How the East is Won

The Braves appear to have put the finishing touch on their starting 8, how do they stack up in the N.L. East?

Buried within the news cycle that was the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction announcement was the announcement that the Braves had come to terms with their new clean-up hitter, Marcell Ozuna. The former Cardinals and Marlins slugger inked a 1 year, $18MM deal and essentially brought the offseason to a close for Alex Anthopoulos. While it’s always possible that a trade conversation from earlier in the winter suddenly bears fruit as teams prepare for Spring Training, for the most part the Braves have addressed their most pressing needs this offseason: clean-up hitter, bullpen, veteran starter in rotation. With those items checked off, it’s time to see how the Braves stack up against their divisional counterparts.

For Starters

The Braves project to roll out a rotation of Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Cole Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. Added to the mix in the last week was Seattle Mariners legend Felix Hernandez, however, and with the recent success of Anibal Sanchez fresh in the minds of Braves brass there is always the chance that King Felix shows some life and gains a roster spot. Assuming Newcomb comes out and wins the 5th spot, however, how does the Braves rotation compare to:

The Nationals – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Joe Ross

You don’t get any better than the top two of Scherzer and Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin had a solid 2019 for the Nationals as well. Will this be the year that Anibal Sanchez turns back into a pumpkin and shows his age? And what will the Nationals do about their 5th spot in the rotation? Surely the World Series Champs can do better than Joe Ross, right? Well, the Nats are hoping Austin Voth can prove that the 2-1 3.30 ERA with 1.05 WHIP in 43 innings will prove to be sustainable and he can lock down that 5th spot. Edge – Nationals, and it’s not close

The Mets – Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha, Rick Porcello

The Mets would like to debate my earlier claim that you don’t get any better than the top two of Scherzer and Strasburg. DeGrom and Syndergaard do indeed create a formidable duo at the top of their rotation, but the inconsistency of Syndergaard makes it difficult to rank them in the same class as the Nats headliners. Recently acquired from Toronto, Marcus Stroman had a decent start to his career in NY, going 4-2 in his 11 starts with a 3.77 ERA. As he gets acclimated to his new surroundings, he might either get more comfortable or wilt under the bright lights of the NY media. The back half of the Mets rotation is a mess without Zack Wheeler, however, so while DeGrom and Syndergaard might on their own be better than what the Braves have to offer in Soroka and Fried, the rotation 1-5 seems to favor Atlanta.

The Phillies – Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrietta, Zach Efflin, Vince Velasquez

Aaron Nola headlines this group for Philadelphia, and the addition of Zack Wheeler bolsters what was a rather weak rotation in 2019. Arrietta has failed to live up to the expectations he generated after his success in Chicago, and the back end of the rotation is going to be a dog-fight between Efflin, Velasquez and Nick Pivetta. Those three pitchers all pitched to a high 4 ERA last season and are causing the Phillies to open up the competition to include Cole Irvin and prospect Spencer Howard. Wheeler is as good as any pitcher in the East when he is at his best, but the problem has been finding consistency. The edge here goes to Atlanta on both top half production and back end depth.

The Lineups

The Braves entered the offseason with a big hole in their lineup with Josh Donaldson entering free agency. They filled that hole with the enigmatic Marcell Ozuna when Donaldson spurned the Braves offer and exiled himself to Minnesota. Braves fans will have mixed emotions about Ozuna with the memory of his 9-21 performance in the NLDS against the Braves still fresh in their minds, but in a rapidly thinning market he was no doubt the best option remaining to Anthopoulos. With Johan Camargo and Austin Riley battling over the 3rd base position, there is still room for changes in the starting eight, but the fact that Riley still has options and a gigantic hole in his swing, it might be prudent to plug in Camargo and let Austin start his season off in Gwinnett. With that as the more likely option, here is a possible regular season lineup –

Ozzie Albies (2B), Ronald Acuña, Jr (RF), Freddie Freeman (1B), Marcell Ozuna (LF), Johan Camargo (3B), Dansby Swanson (SS), Travis d’Arnaud (C), Ender Inciarte (CF)

Obviously Braves manager Brian Snitker will have his own take on the lineup, and it’s most likely that Acuña will once again bat leadoff for the Braves as the season starts. However, to maximize the impact of his speed and to try to generate more runs by having baserunners on when he goes deep, Acuña should be better served batting 2nd behind Albies. The back half of the lineup will change based on personnel as well as matchups, of course, and it’s anyone’s guess how Snitker will line them up initially.

The Nationals – In some order Turner (SS), Eaton (RF), Soto (LF), Thames (1B), Kendrick (2B), Suzuki (C), Cabrera (3B), Robles (CF)

The Nationals, like the Braves, suffered a big loss in the middle of their lineup when Anthony Rendon hit the free agent market and left for Los Angeles. They, like the Braves, made an attempt to sign Donaldson but similarly failed in the attempt. Unlike the Braves, however, Washington saw that they were unlikely to win the Donaldson sweepstakes and made a flurry of moves to try to shore up their infield situation with 3 of 4 positions being wide open after free agency defections. Signings of Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, and Asdrubal Cabrera helped ease the loss of Rendon, and bringing back Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick maintained some of the continuity from their World Series Championship team. All things being equal, however, the Braves have the advantage in the starting lineup, though their recent additions do give Washington some intriguing matchup and depth options.

The Mets – In some order McNeil (3B), Cano (2B), Alonso (1B), Conforto (RF), Ramos (C), Nimmo (CF), Rosario (SS), Davis (LF)

McNeil and Nimmo are two very pesky hitters, and no one doubts the power potential of Alonso and Conforto. Robinson Cano, however, has fallen off a cliff, and there is concern whether Davis and Rosario can provide enough offense to compensate for the huge hole that has become 2B for the Mets. The Braves have more depth and better overall production from 1-8, though Cespedes’ return from injury is a wild card that will bear watching.

The Phillies – In some order McCutcheon (LF), Segura (2B), Harper (RF), Hoskins (1B), Realmuto (C), Gregorius (SS), Kingery (3B), Haseley (CF)

On the surface the Phillies have a really potent offense. Harper, McCutcheon, Segura and Gregorius are all capable of propelling an offense, and Realmuto is a consistent weapon at a premium position. This group might hinge on Hoskin’s ability to bounce back from a disappointing 2019. He still managed 29 HR, but for a team that was counting on him to anchor the middle of their order he struggled to produce consistently, posting a .226/.364/.454 slash line and striking out 173 times in his 570 AB. This Phillies lineup is really the only one that should scare the Braves in 2020, and while I give Atlanta the slight edge it would not surprise me at all to see the Phillies be explosive from top to bottom and put some pressure on the N.L East vaunted pitching rotations.

The Bullpen

This is such an obvious strength for Atlanta that I won’t spend too much time on it. Anthopoulos pushed all his chips to the center of the table and finally did what most of us were begging him to do last offseason by shoring up the bullpen. The Braves enter 2020 with four closers on their roster: Will Smith, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Luke Jackson. They also bring back Chris Martin to help set up that four-headed monster and Darren O’Day to play the role of right-handed ground ball specialist. With 8 possible spots in the pen, that leaves the Braves choosing between a litany of quality arms to fill the remaining 2 spots. Conventional wisdom suggests lefty Grant Dayton will get one of those, but with the new rules pertaining to bullpen usage the role of a lefty handed specialist will be severely reduced. Felix Hernandez might be an option in a Josh Tomlin-esque long relief role, and consideration will be given to Jacob Webb, Touki Toussaint, Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and A.J. Minter. The Braves may have the best bullpen in baseball, so why waste time comparing them to their division rivals? You say your team doesn’t have four closers in their bullpen? Can’t relate.

The Bench

This is the one part of the roster that every team (except possibly the Nationals) is still trying to augment. It was about this time last season that Matt Joyce was added to the Braves bench, and that was one of the biggest offseason additions Anthopoulos made outside of Josh Donaldson. Who will be this year’s Matt Joyce? The Braves have enough players to fill out their bench currently with Camargo, Culberson, Hechavarria, Flowers, Markakis and Duvall already in the mix. What the Braves lack, however, is a left handed slugger to come in late in games and put pressure on the opposing pitcher to keep baseballs out of the Chop House. Joyce was great in that role last year before ending up in the starting lineup due to injury, and Atlanta will need to find someone to fill that role for 2020. Personally I’d give the Dodgers a call and see if we can finally liberate Joc Pederson from their roster, but Derek Dietrich could be a free agent option to consider to give the Braves some needed left handed pop. This category will be too tough to call until the 26 man rosters are announced heading into the season, but right now I’d say the edge goes to the Nationals who have 3 or 4 legitimate starters on their bench right now.

Let’s head south!

With the addition of Marcell Ozuna and the loss of Rendon in Washington with no obvious replacement for his production I believe the Braves have positioned themselves well to repeat as champions in the N.L. East. The effort to overhaul the bullpen and the addition of Cole Hamels to the rotation might be just enough to get Atlanta over the hump and into the NLCS. There’s also the possibility that Alex Anthopoulos isn’t done tweaking the roster, so stay tuned!

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