In professional sports, we generally do not applaud trying.
But these are not normal times.
So here is a hat-tip to the NL East for making the attempt to, of all things, get better. Or at least avoid getting worse.
The NL East has four teams (gasp) trying and a fifth, the Marlins, at least attempting to build on their feel-good 2020. The result is, top to bottom, the best division in the majors.
Three of MLB’s six biggest spenders in free agency are from the division: the Phillies, Mets and Braves. And that does not account for the Mets trading for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, and the Nationals dealing for Josh Bell. The Mets signed eight major league free agents, the Phillies seven, the Nationals six and the Braves four.
The prognostication systems and betting establishments have made the Mets the favorites. So here’s a look at what the competition looks like now that the majority of the heavy lifting, even in a slow-moving offseason, has been completed:
Strengths — They have a winning culture with three straight NL East titles. The lineup is deep and stayed that way with the re-signing of Marcel Ozuna. The top four in their order — Ronald Acuna Jr., NL MVP Freddie Freeman, Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud — return after combining last year to hit .317 with a .425 on-base percentage and .604 slugging percentage. Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies are a terrific two-way double-play combination.
The addition of Charlie Morton gives the Braves a top-of-the-rotation figure, Max Fried was an ace for Atlanta last year, Ian Anderson a rookie breakthrough and 2019 ace Mike Soroka is due back by May after missing most of last year after tearing an Achllies.
Weaknesses — The lack of a DH (at least for now) in the NL will force Ozuna to left field. That will put pressure on Atlanta’s talented, young center fielder, Christian Pache, to cover lots of ground. The bullpen lost three big contributors in Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day. Will the $11 million investment in Drew Smyly, based on a few good starts last year, provide back-of-the-rotation dividends or be a waste of money?
Threat to the Mets — Substantial. The Braves combine talent with cohesion — the sum of the parts is very good. The prognostication systems annually do not show this team much love. In that way they are the opposite of the Mets — they outplay the projections.
Strengths — A rotation fronted by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, with the proviso they pitch way more like it is 201,9 when the Nationals were champions, than last year, when they did not even make the expanded playoffs. Perhaps after the heavy workloads of 2019, the shortened 2020 was a blessing and this trio will revive.
Juan Soto, at 22, already is the best hitter in the majors, and Trea Turner is a force with his bat and legs. Brad Hand’s addition should bolster a bullpen that could be really good if Tanner Rainey pitches to his talent all season.
Weaknesses — Can a team have the majors’ best hitter, yet have a below-average lineup? The Nationals’ batting order will open with Turner and Soto, then … They are hoping new additions Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber can recover from poor 2020 seasons to provide protection and heft. This is not going to be a good defensive team, and someone like free agent sign Jon Lester, more a contact starter now, will need strong gloves behind him.
Threat to the Mets — Strong. The top line talent is excellent, the depth questionable. If Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin combine for 80-plus starts, it would be hard for the Nationals not to be contenders. But at 70? Or 60?
Strengths — The rotation 1-2 of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler followed by the rising Zach Elfin is strong. There is a lot of potential lineup talent, headed by Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto (who fractured his thumb, but could be ready for the start of the season).
Weaknesses — The bullpen was historically bad last year, with the second-worst ERA (7.06) and OPS against (.946) in history. If it had just been bad, the Phillies would have made the expanded playoffs. Instead, they now have the longest NL playoff drought (since 2011). They have added Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson to try to upgrade. Their defense will not be good, and a contact-oriented, late-inning reliever like Kintzler needs strong glove work. Can Matt Moore and Vincent Velasquez provide strong back-of-the-rotation work?
Threat to the Mets — Teetering on solid. There is a collection of talent here, but is there a cohesive team? They signed Bryce Harper and traded top prospects for Realmuto to go for it in 2019-20 and still have not been above .500 since 2011. They have now doubled down by giving Realmuto a five-year contract at the highest per annum for a catcher ever. Can Joe Girardi maximize health and production from this group, because without that it is going to be hard to play toward the top of the division?
Strengths — They made a large statement in the offseason by hiring the first female general manager in any of the four majors sports, Kim Ng. She inherited one of the majors’ best farm systems and what already is a talented group of young starters fronted by Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez. They picked up the $12.5 million option on center fielder Starling Marte, which is a huge financial statement for this organization. This team plays hard for Don Mattingly.
Weaknesses — The lineup is predominantly right-handed and lacks a lot of established cornerstones. The Marlins added a lot of relief pieces — Anthony Bass, Richard Bleier, Adam Cimber, John Curtiss and Dylan Floro — to try to create options and diversity. Is there a good bullpen there though?
Threat to the Mets — A pest now, with more to come. All last-place finishes and 72-win seasons are not created equal. Because of the rotation arms and how hard they play, the Marlins will not be pushovers even in the toughest division. Miami and Seattle have the kind of young talent that, if it breaks right, could make one or both much better than expectations this year and — more importantly — set the path for a promising future.