By Matt Szczypiorski, Sports Talk Philly Contributing Writer
Baseball is finally back. Phillies baseball is finally back. The “this is the year Vince Velasquez finally breaks out” hype train is so back and chugging full steam ahead.
There is going to be a lot to look forward to during this season because everything is so different. Cutouts of fans behind home plate, players sitting in the stands, a game that is known for being a marathon becoming a sprint; this season will truly be one of a kind.
Part of this season’s oddities is the structure of the MLB schedule. The Phillies 60 game season is one of the toughest in baseball. They will be playing 20 games against the always daunting American League East, while their other 40 games will consist of National League East foes.
The NL East projects to be one of, if not the toughest division in baseball this season. The Nationals, Braves, and Mets all finished above .500 last season, with the Nationals winning their first World Series in franchise history. Furthermore, the Phillies struggled mightily against the Marlins last season. The Phillies were actually the only team in the division that the Marlins had a winning record against, as Miami 10-9 against the Phils.
Needless to say, the Phillies will have their work cut out for them in 2020. Let’s further analyze the four other teams in the NL East, and see what is going to make this division so tough.
1. Ronald Acuna Jr. (RF)
2. Ozzie Albies (2B)
3. Freddie Freeman (1B)
4. Marcell Ozuna (LF)
5. Travis d’Arnaud (C)
6. Ender Inciarte (CF)
7. Austin Riley (DH)
8. Dansby Swanson (SS)
9. Johan Camargo (3B)
1. Mike Soroka (RH)
2. Max Fried (LH)
3. Mike Foltynewicz (RH)
4. Sean Newcomb (LH)
5. Kyle Wright (RH)
(Cole Hamels (LH) is probable to start the season on the injured list due to a triceps injury, but will likely find his way into the rotation upon return.)
The Braves are the odds-on favorite to win the division this year, and for good reason. The back-to-back defending NL East champs are again the most complete team in the division, although I believe their rotation is suspect. Their lineup is good from top to bottom, with two bonafide stars and perennial MVP candidates in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. They are willing and able to carry the offense on their own.
Ozzie Albies is an underrated cog in the lineup not only in the batter's box, but also in the field, on the base-paths, and in their clubhouse. Marcell Ozuna was a nice, low-risk addition on a one year deal for a team that needed a power replacement after the loss of Josh Donaldson. Losing outfielder Nick Markakis due to a season opt-out hurts their offense a bit, but won’t be detrimental. It’s also worth noting that Yasiel Puig was a Brave for about 45 minutes before he too opted-out of the season after testing positive for Covid-19.
In terms of pitching, the Braves starters are decent, but lean more toward mediocre than good. Mike Soroka is their unquestioned ace after a great rookie season, so it will be interesting to see how he performs this year now that teams will have a better scouting report on him. Atlanta’s bullpen is the best in the division and got even better with the addition of 2019 all-star Will Smith (not that one).
To be the champs, you've got to beat the champs. I don't see anyone in the division coming for Atlanta's throne quite yet.
Projected Record: 35-25
Series against the Phillies: August 7-10 in Philly, August 21-23 in Atlanta, August 28-30 in Philly.
1. Jonathan Villar (CF)
2. Brian Anderson (3B)
3. Corey Dickerson (LF)
4. Jesus Aguilar (1B)
5. Garrett Cooper (DH)
6. Harold Ramirez (RF)
7. Isan Diaz (2B)
8. Jorge Alfaro (C)
9. Miguel Rojas (SS)
1. Sandy Alcantra (RH)
2. Caleb Smith (LH)
3. Jose Urena (RH)
4. Pablo Lopez (RH)
5. Elieser Hernandez (RH)
This season the Marlins could actually have an advantage over the rest of the league. This team is used to playing in front of an empty ballpark, so there won’t be as much of a learning curve for this team!
Jokes aside, the Marlins are going to be better than people think they will be. There are a couple of legitimate reasons for this, number one being the shortened season. However, I do think that this team is simply better than last year’s team, much to the chagrin of Phillies fans. The additions of Jonathan Villar and Corey Dickerson make the lineup look more suitable for a major league level club. Jesus Aguilar was also a nice, low-risk addition for a team that was desperate for a power bat.
Young guys like Isan Diaz and Harold Ramirez will look to build off of rookie seasons that saw a lot of ups and downs, but also saw some tantalizing potential. Speaking of tantalizing potential, former Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez figures to make his major league debut on the mound at some point this season. It’ll be interesting to see what could have been for the Phillies, especially if Realmuto's contract talks continue into the season.
Miami’s pitching staff is the weakness of the team. The starting rotation is one of the worst in baseball and the bullpen is not much prettier. This figures to be the achilles heal of an already underwhelming team. Sandy Alcantra and Caleb Smith are two young guys to watch for the Fish, as they try to turn around their brief careers.
The Phillies will get a good look at the new Marlins, as they try to avenge their struggles against the Marlins right out of the gate. The two teams will face off in their opening series of 2020, starting on Friday night.
Projected record: 24-36
Series against the Phillies: July 24-26 in Philly, August 4-6 in Miami, August 10-13 in Miami.
New York Mets
1. Jeff McNeil (3B)
2. Pete Alonso (1B)
3. Robinson Cano (2B)
4. Yoenis Cespedes (DH)
5. Michael Conforto (RF)
6. J.D. Davis (LF)
7. Wilson Ramos (C)
8. Brandon Nimmo (CF)
9. Amed Rosario (SS)
1. Jacob deGrom (RH)
2. Marcus Stroman (RH)
3. Rick Porcello (RH)
4. Steven Matz (LH)
5. Michael Wacha (RH)
(Keep in mind that Noah Syndergaard underwent Tommy John surgery in March, so he was set to miss the 2020 season before all the hoopla of Coronavirus.)
The Mets have something in 2020 that they haven’t had in a few years: expectations. I think New York is the second best team in the division, and the margin between them and the Braves is close.
The strength of this team is once again the rotation, but it is not as strong as it would be if Syndergaard hadn’t gotten injured. deGrom is in the prime of his career and gunning for an unprecedented third straight Cy Young award. Marcus Stroman was a great pickup at the deadline last year for the Mets, and will look to build off of a strong second half. The free agent signings of Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha were sneaky good, something the Mets are not known for.
The lineup is the best the Mets have had in a few years. Pete Alonso is a star, he was the focal point of the offense last year and figures to be for the foreseeable future. Jeff McNeil is a hitting machine, more than capable of hitting over .300. Phillie killer Michael Conforto (19 homers in his career against the Phillies) is good for at least one home run for every game he plays in South Philadelphia. Cano and Cespedes are past the primes of their careers, but can still be capable hitters as long as they actually stay on the field and away from wild boars.
The Mets bullpen can’t be much more of a disaster than it was last year. The addition of Dellin Betances on a one year deal was another out of character good signing for the Mets. Seth Lugo will look to build off of his dominant performance in 2019. Edwin Diaz could not be more of a train wreck than he was last year (I hope I’m wrong), so he looks to go back to at least half of what he was in 2018 with Seattle.
There are high hopes for the Mets this season. It would be a real shame if the Mets pulled a classic Mets move and imploded in a way that only they could do. Real shame.
P.S. Does anyone know Jed Lowrie’s whereabouts?
Projected Record: 33-27
Series against the Phillies: August 14-16 in Philly, September 4-7 in New York, September 15-17 in Philly.
1. Trea Turner (SS)
2. Adam Eaton (RF)
3. Starlin Castro (2B)
4. Juan Soto (LF)
5. Howie Kendrick (DH)
6. Eric Thames (1B)
7. Asdrubal Cabrera (3B)
8. Yan Gomes (C)
9. Victor Robles (CF)
1. Max Scherzer (RH)
2. Stephen Strasburg (RH)
3. Patrick Corbin (LH)
4. Anibal Sanchez (RH)
5. Erick Fedde (RH)
Hot take time: The 2020 Washington Nationals are not good. On paper, this is a mediocre team at best with a lot of holes. Yes, they won the World Series last year and a lot of those guys are coming back. But you know who’s not coming back? Their best hitter, Anthony Rendon. I think that loss has been extremely underrated and not talked about enough.
As for the rest of their lineup, it feels kind of like the front office is trying to hold this thing together with as much duct tape and spit as they can find. Guys like Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, and Asdrubal Cabrera are all players that are extremely capable hitters, but they’re past their primes. Not to mention they are all disappointing defensively at this point in their careers.
Did putting a lineup like this together work in 2019? Yes, because they got hot and they stayed hot. Can they repeat that for a second year in a row? That remains to be seen, but I’m leaning toward no. Juan Soto is a stud though, there is no doubt about that. Also, I think the loss of Ryan Zimmerman is going to hurt more than anticipated.
The starting rotation is easily the strength of the team, and they will be the reason Washington remains competitive. Max Scherzer is still great, but I think his age and injuries are going to start creeping up on him like they did in the World Series last year. Strasburg and Corbin may be the two guys I would have the most confidence in this season in terms of their rotation.
Washington’s bullpen is decent. Doolittle will need to have a bounce back year after a down 2019 season. Daniel Hudson should look to stay consistent and build off of his postseason success. Will Harris was a good addition to the bullpen, coming over from Houston in free agency.
Did the Nationals win the World Series in 2019? Yes.
Does that mean anything in 2020? No.
Everything will need to go right for the Nats for the second year in a row if they want to make the postseason and make some noise. I’m just not entirely sold on the idea of everything going right two consecutive years.
Projected Record: 30-30
Series against the Phillies: August 25-27 in D.C., August 31-September 3 in Philly, September 21-23 in D.C.
Projected Final Standings
1. Atlanta Braves (35-25)
2. New York Mets (33-27)
3. Washington Nationals (30-30)
4. Philadelphia Phillies (29-31)
5. Miami Marlins (24-36)