Doing work in the division is so much more important in 2020 with 40 of every team's 60 games coming against division opponents. The Phillies' struggles last season against the Marlins surely cost them a winning record, but this season your record against one specific team could be the difference altogether between making the playoffs in the eight-team field or finishing in third or fourth place and missing.
So, what will be the most important factor this season in determining the outcome of the NL East? Ricky Bottalico, Jim Salisbury and I discussed:
The number one factor will be which teams destroy the bottom-feeders: the Marlins and Orioles. The Phillies have 13 games against those two teams and have started 1-1. Those two teams had the second- and third-worst records in the majors last season. The Marlins lost 105 games and the Orioles lost 108, and neither made big upgrades.
The team that can stay most healthy in the starting rotation, and that means avoiding COVID as much as Tommy John, will win the NL East. All five clubs have some good arms. Even the Marlins, picked for last in the division, can come at you with some dominating power as we saw Friday night with Sandy Alcantara. Jose Ureña and Caleb Smith are also pretty capable. So the Marlins can be dangerous.
Washington's big three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin is scary, but Strasburg was scratched with a nerve issue in his hand Saturday, so health is already a concern with the defending World Series champs. And we didn't even mention that Juan Soto is on the COVID IL.
The Mets have some thunder in their rotation, but Noah Syndergaard is out for the season and Marcus Stroman is already on the IL. Jacob deGrom is great, but he can't do it alone.
The Braves signed Cole Hamels to lead their very talented young staff, but he's already on the IL.
Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are a nice 1-2 punch for the Phillies, but more will need to step up and support them. Maybe it's Vinny Velo. Maybe it's Jake Arrieta or Zach Eflin. Maybe it's Spencer Howard. The more the better because you don't want to put too much burden on a shaky bullpen. Starting pitching — performance and health — will decide this thing and every team has enough to be dangerous.
For me, it comes down to the bullpens of the Phillies and Braves because I think they're a bit ahead of the 2020 Nationals and Mets as the four teams are presently constructed.
The Nationals' lineup is weak right now without Juan Soto. Their middle of the order is Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames. Nobody is going to fear that lineup. The starting pitchers are great but they'll need run support and I'm skeptical of Washington's offense. Stephen Strasburg was scratched from his start Saturday with a nerve issue in his right hand. Missing one start this year is like missing three in a normal year and Strasburg may miss more than one.
The Mets have a good lineup with Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso, Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis, Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos all providing varying levels of danger. But as Jim mentioned, their rotation lacks the star power it had in seasons past beyond deGrom. Edwin Diaz, their talented closer who struggled last year in his first season in New York, blew a save Saturday and the Mets lost in extras. They need Diaz to be the lights-out guy he was in Seattle for three amazing seasons.
I think it comes down to the bullpens of the Phillies and Braves because a lot of these division games will be close and many will be decided in the final three innings. The team that ekes out more one-run wins will win the division.