The National League East was supposed to be the best division in baseball in 2021. Following an offseason in which a handful of clubs decided to slash payroll budgets, the NL East was the only division in the sport with five teams in win-now mode. It seemed inevitable that at least two teams would make the playoffs out of the division.
It’s safe to say that the division has largely been a disappointment. As of Monday, only the second-place Atlanta Braves have a positive run differential. While the division is six games over .500 against the NL Central (63-57), the NL East hasn’t performed as well against the NL West (49-54). Its record against interleague foes, which exclusively consists of the AL East this season, is a dreadful 27-50.
Yet the NL East is the only division in baseball with three teams over .500 and no teams with a winning percentage under .400. The division isn’t great, but there isn’t a bottom feeder for the contenders to feed on. The Dodgers, Padres and Giants all have the Rockies and Diamondbacks to bully. The same goes with the Brewers and Reds when it’s time to play the Pirates. The Phillies know better than anyone to not overlook a team like the Marlins.
Phillies slugger Bryce Harper provided his thoughts on the NL East in a March interview with ESPN’s Buster Olney. He might have given too much credit to the Nationals and Marlins, but his argument was correct: The NL East is going to be tough and no team is going to run away with it.
“Tough. Tough for sure. It’s going to be a tough year for all of us I think. Everybody sleeps on the Marlins. Everybody sleeps on the Braves, I don’t know why. The Nationals as well with the three horses they have and of course the Mets, they’ve just gotten better this offseason. It’s definitely going to be a tough season. We’re going to beat up on each other like we always do. I think whoever wins this division — I don’t even know if there’s going to be a team in the wild card from this division because I don’t know if there is going to be that many wins in this division. I don’t know if somebody is going to really run away with it. Somebody might, but hopefully we can be in the mix of things and give us an opportunity to get in.”Bryce Harper on the March 5 addition of Baseball Tonight with Buster Olney
According to FanGraphs, NL East teams have a combined 3.6 percent chance to win a wild card spot in the National League. Barring the unexpected, the division will have only one representative in the postseason.
All five teams have beaten up on each other and the proof is in how the Phillies, Braves and Mets have matched up with the last-place Marlins. The Marlins have a combined +24 run differential along with a 19-16 against the three teams. The Phillies are the only team among the trio of playoff contenders with a record over .500 against the Marlins (7-6).
Meanwhile in the NL West, the Diamondbacks have an 8-31 record against the Dodgers, Giants and Padres. The Rockies are a slightly better 14-24 against the class of the NL West.
Both the Nationals and Marlins were sellers at the trade deadline, so maybe the contenders can see remaining division games as a way to gain ground in the playoff race. Then again, the Mets recently lost three of four against a shorthanded Marlins squad in Miami.
The first-place Phillies are a long way from running away with the division. They have a tough week ahead of them as they welcome the Dodgers and Reds to Citizens Bank Park to conclude the nine-game homestand. According to FanGraphs, the Phillies have a 56.% chance to make the postseason.
“We’ve gotta have a sense of urgency,” Harper said in March. “We can’t just sit here and go ‘Maybe next year. Maybe next year. Maybe next year.’ No. We’ve gotta have a sense of urgency now.”
Perhaps Harper has taken that sense of urgency and turned it into an MVP caliber campaign. He’s the only qualified hitter in the National League that’s in the .300/.400/.500 club. While his low home run and RBI totals will hurt him in the voting process, the two front runners for the award, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr., are both out with injuries.
Like the NL East, no player is running away with the award. In a few months, the Phillies could have a division title along with an MVP and Cy Young Award-winner all on their team.
Harper probably couldn’t have predicted that.
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