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Running Down MLB’s Contenders: NL East

mlb 2020 nl east postseason

Short season chaos! Thanks to Rob Manfred reaching into baseball’s guts and messing with the inner works, eight postseason spots in each league are up for grabs. Eight! That’s over half the teams in each league! That means there’s lots of contenders and lots of room for chaos. Let’s take a look at what’s happening out in the National League’s Eastern Division.

Atlanta Braves

atlanta braves 2020 playoffs
Image courtesy of Curtis Compton.

After spending almost half a decade in the rebuild wilderness, the Braves burst back onto the scene in 2018 with a 90-win season and a thrashing from the Dodgers in the Division Series that year. After suffering one of the most ignominious defeats in playoff history in 2019, the Braves are looking to cement their status as a true National League superpower in 2020 and beyond.

Atlanta’s offense is stellar, and probably won’t become un-stellar before the playoffs hit (unless, of course, their nine all-stars fall victim to nine separate misfortunes). After overcoming a scary round with COVID-19, first baseman Freddie Freeman has vaulted himself straight into MVP contention with a scalding 243 wRC+ during his last two weeks of play. His wRC+ has improved from 87 to 188 since August 6, and while he won’t be able to keep up this level of performance, it’s always nice to ride into the postseason with a hand as hot as the one Freddie Freeman currently sports.

Overall, Atlanta’s lineup is top-heavy but solid. Ronald Acuña, Jr.’s .259/.418/.608 triple-slash is redolent of 2015 Bryce Harper. Marcell Ozuna‘s recaptured his 2017 form- this time with less horrible outfield defense, thanks to the addition of the NL DH. Something snapped inside Adam Duvall and caused him to start murdering baseballs this September; he’s got eleven home runs on the month. Travis d’Arnaud has continued his post-Mets renaissance with a 143 OPS+ from behind the plate. Ozzie Albies and former first-overall pick Dansby Swanson form a well above-average tandem up the middle. Even when accounting for disappointing seasons from Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers, Atlanta’s offense is a powerhouse that every team should handle cautiously come playoff time.

Moving on to the pitching side of things, Atlanta’s bullpen doesn’t contain many household names, but that hasn’t stopped them from putting up some of the best pitching numbers in the league. Mark Melancon, Tyler Matzek, Grant Dayton and Chris Martin have led the charge thus far, complemented by a reborn Darren O’Day and a sizzling (0.46 ERA [!!!!{!!!!!}]) A.J. Minter. Josh Tomlin is his usual steady high-4s ERA swingman self, and offseason acquisition Will Smith has put up decent surface-level numbers so far (albeit with some eye-watering peripheral stats).

mike soroka braves postseason
Image courtesy of David J. Griffin and Icon Sportswire.

The one iceberg that could sink the AtlanTitanic as it sails into the postseason is their rotation, which is currently being held together with duct tape and the iron will of Max Fried. Fried has been a revelation this year- out of all MLB players, his 3.0 rWAR sits behind only Mookie Betts‘s 3.3. The race for the National League Cy Young is a crowded one, but Fried is certainly a front-runner.

Behind Fried, though, the rotation is a mess. Ian Anderson‘s put in some good work in his five starts, but every other Atlanta starter is either hurt or suffering through an awful year. Kyle Wright has the second-most starts on the team, but a 5.74 ERA/6.01 FIP doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The dynamic duo of Touki Toussaint (8.88 ERA with peripherals to match) and Robbie Erlin (8.49 ERA with peripherals to match) won’t do much to put the fear of God into opposing lineups either. Mike Soroka was great for a few starts, but an Achilles tear sent him home prematurely. If anything besides the standard playoff chaos has a chance to doom the Braves in 2020, it’s their starters.

The Braves are mostly stacked, and they’re a reasonable choice to represent the National League in the World Series (if we’re all still alive by then). They’re young, fun, and they have a great chance to hoist that shiny piece of metal at the end of it all. If you’re a DBacks or Pirates fan looking to hitch your wagon to a new team for the postseason, the Braves wouldn’t be a bad choice at all.

Miami Marlins

It turns out that getting decimated by an early-season COVID outbreak was the inspiration Miami needed to scrape their way into playoff contender status. They’ve been the surprise of the season so far, and they’re looking to prove all their doubters (i.e., everyone with even the most basic knowledge of the sport) wrong with a deep playoff run.

Miami’s hitters have been a surprisingly competent group this year, led by the ever-steady Brian Anderson and a massive 163 OPS+ breakout from veteran shortstop Miguel Rojas. Jesús Aguilar isn’t recapturing his 2018 form yet, but most every team would take his 120 wRC+ at first base or DH. Corey Dickerson and Jon Berti give Miami some league-average offensive production, as does the suprising Lewis Brinson. While some of Miami’s lower-risk signings like Jonathan Villar (81 OPS+) and Francisco Cervelli (yet another concussion) haven’t performed the way Marlins fans would like, Miami still boasts a perfectly “whatever” hitting core. That’s always better than a perfectly bad hitting core, especially when a team has good pitching to complement it.

Miami’s rotation boasts two solid anchors in Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez. Lopez’s 5.09 ERA in 2019 didn’t catch many eyes, but his 3.96 figure in 2020 is much more palatable (especially when viewed alongside his excellent 3.12 FIP). Sixto Sanchez is one of Miami’s top prospects, and he’s been dazzling over his six starts. His stuff is Dustin May-esque, and it’s looking like he’ll be the Real Deal going forward.

Past those two and Sandy Alcantara, who’s been maintaining the momentum from his 2019 breakout year, Miami’s starters are kind of a mess. Elieser Hernandez started six good games before straining his lat and departing for the IL. Players like Trevor Rogers, Daniel Castano and José Ureña have flat sucked so far in 2020, and there aren’t many reinforcements should things go sideways for that unstable crew (unless the Marlins want to wheel out Jordan Yamamoto and his 18.26 ERA over 11 innings into an elimination game). Jeter et.al are going to have to plan carefully to avoid a quick exit from the playoffs- should they make it in.

marlins postseason what
Image courtesy of Al Diaz and the Miami Herald.

What’ll help Miami most going forward will be their bullpen, most of which has been nigh untouchable in 2020. After spending the 2019-20 offseason skimming through waiver wires and the lower regions of the free agent scrap heap, the Marlins came out the other side with a collection of relievers who have opened some eyes this season. The resurgent veterans on Miami’s roster are almost too many to count; Brad Boxberger, Brandon Kintzler, Nick Vincent, James Hoyt, Richard Bleier (who, even with the new three-batter minimum, has somehow logged only 12 1/3 innings in his 17 appearances) and Yimi García (who’s been the cheap, effective stopper this very clever writer thought he had the chance to be), among others, have all been mowing down hitters in 2020. If the Marlins end up making any noise this postseason, a lot of it will come from this unit.

More than anything, Miami’s been extremely lucky this season. They’ve allowed 37 more runs than they’ve scored- though 20 of those runs came from a single loss- and their gnarly schedule (one more game with the Braves, then three with the Yankees to close the season) could keep them out of the playoff party should the Phillies get hot. Regardless, the Miami Marlins are, uh, well, uh, contending, apparently. With how much lunacy has been packed into the past nine months, we shouldn’t be surprised if Miami rides Sixto Sanchez and Miguel Rojas all the way to the Fall Classic and the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Philadelphia Phillies

phillies 2020 postseason
Image courtesy of Andy Lewis and Icon Sportswire.

The Phillies have to play some tough baseball before they can clinch a postseason berth. They’re one game out of the final Wild Card spot (currently being held by the San Francisco Giants), and they need to survive three games with the Rays to squeak into Manfred’s Expanded Playoff Bonanza. The Giants and Marlins need to do some serious choking for Philadelphia to make it in, but Bryce Harper, Etc. definitely have a shot to crash the party.

The Phillies boast a very good collection of hitters. While they don’t have any massive Freddie Freeman-esque standouts, most of their starting lineup has performed exceedingly well going into the closing days of the regular season. Bryce Harper’s having a typical non-2015 Bryce Harper year with a top-notch .247/.398/.494 triple-slash. Didi Gregorius, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto have all contributed OPS+ marks between 130 and 140, and new guy Alec Bohm has been dropping Alec Bombs on pitchers across the Eastern Seaboard. Jean Segura‘s been putting up nicely above-average stats with the bat. So has… designated hitter… Phil Gosselin?? Whatever- if it works, it works. Andrew McCutchen and Roman Quinn haven’t been very good at the plate, but they’ve been better than Scott Kingery and his *cough* .517 OPS. The Phillies don’t have a deep bench at all, but their starting nine are good enough that that little stumbling block might not matter too much.

In keeping with the theme established by Atlanta and Miami, Philadelphia’s rotation boasts two very good starters and very little beyond. Zack Wheeler‘s been a horse for the Phillies in 2020 with 64 innings of 2.67 ERA ball. Even though he’s not racking up strikeouts the way he used to, his ability to suppress the dinger is keeping his surface-level numbers and his peripherals at an All-Star level. The other great Philadelphia starter is Aaron Nola, who sports some of the very best pitching numbers in MLB. Over 67 2/3 innings, Nola’s racked up 90 strikeouts, 2.4 rWAR and a sterling 3.06 ERA, with a 3.22 FIP to match. Past Wheeler, Nola, and the innings-eating Zach-with-an-H Eflin, things get murky. Jake Arrieta wasn’t doing well even before he got hurt. Ditto marks for Spencer Howard. Vince Velasquez isn’t performing well either. The rotation is extremely top-heavy, which hasn’t played well in the regular season, and won’t play well in the postseason.

As for their relievers?

Can the Phillies Overcome Their Historically Terrible Bullpen?”

Bullpen Woes Put Phillies’ Postseason Hopes in Danger

Phillies’ bullpen on pace to join dubious company with ERA over 7.00

The Phillies Bullpen Can’t Throw Fastballs

Philadelphia Phillies: All of the midseason bullpen trades have failed

The Phillies’ already bad trade with the Red Sox is looking even worse

Philadelphia Phillies closers outperformed by position players pitching

 

Well shoot, that ought to cover it.

Okay, that should get the point —

 

Good lord. Okay, that should get the point home.

phillies bullpen postseason 2020
Image courtesy of Nick Wass.

The Phillies are a really, really inconsistent team that’ll only break into the 2020 postseason if everything breaks right for them. They’re a deeply, deeply, DEEPLY flawed squad, but so were the 2010 Giants. The line for them is the same as the Marlins’: stay lucky, get hot. It’s in San Francisco’s, Cincinnati’s and Milwaukee’s hands at this point.

The Other Guys

nats 19-31 2020 postseasonDespite hitting that magical 19-31 mark a few days ago, Washington was eliminated from the Big Dance pretty early on. With the exceptions of Trea Turner and the Second Coming of Ted Williams (NOTE TO EDITORS! put bref link to Juan Soto here!), Washington’s entire offense regressed dramatically in 2020. On the other side of the ball, Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin fell off dramatically, and any team that has to rely heavily on Austin Voth and Erick Fedde will most likely have a difficult time reaching the postseason. So go the Washington Nationals. At least last season brought them the very best consolation prize in baseball.

That leaves us with the Mets. Jacob deGrom‘s been his usual world-devouring self, and Edwin Diaz is back to being God-King of Slider Mountain, but most of the remaining pitchers have been pretty damned bad. David Peterson‘s been a nice surprise, though! Hitting-wise, Jeff McNeil‘s continuing his reign as David Fletcher With Power, and Robinson Cano looks like he’s 25 and on the Yankees again. Apart from those guys, Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto, most of the roster has been a white flag. Pete Alonso regressed hard, Amed Rosario‘s been almost unplayably bad and Yoenis Cespedes‘s return bellyflopped into a not-so nice 69 OPS+. On the bright side though- Domonic Smith’s breakout has been super fun to watch.

And that’s all from the National League East going into the 2020 MLB postseason. It’s been a wild ride, and someone (the Braves) is going to come out the other side and make a run at a championship. Who’s it going to be? We’ll know soon enough. It’ll totally be the Marlins.

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