NL East Preview: Braves and Phillies primed for another clash

Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Atlanta Braves are ready for another crack at Philadelphia

NEW YORK (AP) — Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Atlanta Braves are ready for another crack at Philadelphia.

They won't need to wait long: opening day, first pitch.

The reigning NL MVP and his Braves teammates begin their 2024 schedule right back at Citizens Bank Park, where last season ended with a painful playoff loss in Game 4 of a Division Series.

Just like the year before.

With six straight NL East titles and a 2021 World Series crown, the Braves are the class of the division. No arguing that. But the Phillies have owned them in October, reaching the past two NL Championship Series at Atlanta's expense only to fall short of earning World Series rings.

“This is a window that we got to win in,” Philadelphia slugger Bryce Harper said at spring training in Florida. “Our ownership deserves that. Our fans deserve that."

The recent power struggle between the teams has produced a budding rivalry. And while the surprising Marlins gave the NL East a third playoff qualifier last year, the top of the division shapes up as a two-team tussle this season.

At least on paper.

Never a big spender, Miami is minus 2022 NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara following Tommy John surgery last October.

The inconsistent New York Mets are pointing more toward 2025 after their high-priced flop last season led to a trade-deadline selloff of veteran players in exchange for prospects.

And the Washington Nationals are still rebuilding around youngsters.

So, here we go again.

Atlanta compiled the best record in baseball last year at 104-58, finishing 14 games ahead of the Phillies for the second consecutive season. After matching a major league record with 307 homers, the Braves added outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Adam Duvall to a powerful lineup that features Acuña, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna.

They also made a trade with Boston to acquire starting pitcher Chris Sale, a seven-time All-Star derailed by injuries in recent years.

“I’m excited to join this staff,” Sale said. “We can feed off each other and compete for another division title and hopefully a World Series championship.”

Philadelphia spent big to re-sign Aaron Nola ($172 million) and retain fellow ace Zack Wheeler from 2025-27 ($126 million).

Acuña figures to lead off the season opener March 28 against Wheeler. And maybe meet up again come fall.

“Playing in Citizens Bank in October, there’s nothing like it,” Wheeler said.

HOW THEY PROJECT

1. Atlanta Braves. The 2023 Braves led the majors in hits, homers, runs, RBIs and batting average (.276) — lapping the runner-up Texas Rangers' mark of .263. They must replace left fielder Eddie Rosario's 21 homers, so the spotlight is on the 24-year-old Kelenic, who showed promising power potential during last season's strong start with Seattle. Atlanta also brought back Duvall in mid-March to platoon with Kelenic. Another hitter to watch is Michael Harris II, who will move up to sixth or seventh in the lineup after batting ninth most of last year. Harris, only 22, is flashing power this spring and could join the team's list of 30-homer hitters that last season included Acuña, Olson, Ozuna, Riley and Albies. Four of them had at least 100 RBIs, while Riley finished with 97.

2. Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies made few significant roster changes in the offseason and instead decided to run it back. Philadelphia re-signed Nola and gave Wheeler an extension to keep the top of the rotation intact. The Phillies would like to become more of a contender in the NL East and give the perennial champion Braves a run at the division title. But making the playoffs as a wild card has worked out fine in Philly. Harper, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto are the heart of an offense that should help lead Philadelphia into a third straight postseason. Harper takes over full-time at first base after switching from the outfield.

3. Miami Marlins. Even without Alcantara, the young and athletic Marlins have a capable rotation led by talented left-hander Jesús Luzardo, who went 10-10 with a 3.58 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 2023. New president of baseball operations Peter Bendix didn't add many flashy pieces during the offseason but did sign former AL batting champion Tim Anderson to a one-year contract. The Marlins made the postseason last year for the first time in a full season since 2003 thanks to the steady guidance of NL Manager of the Year Skip Schumaker and the sweet swing of big league batting champ Luis Arráez (.354). Both are back to build on that success.

4. New York Mets. After falling flat last season despite the biggest payroll in baseball history, this team is under new management. Mets owner Steve Cohen brought in new president of baseball operations David Stearns, who hired a rookie manager in Carlos Mendoza — the former Yankees bench coach. Star slugger Pete Alonso’s impending free agency next winter will put him under a microscope all year. A suspect rotation took a significant blow when Kodai Senga, runner-up for 2023 NL Rookie of the Year, went down early in spring training with a shoulder strain. He’s expected to be sidelined until at least late April or May. All-Star closer Edwin Díaz, who missed last season with a knee injury, returns to anchor a much deeper bullpen. The position-player nucleus from a 101-win playoff club in 2022 is still here, but this looks like a third- or fourth-place team.

5. Washington Nationals. The Nationals are still more about progress than win-loss record, counting on certain possible future cornerstones to continue making strides and move the team away from its four consecutive last-place finishes. Will 2023 NL All-Star Josiah Gray, CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz blossom? Could outfielders James Wood (obtained from San Diego in the Juan Soto trade) and Dylan Crews (the No. 2 pick in last year's amateur draft) get some time in the majors? One thing no longer hanging over the franchise: The Lerner family has decided not to sell the club after nearly two years of looking for a buyer.

LONDON CALLING

While the Braves and Phillies appear most likely to rule the division, it will be the Phillies and Mets who play a two-game series in London from June 8-9, the latest international showcase for Major League Baseball.

RECORD COMPANY

The dynamic Acuña posted an unprecedented combination of 41 homers and 73 stolen bases last season. Olson broke a Braves mark with 54 home runs. What can they do for an encore?

Acuña sat out two weeks in spring training because of soreness in his surgically repaired right knee, but returned to the lineup two weeks before opening day.

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AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum, AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich, Dan Gelston, Paul Newberry, Charles Odum and Alanis Thames, and Associated Press freelance writer Anthony SanFilippo contributed to this report.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

Miami Marlins manager Skip Schumaker smiles as he watches his team during a spring training baseball workout Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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