MLB Playoffs Expand, But the NL East is for the Phillies Taking
The day that professional baseball began we learned of an expanded playoffs coming to MLB in 2020. There will be eight playoffs teams from each league, meaning there will be five playoff teams beyond the three National League division winners. That should increase the playoff chances of the Phillies. But even though the Phillies could be a wild card team, the National League East could be there for the taking by the Phillies. Here is why.
1. Nationals: Loss of their Offensive Centerpieces, Pitching
The Nationals won the World Series last year for two reasons: pitching standouts and offensive standouts. At least one category is greatly diminished in 2020.
The Nationals moved on from third baseman Anthony Rendon, one of the most important pieces of their lineup in their World Series run. Replacing him at third is second baseman Carter Kieboom, who might have otherwise started at second base. Learning a new position, Kieboom is also far from an offensive certainty.
No other offensive pieces were added to the Nationals except for Starlin Castro, the former Marlin who is now the three-hole hitter for the Nationals. Behind him as the designated hitter is Howie Kendrick, a tremendous veteran bat who had arguably the biggest hit for the Nationals last season in the playoffs. But is he an everyday player, let alone in the cleanup spot?
The loss of Rendon was tough enough for the Nationals, but on Opening Day they learned they would be without young offensive stud Juan Soto, who tested positive for COVID-19. Although currently asymptomatic, Soto must test negative twice before returning. Even a two-week absence is devastating in a 60-game season.
So far Max Scherzer has not looked like his old self. Stephen Strasburg had a dominant 2019, but has a long injury history and one small injury could mean a lot in 2020. Strasburg has had 12 disabled list stints in his career. Patrick Corbin should be very good. But the Nationals are banking on Anibal Sanchez and still have not exactly named a fifth starter.
Expect the Nationals to be good. However, they will have little wiggle room if they wish to win the National League East.
2. Atlanta Braves: Hamels on IL, Folty Losing Velocity
The Atlanta Braves have had several issues this Summer Camp. $18 million free agent pitching acquisition Cole Hamels opens the season on the injured list. Young starter Mike Foltynewicz has seen a loss of velocity, which led to the Marlins trouncing him in an exhibition game. Coming off an 8.69 ERA in 2019, Kyle Wright is in the rotation. Mike Soroka should be good, and Max Fried, another solid starter is behind him.
But the Braves have some offensive holes, too. The veteran, steady Nick Markakis opted out of 2020. Yasiel Puig was to replace him, but tested positive for COVID-19 and the deal was voided. The offense boost will have to come from first baseman Matt Adams, who just returned to the Braves.
Marcel Ozuna is a really nice player, but he will have the task of replacing the offense Josh Donaldson gave the Braves en route to a National League East title in 2019. Extra players Johan Carmargo and Austin Riley are now starters. Expect an offensive dropoff.
3. New York Mets: Loss of Wheeler, Syndergaard, and now Stroman
The Mets got bad news over the shutdown: ace pitcher Noah Syndergaard would undergo "Tommy John" surgery and be lost for the season. The Mets already lost Zach Wheeler to free agency to the Phillies. Then, most recently, we learned that Marcus Stroman would begin the season on the injured list with a muscle tear.
The Mets signed the inconsistent Michael Wacha and up-and-down Rick Porcello hoping that one of the two would replace Wheeler. Instead, both are in the rotation and the Mets are down a starter even beyond them. They have not named a fifth starter yet.
Of course, Jacob deGrom should be his old ace self. But the questions in the rotation make for an uncomfortable 2020 for the Mets.
4. Sean Rodriguez Fails to Make Marlins Roster
The Marlins have some talent. But of course, expect ex-Phillies Jorge Alfaro and Corey Dickerson to give the Phillies a hard time. Sean Rodriguez is at the Marlins alternative camp and could join them at some point. He seems like the type who will be a Phillie killer.
The Marlins are not seriously expected to contend in 2019. The Phillies offense should give their pitching staff a hard time in 2020.
5. The Phillies Have Had Fewer Challenges Heading into the Short Season
Right now the only player the Phillies were counting on that they do not have is Ranger Suarez. Suspected to be but not confirmed to be dealing with a COVID-related issue, there has been no update on Suarez's health. Suarez was a candidate to be the fifth starter for the Phillies.
But further along in the season, top prospect Spencer Howard will be ready to help soon. Vince Velasquez has looked good with a new cutter and under the tutelage of new pitching coach Bryan Price. The now-34 year-old Jake Arrieta has pitched well traditionally over the first two months of his Phillies seasons. He only needs to do so for two months in 2020.
The Phillies offense should be strong. The universal designated hitter means that Jay Bruce will be in the Phillies lineup most of the time. Top offensive prospect Alec Bohm will soon be ready to contribute; he has played third base and first base for the Phillies. Didi Gregorius gives the Phillies a left-handed offensive boost.
The Phillies are not without some weaknesses, of course. Tommy Hunter was the only free agent added to the bullpen. Despite a cast of veteran relievers coming to camp, none of them stuck. The Phillies will go with some younger talent in the bullpen, along with likely Nick Pivetta and eventually Velasquez joining Hunter, Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez and Adam Morgan as late-game options.
But all-in-all, there are just 60 games. The other teams have more issues heading in. Sure, the Phillies and any other team are just one injury or one COVID positive test from a big difference. But as constituted right now: the Phillies could win this National League East.