So let's take a look back at how the NL ended the 2009 season:
NL West Standings
NL Central Standings
NL East Standings
So that's your basic straight up standings, if you want to go into more advanced detail (and you probably should) about how these teams stacked up on talent and skill without the luck you can look at Beyond the Boxscore or Baseball Prospectus or something, but straight W's and L's will serve as a solid start for where I'm going with this today.
So let's separate the teams into some talent groups, this time going by what we know of the teams' personnel at the end of last season rather than the standings:
Contender A Class (90+ wins)
- Los Angeles
Contender B Class (86-90 wins)
- St. Louis
.500-ish teams (81-85 wins)
- San Francisco
- New York
I realize that the D-backs and Mets didn't finish anywhere close to .500 in 2009 and that the Giants and Marlins finished ahead of a couple of the teams in the group I have above them, but this is where taking out the luck, good or bad, comes in. In the cases of Florida and San Fran, they seemed to benefit from a large positive dose of divine favor in 2009 even as Arizona and New York were seemingly cursed from the get-go. Feel free to quibble with this placement in the comments, but the main point is that these are the 11 teams that appear to have a legitimate shot at making a playoff run in 2010.
So far in the off season, we've seen Los Angeles give up Randy Wolf, Orlando Hudson and Juan Pierre and drop into that second group with the Rockies and Cardinals, while the Phillies have grabbed a couple of minor upgrades with Roy Halladay over Cliff Lee and Placido Polanco over Pedro Feliz and given themselves a little separation from the rest of the league. Right now, it does not appear as if the Dodgers will be able to gain nearly enough of those cast-off wins back to get back to the Phillies level.
In the second group, the Cardinals and Rockies are both taking risks in replacing free agent starters leaving after career seasons, the Cards with Brad Penny in place of Joel Pineiro, the Rockies with the return of Jeff Francis in place of Jason Marquis. Insurance policies for both teams seem to be primarily a cache of young near-ready pitching talent. Both teams have similar bench depth issues to work out as well, the Cardinals need to replace Mark DeRosa and Rick Ankiel, the Rockies, Yorvit Torrealba and Garrett Atkins.
The good news for the Rockies in relation to the Cardinals (should they have to compete with each other for the wild card next season) is that 1) Dan O'Dowd got rid of this "Holliday distraction" the Cardinals are going through which is keeping them from making other moves a couple of years ago, and 2) while both teams can probably expect some regression in their starting rotation performance in 2010, it's usually a safe bet to expect a smaller step back from the team with the younger players, in this case, Colorado.
The Cubs are hoping that losing Milton Bradley is addition by subtraction, but the team's core seems to be declining as a group fairly rapidly, and actually looking at their ages, with their best hitting talent between the ages of 32-34 next season, I really suspect that they might be dropping into that .500 group without a major rebuild that doesn't involve Carlos Silva. The Braves, meanwhile, looked like they might have a decent team heading into 2010, but their replacement of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez with Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner is a downgrade for next year, as is yesterday's deal of Javier Vazquez to the Yankees. Signing Troy Glaus would be useful, but I still think the overall impact of Atlanta's moves is to add a lot more downside risk to the team in 2010 without a substantial upside improvement.
Of the .500-ish teams, so far, most haven't made any moves that really put them into the next category. The Mets appear to be likely adding Jason Bay, which would be a decent start at that. Arizona got a little better for next year or two in acquiring Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy for Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth, but they still seem to be in a 82-85 win range which I think basically just catches them up to the Giants, who have as of yet done nothing. Florida gets a little better by aging a year, but not good enough, and their bullpen has been weakened. San Francisco is putting a lot of eggs into the Madison Bumgarner basket, either he or a second tier free agent like Jon Garland will have to replace the production that Randy Johnson and Brad Penny provided last season. That's a lot to ask given that the rest of their rotation, much like the Rockies, probably isn't going to be quite as good as it was in 2009.
Milwaukee's moves, such trading for Carlos Gomez and signing Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins have been mostly beneath the radar, but I really like what they've done so far. I still think they need more, but at least they're systematically going after the team's weaknesses on a budget without taking the kind of gambles that Atlanta is, or St. Louis did with the Penny acquisition.
So summarizing, the Rockies, who are gaining ground just by maturing into a peak phase, thus far have caught up with the Dodgers, and probably passed them talent-wise, just by sitting on their hands. Arizona's moved up a little and are within range of passing us if things fall their way in 2010, as are the Giants, but to put it in perspective, the gap between the Rockies and both those teams talent wise is probably still larger than it is between the Rockies and the Phillies the other direction.
As for the second playoff option, so far the news has been mostly positive as well, as none of the primary competitors outside the NL West with the possible exception of the Brewers have added enough talent to either make up for the players they've lost, or to otherwise catch up with Colorado. The last couple of seasons the Rockies have had similarly quiet winters, as Dan O'Dowd seems to prefer to wait until mid-season to add salary via trade if the team's in contention rather than going all in for the top free agents. Thus far this off season, I haven't seen any NL team besides the Phillies make moves that should push the Rockies to pursue a less budget conscious course.