NL East most competitive in Baseball with four title contenders

BY J.A. SCHWARTZ

The New York Mets and their fans have labored under the ignominious reign of the Wilpon family for the past 19 years, but they were finally liberated this winter when Steve Cohen purchased the franchise, and immediately set about trying to position the club to steal the headlines from the crosstown Yankees. The Wilpon’s, who frequently failed to capitalize on the significant resources at their disposal, (making the playoffs only three times during those 19 seasons) stand in stark contrast to Cohen’s aggressive maneuverings. Cohen’s new leadership was a welcome change, as was his swift reaction to a scandal that rocked his club in December. Cohen’s first move was to hire Jared Porter to be the General Manager. A little more than a month later, details emerged that implicated Porter in a sexually explicit texting situation with a female reporter back in 2016. A single day after those facts came to light, Cohen fired Porter. His zero tolerance stance for such behavior was roundly applauded by Mets fans, who have reason to believe that Cohen may well be the owner to lead the team back to a championship.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Noah Syndergaard’s ability to bounce back from the Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the 2020 season could go a long way towards determining if the Mets can return to the postseason for the first time in five years. If healthy, he joins Jacob deGrom to form one of the most dominant pitching tandems in the game.

The Mets retained Marcus Stroman, who accepted his qualifying offer to return to the Mets after opting out of the 2020 season. He’s expected to slot into a rotation that’s led by two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, who was clocked throwing 101 MPH in Florida this spring. The club also expects a midsummer return by Noah Syndergaard, who is recovering from elbow surgery. The Mets pen will be led by Edwin Diaz, who struck out 17.5/9 IP in 2020, supported by Twins expatriate Trevor May, lured from Minnesota with a two-year, $15 million deal. The Mets offense was seventh in the NL in runs scored in 2020 despite having the second best on base percentage. They can expect improved performance following the blockbuster trade that landed Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco from Cleveland. Lindor will be expected to bring stellar defense to the shortstop position and a middle-of-the-order bat to strengthen an already formidable lineup. He’ll be joined by free agent acquisition James McCann, who took $40 million of Cohen’s money in four-year deal to be the Mets full-time catcher, filling a long-time area of need for the team. If 2019 NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso, who set a rookie record with 53 HR’s that year, can supply the power, the New York offense will be among the NL’s best.

The Atlanta Braves are the defending NL East champions, and they expect to make a deep run into the postseason again in 2021. They retained free agent Marcel Ozuna on a four-year, $65 million contract, and will count on him to compliment a trio of elite offensive threats in the Atlanta lineup: Ronald Acuna Jr, Ozzie Albies and 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman. The team also expects to integrate top prospect Christian Pache at the major league level, where he’ll be asked to hold down the center field job. Pache is considered an elite defensive outfielder, and Braves fans will be expecting the second coming of Andruw Jones as he plays his first full season with the team.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Perennial All-Star Freddie Freeman had his finest season last year, batting .341 on the way to the NL MVP award as he helped lead Atlanta to within a game of the World Series. In 2019 the Braves first baseman slammed 38 home runs along with a career high 121 RBI’s.

The pitching staff will be led by Max Fried and breakout star Ian Anderson, both of whom had excellent seasons in 2020. They’ll be joined by free agent mercenary Charlie Morton, who was given at least 15 Million reasons to put off retiring for another season to sign with the Braves. Another boost could be received by the return of Mike Soroka, a 23-year old who went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA on the way to being runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award in 2019 before tearing his right Achilles tendon in his third start last season. Atlanta figures to hand ninth inning leads to Will Smith again in 2021, but he’s supported by a deep relief crew, including lefties A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek.

The Philadelphia Phillies have not been shy about handing out big contracts over the past few seasons, hoping to bring a World Series title to their fans for the first time since the 2008 season. They added Bryce Harper on a 13-year, $330 deal after the 2018 season, inked starter Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 deal last winter and splurged to insure the return of J.T. Realmuto this offseason, signing their catcher to a five-year, $115 million deal. Despite those efforts, the Phillies haven’t had a winning season or a postseason berth since 2011, something they hope will change this season. The strength of the team figures to be its lineup, (fourth in the NL in runs in 2020) anchored by Harper and Realmuto, as well as powerful corner infielders Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm.

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Philadelphia solidified their catching position in the off-season by resigning J.T. Realmuto to a 5 yr/$115M contract thru 2025. In his first year with the Phils in 2019, he won both Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards while throwing out 47% of runners trying to steal.

The fortunes of the Phillies figure to pivot around the performance of their pitchers, whose 5.20 ERA in 2020 was 14th in the league, ahead of only Colorado’s mile high staff. Ace Aaron Nola, 27, is in his prime, and he’s leading a rotation that includes Wheeler, who had a 2.92 ERA last year, and Zach Elfin. Given the dependable performance of their top three starters, it is difficult to imagine how the Philadelphia staff could have been so generous allowing runs to their opponents-until the bullpen is assessed. The Phillies bullpen ERA was 7.06 in 2020, allowing homers at the worst rate in the history of baseball at 2.08 HR for every 9 innings pitched. The most telling statistic might have been unearthed by the great Jason Stark at the Athletic: Hitters against the Phillies bullpen in 2020 batted .320/.395/.563, which is basically Joe DiMaggio’s career batting line. With the acquisition of Archie Bradley to help stabilize the pen, the team expects improvement in this area in 2021, which may be the understatement of the year. It would be nearly impossible to be worse.

The Washington Nationals are just one season removed from their 2019 World Series Championship, the franchise’s first. The core of that team remains in Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who will attempt to carry the team back to the postseason after missing the expanded version of the playoffs last year. Soto is arguably the best young hitter in baseball, and his .295/.415/.557 career levels through his age 21 season are similar to such luminaries as Frank Robinson, Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Despite his brilliance, the Nationals offense was no better than sixth in the NL last year, which prompted them to trade for Josh Bell from the Pirates, and add lefty masher Kyle Schwarber as a free agent from the Cubs. If those two hitters, both 28, provide offensive punch to support Soto and Turner, the Nationals may contend in a very tough NL East.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Washington’s Juan Soto has had one of the most dominant debuts in MLB history, becoming the youngest player ever to win the National League batting title last season with a .351 average as a 21-year old. He’s also powered 69 home runs with 217 RBI’s in less than two full seasons in addition to helping to lead the Nationals to their first World Series title in franchise history in 2019.

Their pitching, led by the brilliant Scherzer, will need to be better than it was in 2020, when the team ERA was 5.09, better than only the Phillies and Rockies in the NL. By Scherzer’s standards, his 3.74 ERA was anomalous, and was the first time since 2014-his final season in Detroit-that his ERA was above 2.96. Franchise icon Stephen Strasburg pitched only five innings before undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, and Patrick Corbin, a key figure in their title run of 2019, was a disappointing 2-7. They Nats also signed the battle-tested Jon Lester, although his best days are likely behind him. The bullpen will be built around free agent lefty Brad Hand, claimed on waivers from Cleveland, and righties Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson. If their pitching staff performs closer to their career levels, the Nationals might well threaten to win the division and make another deep postseason run.

The Miami Marlins made their biggest news this offseason by hiring Kim Ng to be the first female General Manager in American professional sports history. Ng will be charged with guiding the Marlins to a World Series title, and aspires to see the team return to the playoffs in 2021 after their improbable postseason run last season. After qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2003 as a wild card, the Marlins quickly dispatched the Cubs before being swept by the Braves in the NLDS, losing their first postseason series (they.re now 7-1 all time in playoff series). Their lineup and pitching staff both finished 11th in the NL last year, yet manager Don Mattingly expertly guided his squad through the season despite a payroll ranked 27th in baseball.

Miami didn’t make many offseason upgrades, and will depend upon a balanced lineup anchored by 27-year-old Brian Anderson and CF Starling Marte. Their pitching will be dependent on the continued ascension of 22-year-old fireballer Sixto Sanchez, who is the most talented hurler on a staff that also figures to include Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Elieser Hernandez, none older than 25. Closing duties should fall to free agent Anthony Bass, who left Toronto as a free agent to sign a two-year deal with the Marlins.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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