5 big questions facing each NL East club
We come to you bearing excellent news. Even though it is still freezing outside, even though they are still playing football, the baseball season is close, closer than you think. It’s even time to start previewing divisions.
Previously: The American League West
Today, our biweekly series previewing each of baseball's six divisions continues with the National League East. Our previews will be extended games of 25 questions, in which we look at five pressing questions for each team heading into the 2020 season. At the end, we'll make some actual predictions on the final standings -- predictions that are unassailable and so obviously ironclad that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once we read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.
Let's take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions this season. Teams are listed in alphabetical order by city.
1. Who is playing third base?
Losing Josh Donaldson to the Twins was a difficult pill to swallow, but it was even harder when you consider how little the Braves have to replace him with. It looks like it will be a platoon between the free-swinging Austin Riley and the solid-but-unspectacular Johan Camargo. No offense to those guys, but that’s a steep drop. The Braves are constantly mentioned in Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant trade rumors, but if they don’t end up with either of those guys (and they’re of course highly unlikely to), their lineup is already considerably worse than it was last year.
2. Is Dansby Swanson a foundational player, or not?
In the first 38 games of his career in 2016, Swanson, famously the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, hit .302 and looked for all the world like a superstar player. He hasn’t come within 50 points of that since, and his best OBP has been a meager .325. He showed more power in '19, but his numbers overall were barely those of a reliable starter, let alone like a star. The good news is that he was terrific in the NL Division Series, so maybe he can carry that over. But Swanson turns 26 in two weeks, which is to say, he’s not all that particularly young anymore. Is it possible that this is simply all he is?
3. Is the bullpen going to be good enough?
The Braves' bullpen was an issue all year, which is why at the Trade Deadline they seemed to trade for every available relief arm. The three centerpieces of those trades -- Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin -- are all still around, and if they can be as good as they were in 2019, Atlanta might have something. The addition of Will Smith shows just how much of a priority the Braves consider the bullpen. Still, it’s a very old 'pen, with six guys over the age of 30, which isn’t exactly how most teams are constructing their 'pens these days. There is still implosion potential here.
4. Will Ronald Acuña Jr. have his shush-all-the-doubters season?
According to Fangraphs' WAR, Acuña was the eighth-best player in the NL last year, and the best player on the team. But it sure did feel like everyone was yelling at him all the time, didn’t it? Whether it was supposed bad defense, lackadaisical strides out of the box or that old “not clutch” chestnut, Acuña was the superstar who was used as a reason for his teams' flaws and failures rather than, you know, the young budding superstar he is. The Braves have a franchise linchpin at an absurdly young age (22), the type of guy you build around. Maybe 50 homers and 50 steals would get fans off his case.
5. Does any of this matter until October?
The Braves have won the NL East for two consecutive seasons. But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? That’s because they were bounced in the NLDS both seasons, a quick wipeout against the Dodgers in 2018 and a brutal five-game loss to the Cardinals last year. (That a division rival went on to win the World Series didn’t help either.) The Braves have lost their past 10 postseason series and 12 of their past 13. (The last time the Braves won a postseason series, Acuña was 2 years old.) It’s going to be difficult enough to fight through this division and reach the postseason again. But for many Braves, that’s just the beginning of the battle.
1. Is this Lewis Brinson’s last big chance?
It’s one thing to trade Christian Yelich and watch him turn into the best player in the NL. But it’s even worse when the crown-jewel prospect you got in return has done absolutely nothing since acquiring him. Brinson has hit .189 in 184 games since coming to Miami, and last year, even his power disappeared, and he hit zero homers in 75 games. He hasn’t been great in Triple-A either, but he has at least shown some signs of life, with 16 homers in 81 games last year. More to the point: He’ll be 26 years old in May. He is no longer a prospect. If he can’t finally arrive this year, it might be time to let this little dream go.
2. When does Jazz Chisholm get here?
Shortstop Jazz Chisholm isn’t the top Marlins prospect, but he’s the closest to the Majors without anyone particularly dazzling standing in his way. In the third year of Derek Jeter’s tenure here, fans are eager to see some tangible results of the rebuild, and Chisholm is exactly the sort of electrifying player who gets people excited. Jesus Sanchez is coming, too, but come on, Jazz is the guy: His name is Jazz.
3. Is the lineup fortified?
The Marlins clearly wanted to start showing some sort of steps forward this year, bringing in useful veteran players like Jonathan Villar, Jesus Aguilar and, especially, Corey Dickerson, whom might instantly become their best player. The Marlins are still amidst a youth movement, but their offense was underwhelming last year. It is instantly better now. Are there more moves to come?
4. Are people sleeping on this rotation?
Quietly, very quietly, the Marlins have put together a rotation full of young, potentially exciting talents. Sandy Alcantara was the team’s All-Star representative but was still underappreciated last year: He’s now a 200-inning starter at an under-4.00 ERA, at the age of 24. Caleb Smith is 28 and the old man of the the rotation: There is reason to be excited about Jordan Yamamoto, Pablo Lopez and Elieser Hernandez. Most teams would love to have young arms like that. If they can all take a step forward, which is always possible, the Marlins could sneak up on lots of teams.
5. Will there be progress?
There were a few reasons to cheer the Marlins last year, but let’s not get carried away: They lost 105 games. They’re clearly looking to improve this year, with the maturing young players and the added veterans, but they have a long way to go. The Marlins are better than you think they are, and they have lots of talent coming. But it’s time to start moving forward now.
New York Mets
1. What does Robinson Canó have left?
Canó was not that horrible in 2019, and in the second half, he was downright productive, putting up a .284/.339/.541 line in 42 games. It was still his worst offensive season in a decade, and absolutely not what the Mets had in mind when they traded for him and the five years remaining on his contract last offseason. Given his contract and stature, he’s not going anywhere, so the Mets are going to stick with him as their regular second baseman for at least the next couple of years. If he can approximate that second-half performance for most of 2020, this offense would look even better than it already does.
2. Can the top three starters stay healthy?
The addition of Marcus Stroman at the Deadline raised eyebrows, but it sure looks good right now. With Stroman, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets have a top three that can match up with anyone’s in the sport. They have some rotation depth too, with Steven Matz and new signings Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, but this team may rise and fall on the strength, and health, of that top three. The Mets are always at their peak when they’re relying on their aces. It’s tough to do much better than those three.
3. Is there enough depth in the field?
As long as everyone stays healthy, the Mets have an impressive lineup, 1-8, particularly if Amed Rosario can hold onto his 2019 gains. But if anyone gets hurt, look out. You can’t count on Jed Lowrie or Yoenis Céspedes, and the only outfielder who gives you much is new addition Jake Marisnick. There isn’t much behind them, and this isn’t a front office eager to fill in all the blanks. Dominic Smith staying healthy for a full season sure would help, but his natural position is first base, and Pete Alonso is pretty locked in there.
4. Is Edwin Díaz going to rebound?
If Mets fans are going to avoid cursing the name Jarred Kelenic for the next decade, they’re going to need Edwin Díaz to be a lot better than that. But his peripherals looked better in 2019 than his overall numbers showed (39% strikeout rate ranked fifth among relievers), and it won’t take much to see considerable improvement on the margins. How many 25-year-olds who saved 57 games the year before suddenly, out of nowhere, see their ERA rise nearly four runs? Diaz can’t possibly be that bad again. He could even start to resemble his old self again.
5. Can the young stars bring back the good times?
Alonso represents hope for the Mets in a way no player has since a young David Wright. Not only is he a mammoth power hitter (53 homers!), but he legitimately loves being a Met, and he has a positive attitude that is infectious. Who wouldn’t want to play with that guy? The Mets are a franchise whose fans always seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there is a ton of exciting young talent on this roster -- FanGraphs has them projected for the most WAR in the division -- and reason to believe.
1. Does Bryce Harper have another MVP season in him?
Harper was excellent last season. He was! He hit 35 homers, his most since 2015, and he was the best hitter on the Phillies. He certainly wasn’t the problem in 2019. But … still. You don’t sign Bryce Harper for that long, and for that much, to see him be excellent. You sign him because you think he has another 2015 MVP season in him. Harper is 27 years old, theoretically his absolute peak as a player. Harper will not be the reason the Phillies miss the playoffs, if they do. But he could be the reason they don’t.
2. Can Didi Gregorius be the spark?
The Phillies swooped in to bring in Didi Gregorius at the nadir of his market value, and he’ll be looking to build that value back up on a one-year contract. The Phillies may have disappointed their fans by not bringing in any of the big-name free agents, but with Didi and Andrew McCutchen returning from injury, they are bringing in two reliable veteran bats they didn’t have for most or all of last year. Does that add up to one Anthony Rendon? Probably not. But it should be an undeniable boost.
3. Can Jake Arrieta find his old form?
When the Phillies brought in Jake Arrieta before the 2018 season, they knew that he might not retain his value through the final season of his three-year deal. But they certainly thought they’d get more out of his first two. Arrieta was a league-average pitcher his first season in Philadelphia, and he was worse last year, putting up his highest hit and home run rates since his darkest days in Baltimore. The Phillies hold a $20 million option for both '21 and '22. Right now it looks like there’s no way they’ll pick either up. But Arrieta could make it a more difficult decision for them with a bounceback year.
4. Do they have a center fielder?
Do you know who played the most games in center field for the 2019 Phillies? Would you believe Scott Kingery? That’s not a good sign, and not just because that’s not an option for 2020, now that they need Kingery at third base. Adam Haseley -- the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 Draft -- was rushed to the Majors after Odubel Herrera’s suspension last year, and he was fine if unspectacular (.720 OPS in 242 plate appearances). The Phillies say he’s got the job to start the season, and they want him to hang onto it, but this is a franchise that doesn’t have a lot of time to spare for young players trying to find their way in the big leagues. Roman Quinn is also an option, but he’s not a player you can necessarily count on either (.668 OPS last year). There aren’t many options on the trade market: The Phillies need one of their guys to step up. And fast.
5. How much patience is left?
It is truly shocking that the Phillies haven't reached the postseason since Ryan Howard collapsed while running to first base to finish the 2011 NLDS. That’s the fifth-longest drought in the Majors, and for a big-market team that has gone through a massive rebuilding project and brought in some huge names. If the Phillies can’t break through this year, what’s the plan? This is not a young team by any stretch of the imagination. In a tough division, the Phillies have no easy routes here. They need to take a big step forward this year … or else.
1. Have they thrown enough infielders at the third-base hole?
No team is better after it loses a star the caliber of Anthony Rendon, but you have to give the Nationals credit for one thing: They definitely have plenty of bodies to throw at the position. Washington has a massive number of potential corner infielders right now: Starlin Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilmer Difo, Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick. Only one of those players is under the age of 29, so there may need to be some injury fill-ins from time to time. But even if you add them all up, they’re still no Rendon.
2. Is Max Scherzer still, you know, Max Scherzer?
For the first four months of last year, Scherzer looked like he was going to win his fourth Cy Young Award. But injuries limited him to eight starts after July 6, and his ERA rose more than half a run in that time. He still came up big in the postseason, but he will be 36 years old in July. He’s still a monster -- he had the best K/9 rate of his career last year -- but he made fewer than 30 starts for the first time since his rookie year in 2019 and, as they say, he’s not getting any younger.
3. What’s the Juan Soto ceiling?
Soto had always been a little bit in the shadow of some of his more outwardly spectacular peers like Acuña and Fernando Tatis Jr. … until the postseason. Soto made sure no one will ever forget his name in October, for better and for worse, and now everyone has noticed that, uh, almost every guy who has started their career the way he has, at his age, has ended up in the Hall of Fame. Bryce Harper is gone. Anthony Rendon is gone. He is the everyday star for this team now. What’s he going to do next?
4. Will the bullpen hold up?
The forever bugaboo for the Nationals held up just enough in the postseason, thanks in large part to Daniel Hudson, a massive addition at the Trade Deadline. But as Washington's starters get older, they’re going to need to rely on their bullpen more and more; the Nationals can’t just cross their fingers for eight innings from Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg every night all season. The addition of Will Harris in the offseason will help, but the Nationals’ 'pen issues don’t look fully solved, to say the least.
5. How does it feel now that they’re champs?
It’s hard after you win a championship, particularly your first one. Everybody wants to spend the offseason partying, and, you know, why wouldn’t they? You can forgive Nationals fans for not necessarily wanting the season to start just yet: They’re still the champs, after all. But sorry: The games are going to start whether you’re ready for them or you’re not, and the Nationals, as a team, look worse in 2020 than they did for most of '19. There’s still a ton of talent here. But after that ride, how much urgency is there?
Predicted standings (subject to change with roster changes)
New York Mets: 93-69
Atlanta Braves: 90-72
Washington Nationals: 85-77
Philadelphia Phillies: 81-81
Miami Marlins: 67-95
In two weeks: The American League Central.