NL East breakdown through one month and lingering concerns for each team

NL East breakdown through one month and lingering concerns for each team

The Phillies are coming off of a productive weekend. After losing the series opener to the Marlins, they won three in a row, picking up ground as the rest of the division stumbled.

The Mets, Braves and Nationals all lost two in a row Friday and Saturday. Those teams' bullpens were the root cause of struggles again, allowing a combined 14 runs in 10 innings on Saturday.

With the regular season just over a month old, the Phillies are 16-12. That's a 93-win pace, and only two NL teams have a better record — the Dodgers and Cardinals.

On Sunday, Gabe Kapler said he thinks even better baseball is ahead of the Phillies, and it should be encouraging to the organization that they've played well despite a rash of injuries.

The Phils have already used 35 different players this season, second-most in the majors to the Mariners' 36. 

These last two weeks showed us just how important Jean Segura is to the Phils' lineup. With him out, they went 4-6 and averaged 2.9 runs per game. In Segura's first full game back Sunday, he went 3 for 4 with an RBI triple and two runs scored. He's hitting .347 on the season with a .919 OPS.

Bunched up

Most expected the NL East to be a hotly contested division in 2019 because the Phillies, Braves, Mets and Nationals are four of the top eight or nine teams in the National League. 

There's something to like about each NL East contender. The Phillies have one of the deepest lineups in baseball. The Nationals have one of the deepest rosters overall. The Braves have a formidable heart of the order. The Mets have as much starting pitching as any team.

A month in, these four teams are separated by three games. The Phillies, Mets and Braves have all scored between 141-145 runs. The Nationals aren't far behind at 138.

The only MLB team that has played more division games so far than the Phillies is the Rangers. The Phils are 13-8 already against the NL East, having played nearly 30 percent of their division games.

While all four teams are strong, there's something to dislike about each of them as well, mostly the bullpens.

Bullpen outlook

If you've been frustrated at times by the Phillies' relief corps, you should check out the rest of the division. 

• The Nationals' bullpen has a 6.57 ERA, second-to-last in the majors. They entered the season heavily reliant on hard-throwing righties Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal to be their setup tandem. Rosenthal allowed 12 runs in three innings and is already on the IL without a timetable to return. Barraclough has a deceptively low ERA but has a 1.66 WHIP and he's allowed seven of eight inherited runners to score. The Nats have had a lot of trouble getting the ball to elite closer Sean Doolittle.

• The Mets' bullpen hasn't been much better, ranking third-to-last in the majors with a 5.52 ERA. They've had the same issue bridging the gap from the starting pitcher to their elite closer, Edwin Diaz. Setup man Jeurys Familia has put 22 men on base in 11⅔ innings and has allowed a run in six of his last eight appearances. The Mets have also already overworked key relievers Robert Gsellman (17 IP) and Seth Lugo (16⅔ IP), who lead the division in innings among relievers.

• The Braves don't have a closer and have struggled to protect leads. Arodys Vizcaino is out for the season and his replacement, A.J. Minter, has a 9.35 ERA. The Braves are 5 for 9 in save opportunities and barely escaped Sunday when Luke Jackson replaced Minter in the ninth.

• The Phillies have a 4.27 bullpen ERA. The other three teams have combined for a 5.50 ERA from their relievers.

Each of these teams could use Craig Kimbrel, though the Mets are a longshot because they could only offer him a setup role. Keep in mind that at this point, any team that signs Kimbrel would likely have to wait three or four weeks before he's ready to contribute in a key late-inning role at the big-league level. You don't just sign and automatically run in for the ninth inning after not having a spring training ramp-up period.

Other lingering concerns

• Anthony Rendon is off to a MVP-caliber start to 2019 but is banged up. He was hit by a pitch in the elbow last Saturday and has missed seven of eight games since. He played on Friday but showed up Saturday with swelling in the elbow and was unable to play either of the last two games.

If he's forced to hit the IL, or if the elbow snaps the early-season pace he was on, the Nationals will be a much lesser offensive team.

• The Braves' rotation has been as bad as expected. They were thrilled to welcome back Mike Foltynewicz this weekend, but he's only one guy. The Braves have a 4.99 ERA from the rotation and their starters have averaged just 5.1 innings. Only the Mets have received fewer innings from the starters, which is hard to believe.

• Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard have a combined 5.70 ERA in 60 innings. Both should improve as the season wears on but deGrom, like Aaron Nola, likely will not come close to matching last season's insane production. And the Mets have to be somewhat concerned about Syndergaard, who has labored every time out and somehow allowed 40 hits in 34 innings despite possessing perhaps the best stuff of any starting pitcher in either league.

• Are the Phillies built to win close, low-scoring games? It's been tough for them early, especially with David Robertson and Tommy Hunter both out with flexor strains. When scoring three runs or fewer, the Phillies are 3-9 and have lost six in a row.

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This indefinite delay may be frustrating for these five Phillies

This indefinite delay may be frustrating for these five Phillies

Everyone is disappointed that the 2020 MLB season didn't start on time — owners, executives, managers and coaches, players and of course the fans who have been longing for baseball's return. There are so many intriguing storylines surrounding the Phillies. We were all so excited to watch this season play out.

The players themselves are all undoubtedly bummed. But this indefinite delay has to be especially frustrating for these five Phillies.

Rhys Hoskins

I can't imagine anyone was more anxious to get back to work in 2020 than Hoskins. The second half of his 2019 season was brutal. He hit .180 with just nine HR and 26 RBI in 71 games following the All-Star break. You could see that prolonged slump taking its toll on Hoskins. He wore the frustration outwardly on a nightly basis. For a guy who has experienced success at every stop of his baseball career, his struggles last season had to be confusing. What am I doing wrong? How can I get this fixed? Will I ever break out of this slump?

Hoskins spent a lot of time in the offseason adjusting his mental and physical approach at the plate. He admitted he was thinking too much last year. He worked with new hitting coach Joe Dillon, lowering his hands and opening his stance. He was eager to get back to being a force in the middle of the Phillies batting order, eager to prove that the second half of 2019 was a fluke. He wanted to get back to being one of the premiere sluggers in the National League.

But now Hoskins waits just like the rest of us to find out when (or if) he'll get that opportunity.

Jake Arrieta

This is the final year of the three-year, $75 million contract that Arrieta signed with the Phillies prior to the 2018 season. He'd be the first one to tell you that the Phillies haven't gotten their money's worth on that deal. Arrieta battled injuries and inconsistency in his first two seasons in Philadelphia. He pitched through a knee injury that required surgery in 2018, finishing that season with a 3.96 ERA in 31 starts. His 2019 season was cut short due to surgery in August to clean out a bone spur in his right elbow. He posted a 4.64 ERA in 24 starts before he was shut down.

The 34-year old Arrieta has hardly resembled the guy who won a World Series and Cy Young Award with the Cubs. But this spring he said he's 100 percent healthy and ready to make the type of impact the Phillies bargained for when they signed him to that big contract. Arrieta looked sharp in spring training. He was going to slot into the third spot in the rotation behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. A big year from Arrieta would do wonders for the Phillies' playoff chances. It would also put him in a great position as he ventures back into free agency following the 2020 season.

Bryce Harper

A lot of signs pointed to Harper having a monster 2020 season. He had a full offseason and spring training to focus solely on baseball as opposed to a year ago when he didn't know which team he'd be playing for or where his family would be living until the end of February. He was settled in playing with his new team and living in his new city. And perhaps maybe most telling, he was tearing the cover off the ball in spring training. Harper hit .500 with three doubles, three HR and 11 RBI in eight exhibition games. He was locked and loaded for the regular season.

But now Harper's potential MVP caliber season has been put on hold. If there is a 2020 season, it almost certainly won't be 162 games. Which means we won't find out what numbers he was capable of putting up in his second season with the Phillies. At 27 years old, Harper still has plenty of his prime years ahead of him. But this one could have been special. Hopefully it still can be.

Zach Eflin

Of all the Phillies starting pitchers, Eflin may be best positioned to make 'the leap' in 2020. The righthander is coming off an uneven 2019 season, posting a 10-13 record with a 4.13 ERA. It was a year full of ups (a pair of complete games) and downs (a July demotion to the bullpen). Eflin's skill set didn't mesh with how former pitching coach Chris Young wanted pitchers to attack hitters. Young stressed the importance of throwing fastballs up in the zone. Eflin is most effective when he relies on his sinker.

New pitching coach Bryan Price wants Eflin and the rest of the Phillies starters to pitch to their strengths. Price preaches efficiency, he wants Eflin to use his sinker early in the count to get ground ball outs. This appears to be a perfect union of coach and player. Eflin turns 26 on Wednesday, he enters his fifth big league season with 74 career starts under his belt. A lot of evidence suggests he may be poised for a career year.

Scott Kingery

After bouncing all over the diamond during his first two seasons with the Phillies, it looks like Kingery will finally get the chance to settle in at his natural position of second base this year. He played mostly shortstop, center field and third base in his first two major league seasons with cameos at second base, left field and right field. He's been valuable in that super utility role but he's mentioned his desire to play second base regularly. With Didi Gregorius at shortstop and Jean Segura playing third base during spring training, Kingery appears to be penciled in as the starter at second base.

Kingery's offensive numbers improved significantly from 2018 to 2019. He hit .258 last season with 34 doubles and 19 home runs, up from .226 with 23 doubles and eight HR in 2018. Being more comfortable at his natural position in the field should only enhance his production at the plate. Kingery bulked up in the offseason in hopes of taking his game to the next level. Time will tell if he gets the chance to do so.

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How Jean Segura's heroics vs. Mets in 2019 further debate on his future

How Jean Segura's heroics vs. Mets in 2019 further debate on his future

There’s few things Phillies fans enjoy more than a comeback, walk-off win against the Mets. So make sure to give yourself a smile by watching just that on NBC Sports Philadelphia today. 

Specifically, we’re bringing you a 5-4 win from June of last season that ended with a Jay Bruce RBI double in the bottom of the 10th. But it was the play of Jean Segura that night that got the Phillies into a position to win it. The then-Phillies shortstop hit a solo home run off future and past teammate Jason Vargas (what a Phillies career he had) in the bottom of the 6th to cut the deficit to 4-1. In the 7th, Segura connected off Seth Lugo for a game-tying 2-run single.

That game proved to be a positive moment in a below-average season for the veteran infielder. In his 1st campaign with the Phillies, the walk and strikeout averse Segura hit .280. That’s 24 points lower than he batted with the Mariners the year before. His home runs only improved from 10 to 12, despite moving from cavernous T-Mobile Park to the much more long-ball conducive Citizens Bank Park.
All signs point to Segura moving from shortstop to 2nd base when regular season baseball takes place with Didi Gregorius signed in the offseason to play shortstop. While the returns on the infield realignment remain to be seen, Segura’s impact needs to be most felt at the plate and in the Phillies lineup.
So was last season the beginning of a decline for the recently-turned 30-year old Segura? Or just a slight dip for a player that hit .300 or better in each of the previous three seasons? 
A reason for optimism is Segura’s assertion that he entered spring training in February in much better shape than the previous season. That said, we don’t definitively know how this current hiatus will impact that physical conditioning. Pessimists will point out that history (not including the late 80s to the early 2000s) suggests players don’t get better as they enter their 30s.
Ultimately, it will add to the degree of difficulty for the Phillies to get where they want to go this season if Segura is not a .300 hitter that sets the table for the heart of the lineup.

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