A quarter through the season, the National League East is just as competitive as predicted -- though perhaps with more bumps and bruises than anticipated. Four games separate the first- and last-place ballclubs.
As summer approaches, each team in the division still believes it can compete for a postseason berth. Whether it be bullpen help or a clean bill of health, here's the one looming question each NL East club must address between now and the All-Star break.
Braves: Will it be a relief?
While the underperforming offense and injury-depleted rotation create concerns, Atlanta's bid to win a fourth straight NL East title depends on its ability to fix the bullpen. The Braves' construction efforts recently included re-signing veteran Shane Greene, who remained a free agent through the season’s first five weeks. An effective Greene would allow manager Brian Snitker to better utilize some of his relievers in proper roles. With Greene and Chris Martin, Snitker has a pair of right-handers who would be capable of serving as the closer in the right situations. Will Smith hasn’t created the utmost confidence in his ability to be a shutdown closer. But with Smith, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter, the Braves have three lefties who are also capable of handling any high-leverage situations. The pieces are present for an effective bullpen. But this relief corps will need to be much more effective over the next couple months. -- Mark Bowman
Marlins: Can fish tread water?
It's tough to narrow things down to one issue because of the symbiotic nature between the pitching staff and the lineup. The Marlins have three reliable starters in Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López and rookie Trevor Rogers, with the organization monitoring their workload in the return to a 162-game season. Elieser Hernandez has begun a rehab assignment, which would help solidify the fourth spot in the rotation. In turn, that should take some pressure off a bullpen that has been solid but has thrown the ninth-most frames in the Majors. At the same time, that usage also plays into Miami's inconsistent run production. By playing so many close games, relievers continue to find themselves in high-leverage situations regardless of the inning. The Marlins miss Starling Marte, who is the club's best all-around player and has started hitting off a machine. Jazz Chisholm Jr. is back and has made an impact. Just as important as injured players returning is the likes of Brian Anderson and Garrett Cooper regaining their swings. Jesús Aguilar and Adam Duvall account for 39 percent of Miami's RBI production.
Mets: Can they stay healthy?
Entering Thursday's off-day, New York has 14 players on the injured list and five of them -- Jacob deGrom, Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil -- were expected to be huge contributors. The injuries piled up so badly early Sunday afternoon against the Rays that the Mets had only catcher Tomás Nido available off the bench. The good news is that deGrom, Davis and right-hander Noah Syndergaard (Tommy John surgery) are on rehab assignments. The Mets also need to acquire depth, and they did so recently by trading for outfielder Cameron Maybin from the Cubs. The club may have found gold when it promoted outfielders Johneshwy Fargas and Khalil Lee to the big leagues. They already have brought energy to a team that is trying to stay in first place in the division. -- Bill Ladson
Nationals: How will Strasburg look upon his return to rotation?
In 2020, the Nationals had Stephen Strasburg on the mound for only five innings as he battled carpal tunnel neuritis in his throwing hand that required season-ending surgery. Strasburg reported to Spring Training healthy and poised to help anchor a veteran rotation as the No. 2 starter, only to be sidelined in mid-April with right shoulder inflammation. He had pitched just 10 innings over two starts before being placed on the injured list. The Nationals called on fellow right-hander Erick Fedde to step up in place of Strasburg, as he did last season, and he has held down the role while the team waits eagerly -- and cautiously -- for the 2019 World Series Most Valuable Player to be back. When that will be remains to be decided, and even when Strasburg is cleared, the Nationals will keep a close eye on him given how few innings he has pitched over the last two seasons. Washington constructed its starting rotation to be a dominant one, and the question of what Strasburg will deliver when he returns is a big one.
-- Jessica Camerato
“[Dave Dombrowski] is going to do a great job for us,” he said. “You guys know that. I'm excited to have Dombrowski heading our ship right now, because he's going to make the moves that he needs to. He's going to get the guys that he needs to.”
Dombrowski is known for his aggressiveness in trades, but he also is not going to mortgage the future for a team that struggles to keep its head above water. So, over the next several weeks, Philadelphia will need to show Dombrowski what kind of team it is. Are the Phillies a legitimate contender, not only to win the NL East but to compete against teams like the Dodgers and Padres in the postseason? Or are they a team that will fade down the stretch because of pitching, like they did each of the previous three seasons? If they play well, Harper might see Dombrowski make the moves he needs to take a shot at the organization’s first trip to the postseason since 2011. If they play poorly, Harper might need to wait until the offseason for that. -- Todd Zolecki