The champs, the Mets or someone else? Young stars collide in high-pressure NL East

A year ago baseball pundits looked at the NL East as the most entertaining division. Bryce Harper had just switched teams. Josh Donaldson joined the Braves. The Nationals spent big — on a pitcher, not Bryce. The Mets had potential. The Marlins had Derek Jeter.

The result? It was OK. Didn’t live up to the hype. The Braves ran away with the division. The Phillies were a disappointment. The Nats were a mess until they got hot and won the World Series.

This could be a case where the sequel is more interesting than the original. The Phillies loaded up again, nixing manager Gabe Kapler in favor of veteran Joe Girardi, then luring Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius down the road from New York. The Nationals lost Anthony Rendon in free agency, but kept Stephen Strasburg. The Braves lost Donaldson but signed Marcell Ozuna and Cole Hamels. The Mets have a new manager, Luis Rojas, after a new kind of hiccup hit Queens.

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What we’re left with is a division that is probably more even than last year. Four teams have a realistic shot of winning or making the playoffs. There’s a lot to watch, whether that’s young studs like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr., or ace pitchers like Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. 

This year? The NL East could be as entertaining as advertised.

Due up … 

Three people who could make the difference in the division this year.

By Mark Townsend

1. Bryce Harper, Phillies OF: When his debut season with the Philadelphia Phillies ended, Bryce Harper had his usual strong numbers. However, the 81-win Phillies, as a whole, looked nothing like the team many believed would compete for the NL East. As a result, changes were made this winter that Philadelphia's front office hopes will help the franchise maximize Harper’s presence in the long run.

If the Phillies have any hope of overtaking Bryce Harper's former team, the defending champion Washington Nationals, they need the 2015 NL MVP to reassert himself as a dominant hitter. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Those changes started at the managerial position. Out is Gabe Kapler. In is former Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who won 910 games and one World Series championship during his 10 seasons with New York. The hope is Girardi will bring experience and command respect that at times seemed to be missing during Kapler's tenure. Philadelphia also added free agent starter Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius to bolster their rotation and lineup, respectively. That should provide the Phillies with the necessary firepower to take a step forward. But reaching their full potential might hinge on Harper, the $330 million centerpiece, taking his game to another level.

2. Luis Rojas, Mets manager: It was a very Mets offseason from beginning to end. Not one, but two managers were fired, as revelations about Carlos Beltran's role in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal forced the Mets to move on from him before he presided over a single game. That ultimately led to the hiring of Luis Rojas. It's not an enviable position for the rookie manager to be in. Rojas will be tasked with stabilizing an organization that's seemingly always in a state of chaos. The good news is that Rojas is viewed as someone who stays composed in the face of challenges. If there's one thing the Mets need, it's composure. 

[Which NL East stars do you need to draft? Allow the Yahoo Fantasy experts to help]

From a talent perspective, the Mets are pretty well stocked. The rotation is loaded with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. The lineup has pop with Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto and Robinson Cano, if he can rebound. If Rojas can keep the players focused on baseball while he deals with everything else, the Mets may end up stumbling into a good situation.

3. Carter Kieboom, Nationals INF: The Nationals didn't just survive losing Bryce Harper, they took gigantic steps forward — after a miserable 19-31 start — and ended up winning the 2019 World Series. That success would not have been possible without the emergence of young slugger Juan Soto. It also wouldn't have been possible without an MVP-caliber season from All-Star third baseman Anthony Rendon. Now the Nationals are facing the task of replacing Rendon, who signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

That puts the focus on Rendon's likely replacement, Carter Kieboom. The 22-year-old has only appeared in 11 MLB games, but he still figures to have the inside track after Washington failed to sign Josh Donaldson. Kieboom will not truly replace Rendon, but the Nationals will need production from the position if they hope to contend again. Kieboom's development will be among the most intriguing storylines for Washington this season and could actually tip the scales in what promises to be a competitive NL East.

The Teams

How 2020 could go so right ... or so wrong ... for each team. Listed in order of projected standings via Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.

By Chris Cwik and Jack Baer

New York Mets

Pete Alonso's record-smashing rookie season was an unabashed success, but now he will have to try to replicate it as the Mets aim for the postseason. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Best-case: For the first time in seemingly forever, everyone stays healthy. Turns out, the only thing holding this team back has been injuries. Robinson Canó returns to form and reinserts himself in the All-Star conversation. Pete Alonso once again mashes 50 home runs. J.D. Davis proves last year’s breakout was for real. Yoenis Céspedes makes Mets fans forget they ever said bad things about him. Jacob deGrom wins another Cy Young, while Noah Syndergaard bounces back and finishes in the top 5 of the voting. Edwin Diaz cures whatever the heck held him back in 2019. Luis Rojas turns out to be the manager the Mets should have hired in the first place. The Wilpons actually sell the team. The scenario: 98 wins, a division title and as little Metsing as possible.

Worst-case: Wall-to-wall Metsing. That might seem like a lazy proclamation, but we should have probably accepted that there is no predicting what kind of disasters can befall this team when its $110 million outfielder missed an entire season following an incident involving a wild boar. A team that couldn’t even reach second place with deGrom’s two straight Cy Young performances suffers when he takes a step back, and Syndergaard shows that last year was his new normal. Canó and Diaz cement themselves as the bad end of one of the most lopsided trades in recent MLB history. The team’s manager is unceremoniously let go amid a major scandal — oh wait, that already happened. The scenario: 79 wins while the phrase “Oh Mets” trends on a weekly basis.

Washington Nationals

Best-case: The simple answer here is: Everything that happened last year. Juan Soto somehow takes yet another step forward and puts himself in the conversation for best player in baseball. The starting rotation doesn’t deal with any issues after adding a ton of innings on their arms in the postseason. Ryan Zimmerman makes the most of his limited opportunities and comes through with a couple game-winning hits. Around midseason, Sean Doolittle releases a novel about a baseball player who is also a Jedi. The scenario: 103 wins and the first repeat World Series winner in a long time.

Worst-case: A rotation that features four pitchers over the age of 30 and three former Tommy John patients (assuming Joe Ross gets the fifth starter spot) can’t stay healthy enough to deliver the elite production expected from it. Replacing Rendon in the infield with the likes of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Kieboom leads to a mediocre offense that is especially low on power. Investing significant resources in a bullpen that has flopped for years goes the way so many significant bullpen investments go: nowhere. Soto only posts a .360 OBP. And yet, not one Nats fan would care, unless Rob Manfred announces an investigation into the 2019 World Series champions, too. The scenario: 81 wins and a significant World Series hangover.

Atlanta Braves

Best-case: Ronald Acuña Jr. continues to blossom and wins the NL MVP. He narrowly beats out teammate Freddie Freeman, who takes his game to another level now that his elbow is finally pain-free. Marcell Ozuna does his best to replace Josh Donaldson at the plate. Dansby Swanson’s solid hard-hit rate turns him into an All-Star caliber player. The rotation sees continued growth from the youngsters as Max Fried and Sean Newcomb combine with NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka to remind people of the ‘90s Braves. King Félix pitches like a duke, but that’s good enough these days. The scenario: 99 wins and a division title.

Few players in baseball inspire bigger dreams and greater enthusiasm than Braves OF Ronald Acuña Jr. The next step is MVP contention after a 41-homer, 37-steal season in 2019. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Worst-case: Neither Johan Carmago nor Austin Riley come close to filling the hole left by Donaldson at third base, and Ozuna comes nowhere close to offsetting the loss. Soroka experiences some hardcore regression while none of the other young arms hold up their end of the rotation. Cole Hamels, signed as the team’s nominal innings eater, misses significant time as his shoulder issue lingers all year. Mike Foltynewicz remains haunted by Game 5 of the NLDS. Ozzie Albies realizes just how comically awful his contract is. The scenario: 84 wins while just missing a wild-card spot.

Philadelphia Phillies

Best-case: The 2015 version of Bryce Harper shows up and he once again becomes the most feared hitter in the NL. Rhys Hoskinsnew stance prevents him from experiencing a massive slump, and he turns in peak Adam Dunn numbers. Andrew McCutchen and Didi Gregorius fight for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Aaron Nola returns to 2018 form, second-half Zack Wheeler becomes all-the-time Zack Wheeler, and Jake Arrieta finds a temporary fountain of youth. Nick Pivetta, everyone’s favorite 2019 fantasy baseball sleeper, delivers on that promise a year late. The entire team is happier now that Gabe Kapler isn’t around. The scenario: 97 wins and a division title.

Worst-case: The 2016 version of Bryce Harper shows up and he infuriates Philly as one of the most inconsistent hitters in the NL, triggering constant jeers and talk of a $330 million albatross. The bullpen looks just as bad as last year, except Héctor Neris takes a step back at age 30 and creates a rough late-inning situation. A team full of players that need to tick back up to 2018 and 2019 forms if they want to contend instead flops, and Joe Girardi starts thinking about how quickly he could land a new broadcasting job. The scenario: 78 wins and some hard questions about this team’s long-term place in the NL East.

Miami Marlins

Best-case: The rotation may be unheralded, but there’s a lot of potential here. Caleb Smith pitches like he did before last season’s hip injury, Pablo López’s strong peripherals finally result in a 3.50 ERA and Sandy Alcantara finally uses his 96 mph heat to get some strikeouts. Jesús Aguilar has a bounce-back season, while Jonathan Villar and Corey Dickerson keep last season’s gains and utilityman Jon Berti (.273 BA, 17 steals in just 73 games in 2019) impresses enough to get regular playing time. Derek Jeter not only reverses course on the Marlins home run sculpture, but decides the team deserves two of them. The scenario: 78 wins, and a reason for fans to be optimistic.

Worst-case: Miami’s many mid-tier acquisitions neither elevate them from the NL East basement nor provide decent trade returns at the deadline. Lewis Brinson again takes up residence below the Mendoza line and exits the team’s long-term plans, which ain’t great considering he was the jewel of the return for Christian Yelich. Brian Anderson’s bat dips toward mediocrity at age 26. The team’s ownership group, which paid $1.2 billion for the club, says something like, “At our current level of competition, it just doesn’t make sense to invest at the major league level.” It’s the Marlins, you don’t need to use much imagination here. The scenario: 57 wins as the team’s rebuild completely sputters.

Fun Meter

How entertaining will this division race be as a summer-long TV show?

By Mike Oz

The NL East has the defending champs, two of the most exciting young players in the game, Bryce Harper and the New York Mets. Whether the latter is “fun” probably depends on if you consider trainwrecks good entertainment. There will be no shortage of drama this year, as every team but the Marlins should at least be competitive.

Having starred in the World Series just after his 21st birthday, Nationals star Juan Soto will have all eyes tuned to his charismatic game in 2020. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

As for the real fun, ladies and gentlemen, this is a division with Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. If you don’t think that’s fun, go sit in an empty Toys “R” Us and re-evaluate your life. Acuña, 22, is one of those players who makes every action on a baseball field more entertaining. Soto, still 21, can turn his at-bat shuffle-stare-down into baseball’s best traveling roadshow. Harper, 27, is now old by comparison and enters the 2020 season with very little fanfare compared to recent years but his Phillies team has a new manager, a few big free agent signees and even higher expectations. They could be a good fun team, or they could be a disappointment again, which is a different kind of fun for baseball fans who don’t reside in Philly.

As for the Mets, let’s just remember that they hired two managers this offseason because one lost his job before even managing a game, Yoenis Cespedes is attempting a comeback from … falling in a hole, and Tim Tebow exists. Bring your popcorn. The circus is fun.

NL East UFR (Ultimate Fun Rating) = 8.2

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