The FIFA World Cup typically has a "group of death." Now, Major League Baseball has a division of death—the place where title hopes go to perish.
That would be the National League East.
In an era when many MLB teams are tanking (or "retooling"), the NL East features a glut of franchises with plausible championship aspirations. It's the only division in either league with four teams PECOTA projects for 85 wins or more. It's a talent-laden cluster...hump.
If the Commissioner's Trophy isn't awarded to a member of this contingent, it won't be for lack of effort.
Who will emerge victorious?
Let's eliminate the Miami Marlins. Granted, the Fish reeled in promising Cuban brothers Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr. this winter. On the other hand, they traded star catcher J.T. Realmuto and are inevitable cellar-dwellers.
After that? Let's parse the division in alphabetical order, and predict who will escape the jaws of death.
Projected record (via PECOTA): 85-77
The defending NL East champs boast an enviable young core led by outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. The 21-year-old is hitting .429 with three homers this spring and appears headed for full-fledged stardom liftoff.
Meanwhile, their No. 2 ranked minor league system is loaded with pitching talent.
They landed a bargain by re-upping right fielder Nick Markakis (one year, $6 million with a team option for 2020) and inked veteran catcher Brian McCann (one year, $2 million).
They also took an expensive gamble on third baseman Josh Donaldson, signing the 2015 American League MVP for one year and $23 million.
On the negative side, Donaldson is coming off a pair of injury-riddled seasons and is 33 years old. And there are health concerns in the starting rotation surrounding Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
The Braves have the talent to repeat as division champs, but they face some stiff competition.
New York Mets
Projected record: 87-75
New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is going all-in. That much is clear.
The new executive acquired veteran second baseman Robinson Cano and stud reliever Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners.
Additionally, he signed catcher Wilson Ramos for two years and $19 million, inked infielder Jed Lowrie for two years and $20 million and brought back former closer Jeurys Familia for three years and $30 million.
But it all hinges on the well-being of the starting rotation. Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom leads the pack. Behind him, New York is hoping for health from Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz.
That's no sure thing. Syndergaard, Wheeler and Matz have all battled injuries. The Mets' fortunes—and Van Wagenen's strategy—ride on the stability of their arms.
Projected record: 89-73
Did the Philadelphia Phillies sign anyone this offseason?
Joking aside, the Phils did more than add Bryce Harper. They acquired shortstop Jean Segura from the Seattle Mariners, signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen (three years, $50 million), pried Realmuto from Miami and landed reliever David Robertson (two years, $23 million).
But, yep, they signed Harper to a record-breaking 13-year, $330 million pact.
The 26-year-old is one of the greatest players of his generation. He instantly vaulted the Phils from fringe contenders with a burgeoning core to a factor with a capital "F."
They could improve a starting rotation that posted a 4.12 ERA in 2018 despite the presence of ace Aaron Nola and might need more help in the bullpen. But Harper makes the Phillies much more relevant.
Projected record: 89-73
Goodbye, Harper. Not only did he leave, but he went to a division foe. That stings.
Yet the Nationals signed southpaw Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million) and will marry him to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to create a formidable rotation.
Elsewhere, they signed Kurt Suzuki (two years, $10 million) and acquired Yan Gomes from Cleveland to shore things up behind the dish. They also bet on right-hander Anibal Sanchez (two years, $19 million), second baseman Brian Dozier (one year, $9 million) and reliever Trevor Rosenthal (one year, $7 million).
With rising-star outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles in the fold as well, it's possible the Nats will miss Harper less than they think.
Who wins the division of death? "Who knows?" is the safe answer. A case could be made for any team—and against any team. Mostly, they will cannibalize each other given MLB's unbalanced schedule.
The Braves are young and hungry and defending a division crown. The Mets are hoping for health after doubling down on a veteran roster. The Nationals lost their franchise player but added an ace and ancillary pieces.
But we're here to pick a favorite, so we will go with the Phillies.
They had the tenacity to sign Harper, which suggests they will augment their pitching staff and do what it takes at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
It won't be easy. Anyone but Miami could win the NL East and march deep into October. But the Phils and their stupid money stand out. At least for now.
All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball Reference.