NL East Preview: A Brave New World

(Photo by AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

We’ve made it to the Senior Circuit, and I’m not going to lie to you, reader, I’m a little surprised both you and I have made it this far.

The National League East will be the most competitive division in baseball in 2020. Four teams with legitimate chances at making the playoffs…and the Miami Marlins. The Atlanta Braves, winners of two straight division titles; the Washington Nationals, the defending World Series champions; the New York Mets, who have breathed new life into an organization and fan base marred by frustration and disappointment; and the Philadelphia Phillies, the biggest spenders of the 2018–19 offseason but failed to meet expectations the ensuing year; all have playoff aspirations. A scheduling pairing with the AL East should make for a very enticing 60-game stretch, culminating with a final weekend that features Braves vs. Red Sox, Phillies vs. Rays and Nationals vs. Mets.

1. Atlanta Braves

The Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001! Did you know that? I didn’t. It’s pretty unbelievable when you think about how successful this organization has been in the last 30 years. Back-to-back division-winning seasons have ended in frustration. In 2018, they ran into a Los Angeles Dodgers juggernaut. In 2019, they collapsed against the St. Louis Cardinals, blowing a lead in Game 4 and surrendering 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5. But fear not, Braves fans. I don’t have to tell you that this is a young team. You know that. The future is bright at Truist Park.

Player to Watch: Cristian Pache

There is no guarantee that Pache plays in 2020, especially after suffering a Grade-2 ankle sprain last week. But if he does, Pache projects to be the best defensive outfielder on the team, and that includes Ender Inciarte, who has won three Gold Glove Awards in his career. MLB Pipeline ranks Pache as Atlanta’s best prospect, and 13th overall. He slashed .277/.340/.462 across Double-A and Triple-A last year, and while those aren’t jaw-dropping numbers, they are more than serviceable for a guy with his talent in the field. Though it’s possible Atlanta could keep him off the field in 2020 to preserve his service time, the Braves outfield is thinning by the day. Nick Markakis has opted out of the 2020 season, and a deal with free agent Yasiel Puig has fallen through due to a positive coronavirus test. Another setback, and Pache would be the easy choice to be the next man up.

Pitcher to Watch: Mike Soroka

Another boring pick here, especially since Brian Snitker announced Soroka to be the team’s Opening Day starter. But Soroka is an ace-in-waiting. He was undoubtedly the team’s best starter in 2019 (though for some reason didn’t start until Game 3 of the NLDS last year), compiling a 2.68 ERA, 3.45 FIP and 4.0 fWAR. He struck out 20.3% of batters faced while walking just 5.9%. He also excels at generating ground-ball outs, ranking sixth in baseball in ground ball percentage, just behind teammate Max Fried. His sinker-slider combination plays a big role, as Soroka ranks in the 85th percentile in opponent’s barrel percentage, according to Statcast. Just 22, he will be the Braves’ youngest Opening Day starter ever. Expect many more of those Opening Day starts in the future.

2. Washington Nationals

At long last. After years of hope, heartbreak and crushing playoff defeats, the Nationals finally conquered their demons, won a playoff series, and then another, and then another, and then another. (Side note: does the Wild Card game count as a playoff series? Let’s say it does.) It’s hard not to be happy for Nats fans, especially those older ones that used to be Orioles fans in the 90s before they sucked in the 2000s (kidding…kind of). But 2020 presents all new kinds of challenges, and Washington will have to face them without one of their most reliable stars in Anthony Rendon. Plus, Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross both decided to opt out of the 2020 season. Luckily, a dominant rotation and a lineup featuring two of the game’s best young players in Juan Soto and Victor Robles should be able to pick up the lost production.

Player to Watch: Carter Kieboom

Dave Martinez has already named Kieboom the team’s starting third baseman on Opening Day, filling the role left vacant by Anthony Rendon. Kieboom ranks as Washington’s best prospect, and the 21st best in all of baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. Though he struggled at the big league level in 2019, he raked in Triple-A, recording a slash line of .303/.409/.493 and hammering 16 home runs and 24 doubles. Rendon leaves quite a void to fill, but Kieboom’s potential should be enough to keep Nats fans hopeful.

Pitcher to Watch: Patrick Corbin

The three-headed monster that is the top of the Nationals rotation is, quite simply, as good as it gets. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are very much one of the main reasons Washington was so successful in last year’s postseason. While Scherzer and Strasburg tend to generate most of the praise and notoriety, Corbin was slightly better than Strasburg, posting an ERA- (ERA adjusted for park and league, based on performance in relation to league average) of 72, 14th best in baseball. He had the 16th best K-BB%, and generated a ground-ball rate of 49.5%. Corbin will still be slotted in as the third starter, but he’d be a No. 2 or an ace in almost every other rotation in baseball.

3. New York Mets

Are the Mets good? I actually think they might be? It feels weird saying that, and the cautious hope that is generating in Queens might be a good indicator that Mets fans, who will tell you all about their misery, probably aren’t ready to jump fully on board yet. I’m not sure I am either, but New York’s roster is pretty impressive. Their lineup should improve as veterans come back from injury, and their bullpen, thanks to a couple of key offseason additions and some expected regression to the mean, should be excellent. Losing Noah Syndergaard for the year to Tommy John surgery will hurt, but Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Stephen Matz should be able to hold down the fort.

Player to Watch: Yoenis Céspedes

Céspedes hasn’t played in a regular season game since the beginning of the 2018 season. Before undergoing surgery on both heels, he held a slash line of .262/.325/.496 and homered nine times in 157 plate appearances. He tallied a wOBA of .345 and a wRC+ of 121, both slight decreases from his previous three seasons. After missing 2019 in part due to an ankle fracture, he’s fully healthy and ready to mash. With the National League adopting the designated hitter, Céspedes will be able to rotate between playing left field and DH’ing, which should help him stay off the injured list. The two-time Home Run Derby champ can be one of the most exciting players in baseball, and at 34, time is running out for him to produce quality seasons.

Pitcher to Watch: Edwin Diaz

This is the first “pitcher to watch” that is a reliever, which is a bit surprising considering how valuable bullpens have become over the past decade. But the Mets could have one of the best in baseball, with Dellin Bentances, Seth Lugo and Jeurys Familia. However, in order to make this bullpen click, New York needs a strong season from its closer. Diaz, 26, has some of the best stuff in baseball, and it showed in 2018 as he stifled hitters, compiling a 48 ERA- and 39 FIP-. He had a K-BB% of 38.2% and allowed just 0.61 HR/9. It is precisely that dominance that persuaded the Mets to trade Jarred Kelenic to Seattle for Diaz. 2019 was rough, but he has the ability to return to his 2018 form. New York needs him to do so.

4. Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies went all-in in 2018, signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal a month after trading for J.T. Realmuto, one of baseball’s best catchers. But Philly fell flat, finishing well short of expectations at 81–81, 16 games behind the division-champion Braves. Entering 2020, the Phillies face a deeper division and brutal interleague opponents, creating the 11th toughest strength of schedule, according to The Athletic’s Tim Britton. Both FanGraphs and PECOTA project Philadelphia to finish fourth, with a 22.3% chance and a 13.9% chance to make the playoffs, respectively. To try to close that gap, GM Matt Klentak added Didi Gregorius and Zach Wheeler. It may not be enough.

Player to Watch: Didi Gregorius

There’s nothing quite like a mutually beneficial deal in baseball. The Phillies have something to prove, and so does Gregorius. A match made in heaven. Gregorius was a force in the New York Yankees lineup in 2017 and 2018, tallying a fWAR total of 8.8. His 2018 wRC+ of 122 and wOBA of .350 in 2018 were career-highs before struggling in 2019 as he battled an elbow injury. A bounce-back year from Gregorius would go a long way in helping the Phillies remain competitive in 2020.

Pitcher to Watch: Spencer Howard

Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler would’ve been good picks here, but let’s go with Howard, who ranks as Philadelphia’s second best prospect and the 34th best in the entire MLB. He has a shot to get the last spot in a solid Phillies rotation, and hopefully will get that chance, as long as Philadelphia doesn’t hold him out to save his service time and push back his free agency eligibility. Howard was a standout in the Arizona Fall League in 2019, hitting 99 mph on his fastball and showing vast improvement on his changeup. If he can improve his command, Howard can be an impact arm for the Phillies in 2020.

5. Miami Marlins

The Marlins are responsible for one of my favorite baseball fun facts. They have never won their division, reaching the playoffs only twice in their existence as the Wild Card team: 1997 and 2003. They won the World Series both times. Baseball is so weird. 2020 will almost certainly not be another one of those years. PECOTA gives Miami a 6.9% chance to reach the postseason, while FanGraphs projects just a 2.9% chance. Britton calculates that they will have the third toughest schedule in MLB this season. Need I say more? But Derek Jeter & co. are building this organization essentially from the ground up after years of mismanagement, and there are some exciting young players heading to Miami in the next few years. It’s bleak now, sure, but things will get better. They always do.

Player to Watch: Monte Harrison

Harrison has shown some serious pop in the minors, hitting 21 home runs in 2017 and 19 in 2018. He hit just nine in 251 plate appearances in 2019 while dealing with injuries. He projects to be a better fielder, however, with excellent speed and a cannon for an arm. MLB Pipeline grades his running ability at 60 (out of 80) and his arm at 70. He needs to make better contact, as he struck out 215 times in his last full season, but there should be plenty of at-bats for him on a Marlins team that will likely struggle all year.

Pitcher to Watch: Sixto Sánchez

The Marlins top prospect is just waiting to get his chance with the big league club, and that may very well come this season after he was added to the 60-man player pool. Sánchez compiled a 2.76 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP and 103 strikeouts over 114 innings in 2019, a season after missing time due to right elbow inflammation. His fastball can reach 99 mph, and he has grades 60 or higher in every category, according to MLB Pipeline. There’s a chance Miami could keep Sánchez sidelined, but he would be a bright spot in an otherwise dull season.

Four down, two to go. Baseball games that count are just three days away.

P.S. Major League Baseball should drop local blackouts so everyone can watch his, her or their favorite team in 2020.

Stats and information courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com.

Ethan Fore is a diehard Dodgers fan who just wants to see his team win. Once. Please. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Ethan Fore

Ethan Fore

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Northwestern Medill Class of ’21. Creator of Fore The Record.