On Monday, we took a look at the AL East, which proved to be the best division in baseball, at least from the top three teams all scoring over 90 wins. We also made our predictions for our pick to win the division, which you can find here.
Today, in part two of our MLB season preview series, our focus turns to the AL East’s National League counterpart, the NL East 2019.
In contrast to the AL East, the NL East provided 2018’s worst division in baseball as the 90-win Atlanta Braves had the fewest wins of any divisional winner in the league. It should come as no surprise then that Atlanta didn’t make it out of the first round, losing the NLDS 3-1 to the eventual National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Closely behind the Braves were the 82-win Washington Nationals. The remaining three teams all finished below the .500 mark.
In the offseason, many moves were made in the division with one team in particular getting much stronger than it was the year prior and three others made improvements showing why this will be a tight divisional race this upcoming season. So how has the outlook changed in 2019?
5. Miami Marlins – The only team not to make any significant improvements in the offseason, the Marlins are clear favorites to finish in the cellar of what could be one of baseball’s stronger divisions in 2019. The team is no doubt in a rebuild, shown by the number of high profile players they have moved in the last two years, including former MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees and baseball’s top catcher, J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies.
The Marlins don’t have high expectations this season as they will merely look to keep their heads above water and avoid the dreaded 100-loss mark. Early predictions have the Marlins actually improving their win total from last year from 63 to 65, but it’s a toss-up about what might happen. Miami has a lot of young, exciting players to watch for, most of whom will get their first shots at making an impact with the team.
It’s not all bleak in Miami but as far as the NL East, don’t expect the Marlins, who are worse now than the team that finished last in runs scored in 2018 and with the worst bullpen ERA in MLB, to make much of a splash this year.
4. Atlanta Braves – This is where we start to get to the real depth of the NL East because if the wind blows a different way, really any of the top four teams could find themselves in this spot. For now, we’re looking at the Braves to occupy this spot. First to fourth may not sound glamorous but it’s not so much a testament to Atlanta’s fall as it is to the rest of the division’s rise.
For the most part, the Braves maintained much of the same team who won the NL East last year. They certainly have the talent to do it again. The Braves finished top-10 in both ERA and runs scored in 2018, showing their ability on both sides of the ball. The Braves even improved their starting staff and offensive lineup, but failed to do much to address one of last year’s most glaring concerns, their bullpen.
In a division that projects to see four teams all vying for the crown, a strong bullpen with the ability to win close games could prove to be the difference. The Braves converted just under 70 percent of their save opportunities last season and that simply won’t be good enough to win the NL East again. In fact it was the bullpen that contributed to the Braves early playoff exit in last year’s NLDS.
3. New York Mets – With an uptick of about 10 additional wins being expected from the team in 2019, the Mets turned a lot of heads in the offseason with the hiring of Brodie Van Wagenen as their new general manager. So far though, he has impressed, as he’s rolled his sleeves up and has really made some solid additions to a team that has been on the cusp of it for several years.
New York will hit the ground running with its entire and dangerous starting five back in the rotation, including CY Young winner Jacob deGrom whose 2018 was near historic. The biggest issue with these arms is keeping them as healthy as the Mets have lost significant progress over the years with several of their top, young pitchers needing to undergo Tommy John surgery.
The hope is high in 2019 for the staff as it is for a homegrown outfield which really could make its mark this year. In addition, the Mets made some headline news signing Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie to bolster an already strong line-up. If their arms can stay healthy, the Mets very well could win the division. That’s how tight it will be between the top teams.
2. Washington Nationals – When most people outside of Washington look at the team’s offseason, they probably characterize it by one thing, the loss of generational talent Bryce Harper. While the Harper loss could loom large (more on that later), Washington spent their offseason solidifying last year’s second place team and made some improvements that have seen their win total projection go from 82 to 89.
Even without Harper, this is still a really good team and Washington will be out to remind people of that this year. While some of their divisional rivals focused on improving their offense, the Nationals already had some of the best in that regard, with Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Juan Soto to name a few. Instead, the Nationals bolstered an already impression pitching staff with top acquisitions in Patrick Corbin, Jeremy Hellickson and Anibal Sanchez. What little areas of concern the team did have were filled as well as upgrades were made at the catching and second base positions.
Harper’s old position, centerfield, will be manned by Victor Robles, who has been lauded in the organization’s farm system in his own right. The loss of Harper and his production will certainly have its impact but the biggest worry for the Nationals could be how that impact is felt given Harper merely hopped on I-95 and traded in one red-based uniform for another.
1. Philadelphia Phillies – In baseball, as is in all sports, teams will avoid trading a player within their own division if they can help it. Sometimes, when a rival makes the best offer, you have to consider it, such was the case when the Marlins sent J.T. Realmuto to Philadelphia. In other cases, you have no control over it as a team because the player is in free agency. Such as what happened to the Nationals when Harper decided to sign a 13-year, $330M contract with Philadelphia. Add in the acquisitions of Andrew McCutchen, an upgrade in left field, Jean Segura, an upgrade at shortstop and David Robertson, an upgrade in the bullpen, and this is a Phillies team that alongside the New York Yankees, is considered to have won the offseason.
Things started slow for the Phillies but once the pieces began to move into place, the team found itself going from a sub-.500 group in 2018 to one expected to win 88 games and absolutely contend for the division crown.
Of course, some of that depends on how Gabe Kapler responds now that he is in his second year of managing. His style last year was unorthodox at best. Kapler has a team around him that should be expected to contend this year and into the future. They are young, hungry and celebrating the retirements of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard this year, three players who were crucial in the team’s 2008 World Series victory and subsequent playoff run.
Philadelphia came close to the postseason last year and now, they are much improved. Magic and nostalgia will be in the air at Citizen’s Bank Park and it very well could lead the Phillies back to the playoffs for the first time since Howard, Utley and Rollins were all still on the team seven seasons ago.