NL Least: Preseason Favorites for Top Division in MLB Are Off to Nightmare StartMay 1, 2021
Is the NL East the worst division in baseball, or is it the most wide-open division in baseball?
Nearly a month into the 2021 MLB season and three of the five teams are falling well short of expectations. It's unclear how the other two round out the picture, but there is little clarity.
The New York Mets can't hit. The Philadelphia Phillies can't pitch. Neither can the Washington Nationals, and it might force the club to part ways with its ace. The Atlanta Braves should run away with the division, but they aren't. And no one seems to know how good or bad the Miami Marlins might be.
This was supposed to be baseball's toughest division. No disrespect to the AL East, but the Baltimore Orioles are dragging it down, and, well, the New York Yankees probably are too at the moment. The Braves, Mets and Nationals all came into the season with World Series aspirations and the Marlins and Phillies with legitimate chances at contending for wild-card playoff spots, at the least. Those hopes may still be alive for the all of those teams. Or maybe none of those teams. It's tough to tell because of how slow each squad has been out of the gate.
It's still early, but it might be getting late early for the teams of the NL East. Let's take a look at what ails each one and what could be in store moving into the next month of the 2021 season.
Atlanta (12-13, T-1 with Phillies)
The biggest cause for concern in Atlanta is the lack of production from outfielder Marcell Ozuna.
The 2020 NL home run leader has slugged three this season, but those home runs not withstanding, he's been pretty dismal. Ozuna, who signed a four-year, $65 million contract before the season, has been hitting below the Mendoza Line and has an OPS of only .582 as of Friday. He's not hitting the ball as hard as he did last season, per Statcast, which could be part of the problem.
But Ronald Acuna Jr. has been one of the best players in MLB, and the team has another MVP candidate in its lineup in Freddie Freeman. Atlanta has the second-best OPS (.747) in the National League.
The pitching hasn't been great either, but there are reasons for optimism. Ian Anderson threw seven scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs his last time out, and Max Fried and Sean Newcomb are nearing returns. Getting them back should help Atlanta right the ship and maintain the standing as the top team in the division.
Phillies (12-13, T-1 with Atlanta)
The Phillies have a minus-16 run differential, yet they're playing for first place in the division, which just goes to show you how strange the NL East is right now. Philadelphia has hovered around the .500 mark all season, and there isn't much to indicate that the Phillies will be much more than a .500 team.
Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins are doing everything they can to get the Phillies over the hump. But Andrew McCutchen is hitting just .178, and his .315 OBP doesn't inspire much confidence at the top of the order. And he'll probably stay at the top of the order because manager Joe Girardi said he doesn't see anyone else who fits that role. Jean Segura might, but he's injured.
The rotation drops off significantly after Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin, and the bullpen (4.62 ERA) is once again among the worst in baseball.
If the Phillies can fill the holes in their lineup and their bullpen, then they may be able to go on a run and string a few good wins together. But it seems like they have a lot of moving parts that aren't all moving together, which is a recipe for inconsistency.
Mets (9-10, 3rd place)
The Flushing faithful are already up in arms about the season.
To be fair, this fanbase has endured more than most throughout the years, but when a new, deep-pocketed owner finally signed a marquee player to a big contract, it was supposed to be a sign of a turning tide. Instead, that player, shortstop Francisco Lindor, is barely hitting over .200. He has hit exactly one home run, and the fans are already booing him.
The Mets have one of the best pitchers in the world in Jacob deGrom, yet still, they can't give him any run support. The offense is the worst in the National League. The only player really hitting is Brandon Nimmo.
And then, there is the defense. This club has not prioritized defense in years, instead preferring to try to out-hit its deficiencies. That approach failed miserably. The defense was supposed to improve this season with Lindor and an outfield configuration that was more defensively favorable, but the Mets have a minus-3.0 defensive ranking and a minus-5.0 UZR, according to FanGraphs.
They badly need a third baseman. But J.D. Davis has been one of their best bats, so it's tough to take him out of the lineup. Plus, utility infielder Luis Guillorme, one of their best defenders, just went on the injured list with a strained right oblique Friday.
If the Mets start hitting, then they should be able to hang in there with the Braves all summer. But the key word is "if," and if they don't, then big changes could be in store. Owner Steve Cohen and general manager Sandy Alderson did not hire this coaching staff, led by manager Luis Rojas. Chili Davis is a well-regarded hitting coach, but this looks like a deeper issue that starts with organizational philosophies.
Marlins (11-13, 4th place)
The Fish are flush with prospects, like rookie left-hander Trevor Rogers (3-1, 1.29 ERA). Of course, they are. They've been stockpiling prospects for the last five years. But can they hold up over the course of the season, and are they deep enough to be able to jump up in the standings? The Marlins were hit with some injuries on their last road trip.
Monte Harrison—the No. 14 prospect in the Miami system, according to MLB Pipeline—will make his 2021 debut this weekend against the Nationals. Manager Don Mattingly said he'll primarily be used in a bench role but that he could make a couple of starts.
The Marlins have been building and rebuilding for what seems like decades. They made finally the playoffs last season and defeated the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Series, breaking their streak of 16 straight years without a postseason appearance. So when is the future? Is it now?
The Marlins might end up like the Phillies, winning some, losing some and just sort of breaking even in the end. Or they could get hot, and they could tear through a wide-open league. There are too many questions with this team to be able to predict an outcome.
Nationals (9-12, 5th place)
I don't want to say the Washington Nationals' championship window has closed because they still have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Juan Soto, except the latter two are on the IL. The offense is scuffling, as evidenced by the minus-22 run differential. Outside of Trea Turner (six home runs) and Josh Harrison (.867 OPS), the Nationals aren't getting a lot of production out of their hitters.
Naturally, there has been some speculation around the status of Scherzer. The Nats finished last in the division last year, and if they continue to trend that way throughout the next few months, then they may have no choice but to deal Scherzer. But then again, two years ago Washington went 19-31 to start the season and nearly fired manager Dave Martinez before it turned it around and went on to defeat the Houston Astros in the World Series.
Jon Lester will help bolster the rotation after his debut this week, and Soto is getting closer to a return from a shoulder injury, as he's able to swing the bat without pain.
Sure, key parts of that 2019 World Series team are gone, like Anthony Rendon and Sean Doolittle, but the Nats are still no easy out.