All hail the NL East, where the teams were trying to — at minimum — make the playoffs and even the one that wasn’t putting its money where its October dreams were at was making history when the Marlins hired Kim Ng as the first female GM in MLB history.
The forecast was for elevated play and a heated division race.
Nearly a month into the season, the division is bunched, but the play is … meh.
The weekend completed with just one NL East team over .500 and the 9-8 Mets had the fourth-worst run differential in the NL at minus-11. The third-worst belonged to the Braves (minus-12), the second worst was the Phillies (minus-15) and the worst was the Nationals (minus-24). Only the Marlins at plus-1 had an NL East positive and at 9-12 were tied with the Braves (9-12) and Nationals (8-11) for last in the division, all of whom were tied with the Reds (9-12) for the second-worst record in the NL behind the Rockies (8-13.)
If the NL East contenders were not chagrined enough about their underwhelming start then the Dodgers and Padres the past two weekends did live up to their offseason expectations, showing what it is going to take to break into the top of the league. The teams played seven tight, tense April games worthy of October. The pitching, hitting, athleticism and competitiveness provided a Rob Manfred fever dream of what baseball could be.
The National League goes through California — did you notice the Giants are in a golden state, nestled between the Dodgers and Padres in the NL West with the league’s second-best record (14-8)? San Francisco begins a revelatory 22-game stretch Thursday in which it faces the Padres or Dodgers 10 times. But the Giants’ strong start should reinforce that after all the offseason wreaths thrown at the NL East for trying in a time of inertia that the NL West might be better (even with Colorado) and that in a return to the standard playoff format of five teams per league, the only sure route into the postseason is by winning a division.
Proviso alert: It is early, of course. But the first month should encourage the Mets that they can (and maybe should) win the NL East. Through the weekend, FanGraphs’ predictive tool gave the Mets a 75.3 percent chance to take the NL East — the Braves were next at 16.4. Of course, a predictive model is based on what data is fed into it. Baseball Reference’s tool, for example, had the Mets with the third-best shot at 18.5 percent with the Braves at 53.8 and the Nationals at 44.5 percent.
If you like where the Mets are after a month it is because they have the best rotation in the division, and not only due to possessing the ace of the sport in Jacob deGrom. Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker are performing well, David Peterson is competent and Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard are trending toward returns. The Nationals rotation is not the same since its main men did overtime to help win the 2019 title. Stephen Strasburg is hurt again and Patrick Corbin has a 5.82 ERA and .886 OPS against spanning the last two seasons. The Phillies’ front three of Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin is excellent, but they have one of the majors’ worst rotation backend problems.
Yes, the Mets are bad defensively, but have you seen the Nationals and, particularly, the Phillies? The Mets at least can plug Albert Almora in center and Luis Guillorme at third late in games and approach average, maybe even better than that. That defines a depth that the Mets craftily created in the offseason that the Marlins, Nationals and Phillies lack.
The Mets’ offense might give pause early this season with Jeff McNeil and Dom Smith struggling and a now familiar clutch malaise — their .189 batting average with runners in scoring position is by far the majors’ worst. But the Braves are at .208 and their overall team batting average is .215.
Atlanta is the bellwether of this division, having won it three straight years. But the Braves are the Yankees of the NL East so far this season and not just because of the same 9-12 record through 21 games. They have knocked, knocked, knocked on breaking through to a World Series in recent seasons without success. Their strength this season was supposed to be a long lineup. But so far, so bad.
The controversy of the weekend was that Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner threw seven no-hit innings in a seven-inning nightcap of a doubleheader, but was not credited with a no-hitter. The rules state a pitcher must complete a game of at least nine innings to gain such distinction. But that overshadowed that the Braves were the opponent in the doubleheader and mustered one hit and no runs over 14 innings.
Ronald Acuna Jr. has been brilliant but the rest of the lineup, even NL MVP Freddie Freeman, has been dormant. Most disturbing is that after signing a four-year, $65 million pact off of leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) with a 1.067 in the shortened 2020 campaign, Marcell Ozuna had a .184 average, .527 OPS and one extra-base hit through 21 games.
Like the Yankees with Corey Kluber, the Braves took an $11 million pipe-dream on Drew Smyly based on five strong starts for the Giants down the stretch last year and despite a history of teasing talent mixed with injury and ineffectiveness. In 2021, Smyly already has been hurt plus bad in three starts (7.20 ERA). Max Fried, a revelation last year, had an 11.45 ERA in three starts before joining the injured list (hamstring). He is due back soon and so is 2019 ace Mike Soroka, who missed almost all of 2020 after rupturing his Achilles.
Atlanta’s pedigree, culture and depth still looms as the greatest challenge to the Mets breaking through to the top of the division. But four weeks are providing indicators that the NL East might not be what we expected and the Braves might be down a grade.
The door has opened further for the Mets.
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