2020 NL East Preview

Ronald Acuna Jr., Sandy Alcantara, Jacob deGrom, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto
Ronald Acuna Jr., Sandy Alcantara, Jacob deGrom, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto
Graphic: (Getty Images)

Atlanta won its second straight National League East title, but continued a run of playoff futility that dates back almost two decades. Since sweeping the Astros in the 2001 division series, Atlanta has been to that best-of-5 round eight times, and lost all eight times — plus a loss in the 2012 wildcard game for good measure.

Illustration for article titled 2020 NL East Preview
Graphic: NL East 2019 Standings

Of course, Atlanta’s performance last October was not the memorable NL East showing in the postseason. That belonged to the Washington Nationals, who rallied to beat the Brewers in the wild card game, swept the Cardinals for the pennant, then won four games in Houston to bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title since the 1924 Senators.

Both teams remain strong, but also have strong competition in 2020 with the Mets and Phillies each coming into this season with new managers and upgraded rosters. This would have been a fascinating NL East season to watch over 162 games, but, well, we’re getting 60 … if all of, you know, this works out.

Also, the Marlins are here.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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ATLANTA BRAVES

ATLANTA BRAVES

Ozzie Albies
Ozzie Albies
Graphic: (Getty Images)

ATLANTA BRAVES

COVID Response: “He is someone who rarely gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks. … Please take this virus seriously, wear a mask when in public and wash your hands frequently.” Chelsea Freeman, wife of first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose condition has improved since early July but remains in doubt for Opening Day 

“I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot. So I said ‘Please don’t take me’ — I wasn’t ready.” — Freddie Freeman on fearing he was near death due to COVID-19

Staying Away: Outfielder Nick Markakis decided not to play this year after Freddie Freeman’s COVID diagnosis. Felix Hernandez, who joined Atlanta in the offseason after cementing his legend in Seattle, also opted out of the season.

Oh, He’s Here Now? While there won’t be the weirdness of seeing King Felix in an Atlanta uniform, Cole Hamels is on board… but dealing with arm problems. And then there’s Yasiel Puig, who was all set to join Atlanta and basically take the spot vacated by Markakis — but tested positive for COVID-19. One new guy who’s actually going to play: Marcell Ozuna. And that’s a big deal.

Where’d He Go? After hitting 37 homers and finishing 11th in the National League MVP vote in his only season in Atlanta, third baseman Josh Donaldson got a four-year deal with the Twins as a free agent.

What To Expect: It really depends what Atlanta gets out of Freeman. If he’s his normal self, in a lineup with Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Ozuna, the lineup is a handful. If not, the lack of depth in the rest of the order becomes that much more magnified. It’s a delicate balance. Similarly, the entire pitching staff outside of budding star Mike Soroka sits on a fulcrum that can tip toward either dominant or absolute yikes. In this division, with a schedule against a mix of elite competition and teams like the Orioles and Marlins, but not much in between, it’s going to be very interesting to see where Atlanta winds up — it could legitimately be anywhere between first and fourth.

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MIAMI MARLINS

MIAMI MARLINS

Jesus Aguilar
Jesus Aguilar
Graphic: (Getty Images)

MIAMI MARLINS

COVID Response: “We haven’t had that feel here, haven’t had that vibe that guys are nervous about playing. Maybe it’s just our age or our group of guys. They don’t seem to be overly concerned. We want them to be concerned enough to take care of ourselves and be careful. I think from that standpoint you feel fairly safe. You know you’re coming in, you go through the tests in the morning and you’re sending in your results. It feels pretty good here right now. I don’t feel an overly concerned vibe with it.” — Manager Don Mattingly, whose team plays in one of the country’s top coronavirus hotspots

Staying Away: Outfielders Lewis Brinson and Matt Joyce went on the 10-day IL a week before the season for undisclosed reasons, which naturally raises eyebrows.

Oh, He’s Here Now? First baseman Jesús Aguilar, who had a breakout season in 2018 with 35 homers for the Brewers, then split last season between Milwaukee and Tampa Bay looking like the guy Cleveland gave up on, comes to Miami looking to bounce back.

Where’d He Go? Starlin Castro, baseball’s king of being overrated and underrated at the same time, signed with Washington, where unlike in Miami, he probably won’t wind up playing every single game of the season.

What To Expect: The Marlins should comfortably finish last in the division, but there’s enough talent in Miami to screw things up real bad for someone — either a team that doesn’t beat them consistently enough (every Mets fan is twitching right now) or someone they inexplicably sweep in September. The Marlins face the Nationals at home from Sept. 18-20, then go to Atlanta for four games before closing the season at Yankee Stadium. Figuring the Yankees will have things wrapped up in the AL East before the final weekend of the season, condolences in advance to Washington or Atlanta on getting torpedoed by these guys.

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NEW YORK METS

NEW YORK METS

Pete Alonso
Pete Alonso
Graphic: (Getty Images)

NEW YORK METS

COVID Response: “I think you recognize the danger that we’re all in and how much unpredictability exists. So we have to at least be aware of that. And when you combine the real world to what that means for baseball players, it’s a complicated factor.” — General manager Brodie Van Wagenen on positive tests for coronavirus around the majors and players opting out

Staying Away: While no Mets have opted out of the season, relievers Brad Brach and Jared Hughes are on the injured list for undisclosed reasons, while Noah Syndergaard — who would be the ace on a team that didn’t include Jacob deGrom — is out for the season following Tommy John surgery.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Do Yoenis Céspedes and Jed Lowrie count as additions? Céspedes didn’t play at all in 2019, while Lowrie got into nine games, had eight plate appearances, and went 0-for-7 with a walk. The Mets’ biggest (figuratively and literally, he’s 6-foot-8) addition of the offseason, Dellin Betances, also fits into the category of guys you didn’t see, or barely saw at all last year — his season with the Yankees consisted of striking out the only two hitters he faced in a September game in Toronto.

Where’d He Go? Todd Frazier, who despite all appearances posted a 106 OPS+ in a season where he hit 21 homers last year, went to the Rangers, a major loss for the New Jersey traffic Twitter community. Also, remember when Carlos Beltrán was the manager of the Mets? Yeah, he’s not, it’s Luis Rojas now.

What To Expect: Wait, “What To Expect” for the Mets? Who the hell knows? We’re talking about the Mets here. This is going to be the weirdest season ever, so it sets up well for the Mets to win the World Series, or for an outbreak of a non-COVID illness to completely derail them. Legionnaires’ disease? Mumps? Shingles? Who can say? Or, the weirdest thing possible, the Mets have a completely uneventful two months, play straight to what they look like on paper, and wind up in second or third place, three games or so out of the wild card.

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PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Aaron Nola
Aaron Nola
Graphic: (Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

COVID Response: “It’s not just a two-week thing. I think there’s some stuff with the testing that [shows] the virus can stay in your body for a lot longer than we think. Because of all the protocols you have to go through, it’s been about a month-long thing. That’s going to be half of the season if you get it during the season.” — Infielder Scott Kingery, who experienced intense symptoms when he had coronavirus

Staying Away: While Kingery isn’t the only Phillies player to have come down with COVID-19, the one man Philadelphia expects to miss the season is reliever Seranthony Dominguez, who has been waiting to have Tommy John surgery, but had the procedure delayed for reasons described as “unclear,” although putting two and two together, you can figure out that hospitals have had quite a bit of other things to deal with — Tommy John surgeries for Syndergaard and Chris Sale this spring notwithstanding.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Zack Wheeler is exactly the No. 2 starter the Phillies need behind Aaron Nola, and that Jake Arrieta really isn’t anymore. But with Arrieta as a No. 3, and the rest of the depth they have in the rotation, the Phillies are well positioned to, uh, have their bullpen blow a lot of leads.

Where’d He Go? The Phillies finally gave up on waiting for Maikel Franco to live up to the promise he showed as a 22-year-old in 2015, and it’s hard to blame them. Franco was a 1.8 WAR player that year, and below replacement level over the four seasons since. He wound up with the Royals, following in the magnificently-coiffed-but-unable-to-hit-major-league-pitching footsteps of Steve Jeltz.

What To Expect: Disappointment, probably. Like, there’s an outside chance that Bryce Harper just goes off for 60 games and carries the Phillies on his back, because he’s capable of doing it and has a bit of extra motivation after the Nationals won the World Series without him, and J.T. Realmuto is outstanding and is playing for a contract. But at the end of the day, this is a team with a bad bullpen (and a couple of players everyone loves whose reputations are bigger than what they’re really capable of at this point) that’s managed by Joe Girardi.

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WASHINGTON NATIONALS

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Max Scherzer
Max Scherzer
Graphic: (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

COVID Response: “We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people. We’re way worse off as a country than we were in March when we shut this thing down. And, like, look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve. … If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized. We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.” — Reliever Sean Doolittle

Staying Away: The defending World Series champions had a major league-high three players opt out of the season: catcher Welington Castillo, pitcher Joe Ross, and first baseman and franchise legend Ryan Zimmerman.

Oh, He’s Here Now? In the most “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” move of all time, Will Harris went from giving up the go-ahead homer to Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series, taking a blown save and a loss, to signing with the Nationals in the offseason. At least he doesn’t have to watch a long ring ceremony on opening night?

Where’d He Go? Anthony Rendon went to the Angels as a free agent, but did you realize he’s only been an All-Star once in his career, and it was last year? Like, for real, Anthony Rendon has been to fewer All-Star Games than Mike Williams.

What To Expect: Oh, hey, Juan Soto is 21 years old. The Nationals still have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin at the top of their rotation, and Eric Thames was a really good addition at first base. The Nationals are a little vulnerable to left-handed pitching, but they should be back in the playoffs.

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Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.