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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

Vaughn: Previewing the National League East

The 2023 Major League Baseball season keeps approaching, getting closer and closer by the day. In fact, pitchers and catchers reported spring training this week. So it’s time to look ahead to the upcoming season and the expectations for each club. Over the next few weeks, I will dive into previews for all 30 teams, division by division, helping get fans ready for the 148th season of professional baseball. I have already previewed the NL West and NL Central. Up this week: the National League East.

Division overview

Over the past decade, the NL East has featured many dominant teams. In fact, every team in the division except the Miami Marlins has reached the World Series within the past 10 years. The Nationals and Braves won it all in 2019 and 2021, respectively. In terms of divisional bragging rights, the Braves have won the past five NL East crowns, with the Nationals winning the two prior. After a season in which the Braves, Mets and Phillies all made the playoffs, 2023 looks to feature an interesting divisional chase, with a potential World Series winner in the mix.

Atlanta Braves (2022: 101-61, .623)

After winning their fourth World Series title in 2021, the Atlanta Braves continued their winning ways, capturing the division crown for the fifth consecutive season. However, that winning would stop in October, with the Phillies eliminating the Braves in four games in the NL Division Series. Despite the premature postseason exit, though, Atlanta remains a very talented roster poised to cultivate some more October magic. The starting staff, led by a three-headed monster in Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider, returns all members from the year before, with former All-Star starter Mike Soroka looking to return in a big way after being sidelined with multiple injuries the past few seasons. Although the bullpen lost closer Kenley Jansen to free agency, it still has many capable arms in A.J. Minter, Collin McHugh and Tyler Matzek, among others.

Together, Braves pitchers ranked in the top third of baseball in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, a trend that looks to continue this year. In terms of the lineup, the majority of starters make their return to Atlanta. Marcell Ozuna looks to occupy the DH role once again, with the outfield anchored by stars Michael Harris II and Ronald Acuña, Jr. The infield returns Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley to man first, second and third base, respectively. Former top prospect Vaughn Grissom looks to fill the void at shortstop left by Gold Glover Dansby Swanson’s departure for the Cubs.

Sean Murphy, acquired from the Athletics in a three-team deal for All-Star William Contreras and prospects, should be a force behind the dish. Fellow catcher Travis d’Arnaud will likely get at-bats as a result. After a few years of prosperity, the Braves, thanks to club-friendly extensions handed out by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, look to compete for another title in 2023 and for several years to come.

Miami Marlins (2022: 69-93, .426)

Since winning the World Series in 2003, the Miami Marlins have appeared in the playoffs just once, which came during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The 2022 campaign saw similar shortcomings, with the Marlins finishing fourth in the division and missing the postseason once again. Although 2023 looks to be another season without a playoff berth, Miami has its fair share of bright spots. The rotation, led by Cy Young Award-winner Sandy Alcántara, features many young quality arms in Jesús Luzardo, Edward Cabrera and Braxton Garrett, with highly touted prospects Max Meyer and Eury Pérez waiting in the wings. There is even some veteran presence with the addition of Johnny Cueto. The bullpen was significantly upgraded with A.J. Puk, Matt Barnes and J.T. Chargois, all acquired via trade this offseason.

The lineup features players with all sorts of tools. There is MLB stolen base leader Jon Berti. Powerful slugger Jorge Soler. And of course, the all-around talent that is “MLB: The Show” cover athlete Jazz Chisholm, Jr., who will be transitioning from the infield to the outfield this season. Bryan De La Cruz appears poised for a potential breakout season, while Avisaíl García looks to return to All-Star form. Additionally, the Marlins lengthened their lineup with the offseason additions of AL batting champion Luis Arráez, who was acquired via trade from the Twins in exchange for a package headlined by starting pitcher Pablo López. They also signed veteran infielder Jean Segura as a free agent. This season may not result in an October ending for the Marlins. But it is sure to provide many opportunities to talented young players.

New York Mets (2022: 101-61, .623)

Despite winning over 100 games in 2022, the New York Mets finished second in their division. Then, they were promptly eliminated by the San Diego Padres in the NL Wild Card Round. Most teams would be content making a few minor changes for improving a 100-win team. But the Mets put the petal to the metal. They spent northwards of $500 million on free agents this offseason (a total that would have been higher if not for a failed physical by Carlos Correa). They have the highest payroll in baseball — and by a whopping lead of just over $60 million at that.

After having one of the best rotations in baseball, the Mets lost Jacob deGrom, Taijuan Walker and Chris Bassitt to free agency. But they are just as strong if not better heading into 2023 after gaining Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander, Japanese star Kodai Senga and veteran José Quintana to join Max Scherzer and company. The already-dominant bullpen gained lockdown relievers David Robertson and Brooks Raley, while electric setup man Adam Ottavino and Trevor Hoffman Award-winner Edwin Díaz both re-signed with the club.

On the offensive side, New York signed catcher Omar Narváez, who will split time with rookie Francisco Álvarez, the third highest-rated prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. The infield remains mostly the same. Slugger Pete Alonso, on-base machine Jeff McNeil and superstar Francisco Lindor manning first, second and short, respectively. The competition for third base is fierce, with veterans Luis Guillorme and Eduardo Escobar battling with top-25 prospect Brett Baty.

The outfield, led by centerfielder Brandon Nimmo (who re-signed with the Mets on a lucrative eight-year pact) is deep. It features speedster and slugger Starling Marte, along with Mark Canha and free agent signee Tommy Pham. The DH role looks to be a platoon system, with Daniel Vogelbach hitting against righties with Darin Ruf facing southpaws. After winning more than 100 games a season ago, the Mets have greatly improved. Now, they look to carry that success into October.

Philadelphia Phillies (2022: 87-75, .537)

After a tumultuous regular season that saw them fire their manager and finish third in their division, the Philadelphia Phillies took off in the postseason. Despite being the last NL team to reach October, Philadelphia made a deep run in their first postseason since 2011. Against all odds, the Phillies defeated the Cardinals, Braves and Padres. However, their run fell just short as they were vanquished by the Houston Astros in the World Series. During the offseason, Philadelphia worked to improve their roster, spending over $400 million on free agents, the most notable being All-Star shortstop Trea Turner on an 11-year, $300 million deal.

Joining Turner in the infield are slugger Rhys Hoskins, along with Bryson Stott and Alec Bohm at first, second and third, respectively. Behind dish will be the best catcher in baseball, J.T. Realmuto, who won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger this past season. The outfield will be without two-time MVP Bryce Harper a good chunk of the season following Tommy John surgery. But it still looks strong with Brandon Marsh in center, Nick Castellanos in right and 2022 Silver Slugger Kyle Schwarber in left. Schwarber and Castellanos are likely to DH frequently, as well.

On the other side, the rotation is led by one of the best one-two punches in baseball. Aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola set the tone, with Ranger Suárez and free-agent pickup Taijuan Walker following suit. Moreover, the rotation could receive a boost from Andrew Painter, the sixth-best prospect in baseball, likely to make his MLB debut this season. The bullpen, which already featured lockdown closer Seranthony Domínguez and hard-throwing lefty José Alvarado, improved, as well. The team acquired Gregory Soto via trade and Matt Strahm and Craig Kimbrel through free agency. After surprising everyone in 2022, the Phillies are on everyone’s radar and looking for another deep October run.

Washington Nationals (2022: 55-107, .340)

For some teams, a championship window may be only a year, if not less. That sure seems to apply to the Washington Nationals. After winning the 2019 World Series, they have failed to finish above .500 since, finishing last in baseball in 2022. This season doesn’t appear much brighter, something the front office seems to understand. The Nats rank in the bottom-10 in payroll at just over $75 million. And nearly $50 million of that is due to Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin alone. The rotation looks to be one of the few bright spots as a unit, featuring young arms such as Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore and top-60 prospect Cade Cavalli. The Nationals hope Corbin can bounce back from some recent poor seasons and Strasburg can come back from injury, as well.

The bullpen does feature some quality relievers such as Tanner Rainey, Carl Edwards, Jr. and Kyle Finnegan. The latter two could be trade candidates during the season. The infield, highlighted by CJ Abrams (who was acquired as part of the Juan Soto trade last summer) features feel-good stories Joey Meneses, who burst onto the scene as a 30-year-old rookie last season. They join former prospects Jeter Downs, Carter Kieboom and former Met Dominic Smith, who have failed to live up to their billing as future cornerstones.

The outfield features veteran Corey Dickerson and speedster Victor Robles, one of the few players left from the 2019 team. A healthy mix of youngsters will also compete for playing time. After losing 107 games last season with Juan Soto on the roster for over half the games, things don’t appear much brighter for Washington, who are hoping to trade away veterans and give more time to younger, unproven players.

Closing Thoughts and other news

The NL East has the looks of polar opposites, The Nationals and Marlins are just looking to avoid triple-digit losses. Meanwhile, the Braves, Mets and Phillies carry World Series aspirations. The division is sure to feature a thrilling pennant race featuring many talented teams.

In terms of other recent MLB news, Yu Darvish signed a six-year, $108 million extension with the Padres. Jeff McNeil signed a long-term deal with the Mets. And Frankie Montas looks to miss the first half of the season for the Yankees with shoulder surgery.

That’s all for the National League. Look out for next week’s edition, as I continue these previews with the AL West.