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Starting Nine: As it stands, the NL East’s best at each position

Report date closing is in and the Braves are heading toward spring training with an incomplete roster, but as it stands, this is the division’s top team at each position 

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League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two
In reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr., the Braves have two of the East’s top four position players in terms of Steamer fWAR projections for 2021.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With the Major League Baseball Players Association rejecting the league’s proposal to delay the season by a month, camps will open as expected with the season to follow on April 1.

While that, like so much in our world right now, is subject to change, knowing we’re roughly two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting comes with some self-reflection. So, what if this is it?

Amid a busy offseason by the National League East, that saw Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco and James McCann land with the Mets, J.T. Realmuto stay in Philadelphia, it’s become arguably the deepest division in baseball. The three-time defending champion Braves have made additions, but as presently constituted, they’re taking an incomplete squad with them to North Port.

Some late maneuvers, be it uncharacteristic from the Braves, have to be in the cards with the sizable void left by Marcell Ozuna still hanging over the lineup and room for improvement in the bullpen. There’s the potential the continuing bargain chip of the designated hitter in the NL in 2021 is a hang-up that will lead to that being quickly resolved one way or another and a trade (i.e., the Indians’ Jose Ramirez) remains an option. Knowing this is all subject to change, the Staring Nine takes a crack at who has the edge at each position in the division.

1. Pitching

Rotation: With two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and the newly acquired Carrasco, the Mets have two of the division’s top four starters in fWAR per Steamer projections at 5.8 and 3.0, respectively, and a combined 12.9 WAR among their projected rotation ... before Noah Syndergaard returns by an expected May/June from Tommy John surgery. Every other rotation in this division has its talking points. The Braves added more veteran depth in inking Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, Max Fried turned elite in 2020 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.5 fWAR, Ian Anderson exceeded expectations in his sterling 32 1/3 innings in the regular season and 18 2/3 in the postseason, not to mention Mike Soroka coming back from an Achilles tear (though, as The Athletic’s David O’Brien notes, that could be complicated by pitchers needing to hit again). The Nationals’ big three of Max Scherzer (4.0 fWAR projection), Stephen Strasburg (2.8) and Patrick Corbin (2.7) are bolstered by adding Jon Lester on a one-year, $5 million deal; the Phillies have two starters with expected fWARs north of 2.0 in Aaron Nola (3.4) and Zack Wheeler (2.5) and the Marlins’ young arms are looking to build off last year’s wild-card run. When healthy, the Braves have the potential to push New York and Washington is arguably the division’s best right now 1-3. But the answer is clear, and it could become even more so if the Mets happen to add Trevor Bauer.

Bullpen: Its’ the same story in the bullpen, where New York has the division’s only reliever greater than a 0.4 fWAR projection in Edwin Diaz (1.6) after his 1.75 ERA/2.18 FIP 2020 and brought in Trevor May. The Braves could still return Mark Melancon or Shane Greene, and probably need to bolster the relief corps to aid a core of Tyler Matzek (0.8), Chris Martin (0.5) and A.J. Minter (0.4), Atlanta’s top three relievers in terms of fWAR last season. Frankly, Will Smith can only rebound after posting a minus-0.6 fWAR and 4.50 ERA last season, but it’s a group that still lacks some punch after ranking third in the NL last year at 2.2 fWAR.

Verdict: Mets (rotation); Mets (bullpen)

2. Catcher

Travis d’Arnaud put up career numbers during last season’s pandemic-shortened 60 games with a 144 wRC+ and .321/.386/.533 slash line, while setting the NL Division Series on fire with a 2.092 OPS, .600 average, two homers and pair of doubles vs. the Marlins and claiming a Silver Slugger. That wRC+ made d’Arnaud third in the majors among all catchers behind only the Dodgers’ Will Smith (163) and Royals’ Salvador Perez (162). The Mets improved, adding McCann — who posted a 1.5 fWAR and 143 wRC+ last year, which was just behind d’Arnaud for fourth overall — but this was decided the second that Realmuto opted to return to the Phillies on a five-year, $115.5 million deal. The past three seasons, Realmuto leads all catchers with a combined 12.4 fWAR, and is projected to lead the NL again in that category at 3.8 fWAR, well ahead of the circuit’s next best catcher in the Giants’ Buster Posey (2.5) and the division’s No. 2 backstop in d’Arnaud (2.4).

Verdict: Phillies

3. First Base

The reigning NL MVP leaves any argument on this topic null and void as Freddie Freeman’s league-leading 3.3 fWAR included highs in every point of his slash line at .341/.462/.640. The current absence of the lineup protection he’s enjoyed the last two seasons with Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna hurts, but you have to go back to 2012 to find the last time that Freeman didn’t hit better than 32 percent above league average. The point there being that Freeman is going to remain the division’s standard at the position regardless of who’s hitting fourth for the Braves. Pete Alonso could return to form after going from 143 wRC+ in his Rookie of the Year season to 118 last year, a season that saw his ISO dip from .323 to .260 and the Nationals have a wild card with the addition of Josh Bell, a year removed from hitting 37 home runs, but #MVFree rules here.

Verdict: Braves

4. Second Base

The middle infield provides two of the most intriguing debates in the East. We start with second base, where the Phillies’ Jean Segura (1.0) is the division’s returning fWAR leader at the position (though he played just eight more games than he saw at third) but the absence of Robinson Cano clears the way for Jeff McNeil (1.2 fwAR) to take over at second. He was second overall and first the NL on MLB Network’s list of the top 10 second basemen ... and it feels like everyone is sleeping on Ozzie Albies. Limited to 29 games last season, he hit .271/.306/.466 with 103 wRC+ and a 0.6 fWAR, but in the two previous seasons, Albies’ combined 8.3 fWAR is just behind Jose Altuve for fifth at second base. The 24-year-old is projected to get back on track in 2021 with a 3.6 fWAR and 25 home runs. The power potential is far greater than with McNeil, though the Met has been more consistent with no worse than 130 wRC+, while Albies has never been better than 116.

Verdict: Push (Braves/Mets)

5. Shortstop

Since his debut in 2015, no shortstop has been more valuable than Francisco Lindor. He’s behind only Mike Trout (46.4) and Mookie Betts (38.4) among all players with 29.2 fWAR in that span and in the last three full seasons, Lindor has hit no fewer than 32 home runs. Without question, the Mets pulled one of the biggest game-changing moves of the winter in landing him form the Indians. But last season, the Nationals’ Trea Turner was the NL’s fifth most valuable player (2.7), 0.2 behind the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. among shortstops and over the last two years combined, Turner has been more productive than Lindor (6.3 fWAR and 130 wRC+ to Lindor’s 111 wRC+ and 6.2 fWAR) with just nine fewer home runs and Turner’s wOBA is 33 points higher at .377. Not to be outdone, Didi Gregorius is 12th in fWAR since 2016 (13.9) and returns to the Phillies on a two-year, $28 million deal and is coming off a 117 wRC+ season and Dansby Swanson certainly has his positives after a career 2020 that saw him at 116 wRC+ with highs across a .274/.345/.464 line. But it’s between Lindor and Turner and for now, the edge is with Lindor, but it’s oh-so close.

Verdict: Mets

6. Third Base

There’s a running storyline in the division at third, where the Braves (Austin Riley), Nationals (Carter Kieboom) and Phillies (Alec Bohm) are all playing early 20-something former first-round picks they’re hoping can put it together. Among those three, Bohm was at 139 wRC+ with a .381 wOBA in 44 games last season, while Riley has shown glimpses, but has yet to post better than 88 wRC+ in two seasons, and Kieboom was at a mere 67 wRC+ in 33 games in 2020. All have potential, but it’s between the Marlins’ Brian Anderson and Mets’ J.D. Davis. The former’s three full seasons have included a 116 wRC+ average and 20-homer year in 2019 with 7.7 fWAR in that span, while Davis’ two years in New York have included hitting 36 percent above league average in 2019 and 16 percent above in ‘20 with 2.8 fWAR in those seasons. Bohm could take over here as early as this season, but Anderson is the pick.

Verdict: Marlins

7. Left Field

Who’s going to man this position for the Braves? If there’s really no DH in the NL in 2021, the Braves could believe the offense outweighs any perceived defensive inadequacies and bring back Ozuna. RosterResource currently has Ender Inciarte in left, which after a 0.9 fWAR in ‘19 and minus-0-.6 in ‘20 and being left off the postseason roster would be a dramatic downturn. So, we look elsewhere for the East’s best. The Nationals bring power, adding Kyle Schwarber, who has hit 105 homers since 2017, but chased that with an MLB-worst minus-3.0 dWAR the past four years. The Mets’ Dominic Smith has played the position, but Mets president Sandy Alderson has said he’s not comfortable with Smith — despite his raking to the tune of .316/.377/.616 with 164 wRC+ — in the field, though he may not have a choice without the DH. Meanwhile, the Marlins’ Corey Dickerson has trended toward an average hitter, with 96 wRC+ in ‘20 and is projected for 99 in ‘21. The verdict is out on Smith putting together that kind of production in multiple years, and while Andrew McCutchen isn’t the same player who was rattling off six- and seven-fWAR seasons in Pittsburgh, he stands as the division’s most consistent presence in left.

Verdict: Phillies

8. Center field

It’s Cristian Pache time in center for the Braves, giving them the kind of defensive skillset that has produced more than a few whispers of being Andruw-like. Despite the home run against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series, the offense needs time, as he’s had just 26 big-league at-bats across the regular season and playoffs. The Nationals’ Victor Robles is two years removed from hitting above league average and is coming off a 65 wRC+ and .273 wOBA; with Gregorius back, the Phillies are likely to move Scott Kingery, who was hit hard by COVID-19 last year and posted a negative dWAR (minus-0.4) while hitting a paltry .159/.283/.511, to this spot full time. It comes down to the Marlins and Mets, and while Starling Marte at 32 is hunting his first 3.0 fWAR season after posting six with the Pirates, the 27-year-old Brandon Nimmo has posted two 148 wRC+ seasons in the past three years and is projected at 2.6 fWAR in ‘21. This one goes to Nimmo.

Verdict: Mets

9. Right Field

With the Nationals moving Juan Soto to right to make room for Schwarber in left, this becomes without question the most star-studded position in the division. Had he played the entire season, Soto would have given Freeman a serious challenge for NL MVP, with Washington’s now 22-year-old leading MLB in wRC+ (201), on-base percentage (.490), slugging (.695), wOBA (.478) with a ridiculous 20.9 percent walk rate. Ronald Acuña Jr. and his career-best 158 wRC+ and .413 wOBA in ‘20 appear poised to make another run at 40/40 (or even 50/50?) given his offseason training regimen; the Mets’ Michael Conforto was right behind Acuña in fWAR (2.0 to the Braves’ star’s 2.4) and wRC+ (157 for Conforto) and, of course, love him or hate him, Bryce Harper just keeps raking with 125 and 151 wRC+ in two seasons in Philadelphia and since 2015 is second in fWAR (26.7) to Mookie Betts (38.4) at the position. It’s worth mentioning the Marlins’ Garrett Cooper (.365 woBA and 134 wRC+ last year), but this is a debate among the other four. Call it taking the easy way out, but Acuña and Soto are so spectacular at what they do (Acuña’s power and all-around game; Soto’s ridiculous plate discipline) that this one’s a draw.

Verdict: Push (Braves/Nationals)

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