NL East Preview: The Toughest Division in Baseball

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Born and raised in Miami, Florida. I used to play baseball for a living; I walked a lot and didn't hit enough. Now I write words for a living and drop absolute bombs every Sunday for my men's league team.

The Sopranos is more groundbreaking than it is good.

My poor Miami Marlins are playing in the worst possible division, man. Goddamn. The NL East is widely seen as the deepest, most competitive division in MLB, with five teams that could all realistically be in playoff contention. Let’s take a look at how each team stacks up. Hell, I’ll even throw a record prediction in there. YOU LIKE THAT? (Kirk Cousins voice)

New York Mets: 95-67

I’m buying the Mets hype. And I hate the Mets. This team just improved so vastly this offseason that I think it’s impossible to ignore how good they will be. They improved their rotation and bullpen by adding quality arms like Carlos Carrasco and Trevor May. They also added one of the best shortstops in baseball in Francisco Lindor, a player in the middle of his prime. Their defense should improve with savvy moves like adding Albert Almora and Kevin Pillar. James McCann has been a force at the plate and behind it over the last two seasons. They got him too. Steve Cohen isn’t messing around.

Question marks? Health, I guess. Noah Syndergaard is always an injury-threat. So is Brandon Nimmo. Even if both of these guys go down, though, the Mets are deep at practically every position and are well-equipped to pick up the slack.

Bullpen arms like Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia are filthy, but they are prone to implosions. They’ll both be throwing high-leverage innings this season, so it’ll be best to avoid too many LOLMets moments.

But all in all, this team is good. Real good. I expect them to win the division.

Atlanta Braves: 92-70

From John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports

The Braves had three chances to go to the World Series last year, but instead blew a 3-1 NLCS lead against the Dodgers. That sucks. But they’re not going anywhere.

This team returns much of its core, including stars like Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, and Ozzie Albies. There is little threat of any of those guys regressing, and the rest of the lineup is filled with young, talented players as well. The question marks sit between home and the pitcher’s mound.

Travis d’Arnaud decided he’d do his best Mike Piazza impression last season, hitting .321/.386/.533. It earned him a well-deserved Silver Slugger among catchers, and ensured that he’d be the starting backstop on Opening Day 2021. Can they bank on him putting up similar numbers again, though? I’m not sure. The 32-year-old has had his moments with the bat throughout his career, but 2020 was something else. Something that might not be repeatable. If d’Arnaud regresses to his mean, his so-so glove might not be enough to start for a team with World Series aspirations, and the options behind him are very inexperienced.

60.5 feet away from d’Arnaud is the Braves’ other big question mark: their pitching. They made it work last season after their ace Mike Soroka went down with a brutal Achilles injury. It is unknown if Soroka will be ready to toe the rubber on Opening Day. If he’s not himself this season, can they expect the same level of production from Max Fried? What does Charlie Morton have left in the tank? Will Ian Anderson fall back down to Earth? Can Will Smith regain his form as a closer? All pressing questions for Atlanta.

The offense will carry them to a good record, however.

Washington Nationals: 89-73

The Nats entered 2020 as the defending champs, but eventually just punted on the season after significant injuries derailed their pitching staff. Still, they got career seasons from Trea Turner and Juan Soto, who finished seventh and fifth in MVP voting, respectively. They didn’t make any blockbuster moves like the Mets did, but adding proven commodities like Brad Hand, Jon Lester, and Luis Avilan could pay dividends. They also took fliers on impact bats like Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. Those two could easily produce 50-60 home runs between them if they regain their strokes.

The rotation will be the key, as it often has been for the Nations in recent years. Max Scherzer is still an elite pitcher when he’s healthy, but can you count on the 36-year-old to log 200 innings? Stephen Strasburg is also nails, but his injury history is vast. Their 1-2-3 of Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin is arguably the best in baseball when they’re on. I just don’t know if you can expect 500-600 innings from that trio.

The Nats have plenty of star power that can still produce, as well as emerging stars who might have yet another gear. If they can stay healthy enough, they’ll be right up there with the Braves and Mets.

Philadelphia Phillies: 83-79

From Getty Images

The Phillies had a relatively quiet offseason save for their big move in re-signing J.T. Realmuto, the consensus best catcher in the game. Other than that, their main moves have come in the form of affordable-but-effective bullpen arms. Guys like Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, and Brandon Kintzler could bolster a pen that had a collective 2020 ERA of, wait for it…7.06. Holy shit were they bad. They clearly made it a priority. Time will tell if they did enough.

The Phillies desperately need their top three rotation pieces to produce, as there are plenty of question marks after that, to go along with the shoddy bullpen. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin were all good in 2020. That has to continue in 2021. You can bank on guys like Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, the aforementioned Realmuto (when he recovers from his broken thumb), and Didi Gregorius to put runs on the board. Will the Phillies be able to pitch well enough? I’m not so sure.

I think the Phillies will be decent, but not much more.

Miami Marlins: 75-87

The Marlins were one of the best stories of the season in 2020, advancing to the second round of the playoffs with a rag-tag bunch of misfit toys and emerging stars that came together to prove their critics wrong. Many fans, myself included, headed into the offseason expecting the front office to pivot into win-now mode, perhaps by splurging on a free agent or two. “Nah fam.”- Derek Jeter, probably.

The Marlins did no such thing this offseason, instead doubling down on tactics that worked for them in 2020; collect affordable, proven relievers who induce soft contact and groundballs, thus taking advantage of the Marlins’ excellent D, and let the young-ins develop at their own pace while learning behind the vets. They added Adam Cimber, Ross Detwiler, Anthony Bass, John Curtiss, and Dylan Floro to the pen, while Adam Duvall will man one of the corner outfield spots and hopefully hit lots of home runs. This worked in 2020. Maybe it will work in 2021?

No. At least I don’t think so. Every other team in the division improved more significantly than the Marlins did, and many teams are getting star players back who missed 2020 for one reason or another. The Marlins won’t suck. Their starting rotation is far too talented to let that happen. But they’ll struggle to score runs. There’s a chance the golden oldies in the bullpen don’t pull their weight. And Don Mattingly will have a tough time playing musical chairs all season to get everyone their at bats, a downside to having an enormous collection of slightly above-average veteran hitters and underperforming prospects who need reps.

A lot needs to break right for the Marlins to truly contend in the loaded NL East. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s happening this season.

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