The National League East only had one representative in the playoffs last season, but plenty has changed since then. It’s not unrealistic to think this division could send three teams to the postseason in 2019.
2018 Record: 90-72; 1st NL East
Postseason: Lost in the NLDS to the Dodgers, 3-1
Say hello to: Josh Donaldson, 3B; Brian McCann, C
So long to: Anibal Sanchez, P; Kurt Suzuki, C
2019 Forecast:Reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña, Jr. will see if he can continue the magic of his 2018 season, which he finished with a .917 OPS and 26 homeruns in just 111 games. Acuña has hit cleanup for much of spring training and is expected to hit there permanently this sason. With Acuña now at cleanup, centerfielder Ender Inciarte has moved into the leadoff role. Veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson looks to hit in the 2-spot. Donaldson was plagued by injuries last season, but seemed back to his old stuff when he was finally healthy in September and playing for the Indians. Hitting third will be Freddie Freeman, who remains one of the best first basemen in the league. Nick Markakis re-signed with the Braves in free agency following a solid 2018 season. Those guys make for a formidable 1-5 in the Braves lineup. If Acuña can come close to replicating his rookie season, the Braves will be in contention again.
Look out for: It’ll be interesting to see how Acuna handles the cleanup role and how that changes the complexion of the lineup. Inciarte is a good choice to lead off—he had a career-high 28 stolen bases last season.
2018 record: 63-98; 5th NL East
Postseason: Did not qualify
Say hello to: Jorge Alfaro, C; Neil Walker, 2B/1B; Curtis Granderson, OF; Sergio
So long to: J.T. Realmuto, C; Justin Bour, 1B; Derek Dietrich, LF
2019 Forecast: *Insert scream emoji* It seems the tear down and rebuild plan of Derek Jeter’s is finally complete. Following the Marlins fire sale in the 2017 offseason, which saw them move 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Dee Gordon, they used the 2018 offseason to trade one of the best catchers in the league to a division opponent. Any fans that stick around after that deserve a gift basket of autographed Jeter swag. As for those who still remain on the team, Brian Anderson had a surprisingly strong rookie campaign for the Marlins in 2018 and proved he was strong defensively at both third base and in right field. Centerfielder Lewis Brinson has raw talent, but has been unable to put it all together at the major league level. Both Anderson and Brinson have played well in spring training and time will tell if that carries over into the regular season. The Marlins got catcher Jorge Alfaro in the Realmuto trade. Alfaro is a great defensive catcher and still young, but he strikes out an awful lot. The Marlins acquired veterans Neil Walker and Curtis Granderson in the offseason. No word yet on whether or not Walker believes he got justice. The Marlins still have a long way to go to be competitive, especially in a division with three pretty good teams at the top. At least they have new uniforms.
Look out for: Brinson has the talent to be really good. He’ll be given plenty of time to figure it out with the Marlins. If he has a breakout year, that could signal the Marlins are at least beginning the long road to recovery.
New York Mets
77-85; 4th NL
Did not qualify
Say hello to: Robinson Cano, 2B; Wilson Ramos, C; Edwin Diaz, RP; Jed Lowrie, 3B;
Justin Wilson, RP
So long to: Wilmer Flores, 3B; Jay Bruce, RF; Jose Reyes, IF
2019 forecast: Despite the team being a perennial punchline, the Mets’ rotation is among the best in the league when healthy, featuring 2018 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz. The Mets signed deGrom to a 5-year, $137.5 million extension earlier this week, which is fully deserved—especially considering the Mets couldn’t get deGrom a win for nearly two months last season (and another example of why the win stat for pitchers is hot garbage). The Mets traded for Cano, who spent half of his final season with the Mariners suspended for a PED violation; however, Cano had an fWAR of 2.9 in just 80 games last year. They also added catcher Wilson Ramos. Cano, Ramos and returning right fielder Michael Conforto will be strong 3, 4, and 5 hitters, respectively. The Mets may still struggle to gain ground in a tough NL East, but they could be slightly better than last year. They wouldn’t be the Mets without some dysfunction, though. Yoenis Cespedes is still hurt. Syndergaard is annoyed with management’s decision to make the Mets go to Syracuse for one workout before heading to Washington for Opening Day. Brandon Nimmo can’t cook chicken properly. The Mets threw their insane three-GM model out the window during the offseason and hired just one man to be GM. Because they’re the Mets, they hired high-profile agent Brodie van Wagenen, who has represented deGrom, Cespedes, and minor leaguer Tim Tebow, so one can see the conflict of interest that is present in van Wagenen taking the job. Who wants to bet Tebow sees the majors this year? Perhaps last year was rock bottom for the Mets: their three GMs couldn’t get on the same page; they suffered the worst loss in franchise history; they batted out of order; and Syndergaard contracted hand, foot, and mouth disease, which most people didn’t even know was a real thing. It’s hard to predict what will go down in Queens this year; the Mets are nothing if not unpredictable.
Look out for: deGrom has been a great pitcher for quite some time, but he took it to a whole new level last year. It will be interesting to see if he can continue pitching as impressively into 2019. Conforto had a decent season last year and hit a career-high 28 homers, but his other numbers fell from the previous season. The Mets are certainly banking on the young rightfielder returning to his 2017 form.
2018 record: 82-80; 2nd NL East
Postseason: Did not qualify
Say hello to: Yan Gomes, C; Patrick Corbin, SP; Anibal
Sanchez, SP; Brian Dozier, 2B;Trevor Rosenthal, RP
So long to: Bryce Harper, OF; Matt Wieters, C; Tanner
2019 Forecast: The Nationals may have lost Bryce Harper, but they should be just fine. Between their core of Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto; the additions they made in the offseason; and having one of the best right-handed pitchers in the game, the Nats shouldn’t take much of a step back, if at all. Rendon finished 2018 with the 9th highest fWAR in the majors, which was better than Harper. Soto was second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Young outfielder Victor Robles spent much of last year on the disabled list after a hyperextended elbow, but performed well when called up in September. The Nationals made some notable acquisitions in the offseason, signing Brian Dozier in free agency and trading for catcher Yan Gomes from Cleveland. Dozier had a down season last year, but it was revealed he had played most of the season with a severe bone bruise on his knee. Gomes should be an upgrade over Wieters, particularly defensively. A rotation that already features three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg got a few additions, when the Nats signed both Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez in free agency. Corbin was a stud for the Diamondbacks last season and has one of the filthiest sliders in the game. Sanchez isn’t what he was at his peak, but he’s still decent enough to fill the four or five spot in the rotation.
Look out for: Victor Robles is likely the favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year in 2019. Robles would probably have even more hype had it not been for his injury and Soto becoming a star. If he performs as many experts expect him to, the Nationals outfield could very well be better without Harper.
2018 Record: 80-82; 3rd NL East
Postseason: Did not qualify
Hello to: Bryce Harper, OF; Andrew McCutchen, OF;
J.T. Realmuto, C; Jean Segura, SS; Jose Alvarez, RP; David Robertson, RP
So long to: Jorge Alfaro, C; Justin Bour, 1B
2019 Forecast: The Phillies went all-in during the offseason, making perhaps the biggest splash in both quantity and quality of acquisitions, both in trades and free agency. The Phils also made sure to lock down one of their best players by signing pitcher Aaron Nola to a four-year, $45 million extension following his breakout 2018 season. Yes, teams that win the offseason don’t always win in the actual season, but it’s tough to imagine the Phillies not being a much better team this year. They signed Bryce Harper to the largest free agent deal in history, and added J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, and Andrew McCutchen to help their lineup, which had some trouble scoring runs late last season. The Phillies also bolstered their bullpen with the acquisitions of David Robertson and Jose Alvarez. Robertson will likely be used in high-leverage situations and could be used as a part-time closer. Robertson gives manager Gabe Kapler some flexibility in late innings, so the Phillies won’t have to rely as heavily on young reliever Seranthony Dominguez. The Phillies were in contention for most of 2018 and their offseason acquisitions have them poised to make some big gains in the win column in 2019. You’ll know if the Phillies are doing well, because their fans will literally not shut up about it.
Look out for: It’s tough to put anything but Bryce Harper in this spot. His new home stadium is a hitter’s ballpark, so his slugging percentage and homerun totals should see a boost.
NL East Prediction:
I could see the Braves, Phillies, or Nationals winning this division and whichever teams don’t could be vying for the two NL Wild Card spots. My prediction for how things shake out in the NL East:
I like the Nationals because I think they have the best combination of pitching and hitting. I like their rotation better than the Phillies’ and I like their lineup more than the Braves’. I think all three teams will be in contention into late August or September, barring any injuries. The Mets could even shock the world and win the division. If the Marlins win it, we’re truly living in the Upside Down.
On Thursday afternoon, Bryce Harper finally signed with a team; the right fielder and his glorious hair will be headed to Philadelphia. Harper’s deal is for 13-years and $330 million. It’s the largest free agent signing and largest contract in sports history, surpassing Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres, which Machado signed just last week.
That Harper got the largest contract in history was a surprise to no one; Harper’s free agency had been speculated about for years and his agent, Scott Boras, is known for getting his clients the money they want. Plus Harper is just 26 years old and may just be entering his prime.
What was surprising was the rest of the contract—13 years, no opt-outs, no deferred money, and a full no-trade clause. The contract will keep Harper in Philly through his age 38 season in 2031.
There are many questions the Harper signing brought up.
Is he worth it?
Harper is still young—he just turned 26 in October. He already has a number of career accomplishments. He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 2012, he is the youngest position player to play in an All-Star Game, and he was unanimously named NL MVP in 2015 with a triple slash line of .330/.460/.649., a wRC+ of 197 (league average is 100), and an fWAR of 9.3. Given those accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine a team that wouldn’t want Harper batting third or fourth in its lineup.
Harper has also been unable to replicate the success of his MVP year. There aren’t many players who can, but unfortunately for Harper, he’s playing at the same time as Mike Trout. The 9.3 fWAR Harper sported in 2015, the best of his career? Trout has five seasons of having an fWAR of 9.3 or better. It may be unfair to compare Harper to Trout, but they will always be compared to one another.
Harper is still a force to be reckoned with at the plate, but his defense in 2018 was downright awful. Fangraphs’ UZR metric had him at -7.4—the average is zero, so Harper was way below average. Baseball Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved to measure defense, and Harper was -26—meaning he allowed 26 runs to score defensively, which was second worst among all outfielders. Regardless of the metric used, it’s clear that Harper has gotten worse defensively.
So is Harper worth it? Yes and no. $330 million still seems like a good deal for Philadelphia to have a 26-year-old former MVP with the raw talent and potential that Harper has. Citizens Bank Park also suits a hitter like Harper—it’s not unrealistic to think he could hit 30-40 homeruns in a smaller park like Citizens Bank. His numbers in 50 games in Citizens Bank Park: .258/.365/.564 with 14 home runs and is the all-time leader in slugging percentage—.564—in the park’s history.
Harper probably won’t be worth the money on the back end of his deal; it’s hard to imagine any player in their late 30s being worth $25.38 million a year. But it’s clear the Phillies are going for it, and if they win a World Series at any time over the next 13 years, it will certainly be worth any money they’ll spend when Harper is a light-hitting 35-year-old.
Are the Phillies automatically favorites to win the NL East with the addition of Harper?
With the addition of Harper alone, no. With the addition of Harper, Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen—probably.
Harper is still young and may not have peaked yet. Segura’s combined fWAR over the last three seasons is 11.9; Harper’s is a combined 11.3. Realmuto just might be the best catcher in the game. Cutch isn’t the same player as he was in 2013 or 2015, but he had a nice stretch run with the Yankees last season and is a decent addition for the Phillies.
The Phillies finished last season 80-82, good enough for third place in the NL East. They made a huge jump between 2017 and 2018, and with the addition of the aforementioned players in the offseason, they’ll be a formidable opponent in 2019. Winning the offseason doesn’t always translate to success on the field, but the Phillies have names and a manager that has embraced analytics, which seems like the best of both worlds. Until proven wrong, it’s hard to pick against the Phillies.
What does this mean Mike Trout, who will hit free agency after the 2020 season?
With Harper getting $330 million over 13 years, many assume Trout will sign a deal upwards of $500 million. As stated above, Trout has the better stats and is the better player. Trout’s WAR has him in legendary company. He’s better defensively.
It’s still likely that Trout will not receive a $500 million deal. He’ll be 29 when he hits free agency, so a 13-year deal probably won’t happen for him. Teams are less and less willing to dole out huge sums of money in free agency. It’s no secret that hitters decline after age 30. No one—not even Mike Trout, who at times seems superhuman—can stop time. Trout will probably sign a contract with the highest average annual value (AAV)–$35-$38 million/year over 10 years seems like a reasonable and realistic contract for Trout. But $500 million is a stretch. Remember, people thought Harper was likely to receive a $500 million deal, too.
The Harper era has officially begun in Philadelphia and it won’t be over for a very long time—many of the guys Harper will be playing with at the end of his contract are currently in middle school.