5 NL East predictions for the home stretch

August 29th, 2019

It took five months, but the National League East appears -- finally -- to be sorting itself out. The Braves will (probably) win the division. The Nationals will (probably) claim a Wild Card spot. The Mets and Phillies will try to stick in the race for as long as they can.

Along the way, some special things may happen up and down the Eastern seaboard. Here’s one September prediction for each NL East team:

Braves: Will win 100 games

Look, it’s going to take some doing. The Braves haven’t hit the century mark since 2002, with a team that included Greg Maddux, John Smoltz (as a closer), Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield. This version of the Braves is only on pace to win 97 games, though that won’t stop them from setting their sights higher.

Consider: has been one of baseball’s most dynamic players since the All-Star break. is quietly constructing one of the better seasons of his career. has an outside chance at both the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards. If can find his groove for the stretch run, September could be a breeze.

While the Braves still have plenty of NL East games on their schedule, including seven against the surging Nationals, their non-division games include series against the third-place White Sox and Giants, and the fourth-place Blue Jays and Royals. An early clinch isn’t out of the question.

Marlins: tabbed closer of the future

Typical baseball wisdom states that starting pitchers can expect a velocity bump of 1-2 mph following a move to the bullpen. That’s good news for Urena, whose sinker averaged an elite 95.6 mph before he landed on the injured list with a herniated disc in his lower back.

The Marlins have indicated that when Urena returns from the IL in early September, he will do so as their closer. Given Miami’s plethora of pitching prospects -- Sixto Sanchez, Edward Cabrera, Nick Neidert, et al -- in the upper Minors, the team has no burning need to keep Urena stretched out as a starter. As such, he stands a strong chance of keeping the Marlins’ ninth-inning job into 2020.

Certainly, Urena has the tools to thrive in that role. As a reliever, he may be able to focus less on his third pitch, a changeup, and more on what can be a potent sinker-slider combination. Tack on some extra velocity and the Marlins may have an impact reliever on their hands -- perhaps even someone capable of fetching a fine return at the 2020 Trade Deadline.

Mets: is all-time rookie home run leader

It’s the last realistic milestone remaining for Alonso, who already owns the NL rookie record and the Mets’ franchise mark. To match or surpass Aaron Judge’s MLB rookie benchmark of 52 homers, Alonso, who had 42 going into Thursday's game against the Cubs, will need to average a long ball every three games down the stretch. He’s currently just shy of that pace, and the task will grow more difficult as Alonso plays out a six-month season for the first time in his professional career.

Still, given Alonso’s growing track record, it would be unwise to doubt him. Since Aug. 5, he has eight home runs in 21 games.

Nationals: leads one Triple Crown category

And maybe two. Entering Thursday’s play, Rendon ranked fourth in a crowded NL batting race and third in RBIs, within spitting distance of the leaders in both categories. While the competition remains stiff for either title, Rendon rates among baseball’s hottest hitters.

With and both regularly reaching base in front of Rendon, the RBI crown may be his best bet. But don’t count Rendon out of the batting race, either. He’s hitting .371 in August, better than all the players he’s chasing, and -- assuming Eaton does not miss much time after being hit by a pitch on Wednesday -- is enjoying as much lineup protection as at any point this season.

Consider the Nationals well past due for this sort of thing. No Nats player has led the NL in a Triple Crown category since the franchise moved to Washington. Going back further, no Expo accomplished the feat after Tim Raines won the batting title in 1986.

Phillies: is Phillies’ most valuable hitter ... by far

Quietly, Harper has already been the Phils’ best offensive player for some time, leading the team in home runs, RBIs, runs scored, OPS, weighted runs created and more. Surprised? Much of that production occurred during an August surge, as Harper passed slumping teammate in several statistical categories. While Harper is unlikely to leapfrog defensive wizard in WAR, he should easily finish second on the Phillies in that category, turning a solid season into one of the better campaigns of his career.

Even if Hoskins figures things out in September, Harper figures to retain his standing as Philadelphia’s best hitter. And that’s important, regardless of whether the Phils make the playoffs. Those who bemoaned Harper’s ordinary start after signing a 13-year, $330 million megadeal may have a different perspective if he finishes strong.