Braves face tough road for NL East three-peat

Atlanta Braves players celebrate their 6-0 win against the San Francisco Giants to clinch the NL East division at Sun Trust Park Friday, September 20, 2019 in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta Braves players celebrate their 6-0 win against the San Francisco Giants to clinch the NL East division at Sun Trust Park Friday, September 20, 2019 in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

The 2020 over/under win totals for National League East teams posted by Caesar's Sportsbook look a lot like the final 2019 standings. The Braves are just ahead of the Nationals. There's a small gap from those two to the Mets and Phillies, then a huge one between those teams and the Marlins.

The betting markets foresee stasis in the East. If that’s how it turns out, the Braves will have to win the NL East for a third consecutive year by outlasting three teams good enough to dethrone them. That includes the Nationals, who won the past World Series as a wild card.

In 2019 the East was the only division in MLB with four teams .500 or better. There could be a similar pile-up in 2020.

The Braves finished four games ahead of Washington in the East last season. Their over/under win total this season (91-1/2) is two games higher than Washington’s (89-1/2). There’s a small gap to the Mets (87-1/2) and Phillies (85-1/2). There’s a big one to the Marlins, though the over/under (63-1/2) is 6-1/2 games higher than their 2019 victory total.

It's here that I note the Braves topped their 2019 over/under win total by 11 games. In 2018 the Braves won 15 more games than the over/under. General manager Alex Anthopoulos got his one big move right (Josh Donaldson) and has made several other good ones on the margins.

The Braves have made a habit of beating expectations. The market has been slow to catch up. Maybe it still hasn’t. If the public outlook is about 90 wins for the 2020 Braves, then recent history says the Braves will significantly overshoot that mark and win the division again.

But I think bettors are on to something this time with the Braves. Their young talent has been baked in to the formula now. The same goes for the 2019 spending sprees that added uncertainty to the NL East market.

Last year the four contenders, especially the Phillies and Mets, added big-money players. The Phillies famously spent “stupid” money on Bryce Harper and Co. before finishing 16 games behind the Braves in the East. (I’m not one to talk. I thought Philly would win the division.)

The major moves made in the East for this season didn’t change the outlook so much. The top four teams mostly patched holes with lesser parts or kept their team intact.

Washington paid ace Stephen Strasburg $245 million to stay. The Phillies lured Zack Wheeler from the Mets for $118 million. The Braves replaced starter Dallas Keuchel by paying Cole Hamels $18 million for one year and bolstered their bullpen with Will Smith for three years and $39 million.

If there is an area of separation, it might be that last move. Every team in the East had bullpen issues in 2019. The Braves did the most to try to fix them. Their ’pen got better with July trades for Mark Melancon, Chris Martin and Shane Greene. It will be significantly deeper in 2020 with those three plus Smith (Greene’s arbitration is pending).

Another reason to like the Braves in the East: They are more likely than the Nationals to replace the production of their star third baseman. After Donaldson left for Minnesota, the Braves signed outfielder Marcell Ozuna. After Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels, the Nationals added Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Eric Thames.

FanGraphs projects 2.7 Wins Above Replacement for Ozuna. Cabrera, Castro and Thames have a combined projected fWAR of 2.2. The Nats trio has a decent floor. Ozuna has a higher floor plus a profile that suggests he could return to his great hitting form of 2017.

Of course, the Nationals have the advantage of the best starting rotation in the NL. No team has a top three to match Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin. They carried Washington to the playoffs with a lineup that was a notch below the Braves and Dodgers. They could do it again without Rendon (young superstar Juan Soto was nearly as good in the postseason).

The Phillies and Mets are set to chase the Braves and Nationals again. The Phillies have the better case to make a move up the standings. Their rotation is better with Wheeler behind ace Aaron Nola. New manager Joe Girardi might make a difference. Better injury luck surely would.

The Mets look pretty good on paper, but being the Mets, you expect things to go wrong, and they usually deliver. They’ve already started.

New York’s manager search was a fiasco. The Mets passed on Girardi for Carlos Beltran. They ditched Beltran after his role in the Astros sign-stealing scandal emerged. The Mets settled on Luis Rojas.

The Mets have strong starting pitching, so they might be good despite themselves (though we’ve been saying that for a while). The Nats are good enough to challenge the Braves again even after Rendon’s departure weakened them. The stupid money the Phillies spent still might pay off. The Marlins may be less-awful.

The Braves are worthy favorites to win the East again. It won’t be easy. The most competitive division in baseball last year should be tough again this year.