The NL East promises to be a daunting task to win. Each of the five teams can give at least a credible thought that perhaps, if things break right, they can each win the division. Some have longer odds than others, but at least each see a window of opportunity to getting to the playoffs. With the season about to dawn on us, it seemed to be the right time to discuss with each of SBNation’s division sites on how their season looks and what their expectations are for the 2021 year.
1) What a year! 2020 was a weird year (stating the obvious), but it looks more and more like 2021 will be normal-ish. How do you anticipate your team adjusting to going from 60 games to 162 this year? What are the biggest challenges?
Ely Sussman, Fish Stripes: In a more “normal-ish” year, the Marlins likely won’t be losing 60% of their active roster all at the same time, so I’m very excited from that standpoint! A key challenge for the Marlins will be more mental than physical: blocking out the numerous critics who want to dismiss what they accomplished in 2020 as a small-sample size fluke. Can they maintain their confidence despite the gloomy projections?
Chris McShane, Amazin’ Avenue: The Mets, like every team, figure to need to dip into their starting pitching depth this year. That’s not all that different from any other 162-game season, but coming off a year in which starting pitchers made anywhere from zero to twelve or thirteen regular season starts, it seems like it will be an adjustment. Luckily for the Mets, Marcus Stroman accepted their qualifying offer, and they signed Taijuan Walker while trading for Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto. All of those things are important since Carlos Carrasco, arguably the best pitcher they acquired this winter, will begin the year on the injured list. If the starting pitching depth keeps the Mets in good shape, the rotation could be scary good when Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard are ready to return.
Kris Willis, Talking Chop: I think the biggest challenge is going to be how each team handles their pitching staff and the increase in overall innings. Teams that have a surplus of starting depth are going to have an advantage. Teams that are lacking depth are going to have to get creative. The 2020 season felt like a sprint but the 2021 season will be more of a normal marathon. I’m expecting many bumps in the road for everyone.
Marty Niland, Federal Baseball: The Nats are a veteran ballclub and will play like one in 2021. Injuries to pitchers will be the greatest risk in going from 60 games to 162. But the Nationals come into the 2021 season with the best starting pitching depth and bullpen strength in years. At the plate, Juan Soto and Trea Turner have nothing to adjust to, except for a new position for Soto. Both have the talent to hit 2 or 3 or wherever manager Davey Martinez wants to stack them. Victor Robles needs to turn into a leadoff hitter, or the Nats will find one somewhere. The team as a whole will have to focus on defense, as it will be their main weakness. Teams will run on Juan Soto, so he’d better throw them out. Robles and Kyle Schwarber will be tested, too. Injuries could be a factor after a year break from the daily grind. Overall, the Nats’ pitching and clutch hitting and perhaps a new bat in the lineup midseason will win a tight, three-way race with Atlanta and the Mets.
2) The Phillies are entering 2021 thinking they have a fighting chance at the division, but face a loaded schedule thanks to the strength of the division. What do you think are your team’s chances of winning the division?
ES: The Marlins have never, ever won the NL East division, not even in their World Series championship campaigns. I fully expect that drought to continue. Miami has great young depth at most positions to withstand injuries, but they’ll ultimately need midseason veteran acquisitions to keep pace with their rivals who all seem to be in win-now mode. Unfortunately, Marlins ownership is less motivated than those teams are, operating on a tight budget.
CM: I think the proper spelling is “phightin’ chance.” As for the Mets, while I probably wouldn’t go as far as the PECOTA projections in terms of their odds of winning the division, they’re fully capable of winning the National League East.
KW: Last year I said that the NL East would be one of the strongest in MLB and the Marlins somehow made the playoffs with the Mets, Phillies and Nationals all finishing below .500. Chalk that up to the small sample size of a 60-game season. I still think this division is as good as any in the league and that all of these teams are going to beat each other up. I think the Braves and the Mets are the teams with the least amount of questions but I’m not sleeping on the Phillies, Nationals or those pesky Marlins.
MN: The Nationals, Atlanta, and the Mets will have a three-way division race. The Nats have about as good a chance to win it as either of the others, with an edge for pitching depth and experience.
3) It’s breakout player time, or as we call it the “Nick Pivetta Award”. Which player is the easiest to identify as the breakout candidate from your team?
ES: It feels like Sixto Sánchez had his “breakout” experience last season, so I will go with Trevor Rogers. He checks every box from both an analytical and scouting perspective. His 2020 debut was already encouraging despite a 6.11 ERA, and since then he has added even more strength to his 6-foot-5 frame while improving his slider. Roger’s combination of stuff, command and extension off the mound is unmatched by any other left-handed starter in the NL East.
CM: With almost the entire expected Opening Day roster consisting of fairly experienced major league players, I’m not sure if there are any true breakout opportunities here. But I’d say Taijuan Walker is the best choice on the pitching side, while Luis Guillorme is the best choice on the position player side. Walker has some major league success under his belt, but if he can a good chunk of innings and pitch well, he could be very good. Guillorme is a defensive wizard who hit really well during the shortened season, and like Walker, he’d be a damn good player if he did that over the course of a full season.
KW: For the Braves I think it is Austin Riley. He was able to cut into the strikeout rate in 2020 but sacrificed some power in doing so. If he figures things out, then he would give Atlanta another big bat for the middle of the order. However, if he doesn’t hit, then the Braves may be forced to look outside the organization for help.
MN: Joe Ross will break out after opting out of last season, with a winning record, 10 wins, and a sub 4 ERA.
4) While it’s easy to say that each team has a chance to win the division, there is also a chance that each does not. What is your team’s Achilles heel?
ES: Last season, this team totally lacked left-handed-hitting power threats against right-handed pitching. Whether it’s a bounce-back from Corey Dickerson or a breakout from prospects like Jazz Chisholm, Jesús Sánchez, Lewin Díaz and JJ Bleday, they need somebody to step up in that department (preferably more than one somebody).
CM: This might sound familiar: the bullpen. While I’m buying that Edwin Díaz seems to have gotten past his 2019 struggles, Trevor May is the only other reliever who figures to be great from the very beginning of the season. Seth Lugo is one of the best relievers in the game and will bolster the bullpen when he returns from his relatively minor elbow surgery, but the rest of the bullpen figures to have a lot of uncertainty in it.
KW: The Braves won the division in 2020 despite having one of the worst starting rotations in the league. They were able to do so thanks to the 60-game season and a very deep bullpen. With a normal 162-game season on the docket for 2021, they won’t be as fortunate should their starters suffer a rash of injuries or underperformance. They need to get something from guys like Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly along with a healthy return by Mike Soroka.
MN: The Nationals Achilles’ heel is defense. The new players they’ve brought in are not defensive superstars, Juan Soto is learning a new position, and career utility infielders will likely be holding down two infield spots on Opening Day. Teams will test the arms in the outfield, so they’ll have to at least hold them from advancing. Kyle Schwarber in left field will be a target. Starlin Castro and Josh Harrison can both play second and third, so they’ll have to find out who is best suited to each. Will Ryan Zimmerman be rusty after a year off? Or will his reflexes still be there so he can be a steady defensive presence in the late innings? There are worse defensive weaknesses than first base, and if it’s the Nats’ biggest defensive weakness, they’ll be fortunate.
5) Last one: what is your prediction for where your team falls in the division and why will they get there (what leads them to victory)?
ES: I have the Marlins projected for about 75 wins. With a deep pitching staff and potentially elite fielding, they should be immune from some of the hideous losing stretches that made them “bottom feeders” in 2018 and 2019. There is a scenario where they surpass expectations and sneak into October again, but it involves several young position players making the offensive adjustments necessary to unleash their loud tools. I wouldn’t bet on that happening.
CM: Despite my concerns about the bullpen, sure, I’ll take the Mets to win the division. With the addition of Francisco Lindor, a good lineup from top to bottom, and a rotation with legitimate depth, the Mets should be very good. If their bullpen really struggles to bridge the innings between the starters and their best relievers, it could turn into a significant problem, but it’s hard not to feel very optimistic about the season when you get to root for Jacob deGrom and Francisco Lindor, among many others.
KW: I still think the Braves are the favorites in the East. They made some needed additions to the rotation and were able to keep Marcell Ozuna for the middle of the lineup. They are still a young team but they now have three seasons of playoff experience and I think that will be the difference in what will be a tightly contested division race.
MN: Gave this away earlier. The Nationals will win a tight race with Atlanta and the Mets, with the winner eking out a slim margin and 87 wins. What will get them there is a deep, veteran pitching staff, the most bullpen potential in years, and possibly a new bat in the lineup. I’m already lobbying for Cubs’ third baseman and pending free agent Kris Bryant. Juan Soto will hit 50 home runs, contend for the Triple Crown, and will easily be the National League MVP. Max Scherzer will win 20 games and finally will have and ERA low enough to win his fourth Cy Young Award. The big question in my mind is, after missing the postseason again, how will Phillies fans feel about another 10 years of Bryce Harper?