Braves, Phillies, Mets expected to battle for NL East title again

Tough division has trio of close contenders

AP photo by Atlanta Braves / The Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr. is tagged out by New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil during an August matchup between the NL East rivals in Atlanta. The Braves and Mets were both 101-game winners last season, but Atlanta came out on top in the head-to-head tiebreaker to win its fifth straight division title.

ATLANTA — The National League East made a strong argument as the toughest division in Major League Baseball in 2022 — and lines up as perhaps even better this season.

The NL East boasted two 101-win teams: the Atlanta Braves, who earned their fifth consecutive division title, and the New York Mets. Another team from the division, the Philadelphia Phillies, reached the playoffs as a wild card and advanced to the World Series before losing in six games to the Houston Astros.

Another strong run looks possible, and perhaps likely, for a division that also includes the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals. FanDuel Sportsbook lists the Braves, Mets and Phillies among its top eight picks to win the World Series. The American League East, which also sent three teams to the playoffs last season, has three of the betting site's top nine World Series picks as the next-strongest division.

"Now there's three big-headed monsters in this division," Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud said, "and it'll be a battle to the end like it always is."

The stiff competition in the division fueled an offseason of big spending.

The Mets expect to carry a record payroll of $370 million after adding veteran pitcher Justin Verlander on an $86.7 million, two-year deal. After spending the past six years with the Astros, he will join fellow three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to top a rotation that is made for the postseason and includes two more newcomers in José Quintana and Kodai Senga.

The Phillies signed shortstop Trea Turner to a $300 million, 11-year deal. Atlanta's offseason was most notable for losing shortstop Dansby Swanson, but the Braves traded for catcher Sean Murphy and then signed him to a $73 million, six-year contract.

The Mets led the division for all but six days last season before finally being caught by Atlanta, which came out on top in the title race by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Braves know they might face an even more difficult challenge this year when it comes extending their string of NL East championships.

"Oh yeah, this division is elite again," d'Arnaud said. "The Mets are going to be great. The Phillies are great. They just won the NL title. The Marlins are always sneaky. They always play well."

MLB opening day is Thursday, and every team will play its regular-season opener on the same day for the first time since 1968.

  photo  AP photo by Matt Slocum / The Philadelphia Phillies' Jean Segura slides safely into second base underneath the Atlanta Braves' Vaughn Grissom during an NL Division Series game last October. Atlanta won the NL East last season for the fifth year in a row, but the Phillies made the playoffs as a wild card and advanced all the way to the World Series.


1. Atlanta Braves

The 2021 World Series champions must adjust to losing a team leader and fan favorite to free agency for the second straight season. Swanson, an Atlanta-area native, signed with the Chicago Cubs one year after first baseman Freddie Freeman joined the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With young middle infielder Vaughn Grissom sent to the minors, Orlando Arcia will open as the starting shortstop, creating an expected drop-off from Swanson in terms of offense.

The top two 2022 NL rookies, center fielder Michael Harris II and hard-throwing right-hander Spencer Strider, must continue to play strong supporting roles for Ronald Acuña Jr. in the outfield and left-hander Max Fried in the rotation, respectively.

Projected closer Raisel Iglesias will open the season on the injured list with inflammation in his throwing shoulder, so left-hander A.J. Minter and right-hander Joe Jiménez are among the ninth-inning options while Iglesias recovers. Murphy was Atlanta's top offseason addition, but now the trade with the Detroit Tigers for Jiménez could prove to be more important than first anticipated.

2. New York Mets

Team owner Steve Cohen spent nearly $500 million on free agents. Verlander and Scherzer give the Mets a pair of right-handed aces, though age could be a concern: Verlander is 40 and Scherzer is 38.

All-Star closer Edwin Díaz recently injured his knee celebrating a victory with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and is expected to miss the entire season. The rebuilt rotation also took a big hit this spring, losing Quintana (stress fracture in his rib) until at least July, and outfielder Brandon Nimmo is recovering from a sprained right ankle and knee but might be ready for the opener.

Two prospects to watch for at some point are third baseman Brett Baty and catcher Francisco Álvarez.

3. Philadelphia Phillies

Bryce Harper still has nine years left on his $330 million, 11-year free-agent deal, but he could miss at least two months as he recovers from elbow surgery and then will serve as a designated hitter for a while — just like last year — before he can return to the outfield.

Turner will help keep the offense moving. He gave Phillies fans a preview of his power potential when he hit a clutch grand slam for the United States in the World Baseball Classic. But first baseman Rhys Hoskins figures to miss the entire season after tearing his left ACL late in spring training, and left-handed pitcher Ranger Suárez (forearm) won't be ready for the start of the season.

The Phillies were the last team to clinch a playoff spot last season and the last one standing in the NL. Manager Rob Thomson no longer has the interim tag and has a full season to show last year was not simply a one-off performance that can't be duplicated without Harper fully healthy.

4. Miami Marlins

Looking for offensive help, Miami added AL batting champion Luis Arraez and two-time All-Star Jean Segura. The Marlins traded away longtime starting pitcher Pablo López to get Arraez. They still boast one of the deepest rotations in the division, led by 2022 NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara. He's followed by Johnny Cueto, Jesús Luzardo, Braxton Garrett and Trevor Rogers.

Right-hander Edward Cabrera could emerge as a breakout member of the group. The Marlins say they aren't concerned about Cueto missing time this spring due to arm soreness.

5. Washington Nationals

The Nationals have finished last in the division each year since winning the 2019 World Series. Multiple stars from that championship team, including Turner, Scherzer and Juan Soto, are long gone. It's unclear whether the one star who stuck around, right-hander Stephen Strasburg, will ever be healthy enough to pitch in the majors again.

The rebuilding project is centered on the development of shortstop CJ Abrams, catcher Keibert Ruiz and starting pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray. Washington's 2020 first-round draft pick, Cade Cavalli, seen as a future rotation fixture, will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery.