At the start of the year, if you were ranking the six MLB divisions from most to least compelling, well, let's just say the National League East would not have been at the top of the list. The Nationals, it appeared, were too good, while the Mets were too injury prone, the Phillies and Braves were too young, and the Marlins were too trade-ravaged to be anything other than witnesses to Washington's excellence.
It's early, yes, but some surprises have emerged for all of these clubs to help make the NL East perhaps more compelling than advertised. Here, we're going to stick to the pleasant surprises (one for each club), if only to demonstrate that -- whether it's a team bound for first or last -- there's some good stuff happening in the early going.
Mets: Seth Lugo
Well, we've got to start with the NL East's surprise stalwarts. Because even if you thought a (finally) healthy Mets club would have a strong showing, they've likely managed to exceed your early expectations.
It should probably come as no surprise that a rotation made up of able-bodied Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz is reaping positive results. But what's been stunning in the early going is how well some former members of this rotation -- guys who once stepped up when others went down with injury -- have transitioned to the 'pen. Lugo and Robert Gsellman have both seen their raw stuff play up in the relief role. Lugo has been especially impressive, with seven strikeouts and just three walks and two hits allowed in six scoreless innings. His elite spin rate has translated well, and he's proved to be a tough in-game adjustment for opponents.
Rookie skipper Mickey Callaway's progressive management of Lugo and Gsellman has built a better bridge to closer Jeurys Familia, who so far (no runs and six saves in eight innings) has had every bit the bounce-back year the club has hoped he'd have. For the Mets, not the Yankees, to have the best bullpen in the Big Apple early on definitely qualifies as a surprise.
Braves: Ryan Flaherty
If you were bullish on the Braves taking some strides in the standing this season, it's likely because you (rightly) believe Freddie Freeman is one of the most underrated offensive forces in the game, that Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson are going to make for a majestic middle of the infield, and that Ronald Acuna Jr. is going to make an instant impact. What I sincerely doubt is that the impact of Flaherty figured prominently into your thinking.
But here were are a couple weeks into 2018, and while very much subject to change, Flaherty has surprisingly lengthened an Atlanta lineup that -- until running into Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg this week -- was leading the Majors in runs. For the 31-year-old utility man Flaherty -- who was the owner of a career .639 OPS prior to 2018 -- to post a .333/.442/.444 slash line in his first 11 games with the club was especially unexpected. He signed with Atlanta on the last day of Spring Training, only to post one of the best OBP marks in baseball in the early going.
Outfielder Preston Tucker -- the placeholder until Acuna arrives -- has also been a pleasant surprise with a .286/.333/.514 slash line in his first 39 plate appearances.
Nationals: Brian Goodwin
It's been an uneven start for the NL East favorites, and the left ankle injury that has landed Adam Eaton back on the shelf after a scorching start is a bummer. But if nothing else, Eaton's absence gives us a longer look at 27-year-old Goodwin, who has made the most of his opportunities, to date.
Goodwin's early .400 on-base percentage and two steals thrust him into the leadoff role this week. It was a long climb to the big leagues for Goodwin, but he held his own as an injury fill-in in the outfield in the second half last season, and he's upped his offensive performance so far this season. The Nats did not plan or hope for him to have such an important role so soon this season, but he's eased some of the anxiety over Eaton's injury.
Phillies: Maikel Franco
Gabe Kapler's many pitching changes were the subject of the early national noise about the Phillies, but don't overlook how potent this lineup can become as Rhys Hoskins continues to prove his staying power, Scott Kingery lives up to his lofty billing as an impact piece, and Carlos Santana settles in with his new squad. The Phils are also getting good production out of Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez, but perhaps the biggest surprise is how much better the third baseman Franco looks with his new stance.
After consecutive seasons with an OPS+ below league average, it was deceptively easy to write Franco off, but he's only in his age-25 season, and a formula of more walks, fewer strikeouts and significantly more fly balls has added up to a .863 OPS in his first 35 trips to the plate.
Marlins: Brian Anderson
Because Lewis Brinson was a highly touted offseason trade acquisition, he was the Marlins rookie who garnered the most attention and anticipation at the start of the year. But it's actually been a homegrown product in Anderson who has been Miami's most rousing rookie so far. Through 12 games, Anderson has a .295/.436/.455 slash line with a homer and four doubles.
The 24-year-old former third-round pick was thrust into the starting role at third base after Martin Prado's spring injury setback, and Anderson has given early indications that the hot corner is his position to keep. Anderson profiled as a defensive asset at third because of his plus arm and his hands and range, but he's been the Marlins' biggest bat in the early going.