The NL East is trying to catch the Braves; should they be favored?

The more I look at it, the more I’m convinced there isn’t a more competitive division top-to-bottom than the National League East. That isn’t exactly a hot take, but a week away from spring training, it’s apparent there are four contenders in the once malleable division.

Washington, Philadelphia and New York have been busy this winter, while the Braves have exuded more restraint. The defending champs, of course, still added one of the game’s better hitters (with the health caveat necessitated upon each Josh Donaldson reference) and possess a wealth of youth they expect to continue growing. The three teams behind them are aggressive largely because they have to be, knowing the Braves’ core is locked in.

We’ll exclude the openly rebuilding Marlins from this conversation. But they did produce some influence in the race via J.T. Realmuto, their prized catcher who was just dealt to the Phillies, ending a saga that had dragged out long enough to make Jimmy Butler blush.

Realmuto was the lone major piece remaining through Miami’s year-plus selloff. They preferred not to trade him within the NL East until the Phillies forced their hand. The Braves weren’t involved at the end, but given their past interest, there will be no shortage of intrigue on how Realmuto fares in Philadelphia.

That won’t be the last domino to drop. Bryce Harper, assuming he one day signs a contract, remains likely to land back in Washington or in Philadelphia, with the latter armed for more heavy lifting once he’s in hand. Whichever lands Harper will be a popular postseason pick. We’ll see.

There’s a world where Harper returns to D.C. and Manny Machado opts for Philly’s money. That’s probably the Braves’ worst-case scenario - seeing both top talents land in the East - unless they truly fear the Harper-Philadelphia marriage or aren’t concerned with how Machado (and his criticized attitude) in Philly could influence their long-term outlook.

Operating in current reality, the Mets might be the Braves’ strongest competitor. Once you’re done chuckling, hear me out: We know the pitching is in place, and adding Edwin Diaz to fortify the bullpen was commonly praised. The Robinson Cano contract is longer than you’d like, but for 2019, it should be a great add.

After a disastrous June, the Mets produced a pair of .500 months and ended with an 18-10 September. Yoenis Cespedes’ health is the wild card, but I’m not convinced the Mets are worse than the Phillies as presently constructed. The Nationals are probably better on paper; they were last year, too.

If only the Mets were a big-market team, then they could delve into the Harper/Machado derby. We’ll let Mike Francesa and company scold them for that.

Still, I’m bullish on New York. They seem to have the worst luck in the NL, but at full strength they’re contending for a postseason spot. And hey, the race would be more fun with the Mets in it.

Philadelphia’s 2018 stretch run went as poorly as Jared Leto’s rendition of the Joker. Their regression to the mean was harsh to the point their final seven games with the Braves were borderline irrelevant.

In response, they paid Andrew McCutchen a healthy sum (everyone likes McCutchen, as did the Braves, but not at $50 million over three years). They added Jean Sugura to the infield, David Robertson to the bullpen and the aforementioned Realmuto behind the plate. At a time when teams are playing turtle with their finances, the Phillies are brash about buying a winner.

They certainly aren’t finished. Most believe they have another splash in them - I’m guessing they land Harper, which is the most predicted outcome by those much smarter than I. They could also add more to the rotation and bullpen. Could be an eventful spring training in Clearwater.

It’s hard to dislike what the Nationals have done. Rather than allow Harper to dictate their franchise, they’ve had maybe the most active winter in the bigs. That included a pair of likable former Braves, Kurt Suzuki and Anibal Sanchez, who should have a nice effect on that clubhouse. Both were instrumental pieces behind the scenes for last year’s Braves.

They also plugged slugger Brian Dozier at second base, brought back Matt Adams for bench power and signed front-line lefty Patrick Corbin. The latter’s contract, a heavily backloaded deal of $140 million over six years, won’t preclude them from re-signing Harper, it seems. It also produced a mind-bogging trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg (insert health caveat again) and Corbin.

In all, your East predictions could be based on which direction the Braves go rather than moves by the other teams. You could envision the Braves blowing up, winning 95 games and competing for home-field advantage (ESPN's Buster Olney picked them to win the NL), or you could convince yourself development isn't linear, and last year's overachievements drop them more toward .500 than October glory.

FanGraph’s projections – an imperfect science but we’ll roll with it – pegs the Nationals at 91 wins, Mets at 85, Braves at 82 and Phillies at 79 (pre-Realmuto trade).

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, released Thursday, predicted similarly: The Mets and Nationals win 89 games, while the Braves and Phillies (again, pre-Realmuto) come in at 84.

Good news: Those same metrics backed the Nationals last season, if you’re searching for reason to downplay them.

As I’m packing my bags for Florida, it’s hard to declare a favorite here. As someone who’ll cover the division, that’s actually exciting. A summer of four teams, each with a unique distaste for the other, battling for a title is what it’s all about.

If I press myself for an answer, I’ll default to the obvious: The Braves won it last season, and the other three are frantically trying to catch up. Until the standings change, the Braves hold a slight edge in the team-to-beat derby.