Zack Wheeler

Most underrated players in the NL East

Most underrated players in the NL East

The Phillies, Nationals, Mets and Braves have had active offseasons.

The Phillies have added J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson.

The Nationals have spent upwards of $183 million in free agency, by far the most of any major-league team.

The Mets added Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie, Jeurys Familia, Rajai Davis, Keon Broxton and lefty Justin Wilson.

The Braves signed Josh Donaldson, re-signed Nick Markakis and brought back catcher Brian McCann.

There's a lot of top-end talent in the NL East and you know all about the Freddie Freemans and Jacob deGroms of the world. There are also plenty of under-the-radar players in the division.

In Atlanta, Johan Camargo had a better season than practically anyone gave him credit for in 2018, hitting .272 with 19 homers, 76 RBI and an .806 OPS while starting 114 games at third base for the Braves. He becomes a super-sub with Donaldson in ATL.

In Washington, Anthony Rendon is a beast when healthy, hitting .305/.389/.534 the last two seasons with averages of 42 doubles, 24 homers and 96 RBI. He's not just underrated within the division, he might be the most underrated player in the NL. 

Then there are the Phillies and Mets, who each have a starting pitcher entering the season as a No. 3 but with the potential to be a whole lot more.

Mets — Zack Wheeler

Wheeler could be more instrumental to the Mets' success this season than any of their newcomers. His second-half success in 2018 was overshadowed by rotation-mate deGrom, but after the All-Star break, Wheeler was even better than Aaron Nola (by a lot).

In the second half, Wheeler went 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA in 11 starts, striking out 73 and walking 15 with three homers allowed in 75 innings. His opponents hit .179.

Wheeler's 1.68 ERA was third best in the majors after the All-Star break, behind only Blake Snell and Trevor Williams. His opponents' batting average was also third best, behind only Snell and Walker Buehler.

Once a top prospect, Wheeler has dealt with plenty of injuries throughout his time with the Mets. He did not pitch in the majors at all in 2015 or 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of '15.

This past season was Wheeler's coming out party, and much of the improvement had to do with increased velocity (96.5 mph average) and excellent fastball command. 

Between deGrom, Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets have a formidable 1-2-3 on par with the Nationals' trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

Good thing the Phillies have added some offense.

Phillies — Nick Pivetta

With Pivetta, it's more about the potential and the highs we've seen than the overall production in his two big-league seasons.

Pivetta showed what he's capable of in April and May of 2018. In his first 11 starts, he had a 3.26 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 58 innings. He limited the walks (14) and homers (five) and missed a ton of bats. 

The rest of the season, you never knew which Pivetta would show up when his turn came in the rotation. There was a lot of boom and a lot of bust. He had 10 starts allowing one run or none. He had eight starts allowing five or six runs.

Pivetta has a big fastball and a slider/curveball combination that show flashes of being plus pitches. Turning 26 on Valentine's Day and entering his third MLB season, this is the time for Pivetta to take a step forward. He is compared often to Vince Velasquez, but Pivetta's control is undoubtedly better.

This past season, Pivetta struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings and walked 2.8. There were only 11 pitchers in baseball who hit both marks, and Pivetta's ERA (4.77) was a full run higher than anyone on the list. German Marquez was next at 3.77. 

The peripherals foretell improvement for Pivetta and the Phillies badly need it with all of their rotation questions.

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Phillies have lots of work to reach Braves' level in 2019 and beyond

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Phillies have lots of work to reach Braves' level in 2019 and beyond

There are few things Phillies fans enjoy more than making fun of the Mets.

But if you hadn't noticed, the Mets have gained 10½ games in the standings on the Phillies over the last eight weeks.

Since Aug. 6, the Phillies are 13-25 and the Mets are 25-16.

The offensive numbers of the Braves, Phillies and Mets are telling.

The Braves have hit .259/.325/.424 with 711 runs scored.

The Phillies have hit .238/.316/.399 with 641 runs.

The Mets have hit .236/.312/.393 with 644 runs.

Offensively, the gap between the Phils and Braves this season has been substantial. The gap between the Phils and Mets, sadly, has been negligible.

It's a worrisome sign because the Phillies have so much more offensive talent than the Mets. Yoenis Cespedes has played 38 games this season. Jay Bruce has played 82. Michael Conforto started hitting only recently.

And yet the Phils, with a full season of Rhys Hoskins and the addition of Carlos Santana, haven't been able to muster much more offense.

The Mets have an interesting near future. With Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and this new, ace-like version of Zack Wheeler, they have the best 1-2-3 of any National League rotation. A trade for an everyday position player would make a lot of sense. They have many, many questions offensively, mainly because they rarely spend money these days.

The Phillies, meanwhile, must figure out a way before next season to close the gap on the Braves. There is simply no player in the Phils' organization with the skill level of Freddie Freeman or Ronald Acuña Jr. The quickest and most obvious way to close that gap would be by adding Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

The Phillies entered the week with a 97 percent chance of missing the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. Yet still, these remaining seven games with the Braves have meaning. The Phillies have gone 5-7 against the Braves this season, losing three of the four series. Going 5-2 in these games against Atlanta could have a positive psychological benefit for the Phils, the way their 36-36 finish last season did.

This offense just needs some sort of infusion. The Phillies want to see pitches, see pitches, see pitches, make pitchers work, etc. They entered Monday night with 22 more walks than the Mets and 120 more strikeouts. The Phils just don't have enough players to properly enact that offensive philosophy, aside from Hoskins and Santana.

Harper fits the description. Machado is a more aggressive, freer swinger but is obviously a difference-making star.

In all likelihood, the Phils will finish five to seven games behind the Braves in the NL East this season. There are few players in baseball capable of increasing a team's win total by five to seven, but Harper and Machado are two of them.

Either way, the Phillies are observant enough to realize they can't go into 2019 with this offensive personnel.

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Mets 9, Phillies 4: That’s 7 losses in the last 9 games

Mets 9, Phillies 4: That’s 7 losses in the last 9 games

BOX SCORE

The New York Mets continue to make life miserable on the Phillies. The Mets beat the Phils for the 11th time in 17 meetings this season on Monday night. The final score from quiet Citizens Bank Park was 9-4.

The Phillies entered the game trailing first-place Atlanta by 6½ games in the NL East and were unable to make up any ground. The Phils have 13 games left, including seven with Atlanta. The two teams begin a four-game series Thursday night in Atlanta, but this race is all but over.

Not enough offense

It’s a familiar refrain, but the Phillies didn’t produce enough offense. Sure, they scored four runs against Mets starter Zack Wheeler, but they all came in one inning – the fifth – after they had been no-hit for the first four innings. The Phils had just five hits in the game and three of them came in the fifth inning. J.P. Crawford had the big blow, a three-run triple. The Phils then tied the game on a sacrifice fly and left a runner at second base when Rhys Hoskins was called out for interfering with a pickoff attempt by the catcher. Ouch.

Arrieta struggles

Jake Arrieta was not sharp. He allowed 10 base runners and four runs in five innings. Tommy Hunter gave up the go-ahead run on a two-out double in the seventh and Michael Conforto completely snuffed out the Phils with a three-run homer in the ninth en route to a six-RBI night.

Just when the Phillies needed Arrieta most, he has failed to deliver. His ERA over his last seven starts is a plump 6.03.

Stat check

Carlos Santana drew his 100th and 101st walks of the season. He became the first Phillie since Pat Burrell in 2008 to reach 100 walks.

Going to need a bigger bus

The Phillies are expected to activate lefty reliever Aaron Loup from the disabled list on Tuesday. That means every player on the 40-man roster will be active. Can’t remember the last time that happened with a Phillies team – if ever. Loup will give the team 16 active relievers. Someone might have to build an addition onto the bullpen.

On Sunday, general manager Matt Klentak said he was not fond of the rule that allows rosters to expand beyond 25 in September. He doesn’t like the idea of playing under one set of rules for five months and then another for the final month of the season, when games can grow in importance. Of course, all teams add players in September and as long as that is permitted the Phillies will play along as they seek any competitive advantage.

For the record, Gabe Kapler likes having the extra players.

“It's an invigorating challenge, a stimulating challenge, one that I really enjoy,” he said of juggling an expanded roster. “If you can convince your players to take a real team-first approach and that everyone is going to contribute every single night or has a chance to contribute every single night regardless of what inning it is and what part of the game they play, I actually think it could be a really exciting brand of baseball. The more chess pieces you have, the more interesting the game becomes. Maybe that’s not the case for the fan. I’m thinking about it from the perspective of the manager. And from my perspective, I like more chess pieces.”

Thirty-nine chess pieces couldn’t bring the Phils a win Monday night.

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