5 biggest early-season surprises in NL East

April 29th, 2021

Though each of the National League East’s teams have gotten off to a slow start, the division still could end up being the game’s most talented and exciting.

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. is the early favorite to win the NL MVP Award and Mets ace Jacob deGrom remains the world’s greatest pitcher. As for the Phillies, they are enjoying the tremendous talents of both Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler.

The Marlins’ talented pitching staff has been enriched by the rise of Trevor Rogers, and Juan Soto will continue to being one of the game’s best hitters once the Nationals activate him from the injured list.

Now that we’ve pointed out how much high-quality talent is littered throughout the NL East, here are some of the division’s most significant early-season surprises:

BRAVES: Marcell Ozuna

Once the Braves re-signed Ozuna in February, there was hope the offense would once again be as explosive and exciting as it was last year. But as April nears its end, Atlanta’s offense has primarily been limited to Acuña’s production and some occasional Freddie Freeman home runs.

With Acuña, Freeman and Ozuna, the Braves fill their top three lineup spots with three legit MVP hopefuls.

Acuña has been fantastic and Freeman has been marred by some bad luck. So while they appear to be just fine, Ozuna has been one of the game’s least productive players. Making his slow start more concerning is that his barrel rate and hard-hit rate are significantly lower than they were when he hit an NL-best 18 homers last year.

When Ozuna has had slow starts in the past, like in 2015 and ’16, he has struggled to ever get going in those seasons. When he hit a career-best 37 homers in '17, he entered May with a strong .891 OPS.

So as Ozuna goes through the first year of his four-year, $65 million deal, he’ll be attempting to prove this latest start is not once again sign of what’s to come over the final five months. -- Mark Bowman

MARLINS: Trevor Rogers

Entering 2021, NL Rookie of the Year hype surrounded Miami's top prospect, Sixto Sánchez. Maybe we should've listened to manager Don Mattingly, who repeatedly praised Rogers during Spring Training.

After battling for a rotation spot in camp, Rogers has posted the fourth-lowest ERA (1.29) and the most strikeouts per nine innings (12.2) among southpaws. The 23-year-old has beaten aces deGrom and Corbin Burnes in head-to-head meetings, proving to be a reliable arm alongside righties Sandy Alcantara and Pablo López on the starting staff.

Even with Elieser Hernandez and Sánchez sidelined due to injuries, Miami's rotation has recorded a 3.32 ERA -- seventh in MLB -- entering Wednesday. It has kept the club in nearly every ballgame, something the organization was hoping for in its quest to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

"He just kind of keeps rolling," Mattingly said after Rogers turned in his second straight scoreless start Monday against the Brewers. "There's not a whole lot more to say. Just kind of continues on that same path. Talked about him a lot all spring; [how he was] not necessarily on a mission, but just the growth into Spring Training, physically, his maturity, his work." -- Christina De Nicola

Mets: Offensive struggles

Entering the season, the Mets seemed primed to feature one of the NL's best offenses, with Francisco Lindor joining Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith, Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso and others.

But the Mets instead ranked last in the NL in runs per game over their first 18 contests, in large part because they were also dead last in batting average with runners in scoring position. It’s the same problem that dogged the Mets last season, when they led the Majors in hitting overall (.272 BA), but fell to 22nd in the rankings with men on second or third (.245 BA).

There is no singular culprit, even as Lindor has absorbed much of the ire from his new fan base -- denizens of Citi Field booed him during the Mets’ most recent homestand. With the exceptions of Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and J.D. Davis, every Met has slumped in April.

So far, the team’s starting pitching has kept it afloat in the NL East, but the Mets know they’ll need their lineup to make good on its potential if they still have designs on winning the division. -- Anthony DiComo

NATIONALS: Extent of injuries

The Nationals overhauled their roster for depth, but they quickly found themselves shorthanded -- and their season opener postponed -- because of positive COVID-19 tests.

Alex Avila, Yan Gomes, Josh Bell, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Kyle Schwarber, Patrick Corbin, Brad Hand and Jon Lester began the year on the IL due to COVID-19 protocols. Lester is still building up to his season debut. Another veteran who has yet to play this season is Will Harris, who is recovering from right hand inflammation.

And the injuries began to pile up into the early weeks of the season. Stephen Strasburg, who was eyeing a healthy 2021 after being limited to five innings last year, was placed on the IL with right shoulder inflammation on April 18. He’s not the only star player sidelined, either.

Soto has been on the IL since April 20 due to a left shoulder strain. In the bullpen, Wander Suero is on the IL rehabbing from a left oblique strain, and Luis Avilán is planning to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a tear in his UCL.

The Nats have been getting contributions from players from the alternate training site, like Yadiel Hernandez and Paolo Espino, and finagling the lineups looking to find a pop. They are optimistic that once they are at fully healthy, they can perform up to their potential. -- Jessica Camerato

PHILLIES: The offense

The Phillies had one of the best offenses in baseball last season, but they have not looked the same in 2021. Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins having been getting the job done in the middle of the lineup. Everywhere else? Not so much.

The two most notable problem spots are left field and center field. Andrew McCutchen’s slow start in the leadoff spot put the 2013 NL MVP on the bench for two consecutive games this week. Philadelphia's center fielders have been the worst in baseball. After opening the season with Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley in center, the Phillies shifted last week to Mickey Moniak. They then shifted this week to Odúbel Herrera.

The Phils need shortstop Didi Gregorius and third baseman Alec Bohm to get going. They also need second baseman Jean Segura to return from the IL.

The team believes there is too much talent here to continue to hit like this. The Phillies just hope the turnaround happens soon. -- Todd Zolecki