The offseason for the National League East was a steady stream of reinforcements, making it the most competitive division of Major League Baseball’s six. Four teams have a chance to win the crown.
The biggest offseason splash was the Phillies’ trade for catcher J.T. Realmuto. But that was only until halfway through spring training, when they signed free-agent outfielder Bryce Harper.
So, how will the Nationals be without Harper, 26, the 2015 NL MVP? And, do the Phillies have enough in their rotation to avoid the second-half fade they experienced in 2018? Can Atlanta repeat? Can the Mets rebound?
The Nationals added starters Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez and three relievers, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough and lefty Tony Sipp. Second baseman Brian Dozier and catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes are new as well.
In addition to Harper and Realmuto, the Phillies fixed their defense, worst in the NL last season, and souped up the bullpen.
In New York, the Mets fortified their bullpen and added two bats.
The Braves, the defending division champion, were the closest to standing pat. They have a new third baseman, Josh Donaldson, and a new catcher, former Brave Brian McCann.
And no one is giving rebuilding Miami, with 98 losses last season, a chance, but the Marlins’ rotation was strong during spring training. So, they might not be an easy opponent.
The NL East will finish this way: Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Braves, Marlins.
The nuts and bolts of the division:
ATLANTA: After three consecutive 90-loss seasons, the Braves went 90-72 and won the NL East in 2018. Then they were beaten by the Dodgers in the division series. Going back to 2002, the Braves have lost seven consecutive division series. The Braves will have two new players in their lineup, third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Brian McCann, 35, who returns to the team that brought him to the majors. Donaldson, 32, the 2015 American League MVP when he hit 41 home runs for Toronto, played for the Blue Jays and Cleveland last season, but was sidelined for three months with a calf injury.
Donaldson and first baseman Freddie Freeman will bat in the middle of the Braves order. The left-handed hitting Freeman is coming off a season of .309 with a .388 on-base percentage, 23 home runs and 98 RBI. McCann was a seven-time All-Star in nine seasons with the Braves before he left as a free agent to sign with the Yankees, who traded him to Houston. He’s coming off surgery on his right knee and a .212 season. He and Tyler Flowers will share catching duties.
Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz was scheduled to be the opening-day starter, but he’s been slowed by elbow soreness and won’t be ready until mid-April. The first three in the Braves rotation will be lefty Sean Newcomb (12-9, 3.90) and righties Kevin Gausman (2.87 ERA in 10 starts) and Julio Teheran (9-9, 3.94). Gausman has been slowed by a shoulder injury, but the Braves expect that he’ll be ready by the time they need a fifth starter. The Braves have great depth with young pitchers Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Max Fried. All are top-notch prospects with a chance to contribute.
The outfield has center fielder Ender Inciarte, left fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and right fielder Nick Markakis, the former Oriole coming off his first All-Star season. Acuña was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2018, hitting .322 with 19 home runs and a 1.028 OPS. Markakis, 35, hit .297 last year, but tailed off after the All-Star break. He hit .323 before, .258 after.
The middle infield - shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Ozzie Albies - is one of the best in the league. Albies hit 20 home runs in the first half of last season, four in the second, proving a young player needs to learn to be consistent throughout a long season.
The Braves have been linked to free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, but at this point, the closer’s role will be shared by righty Arodys Vizcaíno and southpaw A.J. Minter.
MIAMI: The Marlins, who used 24 rookies last season while winning 63 games, haven’t been to the postseason since winning the 2003 World Series. They finished fifth in the NL East last season, and since their World Series title the closest they’ve come to the postseason was 2009, when they finished second, six games out.
Their top pitcher is right-hander José Ureña, who lost his first seven decisions out in 2018 but finished with six consecutive wins. Overall, he had nine victories and a 3.98 ERA. ... After trading big-name players in the 2017 offseason, the Marlins traded their best player, catcher J.T. Realmuto, to the Phillies, and the key prospect they got in return was right-hander Sixto Sanchez, 20, who has been compared to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in his approach and stature. Sanchez was the pitcher the Orioles were wanting from the Phillies in exchange for Manny Machado as last year’s trade deadline approached.
The Marlins’ offseason included signing Cuban prospects Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr. ... More good news for the Marlins: Their ballpark’s home run sculpture in center field is replaced by seating, lessening the circus-like atmosphere. Speculation is that manager Don Mattingly has a 50-50 chance of coming back to the Marlins in 2020.
The closer role this year will be split between right-hander Drew Steckenrider and left-hander Adam Conley.
The Marlins’ young and talented outfield, from left to right: Austin Dean, Lewis Brinson and Brian Anderson, who had eight assists last season. Dean was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2019, and he hit four home runs in 34 big-league games. Brinson, acquired from Milwaukee, was slowed by injuries last season, but the Marlins love his potential.
NEW YORK: With a new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, a former agent, the Mets became relevant in the NL East. They’ve already got arguably the best rotation in baseball, and they have fixed their weaknesses. Last season, the Mets ranked 12th in runs (676) in the NL and 14th in bullpen ERA (4.96)
The worst bullpen in the NL became one of the best when the Mets traded for Seattle closer Edwin Diaz, 24, who led the majors with 57 saves last season, and added lefty Justin Wilson and right-hander Jeurys Familia. Throw in righties Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman and the Mets’ bullpen is top-notch.
The Mets’ offense will get a boost from the addition of second baseman Robinson Canó, acquired along with Diaz from Seattle, and catcher Wilson Ramos, a two-time All-Star nicknamed “Buffalo” who hit .337 for the Phillies and .297 for Tampa Bay last season. Canó served an 80-game suspension with Seattle last year after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, but he finished with a .303 average and 10 home runs in 80 games for the Mariners. Jed Lowie, who played second for Oakland’s playoff-bound team last season, will see most of his action at third base, but he’s also got the ability to move around the diamond.
The rotation is led by Jacob deGrom, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, but don’t forget righties Noah Syndergaard and Zach Wheeler (1.68 ERA in his last 11 starts in 2018) and lefties Steven Matz and Jason Vargas.
After losing the 2015 World Series to the Royals and losing in the 2016 wild-card game, the Mets have finished fourth in the NL East for two consecutive seasons.
PHILADELPHIA: The Phillies haven’t been to the postseason since making it five consecutive years from 2007-2011, including a World Series win against Tampa Bay in 2008 and a World Series loss to the Yankees in 2009. The Phillies improved their defense and run-scoring ability and added to their bullpen, all issues in their 80-win season in 2018. They ranked 11th in runs scored (677) in the NL and were last in team average (.234)
Harper, 26, will play right field and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler says he will likely hit third. Harper has no opt-outs, so he’ll be a Phillie until 2032. He’s a six-time All-Star who has hit .279 with 184 home runs, 521 RBIs and a .388 on-base percentage in his career as a National. For his career, Harper has hit .268 with a .365 on-base percentage and 14 home runs in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, the most he’s hit in any road ballpark.
Harper is one of two new outfielders for the Phillies. Andrew McCutchen, a former NL MVP with the Pirates, is the new left fielder and Odúbel Herrera (.255-22-71) plays center. With McCutchen in left, the Phillies move Rhys Hoskins (.246-34-96) from left to first base, improving their defense. McCutchen, who will bat leadoff, was 26 when he won the NL MVP for the Pirates in 2013. Last year, he hit a combined .255 with 20 home runs for the Giants and Yankees.
The new shortstop is Jean Segura, who is a two-time All-Star and hit .304 last season. Segura is considered one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Hoskins, who hit 34 home runs last season, moves to first base, his best defensive position. The new catcher is former Marlin J.T. Realmuto, a strong defensive catcher and NL All-Star who hit 21 home runs with an .825 OPS last season.
The bullpen added right-hander David Robertson, who had 91 strikeouts and 26 walks in 61 innings last season for the Yankees. Robertson also has experience as a closer, with 110 saves combined for the Yankees and White Sox from 2014-2016. Lefties hit .176 against Robertson last season. Kapler says Robertson, Seranthony Domínguez and Héctor Neris will each get chances to save games.
The rotation is the Phillies’ biggest question. Right-hander Aaron Nola, who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting, leads the rotation, but Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez each had ERAs higher than 5.00 after the All-Star break, a reason why the Phillies fell from contention and finished 80-82. Arrieta, 33, had a 6.40 ERA in September, but he says a knee injury affected his pitching. He says he’s healthy this spring.
WASHINGTON: The Nationals were under-achievers last season and didn’t make the postseason, going 82-80. Under-achieving, especially in the postseason, is a trademark for the Nationals, who have lost in the division series four times since moving to D.C., to the Cardinals, Giants, Cubs and Dodgers. Manager Davey Martinez, in the second year of a three-year contract, has plenty to prove, given that he replaced Dusty Baker.
Victor Robles - he’ll be 21 in May - a five-tool guy considered one of the best prospects in baseball, is the new center fielder, essentially replacing the departed Bryce Harper. Robles hit .288 in 21 games for the Nationals last season after hitting .278 with 14 steals at Triple-A Syracuse. The Nationals are expecting Robles to be as consistent as 20-year-old left fielder Juan Soto was last season when he hit .292 with 22 home runs. The right-fielder is Adam Eaton, who is coming off two seasons of injuries for the Nationals since arriving in a trade from the White Sox. Eaton has a career .394 on-base percentage. He’s capable of double-figure steals and triples assuming health.
Anthony Rendon, who hit .308 with 24 home runs and 92 RBI, is in his free-agent year. Negotiations for a contract extension are ongoing, so will that affect Rendon?
The rotation is led by right-handers Max Scherzer, 34, and Stephen Strasburg. The new guys in the rotation are left-hander Patrick Corbin, who signed a $140 million contract for six years, and righty Aníbal Sánchez. Corbin had a breakout season last season with 11 wins, 200 innings and a 3.15 ERA for Arizona. In two consecutive seasons before that, however, he gave up more hits than innings pitched. If Sanchez pitches as well for the Nationals as he has against them in his career - 2.08 ERA in 26 games (25 starts) - he’s going to be fine. Sanchez struggled in Detroit in 2016 and 2017 with ERAs of 5.87 and 6.41 before turning his career around with Atlanta last season. He had a 2.83 ERA with a career-low 1.08 WHIP in 136 2/3 innings for the Braves.
Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who made 19 starts last season and was always lifted for a reliever before he could pitch a third time through the opposing order, is the fifth starter, but will pitch out of the bullpen until a No. 5 starter is needed for the rotation in mid-April.
The three new relievers in the bullpen are righties Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough and lefty specialist Tony Sipp, an integral part of the Astros’ success over the last two years. Rosenthal, 28, was one of the top relievers in the game for the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015, but injuries slowed him in the next three seasons and he missed 2018 while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Barraclough pitched well in the first half of 2018 with the Marlins, but struggled with fastball command in the second. Lefty closer Sean Doolittle was slowed by injuries last season, but when healthy, he’s as steady as ever.
New second baseman Brian Dozier, who had an off year with the Twins and Dodgers while battling a knee injury, is capable of Gold Glove defense and 30 home runs. The new catchers, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, both hit right-handed and play excellent defense. Martinez expects to give each equal playing time.
As a leadoff batter, can shortstop Trea Turner, 25, steal 50 bases and hit 20 home runs? Only one shortstop in baseball history has hit .290 with 20 home runs and 50 steals: Hanley Ramirez in 2007. Turner led the NL with 43 stolen bases last season and finished tied for the MLB lead with eight bunt hits. Martinez says Turner has the potential for 25 home runs and 75 steals.
First baseman Ryan Zimmerman is in the final year of his contract and, as usual, health is an issue. Injuries limited him to 85 games last season. Matt Adams, a left-handed batter, is the backup.