Sat. May 25th, 2019

Analyzing the Current State of The National League East

For a long time now, the American League East has been regarded as the toughest division in Major League Baseball. It’s a real clash of the giants. The mammoth Boston Red Sox, who have won four championships over the last 14 years, battle their hated rivals, the monolithic New York Yankees, who have won 27 championships in their history, the most of any MLB team. The American League, for a long time now, has been dominated by the East. Consider that the team with the worst record in baseball last year, the Orioles, play in the AL East. They won only 47 games. It was open season in Birdland, and the other teams in the division took advantage.

But now, the balance may be shifting. The National League East was largely a non-factor last year. The Atlanta Braves won the division with a respectable record of 90-72, only to be eliminated by the future National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The rest of the NL East pretty much had an average season. The Washington Nationals, boasting megastar Bryce Harper, and a rotation that featured one of the best pitchers in the game in Max Scherzer, went 82-80, and came in 2nd for the division. The Philadelphia Phillies enjoyed dominance for most of the season, and were expected to clinch a playoff spot, only to collapse in September, and ended up in 3rd place. The New York Mets, featuring the 2018 Cy Young award winner Jacob DeGrom, went 77-85, good for 4th place. And the Miami Marlins, lest we forget that they still exist, went 63-98.

While the NL East might not have played much of a role in October, the division was still very competitive. Excluding the Marlins, who will forever be trapped in a cage of mediocrity and incompetence, the team that ended in 4th, the Mets, were only 13 games behind the Braves. For comparison, in the AL East, the Red Sox won 108 games, which gave them the division. The 2nd place AL East team was the Yankees, who won 100. That’s an 8 game difference between 1st and 2nd place. A gap of 13 games between 1st and 4th place is miniscule.

A month or two ago, I would’ve had the NL Central, not the NL East, as the toughest division in 2019. The gap between 1st place and 4th, like the NL East, was only 13 games. However, the moves made by various teams in the NL East have changed my mind. The East will be the toughest region in baseball. The American League features the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who are aiming for a repeat, and the New York Yankees, who were humiliated by the Red Sox in the ALDS, and went on a determined offseason spree to rectify that. They want revenge. The AL East will largely be a battle between two dominant teams. The National League promises to be much more varied. Four of the five teams were fairly close together, and they’ve all made big moves. Predicting who wins the division is tough. I see it going to one of three teams, not four.

The Mets made a deal with the Seattle Mariners that sent star second baseman Robinson Cano (career .304 average, .848 OPS) and relief pitcher Edwin Diaz (career 2.64 ERA, 2.56 FIP) to New York, in exchange for outfielder Jay Bruce, among others. They also signed deals with free agent relief pitcher Jeurys Familia (career 2.73 ERA, 2.92 FIP), and free agent catcher Wilson Ramos (career .273 average, .756 OPS). Finally, they signed free agent Jed Lowrie (career .262 average, .749 OPS) to a two-year contract. The Mets organization also raised some eyebrows when they announced that a sports agent named Brodie van Wagenen would be replacing outgoing General Manager Sandy Alderson, who took an indefinite leave of absence to focus on his health. BVW, as he’s been named on Twitter, represents several players on the team he now leads.

The Phillies, after the epic collapse that saw them go 8-20 in the month of September, promised to spend big in the offseason. Specifically, they promised to spend, and I quote, “stupid money.” The most notable moves included signing free agents Jean Segura (shortstop, career .287 average, .731 OPS), former MVP Andrew McCutchen (center fielder, career .287 average, .859 OPS), star reliever David Robertson (career .288 ERA, .281 FIP), and making a deal with the Marlins for star catcher JT Realmuto (career .269 average, .768 OPS). The Phillies capped off their excellent offseason just last week, signing megastar right fielder Bryce Harper (career .279 average, .900 OPS) to a 13 year, $330 million contract, the most lucrative contract in American sports history.

The Nationals will likely feel the sting of Bryce Harper going to the Phillies more than any other team in the league: He was drafted by the Nats, and has played in Washington since 2012. They extended him a qualifying offer as he approached free agency, which he promptly declined. So now, Harper will be playing for his former team’s division rivals, which should be interesting to watch. How have the Nationals responded to losing their star, the face of their franchise? They’ve chosen to focus primarily on their pitching, which they have built around star pitcher Max Scherzer. To that end, they signed starter Anibal Sanchez (3.99 ERA, 3.84 FIP), starter Jeremy Hellickson (4.07 ERA, 4.47 FIP), and the most sought-after starting pitcher on the free agent market, Patrick Corbin (career .391 ERA, 3.65 FIP). To round out the rotation, they signed reliever Trevor Rosenthal (career 2.99 ERA, 2.60 FIP). Satisfied with their rotation, the Nats also brought two catchers onboard, signing free agent Kurt Suzuki (career .258 average, .702 OPS) and trading for Yan Gomes (career .248 average, .719 OPS) with the Cleveland Indians. Finally, they signed first baseman Matt Adams (career .264 average, .784 OPS), and second baseman Brian Dozier (career .246 average, .768 OPS). The Nationals have built their team around their rotation, which promises to be one of the most stacked in the majors. Like the Phillies, they’ve had an excellent offseason.

The Atlanta Braves have had a relatively quiet offseason. As reigning division champions, there wasn’t much they needed to improve on. They already have a solid lineup, led by National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. Nonetheless, anticipating a tough division race, Atlanta signed free agents Brian McCann (catcher, career .263 average, .791 OPS), former MVP Josh Donaldson (third baseman, career .275 average, .874 OPS), and Nick Markakis (right fielder, career .288 average, .782 OPS) to one-year deals.

So who’s going to win the East? I’d place my money on either the Washington Nationals or the Philadelphia Phillies. While the Atlanta Braves are reigning division champs, a solid core of young, productive talent, I don’t think they’ll be able to hold on to the title after the moves made by Washington and Philadelphia. The outcome of the division might even hinge on Bryce Harper. He had a mediocre 2018, hitting only .246 and having a bad time in the outfield. If he has a superstar year like people expect him to have, it might swing the division in Philly’s favor. If not, it might go to the Nats. I see the division panning out like this:

Division winners: Phillies/Nats

Second place: Phillies/Nats

Third Place: Atlanta Braves

Fourth Place: New York Mets

Fifth Place: Miami Marlins, who will continue to technically exist

One thing to note here: There are still dozens of free agents still looking for homes. The most notable names left on the free agent market include Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel (career 3.66 ERA, 3.72 FIP), the most dominant closer active in the majors Craig Kimbrel (career 1.91 ERA, 1.96 FIP), and 5x All-Star Adam Jones (center fielder, career .278 average, .774 OPS). I expect the NL East to be so close that signing even one of these players could swing the outcome of the division. Keep an eye on the East Coast, cuz that’s where the most action will be. The Red Sox and Yankees will battle for the American League division, and the National League division promises to be a closely-contested mess.

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