Who comes out on top in one of the best divisions in baseball?
This is our final division preview piece for the 2019 season, and while I think the NL Central is the strongest division from top to bottom, there’s a solid chance that the NL East race will be more entertaining to watch throughout the year.
Four of these teams believe they could win the division and make the playoffs, but the reality is, only three of them actually can play postseason baseball. And that’s the best case scenario. They could send the division winner only and miss out on the other two wild card spots.
If you’re a fan of the Mets, Nationals, Phillies, or Braves, you obviously have to pull for your team to win the division and not leave anything else up to chance. The Rockies will be strong contenders for a wild card spot out West, and the Cubs and Brewers (according to Midwest Sports Pulse’s predictions) should compete out of the Central. It all boils down, like every year, to how many wins you can scrounge up.
Let’s dive right in.
Projected record: 90-72
No Bryce? No problem!
The more casual baseball fan may be wondering why the Phillies aren’t the overwhelming favorite to win the division after acquiring Bryce Harper for a mere $330 million over 13 years.
And perhaps more than that, why would the team that Bryce Harper left be the favorite?
Glad you asked.
The Washington Nationals are one of the most interesting teams in baseball. Yes, they just lost their superstar outfielder in free agency to a division rival.
But what are they really losing? Harper may be an all-time great by the time he’s finished, but he didn’t resemble that in 2018. We’ll get into those details in the Phillies section.
The Nationals have the best top 3 in baseball when it comes to the starting pitching. Max Scherzer is maybe the most dominant pitcher in baseball right now. He won the Cy Young Award in both 2016 and 2017 (to go along with his 2013 Cy Young with Detroit) and finished second in the voting last season. In each of the last six seasons, he’s thrown at least 200 innings, struck out no fewer than 240 batters, and his average ERA is right around 2.80.
But the Nationals still have Stephen Strasburg, the former number one overall pick in 2009, and they signed Patrick Corbin in free agency this offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Oh, and Corbin signed a six-year deal for $140 million, so yeah, the Nats believe he can be a key contributor. Oh, and they have one of the best closers in baseball in Sean Doolittle, who was an All-Star last year.
While Harper provided good power numbers, Washington won’t miss that as much as you might think. Anthony Rendon has hit 24 and 25 home runs over the last two seasons and driven in close to 100 runs. He’s also batted above .300 during that stretch as well. He’s quietly one of baseball’s most solid players, and he’s likely due for a lot of money in an upcoming contract extension. Not quite Harper or Trout money, but Rendon should get a large pay day.
Former superprospect Juan Soto was one of baseball’s best young players in 2018. He hit .292 with the club in 116 games, hitting 22 home runs and racking up 70 RBI. He’s also an outstanding outfielder and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind another division rival. Over the course of a full season, if healthy, Soto should hit at least 30 home runs and come close to 100 RBI.
The Nationals also have Brian Dozier on a one-year deal. He’s a few years removed from his 42 home run season with Minnesota, but he still managed half of that total in 2018, and his presence will help make up some of those lost Harper numbers.
Trea Turner has been terrific at shortstop for Washington since 2015. His offensive numbers have declined in the last two seasons since he hit .342 in 2016, but he stole 43 bases last year and creates offense however he can. Expect that from likely every day center fielder Victor Robles as well. He seems to be the most big league ready prospect for the Nationals in 2019, as he has a little bit of experience at the Major League level over the last two years, and the Nats will give him the nod in center field on Opening Day.
Ryan Zimmerman is still there, despite being 97 years old (at least that’s how long it seems he’s been there). Jokes aside, Zimmerman has been consistent, and while he was limited to just 85 games in 2018, he had a career high 36 home runs in 2017. Zimmerman also seems to have that “clutch gene” and Washington has counted on him in big spots over the years. He and Matt Adams should trade off at first base from time to time in 2019.
It’s of course difficult to replace a player like Bryce Harper, but the Nationals have enough talent to do just that in 2019, and they’d like for the story to be about the current Nationals, not former ones. Look for them to come out swinging and prove to the world that they’ll be just fine without him.
Projected record: 88-74
The next two teams could finish in any order, but I think the Braves are more talented, so I’m sticking them in the #2 spot.
Atlanta is the defending division champion, winning 90 games before bowing out of the playoffs to the eventual National League Pennant winning Los Angeles Dodgers. They have one of the most exciting young players in baseball who has already established himself in Ronald Acuna Jr.
Acuna was the Rookie of the Year for the National League in 2018. He hit .293 with 26 home runs and 64 RBI in just 111 games. If he’s healthy and plays in every game this year, that’s an additional 51 contests for him to rack up more impressive statistics. Acuna could be a legitimate contender for the National League MVP Award this season.
The Braves also have Freddie Freeman, the Gold Glove winner at first base last season. Freeman had 191 hits and played in all 162 games, finishing 4th in the MVP voting. His average was .309 and he can be counted on for around 25 home runs each season. He’s become one of the most consistent all-around players in baseball.
Nick Markakis is patrolling the outfield in Atlanta again this year. The former Oriole also played in all 162 games last season. He hit just a shade under .300 and was an All-Star for the first time in his 13 year career. He’s also a three-time Gold Glove winner, adding to his collection in 2018.
Ozzie Albies is another exciting young player for the Braves that you may want to keep an eye on. Albies hit 24 home runs last season and gathered 167 hits en route to his first (of many) All-Star selection(s). Along with Albies, three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte should pace both the offense and defense. It’ll be interesting to see if the Braves can get the production they hoped for from Dansby Swanson, the former #1 overall pick.
Let’s also not forget that the Braves signed former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal worth $23 million. Donaldson’s numbers have declined the last two years as he dealt with multiple recurring injuries, but he should provide a boost on offense for a team with plenty of it already.
The biggest question in Atlanta will be the pitching staff. Mike Foltynewicz will likely be the ace of the staff, but he’s out until late April. Kevin Gausman is also starting the season on the injured list. Julio Teheran will get the nod on Opening Day for Atlanta. Teheran went 9-9 with a 3.94 ERA last season. The rest of the rotation is comprised of young, mostly untested arms in the forms of Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Max Fried. While the returns of Foltynewicz and Gausman will alleviate some of the inexperience, the pitching staff as a whole is what I think will keep the Braves from winning the division in 2019.
New York Mets
Projected record: 86-76
In the complete opposite of Atlanta above, a massive portion of the Mets’ hopes for this season lie on their pitching staff, including the 2018 NL Cy Young winner, Jacob DeGrom.
DeGrom just signed a five-year, $137 million contract extension this week, and I think it’s safe to say that he’s earned it. Since 2014, DeGrom has 1000 strikeouts and a 2.67 ERA, which is among the best in baseball since that time. Last season, in a year where the Mets finished 77-85, DeGrom went 10-9 with 269 strikeouts and an astonishing 1.70 ERA. He was magnificent for a bad team, and with any additional run support, he could make a strong case for winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards.
Besides DeGrom, the Mets also still have Noah Syndergaard, the hard-throwing right hander. Despite missing some time in the past two seasons, Syndergaard has a tendency to overpower hitters, routinely hitting triple digits with his fastball.
Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz round out the top four in the Mets rotation. Wheeler went 12-7 last season in 29 starts, while Matz struggled a bit more, finishing with a 5-11 record and a sub-4.00 ERA.
The offense has some key cogs that have been around for a while. Robinson Cano, who served an 80-game suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs last season, was acquired from Seattle in an offseason trade that saw the Mets send Jay Bruce to the Mariners, among other players and prospects. The 36-year-old second baseman is an eight time All-Star and a career .304 hitter. His bat should be a welcome addition on the National League side of New York.
Todd Frazier and Yoenis Cespedes are two other names that have been around for a while. Frazier is currently dealing with an oblique injury and doesn’t have a timetable for a return just yet. His numbers have steadily declined since 2016, when he hit 40 home runs with the White Sox, but the Mets are hopeful he can bump up his average and power numbers from last season. Cespedes, who is 33 years old, has one of the best arms in baseball, but has had each of his last two seasons end prematurely from injuries. Double heel surgery last year sidelined Cespedes starting in April, and like Frazier, there’s no timetable for his return. He’s been quoted as saying he thinks he’ll play in 2019, but isn’t sure whether it will come in July, August, or September. A career .274 hitter, Cespedes has two years left on his deal with the Mets.
Wilson Ramos will handle the catching duties while Travis d’Arnaud recovers and rehabs from Tommy John surgery he underwent last April. Today, d’Arnaud was placed on the 10-day Injury List, so his return will likely be much sooner than either Cespedes or Frazier.
The offense is really going to revolve around two young building blocks in the outfield: Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo. Conforto was an All-Star in 2017 before dislocating his left shoulder on a swing in August. He hit .243 with 28 home runs and 82 RBI last season.
Nimmo spent all of 2018 with the Mets and parts of both the 2016 and 2017 seasons as well. He hit .263 last season in 140 games, adding 17 home runs. In each of his three seasons (partial or full) with New York, Nimmo has seen his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) percentage increase each year. He finished 2018 with an .886 OPS, which was good for 17th best in all of baseball.
If the Mets stay healthy throughout the year, as they’ve struggled to do recently, they’ll absolutely compete for the NL East crown. I expect them to be in the race until the very end, but both the Nationals and Braves outrank them in talent, particularly on offense, and that’s why I see them finishing in a healthy third place.
Projected record: 83-79
I know, I know.
It seems like the Phillies should be the NL East favorites, right? You have every right to think that.
They won the Bryce Harper sweepstakes this offseason, signing the phenom to a then-record 13-year, $330 million deal (which was shortly broken by Mike Trout’s $430 million). They traded for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto in February. They traded for Jean Segura in December, bringing over the shortstop from Seattle. They signed Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal worth $50 million.
It’s hard to argue that any team had a more productive offseason than the Phillies. The offense is loaded from top to bottom, and once you factor in young studs Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and Rhys Hoskins, that’s a scary lineup to face.
But this team is going to have issues on the mound, and that’s the main reason I think they’ll miss the playoffs in 2019.
Aaron Nola is one of the best pitchers in baseball, hands down. The 25-year-old went 17-6 last year with a 2.37 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He also struck out 224 batters. He’s considered an early top contender for the Cy Young this season as well.
But beyond that? There are some question marks.
The #2 guy in Philadelphia is Jake Arrieta. I won’t hide anything here; I love Jake. He was a massive piece of the Cubs rebuild and World Series run. But since his 2015 Cy Young winning season, his numbers have been on a steady decline. The hard-throwing righty is also 33 years old this season and returning from knee surgery to repair his meniscus. He’s expected to pitch this week and be ready, but it remains to be seen how effective he can be. He had his highest ERA (3.96, still pretty good) and lowest strikeout total (138) since the 2013 season.
The rest of the rotation isn’t great. Nick Pivetta lost 14 games last year and his ERA was 4.77. Zach Eflin was a little bit better, going 11-8 with a 4.36 ERA in 2018. Vince Velasquez may factor in as the fifth starter, but he finished the 2018 campaign with a 9-12 mark and the highest ERA of the three (4.85). The Phillies have to get production out of their 3-5 pitchers if they want to have any real shot at winning the division, and the bullpen needs to be solid as well. The problem with the latter is that the bullpen has some talented young arms without a lot of experience, and it generally takes time to adjust to the big league level.
The offense will be good enough to keep them around and win a few games on their own. Obviously Harper brings a ton of talent with him, despite his average dipping to .249 in 2018 and striking out 169 times, a career high. He still managed to hit 34 home runs, drive in exactly 100 runs, and he walked 130 times. But he hasn’t quite been the same since his 2015 MVP season.
Realmuto was an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger for National League catchers in 2018. Segura hit .304 on his way to 178 hits last year. McCutchen struggled a bit between the Giants and Yankees, his average just .255. His 20 home runs were the lowest since 2013, but to be fair, his career high is 31, set in 2012.
As for the other three I mentioned above, Herrera started the 2018 season hot but cooled off to finish with a .255 batting average, the same as McCutchen. He did smack 22 home runs, and his power numbers have generally increased in his four seasons with the team. Franco had a solid year, batting .270 and slugging 22 home runs. He has 71 dingers in the last three years, so something around that 22-24 range is about what’s expected. Rhys Hoskins was the most impressive in 2018, as he hit 34 home runs in 153 games. The Phils would like to see his average go up from .246, but a season with 30-plus home runs and 100 RBI isn’t out of the question for him.
Obviously the Phillies have the talent to fight for a division championship, but the offense will have to carry them to it. While it is certainly capable of doing so, I see the pitching being too much of an issue. If that’s the case, they’ll certainly wonder whether they could have spent some of that offseason money on another arm. As of publishing, Dallas Keuchel is still available, and the Phillies have been linked to him as of late, but he still remains unsigned. If Keuchel does sign with Philadelphia, expect them to shoot to the top of the favorites to win the division in Vegas.
Projected record: 53-109
Ay yi yi.
What can you really say about Miami? (Insert dumpster fire GIF).
Sort of like the Orioles and the Royals that we talked about in past previews, this team is just bad. So bad, in fact, that the picture at the top of the article with every team’s logo wasn’t even updated, and nobody probably would’ve noticed.
Miami is firmly in the middle of a rebuild, but it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The top prospect is right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the J.T. Realmuto trade. The only other Top 100 guy in the organization is Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa (not a typo). Those two alone aren’t going to make this team go, whenever they make the big leagues.
Since Derek Jeter became a non-controlling owner in Miami in September 2017, Realmuto, Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton have been traded or have signed elsewhere. If the Marlins still had all of those guys on the team, they’d probably be the favorites to win the National League East, if not the entire National League. To be fair, it isn’t all Jeter’s fault, and it probably isn’t really his fault at all, but I don’t hear a lot of people questioning Bruce Sherman instead, and I’m sure Sherman is grateful to have Jeter take the heat.
So, who is still on the roster? Let’s start with some of the names you might recognize on offense. Starlin Castro, the former Cub and Yankee, will be the starting second baseman. Castro’s a career .281 hitter and if nothing else, he’ll give you consistency at the plate.
Neil Walker will be the starting first baseman on Opening Day. Most of Walker’s career was spent in Pittsburgh, but he spent 2018 with the Yankees and struggled, batting just .219.
Martin Prado is another name you might recognize. He’s been in Miami since 2015, but his last two seasons have each been hampered by injuries. Prado does have six .300+ seasons in his career, so if he can stay healthy and find a place to play the field, he could contribute.
Curtis Granderson will be the Opening Day left fielder in Miami. Granderson, who just turned 38, is pretty far removed from the days when he could have been considered a superstar. He hit just .242 in Toronto and Milwaukee last year, which admittedly was a 30 point improvement from 2017.
And that’s probably it as far as names some of you have heard of. Now, the Marlins do have an excellent third baseman in Brian Anderson. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, and he’s expected to be a key piece of the rebuild. Lewis Brinson, the center fielder, could be another key component in years to come. He was part of the Christian Yelich trade but has been disappointing. He hit just .199 in 109 games last season.
The pitching staff isn’t great, but it has some young talent that has potential to develop into one of the league’s better rotations. Jose Urena will be the ace once again. Urena went 9-12 last season but kept his ERA under 4.00 while striking out 130. The rest of the rotation is relatively inexperienced. The other four likely starters – Trevor Richards, Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith, and Pablo Lopez – have just 59 starts between them. Richards started 25 of those games last season, going 4-9 with a 4.42 ERA.
The bullpen is the same story, mostly inexperienced with a few vets sprinkled in. Sergio Romo signed a one-year deal with the club this offseason. The former three-time World Series champion with the Giants is the most experienced pitcher in the bullpen. Wei-Yin Chen started 26 games last season for the Marlins but is likely to begin the year in relief. The Marlins also seem ready to roll with Drew Steckenrider as the closer, despite him only having six saves over two seasons.
The Marlins are far from competing for anything meaningful beyond the first overall pick. The pitching staff could be a surprise this year, but playing nearly half of their games against the rest of this division and the offenses that come with it will make for a long year in Miami.