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NL East preview: Harper provides huge swing, Braves stay in hunt

The Phillies spent 2018 one piece short of a legitimate run at the postseason.

They traded for Justin Bour hoping that he would fill the void — he didn’t. Neither did José Bautista. The decision was apparently made in Philadelphia that they would not fall one piece short again and Bryce Harper, the offseason’s grandest target, was signed to a monstrous 13-year, $330 million deal.

Behind the big bats of Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco and Odúbel Herrera, the Phillies finished sixth in the National League in homers last year. But largely due to a team .314 on-base percentage (10th), they ended the campaign 11th in runs scored (677, 4.18 per game).

Harper is known for his homers — and for good reason, given his average of 30 per 150 games played. But what separates the 26-year-old slugger from others of his ilk is the ability to get on base at a high rate. He is regularly among the league’s top in doing so, with a career .388 OBP, as is fellow new Phillie and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Philadelphia also added two-time All-Star Jean Segura, though they did have to give up Carlos Santana, second only to Hoskins on the club in homers last season, to get him, and Silver Slugger-winner J.T. Realmuto, dishing Jorge Alfaro to get him.

Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto (11) high-fives Marlins third base coach Fredi Gonzalez (33) after hitting a home run in the fifth inning as the Miami Marlins face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on Friday, July 7, 2017. Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay
The heart of the Phillie lineup is now set, and very much resembles an All-Star team. The onus will fall to a pitching staff that while young was very middle-of-the-pack last season.

Aaron Nola‘s emergence as an elusive ace and the solidifying effect David Robertson should have in the bullpen provides good news for the Phillies — and bad news for their opponents in the senior circuit’s eastern division.

At the top of that list of opposers will be the Braves, winners of 90 games and the division crown in 2018.

Atlanta found a way to be both incredibly young and highly competitive a year ago. Adding Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann will soften the blow, but the Braves should be expecting a slight regression from reigning rookie of the year Ronald Acuña Jr. The same  sophomore slump should come from 2018 All-Star Ozzie Albies.

That being said, Freddie Freeman will once again be an MVP candidate holding the lineup together from the middle, and Mike Foltynewicz showed a great deal of promise with a dominant 2018 — though he is currently dealing with soreness in his right elbow, always scary news when dealing with a pitcher.

Atlanta Braves vs San Francisco Giants
Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) rounds the bases in the ninth inning after hitting a solo home run as the Atlanta Braves face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, May 29, 2015. Scot Tucker/SFBay
Washington did well to brace for a departing MVP, adding a top-of-the-rotation starter, a pair of veteran catchers and an All-Star second baseman. But the questions are aplenty with so much pressure placed on outfielders Víctor Robles and Juan Soto, who are 21 and 20 respectively and have played a combined 150 big league games.

Production from Ryan Zimmerman is on the downswing and Anthony Rendon has always been asked to produce around Harper. There is only so much Patrick Corbin, Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes and Brian Dozier can do. The simple fact is: the Nationals’ window for success was closing before Harper left town.

Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6) rounds the bases after a home run in the third inning as the Washington Nationals face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, July 30, 2016. Scot Tucker/SFBay
On paper, the Mets appeared to have a successful offseason, strengthening the bullpen and adding punch to the lineup. But the 2019 Robinson Canó is far from the player that left New York in 2014 and there are far too many health concerns revolving around he and the rest of the offense.

The best move the Mets made was the one they didn’t, keeping Noah Syndergaard and 2018 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom together for at least one more year. Jeurys Familia and Edwin Díaz may have some 1-0, 2-1 leads to protect.

New York Mets vs San Francisco Giants
New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) throws a pitch in the first inning as the New York Mets face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, July 8, 2015. Scot Tucker/SFBay
Little will change for the Marlins. Little did.

Once again, Miami traded its best player in the offseason — at least they received a top-100 prospect this time (Sixto Sanchez, No. 21). In a now tougher division though, 100 losses seems to be a forgone conclusion for the Derek Jeter-created baseball purgatory.

Prediction (if Foltynewicz is not forced to miss significant time):

1st — Philadelphia Phillies 92-70 (80-82 last season)

2nd — Atlanta Braves 87-75 (90-72 last season)

3rd — Washington Nationals 80-82 (82-80 last season)

4th — New York Mets 79-87 (77-85 last season)

5th — Miami Marlins 59-103 (63-98 last season)

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