Cohen didn’t build this team for a song.