National League East Preview

(Photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)

In an offseason defined by its lack of normal activity, the NL East appears to have three teams that sold out on a win now mentality. The Phillies, Mets, and Nationals all made dramatic improvements to their 2018 squad. The Braves doubled down on last year’s team, making only one big name signing of Josh Donaldson. By most projections, the division is a four-team race with the Phils and Nats leading the way by a hair. Usually, a hyper-competitive division limits the chances of more teams getting into October as the win-loss records are depressed by the closer talent levels. However, with the increasing gap in talent across the league, the Wild Card spot(s) remains in play for the NL East. According to Baseball Prospectus, each of the four teams at the top have between a 19.6% and 23.6% chance to end up in the WC game. The Phillies and Nats are each projected to win 89 games and with the Boston Red Sox as the only non-division-winning team projected to win a greater number of games (90), it stands to reason that we might see Bryce Harper trying to break his NLDS curse as the opposing team in D.C.

Phillies

PECOTA: 89-73 (Playoff Odds: 52.4%)

Key Players: Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, Odubel Herrera

Offseason Acquisitions: Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson

Offseason Losses: Carlos Santana, J.P. Crawford, Juan Nicasio

Players to Watch: Rhys Hoskins, Nick Pivetta

The Phillies went into this offseason with the expectation that they would spend “stupid money.” In the end, they only spent $330 million on one of the great young players in the game and smartly added other key pieces through trades and shorter-term deals. Bryce Harper would add to any team, but for me, he is not the biggest story for the Phillies. They are a young team that took big strides last year, but still finished under .500 at 80-82. According to PECOTA, their offseason added 9 wins over 2018. Adding veterans like McCutchen, Harper, and Segura, the clubhouse should see a huge overhaul. With stories of a young and poorly motivated team at the end of last year (Fortnite anyone?), can the new guys instill a culture that translates the talent from the page to the field?

Key Players:

The Phillies made some moves this offseason that have been overshadowed by the last big one. By this point, we know what to expect from Bryce Harper. He’s going to walk a ton and hit balls hard. I personally find it hard to expect him to return to the form of his 2015 season, but there is still the outside possibility of that. By most projections, he’ll turn in about a 5 WAR season which would have put him on the edge of the top 30 players in 2018. The shift will continue to torture him and drag his BABIP down to around .300. If the Phils get the Bryce we saw the second half of last year instead of the first, the NL East should fear what this team can be do.

J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball. He’s been languishing in Miami waiting for a opportunity to get into the national spotlight and now he has the chance to become that star he should already be. Last year, he had the best pop time in baseball, averaging 1.90 seconds, and swung the bat well enough for a 126 wRC+. In recent years, he has lowered his number of stolen bases, but remains one of the only catchers to provide value on the bases. I, for one, am excited to see what he can do with a little bit of protection.

Aaron Nola signed a 4 year/$45 million dollar extension about a month ago and will come into this season as an early Cy Young candidate. Last year, he was out pitched down the stretch by two of the best pitchers we’ve seen in recent years. However, this reflects more on deGrom and Scherzer than on Nola. He is a true ace that can carry the Phils as far as they need him to.

Offseason Moves:

As noted before, the Phillies publicly stated that they wanted to be a little financially irresponsible this offseason. Part of me thinks that was all a big ruse as they put together a surprisingly coherent and sound offseason. They signed the big name they wanted, a few veterans to support the clubhouse, and traded the best player at their weakest position. Jean Segura stands out to me as the sleeper move for this team. The combination of Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford at short produced very little value to the team as neither of the two created runs at a league average rate (wRC+ of 62 and 96, respectively). Segura comes in as a top tier shortstop that swings the bat extremely well while striking out only 10.6% of the time and getting on base at a .340 clip. He has been batting second for the Phillies this offseason and should score a lot of runs ahead of Harper and Rhys Hoskins.

Players to Watch:

A guy I haven’t mentioned much so far is Rhys Hoskins. He is a bit of a wild card for me on this team which is a little crazy considering how productive he’s been since debuting in 2017. This team has weapons, but they need Hoskins to be a man and continue to take over this team. It will be interesting to see who takes a leadership role this season and if 7 years in D.C. have shown anything, Bryce Harper probably is not that guy.  I believe Rhys can be and may be able to get this team to outperform projections.

The other big question mark for me is whether the starting rotation can hold up. Nick Pivetta is kind of a stathead darling right now but is still projected to put up a 3.80 FIP. As the third starter, he needs to do better than that for the Phillies to have a consistently strong chance to beat the guys the Mets and Nationals trot out to the mound.

Nationals

PECOTA: 89-73 (Playoff Odds: 54%)

Key Players: Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Trea Turner, Juan Soto

Offseason Acquisitions: Patrick Corbin, Kyle Barraclough, Trevor Rosenthal, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Tony Sipp, Anibal Sanchez

Offseason Losses: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Sammy Solis

Players to Watch: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a Nationals fan. I’m excited for this season for a lot reasons, but mostly because Mike Rizzo was finally unshackled and allowed to build the team he wanted. The Lerner’s are great owners but have often handcuffed Rizzo when he wants to make moves. This offseason was different. The front office had a plan and executed it perfectly. I think they knew long before any of us that Bryce Harper was gone and instead of feeling sad about losing the face of this franchise, they went out and built a team that fixed their weaknesses and bolstered their strengths. All this being said, I am still worried about the other teams in the division (except the Marlins of course). The East is going to be a lot of fun this year and it looks like it will be a shootout down the stretch between the Nats and Phillies. By most projections, the division champ is effectively a toss-up.

Key Players:

The main guys to watch for the Nationals are the usual suspects. On the offensive side, noted best friends Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner are expected to carry the load. Rendon has never been an All-Star, but has been a top 15 player in the league the last two years. I really think this is the year that the rest of baseball learns how good he can be. Last year, Turner put up nearly a 5 WAR season, but was personally disappointed. He’s been quoted as believing he missed most of his goals from last year and is intent on not repeating that. Davey Martinez has challenged him to attempt 80+ stolen bases this year. If he can do that, then the Harper-less Nationals offense will be off to a good start.

Mike Rizzo has long believed that starting pitching is what wins games and this year’s staff is no different. Max Scherzer is poised to win his fourth Cy Young and continue to cement his Hall of Fame legacy. We all know what to expect from Mad Max: lots of strikeouts, lots of grunts and a whole bunch of stalking around the mound. This year will be no different. Backing up Max, the Nats have the now veteran Stephen Strasburg. When Stras is healthy, he’s easily one of the top pitchers in the game. I believe this is the year he can finally make it through without any major time on the DL. This spring, he seems to be taking a different approach and easing off his fastball velocity in favor of control and movement. With these two staying healthy, the Nationals should continue their rotational dominance.

Offseason Moves:

The Nationals had holes in 2018. Those holes are no longer there, at least on paper. The front office added 9 players this offseason and addressed many of the issues that plagued the team last year.. The rotation appears to have been strengthened by the addition Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, though with Tanner Roark sent to Cincinnati only time will tell how this will balance out. The Nationals’ 2018 catching corps was among the worst in baseball on either side of the ball. The signings of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki brought two of the more offensively productive catchers to the Capital without sacrificing prowess behind the plate. Rizzo seems to be taking a chance on the histories of a few relievers like Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough. Both of those guys, if they pan out, should be extremely valuable to the bullpen.

Brian Dozier and Matt Adams should help to bolster the right side of the infield and replace some of the home run production that now resides in Philly. Dozier had a down last year and if he regresses to his mean level of production, then he should be a cheap, valuable stop gap until Carter Kieboom arrives this year or next.

Players to Watch:

The biggest question mark around the team this year is whether Bryce Harper’s production can be replaced. Most of the responsibility for this will fall on the current outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton. Defensively, there is no question. Just about anyone could walk onto the field and be better defensively than Bryce was the last couple seasons, especially in center field. Offensively, I don’t believe that these three can necessarily replace Bryce in terms of his ability to walk and hit the ball out of the park, but they definitely have the tools to score runs in other ways. If Soto can produce at a similar level to last year and Eaton performs as he has when healthy, the unknown is Robles. The number 3 overall prospect has a different profile than what we’ve seen from Soto. He’s faster than Trea Turner and doesn’t really swing for the homer, but can absolutely run into one. Much like Eaton, I expect him to pepper the gaps and tear up the basepaths.

Mets

PECOTA: 87-75 (Playoff Odds: 43.4%)

Key Players: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos

Offseason Acquisitions: Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Wilson Ramos, Keon Broxton, Justin Wilson, Jed Lowrie

Offseason Losses: David Wright, Devin Mesoraco, Jerry Blevins, AJ Ramos, Austin Jackson, Jose Reyes, Wilmer Flores

Players to Watch: Yoenis Cespedes, Edwin Diaz, Pete Alonso

No one expected the Mets to put together a team this good this quickly. Brodie Van Wagenen has pulled off quite the debut offseason. The newest GM upgraded the Mets at a lot of positions and decided to go all-in with a win-now mentality. Though, with his starting rotation, can you blame him? Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard will headline the team for another year, but this time around, they actually might have some help on the offensive side of the ball. Projected to win 87 games, the Mets might end up in third place but now have the pieces to go on a run and shake things up.

Key Players:

This team will live and die by its rotation. It might not be reasonable to expect deGrom to put up the same season that won him the Cy Young, but I expect he’ll make Scherzer work for it again. The concern is how much he might regress from his WHIP of 0.91 and ERA of 1.70. I expect that he will outperform his projections and put up about a 2.50 FIP. With the added offensive support, he might wins some games this year too. Since debuting, Syndergaard has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. He spent some time out last year though neither the strained finger ligament or hand-foot-mouth disease should plague him this year. Despite a dip in strikeout percentage last year, I expect that he will rebound and have a career year in 2019.

Michael Conforto appears to have settled into a career as an above average run producer. He has been one of the lone bright spots in the Mets lineup in recent years. With greater firepower from names like Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos, I think he has a good chance to outperform his projections and put up a 3.5-4 WAR season. Cano is probably past his prime by now, but for someone with a Hall of Fame quality resumé, he will remain a threat in this lineup. Ramos is familiar with the NL East from his time with the Nationals and will be a valuable presence in the middle of this lineup and behind the plate. A personal favorite of mine, it hurts to see The Buffalo roaming Queens but I’m glad he found a home.

Offseason Moves:

Brodie Van Wagenen had a plan and made the moves that he could. He upgraded in the infield and let some of the old Mets baggage like Jose Reyes finally go. The bullpen was drained by the departure of Jerry Blevins and AJ Ramos, but who wouldn’t rather have Edwin Diaz or Justin Wilson. The additions of Keon Broxton and Jed Lowrie provide some additional depth that they needed. Lowrie is currently slotted into third right now, but with Jeff McNeil’s success at the end of last season, I could see them sharing time. Overall, the Mets offseason can only be graded by how these moves pan out. On paper, these are some good moves but I’m not convinced they are enough to overcome the other teams in the division.

Players to Watch:

Yoenis Cespedes scares me. If he can get healthy for this season and make it back by the summer, he could provide the spark this lineup really needs. Without him, this Mets offense is somewhat of an unknown variable, but with him, this team becomes much more potent.

Edwin Diaz was one of the top 3 closers last year and the Mets bullpen is better with him there. However, I am a little concerned that the bullpen can sustain leads down the stretch so that he can come in with a lead often and get up to 40+ saves again. Outside of Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, I don’t see many weapons other weapons in that bullpen. Pete Alonso is the only homegrown solution that the Mets might discover this season. This guy can swing it and mashed 36 homers across Double- and Triple-A last season. Recent reports have him starting the season with the team and I can’t wait to see what he can do.

Braves

PECOTA: 85-77 (Playoff Odds: 37.6%)

Key Players: Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Mike Foltynewicz, Josh Donaldson

Offseason Acquisitions: Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann

Offseason Losses: Anibal Sanchez, Kurt Suzuki, Preston Tucker

Players to Watch: Mike Foltynewicz, Touki Toussaint

The Braves won 90 games last year and surprised a lot of people by winning the NL East. They were buoyed by the breakout of stars like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies. By PECOTA, the Braves are projected to win 5 less games with effectively the same team as last year. This is a team that didn’t have very many glaring weaknesses and made very few moves as team leadership must be confident in the guys they have. I don’t believe they anticipated the aggressive offseasons the rest of the division had. Otherwise, I think they would’ve made a few more acquisitions. Despite being kind of complacent, the Braves are still poised to make a good run with possible MVP candidate Freddie Freeman leading the way.

Key Players:

This Braves team has a great mix of veteran and young contributors. Freddie Freeman is one of the best first basemen in the league and can flat out hit. He has posted the 6th highest wRC+ (146) since 2016 and has been worth 15.2 fWAR over the same time period. The other corner of the infield will be held down by Josh Donaldson and in him, the Braves might have gotten a steal. Yes, they are paying him $23 million dollars, but he is expected to put up just over 4 WAR. As another veteran, he should serve to be a stabilizing force in the clubhouse and hopefully make Acuña Jr. and Albies even better.

It stands to reason that Acuña Jr. will probably regress from his amazing rookie year where he hit 26 bombs in 111 games. His regression will probably come from an inflated BABIP last year and a high strikeout rate. Albies had a great April last year hitting up at .293 but hit .254 the rest of the season. Based on his batted ball profile and swing rates, it doesn’t appear the he was all that different after April and should hit somewhere between those two marks. Steamer has him hitting .274 and putting up a 3.7 WAR season. If these four guys can put together strong seasons and the Mike Foltynewicz becomes the ace that he can be, the Braves should have a good chance to repeat their 2018 season.

Offseason Moves:

As noted before, the Braves didn’t do much of anything this winter. They signed Donaldson and brought back Brian McCann to backup Tyler Flowers. In most years, those two moves might’ve been more than enough but not this year.

Players to Watch:

The most intriguing player on this Braves team is Mike Foltynewicz. He’s a flamethrower with a devastating slider entering his fifth full season. I’m convinced that if he can continue to build on his sinker/slider success from 2018, he has a chance to be in the Cy Young conversation at the end of the year. If he does that, this team becomes a lot more interesting. With the addition of Touki Toussaint and his curveball from hell, the Braves will have found some serious upside at the backend of the rotation. He needs to limit the walks but his stuff definitely plays at the Major League level.  

Marlins

PECOTA: 67-95 (Playoff Odds: 1.8%)

Key Players: Starlin Castro, Brian Anderson, Trevor Richards

Offseason Acquisitions: Neil Walker, Curtis Granderson, Jorge Alfaro, Sergio Romo

Offseason Losses: J.T. Realmuto

Players to Watch: Sergio Romo, Lewis Brinson

I don’t even know what to say about this team. If Derek Jeter and the rest of ownership had any intention of winning many games this year, this isn’t the team to do it with. PECOTA has the team winning 67 games which I think might be a little ambitious. The Marlins had one legitimately great player in J.T. Realmuto (who understandably wanted out), but now that he’s gone, there isn’t anyone else. As someone who has watched the NL East for the past few years, this is highly distressing. In 2017, the Marlins were, in my opinion, one or two moves from making a run at the Wild Card. An outfield of Ozuna, Yelich, and Stanton was amazingly fun to watch, and the team was competitive at least. However, just a year or so later, this team is a skeleton of what is once was. I hope that in the future I’ll eat my words, but this team was obviously assembled with the intention of losing and that’s unacceptable.

Key Players:

In 2018, only two members of the current Marlins squad had an fWAR greater than 1. Those two players were Brian Anderson and Starlin Castro. Anderson is expected to regress a little bit from his full season debut at 3.4 WAR. He is a solid player that I expect a decent season from. Castro has always been able to hit and will continue to do so. At 29, he is by no means done, but most projections have him at around 1.5 WAR.

Trevor Richards and his devastating change-up is one of the few bright spots on this whole staff. Batters in 2018 swung and missed at the pitch 24% of the time. However, his fastball is incredibly weak and gets hit all over the park. Until he can figure out a way to safely complement the change, it will be hard to say that he can truly breakout and lead this staff, but goodness that change is insane and fun to watch between the homers off the fastball.

Offseason Moves:

There’s not a whole lot here. They picked up Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker, and Sergio Romo while trading Realmuto. These old guys needed a home and the Marlins need some cheap labor that wouldn’t really help them win more games so the partnerships make sense.

Dan Straily, this year’s apparent number 2 starter, was released by the organization.

Players to Watch:

Lewis Brinson was supposed to be a lot better than he is. He was the second worst qualified hitter in baseball last year but was a top 20 prospect in baseball quite recently. Maybe he got brought up too quickly and just needs time, but none of his underlying stats indicate that he is close to breaking out. That being said, I hope he proves us all wrong and pulls a Byron Buxton.

I’m paying attention to Sergio Romo mostly because of the implication that signing him now has. I wonder if the Marlins will follow the example of their neighbor up north and start using Romo as an opener. It might allow guys like Jose Ureña to be a little more effective deeper in games.

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