The National League East has been a sleeping giant for a few seasons.The Nationals have owned the joint, winning four division titles in the past six years. Meanwhile, the Mets have been searching for their mojo since they made the 2015 World Series and the Braves and Phillies have been
The National League East has been a sleeping giant for a few seasons.
The Nationals have owned the joint, winning four division titles in the past six years. Meanwhile, the Mets have been searching for their mojo since they made the 2015 World Series and the Braves and Phillies have been slowly rebuilding for a brighter future.
But the NL East looks like a much different place through the quarter point of the 2018 season. It shows those four teams jammed closely together in the standings, just 4 1/2 games separating the first-place Braves from the fourth-place Mets. It is entirely possible the NL East sends three teams to the postseason. If that happens, that means there is some incredibly good baseball to come.
Let's take a look back at the first quarter of the season, and take a look at ahead at what is to come:
What we learned in the first quarter: The Braves look like the team that NL East pitchers will have the most nightmares about in the coming years. They have three of the youngest, most talented players in baseball in Ronald Acuna Jr. (20 years old), Ozzie Albies (21) and Dansby Swanson (24). Throw them into a lineup with elder statesmen Freddie Freeman (28) and Nick Markakis (34), and it is easy to see Atlanta atop the NL in scoring for years.
What we'll be watching in the second quarter: Rookie right-hander Mike Soroka, who is just 20, is 1-1 with a 3.68 ERA in his first three starts. If he continues to enjoy positive results, the Braves' rotation looks even more formidable as the team pushes for a postseason berth.
Key series or stretch of schedule: The Braves get to prove they are king of the hill in the coming weeks. Beginning Monday in Philadelphia, they have a 14-game stretch against the Phillies, Red Sox, Mets and Nationals.
Stock watch: Up. Folks around baseball saw good times ahead for Atlanta, but Acuna and Albies have accelerated the timetable.
What we learned in the first quarter: Nobody expected the Marlins to compete for a postseason berth following an offseason roster purge, but they are playing better than the Reds, Orioles, White Sox and Royals. That's something, right? And in the case of the Phillies, the Marlins have proven to be a formidable opponent. They are 3-3 against them.
What we'll be watching in the second quarter: Will the Marlins trade catcher J.T. Realmuto? Will the Marlins' young pitchers like Caleb Smith and Jarlin Garcia continue to develop? Sandy Alcantara, their No. 2 prospect, is a mid-to-late season callup candidate from Triple-A New Orleans. The organization believes Alcantara, a hard thrower, can be a top-of-the-rotation starter in the future. Remember, everything about this season is about the future. The Marlins want reasons to be optimistic about it.
Key series or stretch of schedule: The Marlins are not in postseason contention, so specific series or homestands or road trips are less important to them. The most important stretch on the schedule is the days leading up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Stock watch: Steady. The Marlins are who we thought they were.
What we learned in the first quarter: You look at the Mets' roster and see a lot of talent, but that talent has not always shown itself, explaining their struggles following a 15-6 start. Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have been solid atop the rotation, but the third through fifth spots have been an issue. Asdrubal Cabrera is playing like an All-Star, but Yoenis Cespedes just landed on the disabled list and the Mets recently acquired Devin Mesoraco to improve a dire catching situation.
What we'll be watching in the second quarter: First, Cespedes' health is key. Second, the Mets signed Jason Vargas because they expected him to provide depth to the rotation. They need to see him get back on track, giving them one less thing to worry about.
Key series or stretch of schedule: Beginning May 24 in Milwaukee, the Mets play 25 out of 27 games against teams with winning records. Eighteen of those games are on the road.
Stock watch: Down. The Mets have the worst record in the NL since their hot start.
What we learned in the first quarter: There is a reason the Nationals were the prohibitive favorites to win the NL East for the fifth time in the past seven seasons. The Nationals' rotation is solid top to bottom, meaning from this point on it is difficult to see them running into an extended losing streak. Despite some injuries, the offense is fourth in the NL in scoring.
What we'll be watching in the second quarter:Daniel Murphy could begin a rehab assignment soon, and Adam Eaton said recently that he hopes he can return from the DL in the next six weeks. If true, it would be a major boost to an already potent lineup.
Key series or stretch of schedule: Beginning Friday, the Nationals play 12 consecutive games against teams with losing records (Dodgers, Padres, Marlins and Orioles). It is an excellent opportunity to not only catch the Braves, but surge past them in the standings.
Stock watch: Up. The Nationals have the best record in baseball since their 11-16 start.
What we learned in the first quarter: The Phillies' offense is going to make pitchers work. They lead baseball in pitches per plate appearance and lead the NL in walk rate. (They are third in the NL in strikeout rate.) All those pitches and all those runners on base means the Phillies are fourth in the league in runs per game.
What we'll be watching in the second quarter: If the Phillies are going to make a run at their first postseason berth since 2011, they need Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez to pitch more consistently. They have shown flashes of brilliance, but they both need to take that next step forward to give the rotation more depth. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak acknowledged the team could benefit from a left-handed starter in the rotation. Perhaps the Phillies pursue one before July 31.
Key series or stretch of schedule: Can the Phillies survive June? They play 27 games and every one of them is against a team with a .500 record or better.
Stock watch: Up. Entering the season, the Phillies seemed to be neck-and-neck with the Braves in terms of the rebuild. Both teams have arguably exceeded expectations.
Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.