It is the best division in Major League Baseball right now: the National League East.
The Atlanta Braves are a powerhouse team with loads of young talent in the lineup and rotation, and they have a dependable bullpen. The Miami Marlins have become relevant in the playoff picture after unexpectedly making the postseason in 2020 as they still develop their young players, who showed they are ready to compete. Under new management, the New York Mets bolstered their roster with offseason pickups, such as Francisco Lindor and James McCann, to go along with their young rising stars. The Philadelphia Phillies are dealing without any distractions this year, with no high expectations for a revamped team like in 2019 and no sign J.T. and COVID-19 distractions like in 2020. They heavily upgraded their bullpen, which was critical for their success. Lastly, the Washington Nationals are only two years removed from winning the World Series and still have a strong rotation to go along with superstar right fielder Juan Soto.
The division is a toss-up for who will represent the NL East in the postseason. Here are five factors, one for each team, that could be a critical component in each team’s fate:
Atlanta Braves: Can Ronald Acuna Jr. put together an MVP season?
Ronald Acuna Jr. is off to a scorching hot start. Through 38 at-bats in 10 games, he has 17 hits giving him a .447 batting average. Through 10 games, he is leading the national league in batting average and slugging percentage, along with four home runs. If the season ended today, Acuna Jr. would be the runaway winner for MVP, which is why he is going to be a deciding factor in the NL East race. If Acuna Jr. can put together an MVP season, it will give the Braves a serious boost. That lineup is already scary with Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, Ozzie Albies and Travis d’Arnaud, just to name a few of their big bats. If Acuna Jr. gets even better and becomes an MVP—which he fully has the potential to be—pitching to the Braves lineup turns from scary to horrific.
Miami Marlins: Will Sixto Sanchez have a sophomore slump?
Something that gives the Marlins’ fanbase hope for the future is their young rotation. Sandy Alcantara is on his way to becoming a top starter in all of baseball. Pablo Lopez also shows a lot of potential at the age of 25. He had a 3.61 ERA in 2019 and has put together two solid starts so far this season, only allowing two unearned runs in 11.2 innings of work.
Then there’s Sixto Sanchez. He showed so much promise in his rookie season of 2020, finishing with a 3.46 ERA through seven starts last year. He is starting the 2021 season at Marlins’ alternate site, but it’s only a matter of time before he returns to the Marlins rotation. However, it is common for players to struggle in their second season—something the Marlins might not be able to afford if they are to make a run for the postseason. If Sanchez picks up where he left off, the Marlins rotation upgrades another level.
New York Mets: Can they win behind Jacob DeGrom?
DeGrom is the best pitcher in baseball. His career ERA is 2.69, and his career WHIP is 1.04. Combine his numbers with two Cy Young awards, and he is on track to hall of fame.
The problem is that the Mets can’t win the ball games he starts. His highest winning percentage in decisions is from 2020, where he only went 4-2 in a shortened season. The next highest is 2015, where he went 14-8. In his two starts this season, DeGrom is 0-1 despite having a 0.64 ERA and 0.71 WHIP through those two starts. The past is the past, as the Mets were rebuilding, but they’re finished now. They have a roster ready to win now; if they are going to win, they have to do it behind the best pitcher in the game.
Philadelphia Phillies: Can Zach Eflin establish himself as a consistent third starter?
Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are anchoring the top of the Phillies rotation, but they need a solid number three to be successful. The Phillies named Eflin as that third starter in the rotation, and he has a lot to prove for a team trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Eflin has always shown promise; the problem is that he hasn’t shown it consistently. This season has already been a perfect example of that.
In his first start of the season, Eflin went seven innings strong, only giving up one run while striking out eight against the Braves. Against the same Braves team his second time out, he gave up four runs on seven hits through six innings. That’s been the story throughout his career. If the Phillies are going to make the postseason, Eflin has to be more consistent in that third slot. If not, the Phillies need someone who will be at the trade deadline.
Washington Nationals: Can their top three starters return to form?
As good as Juan Soto and Trea Turner are, the Nationals are going as far as their rotation takes them. That’s how they won in 2019, and that’s what will most likely drive their success this year—if they are to have success.
Max Scherzer is 36 years old, and in 2020 he posted the highest ERA of his career since 2012 and the highest WHIP of his career, showing signs that he might not be the same pitcher he once was. Stephen Strasburg battled injuries and pitched a total of five innings in 2020. And Patrick Corbin flat out struggled in 2020, as he had a 4.66 ERA, allowed the most hits in the majors and had the highest WHIP in the majors. All this after Corbin finished in the top 11 of Cy Young voting in 2018 and 2019. If the Nationals are going to contend this, three things have to happen. Scherzer has to show he has enough left in the tank to be an ace this season; Strasburg has to offer he is fully healthy; and Corbin has to find his old self on the mound. If these three things happen, the Nationals are as good as anybody else in the division.
Every team in the NL East is on the brink of success and has key pieces that could propel them to the finish line first. It’s a long season, and a lot could happen before this race is finished, so don’t be surprised if it comes down to the last few days of September or even game 162.