Every year, we preview each division leading up to the start of the season. Now, with less than two weeks remaining before Opening Day, it’s time to turn our attention to the National League East.
Is this the most exciting the NL East has ever been? Sure, the Nationals are rebuilding, but they’re doing it with a gaggle of potential stars. The Marlins seem to have the same number of questions that they usually do, albeit questions they’ve tried to address in a more aggressive fashion than usual. But wow, that top three!
The Mets have thrown all of baseball into a tizzy with their spending spree this offseason, adding to a team that won 101 games last year. The Braves are actually the reigning division champs and have a core of young talent that’s the envy of the entire sport. Oh, and the Phillies didn’t just sign arguably the best free agent available this offseason in Trea Turner … they, uh, went to the World Series last year. This is a mid-aughts AL-East-style arms race. You’ve got to love it.
So, let’s take a look at the NL East. Teams are listed in alphabetical order by nickname up top, with my standings prediction below.
1) Is Vaughn Grissom ready to take over at shortstop?
The Braves have done such a great job of locking down their roster by signing players to extensions early on in their career that it is noteworthy which players they don’t sign long-term. Thus, with Dansby Swanson now hanging out at Wrigley Field for the next seven seasons, the next man up is Vaughn Grissom, who was a pleasant surprise in his 41 games in 2022. But now he’s the full-time shortstop, and the Braves — no offense to Orlando Arcia — are counting on him to man the position moving forward. If he’s even a league-average player, considering the talent around him, the Braves will be happy, but Grissom was never thought of as a top-shelf prospect before his 2022 cameo. Is he really ready to be an everyday player?
2) Is this the Ronald Acuña Jr. explosion year?
You may recall that the Braves won the World Series in incredibly exciting fashion in 2021, which means anything that may have gone wrong that season will mostly be lost to history. (This is one of the many nice things about winning the World Series.) But that was also the start of Ronald Acuña Jr. dropping down all those “best players in baseball” lists. His injury that season cost him a chance to be a part of that World Series, and when he returned last year, he was … good. He was good! But he wasn’t Ronald Acuña Jr., future Hall of Famer, like we all thought he was going to be. He can still be that person: He is only 25, after all. But Acuña hasn’t been an upper-tier superstar since the injury. Is this the year he becomes one again?
1) Can Jazz Chisholm Jr. do that for a whole season?
Video game cover star Jazz Chisholm Jr. was, for 60 games last year, everything the Marlins have been waiting for, and more. He was a young, electric, ridiculously talented charisma machine who hit for power, got on base, played great defense and stole bases at nearly every opportunity. And then he got hurt — hence, only the 60 games. He’s back this year, and at a new position in center field, and he’s once again the linchpin of an offense that, despite the additions of Luis Arraez and Jean Segura, desperately needs him. Jazz is compulsively likable and could be the avatar for a franchise that has long needed one. But he needs to build on last year, and he needs to stay healthy. Still, the sky’s the limit here.
2) Who’s the No. 2 starter now?
You understood the idea behind trading Pablo López for Arraez, no question. The Marlins seemed to have a surplus of pitching, and they were famished for bats. Also, just ask Twins fans how much fun it is to watch Arraez play every day. But López was a key part of his rotation and, surplus or not, the Marlins will miss him. Johnny Cueto was brought in to provide innings, but what the Marlins could really use is a big step forward from Jesús Luzardo, Trevor Rogers, Braxton Garrett or Edward Cabrera. Or, really, all of them. Keep an eye on Sixto Sánchez, too, who is still recovering from his injury but has been pitching off a mound. The thing about having a deep rotation, though, is that rotations are full of pitchers, and pitchers are always getting hurt. If those guys don’t step up, a strength could quickly become a weakness.
1) Is the rotation already thinning out?
The Mets’ rotation was supposed to be the centerpiece of their entire team, a 1-2 punch of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer that would terrify anyone, followed by veteran hurlers who would provide reliable, quality innings, making every series a chore for opponents. And while Verlander and Scherzer (a combined 78 years old, by the way) are fine so far, the other 30-somethings in the rotation are in trouble already. Free agent acquisition José Quintana is already out for the next three months, at least; Japanese import Kodai Senga has already missed spring starts with tendinitis in his right index finger; potential Quintana replacement David Peterson (who is 27) is just now back on the mound after taking a comebacker off his foot. It’s not that all those injuries are season-ending, as even Quintana should be back at some point. But it’s what happens when you have older pitchers: Injuries. And those are the young guys!
2) Oh yes, about that World Baseball Classic … what now?
Whatever your thoughts on Edwin Díaz’s injury and the World Baseball Classic, what is done is done, and Diaz sure looks like he’s going to miss significant time. That may be more of an emotional bummer — we’re going to miss those trumpets — than one the Mets will be unable to overcome. They actually have a lot of bullpen arms, and David Robertson, while certainly less exciting, is a more than capable (and experienced) closer. And it’s not like it’s impossible to find extra bullpen arms, particularly for a team as motivated as the Mets. The real question is if this is another one of those “here we go again” moments for the team and its fanbase. The Mets had great vibes for most of last season — at least until they ran out of gas down the stretch. If you’re looking for great vibes in 2023, this is certainly not how you want to start.
1) When do all the former Padres prospects take over?
When you evaluate the Juan Soto trade, remember that the Padres now only have two more chances to win a title before Soto hits free agency, but the Nationals are going to have these guys for years to come. CJ Abrams is already here and surely will be a lineup mainstay. MacKenzie Gore is in the rotation as well. The other three players are all among the top six Nationals prospects, per MLB Pipeline: outfielders James Wood (1) and Robert Hassell III (2) and right-hander Jarlin Susana (6). It’s too early for Wood or Susana, but it’s not unthinkable to imagine Hassell getting hot and making a play to join the big league club late in the season. The Nationals, for all the pain they went through in trading Soto, really did get a haul of prospects back, as any team trading away Juan Soto should. Those players, and their progress, are the primary thing to track for Nats fans over the next few years — starting with this one.
2) Who do they flip at this Deadline?
The Nats’ current roster has a lot of guys who are just hanging around, trying to make a name for themselves while there are lineup spots open. The trick is to take advantage of the opportunity, which is exactly what Joey Meneses did last year, using the consistent at-bats to make a terrific case that he is very much a Major League regular. The hope is that he can build off his World Baseball Classic success and keep on hitting from the middle of the Nats order. But don’t get too attached. He’ll turn 31 in April, which means it’s unlikely he’ll be a part of the next Nats playoff team. Would they flip him to a team that needs a bat? Will they do the same for Dominic Smith, Corey Dickerson, Jeimer Candelario or even Lane Thomas? They certainly should.
1) Is Trea Turner exactly what this team needed?
Doesn’t it already feel strange that Kyle Schwarber spent so much time leading off last year? Turner is the platonic ideal of a leadoff man for this team, a speedster who can get on base, hit for some pop and be the pivot around which the rest of the lineup revolves. He also should improve the defense, even if he’s just an average fielder. He also just feels like a Phillie, the perfect fit for a roster that, for all its stars, seemed to be missing one big piece. Signing Turner proved that the Phillies don’t consider last year a fluke, that they want to go out and make the World Series again this year. Having him here makes it much more likely that that will happen.
2) When is Bryce full go?
I’ll never forget this homer. Will you?
Goodness gracious, I think my head hit the ceiling when Bryce Harper took that swing. That’s Bryce Harper, the transcendent superstar who has won two MVP Awards and is as fun to watch as any player in the game. The question is: When do we see that guy full time? Harper had Tommy John surgery in the offseason, which, if his rehab goes well, could have him back as a DH, at the very least, by June. Will he be back in the field at any point this year? Or will the Phillies have to put Schwarber and Nick Castellanos back out there when he returns? The Phillies aren’t the Phillies without Harper. Baseball isn’t really quite baseball without Harper. He can’t get back soon enough.
Atlanta Braves: 97-65
New York Mets: 91-71
Philadelphia Phillies: 88-75
Miami Marlins: 75-87
Washington Nationals: 60-102
This looks like a three-playoff-team division to me — just like it was last year. I might even be tempted to push Philadelphia a little higher, but being without Harper for two-plus months makes the difference. As for the Braves and Mets, that New York rotation is just a little too old to make me comfortable, and it’s not like the lineup is that young, either. But there are three potential World Series teams in this division. I’m not sure any other division can say that.