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Where can these NL East contenders upgrade?

@RichardJustice
June 8, 2019

The National League East just might turn into the free-for-fall we thought it would be. Fangraphs projects it will be the MLB’s tightest division race with three teams finishing above .500 and a mere six-game gap among the top four. Here’s how that could look:

The National League East just might turn into the free-for-fall we thought it would be.

Fangraphs projects it will be the MLB’s tightest division race with three teams finishing above .500 and a mere six-game gap among the top four. Here’s how that could look:

Braves: 86-76, --
Phillies: 84-78, 2 games back
Nationals: 83-79, 3 games back
Mets: 80-82, 6 games back

All of which means that the fun is just getting started and that this race may be decided by the teams that can strengthen their roster the most by the July 31 Trade Deadline.

One simple solution is that the team that comes closest to fixing its bullpen will win. All four teams have had too many late-inning hiccups to not be shopping for relievers.

Here’s how the top four could put themselves over the top:

1. Phillies (36-27)

Potential upgrade areas: Bullpen, third base, outfield

The Phillies, who’ve spent 70 days atop the division, have seven injured relievers plus OF Andrew McCutchen, who suffered a season-ending knee injury this week. Jay Bruce arrives just in time to replace McCutchen, and the Phillies remain in the market for an outfielder and bullpen help. If the D-backs are in sell mode, Philadelphia could try for a package that includes both an outfielder (Ketel Marte or David Peralta) and reliever Greg Holland. That would be a start.

2. Braves (34-29)

Potential upgrade areas: Bullpen

Having signed Dallas Keuchel, Atlanta now must upgrade its bullpen. The Braves need a reliever, possibly two. Regardless, the promotion of Austin Riley has already energized a team and a fanbase as much as any acquisition is likely to do. Atlanta has won 12 of 18 and averaged almost six runs per game since Riley joined the fun, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos suddenly has a team capable of winning a World Series. Adding an arm or two to the bullpen is a virtual lock.

With Craig Kimbrel off the market, the best reliever who will likely become available is Cleveland’s Brad Hand, and it will be interesting to see if a bidding war occurs among all of these clubs. He’s signed through 2021, so he’s not a rental.

3. Mets (30-33)

Potential upgrade areas: Bullpen, center field

Not a single member of the rotation has performed up to expectations, and unless that happens, the Mets aren’t going to the postseason no matter how much handwringing there is about every other area, including manager Mickey Callaway’s work. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen will attempt to upgrade in the bullpen and outfield, but the real challenge is getting more from a rotation that should have been one of baseball’s three best. They could get an internal upgrade in center if Brandon Nimmo can get back on the field and recapture his 2018 form, but that’s still to be determined.

4. Nationals (28-35)

Potential upgrade areas: Bullpen

The Nationals recently won 10 of 12 games and cut their deficit from 10 games to six in the division, before losing their last two to fall eight games back. Hey, maybe they’re who we thought they were. OK, slow down, cowboy. If you want to believe in the Nats, you point to third baseman Anthony Rendon performing like an MVP, super utility man Howie Kendrick having one of his best offensive seasons and starters Aníbal Sánchez and Erick Fedde providing quality innings behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. But unless the bullpen is fixed, the Nationals are going nowhere. Its 6.57 ERA is the worst in baseball by a wide margin and has forced manager Davey Martinez to put closer Sean Doolittle on pace to pitch in a career-high 72 games. General manager Mike Rizzo will attempt to add a pair of bullpen arms.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.