It doesn’t appear anyone is going to run away and hide — or completely fall out of contention — in the National League East. The division has been hit hard with injuries, which has contributed to a high level of mediocrity (a good thing for the Marlins, not as good for the defending champion Nationals).
As a result, the top two spots in the division and the playoff berths that come with them are up for grabs, which makes every NL East game doubly important. That applies to Sunday night’s matchup between the Phillies and Braves in Atlanta (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
We asked national baseball writers David Schoenfield and Jesse Rogers a few questions about the teams in advance of the game.
Will the Braves’ lack of starting pitching keep them from reaching the NLCS (or beyond)?
David Schoenfield: It’s certainly a huge problem, but it’s also possible they can just slug their way to the NLCS or beyond. Really, outside of the Dodgers, is there any team in the National League that looks super tough right now? The Cubs are off to a good start — even though Javier Baez isn’t hitting, Kris Bryant isn’t hitting, Nico Hoerner isn’t hitting and Anthony Rizzo isn’t driving in many runs (in part because nobody around him is hitting). At the same time, as good as Atlanta’s offense is — assuming Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies come back healthy from their wrist issues — I wouldn’t want to run into, say, the Reds with Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo in that first-round best-of-three. But if Cole Hamels ever makes it back and they add another starter, they have the lineup and bullpen to finally end that playoff drought (nine straight playoff series defeats).
Jesse Rogers: The short answer is yes. There has been so much to like about the Braves over the last couple of seasons that one might assume they could overcome one deficiency. But when it’s the most important part of a baseball team, it’s not so easy. Overcoming the loss of Josh Donaldson is doable but not so much when it’s Mike Soroka and the old version of Mike Foltynewicz. There’s just not enough depth there. The trade deadline could change that, of course, but as is, the Braves won’t make it far.
Do you expect to see the Phillies playing in October for the first time since 2011?
Schoenfield: In their favor: The NL East is pretty mediocre. Not in their favor: The Phillies aren’t very good. One thing working for them is that they may be catching the Braves and Nationals at the right time. After this series, they get the Nationals, then the Braves again and then the Nationals again. The Braves’ rotation is a mess, and the Nationals have lost Stephen Strasburg for the season. With Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto leading the way, the offense has actually been OK, even though a couple of regulars are off to slow start. It all comes down to the bullpen … which can’t be this bad all season, right? After trading for Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree — although Workman blew his first save chance — and combined with Stephen Strasburg’s season-ending injury, maybe the Phillies sneak in as the eighth seed. After all, two teams from the NL East have to make the postseason
Rogers: My gut says no, but my head says yes. There are just too many teams that make the playoffs this season, so it’s hard to imagine the Phillies aren’t one of the eight best teams in the NL. But this is a team that should have gotten off to a better start. A new, respected, experienced manager like Joe Girardi should have the attention of his players. Of course, that may not matter when your bullpen ERA is hovering around 8.00, despite trading for some help. They’ll need to recover from that blown lead against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday. Can Girardi right the ship without much help from the outside? I think they get in, but it won’t be easy sledding.
You’re assembling a team from scratch. Setting contracts aside, which pair of teammates would you rather have — Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman or Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto?
Schoenfield: Right now, the answer may look like Harper and Realmuto, given their hot starts and Acuna’s IL stint. In 2019, Acuna and Freeman combined for 9.7 WAR, versus 8.8 for Harper-Realmuto. Acuna is the youngest of the group, but Realmuto plays catcher, a hard position to fill. I think I still give the edge to the Braves’ duo, primarily because Acuna is clearly the best bet among the four players to remain a superstar for the next five seasons.
Rogers: Because of his age alone, Acuna wins the debate for that duo. Realmuto will be 30 next season, and if we can say Harper and Freeman cancel each other out, then I’ll take the 22-year-old Acuna, who is only getting better with experience. His current injury has no bearing on the question: If I’m starting from scratch, he’s one of the guys I’d consider taking to start a team. And you could make a case that Freeman will be more consistent than Harper as both players age. Freeman has averaged a 5.15 WAR over the last four full seasons, while Harper’s average is just 3.03. He’s been less consistent, which isn’t really a good thing as a player approaches his 30s.