The Race for First in the NL East

The National League East has quickly become arguably the best division in the majors after the 2022 season. The division contains two teams that won over 100 games in 2022 and the reigning league champions. Hundreds of millions have been spent on free agents by the competitors in the NL East this offseason, and the division is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in baseball in 2023. Let’s compare the Mets, Braves, and Phillies going in the 2023 season position by position to see what we can expect in the coming year.

Catcher: Philadelphia

Omar Narvaez/Tomas Nido/Francisco Alvarez (NYM), Sean Murphy/Travis d’Arnaud (ATL), J.T. Realmuto (PHI)

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Even with the Braves’ acquisition and extension of Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy, Realmuto remains the premier catcher in the east. The three-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glover, and three-time Silver Slugger had his best season yet in 2022 for the Phillies, slashing .276/.342/.478 with a .820 OPS and 129 OPS+. Realmuto also hit 22 home runs and stole 21 bases. The 31-year-old backstop had another elite defensive season, winning the Gold Glove for National League catchers. The Braves new catcher, Sean Murphy, put up 3.5 bWAR and a 120 OPS+ for Oakland before the trade last month. The Mets catching situation remains a bit more complicated, as while a duo of Omar Narvaez and Tomas Nido leaves a lot to be desired, they have a 21-year-old Francisco Alvarez waiting for his turn, whether that is on Opening Day or at some point during the season. However, even with Alvarez’s presence in the majors, Realmuto’s role as the best catcher in baseball is very unlikely to change.

First Base: New York

Pete Alonso (NYM), Matt Olson (ATL), Rhys Hoskins (PHI)

Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY

Coming off of his second All-Star season, the Polar Bear is the best first baseman in the NL East going into 2023. Alonso hit 40 home runs for the second time in his career and broke the Mets franchise record with a league-leading 131 RBIs. In his age 27 season, Alonso helped carry the Mets offense into his first postseason appearance, slashing .271/.352/.518 with a 146 OPS+. The first baseman was in the 98th percentile for max exit velocity, reaching an elite 116.5 MPH with a barrel percentage of 12.3%. Alonso became a much better all-around hitter in 2022, with a career-high average of .271 and a career-low strikeout rate of 18.7%. Matt Olson had another solid year in his first season in Atlanta but also had his lowest OPS+ in a full season since 2018. Still, his 34 homers and 103 RBIs combined with his elite defense at first helped lead Atlanta to another NL East crown. Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins hit 30 home runs as well with a 122 OPS+ but remains the clear third-place finisher behind Olson and Alonso.

Second Base: New York

Jeff McNeil (NYM), Ozzie Albies (ATL), Bryson Stott (PHI)

Elsa/Getty Images

Coming off of a dreadful 2021 season, Jeff McNeil bounced back in the best way possible by winning the 2022 batting title. However, McNeil’s major league-best .326 average only tells part of the story, as he finished fourth in the NL in on-base with a .382 OBP and ninth in bWAR with 5.7. One of the most impressive parts of McNeil’s game is his incredible defensive flexibility. While McNeil mostly played second base, he also added 47 games between left and right field, playing elite defense wherever manager Buck Showalter put him. McNeil also struck out at a rate of just 10.4%, in the 99th percentile in the majors last year. Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies is coming off of an injury-riddled 2022 season, playing just 64 games with below-average offensive numbers. However, Albies had a 110 OPS+ from 2019-2021 with great defense at second. Bryson Stott struggled over his rookie season in 2022, with an OPS of just .653 and an OPS+ of 84. Stott now moves over to second after the signing of Trea Turner as the Phillies hope the 25-year-old can take a big step forward in his sophomore campaign.

Third Base: Atlanta

Eduardo Escobar/Brett Baty (NYM), Austin Riley (ATL), Alec Bohm (PHI)

AP Photo/Ben Margot

This choice might be the easiest yet, as Austin Riley easily outpaces his competitors at the hot corner. Riley followed up his breakout 2021 with another fantastic season, slashing .273/.349/.528 with a 142 OPS+. Riley also hit 38 home runs and 39 doubles while making his first All-Star game in his age-25 season. However, Riley’s defense was suspect as his -7 OAA ranked fifth worst amongst third basemen. As for the Mets, the starting job will likely be decided during Spring Training between veteran Eduardo Escobar and rookie Brett Baty. Escobar had a rough 2022 season up until his huge September but overall finished with just 1.2 bWAR. Baty had a fantastic year in the minors, mostly in AA, but played just 11 games in the majors before a season-ending injury. Alec Bohm had a curious 2022 season, finishing with an OPS+ of exactly 100 with just 0.8 bWAR and -9 OAA. Going into his age 26 season, Bohm looks to go back to his 2020 numbers, where he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting during the shortened season.

Shortstop: New York

Francisco Lindor (NYM), Vaughn Grissom/Orlando Arcia (ATL), Trea Turner (PHI)

NY Post/Robert Sabo

This is likely to be my most controversial pick, but even with Philadelphia’s megadeal to Trea Turner, the Mets’ Francisco Lindor remains the top shortstop in the division. Comparing their two 2022 seasons, Turner’s slash line of .298/.343/.466 was better than Lindor’s .270/.339/.449, but Lindor’s 125 OPS+ was actually above Turner’s 121. Lindor also beat Turner in bWAR (5.4 to 4.9), home runs (26 to 21), RBIs (107 to 100), and walks (59 to 45). Turner was best in doubles (39 to 25), runs (101 to 98), hits (194 to 170), and stolen bases (27 to 16). As for the defensive side of things, Lindor is by far the better defender than Turner. Lindor’s 13 OAA ranked 13th in 2022 and in the 98th percentile in the majors. Turner’s defense can be best described as average, with exactly 0 OAA last year. While choosing either as the NL East’s best shortstop can be argued as the right choice, I believe Lindor’s elite defensive abilities put him slightly over Turner going into 2023. As for Atlanta, without Dansby Swanson, it seems to be between Orlando Arcia and 22-year-old Vaughn Grissom. While they have the potential to be very solid for the Braves, they clearly rank third behind the two superstar shortstops in New York and Philadelphia.

Left Field: Philadelphia

Mark Canha (NYM), Eddie Rosario (ATL), Kyle Schwarber (PHI)

Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire

In the first year of his new four-year deal with the Phillies, Schwarber led the National League with 46 home runs. Schwarber hits the ball incredibly hard, with his average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate in the 99th percentile. While Schwarber strikes out at a very high rate, leading the majors with 200 in 2022, he also walks at an elite rate of 12.9%. However, Schwarber is realistically a DH playing left field for Philadelphia, as his OAA of -13 in 2022 was not only in the 1st percentile but 3rd worst amongst all players. Mark Canha had another solid season in his first year as a Met, putting up a 122 OPS+ and .367 OBP while leading the league in hit-by-pitches for the second straight season with 28. The Braves left field position seems to be another rough position for them, as likely starter Eddie Rosario is coming off of a 64 OPS+ season. Rosario’s numbers drastically fell from his second half with Atlanta and NLCS MVP in 2021, but Atlanta also picked up Jordan Luplow and Sam Hilliard and has Marcell Ozuna for another few years.

Center Field: New York

Brandon Nimmo (NYM), Michael Harris (ATL), Brandon Marsh (PHI)

Hunger/Associated Press

While Michael Harris had a fantastic 2022 season, winning the Rookie of the Year, I think Brandon Nimmo’s track record puts him above Harris for now. Nimmo put up 5.1 bWAR during his 2022 season, earning himself an eight-year contract from the Mets during the offseason. He also played a career-high 151 games, slashing .274/.367/.433 with a 130 OPS+. He also has improved significantly over the past few seasons defensively in center, going from the 14th percentile in OAA in 2020 to 90th in 2022. Michael Harris put up a 135 OPS+ across his first 114 games, with 19 home runs with elite defense. A major negative for Harris was his 24.3% strikeout rate and 4.8% walk rate. As for Brandon Marsh, he struggled across the first half of the season with the Angels but was much more successful for the Phillies, putting up a .773 OPS in 41 games as Philadelphia’s center fielder.

Right Field: Atlanta

Starling Marte (NYM), Ronald Acuna Jr. (ATL), Nicholas Castellanos (PHI)

Larry Robinson-USA TODAY Sports

Although Acuna regressed significantly in his first season back from his season-ending knee injury in 2021, he is still the top right fielder in the NL East. Acuna still had an elite hard-hit rate of 49.7% while reaching a top of 116.6 MPH exit velocity. He is widely expected to bounce back to his pre-injury numbers, with a .990 OPS and 24 home runs across 82 games. Just two years before that, Acuna had a 41 home run/37 stolen base season at age 21. Now heading into his age-25 season, Acuna should have a full season for the first time since 2019. Starling Marte had another great season at age 33 for the Mets, putting up a 132 OPS+ and .292/.347/.468 slash line. Marte struggled with injuries and was limited to 118 games in his second All-Star season. Castellanos, however, had one of the most disappointing seasons of anybody in 2022, as he fell from a .939 OPS, 34 home runs, an All-Star appearance, and a Silver Slugger in 2021 for the Reds to a .694 OPS, 13 home runs, and no awards after signing a $100 million contract with the Phillies. Especially with Harper out for the first half, the Phillies are relying on Castellanos’s ability to bounce back from a dreadful season.

Designated Hitter: Philadelphia

Daniel Vogelbach (NYM), Marcell Ozuna (ATL), Bryce Harper/Darick Hall (PHI)

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

While Tommy John surgery might complicate things for the reigning NLCS MVP, even with Bryce Harper missing the first half of the season in 2023, he is still the clear choice for the best DH here. Harper put up a 145 OPS+ across 99 games in 2022 and went on to carry the Phillies into the World Series with an incredible postseason. Two years ago, in 2021, Harper won the NL MVP after slashing .309/.429/.615 with an OPS of 1.044 and an OPS+ of 179. Harper now enters year five with the Phillies, with their expectations higher than ever. The Mets seem likely to go with a few different options at DH during the season, but Daniel Vogelbach is expected to be the most common. The 30-year-old had a 125 OPS+ and .793 OPS between Pittsburgh and New York in 2022 with an impressive 15.8% walk rate, good enough for the 99th percentile in MLB last year. Atlanta will also probably switch between players, with Marcell Ozuna seemingly a likely choice for that. His 2022 was not much better than his disastrous 2021, as he slashed .227/.274/.413 across 507 plate appearances.

Starting Rotation: New York

Verlander/Scherzer/Senga/Quintana/Carrasco (NYM), Fried/Strider/Morton/Wright/Soroka (ATL), Nola/Wheeler/Suarez/Walker/Falter (PHI)

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

It is pretty incredible to say that even with the best pitcher in baseball leaving a team, they can still have an elite rotation. But with the additions of Justin Verlander, Jose Quintana, and Kodai Senga, the Mets have a formidable top five and great depth behind them. Verlander is coming off of his third Cy Young season in 2022 at age 39, putting up a 1.75 ERA and winning 18 games for the Astros. Scherzer had a 2.29 ERA across 23 starts for the Mets. While they will be relying on two aging aces as well as a newcomer to MLB in Senga, the depth behind them in David Peterson, Tylor Megill, and Joey Luchessi allows them to have a reliable and dominant rotation heading in 2023. Philadelphia also bolstered their rotation with the signing of Taijuan Walker and has aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler heading their five. Atlanta will get the second full year from Spencer Strider and their ace, second-place Cy Young finisher in 2022, Max Fried. However, even with the star talent across the division, I believe New York’s depth and Cy Young ceiling puts them ahead.

Bullpen: New York

NY Post/Jason Szenes

The Mets went into the offseason with almost their entire bullpen hitting the market but were able to build back even better from what they had before. Not only did they re-sign the best closer in baseball in, Edwin Diaz, to a record deal, but they also brought back Adam Ottavino, signed David Robertson, and traded for Brooks Raley from Tampa. With a pen headed by a guy who struck out over half the batters he faced in 2022 in Edwin Diaz, and setup by veterans Ottavino (2.06 ERA in 2022) and Roberston (2.40), the Mets have a formidable force behind their rotation. Philadelphia’s bullpen, however, is far from the group they had a few years ago when they were historically bad, as Seranthony Dominguez, as well as hard-throwing lefties Jose Alvarado and Gregory Soto, represent a daunting challenge for any batter. Philadelphia might have one of if not the hardest throwing bullpen in memory. Atlanta’s pen will be headed by midseason acquisition Raisel Iglesias, who put up a 0.34 ERA across 28 games after the trade. As well as that, the Braves will have AJ Minter, Joe Jimenez, and Colin McHugh to round out the back of their pen.

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