Handicapping the NL East Title Chase

IBWAA

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Defending National League MVP Freddie Freeman works out before a game in New York.Dan Schlossberg, IBWAA

By Dan Schlossberg

Before the start of the 2021 baseball season, most prognosticators agreed the best divisional title chase would take place in the National League East.

Even though the Atlanta Braves had won three consecutive NL East crowns, the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Washington Nationals all made major off-season improvements.

Even the Miami Marlins, after a second-place finish and playoff appearance during the virus-shortened 2020 campaign, seemed stronger.

After four months, however, things have changed.

Washington was the first to fold, losing star pitcher Stephen Strasburg to season-ending surgery and then paring payroll so decisively that they almost became the 21st century edition of the Senators: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.

Miami reverted to its usual moribund form, gripping last place like a long-lost friend and running up a FOR SALE sign on outfielders Adam Duvall, Starling Marte, and Corey Dickerson, among others.

And then there were three.

The Mets occupied first place from May 7 until August 8, when Philadelphia knocked them out by completing a three-game series sweep. But can the Phillies sustain success?

Here’s a look at the tightest three-way race in the majors, with only two games separating the three contenders as play began on August 12:

Philadelphia Phillies

Good news: The Phils face the easiest opposition over the final two months, playing more under-.500 teams than anybody else. They play exceptionally well at home and have a strong-hitting club known for late-inning rallies. Zack Wheeler leads the league in strikeouts and has become the front-runner for the Cy Young Award. He has a strong rotation partner in Aaron Nola, especially at Citizens Bank Park. Most importantly, Bryce Harper is becoming part of the MVP conversation again.

Bad news: If the Phils fail down the stretch, the infield defense could be the chief culprit. That’s why the team brought back shortstop Freddy Galvis. Even the additions of Archie Bradley and Ian Kennedy haven’t done much to bolster a bullpen that was historically bad last year. Kyle Gibson may help the rotation but was not the best available starter in the trade market. Losing slugging first baseman Rhys Hoskins (groin) to the IL earlier this week is a huge problem.

Bottom line: Philadelphia hasn’t made the playoffs or finished above .500 since 2011. They may win more than they lose this season but there’s no guarantee of any NL East team in the playoffs other than the one that finishes in first place. At least manager Joe Girardi has great stretch-drive and postseason experience.

Atlanta Braves

Good news: After a terrible start and a slew of serious injuries, the Braves have regrouped. All of the six veterans acquired since mid-July have contributed, helping the offense and tightening the defense. All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies anchor an infield that also includes future All-Stars Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson. Getting Adam Duvall back was a master stroke but the return of heavy-hitting catcher Travis d’Arnaud – out from May 1 to August 11 – bolsters a batting order that is already the Beast of the East. Charlie Morton, Max Fried, and Drew Smyly head a good rotation that will be better when Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa return in a week or so.

Bad news: The bullpen never recovered from the loss of Mark Melancon, now San Diego’s savior. Shane Greene was a bust in his return and A.J. Minter (since recalled) went back to the minors. Severe injuries knocked out star corner outfielders Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna (who also has big legal problems), in addition to d’Arnaud and Ynoa. Unbeatable (27-0) last year in games tied after seven innings last year, Atlanta has blown more than its share of late leads, especially when closer Will Smith pitches.

Bottom line: When Fried plays, the Braves have the best top-to-bottom lineup in the NL. Albies leads the league in extra-base hits and Freeman has found last year’s MVP form. Trade acquisitions Duvall, Joc Pederson, and Jorge Soler (the 2019 AL home run king) have helped a team that was wildly inconsistent, scoring 20 runs one night and a handful the next night. The Braves are also strong defensively, especially in the infield. Only a shaky bullpen can prevent Atlanta from keeping the division crown, though newcomer Richard Rodriguez fills the void.

New York Mets

Good news: Pitching, especially if two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom is healthy. The September return of Noah Syndergaard should help even if he’s deployed in relief. The Mets already have a formidable bullpen led by Edwin Diaz but shared by a flock of fine set-up men. New York has no trouble getting hits but needs erstwhile All-Star Francisco Lindor and pending free agent Michael Conforto to recapture their former form and Pete Alonso to avoid prolonged slumps. Dom Smith has become a decent hitter who is dangerous in the clutch. Versatile Javier Baez, acquired from the Cubs at the trade deadline, helps in the field and supplies a high-power, low-average bat. The bench, including Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar, has been a big help in overcoming injuries.

Bad news: The Mets haven’t hit with men on base, scoring fewer runs than any team outside of Pittsburgh. A recent 2-8 slide included a three-game sweep by the rival Phillies and showed weaknesses in a rotation that has missed deGrom since July 7. Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco – just back from injury – have been recent disappointments. So has the high-salaried Lindor, at least as a hitter. In addition, outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith are playing the wrong positions.

Bottom line: The club’s long ride at the top of the standings is over. A tough trip against NL West contenders — starting with the Dodgers tonight — is on the horizon and both the Braves and Phillies are playing better. The Mets haven’t been a playoff team since 2015 and won’t be this year either.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch, national baseball writer for forbes.com, senior baseball writer for Latino Sports, columnist for Sports Collectors Digest, and contributor to USA TODAY Sports Weekly and Sports Collectors Digest. The author of 38 baseball books can be reached at ballauthor@gmail.com.

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