We bear excellent news: The baseball season is close -- closer than you think -- and we can prove it. Our season preview series, division-by-division every week, is well underway, and when we are done, the season will be here. That’s soon.
So far, we have looked at the American League East, the National League West and the AL Central. Today, we tackle the NL East. Our previews will look at four pressing questions for each club heading into the 2021 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 in the NL East this season. Teams are listed in alphabetical order, with my standings prediction at the bottom.
1) Is Soroka going to be OK?
The Braves have a perfectly fine rotation without Mike Soroka, who, in case you don’t remember, only made three starts last year before tearing his Achilles and missing the rest of the year. Soroka was not only terrific at the age of 21 in 2019, he was durable, making 29 starts and throwing more than 170 innings. But they don’t have the ceiling of a World Series contender without him. He has been throwing off a mound, but the Braves don’t have an official timetable for his return. Will a month delayed start to the season be enough to get him ready? If not, can the Braves hold on long enough without him in a highly competitive division? If you’ve got Soroka 100% by October, a Soroka/Max Fried/Charlie Morton/Ian Anderson foursome could be terrifying.
2) Can Ozuna do that over a full season?
Let us not forget: Marcell Ozuna came this close to a Triple Crown last year. That would have been quite the historic aberration, no? Ozuna was the hitter last year that he was his final season in Miami but never was in St. Louis, and the Braves rewarded him with a four-year, $65 million deal. Now they need him, basically, to do that again. Maybe four times? They won’t have the cushion of a DH to hide his defense in 2021, so the bat has to carry its weight twice over. If he reverts to his St. Louis numbers, or gets injured, the Braves' offense suddenly looks a lot thinner.
3) Is this the Acuña explosion year?
This is probably not a fair question: Ozuna had a 1.067 OPS last year, which is an explosion year for just about every player in baseball history. But this is Ronald Acuña Jr., an otherworldly talent who still somehow doesn’t get the love and affection that fellow young superstars Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. get. Heck, he wasn’t even the best hitter on his own team last year. (Though, uh, Tatis Jr. might not have been either.) Acuña’s talent is just bursting out of his uniform, and it’s very possible he takes that MVP Award right away from Freddie Freeman. He can carry a team, and surely will. This could be the year it starts.
4. Can they recover from coming that close?
No 28-3 jokes here, nope, but the Braves did come within one stinking win of taking out the eventual champion Dodgers last year. They were up 3-1! That’s closer than anyone else got to beating the Dodgers. The Braves have not reached the World Series in more than 20 years now, despite some excellent teams, and their road back this year looks far more treacherous than last year’s. (This division is a lot tougher.) Can the Braves recover from coming that close and falling short? Can they crawl their way back? Are Atlanta fans terrified that this is a 28-3 situation? Did they just punch their screens?
1) Can the young rotation hold up?
The key to just about everything the Marlins are trying to do revolves around their young starting pitching, and it’s not hard to see why. Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, Sixto Sánchez, even Trevor Rogers … who wouldn’t want those guys? Teams dream of young rotations like that! The problem is that they might not necessarily dream of them this year, considering this year is one in which they’re playing 162 games after a year where they played 60, which is an extremely dangerous thing for young arms like the ones the Marlins have. Only one Marlins pitcher threw more than 42 innings last year. Can you really expect any of them to carry this team with 180 this year? And if they can’t … what does everything with this team revolve around then?
2) Can they piece together enough offense?
Picking up Starling Marte's option is exactly the sort of move you want to see the Marlins make. A quality player who will make them better right now, well, that’s something the Marlins have not always valued in the past. But is there enough here? This is a playoff team that is potentially trotting out Adam Duvall as a cleanup hitter, after all. The Marlins have tried to piece together an offense one middling veteran after another the last couple of years. Is that sustainable? It’s surprising it even worked once.
3) Can Jazz and JJ break out?
The Marlins could use a huge boost from their two Top 100 hitting prospects, both of whom are due to make their move forward this year: Jazz Chisholm (who clearly was not ready last year) and JJ Bleday, the slugger who hasn’t made his debut. If you want to dream on the Marlins over the next few years, those are the two hitters you’re dreaming on. They’ve already had some moments in Spring Training that have made some eyes pop. But are they really ready to help right now?
4) How important is this year?
Last year was a nice little blast, wasn’t it, Marlins fans? The first playoff appearance in 17 years, a clean sweep of the Cubs in the Wild Card round and … you know, we don’t have to talk about the NLDS if you don’t want to. It was unexpected, but you could also argue it was a little bit ahead of schedule. You can even argue, if you’re being a downer, that it really only happened because of an expanded playoff format (which isn’t happening this year) and historically disappointing seasons from the division-rival Mets, Phillies and Nationals (which also isn’t happening this year). The Marlins took a big step forward last year. But is it the worst thing, long term, if they take a small one back this year?
1) How fun is Lindor?
Mets fans made Matt Harvey -- a good pitcher who was briefly great, but hardly the most charismatic or cheerful figure -- into the sort of star that gets to hang out on late-night talk shows. What are they going to do with Francisco Lindor, one of the most truly transcendent, joyous athletes to watch in all of sports? Mets fans are overflowing with exuberance right now: Wait until they get to watch Lindor every day. The Mets still need to figure out the extension situation. But if Lindor doesn’t put a jolt of energy into your franchise, no one will.
2) Is this quietly the NL's best offense east of California?
Citi Field may be a pitchers' park, but this Mets lineup won’t make it feel that way. With the addition of Lindor, this lineup suddenly looks stacked, without a weak spot all the way down to No. 8. (Is it possible their big free agent signee, James McCann, is their worst hitting regular?) As always, you need everyone to stay healthy, but bringing in Lindor just elevates everybody’s game. If these guys all played in Coors, they might all hit 30 homers. Heck, they might make it to 20 in Flushing.
3) How healthy can the rotation be?
Noah Syndergaard is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and could be back by midseason: It’s pretty enticing to imagine what this rotation might look like if he’s raring to go. But they gotta get there first. You don’t think you have to worry about Jacob deGrom, even though he’s turning 33 this year; if they lose him, their problems are bigger than “rotation depth.” But there is definitive injury risk here, from Carlos Carrasco to Marcus Stroman to new addition Taijuan Walker. The Mets’ lineup gives them some wiggle room, but historically, when Mets starting pitchers are healthy, they win, and when they’re not, they don’t. It sure is lovely to dream on that September rotation, though, isn’t it?
4) How much does the Cohen factor matter?
When’s the last time you saw Mets fans this excited going into a season? Sure, the fall of 2015 was a gas, and the mid-2000s were a heady time. But it sure is difficult to find much of that signature Mets fan fatalism right now. New owner Steve Cohen is boosting much of that -- is there anything you want a new owner to say more than, “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t win a World Series in the next five years”? -- and there is a lot of reason to think he’s going to back it up. But you know how Mets fans, and really New York City, are. One four-game losing streak and it’ll be to the fainting couch. There are some truly positive vibes going on with this team right now. But how often does that last in Queens? How often does that last anywhere?
1) Is Stephen Strasburg healthy?
There may be no pitcher in baseball more important to his team’s hopes, both in the short- and medium-term. The first year of Stras’ big post-World Series title contract was a total bust, making just two starts. He says he’s healthy heading into 2021, and you know, he better be. The Nationals got many, many terrific seasons out of Strasburg, and they rewarded him with a big contract, a contract that didn’t go to Bryce Harper or Anthony Rendon. He can be the difference between last year and this one. He may have to be.
2) Can they extend Soto?
Do you realize that Juan Soto had a better OPS+, 212, in 2020 than anyone has had since 2004? And if you exclude Barry Bonds from the equation, no one’s had a higher one since Mark McGwire in 1998. Sure, it was a short season, but still: Good gracious. And he’s 22! Soto just keeps getting better and better, So the countdown clock continues: He’s a free agent after 2024, which is still four seasons from now, but arbitration’s about to justifiably value him as one of the best players in baseball. Does he deserve the Tatis contract? He probably deserves a lot more, right? The Nationals might be sitting on the next Bonds. But they’re doing so with an older team that has a transition of its own going on. How do they figure this out?
3) Who fills in after the stars?
For a team that thinks it can win the division this year, it’s pretty wild that the Nationals took two castoffs (essentially) from other teams, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, and will immediately plant them right in the middle of their lineup. Should you be able to upgrade quite that easily? The Nats have Soto and Trea Turner and … a bunch of unproven young players and middling veterans. No wonder Soto walks so much: Why would you pitch to him with these guys behind him?
4) What happens if they fall short this year?
This is related to the Soto question but also larger. The Nationals pulled off their long-lusted-after World Series title, then had a bit of a mulligan COVID season afterwards. They’ll finally get to raise the banner in front of fans this year, but it’s not clear what the future of this team is. It’s expensive, and only going to be more so as Soto and Turner get more expensive and eventually hit free agency. But they also have a ton of money tied up in older pitchers, and then they might have a Max Scherzer-sized hole in their rotation next year, and the farm system has issues and … well, what do they do with all this? This is a strange thing to say about a team with a 22-year-old Juan Soto on it, but … is this the last best chance they have for a while?
1) The bullpen has to improve, right?
It hurts the eyes, the brain, the soul to think about the Phillies' bullpen in 2020. And the worst part about it is that the result wasn’t really a surprise to anyone. Most people thought the Phillies' bullpen would be bad and the team’s Achilles' heel …and it was. (It was actually an Achilles' heel constantly being set on fire.) It’s what everyone is worried about this year, too, and while it should be better (with Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson and José Alvarado all in town now, you’d think one of them would have to hit), if the Phillies miss the playoffs again, and it’s because of the bullpen, not a single person will be surprised.
2) Who is playing center field?
Spin the wheel, all. Scott Kingery? Adam Haseley? Roman Quinn? Heck, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper have both played there, too! The Phillies' outfield defense was a major, major problem in 2020 (and it surely contributed to the bullpen problems, too), and it’s not easy to see how it’s going to be fixed this year. Jackie Bradley Jr. is still out there as a free agent. But have the Phillies spent enough these last few years?
3) How much does Bryce have to do?
Harper has been really good for the Phillies. He has been just what the Phillies were paying for: His two years in Philly have nearly matched his career numbers in Washington. He hasn’t been the problem at all. He’s been great! But: He still hasn’t made an All-Star Game or received a single MVP vote since showing up in Philly, and when you’re Bryce Harper, you’re supposed to be doing both those things on the regular. He doesn’t have to relive his historic 2015 season. But wouldn’t it be cool if he did?
4) Can Dombrowski transfer their urgency into wins?
The Phillies now have the second-longest playoff drought in all of baseball, behind only the Mariners. If you were wondering how seriously they were taking that, they hired Dave Dombrowski this offseason, the guy with the reputation (not entirely fair, by the way) of only caring about the current season rather than the future. The Phillies need to start showing some results as much as any team in baseball needs to. How much are they willing to push it? Are they all-in for this year? Are they just all-in for every year now? And if they fall short, and keep getting older, with a thin farm system … then what happens?
One man’s prediction (based on current rosters):