Just as in the American League, the NL’s East is widely considered the best division. In the National’s case, I’m not sold. Granted four of the five teams are strong, but none look overwhelming, nor free of holes in the roster. The big story no doubt will be Bryce Harper… how much impact will he have on the Phillies for the beginning of his $330 million deal there, and how will Washington react and bounce back?
Team by Team:
Atlanta – How good will Ronald Acuna Jr. be in his sophomore season? I’m guessing better than last year, and his rookie season (.293, 26 HR in 111 games) was pretty spectacular. Add in Freddie Freeman, a constant MVP candidate and newcomer Josh Donaldson and you have a pretty solid middle of the lineup. Donaldson’s health is always an issue and I don’t see them getting $23M worth of output from him, but he should be fine and probably play at least 100 games. Nick Markakis was seen as having a freak break-out year last year, but really wasn’t that far off his norm… his .366 on base, for instance close to his .358 career number, and playing every day wasn’t that unusual- he’s had 6-straight years of at least 590 at bats. At 35, he may not match it but still should be pretty solid. Rotation a bit of a question mark, and they really need Mike foltynewicz to come back from his elbow injury by mid-April, as projected.
Miami – Sports Illustrated isn’t alone in seeing them as the worst team in the NL. At least they have a new logo and cap to thrill fans with! In their prime, Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker and Martin Prado were all excellent, but at rather prematurely old 38, 33 and 35 respectively, now don’t contribute a lot to the lineup beyond maturity in the clubhouse. Brian Anderson may be the best player in the lineup, Starlin castro notwithstanding, but hit just .273 with 11 homers last year and will probably be asked to man the tougher 3B positiion more than last year, when he was mostly an outfielder.
New York – A rarity in baseball these days, a team which is basically all-pitching, little-offense. Jed Lowrie is a good pickup that way, with his versatility and improving bat, and fans are looking forward to seeing power hitting rookie Peter Alonso at first. Last year he clubbed 36 homers in the minors. The rotation is second to none though, with a healthy Zack Wheeler and reigning Cy Young winner Jacob De Grom at the front. Although it is unrealistic to expect a repeat 1.70 ERA from JDG this year, he’s been remarkably solid for some years and last year improved his control without losing speed off his fastball (96 MPH avg.)
Philadelphia – It’s all about the Bryce in Liberty Bell City. For a brief couple of months, the Phils had signed on the dotted line for the biggest contract in American pro sport history, inking Harper for 13 years to come. Almost lost in the shuffle was their acquisition of star catcher JL Realmuto and veteran 5-tool outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the one-time favorite from the western part of the state. The Phils were good last year, with lots of young talent, and seemed to have gotten better. Stilll… Aaron Nola is great, Jake Arietta can still pitch (although note his last 4 season trends: 229, 197, 168, 173 innings; 1.77, 3.10, 3.53, 3.96 ERA) and at age 33 it’s unlikely he’ll reverse that trend in a major way. The rest of the rotation is iffy and as Sports Illustrated note, Philly fans are notorious for their lack of patience. A slow start from Harper could set the team off on the wrong foot and turn the standing O’s to rowdy choruses of boos quickly… something not to be written off as impossible for a guy whose own peers voted him the most over-rated player in baseball (with more than 15 times more votes than the runner-up, Toronto’s temperamental Marcus stroman) . Harper should do fine with the small park (walls about 7′ closer than Washington) and if healthy could run at 50 HR. But his average may stay below .250 and there’s the “if” in there… he’s missed more than 50 games twice in the last five years. My personal guesses for him this year: 135G, 40 HR, 98 RBI, .245 avg, .875 OPS
Washington – Lots to like in DC, even if the bearded-one isn’t part of it anymore. Adding Patrick Corbin boosts their already very good starting rotation and we’ll see young (20) Juan Soto in his sophomore season after having a pretty outstanding .292/22/70 in about two-thrids of last season. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki make a great catching duo and Anthony Rendon, entering his free agent year, keeps getting better . Max Scherzer is a no doubter but then Stephen strasburg has never quite become that despite all the hype. A litany of small injuries which have limited him to less than 150 innings over 3 of the past 4 seasons seem largely to blame, and there are no guarantees he’ll be healthier this season.
Atlanta 88 – 74
Washington 87 – 75
Philadelphia 85 – 77
New York 83 – 79
Miami 62 – 100