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Before the Phillies landed Bryce Harper, they signed Andrew McCutchen and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. Before the Nationals failed to retain Bryce Harper, they added Patrick Corbin and traded for Yan Gomes and Kyle Barraclough. Before the Mets and Braves never bothered to pursue Harper, the Mets got trade happy, adding Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz and grabbing Jed Lowrie, Jeurys Familia, and Wilson Ramos off the free agent market. And then the Braves, the actual division winner of 2018, on their way to pocketing a grotesque sum of profit thanks to the Cobb County tax base, signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year $23 million deal before proceeding to do not much else.
In conclusion, the NL East was not a land of contrasts — it was a free for all, a battle royale, an orgy of transactionry — and as Major League Baseball closes up the shop today, here’s how the division looks right now:
Philadelphia Phillies: 6-2
New York Mets: 6-3
Atlanta Braves: 5-4
Washington Nationals: 4-4
Miami Marlins: 3-7
That’s about what you’d expect in a division where so many headline-grabbing moves were made in the span of a few months and the division also contains a non-entity like the Miami Marlins. Each team (again, except the Marlins) did something to address their biggest needs, and all but Atlanta (and, again, the Marlins, who really shouldn’t be factored into this discussion and as of this sentence will not be) made multiple moves to address their depth.
So, it’s going to be a long, competitive summer. the Phillies sprinted out to a 4-0 start and were close to sweeping the Nationals to start 5-0. The Nationals staved off that sweep and managed to take 2 out of 3 from the Mets in New York. The Mets started off their season by taking 2 out of 3 from the Nationals in Washington. Meanwhile, the Braves were the victims of the Phillies’ season-opening barrage, but after getting swept by their division rival, they swept the Cubs and took two out of three from the Marlins.
Yes, the Marlins do exist, and yes they’re tougher than they look and yes I said I was going to stop talking about them, but the larger point is that it’s virtually impossible to avoid discussing some part of the NL East. It is the division in baseball. Virtually the purest form of competition baseball has left. Ironically, none of these teams spent outlandishly. In fact, there was a degree of frugality that was surprising to realize after the fact.
For all the trading the Mets made, all they did was move some contracts around and maybe add about $12 million to last year’s payroll. The Phillies added about $40 million to theirs versus last year’s, but all that did was put them in proximity to where their payroll was during their last success window — even then, still about $20-$30 million less than those averages. The Braves spent big on Donaldson and brought back Nick Markakis, but all they really did was recycle the money saved from free agent contracts coming off the books and kept their payroll about the same year over year. This is after winning a division and clearly needing to add in some rotation depth in a market where starters were available.
Every team basically did it their way and the very early — hilariously early — returns so far show that each group’s stubbornness has had the desired effect: much better baseball is being played, but no team is so ludicrously over the top better that they’re going to run away with the division. It was designed to be a tight race all summer long and that’s exactly what it looks like.
So, if you hear fans complaining about how their favorite NL East team just can’t seem to pull away or if you are one of those fans, consider that this is the way the various ownership groups wanted it — not in some sort of grand collusion scheme, but just because there was a cost-benefit analysis done that showed that improving the team would be beneficial, but a really tight pennant chase coupled with the improvement will generate the most interest.
It will come down to which team can weather injuries best, adjust their roster on the fly most efficiently, and get a little lucky. The Padres famously handed the Giants the NL West back in 2010 and the Brewers’ second half collapse allowed the Giants to hang in there even as they melted down, so it can happen, even in a four-team race.
The Mets would seem to have the most balance in terms of a top-heavy rotation and power arms to close out games, but their lineup doesn’t quite matchup at the moment to what Atlanta and Washington have to offer. But those teams don’t quite have the depth or bullpen help the Mets have. The Phillies’ lineup, of course, figures to be the best in the division, and their starting rotation looks like it will be much improved over last season with their adjusted defense (which was really just moving Rhys Hoskins from left field to first base and adding Jean Segura at shortstop).
The Nationals have been the preseason frontrunner of the division for so long that they might be the only one of the quartet to deserve any sort of criticism early in the season (their bullpen has been atrocious). Otherwise, this is a four-team race. It’s not a character flaw of the parties involved if they’re not leading it 10 games into April and it won’t be one if the team fails to make the postseason. All four figure to still be above average major league teams and they’re going to knock each other around for the next six months for our enjoyment.