The NL East should be baseball’s most interesting and competitive division, with four teams expected to be in contention until the bitter end. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, sees the Phillies and Nationals tying for first place with 89 wins, followed by the Mets at 87 wins and the Braves at 85. The Marlins bring up the rear with only 67 wins. FanGraphs doesn’t disagree all that much, pegging the Nationals as NL East champs with 90 wins, followed by the Phillies at 86, the Mets and Braves at 84, and the Marlins at 62.
Let’s talk about the teams.
The Phillies were quite active during the offseason, something that hasn’t been said about the team in nearly a decade. The rebuilding process complete, GM Matt Klentak traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto while signing Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson. After an 80-82 finish last year, the Phillies are projected to finish above .500, which would be their best finish since 2011.
The offense should be the Phillies’ calling card this year, with a middle of the lineup featuring Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and Realmuto. PECOTA projects the trio to combine for 75 home runs, but they very easily could shoot for 100. An ancillary benefit of adding some legitimate sluggers is taking pressure off of Odúbel Herrera and Maikel Franco, who have disappointed to varying degrees. Adding two corner outfielders in Harper and McCutchen also forced Hoskins back to first base — another benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. Hoskins was, by all accounts, the worst defensive corner outfielder last year. Baseball Reference had him at 26 runs below average defensively in left field. Putting him back at first base, where he’s only slightly below average defensively, could be around a 20-run swing, roughly the equivalent of two wins.
Especially compared to the Nationals, the Phillies’ starting pitching isn’t quite as fearsome. Beyond Cy Young contender Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ rotation is a bunch of question marks. Jake Arrieta‘s ERA has risen in three consecutive seasons, reaching 3.96 last year while his ability to miss bats and avoid walks waned. Nick Pivetta seems to be everyone’s favorite breakout candidate, but he has thus far compiled a 5.33 ERA in the bigs. Zach Eflin has a 5.10 ERA across parts of three seasons and the oft-injured Vince Velasquez owns a 4.60 career mark. Beyond Nola, it’s anyone’s guess how the rotation will fare. As for the bullpen, Robertson adds some stability to the late innings as Seranthony Domínguez and Héctor Neris have had hiccups. The bullpen won’t rank among baseball’s best, but it should be markedly improved compared to recent years.
Before the Phillies signed Harper, the Nationals laid claim to the biggest signing in the division, inking starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract. Corbin joins a rotation that includes three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and fellow newcomer Aníbal Sánchez. This rotation is arguably the best in baseball.
While losing Harper — especially to a division rival — dings the offense, the Nationals’ offense should still be decent enough on the backs of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Rendon has been one of baseball’s best third basemen over the last two years, accruing over 10 wins above replacement level, according to Baseball Reference, while compiling an aggregate .923 OPS with 49 homers and 192 RBI. Soto put up an historically great season at the age of 19, with a .923 OPS paired with 22 homers and 70 RBI in just 116 games. No. 1 prospect Victor Robles (No. 4 across baseball) seems like the club’s starting center fielder when camp breaks at the end of the month. Robles, shortstop Trea Turner, and right fielder Adam Eaton should combine for a lot of stolen bases.
In the bullpen, the Nationals added Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal to help bridge the gap to closer Sean Doolittle. If the Nationals bring a lead into the late innings, this bullpen should be more than adequate to lock things down.
Overall, the Nationals don’t really have weaknesses in the way the Phillies have weaknesses and the starting rotation could be what propels them ahead of the Phillies by the end of the season.
The Braves’ young corps arrived ahead of schedule. Ronald Acuña Jr. led the way, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award with a torrid 111-game performance that featured a .917 OPS, 26 homers, 64 RBI, 78 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases. He was backed by a breakout campaign from Mike Foltynewicz, who finished eighth in NL Cy Young Award balloting with a 2.85 ERA and 202 strikeouts across 183 innings. And though he’s no longer in a starting role, Johan Camargo had a fine season, bashing 19 homers with an .806 OPS, mostly at third base last year.
Camargo isn’t starting anymore because the Braves added Josh Donaldson on a one-year, $23 million deal. Donaldson, 33, has battled injuries over the past two seasons. Between 2015-17, Donaldson posted a .946 OPS while cranking out 111 homers. It remains to be seen how he can hold up over the course of a full season in his mid-30’s, but a healthy Donaldson along with Acuña and Freddie Freeman could make for a murderer’s row in the middle of the Braves’ lineup.
The middle of the Braves’ rotation has some upside in Sean Newcomb and some reliability in Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran, but lacks the elite potential that the Nationals’ rotation has. Similarly, the Braves’ bullpen was better than expected last year, but betting on a repeat performance might be a big ask.
As mentioned, both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs see the Braves as a third-place, 85-win team. That sounds about right. It’s a shame that Liberty Media, which owns the Braves and isn’t hurting for money, didn’t do more for the club than add Donaldson (and back-up catcher Brian McCann).
New York Mets
New GM and former player agent Brodie Van Wagenen quickly made his presence felt. He acquired lights-out closer Edwin Díaz and future Hall of Fame second baseman Robinson Canó from the Mariners, while adding Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie, and Jeurys Familia via free agency. A frustrating team to watch last season if you were a Mets fan, the team’s weaknesses have been addressed in a big way.
The starting rotation will once again be the Mets’ biggest strength. Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom had an absurdly good 1.70 ERA last season along with a 269/46 K/BB ratio in 217 innings of work. The 30-year-old should be expected to vie for the ERA title once again along with division mates Scherzer and Nola. He’ll be followed in the rotation by Noah Syndergaard, who can be a Cy Young contender himself provided he can stay healthy. In his four seasons in the majors, Syndergaard has reached 30 starts once. Behind their two aces, the Mets have Zach Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Jason Vargas. Also an oft-injured bunch, Wheeler and Matz in particular have the potential to make the Mets’ rotation the best in the NL East. Potential, of course, is not a synonym of certainty.
The Mets’ offsense last season was among the worst in the league, ranking 14th in batting average, 11th in on-base percentage, and 12th in slugging percentage. Adding Ramos, Canó, and Lowrie as well as full seasons from Peter Alonso and Jeff McNeil should help make inroads. Brandon Nimmo quietly put up an adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 150, including a .404 on-base percentage. Will the Mets outslug the Phillies? Of course not. But with their pitching staff, they won’t need to try to win 8-6 ballgames. Perhaps the best example: Jacob deGrom allowed two or fewer runs in 26 of his 32 starts last year. He had 10 wins, six losses, and 10 no-decisions in those 26 starts. He had three losses and two no-decisions in the five starts in which he allowed three runs.
Welp. Center fielder Lewis Brinson should at least be fun to watch. The former top prospect had an abysmal .577 OPS in 109 games last year, but there is reason for optimism. The 24-year-old is having a torrid spring, batting .355 with five homers in 13 games thus far. Catcher Jorge Alfaro should be fun to watch as well, as he flashed some signs of greatness at times last season with the Phillies. He has arguably the strongest arm among catchers. Outfielder Brian Anderson finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting last year, posting a .757 OPS while playing solid defense.
Other than that, though, this Marlins team is going to be dreadful to watch. PECOTA sees the Marlins being baseball’s second-worst team behind the Orioles; FanGraphs projects them as the worst. In an otherwise highly competitive division, the team that best takes advantage of 18 games against the Marlins could be the one crowned champion.
The upshot: Any series between the Phillies, Nationals, Braves, and Mets will be appointment viewing, especially towards the end of the season. This division may not be wrapped up until Game 162 of the regular season. Getcha popcorn ready.