Who will win the National League East? A compelling argument can be made for all five teams. We gathered a group of MLB.com experts to discuss.
Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): For these division round tables, we’re including only reporters who cover contending teams -- and for this one, all five of you are here! There’s a legitimate argument to be made for each club. General question to get us started: Whose division is this to lose? Braves? Mets?
Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo, Mets beat reporter): I understand the projection systems that say the Mets have improved enough to make it their division. And the Mets certainly have the team in place to win it. But ... well, call me old-fashioned, but the Braves have won this thing three years in a row and haven't gotten any worse. It's theirs until proven otherwise.
Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman, Braves beat reporter): While the Braves and Mets will be considered the favorites, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Phillies or Nationals contend. Both teams are strong at the top of their rotation. The question is whether they have the pitching depth necessary to survive what will be a very taxing season.
Christina De Nicola (@CDeNicola13, Marlins beat reporter): I agree. How the pitching staffs handle the workload of a 162-game season will be quite the factor in 2021 after such an unconventional '20.
Jessica Camerato (@JessicaCamerato, Nationals beat reporter): To your point about pitching depth, Mark, playing a full season after a shortened one could impact some players. Health plays a huge role, as does players getting hot. The NL East has some power bats, and a hitting streak or two could change how the standings look.
DiComo: We have certainly come a long way from the Mets' last division title in 2015, when they pummeled the dregs of the National League. Three teams in the NL East lost 90-plus games that year. Ain't gonna happen in '21.
Bowman: Entering last season, I was thinking a healthy Andrew McCutchen would make the Phillies serious contenders. But we were reminded once again of just how bad they are defensively. Their inability to address their defensive limitations will likely be their downfall for a third straight season. Of course, I'm saying this as the Braves attempt to defend a division with Marcell Ozuna as an everyday left fielder. Every one of these teams would benefit from the DH.
Footer: I think we can all agree the Mets might be the most interesting team, only because every year they seem to have enough talent to contend, and every year, they go home when October arrives. This year it feels different -- what’s the most impactful change? Adding Francisco Lindor? Carlos Carrasco? Owner Steve Cohen?
DiComo: Oh, it's Steve Cohen, the source of everything new and exciting in Flushing. Under Cohen, the Mets have turned over a third of their roster and added tens of millions to their payroll. They made four trades this winter (and could still make more), and signed more guys to Major League deals than they have in a decade and a half. They're going to be contenders this year, but more to the point, because of Cohen, they're going to be in the mix every year going forward. (Yes, Mets fans, every year. I promise you that's not a jinx.)
Zolecki: I think it's Steve Cohen, and not just because he has deep pockets. He represents change. If the Mets need a piece or two in July, I think Mets fans should be confident that they will try to make it happen.
Bowman: You've got to love how aggressive the Mets have been. James McCann makes them better behind the plate, and the addition of Carrasco will aid a rotation that will be quite strong if Noah Syndergaard can be patient enough to allow himself to get healthy. Obviously much of the focus will be on Lindor. From a defensive perspective, Lindor might be a better shortstop. But New York received good value from both Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario at shortstop last year. The key will be Lindor's attempt to reverse the offensive slide he experienced over the past couple seasons.
Whether it works this year, the fact the Mets have an owner who is willing to spend and capable of doing so like Cohen should be a concern to every other NL East club.
Footer: The Braves seem to be in the best position to last over a 162-game season. They’re getting key pieces back to their rotation and they have a loaded lineup. Are they better than last year?
DiComo: The Braves are a fantastic team. Their biggest problem is that the division has gotten significantly better around them. Their offense is great. But I'm actually super bullish on the Braves because of their rotation, which never seems to get mentioned among the best in the game. A (potentially) healthy Mike Soroka, plus Ian Anderson, Max Fried ... Charlie Morton as the No. 4? That's pretty damn good.
Camerato: The amount of young talent on the Braves is fascinating to watch. If even a few of those players take big steps this season, it's intriguing to think about their potential.
De Nicola: I would say so. Adding veterans Morton and Drew Smyly to the rotation certainly helps. The experience their young arms got in the postseason does, too. It'll be interesting to see how Soroka looks in his return to the mound, and whether Fried and Anderson can pick up where they left off. The lineup is so dangerous -- regardless of the length of the season.
Zolecki: I really like the Morton and Smyly signings. If they shore up the rotation as expected, they are going to be very difficult to beat. Soroka, Fried and Anderson are fun to watch.
DiComo: I also give the Braves a lot of credit for succeeding in 2020 at what every team tries to do and most fail to accomplish: fix the bullpen. The Braves invested in it and turned one of the game's worst bullpens into one of baseball's best. Kudos to them.
Camerato: All this being said without even mentioning Freddie Freeman.
DiComo: Oh, right, the most understated MVP in National League history. Him, too.
Bowman: There's certainly potential for the Braves to be better as they add Morton to their talented young rotation. But there are legit questions about Soroka's attempt to return from a torn Achilles and Fried's attempt to build on last year's successful season. Anderson performed well after debuting last year and should benefit from the success he had in the postseason.
The Braves overspent for Smyly. But general manager Alex Anthopoulos was right when he gambled on Travis d'Arnaud last year. If last year's velo increase aids Smyly over the course of an entire season, then, yeah, this team could be better than last year's, which had just one reliable starter through much of the regular season.
The key to the Braves' offense might once again be Dansby Swanson. Pairing Ronald Acuña Jr., Freeman and Ozuna will once again make the top of the Braves' lineup as strong as any in the game. Swanson made some strides offensively last year. His ability to extend that success will be vital as Atlanta attempts to prove its lineup includes both power and quality depth.
Footer: I have to laugh a little at how difficult it was to pick a proper narrative from 2020 -- on one hand, the Nats' record was terrible, but so was their record over the first 60 games in 2019, and they won the World Series. On the other hand, the Marlins exceeded all expectations in ’20, and I’m all ready to jump on the “They're here, baby!” bandwagon. Is that what adds to the intrigue of ’21 -- the inability to figure out what the heck to make of 2020?
De Nicola: One hundred percent. As I previously alluded to, a big question mark for the Marlins will be monitoring the innings for their young starters. The projected five of Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, Elieser Hernandez, Sixto Sánchez and Trevor Rogers are all 25 or younger. There is plenty of talent and promise among that quintet -- and even more prospects on the way -- but they don't have many innings under their belts. How will they fare over 162?
DiComo: I think the Marlins take a step back over a full season, only because it's tough to get bulk innings and consistency out of such a young rotation over 162 games. But they are talented, and no one will be running over these Marlins in 2021. The Nationals, I don't know what to make of them, so I'll just put it simply: If they get 500-plus innings out of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, they'll be right there at the top of the division. If not, they're going to struggle.
Bowman: I could see Sánchez and López both taking steps forward this year. We might see Alcantara take a slight step back. But that is a very talented staff. Freeman has spent the past couple of years talking about how many good young arms Miami possesses. But, as Christina said, the question is how will these guys handle pitching over the course of an entire season.
Zolecki: I think the Marlins drop back this season, but I'm not saying anything too crazy because I don't want anything I say here to appear on a T-shirt, like when the Phillies' postgame analyst called them "bottom feeders" on Opening Day and they used it as motivation the rest of the season.
Camerato: When you think about the celebrations and lure that goes along with defending a World Series title, you certainly don't think of what the 2020 season looked like. The Nats went from winning it all to missing the playoffs in a year that included significant injuries, including the season-ending injury of Strasburg.
Even though their roster is now without many members of the 2019 title team, they are approaching '21 as another chance to contend after adding Jon Lester to the starting rotation and adding both a corner infielder and starting first baseman. So much relies on pitching, and if their veteran arms can give them the innings they need, they should have a turnaround season.
Camerato: Will the Acuña-Soto debate ever get old? I say no.
Bowman: The Acuña-Soto debate will be a fun one for many years to come. We also will now have the Cristian Pache-Victor Robles debate. Robles became the game's top defensive outfielder during the 2019 season. Though Pache's experience is primarily limited to last year's postseason, there's already reason to believe he could soon be considered the game's best defensive outfielder.
DiComo: I also wonder about the Marlins' offense. It seems a cut below the others in the division, after Miami finished 21st in MLB in runs per game last season. Where's the run production going to come from?
De Nicola: The Marlins haven't made splashy moves this offseason like the other NL East clubs. They have some veteran bats in the lineup to complement the young pitching. In my opinion, it's a good way to give their position-player prospects more time to develop after a lost year in 2020. I expect the organization to be more active next offseason in preparation of Year 5 under Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter ownership.
Much like the Rays, I think the Marlins will need to rely on their pitching keeping them in games and get just enough offense. If the Adam Duvall move is made official, you've got an outfield group of Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Adam Duvall. That bides more time for outfield prospects JJ Bleday, Monte Harrison and Jesús Sánchez.
Footer: Every division has that one non-powerhouse team that people predict should be "pretty good this year" and then are never good that year. The Phillies always seem to have the personnel, but lack execution. Instead of rehashing everything that has gone wrong for them, how about we frame the question this way -- what will be different this year that may lead to an improved record? PECOTA has them finishing third.
DiComo: I've said it a million times: bad defense and bad bullpens make a team less than the sum of its parts. The Phillies have fallen victim to that too many times to recall. How many errors and baserunning mistakes have we seen over the last decade? Until the Phillies clean that stuff up, they're not going to get the most out of what has historically been a talented roster.
Zolecki: I would bet a lot of money their bullpen is significantly better because there is almost no way it doubles up on a 7.06 ERA! Even if they have, say, the 25th ranked bullpen in baseball, they should win a few more games here and there. And a few more games here and there should put them into some sort of contention in September.
No question the defense needs to be better. But I'm not sure how they do that because everybody from last season is returning.
DiComo: I always wonder whether Bryce Harper has another MVP-caliber season in him, or if he simply is what he is now: an extremely good but not franchise-changing player.
Bowman: Yeah, it's easy to see how good the Phillies could be offensively. But as you get excited about Alec Bohm's bat, you are reminded he is actually capable of weakening what has been a horrible defense over the past couple of seasons. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler head a staff that may have the quality depth necessary to survive this year. But until they make some changes defensively, it's hard to be optimistic about the Phillies' pitching staff.
Footer: Wrapping this up ... let's predict the final standings, 1-5. Go!
DiComo: 1. Braves 2. Mets 3. Nationals 4. Phillies 5. Marlins. (Sorry, PECOTA.)
Bowman: 1. Braves 2. Mets 3. Nationals 4. Phillies 5. Marlins
Zolecki: 1. Braves 2. Mets 3. Nationals 4. Phillies 5. Marlins
De Nicola: I'll be bold and go with: 1. Braves 2. Nationals 3. Mets 4. Marlins 5. Phillies
Camerato: I'll go with big seasons from Scherzer and Soto here: 1. Braves 2. Nationals 3. Mets 4. Phillies 5. Marlins
DiComo: I can't believe nobody picked the Mets. I'm going to get a lot of angry tweets for this.
Bowman: That's why we did it.
Footer: A few months ago several of us gathered in this forum and decided, with fervor, that J.T. Realmuto was signing with the Mets. So maybe Mets fans should thank us for not picking them?