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2021 MLB Preview: Our Guide To The National League

Baseball returns this week for what we can all hope is a more normal season after last year’s abbreviated 60-game, expanded-playoffs pandemic campaign. Accordingly, we’ve launched our 2021 MLB forecast model, with win totals and playoff odds that look a little bit more regular than they did going into 2020. As always, we estimate each team’s preseason strength (in the form of an Elo rating) based on a variety of computer projections,1 and we simulate the schedule 100,000 times to track how often each team wins its division, makes the playoffs and emerges as World Series champions. Here’s what our model thinks is in store for the National League in 2021 (click here for the American League):

How Elo is forecasting the NL East race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Mets 1540 88 74 +67 55% 36% 5%
Braves 1534 87 75 +55 49 30 4
Nationals 1520 84 78 +28 37 20 3
Phillies 1506 80 82 -7 23 12 1
Marlins 1464 70 92 -104 4 2 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2021 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

Meet the Mets … as NL East favorites? Yes, Elo currently gives them a slight edge over the defending division champs from Atlanta, after New York devoted the offseason to spending new owner Steven Cohen’s money on the likes of SS Francisco Lindor, C James McCann, starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker and reliever Trevor May. Adding to a team that was already much better than its record indicated in 2020 — with the potential for hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard to rejoin the rotation by midseason — the flurry of moves has the Mets looking very good … on paper.2 

But the Braves are not going to give up the East without a fight. Although Atlanta sustained some offseason losses to what was the No. 1 bullpen in MLB by wins above replacement3 last year, it bolstered its starting rotation (adding Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly), upgraded its bench and will be breaking in touted prospect Cristian Pache as its everyday CF. Any team with the 1-2-3 punch of Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna in the lineup is a tough one to beat. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals are hoping to forget a disastrous season in which the defending champs finished in last place, missing the playoffs despite the expanded field.4 Although Trea Turner and Juan Soto were even better, injuries and regression conspired to destroy Washington’s chances; the team’s 2021 odds are riding on better health, better fortune and an influx of veteran talent that includes OF Kyle Schwarber, 1B Josh Bell, SP Jon Lester and lights-out closer Brad Hand. 

Don’t count out the big-spending Phillies in this division, either. Betrayed by poor fielding and an even worse bullpen, Philly underwhelmed in 2020 despite good hitting and elite starting pitching. The defense will probably still be a weakness this year, but the pen was addressed through a handful of offseason additions, headlined by former D-backs and Reds reliever Archie Bradley. Last year’s relief situation was so bad that the Phillies have big potential if they get even an average performance at the end of games. 

Finally, we have the Marlins. They were last year’s feel-good surprise team, overcoming an early COVID-19 outbreak to make the playoffs — even winning a series! — and over the offseason they made the smart/overdue move of hiring Kim Ng (MLB’s first Asian American and female GM) to run their baseball operations. So why do they project so poorly? Simply put, the stats say Miami got incredibly lucky last year, winning a league-high seven more games than their underlying metrics would predict.5 With the exceptions of outfielder Adam Duvall and a retooled bullpen, Miami is rolling with largely the same group in 2021, so there’s reason to think a regression is looming even if the long-term future is bright.

How Elo is forecasting the NL Central race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Brewers 1518 85 77 +38 45% 34% 3%
Cubs 1506 82 80 +9 32 22 2
Cardinals 1503 82 80 +6 31 21 1
Reds 1503 81 81 +4 30 21 1
Pirates 1434 64 98 -153 2 1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2021 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

For what it’s worth, Elo thinks the NL Central is the worst division in baseball — perhaps fitting after it was collectively routed (by a margin of eight games to one) in the first round of last year’s playoffs. This season, the Brewers are slight favorites despite a sub-.500 showing in 2020, when they were missing CF Lorenzo Cain — who opted out of the campaign after just five games — and received disappointing performances from stars like LF Christian Yelich and closer Josh Hader. Milwaukee didn’t lose much over the winter (infielder Jedd Gyorko’s option was declined and longtime Brewer Ryan Braun may retire) while adding Jackie Bradley Jr., Kolten Wong and Travis Shaw to the lineup, so the Brew Crew is looking stronger if Yelich and company bounce back. 

The Cubs won the division last year, but they also sustained some big offseason personnel losses — chief among them starter Yu Darvish, who was by far Chicago’s most valuable player by WAR last season. New baseball ops head Jed Hoyer busily reloaded the pitching staff and bench, and signed Joc Pederson to replace Schwarber in left field, but the Cubs look worse on paper than they did at the end of last season. 

Maybe a bigger surprise is that the Cardinals aren’t higher in the Central projections after trading for ex-Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado in February. But St. Louis lost Wong, Brad Miller and Austin Gomber from a team that earned its middling 30-28 record a year ago — the Cards finished ranked 15th of 30 teams in Elo — and Arenado was its only real addition at the MLB level. The Redbirds have upside and could exceed expectations if their new 3B plays like an MVP again … but Arenado will be 30 this season and is coming off a down year by his standards. 

As for the Reds, Elo rates Cincinnati as the least-improved team in baseball in 2021, dropping eight ranking slots since the end of 2020. Cincy lost its best player (SP Trevor Bauer) and its closer (Raisel Iglesias) from last season, and didn’t do much to make up for the departures — or to upgrade an offense that ranked 26th in hitting WAR and failed to score a run in a first-round sweep by the Braves. Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and (once healthy) Sonny Gray are a nice rotation 1-2-3, though, which could at least keep Cincinnati competitive. 

That probably won’t be the case for the Pirates, who continue a rebuild that has seen the team miss the playoffs for five straight seasons (and counting). 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes was excellent in his debut last year — and retains rookie status for 2021 — and closer Richard Rodríguez sports an elite strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the rest of this roster severely lacks talent.

How Elo is forecasting the NL West race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Dodgers 1599 103 59 +211 94% 72% 25%
Padres 1561 94 68 +120 75 26 9
Diamondbacks 1489 76 86 -46 12 1 <1
Giants 1481 74 88 -64 9 1 <1
Rockies 1443 65 97 -152 1 <1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2021 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

To nobody’s surprise, the defending-champ Dodgers lead our NL West projections. The 2020 version finished with the sixth-best Elo rating of any World Series champion in history — and then added Bauer, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, over the offseason to a staff that already ranked No. 2 in pitching WAR. L.A. did lose a few recognizable names — such as Pederson, Kiké Hernández, Pedro Báez and Dylan Floro — but this remains the most talented team in baseball by a decent margin. 

Behind them, the Padres are gaining steam after a breakout 2020 and a busy winter that saw them add Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove to the rotation and Mark Melancon and Keone Kela in the bullpen. That should help improve a pitching staff that already ranked No. 7 in WAR last year; if the Padre position players (led by Manny Machado and Fernando Tatís Jr.) can replicate last year’s No. 2 ranking, San Diego could potentially challenge the Dodgers — or at least be in the championship mix come October. 

The rest of the division figures to be mediocre at best. The Diamondbacks are coming off a last-place finish and lost ace Zac Gallen to a forearm fracture in spring, though they still have potential to improve if a trio of big underachievers from 2020 (Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Madison Bumgarner) bounce back to previous form. 

The Giants were a surprise team in the first half last season before tailing off down the stretch to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. San Francisco turned over quite a bit of its pitching staff after last year’s No. 24 WAR finish, and it will get future Hall of Fame catcher Buster Posey back after he opted out of the 2020 season. But the larger question is whether the 2020 Giants’ handful of breakout position players — headlined by unexpected MVP candidate Mike Yastrzemski — can sustain their play over a full, 162-game schedule. 

Finally, what can we even say about the Rockies? Colorado dealt away Arenado, the third-best player in franchise history by WAR, in a trade that was widely panned. The team did little to address a bullpen that ranked second-worst in MLB last year, and a position-player corps that ranked 26th figures to be even worse without Arenado and (especially) his stellar defense. With Kyle Freeland injured this spring, even the starting rotation — a strength last year (No. 5 in WAR) — could be significantly worse. This team stinks.


  1. Our preseason ratings blend together a team’s mean-reverted Elo rating from the end of 2020 (33 percent) with a mix of ratings derived from projections found at Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Clay Davenport’s site (67 percent).

  2. Though in typical Mets fashion, Carrasco has already injured his leg in spring training.

  3. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  4. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the sixth time in the past eight years that a World Series champion failed to follow it up with a playoff appearance.

  5. Put in 162-game-schedule terms, the Marlins won the equivalent of 84 games, but they had the stats of a 66-win team … which is much more in line with what they were in 2019.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.