NL East preview: Nats boast pitching prowess to take division crown from Braves

Projected finish: Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Mets, Marlins

The Braves are taking aim at winning their third consecutive National League East title. And if they make it to October, the goal is to redirect their losing postseason history.

Since 2002, the Braves have been to the postseason nine times without advancing beyond their first series or game. They’ve lost in one wild card game and eight NL Division Series. In a sense, they are reliving their 1990s, when the Braves won 14 consecutive division titles but only one World Series.

Their best hitter, Freddie Freeman, a four-time All-Star and yearly NL MVP candidate (.930 OPS), has returned after sitting out the first three weeks of summer camp with the coronavirus.

Outfielder Nick Markakis and pitcher Félix Hernández each decided not to play for coronavirus reasons. And third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 37 home runs in 2019, is now with the Twins.

But the Braves still have Ronald Acuña Jr., who hit 41 home runs with 37 stolen bases last season, and Ozzie Albies (.852 OPS), and they’ve added Marcell Ozuna (29 home runs with St. Louis) in the offseason. The Braves had a deal with free agent Yasiel Puig, but it fell through after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

The outfield mix has Acuña, Ozuna, Adam Duvall and Ender Inciarte. Austin Riley can also play left field, but he’s going to get most of his playing time at third base.

“The guys that we have can do damage,’’ Inciarte told reporters during a Zoom interview. “We can score runs. We can play defense. We’ve just got to focus.’‘

The bullpen is deep and the rotation formidable. The top of the rotation is led by Mike Soroka, 22, who finished in the top six among NL Cy Young contenders last season with a 2.68 ERA while holding opponents to a .628 OPS and a .236 average. He also pitched seven one-run innings against St. Louis in the postseason.

Atlanta also has Max Fried, who had 17 wins last season and a 4.62 ERA, along with Cole Hamels and Mike Foltynewicz. Hamels, 36, had a 3.81 ERA in 27 starts for the Cubs last season and is battling triceps tendinitis and will start the season on the injured list. Foltynewicz, an All-Star in 2018, wound up with a demotion to the minors last season.

The Braves say they will limit their starts to between two and four innings the first couple of times through the rotation.

The Nationals, who in 2019 brought a World Series championship celebration to D.C. for the first time since 1924, have a different look this season.

Prospect Carter Kieboom, a .303 hitter at Triple-A Fresno last season, and Asdrúbal Cabrera will switch off playing third as the Nationals try to replace Anthony Rendon (1.010 OPS), who signed with the Angels. Starlin Castro, who hit .270 with 22 home runs for Miami last season, is the new second baseman and the new first baseman is Eric Thames, who hit 25 home runs for Milwaukee.

Thames and Ryan Zimmerman were scheduled to platoon at first base, but Zimmerman isn’t playing because of coronavirus concerns, the first time in 15 years Zimmerman hasn’t been on the team. It’ll be a weird experience for Nationals fans.

Washington’s rotation is the best in the NL East with World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg (3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP), Max Scherzer (2.92 ERA, 1.03 WHIP), lefty Patrick Corbin (3.28 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) and Aníbal Sánchez (3.85 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) in the top four spots.

The Mets, who were 46-26 in the second half of last season when they won 86 games and challenged for a wild card berth, have a new manager, Luis Rojas, who replaced their first new manager, Carlos Beltran, who was let go after he was implicated as a coach in the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing saga.

Rojas doesn’t have big league experience, but he does have minor league managing experience that will help him with MLB’s experimental rule that will be tried this season. The rule puts a runner at second base to start each half-inning when if a game goes into extras.

The rule was in place for two seasons when Rojas managed in the minors. With a runner started at second, does a manager intentionally walk the leadoff batter to set up a double play? Does your leadoff hitter bunt the runner to third?

The Mets will return Yeonis Céspedes, who has battled injuries and hasn’t played since July 20, 2018. He’ll join a lineup that has Pete Alonso, the NL’s top rookie last year after hitting 53 home runs.

The Mets’ new-look rotation will be without two studs, Noah Syndergaard, sidelined with Tommy John elbow surgery, and Zack Wheeler, who signed with Philadelphia. The two new rotation members are Rick Porcello (14-12, 5.52 ERA with Boston) and Michael Wacha (6-7, 4.76 ERA with St. Louis).

Ace pitcher Jacob deGrom will likely make 10-12 starts this season and will have a chance to win his third consecutive NL Cy Young. If so, he’ll be the first pitcher to do so since Arizona’s Randy Johnson won a fourth consecutive in 2002. deGrom has had WHIPs of 0.91 and 0.97 in each of his last two seasons.

The Phillies have been going downhill ever since their appearances in two consecutive World Series in 2008, when they beat Tampa Bay, and 2009, when they lost to the Yankees and manager Joe Girardi, who happens to be the new boss of the Phillies this season. (At a time when teams are hiring managers that have never managed in the big leagues, the Philllies replaced the inexperience of Gabe Kapler with the experience of Girardi.)

The Phillies lost in the NL Championship Series in 2010 and then the NL Division Series in 2011. Since then, they’ve watched the October postseason on TV.

The Phillies were 81-81 and finished fourth last season and added two key players, Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius.

They have power hitters in the middle of the order in Bryce Harper (.260, 35 home runs), Rhys Hoskins (.226, 29 home runs) and J.T. Realmuto (.275, 25 home runs). Gregorius will fit in after averaging 24 home runs a season from 2016-18.

Philadelphia’s lineup would be better if leadoff batter Andrew McCutchen can rebound from the knee injury that ended his 2019 season after two months. He had a .378 on-base percentage in 59 games before his injury.

Aaron Nola, who was 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA last season, is at the top of the rotation and Wheeler, who had ERAs of 3.31 and 3.96 in his last two seasons with the Mets, is an excellent addition. But, how good will Jake Arrieta (4.64 ERA) be in the No. 3 slot? And, No. 4 is Zach Eflin, who was at 4.13 last season.

In Miami, the Marlins lost 105 games last season and drew only 811,000 fans. Given the division’s strength, they are bound for a last-place finish again this season. They haven’t been to the postseason since 2003, but do have some young pitching prospects that will be fun to watch.

Sandy Alcantara (3.88 ERA in 2019) leads the rotation. Jordan Yamamoto (4.46 ERA) is coming off a solid rookie season and Caleb Smith (4.52 ERA) is another on-the-rise pitcher.

The Marlins, managed by Don Mattingly, will be trying to win their first opening day game since 2014.