Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you know the flurry of high-priced additions the top teams in the NL made. Even before spring training started, many had anointed the Dodgers, the Padres, and the Braves as not only a lock to make the playoffs, but as the only three teams that actually had a chance to win the pennant (sorry Mets fans, but don’t worry, I’ll get to you in a minute). In all likelihood, it’ll come down to which of the top teams can stay the healthiest over the long haul of a full season because all of them are loaded with talent, and this season‘s going to be a grind.
The Dodgers have the upper hand, especially after already possessing one of, if not the best roster in baseball and then going out and signing the reigning Cy Young award winner. Next up are the Padres, who have been well covered in the off-season, as news outlets everywhere have continually discussed their overhaul at starting pitching. And then, coming in slightly behind San Diego, are the Atlanta Braves. They, too, have greatly improved their starting staff, and the lineup is returning every positional starter from last year’s league high-scoring offense.
The obvious money is on all three of these teams, but if I had to choose one, I’d go with the Padres (+420) or possibly the Braves (+550). Not only do they pay out more than the Dodgers (+175), but it’s so difficult to repeat this day and age, and with all the unknowns that could happen between now and October, it’s preferable to take the teams with the better odds.
With so much out of a club’s control, I tend to stay away from putting money on the heavily favored teams this early in the year. Simply because the payout isn’t great, and you never know what could go wrong. A team with great depth does help counteract such intangibles, but to me, it’s not worth the risk. Plus, with such low odds, waiting to see how the team performs over the first few months won’t cost you much, if at all, and could even work in your favor. If the team suffers through a losing streak or a key player gets injured, the payouts would likely increase. So, unless you’re a fan and just love to be monetarily invested as you root for your squad, I don’t usually recommend it.
What I enjoy doing (when it’s reasonably applicable) is finding those teams that are longshots, whose payouts are very good or of great value. Once the regular season begins and they start winning, the odds are going to drop quickly, so you need to grab those underdogs now at their highest peak. Then, if somehow they do make it into the playoffs, you can then hedge your bet against them and pocket a decent amount of money. Or, if you truly want to play the risk, you can let it ride.
There’s also the debated topic of expanded playoffs for this year. Although the health and safety protocols were put out by MLB, no mention of the NL DH or expanded playoffs were agreed upon… yet. Those negotiations could still take place leading up to the season (according to yahoo sports), eventually leading to both sides coming to some sort of agreement, allowing one for the other. It seems less than 50% at this point, but it’s definitely not out of the question (regardless of what either side is saying publicly). And if teams can make it into the playoffs with a near .500 record, then over a short series, anything is possible. Meaning, some of these teams with greater odds could actually upset and have a shot at winning the title.
With all that in mind, here are your 2021 best bets to win the NL pennant. Not the most likely per se, but the teams that offer the best value where if everything went right, they could make a strong run at the playoffs.
Odds taken from various locations, including FanDuel, DraftKings, and BetMGM
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New York Mets (+600)
Is this the year Mets fans have been clamoring for over the past few seasons? On paper, it sure seems that way. Coming out on top in the underrated NL East will prove difficult, but at the very worst, a wildcard birth looks highly attainable for the potent Mets.
The additions of All-Stars Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, as well as recently signed Taijuan Walker, obviously make them a lot better, but the Mets already possessed a fine group of young talent. Dominic Smith had the breakout year everyone was hoping for, Pete Alonso could hit 50 home runs again, Brandon Nimmo gets on base over 40% of the time, Jeff McNeil is a perennial batting-champ contender, and Michael Conforto quietly does everything well. Adding Lindor to the mix is not only a huge boost to the lineup and defense, but will further improve everyone around him by bringing his five tools and infectiously great attitude along with him. They also added James McCann at catcher, who was not only fantastic offensively, but a beast behind the plate last season for the White Sox. The lineup doesn’t contain a single easy out from top to bottom, and they even have a ton of depth (Jonathan Villar, Kevin Pillar, Jose Martinez) in case of injury or unexpected illness (a COVID outbreak is still a threat for all teams).
The pitching staff is led by arguably the best hurler in baseball, Jacob deGrom, and now boasts a fine rotation to back him up. Not only did they add Carrasco and Walker, but Marcus Stroman (also a former All-Star), who opted out of the 2019 season, is set to be the #3 starter. The rotation is rounded out by the former first-round pick, David Peterson, who last year in his rookie campaign showed tons of promise and produced a 3.44 ERA over 9 starts (10 games). Noah Syndergaard is also waiting in the wings recovering from surgery and is expected to return sometime in the middle of summer. The Mets also possess a multitude of players to provide depth at the minor league level and as non-roster invitees in case something goes wrong early in spring.
The bullpen also got better with the addition of Trevor May (2.74 xFIP) to add to its plethora of high K% veterans. Lefty specialist Aaron Loup and righty Jacob Barnes were also added to the roster. While plenty of NRI standouts such as Tommy Hunter and lefty Mike Montgomery will be given a chance to earn spots as well. And with Edwin Diaz getting back on track with a fantastic season last year, even if a few arms fail to meet expectations, the bullpen as a whole should be very good.
I do believe the Braves will repeat as division champs, but the Mets will be tight on their heels and shouldn’t have a problem earning a wild card. And with the promised spending of new majority owner Steven Cohen, look for the Mets to do all they can to win, even if that involves adding more players during the regular season and buying at the trade deadline. I believe they have a great shot at winning it all, and with slightly better odds than the Braves or Padres, it makes New York a savvy pick.
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Washington Nationals (+2o00)
Although I believe the Mets to be the front runner to finish second in the division, the Nationals at 20 to 1 are still a great value pick. Already led by two of the best hitters in baseball, Juan Soto and Trea Turner, the Nationals added a slew of players to their roster, including one of the top closers in the game, Brad Hand. They still possess the three-headed monster in the starting rotation as well, led by mad-Max Scherzer, and added the services of veteran lefty, Jon Lester, as well.
The Nationals had a down year last season after winning it all in 2019 but were missing some key players. Stephen Strasburg was out all season with a finger injury, Soto started the year on the Covid list, as did Victor Robles (who never really got it going), clutch-hitting veteran Ryan Zimmerman opted out, and Starlin Castro missed the majority of the season due to injury. There were other negatives as well, including playoff hero Howie Kendrick swapping in and out of the lineup constantly due to injuries, the addition of Eric Thames was a bust, and Adam Eaton had an awful year at the plate, all of which are now no longer with the team. They also had no real closer to speak of and blew a number of games late, ideally remedied this year by the addition of Hand and Jeremy Jeffress.
The power-hitting additions of Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber will add some much-needed thump to the lineup, and the inclusion of Lester and Joe Ross (opted out last season), should help add some stability to the back end of the rotation. At 20-1, the champs of 2019 are definitely worth a look.
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Milwaukee Brewers (+2500)
The Brewers are the definition of a value pick this season. Not only have they made the playoffs the last two years, but no one is talking about them, allowing their odds to grow even further. Will they win it all? Probably not, but do they have a better than 25-1 chance? Abso-freakin-lutely. Besides boasting one of the top starting pitching duos in Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, they have a lineup that is much more capable of scoring runs than they did over last year’s shortened season and even play in a weak division. Plus, don’t forget about their pair of unhittable, strikeout-2-batters-an-inning relievers they use to close out games.
Christian Yelich is one of the best hitters in baseball, and with the return of table-setter Lorenzo Cain, who sat out last year, the team is already better. Add in the signing of consecutive Gold Glove winner Kolten Wong and a return to career norms for Avisail Garcia and catcher Omar Narvaez, and the lineup is even more improved. Keston Hiura is another player who can rake, judging by the immense promise he showed during his rookie season and in the minor leagues. And a move to first base will only help his development after struggling defensively at 2B over his first two years in the league.
One other point of emphasis I need to highlight is the strength of Milwaukee’s bullpen. Not only do they have ROY, Devin Williams, and electric closer Josh Hader, but the Brew Crew also carries Brent Suter, Freddy Peralta, Eric Yardley, Justin Topa, and Brad Boxberger. Those seven pitchers combined ERA’s last season were 2.59 while they totaled 218 strikeouts over 156 innings. If veteran starters Josh Lindblom (10.3 K/9, 3.88 FIP), Brett Anderson, and Adrian Houser can be halfway decent (which they’ve demonstrated in the past), then the Brewers shut-down bullpen, combined with all their other strengths, could lead them to the division title. Even if they come up a bit short, the wild card should be well within their grasp, placing the Brewers back in the playoffs for a third straight year. And once they’re in, they’ll be a team to be reckoned with, as no one is going to want to face Woodruff and Burnes to open a 5 game series.
I’m not buying the Cardinals with Nolan Arenado (who’s never been that great outside of Colorado) as the favorites. The team has weaknesses up and down their lineup, and their staff has question marks as well. Put your money on the Brew Crew, and consider hedging just enough to cover your original bet once they make it in.
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Arizona Diamondbacks (+8000)
The Arizona Diamondbacks, are you kidding me!? Just hear me out before you go screaming at your computer. First of all, 80-1 is such a ridiculous number that any team with even a slim chance at winning a few games over .500 is worth the gamble. And we’re talking the NL Pennant, not the World Series. But I digress. Let’s discuss why I think they’re such a great pick at this value. First, let me say this, I don’t think they’ll beat the Dodgers, nor do I think they’ll beat the Padres, but can they surprise and sneak in with the second wild card, or get in with the possibility of expanded playoffs still looming? The answer is yes (It’s a very slim, yes, but even if it’s a 3% chance, that should be 33 to 1, not 80 to 1!).
The D’backs, when dissecting their roster, don’t show a whole lot of weaknesses, while unfortunately not showing much promise either. They do have standouts like Zac Gallen, who’s quickly become one of the better pitchers in the league, and Ketel Marte, who finished 4th in the MVP voting for 2019. After them, however, the team is made up of mostly average to above-average role players, steady veterans, and a few up-and-coming, high ceiling rookies.
Besides Gallen, the starting pitching staff does show some promise and is rounded out by Caleb Smith and Luke Weaver, who have shown stretches of dominance throughout their career. Merrill Kelly, who after returning from Korea, showed great control and tenacity primarily last season, when he produced a 2.59 ERA with only 5 walks over 5 starts. He also averaged over 6 innings per game before his season was cut short by injury, but he is already in camp and expected to be a full go for the start of the season. And finally, there is Madison Bumgarner, who may be the most recognizable name of the group, but was by far the least productive last season. His lack of production could be blamed on the fact that Bumgarner (by his own account) underwent no preseason warmup, with very little of an off-season throwing program. This could explain why not only was his control off, but his velocity was way down as well. After 6 weeks of play, however, he started showing signs of his old self, not surprisingly about the same length of a normal spring training. With a true exhibition regiment in place for this season, it’s not out of the question Bumgarner could bounce back and more closely resemble the player he was in San Francisco.
The lineup has plenty of quality bats besides Marte including, Eduardo Escobar, who finished 2019 with 35 home runs and 118 RBI. He had an awful 2020, but management has chalked that up to him being overweight and out of shape, something he has remedied for this season. Kole Calhoun is another decent hitter who showed plenty of power last year in the desert, crushing 16 home runs and driving in 40 in only 54 games. The first baseman, Christian Walker, had a fine season as well, slashing .271/.333/.459, and is even capable of improving upon those numbers. I believe Carson Kelly is on the verge of breaking out and becoming a top 10-15 hitter at the catcher position. And they also roster one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, Nick Ahmed, who also possesses a decent bat.
The bullpen leaves a lot to be desired, but they did add veterans Joakim Soria and Tyler Clippard. Plus, there are always surprise breakouts from guys in the pen, ranging from veterans who recapture their stride or unexpected rookies who hit the ground running. There is also still plenty of time during spring training and throughout the season to add free agents or make appropriate trades to add to it.
Taking a shot at a 80-1 bet is usually thought of as just a shot in the dark, but in my mind, this one has some merit to it. I’m taking Arizona at +8000 and will gladly cash in and hedge if they make the playoffs.
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Austin Lowell is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Austin, check out his archive.