MLB 2020 Season Preview: NL East

Ronald Acuña Jr (Todd Kirkland | Getty Images)
  1. Atlanta Braves (Last Year: 97-66): 36-24

I was tempted to put the Braves lower after losing Josh Donaldson in Free Agency and Freddie Freeman’s struggle with COVID-19, but the Braves lineup still has a lot of talent and their bullpen is strong. Austin Riley and Johan Camargo can’t replace the production they got from Donaldson last year, but with Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson taking steps forward they shouldn’t have to. Despite Freeman almost dying from the virus, he returned to camp on Friday and may even be ready for opening day. Ronald Acuña is already a top ten player in baseball and might win the MVP this season. Add in Marcell Ozuna in the outfield and Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate and the Braves have one of the best offenses in the National League.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Runner up Mike Soroka is an ace in the making, and 26 year old left-hander Max Fried is a terrific number two. The rotation after that does not have a ton of depth (veteran signing Cole Hamels is currently on the injured list with a triceps issue), but I don’t think that matters in this shortened season. With only a 60 game sprint instead of a 162 game marathon and expanded rosters, teams will be more inclined to go to their bullpens quicker and have their frontline starters throw more often. Meanwhile, the Braves bullpen finished 10th in the majors in ERA last season after upgrading at the trade deadline, and have improved more during the offseason. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Luke Jackson and Chris Martin are all good to great bullpen arms, and newly acquired closer Will Smith may be ready for opening day despite his own bout with the novel coronavirus.

2. New York Mets (86-76): 34-26

This might be a homer pick but I think the Mets are better equipped to handle a shorter season than most teams in the league. The Mets’ lineup is really good (but if Robinson Cano bats third all season then disregard everything I’m about to say). Reigning Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso hit 53 home runs last year, Jeff McNeil was an All-Star with the ability to play 4 different positions, Brandon Nimmo was worth over 4 WAR in 2018 (he battled injuries last season) and Michael Conforto hit 33 home runs and is fully healthy after an oblique injury in the original Spring Training. No National League team will benefit more from the DH than the Mets, with players like JD Davis and Domonic Smith having strong offensive years in 2019 with no set position for either of them. And then there’s Yoenis Cespedes. He has not played in a MLB game in two years, but appears healthy and able to contribute down the stretch for this team. In 57 games for New York in 2015, Cespedes almost single handedly propelled the Mets to the playoffs, and any semblance of that production this year may do the same. 

For the first time in a while (maybe ever), I don’t know if the Mets pitching can keep up with their offense. Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball (not up for debate) and Marcus Stroman is electric and pitching for a contract. Stroman will start the season on the IL with a calf injury, and if that stint is extended it may doom New York. But after that, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello, and Michael Wacha are all question marks and there is little to no depth behind them. Similar to Atlanta, that lack of depth may not be a huge issue. The Mets’ bullpen was a huge question mark last season, with both Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia having career worst seasons. However, Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson emerged as really good weapons out of the pen and adding Dellin Betances in the offseason will strengthen the staff. Depth piece Drew Smith is back after having Tommy John surgery, and while Brad Brach and Jared Hughes are not currently in summer camp they should be able to provide depth as the season goes on. If one of Familia or Diaz bounce back this year, the Mets’ pen turns from a weakness to a strength.

3. Washington Nationals (93-69): 32-28

The current World Series Champions are difficult to project for this upcoming season. Offensively, they lost Anthony Rendon, who finished third in MVP voting last year, his 4th top 11 finish in the last 5 years. They’ll try to replace him with a combination of prospect Carter Kieboom and veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. Additionally, the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmermann, has opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over the coronavirus. He’ll be replaced by Eric Thames, who was worth about 1.5 WAR in Milwaukee last season. Meanwhile the Nationals still have Trea Turner and Adam Eaton setting the table at the top of their lineup, retained Howie Kendrick and signed Starlin Castro to DH and play second base, respectively. And they still have Juan Soto, who finished 9th in MVP voting last season at just 20 years old. He will be one of the best players in baseball for the next 10-15 years, much to my chagrin.

After re- signing World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg to a $245 million contract, the Nationals probably have the best top three of their rotation in baseball. Strasburg stayed with multiple time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and All-Star Patrick Corbin to form that trio. Annibal Sanchez is a very competent number four starter as well. There is not much depth after that, but unlike the Braves and the Mets, the Nationals bullpen is not a strength. After winning the World Series with just one trustworthy reliever (Sean Doolittle), the Nats added former Astro Will Harris and not much else. As a unit, the Nationals bullpen had a 5.68 ERA last season, and that will need to greatly improve in this 60 game sprint if the Nats want to repeat.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (81-81): 31-29

The National League East is one of the strongest divisions in baseball, especially offensively. After being very productive over just 59 games last season, Andrew McCutchen is healthy and primed for a solid season over the same span. Bryce Harper was quietly excellent last season, and JT Realmuto might be the best catcher in baseball. After moving on from Maikel Franco, the Phillies added Didi Gregorius to play short and are shifting Jean Segura back to third. Rhys Hoskins is a very good offensive first baseman and Scott Kingery is good enough to produce at second base. Jay Bruce has been very inconsistent over the last couple of years, and is slated to be the Phillies DH along with veteran infielder Neil Walker. Josh Harrison was also added for depth, although he has been a below average player over the last couple of seasons. Top prospect Alec Bohm could also see time on the infield and at DH as the season goes on.

The Phillies signed former Met Zack Wheeler for $118 million to be their number two pitcher after two seasons of a 3.65 ERA worth almost 8 WAR. He’ll slot in behind ace Aaron Nola, who finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting in 2018. Nola took a step back last year, but is still a top pitcher in the National League. Behind them, the Phils are counting on bounceback years from Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez. Prospect Spencer Howard will also factor into the rotation throughout the season. With a mid to high 90s fastball and three offspeed pitches that project to be average to above average, Howard could be a big part of this pitching staff for years to come. Last season, almost every member of the Phillies bullpen got hurt. That extends into this season, with David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez out for the season due to Tommy John surgery. The Phillies are counting on veterans like Hector Neris, Adam Morgan, and Jose Alvarez to have strong seasons, and other guys like Tommy Hunter to bounce back from injury or effectiveness issues. 

5. Miami Marlins (57-105): 20-40

I think the Marlins are better than this record prediction would indicate, the problem is they’re in a very good division. Third Basemen Brian Anderson finished 4th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, and followed that up with a 4 WAR season in 2019. Catcher Jose Alfaro and infielder Isan Diaz both showed a lot of promise in their first season with the club last year, and they both show potential going forward. They also added Jonathon Villar, Corey Dickerson, and Jesus Aguilar as veteran pieces to augment the young talent in their lineup. Waiting in the wings and possibly debuting this season are prospects Lewin Diaz and Jesus Sanchez, and their top prospect, shortstop Jazz Chisholm, is not too far behind. 

Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith, Jose Urena, and Pablo Lopez are all young competent starting pitchers who can give the Marlins average to above average seasons if they pitch up to their potential. Jordan Yamamoto and Elieser Hernandez also add depth behind them. Top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez throws 100 miles per hour and may debut this season, while Edward Cabrera, another top pitching prospect, is not too far behind, although he will likely not debut this year. They also added veteran pieces like Brandon Kintzler, Yimi Garcia, and Brad Boxberger to stabilize their bullpen. The Marlins are on the right track to compete in a few seasons, but this year will be a struggle for them.

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