That said, the rest of the East got better, too. The Braves had to jump from 90 wins to 97 to retain their title. The Nationals improved by 11 games over 2018 and would be even better come October. The Mets improved by nine games. The Phillies improved by only a game despite signing Bryce Harper and finished 81-81. Still, this was the only division that had four teams at/above .500, and the Nationals and Mets — both of whom had abysmal starts — played better after the All-Star break than the Braves.
The offseason of 2018/2019 saw NL Easterners load up: The Braves added Donaldson; the Mets imported Robinson Cano; the Nats hooked Patrick Corbin; the Phillies signed you-know-who. The divisional contenders — we don’t count the Marlins — mostly eschewed splash buys this winter. Indeed, the biggest news was made by outbound free agents: Donaldson to the Twins, Anthony Rendon to the Angels.
Among everyday players, the most notable acquisitions among the four clubs were Marcell Ozuna (Braves), Didi Gregorious (Phillies) and Eric Thames/Starlin Castro (Nationals). The Braves bought Will Smith for their bullpen; the Mets bought Dellin Betances. The addition, who’s also a subtraction, with the most potential to shape the East standings is Wheeler, who left the Mets to sign with Philly for $118 million over five seasons, which was a lot for a 29-year-old with a history of injury coming off two good-but-not-great seasons. (The Braves had interest in Wheeler, who was born in Smyrna and played at East Paulding High, but not at that price.)
The Phillies needed a starting pitcher. Even with Aaron Nola, their rotation’s ERA was the worst in the division, Marlins included. If Wheeler is a true No. 2 starter — there’s a chance he isn’t — the Phillies won’t go 81-81 again. Philly also hired Joe Girardi, a proven commodity, to manage them. That’s an upgrade over Gabe Kapler. The Phillies’ over/under is 86.5 wins, fourth-best among NL East teams. The sight of four teams with an O/U of 86.5 or better is a powerful indication that this division should again be the strongest.
Hitting: The Braves were fifth among NL teams in runs and sixth in OPS in 2018, when they won 90 games; they were third and third last year. That was the Donaldson Effect. The lineup doesn't look as good without him. Ozuna is a worthwhile Plan B, and he did hit 37 home runs as a Marlin in 2017. Donaldson had 37 last year.
Travis d’Arnaud hasn’t hit more than 16 home runs in a season. Dansby Swanson’s career best is 17. Nick Markakis has 47 homers over five Braves seasons, and he’s 36. The big hope for power and batting-order balance is Austin Riley, who hit 18 home runs but who struck out 108 times in 297 plate appearances. As we speak, Riley is the key man on this roster. He’s 22.
Starting pitching: The 2019 Braves were the exception to the rule that rotations win divisions. Braves starters had the seventh-best ERA in the 15-team National League; of the 10 MLB playoff qualifiers, that ERA was the third-worst. Last year's team hit its way to 97 wins. Given the state of the Braves' everyday eight, that mightn't happen again.
Might a rotation of Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, Cole Hamels and either Sean Newcomb or Felix Hernandez be among baseball’s best? Yes. Here, however, are the “buts.” Hamels is 36 and has, counting postseason, worked more than 3,000 big-league innings. This time a year ago, Fried seemed ticketed for a career in long relief. Foltynewicz and Newcomb, who started three of the Braves’ four playoff games in 2018, were demoted to Gwinnett in 2019. King Felix intrigues me, but there’s a reason a man once among baseball’s three best pitchers is working on a minor-league deal.
Soroka should be great for the next decade, but he’s a pitcher. Let’s count the number of 21st Century Braves arms from whom much seemed possible: Charlie Morton, Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Brandon Beachy. Now let’s count how many of those eight became All-Stars as Braves — one, and the Braves just paid Teheran $1 million to go away.
The rebuild of Coppolella/Hart centered on young pitching. It made sense, given that pitching is always needed in bulk and is splendid currency if a surplus arises. Pitching is also perilous to project because it hinges, literally, on the state of arms. The first five years of this decade will ride on the pitching acquired and cultivated by the previous regime, meaning Soroka/Foltynewicz/Fried/Newcomb. (The Braves are still high on Ian Anderson and Kyle Muller. Less so on Kyle Wright, though.)
Do the Braves deserve to be favored in the East? Sure. They have Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Soroka. They’ve won 187 games over two seasons. If things break right, they could wind up in the World Series. If things don’t — if Donaldson proves irreplaceable and Riley struggles and Hamels has little left and Foltynewicz again wobbles — they might finish third in the East. Not saying they will. Just saying they could.