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NL East Preview: Three key questions for each team

by Chris Brown

While there are no guarantees in the current environment, if all goes according to plan, there will once again be regular season MLB games in this country in just a few days. The shortened schedule figures to make the 2020 season more of a sprint than a marathon, with each game taking on a higher importance than in normal circumstances, and nearly every team could be capable of a remarkable 60-game run.

With that in mind, 110 Sports is getting you set for the action by previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. We conclude our series with the National League East.

Atlanta Braves

How do things work out in the outfield?

It’s been an interesting month or so for the Braves’ outfield situation. Following the signing of Marcell Ozuna to a one-year deal back in January, the team had a strong group of five outfielders: Ronald Acuna, Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, Adam Duvall and Ozuna. The addition of the DH spot in the NL this season seemed to benefit Atlanta, who could often slide Ozuna into that spot and still have a strong starting outfield. Then in early July, Markakis opted out the 2020 season, leaving the Braves suddenly without much depth in the outfield. The team reportedly agreed to a deal with free agent Yasiel Puig, but that was never completed after he tested positive for COVID-19. Now, with top outfield prospect Cristian Pache sidelined for a few weeks due to an ankle sprain, the team is surely crossing its fingers that its current group of outfielders can remain healthy moving forward.

Can the Braves win a postseason series for the first time in nearly 20 years?

The Braves were just one victory away from their first playoff series win since 2001 last October before things went horribly wrong. In game five of the NLDS, the team became the first in MLB history to allow 10 runs in the first inning of a playoff game, eventually falling to the Cardinals in that contest (and thus, the series) 13-1. The defending NL East champions are undoubtedly eager to put last year’s finish behind them, and with an incredibly talented roster bolstered by some impressive one-year deals (with Marcell Ozuna, Cole Hamels and others), the pressure is on for this team to not just reach the postseason, but find some success in it.

Will Mike Soroka back up his breakout year?

At just 22 years old, Soroka is set to become Atlanta’s youngest Opening Day starter of the modern era when he squares off against the Mets on July 24. He’ll also be the youngest Opening Day starter in MLB since Jose Fernandez in 2014. Soroka wasn’t even on the Braves roster to start 2019, but was one of the best pitchers in the NL following his mid-April call up, pitching to a 13-4 record and 2.68 ERA over 174 ⅔ frames in the majors and finishing second in Rookie of the Year balloting behind only Pete Alonso. Soroka’s profile is interesting for a young pitcher, as he hasn’t shown a high strikeout rate (7.3 per nine innings last season) but does a very good job of limiting hard contact. In fact, Soroka’s rate of allowing just 0.7 home runs per nine innings in 2019 was the best mark in the NL. How he follows up that breakout, and how opposing hitters try to adjust, will certainly be interesting to watch in this season.

Miami Marlins

Which prospects get a shot?

In the midst of a full rebuild, the Marlins are coming off back-to-back last place finishes in the NL East, and the likely outcome isn’t any different in 2020, even with the shortened season. Hence, it will be a season of evaluation for the team which could include the debut of multiple top prospects. The top 11 Marlins prospects as ranked by MLB Pipeline were all included in the team’s 60-man player pool. Outfielder Monte Harrison hit .270 with 23 steals in the minors last season. Shortstop Jazz Chisholm, the organization’s third-ranked prospect, smacked 21 homers and stole 16 bases at the AA level last year. While neither seems likely to break training camp with the team, they along with several other highly-rated prospects could be in line to make their big league debuts at some point in the shortened season.

Can Jesús Aguilar bounce back?

The first baseman had a breakout year with the Brewers in 2018, hitting 35 home runs and driving in 108 runs. Last year, though, his production plummeted, as Aguilar hit just .236 with 12 home runs in 131 contests. The Marlins claimed him off waivers from the Rays back in December hoping he could recapture that success, and it certainly seems like a gamble worth taking. Aguilar is under team control through 2023, meaning he could be an affordable, power-hitting fixture in Miami’s lineup for the next few seasons if things work out. In 2020, though, they’re likely just hoping the additions of Aguilar, Jonathan Villar and others help the team avoid finishing last in the NL in runs scored for the third straight season.

Which young starters step up?

One area where there is, well, some promise for the Marlins is in the rotation. To be clear, there isn’t much proven high-end talent, but there are some encouraging young arms. 24-year-old Sandy Alcantara will get the Opening Day nod for the team after posting a solid 3.88 ERA over nearly 200 innings in 2019. Lefty Caleb Smith struggled last season but is just a year removed from a solid rookie season. José Ureña showed some positive signs upon shifting from the bullpen to the rotation last season, and Pablo Lopez exhibited great control in 2019, walking just 27 batters in 111 ⅓ innings. With the exception of Alcantara, none of the ERAs for these pitchers were at all pretty. But nearly all have the potential to take a step forward in 2020 and prove they belong in the rotation long term.

New York Mets

Does Yoenis Céspedes have anything left in the tank?

In the mid-2010s, the outfielder was one of the best power hitters in baseball. He belted 35 longballs and 42 doubles in 2015 and 31 homers the next season, hitting for strong averages both years. Then the injuries started adding up. Cespedes has played in just 119 games over the last three years due to a hamstring strain, two heel surgeries and a fractured ankle. The slugger has drawn rave reviews in the team’s summer camp and recently said he’ll be good to go for the start of the 2020 season. With the DH spot now at the Mets’ disposal, Cespedes should be able to see significant at-bats assuming he remains healthy. He hasn’t seen major league pitching in nearly two years and is 34 years old, but if he could recapture even just some of his old form that would go a long way toward helping the Mets reach the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Can Jacob deGrom make history with a third straight Cy Young?

Only two pitchers — Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson — have ever won three straight Cy Young Awards in MLB history. deGrom will look to join that elite company in 2020. The right-hander’s 21-17 record over the last two seasons is certainly misleading — he’s posted a 2.05 ERA, 0.941 WHIP, and struck out 11.2 batters per nine innings over 421 innings in that span. deGrom got off to a good, but not great, start to the season last year, posting a 3.71 ERA through his first 11 starts before really kicking things into gear. He’ll need to come out of the gates firing on all cylinders to have any chance of capturing a third straight such award.

Without Wheeler and Syndergaard, is there enough talent behind deGrom in the team’s rotation?

One of the top pitchers in baseball will lead the rotation for the Mets, but behind deGrom there are plenty of questions. The Mets’ No. 2 and 3 starters from 2019, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, are not in the rotation this season. Syndergaard underwent Tommy John surgery back in March, while Wheeler signed a five-year deal with the Phillies last December. Set to take on much more important roles in their place are Marcus Stroman, who has been wildly inconsistent in recent years, and Steven Matz, who owns a 4.09 ERA over the last two seasons. Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, who both posted ERAs north of 4.70 in 2019, round out a rotation that has a very wide range of potential outcomes. For the team’s overall success, it won’t matter how elite deGrom is if the rest of the rotation doesn’t step up.

Philadelphia Phillies

Can new additions help this team to its first winning record since 2011?

There were high expectations when the Phillies brought in Gabe Kapler as their new manager following the 2017 season and added a number of high-profile players — including Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and J.T. Realmuto — during his tenure. But the team finished the last two seasons at or below the .500 mark, and Kapler was fired, with longtime Yankees skipper Joe Giardi taking over. With a veteran manager and the additions of starter Zach Wheeler and infielder Didi Gregorius this past offseason to an already strong core, the expectations are once again high in Philly. The personnel is certainly there for this team to capture an NL East title in the shortened season and make a deep run in the playoffs.

How will Andrew McCutchen return from injury?

The veteran outfielder was performing well atop the Phillies lineup last year in his first season with the team before suffering a torn left ACL. McCutchen wasn’t set to be ready for Opening Day back in the spring, but general manager Matt Klentak recently said that he appears “100 percent and ready to go.” McCutchen is now 33 and coming off a significant injury, but could be a prominent force ahead of the likes of Realmuto, Harper, Hoskins and Gregorius in the team’s lineup if he can pick up where he left off.

How does the back end of the rotation shake out?

In Aaron Nola and Wheeler, the Phillies have a strong 1-2 punch in their rotation. Behind that pair, though, there are plenty of questions, and a group that needs to perform well for the team to avoid a repeat of 2019. Jake Arrieta has been roughly a league average starter the last few seasons and is returning after having a bone spur removed from his right elbow. Zach Eflin posted a 4.13 ERA (with a more concerning 4.85 FIP) last season in 28 starts, and the team’s fifth starter spot isn’t entirely settled. Someone beyond just Nola and Wheeler will need to find success in the rotation for the Phillies to find success in a highly competitive NL East. 

Washington Nationals

Can the team’s offense make up for the loss of Anthony Rendon?

The Nationals still boast perhaps the best rotation in baseball, but there are significant questions about the team’s offense following the loss of the star third baseman, who hit a sensational .319/.412/.598 last season with 44 doubles, 34 homers and an MLB-leading 126 RBI. With Rendon now in L.A., the team is set to turn to their top prospect, Carter Kieboom, in the hot corner. Kieboom struggled in limited at-bats in the majors in 2019, but hit .303 with 16 home runs and five steals in 109 games at the AAA level. Speedy shortstop Trea Turner will lead things off for the Nats, but beyond young star Juan Soto, there’s few really exciting, proven bats in the middle of the lineup. The team will hope to get enough offensive production from the likes of Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick (who was great last season), Eric Thames and others.

Will the shortened season benefit the team’s veteran starters?

With question marks in the lineup, Washington will lean perhaps more than ever on the arms of its star pitchers this season. Veterans Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg pitched the team to a World Series last October. Strasburg, who has a well-documented injury history, led the NL with 209 innings pitched, his most since 2014, while Scherzer dealt with back issues which caused him to miss a few starts. The extended layoff and shortened schedule may greatly benefit the pair and help them to remain healthy in the 2020 season. The Nationals will certainly need strong performances from both as they look to defend their title.

What’s next for Juan Soto following his breakout year?

In 2019, Soto 1) became just the fourth player in MLB history to record 100 extra-base hits before his 21st birthday and 2) became the fourth-youngest player in MLB history to hit a home run in the World Series. His batting line for his age 20 season: .282/.401/.548 with 34 home runs, 32 doubles, 110 runs, 110 RBI and 12 steals. Few players in baseball history have been as incredible as Soto at such a young age. So where does he go from here? Is he going to get even better? If so, how much? Will the league’s pitchers catch up? There’s going to be plenty of reasons to watch how Soto performs in the shortened season.

Click here to see our other 2020 division previews.

Photo by Lorie Shaull / Flickr

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