Five NL East players with something to prove

August 22nd, 2019

Each of the four National League East teams still in the thick of the postseason race are hopeful to benefit from this year’s version of Chris Taylor or Corey Knebel.

After exiting last August hitting .243 and a .745 OPS, Taylor proceeded to hit .345 with a 1.019 OPS over the remainder of the regular season. His September resurgence helped the Dodgers win the NL West in Game 163 and avoid a Wild Card Game en route to their second straight World Series appearance.

When the Brewers optioned Knebel on Aug. 23, 2018, he had a 5.08 ERA and had allowed 13 earned runs over 15 innings since the All-Star break. A new man returned a little more than a week later. The right-handed reliever 33 of the 57 batters he faced while not allowing a run over 16 1/3 innings in September. He extended his dominance into October and pushed Milwaukee within a win of the World Series.

Here’s a look at one player from each NL East team that has something to prove over the remainder of this season:

Braves: Dansby Swanson, SS

Swanson was in the midst of the best season of his young career before he suffered a right heel bruise that has sidelined him for more than a month. Thoughts of a 30-homer season have evaporated. But when the shortstop returns near the end of this month, or when rosters expand in September, he could certainly add some valuable length to what has become an injury-depleted lineup. The former first overall pick tallied a career-high 17 homers and constructed a .798 OPS over the 100 games he played before being injured on July 23. His absence forced the Braves to sign the sure-handed Adeiny Hechavarria. But with uncertainty surrounding the returns of Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis and Brian McCann, the Braves need Swanson to resume his role as the everyday shortstop and finish this season in the same encouraging fashion in which he started it.

Marlins: Adam Conley, LHP

Conley entered the season targeted as a potential closer, but that role never came to fruition. Left-handed hitters have batted .360 against the southpaw and right-handed hitters have homered once every 14.4 at-bats against him. He has increased usage of a four-seamer that has been less effective and the changeup that limited opponents to a .175 batting average in 2018 has surrendered a .383 average and .745 slugging percentage this year. Conley is making just $1.13 million during his first year of arbitration, but he may need a strong finish to avoid becoming a non-tender candidate.

Mets: Edwin Diaz, RHP

As Diaz has produced a 5.32 ERA through 52 appearances, he has surrendered seven home runs against a four-seam fastball that limited opponents to a .250 slugging percentage last year. The slider that produced a 53.8 percent whiff rate in 2018 has induced a 38 percent swing-and-miss rate this year. Diaz has been far from the same guy who constructed a 1.96 ERA for the Mariners last year and then became the most sought after reliever on the offseason trade market. Even with Diaz posting a 4.85 ERA and allowing opponents to produce a .856 OPS since the All-Star break, the Mets have still produced the NL’s third-best bullpen ERA within this span. A strong final month by the previously heralded closer could be enough to earn New York a postseason berth.

Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, 1B

Two separate bouts with plantar fasciitis have limited Zimmerman to 33 games, but the veteran first baseman recently started a rehab assignment and could be a key contributor down the stretch. He’s produced a .700 OPS in 132 plate appearances thus far, but the .908 OPS he has constructed in 32 plate appearances against left-handers suggests he could provide value off the bench and form a strong first-base platoon with Matt Adams. Zimmerman is the most beloved player in Nationals’ history. His $18 million option for the 2020 season likely won’t be exercised, but a strong finish would give him some leverage when both parties attempt to extend their partnership past this season.

Phillies: Zach Eflin, RHP

Eflin's season started so well that there was talk he could make the National League All-Star team, based on his 2.83 ERA through 14 starts. But then the bottom dropped out. He posted a 10.46 ERA in his next six starts, saying he felt fatigued in two of them. He lost his job. But after just four relief appearances, Eflin is back in the rotation with Jake Arrieta scheduled to have season-ending elbow surgery this month. Eflin struggled in his first start back Saturday, but if he can come anything close to the pitcher he was earlier this season it would be a godsend to a team desperate for competent starting pitching.