The NL East is loaded with superstar talent -- Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman if he returns to Atlanta -- with a wave of very good players behind them.
The division figures to be even tougher in 2022 than it was in 2021 given the Braves' taste of winning, the Mets' spending and the young collection of talent the Marlins have compiled, particularly on the mound.
You need more than your stars to win a division. Just ask the Phillies. You need depth, you need unexpected contributions and you need career years from a few players.
Let's have a spin around the NL East to identify players who are poised to improve in 2022. This list includes newcomers, players coming off of down seasons in 2021 and players who showed last year that they can reach a higher level.
Braves: Max Fried, Ozzie Albies
Fried was a true ace in the second half for the Braves, going 8-1 with a 1.55 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 14 starts from July 28 through October 16. He allowed one earned run or none in nine of those 14 starts.
Fried, 28, finished the season with a 3.04 ERA in 165⅔ innings. Obviously, he is already very good, but he didn't receive a single Cy Young vote. The experience and confidence he's gained could lead him closer to the level of 2021 Kevin Gausman or Robbie Ray.
Albies is one of the most underrated players in baseball. His multi-dimensional skillset helped the Braves all season. He hit 40 doubles, seven triples, 30 homers, drove in 106 runs, scored 103 and stole 20 bases.
He also hit .259 with a .310 on-base percentage. Albies is an aggressive hitter and the Braves want him to stay aggressive, but if/when he can better identify pitches outside the strike zone that aren't for him, he could reach an even higher level. He hit .295 two seasons ago with similar power.
Mets: Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco
Lindor was one of baseball's biggest disappointments last season, hitting .230/.322/.412 with 20 homers in 524 plate appearances after signing a 10-year, $341 million to stay with the Mets long term.
It's not unusual for a player to struggle in a big market after signing a huge contract, but this was so far below Lindor's career norms that there had to be at least some misfortune at play. Lindor hit .277 with an .845 OPS in his final three seasons in Cleveland and is more likely to hit those marks than repeat his forgettable 2021.
There figures to be much more talent around him in the Mets' 2022 lineup with the additions of Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar. Robinson Cano should be back and perhaps he can lengthen the lineup at times.
Carrasco came over with Lindor from Cleveland in the trade a year ago this week. The 34-year-old right-hander tore his hamstring in spring training and did not make his Mets debut until July 30. He made just 12 starts and had a 6.04 ERA, reaching six innings twice. He was a No. 2 starter as recently as 2020 when he had a 2.91 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Carrasco and Taijuan Walker are key pieces in the Mets' rotation this season behind deGrom and Scherzer.
Phillies: Aaron Nola, Corey Knebel
Nola is a popular bounce-back candidate because his peripheral numbers were so much better than his results last season. He had an unsightly 4.63 ERA despite a huge strikeout rate and the lowest walk rate of his career.
The quick explanation for why Nola performed so far below his indicators was his work with runners in scoring position and his inability to put hitters away with two strikes.
His opponents hit .290 with a .904 OPS with runners in scoring position. In Nola's six prior seasons, his opponents hit .222 with an OPS in the mid-.600s.
Nola also allowed 82 hits with two strikes, the most in MLB and 12 more than any NL pitcher.
The velocity and movement are still there. Nola's curveball and two-seam fastball are still plus pitches most nights. Often in 2021, Nola would be cruising through a start, missing bats and inducing weak contact when things would quickly unravel in one inning. Better concentration and sequencing could lead Nola back to a low-3.00s ERA.
Knebel is in position to have his most impactful year since 2017, an All-Star season when he had a 1.78 ERA in a league-leading 76 appearances with 50 more strikeouts than innings. He's coming off of a strong season with the Dodgers, albeit in just 27 appearances. Here, he will have the opportunity to close and could earn himself a big payday by maintaining last year's success in a larger sample.
Marlins: Sandy Alcantara, Sixto Sanchez, Jazz Chisholm Jr.
The Marlins are trending up and their young pitching is going to cause problems. Alcantara is 26, Trevor Rogers is 24, Pablo Lopez is 25, Elieser Hernandez is 26 and Sixto Sanchez is 23.
Alcantara is already close to ace-level with a free-and-easy 99 mph fastball, an ability to induce weak, quick outs and stamina that has become uncommon in the modern game. Since 2019, the only pitchers with as many innings as Alcantara and a lower ERA are Zack Wheeler, Gerrit Cole and Lance Lynn. Alcantara, who signed a five-year, $56 million extension in November, has gotten better every year and is just now entering his prime.
Sanchez missed all of 2021 with a shoulder injury that required surgery in July. There have been questions about his physical conditioning, just as there were in the Phillies' organization before Sanchez was traded to Miami for J.T. Realmuto. But we saw the height of his ceiling in 2020 when Sanchez allowed six runs in his first five starts (32 innings) while limiting walks and home runs. With so many talented young pitchers around him, there isn't intense pressure on Sanchez to be "the guy" in 2022 but the Marlins need to see him bounce back and show he's capable of pitching every five days for several months. He has reached 100 innings once in six professional seasons, throwing 114 in 2019.
Chisholm hurt the Phillies a couple of times last season, hitting a three-run homer in a close win and doubling and tripling in another Marlins victory. It was his first full season and he hit .248/.303/.425 with 18 homers and 23 stolen bases. He was caught stealing eight times, the most in the National League. Chisholm turns 24 in February and will remain a centerpiece of the Marlins' offense for years. He slots into the first or second spot in Miami's lineup and should be protected by the recently signed Avisail Garcia, who hit 29 homers with an .820 OPS last season for Milwaukee.
Nationals: Keibert Ruiz, Stephen Strasburg
The Nationals' lineup is not deep, and you'd better believe Juan Soto will again be pitched around for most of the season. Washington needs Ruiz, the 23-year-old catcher the Dodgers sent to the Nationals in the Scherzer-Trea Turner trade, to provide some help, even if he's not a middle-of-the-order bat right away.
Ruiz, who entered 2021 as Baseball America's 53rd-ranked prospect, finished strong last season, going 19 for 48 (.396) over his final 13 games with the Nationals, striking out once.
There's almost nowhere to go but up for Strasburg, who has barely pitched since signing a seven-year, $245 million contract after his dominant 2019 postseason run. Strasburg has made a total of seven starts the last two seasons, allowing 18 runs in 26⅔ innings. He missed most of 2020 with a nerve issue in his throwing hand and had shoulder/neck problems that required season-ending surgery in 2021. There's still $145 million left on that contract.