The National League East was the closest division in 2020, with nine games separating first and last place. It was very competitive and had two teams win a postseason series. After a rather active offseason, the NL East is once again shaping up to be a close race for the division crown. Here we’ll give a brief review of each team’s offseason and some predictions that will almost assuredly look foolish in October.
Same loaded lineup
The Braves entered the offseason with the core of their lineup, namely Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and reigning MVP Freddie Freeman, intact and locked in for the upcoming season. Freeman can be a free agent after 2021, but he will almost assuredly be given a lucrative contract extension, possibly before the season starts. Atlanta was able to re-sign Marcel Ozuna, who’s bat fit nicely behind Freeman in the lineup and had a career year (1.067 OPS. career high) in 2020. Ozuna’s defense will be a bit of an adventure without a DH, but his -2 defensive runs saved was easily outweighed by his bat..
Atlanta’s biggest question heading into the offseason and frankly into the season itself will be its starting rotation. The Braves 5.51 rotation ERA was third worst in the majors last year. Max Fried however will be looking to build off of an excellent 2020 where he went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA and was one of the league’s best at limiting hard contact. Mike Soroka is still recovering from a ruptured Achilles and will miss the start of the season.
The Braves biggest offseason acquisition was Charlie Morton who will likely slot into their number two spot in the rotation. The now 37 year old Morton changed his mind about retiring and agreed to a one year contract with Atlanta. Morton will be coming off of his worst season since 2015 when he was with the Pirates. Drew Smyly is another veteran addition that should provide some stability.
The Braves rotation is improved with the addition of Morton but it still has some question marks. However, they should have plenty of offense to offset it and once again claim the division crown.
Was it real?
Miami was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 season, as they went from last place in 2019 to the NLDS in 2020. It was the Marlins first postseason berth since 2003 and just their third overall. Miami’s combination of talented youth and useful veterans was the driving force to their surprising 2020. However, they were large beneficiaries of the shortened season and the mostly intra-divisional play. They also opted not to make many moves in the offseason, rather rolling with what they had already in place but bolstering their bullpen a bit.
Searching for offense
The Marlins offense leaves much to be desired. They finished 21st in runs scored last season and 26th in total offense. There are some interesting pieces but a lack of clear, major threats in the heart of the lineup. Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson are both very solid vets, but neither are ideal as a 3 or 4 hitter at this stage of their careers. Jesus Aguilar is a power threat but he will have to split time with Garett Cooper at first base with no DH. And with both hitters being right handed, there is no clear way to split that time. Jorge Alfaro has all the talent to be an exciting player but struggles with consistency. The acquisition of Adam Duvall doesn’t really move the needle. Brian Anderson is the best hitter in this lineup by far. Anderson finished 2020 with the second highest WAR for a third baseman in the National League behind only Manny Machado. He is the only legitimate threat in the lineup and will be pitched around quite often.
All eyes will be on Sixto Sanchez in the Marlins rotation. The 22 year old dazzled after being promoted on August 22nd, going 3-2 in 7 starts with a 3.46 ERA and an eye popping 33 strikeouts in just 39 innings. Sanchez will now embark on his first full season in the majors after seeming to struggle in his last two starts. He surrendered nine total runs in those starts whereas he gave up a combined 6 runs in his first five starts. The young phenom will be buffered by a young but impressive rotation, including the likes of Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.00 ERA), Pablo Lopez (6-4, 3.61), and Elieser Hernandez (1-0, 3.16). Hernández is the oldest of the group, as he will turn 26 in May.
The Marlins are a prime regression to the mean candidate. Their success last season can be at least partially credited to the shortened season and extra Wild Card. They will most likely not make the postseason again as their lineup simply isn’t good enough on paper.
It’s a safe bet to expect some growing pains with their young rotation. Ultimately, let’s say the rotation as a whole continues to grow and have success but the team is ultimately sunk by a mediocre at best offense. A bold prediction though: Sixto Sanchez finishes in the top 5 in N.L. Cy Young voting.
We did a much longer form preview of the Phillies here, but we’ll still do a quick rundown as part of this piece.
The theme to the Phillies 2020 was blown leads. Philadelphia once again had a season where the end to their now 9 year postseason drought was in sight, only to see it crumble away each time the bullpen door swung open.
Running it back
They opted to essentially run back the same lineup, with the returns of J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorious re-solidifying the middle of the order. A full season of rookie of the year runner up Alec Bohm should bring even more depth to a lineup that was very good in 2020. However, the lineup suffered after Rhys Hoskins’ elbow injury, an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Hoskins is a full go to start camp, but it remains to be seen if there will be any lingering effects.
Questions in the back half and ‘pen
Philadelphia’s top three starters figure to be a strength again with Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin. The next two spots are completely up in the air but will most likely be new additions Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. Top prospect Spencer Howard will probably have to wait a bit to rejoin the rotation after a rocky audition in 2020.
The bullpen appears to be better but still is not a strength. It’s hard to be worse than the second worst bullpen ever, but still it may not have been enough of an upgrade. Archie Bradley is a sure bet to provide stability but the other acquisitions all have their own question marks.
An all time bad bullpen was the chief reason Philadelphia missed the postseason in 2020. And yet, they still only missed by one game, albeit with an extra wild card. If this bullpen can be league average at best and the key pieces of the rotation stay healthy, this team should be firmly in contention. They are within striking distance of the second Wild Card but will need some breaks.
New York Mets
No wave, but big splash
The Mets went into the offseason under new owner Steve Cohen looking to make a splash. It was speculated all winter long that they would end up with at least one of Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, or George Springer.
Well, that didn’t work out. But, acquiring a perennial MVP candidate in Francisco Lindor without giving up a top 5 prospect in your system is certainly a good consolation prize. And acquiring Carlos Carrasco and his career 3.73 ERA in the same deal just sweetens the pot.
New York is going to be a trendy pick to make noise in this division, and rightfully so. Jacob DeGrom is still the anchor of this rotation and is coming off yet another fantastic season where he went 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA. Marcus Stroman will be returning after opting out last season. Carrasco gives the Mets another quality starter option to slot behind DeGrom and Stroman. The late signing of Taijuan Walker could turn out to be a shrewd move, giving the Mets four good starters and insurance while Noah Syndergaard works his way back from Tommy John surgery.
The Met lineup has potential to be a very potent one, provided Pete Alonso rebounds from a bit of a sophomore slump. Regardless, inserting Lindor into an already strong lineup could be the final piece to take it over the top. Newcomer James McCann isn’t J.T. Realmuto, but his numbers over the last two seasons are not too far off from Realmuto’s and he comes at a much smaller cost.
|Since 2019||J.T. Realmuto||James McCann|
Not sure exactly what to expect
New York’s bullpen has big boom or bust potential, depending on the performance of Dellin Betances and the health of Seth Lugo. Edwin Diaz was able to overcome a nightmarish 2019 and return to lockdown form in 2020. Trevor May has been very effective as a reliever since going to the ‘pen full time in 2018. He comes over from the Twins fresh off a season in which he had 38 strikeouts in just 23 ⅓ innings pitched.
New York probably has the best chance to unseat the Braves as division champions, at least on paper. However, they will most likely have to settle for being the favorites for the second Wild Card spot, with the N.L. West runner up being in the first WC. If they stay healthy and get a big season from Alonso, they should have it locked down.
End of an era?
The Nationals are a bit of a falling star after owning the division for a better part of the last decade. Their World Series defense didn’t go as planned, as they finished last in the N.L. East in the shortened season.
Two stars and seven question marks
The Nats lineup is riddled with question marks outside of its two stars in Trea Turner and Juan Soto. The 2020 Nats suffered from the loss of Anthony Rendon and struggled to replace his production behind Soto. Ryan Zimmerman is back after opting out last year, but he will be splitting playing time with former MVP candidate Josh Bell. Bell, who was acquired on Christmas Eve, struggled mightily in 2020 in his first season removed from a 37 home run campaign in 2019. Washington needs Bell to be more like the 2019 version than the 2020 version to give much needed juice to the lineup behind Turner and Soto. Other newcomer Kyle Schwarber will man left field and provide power, but he is a defensive liability in left and hit just .118 last season.
Crack in the armor
Washington’s rotation has been its strength for years but it too faces question marks. Max Scherzer started to show signs of decline in 2020 but still finished with a 3.74 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 67 ⅓ innings. It was Scherzer’s highest ERA since 2014, his last year in Detroit before signing with Washington. It’s fair to question whether Scherzer, who will turn 37 in July, may be nearing the end of his dominant career. World Series hero Stephen Strasburg is coming off of another alarming injury. The 32 year old pitched just 5 innings in 2020 and was shut down before having carpel tunnel surgery. Patrick Corbin had a rough second season in D.C., going 2-7 with a 4.66 ERA. That mark being Corbin’s highest since 2016 and second highest of his career. Free agent acquisition Jon Lester will slot in behind the big three, but he has been in clear decline since 2018 (4.06 ERA since) and pitched to a 5.16 ERA in 61 innings in 2020. The fifth spot is an open competition.
Washington won’t finish last again. Even with all their question marks, it is still more likely than not they at least stay out of the cellar. However, third or fourth place in the division may very well be their ceiling. Disaster could lurk on the horizon if the rotation continues trending in its current direction.