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2024 MLB Division Preview: National Leauge East

We're just a day away from Opening Day, and the NL East shapes up to be one of the more intriguing divisions. In recent years, the division has been dominated by the Braves, Phillies, and Mets, with the Marlins and Nationals being afterthoughts. The Nationals and Marlins have good young players. At the same time, the Mets seem to be in the middle of a rebuild after an embarrassing season, even if some of their offseason moves have pointed in another direction. The Braves and Phillies, however, have been able to keep their core together (for the most part), and they should be World Series contenders yet again.

First Place - Atlanta Braves (104-58)

Last year, the Braves starting lineup was Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Marcell Ozuna, Eddie Rosario, Sean Murphy (or Travis d'Arnaud, whichever was catching that day), Orlando Arcia, and Michael Harris. This year, the starting lineup will remain the same, except that either Jarred Kelenic (acquired in a trade with the Mariners) or Adam Duvall (a recent free-agency pickup) will replace Rosario, who departed in free agency to Washington.

The Braves also made major additions to their pitching staff, bringing in lefty Chris Sale, whom they acquired in a December trade with Boston. The former White Sox and Red Sox ace will likely be fourth in the rotation after Spencer Strider, Max Fried, and Charlie Morton and ahead of either Reynaldo Lopez or Bryce Elder. The bullpen will consist of closer Raisel Iglesias and relievers A.J. Minter, Joe Jimenez, Pierce Johnson, Tyler Matzek, and Aaron Bummer.

The "X Factor" for the Braves is Acuna, the reigning NL MVP, coming off the first 40-70 season in MLB history with 41 home runs and 73 steals. However, like the rest of the team, the question will be whether or not he can stay healthy. In 2022, Acuna, Huascar Ynoa, Mike Soroka, Albies, Duvall, and Rosario all missed significant time. Last year, Morton, Soroka, Ynoa, Matzek, and Nick Anderson all missed most of the season,, decimating their pitching staff and leading to a second-consecutive NLDS loss to the Phillies.

If the Braves' core can stay healthy, they should be in contention to reach the World Series again. They could easily win the NL East by at least 10 games again. More importantly, they will be better set up for the postseason run.

Second Place - Philadelphia Phillies (96-66)

The Phillies are running it back with the same starting lineup from a year ago, and they picked up Whit Merrifield to serve as a backup utility fielder. Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, and J.T. Realmuto will create a potent top-of-the-lineup. Yet the bottom half has some potent bats: Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm, Nick Castellanos, and some combination of Merrifield, Christian Pache, Brandon Marsh, and Johan Rojas. If the bottom half of the lineup can pull their weight, don't be surprised if the Phillies are in contention again.

The starting rotation looks solid, with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola at the top. Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker, and Christopher Sanchez are solid starters in their own right to round out the rotation. However, the bullpen looks suspect, but the arrival of top prospect Mick Abel at some point this season could add more juice and depth. However, the Phillies were linked to Jordan Montgomery before he signed with the Diamondbacks, which could have allowed them to push Sanchez into the bullpen. If the bullpen struggles to begin the year, don't be surprised to see president of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski make another big move.

Harper and Wheeler will be the Phillies' most important players. Harper is a two-time NL MVP, and if he can continue rebounding from an elbow injury, he will put up solid numbers in his new role as the starting first baseman. As for Wheeler, he has finished in the top six of Cy Young voting in two of the last three years and figures to continue to be the squad's ace.

The question for the Phillies will be whether or not they can break through and win the NL East and finally secure home-field advantage after the Wild Card Round. The past two years, it hasn't mattered, as they have defeated the top-seeded Atlanta Braves in two straight years in the NLDS, and they made the World Series in 2022 before falling to the Astros in six games. The Phillies are a team built for the postseason, but a better regular season could help them finally break through to win their first championship since 2008.

Third Place - Miami Marlins (82-80)

The Marlins were a surprise last year, as they went 84-78 and made the playoffs in a full season for the first time since 2003, when they won their second World Series. However, somewhat surprisingly, the team decided to clean house in the offseason, hiring Peter Bendix from the Tampa Bay Rays and firing almost everyone. Bendix has said that even though the team was successful, prior general manager Kim Ng ran an old-fashioned club and wouldn't be sustainable in the long term. Don't expect the Marlins to make a repeat of their playoff run from last year, but if they are more competitive, that will be seen as a win by the South Florida faithful.

Their starting lineup from last season has pretty much remained the same, with the only significant move being the replacement of Jorge Soler for Tim Anderson, and they also let Yuli Gurriel become a free agent; otherwise, their lineup of Luis Arraez, Josh Bell, Jake Burger, Jazz Chisholm, Jr., Bryan De La Cruz, Anderson, Jesus Sanchez, Christian Bethancourt (who is a new addition and will split the catcher spot with Nick Fortes), and Avisail Garcia will remain largely the same.

The pitching staff is the bigger question, as Sandy Alcantara had Tommy John surgery in October and will miss the entire season, and Braxton Garrett will miss the start of the year due to injury. The Marlins' rotation must rely on Jesus Luzardo, Eury Perez, A.J. Puk (formerly a reliever), Edward Cabrera, and Trevor Rogers. At the same time, the starting rotation could be one of the best in baseball when fully healthy; the bullpen, on the other hand, projects to be one of the worst in the league. Puk was one of the two primary closers on the team last year, along with Tanner Scott, but those two and Andrew Nardi (who also returns) were the only good relievers on the team last year, and they haven't replaced them with anyone promising.

Luis Arraez should be one of the best players on the team. He is coming off a season where he had a shot to reach a .400 batting average until late in the season. He eventually wound up with a .354 average and was the first player in the NL to have a .350+ batting average in a full season since Chipper Jones in 2008.

Fourth Place - Washington Nationals (78-84)

After the All-Star break last year, the Nationals looked like a different team, as they went from a record of 36-54 at the break to a 35-37 record in the second half, and if they can continue to ride that momentum, they could quickly come close to breaking .500 this year. The Nationals have a good mix of veterans and up-and-coming young players in their lineup, with Joey Gallo, Nick Senzel, Eddie Rosario, Lane Thomas, and Joey Meneses playing the mentor role for Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams, Luis Garcia Jr., and Victor Robles.

The starting rotation figures to be similar, with young up-and-comers Mackenzie Gore and Josiah Gray taking the top two spots and Patrick Corbin, Jake Irvin, and Trevor Williams serving as replacement-level players in the rest of the rotation. The bullpen doesn't have many strong arms, with Kyle Finnegan serving as the closer and not much to speak of around him.

Ruiz, Gray, and Gore will be the most important players on this team, but the main focus of the year will be continuing to develop those three and their other young players as they look to be competitive next year or the year after. The Nationals are in a long rebuild, and they likely won't compete for a playoff spot this year, but if they can continue to develop their young talent, they will look much better next year and into the future.

Fifth Place - New York Mets (73-89)

The Mets suffered a disappointing 2023 and became sellers at the trade deadline, most notably trading future Hall of Fame pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander for prospects. The starting lineup looks as strong as ever, with franchise stalwarts Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo, Starling Marte, Francisco Lindor, and Jeff McNeil. Those stars are complemented by youngsters Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty, and the newly acquired Harrison Bader.

However, the pitching staff looks shaky, and it will start even weaker, as the team's ace, Kodai Senga, will begin the year on the injured list with a shoulder injury. The opening-day rotation of Jose Quintana, Luis Severino, Sean Manaea, Adrian Houser, and Tyler Megill doesn't exactly inspire confidence. The bullpen looks solid, as they will have closer Edwin Diaz back from injury, and Adam Ottavino figures to have another solid season, but the rest of the bullpen isn't much to write home about.

The Mets' "X Factor" will likely be Kodai Senga, as the offense will be fine and able to put up runs, but if the pitching and defense can't keep the team in games, it will be another repeat of last year. The big questions for the Mets will be whether their young players can continue to develop and whether their pitching can pull their weight. This season will likely be a lost one for the Mets unless they have a massive resurgence, but if they can continue to develop their young players and pick up a few good pitchers, they could easily be contenders again next year. For now, though, the Mets look like they will have another difficult season.

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