2021 Division Preview: NL East

A multitude of question marks surround the NL East as spring ends.

If the offseason activity in the NL East is any indication of what we have in store this season, then I think we better buckle up. There are so many interesting storylines to cover here and the more I dig in the more I think this divisional race could be a lot closer than anyone thinks. In the following preview we will look over each team’s projected lineups, benches, rotations, and bullpens. Some of the more pressing storylines to follow will also be discussed along with an impact prospect for each team for the coming year.

  • All lineup info has been heavily based on what Roster Resource has projected as of the time of this publishing. Their projected rosters are set for 26 players right now.
  • The MLB announced that for the 2021 season, exclusively on road trips, a team will be allowed a taxi-squad of 5 players. I did not include who those players may or may not be simply because there will be so much variance based on a team’s needs to determine their taxi-squad right now.
  • If you missed out on any of the AL Previews, you can catch up right here: AL East AL Central AL West 

Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s get to some previews!

 


 

Atlanta Braves

2020 Record: 35-25 (.583 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Additions: Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Jake Lamb

Subtractions: Adam Duvall, Tommy Milone, Mark Melancon, Mike Foltynewicz

 

Projected Lineup

 

Order  Player Position Bats
1 Ronald Acuña Jr. OF R
2 Ozzie Albies 2B S
3 Freddie Freeman 1B L
4 Marcell Ozuna OF R
5 Travis d’Arnaud C R
6 Dansby Swanson SS R
7 Austin Riley 3B R
8 Cristian Pache OF R

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Alex Jackson C R
Pablo Sandoval 1B/3B S
Ehire Adrianza INF/OF S
Ender Inciarte OF L

The Braves should have one of the better offenses in the league again this year. Will they really be as good as they were last year though? In the shortened 2020 season, they ranked either first or second in every major hitting category except for steals where they ranked 18th.

Perhaps the best offseason addition the Braves made for their offense was actually to re-sign Marcell Ozuna and keep him batting cleanup. Last year he played all 60 games and obliterated the ball to the tune of 18 HR while knocking in 56 RBI. Ozuna was certainly aided by his .391 BABIP last year, but he just hits the ball so hard that it really is hard to believe he will regress too much. This is especially true when you look at who will be getting on base in front of him.

Speaking of the top of the lineup, is there another team with a more dangerous 1 through 3 hitter in the majors? It’s certainly debatable. Acuña, Albies, and Freeman are all players that can crush opposing pitchers. With Acuña you have arguably one of the best players in the league and the rare guy who could feasibly put up a 40/40 season. You can’t crown him as the best player in the majors yet, but the argument can be had that he is just getting better. His BA dropped a pretty significant amount last year, while his walk rate went from 10.6% to 18.8%… That’s a better rate than his teammate Freddie Freeman. There’s a reason he is one of the most exciting young players in the game.

Albies is an ascending talent who had a down year in 2020 due to a wrist injury, but should be all systems go heading into this year. After showing modest growth in consecutive seasons from 2018 to 2019, Albies took some lumps last year. Give Albies a mulligan on last year and look for him to pick up where he left off in 2019 as a player with the ability to go 20/20 while pushing for a .275 AVG. We have to remind ourselves sometime, here is a player who has just turned 24 years old, and is entering his 5th season in the majors.

Then there is the reigning 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman. He was the first 1B to win the award since Votto in 2010 and the first Brave to win since 1999. Since 2019, he has been absolutely on fire at the plate and not showing any signs of slowing down. Of particular note, last season he raised his walk rate to an elite 17.2% and also increased his exit velocity on batted balls. He could be the favorite for the batting title this year and would anyone be surprised if Freeman was in the running to repeat as NL MVP?

Rounding out the lineup there are still some dangerous hitters, Dansby Swanson in particular. Swanson is slowly growing into a more dangerous offensive weapon than he gets credit for. Last season, he more than doubled the amount of balls he got the barrel of the bat on from 4.1% to 10.1% which led to an increased HR/FB rate. Austin Riley and Cristian Pache also have an opportunity to turn some heads this year. Both of these guys are likely to remain in the lineup, but they need to keep their BA at a respectable level to ensure they don’t get platooned or even outrighted to the minors.

 

Projected Starting Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Max Fried L
2 Charlie Morton R
3 Ian Anderson R
4 Drew Smyly L
5 Bryse Wilson R
IL* Mike Soroka R

 

This rotation was easily the biggest weakness in 2020 as they ranked near the bottom of the league in ERA (28 out of 30), WHIP (27 out of 30), BB/9 (28 out of 30), and K/9 (28 out of 30). It was clear that some moves needed to be made in the offseason to bolster this rotation and turn it from a weakness to at least being competitive down the entire order.

Things weren’t all bad in the rotation last year. Max Fried turned in an outstanding season with seven wins in 11 games started. He pushed his way into becoming the de facto ace of the Braves rotation. His most effective pitch last year was his deadly curve, which opposing batters only had a .175 BA against. While his K% did dip slightly last year, Fried has shown the capacity for more K’s in the past. This team will be leaning on him heavily to not just repeat last year’s success, but to build on it.

The Braves did make two big free-agent acquisitions over the winter by signing both Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Morton struggled early on last year with a shoulder injury that resulted in a 5.40 ERA in his first four starts. He came back in September to slightly better results, but the Rays felt comfortable letting him walk this offseason. He’s still striking out over a batter an inning and his walk rate looks great too. The key to his success this season will be the health of that 37-year-old shoulder.

Smyly’s recovery from TJ surgery has been an arduous one, but last year he showed more than just a glimmer of hope as a reclamation project with the Giants. Pull up a chair and get ready for some Small Sample Size Theatre. In his last four appearances, Smyly threw for 18 innings, 31 strikeouts, an ERA of 3.05, and an xFIP of 2.08. This is probably not something he would sustain over the course of a full season (and he is likely to have his innings managed this year too), but it makes him a very intriguing pitcher to watch this year. It’s hard not to root for a guy like Smyly.

This rotation is rounded out by two young pitchers who were both former top prospects in the organization and seem to have different trajectories heading into this season. Ian Anderson came seemingly out of nowhere last year to post ridiculous numbers as a rookie. He slashed his walk rate from the minors (although it could still use some work) and he got batters to hit ground balls 52.5% of the time. His xFIP of 3.45 says that regression should be expected, but would the Braves really balk at 160 IP with 175 K’s and a 3.50 ERA? It could happen. Bryse Wilson is currently projected as the 5th starter here. He has the look of a guy who can soak up innings, but his walk rate so far in the majors has been troubling. It’s very likely he will get bumped when Mike Soroka comes off the IL sometime this spring.

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Will Smith L
CL Chris Martin R
SU A.J. Minter L
SU Tyler Matzek L
Mid Luke Jackson R
Mid Grant Dayton L
Mid Nate Jones R
Mid Sean Newcomb L
LR Josh Tomlin R

 

So far this spring both Will Smith and Chris Martin have looked sharp, which means they are more and more likely to head into the season sharing the closing responsibilities. It’s really a good problem to have and there are plenty of MLB teams who would love to have one solid closing option let alone two. The biggest knock on Smith from his 16 innings last season is his propensity to give up the long ball. Martin on the other hand hasn’t struggled with excessive home runs or walks, he just hasn’t traditionally been used to close games out. All that to say, these are both good options in the 8th and 9th innings.

Further down the bullpen, there are some interesting failed closers and starters who I expect to have some success. A.J. Minter and Luke Jackson have both been in and been removed from the closer role in Atlanta. Minter failed pretty miserably in 2019 with a 7.06 ERA and equally bad 7.06 BB/9. He took some steps back towards reliability last year and once upon a time was heralded as the closer of the future. Unfortunately for him, Jackson was the inverse of Minter and went from having a good 2019 to an ugly 2020. Both of these guys have displayed the skill to be high leverage relievers in the past. If they are able to put everything together, they could make this bullpen dangerous for opposing lineups.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

One of the bigger questions heading into this season will be whether or not the additions to the rotation will stay healthy and produce at a level to quiet some of the big bats in this division. The Braves management is clearly looking to accelerate their competitive timeline as evidenced by the re-signing of Ozuna and the acquisitions of Morton and Smyly. However, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they went out and traded for another starter if they aren’t getting the production they hoped for by the end of May and if Mike Soroka isn’t able to come back strong from the IL. Either way, this is going to be a really fun team to follow this year.

 

Impact Prospect

 

Drew Waters could end up forcing his way onto this roster either from an injury or underperformance in the OF. He is a switch-hitter with an exciting offensive skill set and was invited to the big league camp this spring, which would signify the front office thinks he could be close. If he does come up later this season, look for him to occupy one of the corner OF spots and provide plus defense while at the very least giving a serious spark in the steals department on offense. Whether or not he will hit major league pitching right away will be the big question with him.

 


 

Miami Marlins

2020 Record: 31-29 (.517 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Additions: Adam Duvall, Anthony Bass

Subtractions: José Ureña, Brandon Kintzler

 

Projected Lineup

 

Order  Player Position Bats
1 Corey Dickerson OF L
2 Starling Marte OF R
3 Jesús Aguilar 1B R
4 Adam Duvall OF R
5 Brian Anderson 3B R
6 Miguel Rojas SS R
7 Jazz Chisholm 2B L
8 Jorge Alfaro C R

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Chad Wallach C R
Garrett Cooper 1B/OF R
Jon Berti INF/OF R
Magneuris Sierra OF L

 

At first glance, this lineup probably won’t look all that intimidating to an opposing pitcher. Outside of Starling Marte, it lacks any notable star power and contains more than one cast-off from another team. When we look a little deeper into the offensive numbers  from last season, this offense finished close to the middle of the league or worse in every offensive category with the exception of stolen bases (where they finished second). Somehow, the Marlins were able to do just enough to keep their heads above water and stay in most games. In fact, they only had an overall losing record as a team for three games last year. Their front office must have faith they can continue to stay in the plus column, because their only real addition of note to the offense was journeyman Adam Duvall.

Corey Dickerson is projected to bat at the top of this lineup in what will be his third season in Miami. Likely due to some of his health issues and his mediocre defense, Dickerson never seems to garner the respect around the league he deserves as a reliable batter with a good approach at the plate. He can hit for average, has decent pop, and provided he can play 150 games, I like him to have a strong season.

One of the bigger “moves” that was made in the offseason was the front office exercising Starling Marte’s option to retain him for another year. Marte was traded from Arizona over to the Marlins last year on August 30th, and he actually didn’t have as large of an offensive impact on the team as many hoped. As a Diamondback in 2020, Marte had slashed a very nice .311/.384/.443, only to come over and finish the season going .245/.286/.415 as a Marlin. I’d chalk the minor step back to a small sample size and expect Marte to be a solid table-setter in this offense in 2021. With his blend of power and speed, Marte is exactly the type of player most teams would love to have batting second.

There’s an interesting battle going on at 2B between Jazz Chisholm, Jon Berti, and potentially Isan Díaz. Berti would give the Marlins a little more safety at the position, but the current favorite looks to be the boom-or-bust Chisholm. He is a former top prospect with incredible raw power for an infielder and enough speed to be a enough of a threat on the basepaths to make opposing defenses keep account of where he is. The big issue with him—and the reason he isn’t getting more buzz—is his poor plate discipline. The strikeout rate here could push close to 30% which makes his margin for error super slim if he wants to keep the job over Berti.

 

Projected Starting Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Sandy Alcantara R
2 Pablo López R
3 Elieser Hernandez R
4 Trevor Rogers L
5 Sixto Sánchez R

 

Somehow the Marlins always seem to squeeze the most out of their pitching talent and this rotation is no exception to that. Sandy Alcantara is set to headline this group. He might not be a household name yet, but Alcantara has been taking baby steps in his control and ability to strike guys out over the last couple of years. In particular, his sinker has shown to be an extremely effective pitch with an opposing BA of only .179 against it last season. Alcantara has a four-pitch mix, but to really take a giant leap forward he’s going to need to keep his BB% down and maybe find that tick or two of heat he’s lost off his fastball since he entered the league.

Behind Alcantara are two more pitchers who really deserve more credit than they have gotten to this point. Both Pablo López and Elieser Hernandez have shown the promise of being reliable starters in this league. In particular, López seems primed to have a nice season and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the most reliable starter in this rotation when it’s all said and done this year. He has done an exceptional job of limiting the long ball and keeping hard contact in general down. He has also discovered an extra gear when it comes to striking guys out. I mean, just look at the growth year over year for him:

Season W G GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB EV ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2018 2 10 10 58.2 7.06 2.76 1.23 .281 74.9% 50.0% 15.7% 86.2 4.14 4.49 4.15 0.4
2019 5 21 21 111.1 7.68 2.18 1.21 .299 66.4% 47.6% 14.6% 88.2 5.09 4.28 4.37 1.5
2020 6 11 11 57.1 9.26 2.83 0.63 .293 66.8% 52.2% 8.7% 85.7 3.61 3.09 3.73 1.6

It is really incredible to think that rounding out the rotation are two more exciting and young arms in Trevor Rogers and Sixto Sánchez. With his positive performance this spring, a lot of eyes have been drawn to the flame-throwing Rogers. Any left-handed pitcher who can top 97mph is worth keeping an eye on, and if Rogers can limit the free passes he is going to be dangerous. Sixto also pumps it in at 98mph, only from the right side. All that heat has resulted in an ability to keep batters off-balance and induces a lot of poor contact. Surprisingly, there has not been a high strikeout total yet, but the kid has plenty of time to mature and will be a lot of fun to watch this year.

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Anthony Bass R
SU Yimi García R
SU Dylan Floro R
Mid Richard Bleier L
Mid John Curtiss R
Mid James Hoyt R
Mid Adam Cimber R
Mid Ross Detwiler L
LR Zach Pop R

 

Anthony Bass has got to be the ultimate journeyman on this team and was one of the few free agent signings this offseason. Currently, he looks to be the guy with a hold on the closing gig, although poor performance could change that in a hurry. Since 2011, Bass has played for seven major league teams in addition to also spending 2016 playing in Japan. Although he doesn’t boast the gaudy strikeout numbers most teams would want from their closer, he has a deadly slider that resulted in a .118 BA against.

From a pure stuff standpoint, Yimi García is the more exciting reliever at the top of this bullpen and could be the guy who ends the year leading the team in saves. He served in 2020 as the primary setup guy and was the Marlins’ most effective and consistent reliever putting up a ridiculous and clearly unrepeatable 0.60 ERA. García is primarily a fastball/slider guy, but he also has a decent curve and changeup he can show. There’s a lot to like here given his ability to strikeout 30% of the batters he faces and the aforementioned pitch mix. 

The one downside I see here is with such a righty-dominant starting rotation, you would think the Marlins would have put more of an emphasis on some left-handed relievers. It could end up being a non-issue as the year wears on but it really wouldn’t surprise me to see the Marlins promote minor league lefty Braxton Garrett and use him out of the bullpen as opposed to as a starter.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

The Marlins lost over 100 games in 2019, so it was a pleasant surprise to see them squeak their way into the playoffs last year. This was an especially interesting storyline when you consider at one point in 2020 they endured a Covid outbreak where 18 players tested positive forcing them to call up a slew of young players to fill the team out once they were allowed to resume playing. They ended up sweeping their Wild Card Series matchup against the Cubs only to get swept themselves in the following Divisional Series versus the Braves. It sure seemed like the Marlins discovered some sort of secret sauce last year in the shortened season and the big question is whether or not they can carry that into this season. The rest of the teams in this division made some very competitive moves, so it would seem the Marlins’ margin for error will be slim.

 

Impact Prospect

 

At some point earlier than later, the Marlins will be taking a hard look at promoting top prospect JJ Bleday to give some extra juice to their offense. Bleday was selected fourth overall in 2019 and has received glowing reports from the alternate site last season as well as from spring training this year. There is a lot to be excited about here as Bleday projects as a player with plus power who should hit for a decent average. On a lot of teams, a prospect like this might get slow-cooked in the minors just a little longer, but the Marlins have shown they have no problem pushing a prospect up if they believe it gives them a better shot to win. With that in mind, Bleday could be up early in the season if there’s an injury or by July if the Marlins are in the playoff hunt.

 


 

Philadelphia Phillies

2020 Record: 28-32 (.467 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Additions: J.T. Realmuto, Archie Bradley, Matt Moore, José Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler

Subtractions: Jay Bruce, Jake Arrieta

 

Projected Lineup

 

Order  Player Position Bats
1 Andrew McCutchen OF R
2 J.T. Realmuto C R
3 Bryce Harper OF L
4 Rhys Hoskins 1B R
5 Alec Bohm 3B R
6 Didi Gregorius SS L
7 Jean Segura 2B R
8 Odúbel Herrera OF L

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Andrew Knapp C S
Brad Miller INF/OF L
Adam Haseley OF L
Matt Joyce OF L
Roman Quinn OF S

 

There are so many interesting storylines in this offense but one that stood out more than the others to me. Pretty clearly, this Phillies offense would have taken a huge hit if they hadn’t resigned J.T. Realmuto this offseason. While the five-year/$115 million contract might seem like too much to invest initially, it really is hard to discount just how much of an edge they have with such a stellar bat at the catcher position. There’s a reason they have him slotted to hit second. Realmuto has good power, a little speed, and knows how to work an at bat to get a walk. If that wasn’t good enough, he is also one of the best pitch framers and is elite in throwing runners out in attempted steals from 1B to 2B.

I’m not sure if it’s because of his enormous contract, his persona, his past health issues, or fatigue from the past hype, but Bryce Harper does not get the recognition he deserves. His statcast page shows Harper as the top 8% of the league in Hard Hit and Exit Velocity and top 4% in xBA, xSLG, and Barrel%… Oh, and he is literally at the top in BB%. Would it really surprise anyone if Harper hit 50 bombs this year or was able to sneak into the MVP conversation?

The big question in this lineup is which version of Rhys Hoskins will we see batting cleanup this year? Hoskins’ 2020 was brought to an early end with an elbow injury that required offseason Tommy John surgery. He looks to still be knocking off some rust as he has only hit .212 this spring. Here’s hoping he can fully recover and take some strides towards getting his power stroke back. There is 30-homer power in the bat and an incredible ability to take a free pass (15.7% walk rate in 2020).

As one of the more successful call-ups last year, Bohm has cemented his spot in the Phillies lineup for the foreseeable future. His .410 BABIP last year means that his .338 BA should not be expected to repeat, but his 8.9% walk rate and 20% strikeout rate are very encouraging signs. The next thing Bohm needs to develop at the major league level is his power. There could be growing pains, but If things click we could be looking at a .260/.330/.480 type of guy with 25 homers.

 

Projected Starting Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Aaron Nola R
2 Zack Wheeler R
3 Zach Eflin R
4 Matt Moore L
5 Chase Anderson R

 

The weak point on this Phillies team could very well be their rotation. They are going to need another big year from Aaron Nola and at the same time for the back end of this rotation to eat some innings. In 2020, Nola delivered arguably one of his best statistical seasons to date. His K/9 rate hit an all-time high of 12.11, and it was supported by an increase in his swinging strike rate (11.5% up to 14.1%). Nola has matured into something of a workhorse, and the Phillies need him to be if they are going to have success this year. There aren’t a lot of 200-inning guys who will get you over a strikeout an inning in this league, but here we have one and he is just hitting his prime.

Zack Wheeler did a fine job of pitching quality innings and being a solid number two option behind Nola. Something to note, Wheeler’s strikeout numbers dropped an alarming amount last year and some of that might have to do with a less effective four-seamer. He actually isn’t throwing it with any less velocity than in 2019, it’s just getting hit a lot more and getting 7% less whiffs. It’s good to remind ourselves that the sample size here is small, but it is something to be wary of. This team needs Wheeler to find his way back to striking out almost a batter an inning with a sub-4 ERA if they want a shot a the playoffs.

The pitcher to watch to take a large step forward in Zach Eflin. He took a solid step forward in his development last year as a middle of the rotation arm for the Phillies. His FIP of 3.39 suggests there might even be more room for improvement. One of the larger changes Eflin made last year was to throw his sinker more… a lot more. He went from throwing it 21.9% of the time, to 51.6% of the time. It makes sense why he threw it more, he was able to get more whiffs and put away more batters with it than he did in 2019. However, batters hit .310 against that pitch, so maybe our optimism for Eflin should be tempered a little unless he sorts out his pitch mix deficiencies. 

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Héctor Neris R
CL Archie Bradley R
SU José Alvarado L
SU Brandon Kintzler R
Mid Connor Brogdon R
Mid Vince Velasquez R
Mid Sam Coonrod R
LR David Hale R

 

While their backend of the rotation might result in some tough to watch starts, the bullpen could end up being the thing to quite literally save the day. There are four guys here with ample high leverage experience. As things stand now, it sure looks like Héctor Neris and free agent acquisition Archie Bradley will be sharing the closer role. Neris had some struggles with consistency last year and saw his walk rate balloon. This would explain why the Phillies went so hard after Bradley in addition to Alvarado and Kintzler.

Outside of those four guys, I like Connor Brogdon as the dark horse to end the year with the most saves or perhaps just be the most valuable reliever. Brogdon’s only major league innings under his belt are the ones from last season, but what a debut he had. He only gave up five hits last year and he displayed an ability to strike out batters on both sides of the plate at an elite level. Yes, Brogdon really needs to get the walk rate down, and if he does, he could climb the pecking order quickly.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

The Phillies are in an interesting spot as a team because on paper they look like a playoff team. Last season they placed in the top third of the league in just about every hitting category while also putting together a respectable enough pitching staff to keep games close. They just couldn’t seem to figure out that last piece to push them into serious contention and ended the season as a sub .500 team.

So, what’s the secret sauce if they are going to make a push in this competitive division? I think they are going to need to slug their way into contention and will need to get the most out of guys like Harper and Realmuto while also needing a bounceback from Hoskins and even Andrew McCutchen. I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to make a splash in the rotation with a trade if things are looking close when June rolls around. A hot start for this team will be tantamount to their success because they might not be able to catch the Braves or Mets if they fall too far behind in the divisional standings.

 

Impact Prospect

 

It feels a little cheap to talk about Spencer Howard since he debuted last year, but he really is the guy that the Phillies need to step up in a big way once he receives the call again this year. He will begin this season in the minors and hopefully the shoulder issues from last season will be long gone while he prepares for his eventual callup. Howard has the velocity and pitch mix you look for in a frontline starter but he can’t seem to shake the injury bug. Odds are his innings will be monitored closely this season, but that doesn’t mean his impact is any less important.

 


 

Washington Nationals

2020 Record: 26-34 (.433 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Additions: Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, Jon Lester

Subtractions: Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor

 

Projected Lineup

 

Order  Player Position Bats
1 Victor Robles OF R
2 Juan Soto OF L
3 Trea Turner SS R
4 Josh Bell 1B S
5 Kyle Schwarber OF L
6 Starlin Castro 2B R
7 Yan Gomes C R
8 Josh Harrison 3B R

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Alex Avila C L
Ryan Zimmerman 1B R
Jordy Mercer INF R
Hernán Pérez INF/OF R
Andrew Stevenson OF L

 

The Nationals strength last season was it’s offense, and their front office decided to reinforce it even further by making some big moves this offseason. In one of the more interesting and surprising trades, the Nats went out and traded for Josh Bell (coming off a down year with the Pirates) to step in and be their 1B of the future. Bell had the look of a future star at the position after mashing 37 HR and posting a .277/.367/.569 triple slash in 2019. Last season couldn’t have been any further from that with Bell posting a paltry .226/.305/.364 line. Did the Nationals make a mistake trading for Bell? Well, his exit velocity and hard hit rate stayed relatively the same while his launch angle and ground ball rate went the wrong direction. That means it’s very possible with a small tweak or two he could recapture his 2019 form.

Who is the most dangerous hitter in the majors right now? The argument could be made for Mike Trout or maybe even Ronald Acuña Jr., but it’s going to be hard to deny Juan Soto those honors if he continues to scorch the baseball the way he did last year.Soto hit for a .351 AVG with 13 HR in only 47 games played. Even more incredible is his eye at the plate and ability to take a walk. Last year Soto walked at a 20.9% clip which means his OBP ended up being and almost unheard of .490. Seriously, think about that. That means he very nearly got on base one out of every two times he came to the plate. It will be hard for him to sustain that type of performance over the course of a full season, but Soto is the most feared hitter on this offense and will be giving pitchers fits this year.

If Soto hadn’t destroyed pitching the way he did last year, there would probably be a lot more attention being drawn to Trea Turner who’s hitting right behind him in the lineup. Very few have the blend of power, speed, and hit tool that Turner does. Turner’s Statcast page is a thing of beauty and shows just how good a hitter he really is. He could easily be in the conversation to hit 20+ HR and steal 40 bases, which makes him a threat every time he steps into the box. He is one of the premier shortstops in the majors and should stay that way for a while.

Of course, the rest of this offense has more warts than Soto and Turner do, but that doesn’t mean they should be looked over. Victor Robles in particular has disappointed (at least offensively) to this point in his major league career. I’m not ready to write him off quite yet. Robles is just about to turn 24 and is a great defensive center fielder. If he can work on taking some small steps forward with the bat, then he should stick in the leadoff spot. After Robles, another OF of note is free agent signee Kyle Schwarber. There might not be the best batter’s eye in Schwarber’s profile, but this guy can blast the cover off a baseball. He could be a huge boost to this offense in the power department so long as he can keep his average at a somewhat respectable level.

 

Projected Starting Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Max Scherzer R
2 Patrick Corbin L
3 Stephen Strasburg R
4 Jon Lester L
5 Joe Ross R

 

There are a lot of question marks surrounding this rotation and so much intrigue, particularly with the top three guys. 36-year-old Max Scherzer is set to lead this rotation and you really have to wonder if he can hold it together for the entire season with all of the innings that have piled up on his arm. From 2009 to 2019, Scherzer never threw less than 170 innings and he topped 200 innings 6 times. Last season we may have seen the beginning of the decline for him as he posted a 3.74 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. This might not sound like terrible numbers, and really they aren’t bad, but they just aren’t what we are used to seeing from Scherzer. While his strikeout rate has remained steady, his walk rate has started to tick up and the Nats might be better suited to keep his starts from going too deep into the game to preserve his arm for the entirety of the season.

Another guy with some questions around his step back in performance from last year is Patrick Corbin. The 2018 and 2019 season showed off Corbin as a reliable 200-inning workhorse with a great strikeout rate. He still threw for a decent amount of innings in last year’s shortened season, but the skills and results all took a big step back. What likely attributed to this was the almost 2 MPH decrease on his fastball in addition to his significantly less effective slider. Corbin’s slider wasn’t terrible by any stretch, but it just wasn’t the lights-outs pitch he was used to. If he can get his slider working for him this year he should see a rebound.

2020 was basically a wash for Stephen Strasburg since he got shut down after just a couple starts and needed surgery for his carpal tunnel. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but all reports so far from spring indicate that Strasburg is on track to start the season and is healthy. With the exception of his 2019, this feels like a story we play out every year with Stephen Strasburg. Given the uncertainty surrounding Scherzer and Corbin rebounding, and the quality of pitchers rounding out the rotation (Jon Lester and Joe Ross), the Nationals really need Strasburg to stay healthy. The skills are certainly still present, but the range of outcomes is perhaps wider with Stras than with anyone in this rotation. He could end the year as the most valuable pitcher on the team or just as easily the least due to injury.

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Brad Hand L
SU Tanner Rainey R
SU Daniel Hudson R
Mid Wander Suero R
Mid Kyle Finnegan R
Mid Javy Guerra R
Mid Luis Avilán L
LR Erick Fedde R
LR Austin Voth R

 

In a savvy move after letting Sean Doolittle walk, the Nationals signed the steady Brad Hand to be their closer. There has been a big deal made with Hand over the last few years about a steady decrease in his fastball velocity. Although his skills look to be declining slightly, his results haven’t yet. It’s very possible this just means he has been playing with fire and sooner or later he will get burned. However, reports out of spring training have indicated that Hand has recovered a couple ticks on his fastball. At 31 years old, Hand isn’t exactly over the hill by pitching standards. If he can retain that velocity, there could be a case to be made for Hand to be a huge difference maker to close out games.

Before the Nats signed Hand, all signs pointed to Tanner Rainey as the guy to lock down the 9th inning. As it stands now, Rainey will be settled into the setup role and will be ready to slide into Hand’s spot should he falter or get hurt. Wherever he ends up pitching, one thing is for sure, Rainey will be striking out a lot of batters with his fastball/slider combo. His slider is devastating and caused opposing batters to whiff an elite 75.5% of the time.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

Upon further reflection, the Nationals really seem to be the team in this division with the widest range of outcomes. On the positive side, their top three pitchers could all stay healthy and give meaningful innings while buoyed by a quality bullpen. The offense, led by Juan Soto and Trea Turner, could hit on all cylinders with some of the additions of Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. If these things happen, it’s not hard to imagine the Nationals in the hunt for a wildcard berth. This feels like a best case scenario though. If we look at things from a glass half-empty lens, it’s really not hard to see the Nationals with some great offensive games, but with some holes beyond their marquee bats. It’s also not hard to picture a season where Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg all have difficulty being the types of pitchers who can go toe-to-toe with some of the more potent lineups in the league. For these reasons, I actually think the Nationals are one of the more intriguing teams in this division and I can’t wait to see how things end up.

 

Impact Prospect

 

If the Nationals offense starts spinning their wheels, it might not be long before Carter Kieboom gets the call. He actually could have broken camp as the starting 3B for the team, but a poor spring training performance all but sealed his fate back to the minors to iron out the deficiencies in his game. Kieboom has torn up the minors before and projects as a guy with power and hit, which are always sought after qualities in a hitter. The problem is, he just hasn’t been able to figure out how to hit major league pitching in his two stints in the big leagues. There’s talent and ability here, Kieboom just needs to figure out how to unlock it and hit the offspeed stuff while he’s at it.

 


 

New York Mets

2020 Record: 26-34 (.433 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Additions: Francisco Lindor, James McCann, Marcus Stroman, Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker

Subtractions: Wilson Ramos, Steven Matz, Amed Rosario, Andrés Giménez

 

Projected Lineup

 

Order  Player Position Bats
1 Brandon Nimmo OF L
2 Francisco Lindor SS S
3 Michael Conforto OF L
4 Pete Alonso 1B R
5 Dominic Smith OF L
6 Jeff McNeil 2B L
7 J.D. Davis 3B R
8 James McCann C R

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Tomás Nido C R
Luis Guillorme INF L
Jonathan Villar INF/OF S
Albert Almora
OF R
Kevin Pillar OF R

 

The Mets made a huge splash this winter when they acquired SS Francisco Lindor from Cleveland. It was the big move that Mets fans were starving for and their new owner delivered. Lindor is one of the best hitting shortstops in the game right now, hitting for 30+ homers and double digit steals in three of the last four seasons. He rarely strikes out (14.1 career K%) and his solid on base ability (career .346 OBP) will be an excellent presence in the #2 spot for the Mets. With Lindor in tow and a title in their sights, the Mets will look towards locking down their shiny new shortstop to keep him in orange and blue for the rest of his career.

James McCann was another Steve Cohen signing, one that wasn’t as expected but was just as welcomed. The big fish in the catcher market J.T. Realmuto was the prize a lot of fans were hoping for, but it seems the Mets feel that money was better spent elsewhere. What McCann brings to this team is a backstop that can play good defense behind the plate and be a non-zero in the batter’s box – something the Mets have struggled with at the catcher position for some years now. McCann has been quietly a very productive catcher over the last two seasons, hitting .276/.334/.474 (115 wRC+) with 25 home runs across 587 plate appearances. He isn’t as flashy as Realmuto, but McCann is a productive, reliable everyday catcher that are quite hard to come by in the league these days.

In the outfield, Michael Conforto will be back in RF for the Metropolitans. Conforto has been on the rise for some time now. After his incredible 2017, Conforto’s subsequent 2 seasons didn’t offer much in the way of AVG – a .250 mark between 2018-19 – but he has a penchant for walks (12.1 career BB%) and can hit for power to the tune of 97 HR and a .230 ISO over the last four seasons. Conforto just turned 28 and is looking like he could become one of the league’s next elite outfielders. All the more reason for the Mets to extend him along with Lindor as soon as possible. Having those two back to back in the lineup will pay dividends for a long time.

After his outrageous 2019 rookie season, first baseman Pete Alonso fell back to earth in a big way in the shortened 2020 season. Don’t be mistaken, the power is still there as his 16 home runs in only 57 games and just about every Statcast metric will tell you. Alonso seems to be suffering from a lack of contact, especially on balls thrown out of the zone. As a major power threat, Alonso is going to see quite a lot of pitches that shy away from his wheelhouse, so it’s something he’ll have to get under control going forward if he wants to return to his 2019 form.

 

Projected Starting Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Jacob deGrom R
2 Marcus Stroman R
3 Taijuan Walker R
4 David Peterson L
5 Joey Lucchesi
L
IL* Carlos Carrasco R
IL* Noah Syndergaard R

 

Jacob deGrom continues his reign as best pitcher on the planet and has even reportedly been adding velocity this season. deGrom has been a very good pitcher since his debut in 2014, but has basically become unhittable the last 3 seasons, compiling a 2.05 ERA (2.32 FIP/2.85 xFIP) with a 32.9 K% and a measly 5.7 BB%. deGrom’s aforementioned velocity also keeps increasing somehow, as he averaged 98.6 MPH with the four-seamer last season, a pitch that registered a 34.7% CSW and a .180 BAA. Coupled with his dominant slider and with a 92 MPH changeup mixed in, deGrom is a monumental task for even the most elite hitters. He’ll once again be the 200+ IP anchor of the Mets’ improving rotation.

With Noah Syndergaard starting the year on the IL, Marcus Stroman will get his chance to impress as the #2 behind deGrom. Stroman exercised his right to opt out of the 2020 season and suffered a tear in his calf muscle during summer workouts. Stroman has had flashes of brilliance in his career between Toronto and New York, and over his six seasons has compiled 849.1 IP with a 3.76 ERA (3.64 FIP/3.59 xFIP). His career 19.6 K% is on the lower side, but he does keep the walks in check (career 6.9 BB%) and generates ground balls at an elite 58.6% career mark. He also showed career-best hard contact numbers in 2019. Stroman has been very vocal about his personal training both mental and physical, and seems highly dedicated to improving himself going into 2021. He’s looked quite sharp this spring, throwing 18.1 IP in five starts for a 3.44 ERA with 17 punchouts and only two free passes. This could be the season that Stroman’s acquisition can start to show a major return on investment for New York. 

After being traded to Toronto at last year’s deadline, Taijuan Walker hit free agency and landed with the Mets on a two-year deal. After injury and a non-tender from Arizona in 2019, Walker enjoyed a great bounce-back season in 2020, making 11 starts for 53.1 IP and a 2.70 ERA (4.56 FIP/4.82 xFIP). Like Stroman, strikeouts are not his strong suit (career 21.4 K%) but he can still effectively soak up innings in the back half of the rotation.

Left hander David Peterson made his MLB debut for the Mets last season where he made 10 appearances (nine starts) and his sole relief appearance was a scoreless four IP in relief of Michael Wacha. Peterson totaled a 3.44 ERA (4.52 FIP/5.11 xFIP) and relies mainly on a low 90’s fastball and an effective slider. With multiple injuries to the Mets rotation, Peterson will have a chance to shine in the early season for the Mets.

The less talked about half of the Francisco Lindor blockbuster, Carlos Carrasco was a major acquisition for a Mets rotation that was, at the time, in a state of flux. Carrasco had an excellent 2020, making 12 starts with a .291 ERA (3.59 FIP/3.65 xFIP) and a 29.3 K%. He did see an uncharacteristic jump in walks – his 9.6 BB% was his worst mark since his five-start rookie season back in 2009. Carrasco looked lined up to slot it right behind deGrom in the rotation, but unfortunately he suffered a torn hamstring while running sprints. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks plus rehab, and if he is back to form can be an excellent addition to the Mets rotation.

When the 2020 season was still in its first incarnation of Spring Training, Noah Syndergaard began experiencing discomfort in his elbow that eventually turned into Tommy John surgery. “Thor” has been no stranger to the IL since breaking into the league in 2015, but he managed to throw a career-high 197.2 IP in 32 starts in 2019. Syndergaard sits in the high 90s with his heater and can touch 100 at times, and pairs that with a devastating changeup and slider that generates a ton of swings and misses. He is expected to return to the field some time in June, and as recently as this past weekend was reportedly hitting 97 MPH in his bullpen sessions. Along with Carrasco, Syndergaard will be a huge plus for the Mets down the line in 2021. 

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Edwin Díaz R
SU Trevor May R
SU Miguel Castro R
Mid Dellin Betances R
Mid Jeurys Familia R
Mid Aaron Loup L
Mid Jacob Barnes R
LR Mike Montgomery L

 

After a disastrous 2019 debut with the Mets, Edwin Díaz was highly effective in 2020. Díaz made 26 appearances, netting six saves and a 1.75 ERA (2.18 FIP/2.29 xFIP) and a 45.5 K%. His main issue in 2019—an astronomical 2.33 HR/9—was much improved to 0.70 in 2020. Díaz also saw some competition for the primary closer role, mainly in Seth Lugo who logged three saves of his own. With Lugo still on the mend from a bone spur, the ninth inning will once again fall to Díaz. At least for now. 

Trevor May was brought in as a free agent to bolster the Mets’ late inning options. May has spent the entirety of his six-year career with the Twins and has really come into his own over the last seasons. In that timeframe, he’s appeared in 113 games and totaled a 3.19 ERA (3.56 FIP/3.48 xFIP) and a 32.9 K%. He can be an excellent late game option along with Miguel Castro and can step into the closer role if need be.

With the later inning options locked down, the middle innings for the Mets can get a little dicey. Both Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances figure to get a lot of work in these spots, and the combined volatility of these two relievers can cause many a headache for the Mets and their fans. Betances is three years removed from his last effective season across town with the Yankees and Familia has been wildly inconsistent during his two stints with the Mets. Hopefully manager Luis Rojas can keep them relegated to lower leverage situations when needed. 

 

Storylines To Follow

 

With a new owner and plenty of new additions to the roster, the Mets finally seem like they can be optimistic. Since their 2015 World Series run, the Mets have been frustratingly tough to watch as injuries and poor performance have marred otherwise fairly good teams. But this year feels different. They made a blockbuster deal for an elite shortstop, they bolstered the bullpen and rotation, they got a great catcher at a reasonable salary. But the question remains – is it enough? The Mets seem to have the habit of getting in their own way. Will that continue in 2021 despite the spring optimism? Or is that a relic of the byegone Wilpon age? 

Much like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Mets were highly active and improved their team in multiple ways this offseason. But also like the Jays, the Mets play in a very competitive division. The Braves are still a powerhouse, the Nationals and Phillies can’t be counted out just yet, and the Marlins are very much on the rise. The Mets have all the makings of a team set to make a deep playoff run, but what happens between now and October is all that matters. 

I am also highly interested to see what this rotation looks like come June or July. Obviously deGrom is an unfairly good ace, but the pieces behind him are crucial. Both Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker seemed poised for good seasons, with Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard on the mend. If things break right, the Mets could very well have one of, if not the best rotation in the NL going into the summer. 

 

Impact Prospect

 

When the Red Sox traded outfielder Andrew Benintendi to the Royals, the Mets snuck their way into the trade to make it a three-team deal. In the swap they acquired Khalil Lee, a toolsy 22-year-old outfield prospect who could be ready for the bigs by the end of this season. Lee stormed through the minor leagues while with Kansas City, and his 2019 season in AA saw him hit .264/.363/.372 with eight home runs and 53 stolen bases. Lee is obviously quick on his feet and can hack it in center field, and his incredibly strong arm can aid him regardless of where they deploy him in the outfield. With Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto holding down the current outfield, it will be tough to get him at bats. But it may be sooner than later that Lee is forcing the issue for playing time at the major league level. 

*Mets section written by Liam Casey.

 


 

Predictions

 

How in the world will this division end up? This is one of those divisions where I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if any team won, seriously. Each of these teams has the ability and the star power to compete, the question is what is the most likely thing to happen? Can the Nationals tap into the less heralded parts of their offense while putting together a competitive rotation for a full season? Will all of the offseason trades and acquisitions made by the Mets be enough to vault them from worst to first? 

There is just so much intrigue here, but at the end of the day I need to go with my gut. Keep in mind, these are just my best guesses based on my assessment of the teams. I really have no issue being wrong, but it’s also a lot of fun to make these predictions, so here they are:

 

Place Team Record Pct
1 Atlanta Braves 97-65 .598
2 New York Mets 94-68 .580
3 Miami Marlins 86-76 .530
4 Philadelphia Phillies 84-78 .518
5 Washington Nationals 67-95 .413

 

When it’s all said and done, I really think it will be a two-horse race between the Braves and the Mets with the Braves just slightly edging out first place. Their team has a great balance throughout and they’ve been incredibly aggressive which leads me to believe they might be in the market to trade even still. That being said, the Mets have also been so aggressive and have made some dramatic improvements to their team. The wildcard with them will be the return of Carrasco and Thor. If their rotation falls apart, I could easily see the Mets finishing about much lower in the standings. The Marlins are a great story, but I seriously question if they can keep up without adding a significant bat to the lineup. Then there’s the Phillies and Nationals who need a lot to go right in order to succeed this year.

 

Photos by IconSportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Gabe Zammit

Gabe Zammit has been writing about baseball since 2017. He is a contributor on Pitcher List in addition to Friends with Fantasy Benefits. Outside of the baseball world, Gabe is a music director and producer and loves to chat about anything and everything music.

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