Of all the divisions throughout baseball this season, perhaps none has been more surprising than the National League East, where the heavy division favorites have been supplanted by two young teams making their ascension earlier than anticipated. The emergence of the Braves and Phillies has made for an intriguing season thus far, as both teams look to head to the postseason.
Still, there are interesting storylines to watch throughout the division, even for those teams who might find themselves outside of the playoff picture. A few stud prospects will get a chance to make their marks in September, candidates for the NL Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award can make their cases, and a pair of struggling players will try to finish strong to lead a push toward October.
With the season's final month underway, here is one question surrounding each team in the NL East that we will get an answer to before the year ends.
The question: Will Freddie Freeman return to being Freddie Freeman?
Freeman was on his way to starting all 162 games this season before the Braves didn't start him down Wednesday, in effort to attempt to preserve his body for the stretch run -- though he did come off the bench as a defensive replacement in the top of the eighth inning and hit a dramatic game-tying homer in the bottom of that frame. An early favorite to win the NL MVP Award, Freeman has slumped lately, batting just .192 with four extra-base hits and a .553 OPS in his past 19 games. The dip in his power numbers and exit velocity have caused some concern around some in Atlanta, who are hoping it is simply a blip and not a sign that Freeman has worn down over the course of the year. For the Braves to not only make the postseason for the first time since 2013 but also serve as a threat in October, they need Freeman to perform at the level he reached in the first half.
The question: How will their young pitchers close out the season?
If Miami can get more starts like the one it got from Sandy Alcantara on Wednesday night, the Marlins are going to feel pretty good about the development of their young pitchers. Alcantara, the team's second-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline, tossed seven-plus innings of shutout ball with six strikeouts in a 2-1 win over the Phillies. Miami will be banking heavily on its young pitchers to close out the season, including Alcantara, Trevor Richards and Elieser Hernandez. Richards has been the most consistent of the group, but Alcantara, who was acquired from the Cardinals in the trade for Marcell Ozuna this past offseason, has the most upside.
The question: Can Jacob deGrom close out an historic season?
Each time he toes the rubber every fifth day, deGrom is doing something historic, no matter whether the Mets reward him with victories or not. He has planted himself as one of the front-runners for the NL Cy Young Award, lowering his ERA to 1.68 with 25 consecutive starts of three runs allowed or fewer to break a record held by Dwight Gooden. It has been a difficult season for the Mets for a number of reasons, but every fifth day, deGrom has been a shining bright spot, and it's worth watching to see how he closes out the year.
The question: What can Nats expect from Victor Robles?
At the start of the season, Robles was the prized outfield prospect within the organization ready to breakout and leave his mark on the team. He almost certainly would have had the chance to do so if he hadn't hyperextend his left elbow in April, paving way for the emergence of Juan Soto. Robles -- the team's top prospect and MLB Pipeline's fifth-ranked prospect in baseball, finally returned to D.C. this week as a September callup for the second year in a row. Although he was limited to pinch-hitting duty in his first two games, the Nats plan to get him plenty of playing time this month to show off his skills.
The question: Will Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez turn around their seasons in time to make a difference down the stretch?
Both Herrera and Hernandez entered the season as front-office favorites, and they each got off to a hot start in the first half. Now, they have both struggled for months, leaving the Phillies wondering what to do with them. Hernandez began the year as the team's leadoff hitter, but he owns a .653 OPS since May 26, and he has dropped to the seventh or ninth spots in the order. Herrera's OPS is .652 since May 19, and the Phils have moved him around the lineup as well. Philadelphia is trying to make its charge toward the Braves and the postseason, and a hot stretch from either or both of those players could pay dividends.