Heading into the 2021 season, the NL East was expected to be one of the most talented divisions in the entire MLB. In the 2020 season, the Braves finished on top winning 35 games while the Marlins were the biggest surprise and actually won the Wild Card spot. And with the Phillies, Mets, and Nationals all making improvements in the offseason, the race in 2021 was expected to be tight.
Throughout the first half of the season, the race went much different than expected. While teams remained close to each other in the division rankings, every team in the division failed to live up to their expectations compared to the rest of the divisions. Think of the NFC East in the NFL. With the way the playoffs are set up, one team from each division is forced to go to the postseason. The Phillies and the Braves, for example, are closer to winning the division than earning a wild card spot in this postseason. This scenario is set up because of injuries and lackluster performances from everyone in the division.
The New York Mets have been hit the hardest with injuries. At the beginning of the season, they were already expected to be missing Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard with long-term injuries. But Jacob DeGrom, Fransisco Lindor, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto, and others have or continue to deal with injuries on and off throughout the season. This has never made their team completely healthy during their games, holding them back to their full potential. The regressing from Dominic Smith, David Peterson, and Jeff McNeil also has only held back the team from the expectations they had going in. But they’ve managed themselves quite well. Plus the emergence of Tajuan Walker, Marcus Stroman, and others have helped this team maintain first place going into the trade deadline.
The Phillies have been in an interesting boat so far this season. Their bullpen still struggles have continued into this season despite almost a completely new group of relievers. Ranger Suarez has been excellent as the new closer, but no one else has stepped up in a major way to help this team improve. Zack Wheeler has been lights out this year as well. But the regression of Aaron Nola and an average rotation outside of those two. Their hitting is still high powers with names making jumps and regressions. But somehow, they’ve done what they’ve needed to do to remain only 3.5 games out of first place.
The rest of the division is in a weird place. The Marlins seemed to go back to their rebuild mode, focusing on health for Sixto Sanchez and others. But they have had some bright spots with Jazz Chisholm and Trevor Rogers emerging, along with some other players as well. The Nationals have dealt with all-around struggles, despite adding some veterans in the offseason. And the Atlanta Braves, who were expected to be a top-three team this season, have also dealt with injuries and underperforming players. Ronald Acuna, Mike Soroka, Huascar Ynoa, and Travis d’Arnaud have dealt with long-term injuries. Marcell Ozuna has been dealing with legal issues. Reigning MVP Freddy Freeman has been struggling to hit the ball to any level as he did in 2020.
But after the trade deadline this past Friday, the race in the NL East just got way more intriguing in terms of who could come out on top. The Mets are easily the biggest winners. Not only is their roster improving healthwise, as some of the long-term injuries are clearing up, but they made solid acquisitions too. The trade with Rich Hill is extremely underrated, his veteran presence will be key down the stretch for the Mets and into the postseason. He is also pitching solid numbers and having a healthy season for himself as well. Javier Baez was one of the most surprising moves at the deadline. With Lindor dealing with an oblique injury, Baez can fill his role until he can return. But he can also play second and third once the team is fully healthy.
The Phillies also made a solid move. They acquired Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennady from the Texas Rangers in exchange for Spencer Howard and some prospects. Gibson, an all-star this year, helps solidify the middle of the rotation that has failed to find its clear 4 and 5 starters. Kennedy also brings help to a desperate bullpen. However, one name isn’t enough to fix their problems, especially not Ian Kennady alone. It would have been nice to see the Phillies chase after another above-average reliever on a losing franchise to solidify the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings.
The Marlins made a steal of a trade when giving away Starling Marte for Jesus Luzardo. While Luzardo may be struggling this season, he’s a former top 10 prospect in the entire MLB farm system. He also had a solid 2020 campaign, so the potential is there. The Nationals sold off about every veteran they possibly could for prospects. Including a massive haul from the Dodgers in exchange for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. While fans may be upset about the move, it was necessary considering they weren’t winning games and their contracts were almost up. The Braves were the biggest surprise at the deadline, as they chose to buy players like Eddie Rosario, Richard Rodriguez, and Adam Duvall despite injuries to their star players including Ronald Acuna Jr.
Despite the frenzy of moves in the NL East, it will likely be the New York Mets winning the division. DeGrom and Lindor should be returning soon and they’ve already had emerging players like Tylor Megill who have turned it on as of late. The hitting is also starting to improve from guys like Smith and McNeil who struggled in the first half of the season. They are still the most complete team in the division. The only team that has a half-decent chance of catching up in Philadelphia, who didn’t fill all the holes that they needed to at the deadline to make a late-season run for first place. Nonetheless, the race is still close and anything can happen. Time will only tell for who comes out on top in the toughest division in baseball.