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Roundtable: MLB East Division Primer

The 2020 Major League Baseball season will certainly have an odd feel to it. There will likely be no fans in the stands. Medical updates will be examined at every turn. The season will feature only sixty games per team. Having baseball though is better than not and we are extremely thankful to analyze the season that we will have.

Part of this season’s structure will include games exclusively played against geographic counterparts. Given this circumstance, our team of writers who cover the American League and National League East divisions will discuss their thoughts and expectations about the upcoming season. Let’s begin!

Given the unique situation of the 2020 season, what will be the biggest overall storyline?

Paula Wolf (Philadelphia Phillies beat writer): I think the fact that so many teams will be in the playoff hunt because the season is only 60 games will be something to follow. Over 162 games, the cream rises to the top. Over 60 games? Not necessarily.

Jorge Eckardt (New York Mets beat writer): One thing I’m personally interested in is if anyone will break records in this 60 game season, but the biggest storyline has to be COVID-19. It’s not a stretch to say that one player getting sick could sink an entire season. No matter how good a team is, if they lose their best player, it will significantly hurt their championship aspirations. The entire landscape of the league could change in an instant.

Daniel Bentley (Washington Nationals beat writer): Other than the COVID-19 precautions in place, the absence of fans and the truncated season, the inclusion of universal DH and the extra innings runner-on-second rule will be the most interesting storylines.

Peyton Joyce (Atlanta Braves beat writer): COVID-19 will more than likely dominate the headlines as players and staff may or may not test positive. But I feel the other major storyline will involve the Houston Astros. Houston caught a slight break with the pandemic shut down, but the question remains; what will teams do in order to get back at the Houston Astros for their sign stealing scandal? Will commissioner Rob Manfred have to hand down suspensions from these reactions? I believe most fans were tuned into the season back in March to see this drama go down. 

Dalton Wasserman (Tampa Bay Rays beat writer): There will be a ton of off-the-field stories due to the pandemic, but I am also particularly curious to see how well-received the universal DH will be. If it is viewed positively, it will be a hotly debated topic during next year’s collective bargaining negotiations.

 

Which of the ten east division teams is the best-equipped for the upcoming sixty game sprint?

Paula Wolf: Probably the Yankees and the Braves (assuming Freddie Freeman is healthy). I love the Nationals’ pitching trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, but the loss of Anthony Rendon is gonna hurt.

Jorge Eckardt: It sounds chalk, but the answer has to be the Yankees. We all saw how well they did last season despite their many injuries. Depth will be huge, and the Yankees have it.

Daniel Bentley: Yankees –  considering their depth and the shortened season, this seems like a perfect opportunity to finally capitalize on their roster brimming with talent. 

Peyton Joyce: If I had to pick just one team it would have to be the New York Yankees. This team has built up a ton of firepower and can put runs up with just about anybody. A very close second would be Atlanta due to their star power and depth. Should be a lot of fun to watch when those two teams clash.

Dalton Wasserman: I believe it will come down to roster depth, although it will be interesting to see which kind wins the battle in a shortened, high-risk scenario. If success comes from offensive depth, the Yankees and Braves have a supreme advantage. If pitching depth is the key, then the Rays have the best chance to succeed.

 

This season will be full of unique obstacles. What appears to be the biggest hurdle for any individual team’s postseason hopes?

Paula Wolf: The Phillies need ace-like performances from Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and a good showing by the bullpen, which was decimated last year by injuries.

Jorge Eckardt: It’s got to be Freddie Freeman. He recently came back from COVID-19, so he should be able to play by opening day. However, he’ll have only a week of summer camp to ramp up, so if he slumps in the beginning or just can’t get back to full strength, it could really hurt the Braves’ championship aspirations. He’s been the cornerstone of the franchise for pretty much a decade. He’s still one of the best first basemen in baseball, and their season could ride on whether or not he is back to his normal self.

Daniel Bentley:Third base will be a question mark all year for the Nats. With NL MVP runner up Anthony Rendon leaving for the Angels in the offseason, there is a gaping hole left not only in the batting lineup, but on defense as well. The Nats have options in Asdrudal Cabrera and youngster Carter Kieboom, but neither will have the same impact and they may start to feel it early in the season.    

Peyton Joyce: For the amount of talent on their team, Atlanta is still unsure of it’s top starting pitching rotation outside of Mike Soroka and Max Fried. Will Mike Foltynewicz return to his 2018 all star form and can he put last year’s game 5 playoff game behind him? Can Cole Hamels return and stay healthy? Who steps up at the back end of the rotation; could it be Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, or Ian Anderson? Atlanta did a great job of addressing the bullpen, but who can you fully trust outside of Soroka and Fried? This is surely Atlanta’s biggest question.

Dalton Wasserman: Atlanta’s early schedule is absolutely brutal. They are one of three teams who start the season with twenty games in twenty days. Their opponents: Mets, Rays, Mets, Blue Jays, Phillies, Yankees. Austin Meadows’ potential absence from Tampa Bay is also concerning as he is a huge factor in their success.

 

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the full schedule is out. Is there a series, be it for competitiveness or entertainment, that piques your interest the most?

Paula Wolf: What caught my eye was the Phillies’s 13-game stretch starting July 21 in which they play only the Braves and the Nationals. Yikes.

Jorge Eckardt: The Subway Series is always a fun couple of games, but this year it will be more important than it ever has been (aside from 2000 for obvious reasons). They play six games against eachother, which in a 60 game season is the highest percentage of games the two teams have ever played vs. eachother. Not only that, but both teams are legitimately good, so the matchups themselves were already going to be good. The best crosstown rivalry in baseball will be on full display this season, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Daniel Bentley: The NL East will feature the usual intriguing matchups, but the one I’m most looking forward to is Atlanta and Washington. The two clubs will face off 10 times this season in what will be pivotal for shaping the race for the NL East. The reigning World Series champs were abysmal against Atlanta last year; losing 11 of the last 15 matchups against the NL East champions. 

Peyton Joyce: Give me the opening day series between the Nationals and Yankees. Talk about a world class pitching duel between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer. Can the Bronx Bombers light up Washington’s great pitching staff or will pitching rule the day in this series? For anyone who’s a fan of high class pitching, this series is for you!

Dalton Wasserman: There are plenty of fun matchups filled with star power. Rematches of the 1986 (Mets-Red Sox), 1996 (Braves-Yankees), and 2008 (Rays-Phillies) World Series are fun for sure. However, the most meaningful series will likely be during the final weekend of the season, when the Mets travel to Washington for four against the Nationals.

 

Who may be the team who exceeds or falls short of expectations? Maybe a dark horse or even a good team sporting a staggering record at the end?

Paula Wolf: Maybe the White Sox will surprise some people.

Jorge Eckardt: The reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals are the clear choice to fall short of expectations. They won the World Series by getting hot at the right time, not because they were the best team. Then, they lost a top-10 player in baseball, Anthony Rendon. They’re still good, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them miss the playoffs. In fact, I’d probably bet on it.

Daniel Bentley: I’d keep an eye on the Blue Jays as they navigate their regional schedule. Despite the fact they were recently denied the ability to play in Canada, they should enjoy a more successful 2020 as their core of young talent could thrive in a shortened season. While still a longshot for the playoffs, the young Blue Jays could turn some heads this year and create optimism in Toronto for years to come.  

Peyton Joyce: A lot of strange things could happen in a truncated season. Some teams are going to start fast and some are going to start slow, but with the season being shortened that can harm your playoff chances. With Atlanta having a relatively tough schedule and being one of a few teams having to play 20 games in 20 days without an off day until August 13, I actually believe the Philadelphia Phillies can benefit this year. The Phillies decided to bring in Joe Girardi to help push this team into playoff contention. The Phillies have a lot of star power. Can they put it all together?

Dalton Wasserman: I actually think the Blue Jays could make some noise. They have young stars in Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. The addition of NL ERA champion Hyun-Jin Ryu should somewhat stabilize the rotation and Ken Giles has been terrific for them in the ninth inning since his arrival from Houston in 2018. They have a good chance to be the third best team in the AL East when factoring in the Red Sox thin pitching staff and rebuilding Orioles. 

 

Prediction time! Give your picks for the east MVP and best pitcher for this season.

Paula Wolf: NL East MVP will be Ronald Acuna Jr. or Juan Soto. Dark horse: Bryce Harper.

Jorge Eckardt: The MVP will (rightfully) be the same as the best pitcher, and that is Jacob deGrom. The Mets have potential this season but took a hit when they lost Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery. Now more than ever they need deGrom to be at his best the 12-to-13 times he takes the mound this season — and I think he will. He’s been the best pitcher in baseball the past two seasons. He’s better than Scherzer, he’s better than Strasburg and he’s better than Cole. There’s no one better.

Daniel Bentley: Best Pitcher: Jacob DeGrom East MVP: Ronald Acuna Jr. 

Peyton Joyce: East MVP: Ronald Acuña Jr. Best Pitcher: Jacob DeGrom. DeGrom is going to try and make history this year as the third pitcher to win three consecutive Cy Young Awards (Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux won four consecutively). 

Dalton Wasserman: These two divisions are loaded with power hitters and dominant high-velocity starters. That being said, I’ll take Juan Soto as the eastern division MVP. Most people probably have him behind Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich for the title of baseball’s best left-handed hitter. Soto is coming for that title. An MVP award is in his future. 

As for the pitching side, a shortened season allows the potential for a Bob Gibson-esque season (half-season really). I’ll take Gerrit Cole after his tremendous 2019 to have the best year. He’ll get plenty of run support as he did in Houston. Watch out for a bounceback from Blake Snell too. His peripheral numbers, including an increase of his already excellent strikeout rate, were not as bad as his 2019 ERA would portend.

 

Who, or what, will be the biggest X-factor in what figures to be a tight race for playoff contention?

Paula Wolf: Phillies’ bullpen.

Jorge Eckardt: There are a bunch. Freddie Freeman. Yoenis Cespedes. All of the pens. But for diversity’s sake, I’m going to say Gerrit Cole. The Yankees shelled out big bucks to bring him over from Houston in the offseason with the hopes of improving a rather lackluster starting rotation. They need him to be as advertised if they want to win the World Series. Otherwise, I don’t think their rotation will be good enough to get them there — especially since they’re going to most likely be missing a couple of weeks of Masahiro Tanaka to begin the season.

Daniel Bentley: The AL East is the most top-heavy of the two divisions, with the Yankees’ all around depth and the Rays’ pitching separating the two clubs from their division peers. The NL East is a bit tougher to figure out; the Nationals, Phillies, Braves, and Mets all boast strong rosters. The deciding factor will be how the Mets’ and Nationals’ pitching holds up over a 60 game sprint to October. The two clubs will be vying for divisional supremacy and pitching stamina for the two will be more important than ever. 

Peyton Joyce: The Atlanta Braves starting rotation. The bullpen was addressed starting at the trade deadline last year and appears to be a strength and not a weakness this year. The question about Atlanta is: can their starting rotation stay healthy and perform. They don’t really have questions about Soroka or Fried. But instead of going after a big ticket like Gerrit Cole, Atlanta brought in Cole Hamels on a one year deal. He won’t be ready for the start of the season. Foltynewicz is the third guy, but Atlanta doesn’t fully know if he is the 2018 all star or a back end of the rotation guy. Now Atlanta has to find a fifth guy which is a battle between Newcomb, Wright, and possibly Anderson. Should be fun and perhaps worrisome to watch in 2020. 

Dalton Wasserman: Yoenis Cespedes. The Mets lineup evolved from decent to very good in the second half of 2019. Cespedes has looked very good in summer camp and the addition of the DH helps big time whether he or J.D. Davis, a budding star in his own right, occupies it. A healthy Cespedes makes the Mets offense really dangerous.

 

Several teams are loaded with top prospects who were included on sixty-man rosters. Which prospect could have the biggest impact this season?

Paula Wolf: Luis Robert, White Sox.

Jorge Eckardt: I’m going with a Tampa Bay Ray, but not the one you might think. It’s Brendan McKay. A lot of the top prospects have never played above Single A. McKay is almost fully MLB ready. The 24-year-old could be a spot-starter in the Rays’ rotation if one of their starters is sidelined, and even had 49 mediocre innings in the bigs last season for Tampa Bay. When he’s not pitching, he can DH, as McKay has the potential to be a two-way player. He got 11 plate appearances last season and went just 2-for-10, but he did have a home run, showing off some of his pop.

Daniel Bentley: Carter Kieboom, Nationals. Kieboom finds himself in a vital role this season as the de-facto third baseman for the World Series champs. If he can limit mistakes defensively and display a bit more resolve at the plate, the Nationals may have found their long term replacement for Anthony Rendon. 

Peyton Joyce: The obvious choice has to come from the defending world champions. It’s Carter Kieboom. Kieboom might have had more of a chance to break through last year if it wasn’t for star third baseman, Anthony Rendon. With his free agency departure, it opens up a big hole at the corner spot for the Nationals. If they are going to try and make a repeat playoff run, they need someone to fill that hole. Kieboom could and should be the answer here. He’ll need some time to adjust to the Major League level, but if he can keep the Nationals above water at that spot they will keep it interesting. His issue will come at the plate and that can only come through time and practice against Major League pitchers. This is a big storyline for the Nationals. 

Dalton Wasserman: I know the obvious answer is supposed to be Wander Franco, but I think it’s a low likelihood that we see him this year. The Rays have middle infield depth at higher levels and they want to stall his service time clock. I mentioned Toronto earlier as a team that could exceed expectations. Top pitching prospect Nate Pearson will be a huge factor if they do. He has nasty stuff and is almost certainly Major League ready. He could push the Jays from also-ran to contender.

 

In five words or less, describe the Marlins and Orioles chances of making the playoffs.

Paula Wolf: Infinitesimal.

Jorge Eckardt: Ha!

Daniel Bentley: Snowball’s chance in hell.

Peyton Joyce: Abysmal.

Dalton Wasserman: Anything is possible I guess…

 

On a serious note, who wins the divisions, who else makes the playoffs, and why?

Paula Wolf: Braves in the NL East, Yankees in the AL East. Too much talent from top to bottom. I would love for the Phillies to get one of the wild cards. In the rest of the NL, the Dodgers take the West and the Cardinals the Central.

Jorge Eckardt: In the AL, I see the Yankees winning the division and the Rays getting a Wild Card. The Rays are good enough to make the playoffs but the Yankees are still the top dog in the division. As for the NL, I tentatively have the Mets taking the division, and I say tentatively because it depends on what happens with the Braves. If Freddie Freeman, who just came back from COVID-19, is able to play at the level everyone is accustomed to, then the Braves will be the division favorites. But if he slumps, it opens the door for the Mets to take the division. Either way though, both teams should be playoff teams, though without a good Freeman I could see the Nationals or Phillies sneaking their way past Atlanta.

Daniel Bentley: For the AL East, I see a back and forth battle between the Rays and the Yankees with New York having the pure talent advantage. The acquisition of Cole will put them over the top in that division. 

The NL East will be decided by pitching performance and consistency, of which the Nationals and Mets have the best chance of providing. In relation to the truncated season; the Mets bullpen is deeper and more reliable. I’d give the slight edge to the Mets in the NL East race. 

Peyton Joyce: Underdogs are fun to root for and sometimes have the amount of talent it takes to knock the top dog off. However in this case, I am going with the favorites. In the AL East, give me the New York Yankees. The Yankees are crazy talented and should be one of the World Series favorites. This isn’t a give away because the Tampa Bay Rays are very talented and are tied at fifth with the easiest schedule based on opponent winning percentages (.482). But the Yankees don’t have a tough September schedule which could benefit them and their stars down the stretch. In the NL East, I am taking the Atlanta Braves. Their youth and overall talent is a big reason why many pundits have them as one of the best chances at winning the World Series. But they do come with questions and have the talented Phillies and the defending world champs in their division. The NL East is the best division in baseball at the moment and should be very fun to watch down the stretch. Fingers crossed everyone stays healthy.   

Dalton Wasserman: Even in a shortened year, talent likely wins. On the AL side, the Yankees will win the division and the Rays will a wild card spot again. New York’s September schedule is too easy and they are loaded offensively as always. The Rays have baseball’s deepest pitching staff, which should shield them from any extended losing streaks.

The NL East is full of talented teams with potential fatal flaws. I’ll take the Braves, who have the most stable lineup, to win the division, and the Mets as a wild card. It will be tight. As I mentioned earlier, the final weekend between the Mets and Nats will probably decide a playoff spot. I do think the schedule will be too difficult for three NL East teams to clinch a playoff berth.

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