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Top 20 players who will shape NL East race

MLB.com @williamfleitch

If you can believe it, Opening Day is only two weeks away, and we're previewing each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and seasons moving forward. And to keep it balanced, we'll pick four from each team.

Today: The National League East. Tell me what you think -- not just about this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the American League West next week, at will.leitch@mlb.com.

If you can believe it, Opening Day is only two weeks away, and we're previewing each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and seasons moving forward. And to keep it balanced, we'll pick four from each team.

Today: The National League East. Tell me what you think -- not just about this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the American League West next week, at will.leitch@mlb.com.

Previously: NL Central | NL West | AL East | AL Central 

20. Don Mattingly, Miami Marlins
All right, so Donnie Baseball doesn't actually play anymore. Though let's take a moment to remember when he did.

Video: MLB Productions highlights Mattingly's career

Man, that's pretty. And it's a lot prettier than the baseball that Mattingly will be seeing this year in Miami. It was just two years ago that Mattingly won more than 90 games with the Dodgers for the third consecutive year. He's had two losing seasons in Miami and is now about to go through what he's about to go through. I know managing is a life goal for a lot of people. But wouldn't Don be having more fun just showing up on Old-Timers' Day and signing memorabilia? Because, even if it's for a good reason, this is going to be a headache.

19. Jose Urena, Miami Marlins
Urena was the one Marlins starter with an ERA+ above the league average last year, and thus he just found out he'll get the honor of pitching Opening Day for the second consecutive season. He responded Tuesday by giving up six runs in a third of an inning against the Cardinals. Urena is still the obvious -- and maybe the only -- ace choice.

18. Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves
Perhaps the only person cheering against Swanson might be Tony La Russa, whose trade of Swanson to the Braves while he was in the D-backs' front office still confounds. But Swanson hasn't become the star once predicted, and, in fact, he might have been the worst regular hitter in the game last year. He's still struggling this spring. Atlanta is ready for Swanson to start making some forward movements; at the age of 24, it's not an unreasonable ask of him.

Video: Swanson on learning from 2017, 2018 expectations

17. J.P. Crawford, Philadelphia Phillies
The guy who was supposed to herald the next era of Phillies baseball had a rocky debut in Philly last year, which frankly is becoming the norm for this franchise. But Crawford is still only 23, still one of the top 50 prospects in baseball and still ticketed for the shortstop spot for the foreseeable future, though he might bat ninth.

16. J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
Realmuto is essentially the last standout player left standing on this roster; his agent just a month ago was demanding the Marlins trade him. He's still around, and he's trying to get healthy for Opening Day. If Realmuto makes it and is productive again, you'll be hearing about him in every Sunday notes column through July.

15. Maikel Franco, Philadelphia Phillies
Phillies fans are just about done with Franco, which is pretty surprising considering he was the face of their rebuild just two years ago, when he hit .280 with 14 homers in just 304 at-bats at the age of 22. He has hit for some power but lost most of his batting eye since then, and now he's as polarizing a player as that team has. (And Philly fans don't handle polarizing players well.) With the Phils clearly trying to move forward now, Franco has one last chance to figure it out, or be left behind.

14. Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
Only 10 pitchers currently on MLB rosters have thrown more than 980 innings since 2013, and only one of them is under the age of 28. Teheran had the worst ERA of his career last year but still got in his 188 1/3 innings and is still considered the team's ace. The future rotation stars will be coming in the next two to three years. Will Teheran be the bridge to them, or will he join them?

13. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
After his blistering long-awaited arrival on the mound this spring, one suspects the "is deGrom gonna be OK?" stories we were dealing with the last month will be forgotten by, oh, Friday.

Video: HOU@NYM: deGrom discusses his Spring Training debut

12. Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
The Nationals' bullpen has been a substantial source of Washington fans' agita for a half-decade now. The immensely likable Doolittle is here to put an end to that. He might be the primary indicator of whether the Nats have to start rebuilding their bullpen at the Trade Deadline again. Doolittle might be one of the easiest players in the sport to root for.

11. Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves
Acuna will be launching shots into the Chop House and driving opposing pitchers insane on the basepaths all summer. The only question is when he starts.

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Halftime mascot break! NL East mascots, ranked.

1. The Phillie Phanatic
The Phanatic, or Mr. Met? The question has vexed generations for centuries. I went with the Phanatic, but only because he's an Avenger now.

Tweet from @StelliniTweets: pic.twitter.com/TNWYO6bt7P

2. Mr. Met
Mr. Met is unable to change his smiling facial expression, and yet he still always looks sad.

3. Billy the Marlin
Billy the Marlin is a perfectly reasonable, replacement-level mascot … but all told, the rainbow pants maybe are a bit much.

4. Screech
I consider the racing Presidents the real Nationals mascots, and I suspect you do too.

5. Blooper
He's brand new. To be honest, he is going to take some getting used to. 

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10. Lewis Brinson, Miami Marlins
At the very least, Brinson wants to be there, and that's a start. The Brewers had to swallow hard to trade him, and he might just win the NL Rookie of the Year Award this year. Brinson will have every opportunity to become a star in Miami; the franchise is essentially begging him to become one.

9. Michael Conforto, New York Mets
The Mets are a little bit better than you might think, even if they're relying just as much on their rotation as always. But if their older lineup has any upside, it's in the quick return of Conforto, who's slated for a May 1 start date after recovering from a shoulder injury. The outfielder was probably their best all-around player last season, and while the Mets are light on young, exciting position players, when Conforto's at his best, he could make up for other issues all by himself.

Video: Conforto on first BP session since shoulder surgery

8. Yoenis Cespedes, New York Mets
The guy who was once so young and exciting and perfect that a couple of beautiful nerds named their baseball-loving site after him is now 32 and battling an endless series of nagging injuries. Today it's his wrist, and though the Mets think he'll be back in time for Opening Day, you wonder, again, which Cespedes you're going to get in 2018. His rate numbers (.292/.352/.540) were there as always last year, but 81 games won't cut it for an offense that needs him more than ever. Back page warning: If the injuries compile, the tabloids will not forget that Cespedes is owed nearly $90 million over the next three seasons.

7. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
Freeman was having his best season until he got hurt last year, and the Chop House Seats in right field seem specifically designed for him. He's still only 28 years old, and he's signed through 2021. If Acuna is the truth, the Braves will have a 1-2 punch in their lineup that will be unrivaled in the division, and maybe throughout the game.

6. Jake Arrieta, Philadelphia Phillies
It's kind of fun just typing that: Jake Arrieta, Philadelphia Phillies. Arrieta is in Philly in the old Jayson Werth-in-Washington role; he's here to let you know they're serious about this. He instantly makes the rotation formidable and informs the rest of baseball that the Phillies are ready to contend. Still, Arrieta's peripherals were down last season, and there's a reason he didn't get the long-term deal he'd been expecting. The Phils don't need Cy Young Arrieta. But they wouldn't mind if he showed up anyway.

Video: Jake Arrieta discusses his role in improving Phillies

5. Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
Turner is certainly already a superstar in fantasy baseball. The Nationals now would like him to be one in actual baseball. Turner battled injuries last season, but when he was on the field, he wasn't the hitter he was in 2016. At his best, he's one of the most truly gifted players in the game. But how often will the Nats see his best?

4. Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies
A new season is about to begin, which means this video is about to be outdated, and that makes me sad: 

Video: Hoskins sets record with 18 homers in first 34 games

Hoskins, more than anyone else, is the guy who got Phillies fans excited about baseball again in the midst of a long, hard rebuilding process. Now can he, and the team, take the next step?

3. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
We know who Scherzer is at this point: A three-time Cy Young Award winner and the guy who wins in the NL every time Clayton Kershaw doesn't because of injury. Now the Nationals simply need him to go out and do it again. This year is the end of history for the Nats. They'll still be good after this season, but they might not have Bryce Harper come November, and the division will never be this collectively weak again. If the Nationals are going to do it, now's the time. And Scherzer has to be a main reason why.

Video: NYM@WSH: Scherzer K's nine over five scoreless

2. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
It's gonna go one of only two ways for Syndergaard this year. Either his dogged insistence on throwing 100 mph in Spring Training is going to make his arm blow up and we're all going to lament what could have been … or he's going to tear through the league like Chuck Yeager through the sound barrier and make everyone believe he's the next Nolan Ryan. One of these results is horrible; the other, transcendent. There is no middle ground.

Video: Syndergaard K's seven straight in outing vs. Nats

1. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
This has been the golden age of Washington Nationals baseball, with a fantastic lineup, top-shelf starting pitching and a fan base that has seen its team reach the postseason four times in six seasons. (And, let's not kid ourselves, likely five times in seven.) But at the center of it all has been the otherworldly talented kid from Las Vegas who was hitting 22 homers at the age of 19, and 42 at the age of 22, and generally acting like, as he told me years ago, "the LeBron of baseball." Harper has electrified the game since he arrived in 2012 -- since before then, really -- but he, still, has never won a postseason series for the Nationals. A year from now, he'll sign as big a contract as anyone in the sport has signed, but he has one last chance, and one last ride, with these Nationals. How does this end? What happens next for Harper and this team? Can they finally break through? It's as compelling a story as there is in the sport. As always: It's all about Bryce.

Video: Bryce Harper to headline free-agent market after '18

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We finish this preview, as we will with all of them, with predictions. I apologize in advance because these predictions are guaranteed to be correct and thus I'm a little worried I'm spoiling the season for you.

Washington Nationals: 93-69
New York Mets: 88-74
Philadelphia Phillies: 83-79
Atlanta Braves: 77-85
Miami Marlins: 58-104

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, New York Mets