Are Phillies, Dodgers or Braves the National League's best team?

Which team is Kurkjian's best of the NL? (1:49)

Tim Kurkijian breaks down why he is picking the Phillies as the best team in the national league so far this season. (1:49)

Nearly two months into the 2024 MLB season, three National League powerhouses are emerging at the top of the standings.

It's no surprise that those teams are the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies -- but Philly having the best record of the three is not what anyone predicted going into the campaign.

Have the Phillies passed the Braves and Dodgers as the NL's team to beat? And what must each do from here on out to be the best of the group when it matters most? Our MLB experts weigh in.

Which of the NL's Big Three has impressed you most so far?

Buster Olney: The Phillies have played a relatively easy schedule, but they have dominated -- with their starting rotation, bullpen and deep lineup. The Braves' offense has obviously been a problem, and the Dodgers will need more from the bottom half of their batting order. But Philadelphia is the best all-around team so far. It will be interesting to see how the Phillies fare as their schedule toughens and they begin playing postseason contenders with star-studded rotations. As one of the Braves said to me Saturday: "It feels like we are seeing a lot of aces so far."

Jeff Passan: The last time Philadelphia played a team that is currently over .500 was March 31. So as fantastic as its MLB-best record is, the nod here goes to the Dodgers, who have scored more runs and allowed fewer than the Phillies. Los Angeles' offense is wondrous, leading MLB in most categories of consequence, and its pitching is pretty fantastic too, with Tyler Glasnow and Yoshinobu Yamamoto playing co-aces nicely. And L.A.'s relief pitching as a potential weakness? The Dodgers' 2.99 bullpen ERA is the best in the NL.

David Schoenfield: Look, if Ranger Suarez keeps putting up numbers from the dead ball era, the Phillies are going to be in contention for best record with that one-two-three punch of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Suarez. The offense has been better than last year, as well. But I'm sticking with the Dodgers thanks to the multiple one-two punches they possess: Shohei Ohtani and Mookie Betts on offense and Glasnow and Yamamoto in the rotation. Walker Buehler, who just spun six scoreless innings in his third start of the season, and Gavin Stone are nice sidekicks to Glasnow and Yamamoto. The Dodgers' bullpen ERA is also more than a run lower than that of the Phillies (although, to be fair, the back end of the Philly pen has been fine).

Alden Gonzalez: For as dominant as the Dodgers have looked and as impressive as the Phillies' start has been, let's not overlook what the Braves are doing. Spencer Strider, their ace, is out for the year. Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson and Austin Riley, their three best players, have basically been league-average hitters. And yet the Braves are performing largely as we would have expected. Reynaldo Lopez and Chris Sale, two question marks in their rotation going into the year, have been really good. And it's been Marcell Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud who have done most of the heavy lifting offensively. The Braves' offense will be better. A lot better. They have another gear left in them because of it. And that's scary for the rest of the sport.

What has surprised you most?

Olney: The Braves' run production has been shockingly mediocre for a team that finished No. 1 overall in runs and home runs last year. They have had some of their regulars impacted by injuries -- Sean Murphy, Ozzie Albies and, more recently, Riley -- but there have been some real struggles, as well. Acuna is expanding the strike zone more than ever. And before he got hurt, Riley was going through his usual early-season slog. A good sign is that Olson is finally seeing some of his hard-hit rate translating.

Passan: Atlanta's tepid offense. The Braves returned the entirety of the team that set offensive records last year, and they've been outscored this season by the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels. Most shocking: Of the 166 players qualified for the batting title, Acuna ranks 138th with a .333 slugging percentage. One year after slugging .501 as a team, the Braves are at .406; and if you subtract Ozuna, who has been crucial to keeping the offense afloat, it would be .381.

Schoenfield: Suarez has been absolutely phenomenal, going 8-0 with a 1.37 ERA in his first nine starts while holding batters to a .171 average. It's one of the great starts in MLB history. The last pitcher to win at least eight of his first nine starts with an ERA under 1.50 was Jake Arrieta in 2016. Before that, it was Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010. And before that, it was Pedro Martinez in 1997. Suarez is one of just 10 pitchers to pull off the feat since 1920. He is throwing five different pitches at least 10% of the time, with his curveball and changeup both registering whiff rates at about 30%. He isn't overpowering, but this has been old-school mastery of deception -- and it's been beautiful to watch.

Gonzalez: Let's not forget what's truly shocking in all this: Betts is suddenly a shortstop -- for arguably the best team in the majors. And it doesn't look like he's moving off that position, either. Remember: This is a 31-year-old, six-time Gold Glove right fielder who planned to switch to second base full time heading into 2024 then transitioned to shortstop -- the toughest position to play, outside of catcher -- in spring training. He has started more than three-quarters of the Dodgers' games there this season. Has he been great? No. Has he been passable? No doubt. Has he improved? Absolutely. And he has done it while hitting like an MVP.

Which of the three teams has the most glaring need for improvement in the coming months?

Olney: You'd assume that eventually the Braves are going to start to hit; there's just too much of a track record in Acuna, Riley, Albies and Michael Harris II to believe this collective slump is going to last all year. I think there's more uncertainty with the bottom half of the Dodgers' lineup. Is Chris Taylor going to bounce back? It's unclear. And Gavin Lux, after missing all of last season? It's hard to say. Will James Outman return to the big leagues and shake off the early problems? Not sure. But one way or another, the Dodgers will find solutions before the trade deadline, either internally or externally.

Passan: The Phillies' pitching has been spectacular, and their infield, even with Trea Turner on the injured list, is phenomenal. The outfield, however, is entering its seventh week of mediocrity. Brandon Marsh is a solid player, but the Nick Castellanos-Johan Rojas-Cristian Pache trio garnering the majority of outfield at-bats has been downright bad offensively and middling defensively. With no help on the immediate horizon -- Gabriel Rincones is still a year away from the majors -- addressing the outfield in the trade market is a must for Philadelphia.

Schoenfield: I'd mention the Phillies' outfield, as well. Rojas was at least supposed to run down everything in center field, but that hasn't happened, either. The Phillies could slide Marsh back to center field, but utility man Whit Merrifield doesn't look like an answer for left field, as he just can't drive the ball at all anymore. Kyle Schwarber back to left? Seems unlikely, as putting Schwarber and Castellanos as regulars in the outfield corners hurts the defense. So, I'm with Jeff: A trade is looking necessary.

Gonzalez: The Nos. 1 to 5 hitters in the Dodgers' lineup lead the majors with a combined .918 OPS. The Nos. 6 to 9 hitters? A .576 OPS, worse than every team except the lowly Miami Marlins. If Andy Pages continues to hit and Jason Heyward -- who recently returned from a month-plus stint on the IL -- produces like he did last year, this will mostly be rendered moot. But Pages has drawn four walks in 123 plate appearances, and Heyward had an adjusted OPS of 65 from 2021 to 2022. And the likes of Outman, Taylor and Lux haven't shown many signs of busting out of their dreadful early-season slumps. If this continues, the Dodgers -- more "championship or bust" than they've ever been under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman -- will certainly need to trade for at least one outfielder. And they might also need a middle infielder.

Which will be the team to beat come October?

Olney: The Phillies. They have arguably the premier ace in Wheeler -- maybe the best pitcher on the planet currently, with Gerrit Cole down -- and are working with productive regret from their NLCS loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks last year, when their hitters expanded the zone and former closer Craig Kimbrel lost leads. The Dodgers are the more dynamic team, but until we see an upgrade in performance or in the roster, the Phillies have the group best built to win in October.

Passan: For all of the disillusionment over Atlanta's bats, its pitching has been exceptional. Sale looks like a prime version of himself. Max Fried and Charlie Morton have postseason bona fides. Braves pitchers have the lowest average exit velocity allowed by nearly 1 mph and have allowed 60 fewer hard-hit balls than the second-best team. The offense is bound to right itself, and with that sort of pitching -- even without Strider -- the Braves have the goods to survive the NL gauntlet.

Schoenfield: I'll go with the Phillies as well for the same reasons Buster outlined, primarily that Wheeler is the one starter I would trust most in October from these three teams. I want to see top starters such as Sale and Glasnow, with their history of injuries, make it through the season (and Glasnow's track record in October isn't good, with a 5.72 ERA in 45⅔ innings). And let's face it: No team will face more pressure in October than the Dodgers. L.A.'s advantage, though: It won't be battling for a division title, while the Phillies and Braves may be battling until the very end to avoid that always dangerous wild-card series.

Gonzalez: What the Dodgers clearly didn't have when they got swept by the D-backs in last year's NLDS was reliable starting pitching. And though a lot can change between now and October, what they have at the moment is the makings of a dominant staff. Glasnow and Yamamoto have pitched like the type of guys who can carry a team in the postseason. Walker Buehler showed some really encouraging signs in his return from a second Tommy John surgery on Saturday, blanking the Reds for six innings. The electric Bobby Miller should be back soon. Clayton Kershaw, who has a 2.37 ERA over the past two years despite diminishing velocity, will join the rotation at some point in the second half. The Dodgers need to solidify their bullpen and figure out the bottom half of their lineup, but those are assets they can easily acquire before the trade deadline. If they can match the dominant top half of their lineup with a dominant rotation, they'll be the team to beat.

Which other NL team is the biggest threat to the Phillies, Dodgers and Braves?

Olney: In a short series, the Chicago Cubs, due to their pitching (assuming that they're healthy) -- and October games at Wrigley Field would only foster that production. But it does feel like the rest of the NL is a million miles behind the Big Three right now.

Passan: I really want to say the Pittsburgh Pirates, because Paul Skenes, Jared Jones and Mitch Keller comprise one hell of a short-series rotation. But they're probably a year away. Realistically, the new-look Milwaukee Brewers -- buoyed by a bountiful offense -- and the Diamondbacks, who have all the talent to make another run, are the likelier candidates to ruin October for one of the Big Three.

Schoenfield: The Cubs are over .500 despite a lot of underperformance (Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ, Christopher Morel) and injury issues so far. They'll need Justin Steele to find his 2023 form and probably find a replacement for the struggling Kyle Hendricks, but Shota Imanaga has been beyond fantastic. A playoff rotation of Steele, Imanaga, the emerging Javier Assad and Jameson Taillon could be a group that makes an October run. (A couple of relief arms would help, although even mediocre bullpens can get hot for a month.)

Gonzalez: The San Diego Padres have yet to take off largely because the cold bats of Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Ha-Seong Kim won't let them. Eventually, they'll get going. And when they do, they have the talent and depth to be the fourth-best team in the NL. Their lineup has some nice length now that Luis Arraez sits atop it. Robert Suarez has proved to be a lockdown closer. A rotation trio of Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Dylan Cease is really solid. And the defense remains dynamic. The Padres are imperfect, but we know general manager A.J. Preller will be aggressive enough to plug any holes at the deadline. They'll be dangerous. Eventually.