NL East Notes: Phillies may be Phavorites, but Nats will Phinish on Top
While the Philadelphia Phillies have vaulted into national headlines with the signing of Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals may have the last laugh.
Updated: April 8, 2019 • 5:15 PM ET
Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon is off to a hot start this season.
The Philadelphia Phillies made the biggest splash in the MLB offseason, signing outfielder Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract. The Atlanta Braves are the reigning NL East champions. The New York Mets upgraded their infield and bullpen by acquiring second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz. The Washington Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to bolster their starting rotation. And unfortunately for the Miami Marlins, the other four teams in the division should have no problem racking up wins against their South Beach foes. But, while the Phillies are the favorites to take the division, the Nationals will prove to be the best of the bunch by the end of the season.
The Mets have the reigning Cy Young Award winner in Jacob deGrom at the top of their rotation. Noah “Thor” Syndergaard gets the nod in the second slot, making for a potent 1-2 punch for the Metropolitans. Three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer tops the Nats rotation. Philadelphia is led by Aaron Nola, who had a breakout campaign in 2018, leading to his third-place finish in Cy Young voting. However, fans would be surprised to find out that the Braves starters led the NL East with a 3.28 ERA in 2018. The Mets had a 3.56 team ERA, while the Nats sat at 3.73. The Phillies posted a 4.06 ERA and the Marlins rounded out the division with at 4.30.
Some rotations have stayed the same, while others have improved. New York brought back the same starters, deGrom, Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler, Stephen Matz and Jason Vargas, while Philadelphia did as well with Nola, Nick Pivetta, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez. Mike Foltynewicz (eighth in Cy Young voting), Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb and Kevin Gausman return for the Braves, but the team lost Anibal Sanchez, who signed with the Nationals. Bryse Wilson has replaced Sanchez in the rotation.
The Nationals bring back 3/5 of their starting five from 2018: Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson. They improved their group by signing Sanchez and Patrick Corbin, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sanchez and Corbin are upgrades over Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, as Corbin finished fifth in Cy Young voting last year.
Four of the five NL East teams had 800+ strikeouts from their starters last season, excluding the Marlins, which had 558. That all being said, the Nationals lead the clubhouse in power pitching this year.
Last season, Washington’s 2019 starters compiled 902 strikeouts. Their flame throwers projected 2019 ERA is a division-leading 3.14, if their rotation can repeat their ERA numbers from last year.
The Marlins have the weakest rotation. In a surprise move, they released 2018 starter Dan Straily and sent Wei-Yin Chen to the bullpen late last month. Miami will trot out Jose Urena, Trevor Richards, Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantara and Caleb Smith.
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A Call to the Bullpen
It’s all in “la familia” for the Mets ‘pen as Jeurys Familia rejoins the group in 2019. The big addition for the Metropolitans, though, is their new closer, Diaz, who had 57 saves in 2018, five shy of Francisco Rodriguez’s MLB record of 62 in 2008 for the Angels. MLB Network ranked the top 10 players at each position, and Diaz is at No. 4 for relief pitchers.
Former starters Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo add length to the Mets bullpen, and lefties Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan add depth to the unit. According to FanGraphs.com, the Mets rank as the fifth best bullpen in baseball, and MLB.com ranked them as the sixth-best. Overall, however, New York has the best back end in the NL East.
Don’t be fooled by his name, Sean Doolittle has done a lot for the Nationals’ bullpen, solidifying the closer role. According to MLB Network, he is the second-best relief pitcher in baseball. However, the Nats have more than Doolittle, as their ‘pen is ranked fifth by MLB.com and ninth by FanGraphs.
Last season, the Nats were let down by a bullpen that gave up leads provided by their great starting pitching. General manager Mike Rizzo aimed to change that this past winter by signing former St. Louis Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal and former Colorado Rockies reliever Kyle Barraclough. Barraclough, Rosenthal and Doolittle should give the Nationals a 1-2-3 punch at the end of their games. They also signed Tony Sipp, who spent the last five seasons with the Houston Astros and brings his 1.86 ERA from 2018 with him.
The Phillies signed everyone they could this offseason, and vice president and general manager Matt Klentak didn’t ignore his ‘pen. Klentak signed David Robertson to dominate opposing hitters, who has pitched at least 60 innings and posted a WAR of 1.0 or better for the last eight seasons, according to FanGraphs. Add in Seranthony Dominguez, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, and the Phillies are formidable. MLB.com ranks them as the eighth-best bullpen in the majors, and FanGraphs ranks them at No. 6.
The NL East is stacked at the corner infield spots. The Braves’ Freddie Freeman and Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins are the cream of the crop at first, and the Nats’ Anthony Rendon and Braves’ Josh Donaldson are the best at the hot corner. According to MLB Network, the Braves first baseman is the second-best in baseball, and Hoskins is ninth-best at his position for the Phillies.
Freeman hit .309 last season with 23 homers and 98 RBI, while Hoskins had a .246 average with 34 home runs and 96 RBI. Hoskins played in the outfield last year and wasn’t a good defensively, and the switch to first may help him and the Phillies.
Rendon was rated as the fourth-best third baseman, with Donaldson took the ninth spot. Last season, Rendon batted .308 with 24 home runs and 92 RBI, while Donaldson batted .246 with eight homers and 23 RBI. That seems low for Donaldson, but he only had 187 at bats last with two clubs last year, the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Cano is the big name at second base in the NL East, as MLB Network ranked the Mets’ infielder fourth-overall at his position. He’s a career .304 hitter with power (averages nearly 21 homers and 82 RBI per season).The other players at the position in the division, Brain Dozier, Cesar Hernandez, Ozzie Albies and Starlin Castro, were unranked.
Part of Philadelphia’s spending spree, shortstop Jean Segura, fills the No. 9 spot in MLB Network’s rankings. While players like Washington’s Trea Turner, Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson and New York’s Amed Rosario are known commodities, they’re not as good as Segura. In his last three years, Segura has hit .319, .300 and .304. In 2016, he had career highs in home runs and RBI (20 and 64) with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
We Are, We Are, the Youth of the Nation
Outfielders Ronald Acuna Jr. (21 years old), Juan Soto (20), Victor Robles (21), Harper (26), Michael Conforto (26) and Brandon Nimmo (26) are all excellent outfielders in this division. The best part for the Braves, Nationals, Phillies and Mets, is that these players will be competing for years to come.
Harper, a combination of talent, fame and hype, made the biggest splash in the offseason. From the time Harper graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old, he has more than delivered on the hype. From his NL MVP campaign in 2015 (.330, 42 home runs, 99 RBI) to his victory at Nationals Park in the 2018 Home Run Derby, Harper is the real deal.
Acuna Jr. won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, posting a .293 average with 26 home runs, 64 RBI and 16 stolen bases. Soto’s .292, 22, 70 and five propelled him to second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Robles slots into centerfield for the Nationals, while Mets outfielders Conforto and Nimmo finished in the top eight at their positions, according to MLB Network. The rankings are as follows:
• LF: Acuna Jr. (3), Soto (6), Conforto (8)
• CF: None
• RF: Harper (5), Nimmo (6), Andrew McCutchen (8)
The NL East has some of the best talent at the catcher position. According to MLB Network, J.T. Realmuto (2), Kurt Suzuki (7) and Wilson Ramos (8) are all top flight players in baseball. To prove how rich the division is when it comes to catchers, Suzuki is sharing time with Yan Gomes for the Nationals. Realmuto’s WAR since 2016 is 12.3, the highest of any catcher, according to FanGraphs.
While it will be difficult to top the Phillies in the NL East, the Nationals can do it. They have the best starting pitching in the division and that goes a long way. The Nats, Phillies and Mets all have great bullpens. Philadelphia and Washington have the best lineups, with New York being a close third. Four of these teams will beat up on each other and all of them will beat up on the Marlins.
1. Washington Nationals (95-67)
2. Philadelphia Phillies (94-68 - wild card)
3. New York Mets (90-72)
4. Atlanta Braves (88-74)
5. Miami Marlins (60-102)