Despite entering last season as presumptive division favorites, the Washington Nationals watched as a young Atlanta Braves team made the leap from rebuilding club to contender a year earlier than expected.
The Philadelphia Phillies faded down the stretch but entered the All-Star Break with the best record in the NL East, pushing them into the postseason conversation.
The Nats went just 41-35 against division foes in 2018, recording their lowest in-division win total since going an even 36-36 seven years ago. Things don’t look they’re going to get any easier for Washington anytime soon either, as Atlanta and Philadelphia’s front offices have both taken aggressive approaches to this offseason.
Three-time All-Star and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson agreed to a one-year, $23 million deal with the Braves last week, adding an impact bat to the middle of an already potent lineup that includes Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies. They’re certainly not done either, with rumors connecting them to starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Sonny Gray and Corey Kluber.
In Philadelphia, it’s no secret the Phillies aren’t shying away from pulling out their checkbooks this offseason — even if it means being “a little bit stupid about it.”
They traded for an upgrade at second base in Jean Segura on Monday and are in the mix for just about every big name on the free-agent market.
After Rhys Hoskins proved his rookie power surge was no fluke and Aaron Nola finished as a finalist for NL Cy Young, Philadelphia feels it has one of the better young cores in the sport. With a few big splashes this offseason, the team could be much more than that.
Before last week, the New York Mets were the forgotten team of the mix. That all changed when news broke they were on the verge of acquiring Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners in a blockbuster deal that was just made official Monday.
New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has made it clear the Mets plan on competing in 2019, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest they have the pieces to do it. If Yoenis Cespedes can stay healthy, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard anchor the rotation and young outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto continue to develop, New York has a scary roster on its hands.
We’ll add a courtesy mention of the Miami Marlins, who won’t be competitive in 2019 — or the foreseeable future. Even so, the NL East boasts four teams who could conceivably win the division title next season.
The only other division that comes close to matching that is the NL Central, which has the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals vying for the top spot. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a sexy underdog pick, but the aforementioned trio appears to be a tier above the ballclub from the Steel City.
That’s the reality of baseball today, when more than half the league is in some stage of a rebuild and the best teams are running away with their divisions in mid-July.
Consider this: Of the 18 teams to not make the postseason in 2018, only one finished within six games or fewer of a playoff spot. That would be the Cardinals, who were two and a half games back of the Colorado Rockies for the second NL Wild Card.
The NL East is different in that two teams (Braves, Phillies) are coming off rebuilds while a pair of perennial contenders in large markets (Nats, Mets) attempt to hold them off. Perhaps this is what the AL Central, which has four rebuilding teams and the Cleveland Indians, will look like in a few years.
It’s not as if this trend is showing any signs of slowing down, either. The Mariners are kicking off a rebuild this offseason, while the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks are reportedly considering following suit. Yet despite the obvious lack of competitiveness across the league, it’s hard to argue with teams’ logic.
The Houston Astros have won 100+ games in back-to-back years and still have their core of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman locked up for at least another two seasons. Seattle, which has the longest playoff drought in the majors at 17 years, lacked the star power to compete for a division title.
Mariners’ General manager Jerry Dipoto decided it wasn’t worth aiming for a shot in the do-or-die AL Wild Card Game to bank on an aging and expensive roster backed by a weak farm system. Rather, his moves suggest he hopes to compete in two or three years when the Astros have lost a few stars and Seattle has had the chance to develop younger players.
The Nationals coasted to four division titles in the six years while the Phillies overhauled both their farm system and front office. Atlanta won the division in 2013 before enduring four straight sub-80-win seasons. The Mets have floundered since winning the NL pennant in 2015 but still have a payroll that exceeds $150 million.
Plenty of dominos still need to fall before this winter comes to an end, but one thing is for certain: The NL East is MLB’s most competitive division.
It really isn’t even close.