One of Major League Baseball’s most intriguing divisions heading into Spring Training hasn’t quite unfolded as many foresaw, save for one truth: It remains anyone’s to win entering the midsummer months. While the Phillies and Braves jockey for space atop the division, the Mets and Nationals are doing all they can to hold on to relevance.
The next six weeks should decide plenty in the National League East, as teams determine their Trade Deadline strategy. Here’s a look at what each club must decide prior to July 31:
The question: How aggressive are they willing to be in their pursuit of bullpen help?
Signing Dallas Keuchel to fill out the rotation was certainly aggressive, but it cost the Braves nothing more than money. The lineup is fine the way it is, leaving the bullpen as Atlanta’s clear area of need. So how far are the Braves willing to go?
Some big-ticket relievers should be available at the Trade Deadline, including San Francisco’s Will Smith, Arizona’s Greg Holland and perhaps even Cleveland’s Brad Hand -- one of the prizes of last year’s Deadline. None would come cheap, but the Braves, who boast six of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects, have the type of capital needed to swing a big deal. The question is how much of it they’re willing to part with for a relief rental, especially after declining a chance to re-sign Craig Kimbrel earlier this month.
The question: Who might they sell?
There are only a few clear sellers at the Deadline, and the Marlins are one of them. The question is not who’s available so much as who might realistically draw interest. The Marlins would love to shed Starlin Castro and the remainder of his $11.9 million salary, for example, but don’t figure to have many trade partners clamoring for an infielder with a sub-.600 OPS. Starter José Ureña seems more likely -- everybody needs pitching -- and closer Sergio Romo may be likeliest of all. He’s blown just one save all year.
The question: Are they buyers or sellers?
For as many times as they’ve approached .500 in May and June, the Mets have only rarely eclipsed the mark -- and never for long. While they remain within striking distance of the Braves and Phillies, they’ve shown little indication that they can play better than those two for an extended period of time.
New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen already mortgaged a chunk of the future with his offseason deal for Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz. Can he afford to part with more young talent in a Deadline deal to improve the roster, with no guarantees that it will be enough to make the playoffs? Will the Mets instead reverse course and start rebuilding, selling off star pitchers like Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler? Or will they (most likely) take the middle road, keeping their roster intact but declining to upgrade it in a significant way? The Mets are a rare team that can go in any direction.
The question: Are they buyers or sellers? (Does this sound familiar?)
The Nats weren’t shy last summer in trading Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams once they fell out of realistic playoff contention. It’s not outlandish to think they could follow a similar blueprint next month, given that they’ve spent most of this season sitting well under .500. If they do, imagine the haul they could receive for impending free agent Anthony Rendon.
Yet the Nats have also played better of late. They own the starting pitching to sustain a playoff push and, realistically, are one decent streak away from rising back near the top of the division. Establishing themselves as buyers may be more logical, given how much inventory is available to fix their clearest area of need. The Nats’ bullpen has ranked last in baseball in ERA pretty much wire to wire this season. Improving that unit could give Washington the ammunition it needs to make a late run up the standings.
The question: What’s a bigger priority, the rotation or the bullpen?
More than the Braves and certainly the Nationals, the Phillies have a chance to address their greatest weakness internally. Edubray Ramos just returned from the injured list. Pat Neshek and Adam Morgan could soon follow, with Tommy Hunter and David Robertson on the Phillies’ longer-term radar. That’s almost a full bullpen back from the IL to save the day.
If the Phillies like what they see from those five, they’ll be more likely to shift their Deadline focus to the rotation. While Nick Pivetta has pitched well since returning from Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Jerad Eickhoff recently lost his rotation spot despite a lack of obvious candidates to replace him. The Phillies passed on signing Keuchel, but could soon turn their attention to those starters who might be available for prospects: San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, Toronto’s Marcus Stroman and Texas’ Mike Minor, to name three.