Return to top of NL East is only getting tougher for Nats

If you've been following this week's Baseball Writers' Association of America awards announcements, you've perhaps noticed two developments: 1) The Nationals only had a finalist in two of the four award categories, and had no winners, and 2) The rest of the National League East has been front and center in these proceedings.

The Nats had taken home at least one BBWAA award in each of the last four seasons, beginning with Matt Williams' Manager of the Year honor in 2014, continuing with Bryce Harper's unanimous MVP in 2015 and culminating with Max Scherzer's back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2016-17.

bryce-harper-love-sign-white.jpgThrow in Harper's Rookie of the Year and Davey Johnson's Manager of the Year awards in 2012, and the Nationals won six BBWAA awards in six seasons. That's an awfully impressive run.

And that run came to an end this year. Juan Soto finished runner-up for Rookie of the Year on Monday, and on Wednesday evening Scherzer finished a distant second in his quest to win his third consecutive Cy Young.

The Nationals will have multiple players (Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, perhaps Harper or Soto) receiving MVP votes - the results are being announced tonight - but we already know none finished higher than fourth, so there's no last-minute salvaging in store for the team.

Now take a look at who has won the National League's first three awards this year: Ronald Acuña Jr. (Rookie), Brian Snitker (Manager) and Jacob deGrom (Cy Young). Yep, two Braves and a Met. And with the Phillies' Aaron Nola the other Cy Young finalist, four-fifths of the division have been well represented this week.

Consider this among the latest bits of evidence that the NL East is getting better, which is only going to make life tougher for the Nationals.

We already saw the local ballclub unseated for the division crown this season when the Braves surpassed expectations and won 90 games while the Nats slogged their way to a disappointing 82 wins. The Phillies, meanwhile, were in the thick of the race and were challenging for the NL's best record at one point in August before collapsing late and finishing in third place.

And there's every reason to believe both clubs will continue to improve in 2019.

The Braves have tons of young talent, they've got some money to spend this winter to bolster their pitching staff and they have the confidence that only comes once you've won your first division title in a while.

The Phillies have a strong pitching staff and have a bunch of money to spend this winter, showing every indication of making record-breaking bids on Harper, Manny Machado or both.

The Mets? Well, they've still got plenty of issues. But new general manager (and former agent) Brodie Van Wagenen made it clear when he took the job he's not undertaking a rebuilding operation. He wants to add to what he already has and try to win now, with deGrom and Noah Syndergaard (both his former clients) leading the way.

OK, so the Marlins aren't anywhere close to contention. But they did get rid of the Home Run Sculpture that had graced center field at Marlins Park since the place opened, so that's a major upgrade right there.

Point is, a Nationals club that already was facing a challenge to return to the top of the NL East is going to be facing an even stiffer challenge in 2019. The Braves are for real. The Phillies appear ready to take the next step. The Mets are always a threat if they can stay healthy.

The Nats have their work cut out for them.

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