Throughout February and early March, I spent a disturbingly large percentage of my pre-pandemic hours writing incredibly long division season previews for a season that, as it turned out, would not begin as planned. In those previews, I asked (and tried to answer) five big questions about each team in each division and then, at the end, predicted exact records for every one of them. For what it’s worth, every one of these predictions would have been right on the money, had the season happened as scheduled. Trust me.
Anyway, now that we are getting a truncated season, it’s time to dig back into these previews, under the decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. Because there are only 60 games now, rather than 162, we will ask only two questions in these previews, often relating to these decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. The predictions are still coming, though, and they’re still 100 percent guaranteed correct. These will run twice a week until the season begins on July 23.
Today, we look at the National League East.
Future historians will not understand this one whit, but you should know that while Ronald Acuña Jr. -- already the best player the Braves have had since Chipper Jones -- was launching the ball throughout the 2019 NL Division Series, some fans and observers were somehow blaming him for the team’s woes. (This really happened. Honest.)
Acuña is the sort of transcendent talent so blinding that a team’s failures can feel like his failures, particularly when he doesn’t sprint out of the box on a double in a playoff game and doesn’t end up scoring (though he probably wouldn’t have scored anyway). The Braves have the sort of franchise cornerstone every team fantasizes about, but it still doesn’t feel like Atlanta fans love Acuña the way they loved Chipper or Freddie Freeman. But he’s young, and relatively new still. If he carries them through the playoffs, they won’t be able to deny him much longer.
Are the vets going to give the lineup a boost?
The Marlins have put together a youth movement under Derek Jeter’s leadership, and they’re still early enough in that process that they haven’t shown much progress yet. But they learned last year that no matter how much of a “process” you’re on, if you can’t hit, you can’t win … and you’re pretty tough to watch. Miami fortified its lineup with veterans this year, and there’s some good ones: Jesús Aguilar, Jonathan Villar, Matt Joyce and Corey Dickerson. (Dickerson, in particular, seems like the sort of bat any team could have used on a one-year deal.) This probably still isn’t going to be a contending year, but the Marlins need to start showing proof-of-concept with their current strategy. Scoring more runs is a great place to start.
How about that rotation?
The Nationals have the best rotation in the division. But is it possible the Marlins have the second best? It is! Miami has exciting young arms in the expected rotation, from Caleb Smith to 2019 All-Star Sandy Alcantara to veteran José Ureña to the promise of Jordan Yamamoto. All of those guys are in their 20s -- only two are older than 24 -- and have the sort of lightning arms well-served for a short season. This is the sort of rotation that sneaks up on you … and can do some damage over 60 games.
Who steps up in the rotation?
When I previewed the Mets back in January -- you know, 50 years ago -- I actually picked them to win this division. I’m a little more wary of doing that now, and that’s because I’d been counting on Noah Syndergaard to stay healthy. With Syndergaard out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Mets must now rely on Steven Matz as well as two new additions: Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, both former stars who were available cheap this offseason for totally understandable reasons. There’s more talent on this team than many realize, but that’s a lot of innings required from a few older guys (Matz is actually older than Wacha!) who haven’t proven a lot lately.
Is Yo really healthy?
If you’re looking for reasons to be excited about watching the Mets in 2020, win or lose, then Yoenis Céspedes In The Starting Lineup has to be atop that list. Céspedes is “certain” he’ll be ready on Opening Day, which would mark more than two years since he last appeared in a game. The one thing Yoenis has done when he plays, throughout his whole career, no matter what else may have been going on, was hit: He was pretty darned good in 2018 until that season ended for him too, after all. And now that he can DH? There is no way you’re not stopping whatever else you’re doing and watching Céspedes bat every opportunity you have.
Can Bryce be “Immortal Bryce” again?
Bryce Harper was very good in 2019. He was! He was the best hitter on this team and wasn’t bad in the field either. He’s not Mike Trout, but man, who wouldn’t want a Bryce Harper on their team? The problem, of course, is that Bryce Harper isn’t expected to be “the best player on the Phillies.” He’s expected to be an MVP candidate, and he has only received down-ballot MVP votes once since his incredible 2015 season. While we were all going along with our lives, the impossibly young phenom that is Bryce Harper turned 27; he won’t be 28 until October, if you can believe that. This is supposed to be Harper’s prime. Being very good isn’t good enough. It’s time for Harper to be great.
How much stock do they put in this year?
This was clearly meant to be a put-up-or-shut-up year for the Phillies. They brought in Joe Girardi as manager, they signed Didi Gregorius and Zack Wheeler, they added every bullpen piece they could find. They were all-in for 2020, and with good reason: This is a wealthy team with a dedicated fan base that hasn’t made the postseason since 2011(!). No team had more urgency going into 2020. But: Is that still the case? Is this season too weird a year from which to take away any lasting judgments? Can you tell how well or poorly a Phils team has done if there are no fans to cheer or boo them? The Phillies put all their chips into the middle of the table this year. And then somebody turned the table upside down. So now what?
How does one go about replacing Anthony Rendon?
There was much speculation this offseason that the Nationals would go big at third base after Rendon left for Anaheim in free agency, possibly going after Josh Donaldson or someone in that mold. Instead, they looked internally for options, with Carter Kieboom being named the starter at the hot corner and Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Wilmer Difo serving as potential backups. Suffice to say, none of those people are Anthony Rendon, and when you look at the lineup now -- particularly with Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick and Victor Robles having not reported to camp yet and Ryan Zimmerman electing not to play -- it looks awfully light. It sure doesn’t look like the lineup that just won the World Series.
How fired up can they get for this year, anyway?
The Nationals threw off years of frustration with last year’s championship, a truly glorious postseason run and a humdinger of a World Series comeback. Every team suffers a little bit of a letdown after they win the World Series -- we’re about to hit 20 years without a repeat champion -- and the Nats are not only losing some key players, they’re playing in a season that is already strange and disorienting. Are they up for this? Or will they just sit and appreciate that new pennant in the outfield … one hoisted, alas, without fans in the stands to share in the celebration.
One man’s NL East prediction …