With Spring Training opening in less than two weeks, you could make the case that the National League East is going to perhaps be the toughest division in baseball for the upcoming season. We all know the Braves Front Office was busy bolstering the bullpen over the last four months, while adding veteran starter Cole Hamels to the mix, bringing on Travis d’Arnaud to serve as the everyday catcher and most recently filling the cleanup spot with veteran outfielder Marcell Ozuna on a one-year deal. So, does that make the Braves the team to beat for a third straight season in the East? Let’s take a look at the moves Atlanta’s closest rivals made since the end of 2019 and you be the judge for yourself.
Washington: The reigning World Series champs had two major question marks coming into the offseason. Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract only to return to the Nationals rotation, while Anthony Rendon is off to Anaheim to join the Angels. The defending champs were busy over the winter, signing veteran infielders Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, Howie Kendrick (re-sign) and Asdrubal Cabrera, in addition to 35 year old reliever Will Harris to help the Nationals bullpen. But Nationals fans still have the same question most Braves fans have had all winter: who fills the void left by Anthony Rendon at both third and the cleanup spot? There’s still two huge names reportedly available in Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant and I’d expect to see Washington connected to both. But with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin anchoring the rotation, the pitching should keep them in games most nights even with a potential dip in offensive production this season.
New York: The Mets have had quite an interesting offseason with their new manager Carlos Beltran right in the thick of MLB’s investigation of the Astros sign-stealing incident. But now that Beltran has been replaced by Luis Rojas, the club can turn the page and move forward to the upcoming season. New York fans probably expected more over the winter but there are a few under-the-radar moves I like with the addition of Dellin Betances to the bullpen on a one-year contract along with veteran starters Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha joining the likes of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. They feature a lineup that includes the reigning NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso, along with young sluggers JD Davis, Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil. The biggest question of all in The Big Apple? Will Yoenis Cespedes EVER contribute? And what can they realistically expect out of 37 year old Robinson Cano who they have under contract through the 2023 season. In my opinion, the Mets are counting on way too many “ifs” this season. IF Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia can bounce back from rough 2019’s, IF Cespedes can find his way on the field, IF one of those veteran starters can replace the production they got from Zack Wheeler, IF they can stay healthy, then maybe just maybe they can make things interesting in the East this year. As of now, I don’t like their chances.
Philadelphia: Phillies fans had high hopes going into 2019 after inking Bryce Harper to a historic contract along with the additions of JT Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and others. One glaring weakness with the Fightin’s was the lack of rotational depth. The Phillies Front Office is banking on Zack Wheeler to team up with Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta at the top of the rotation and looking to younger arms like Zack Eflin, Vince Velasquez to step up and fill out the staff. A healthy Andrew McCutchen will help not only the top of the order, but will improve a defense that was shaky to say the least in 2019. Didi Gregorious’ presence should also provide the Phillies more depth in the starting lineup. But perhaps the biggest move of all this offseason in the City of Brotherly Love was the addition of manager Joe Girardi. Known as a players manager, the chemistry in the dugout and clubhouse should be vastly improved from the last two seasons after the Gabe Kapler experiment ended in utter disappointment. At times over the last two seasons, fans in Philly seemed to have more fun tossing obscenities at their skipper than the actual results on the field. The Phillies will have nights when they put up some crooked numbers offensively, but I don’t see them being a playoff caliber team going into the new season. But, much like their rivals from DC, a trade for Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado would be a game changer to the hierarchy in the East.
Miami: While the Fish are still the worst team in the League by far, Derek Jeter’s squad will be an improved one in the new year. No, they’re not going to challenge any of the other four teams in the East for a worst-to-first scenario, but, as in years past, they could play the role of spoiler and keep someone home in October. Offensively they won’t be a push over with the additions of Jonathan Villar and Jesus Aguilar along with the signing of outfielder Corey Dickerson. Brian Anderson, Miguel Rojas and youngster Isan Diaz should give Miami a respectable order but the issue will still lie on the mound. Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith and Jordan Yamamoto all made significant strides last season but it’s a very young and inexperienced starting staff. The bullpen also has plenty of holes but does gain hard throwing righty Jose Urena, who was moved out of the rotation after last season. Ryne Stanek had a ton of success with Tampa but that didn’t translate after the trade last July that sent him to Florida’s other coast. Miami is still far from a contender but they won’t be the pushover they’ve been in years past. And much like the last few seasons, the team that has the most success against the Fish, just could emerge as division champs once again.
So, there’s a quick snapshot at what’s changed over the last four and a half months. The Braves are still picked by many nationally to be the team to beat in the NL East. But, it’s certainly looking like it’ll be a brutal division once again in the new year. It should certainly make for “must see TV” on a nightly basis between late March and the end of September.
Kevin McAlpin has covered the Braves since 2012 for @680TheFan and @BravesRadioNet