How do the Mets stack up in the NL East?

We’ve been so busy picking apart the Mets roster this off-season, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a broader look at our division rivals to see how we measure up. Unlike other divisions, the NL East does not have a doormat team. The Marlins might not be a playoff favorite, but they’ve got more talent than any other projected fifth place finisher in either league. And, as you’ll see, they’re the least of our concerns. Here’s your annual NL East preview.

Atlanta Braves

Strengths: A strong middle-of-the-order with emerging star Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP/Mets crusher Freddie Freeman, and masher Marcel Ozuna. A strong rotation led by young guns Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson, and a deep bullpen topped by flamethrower A.J. Minter are both bolstered by a collection of carefully assembled veterans.

Weaknesses: The bottom of the lineup is potentially weak as the team is waiting for Austin Riley to establish himself at third and crosses its fingers that the young speedster Christian Pache can take over for the light-hitting Ender Inciarte in center field. Speaking of crossing fingers, as of this writing, the team does not have a proven catcher to back up the ever fragile Travis d’Arnaud. Ozuna can hit, but is a liability in the field and there’s no DH this year.

Best Player: Freeman

Wildcard: Pache

Best Case: Pache and Riley breakout, giving the Braves are strong lineup to support their pitching and they win a fourth consecutive division title.

Worst Case: Ozuna makes errors, d’Arnaud gets hurt, Riley is a bust, Pache isn’t ready and the pitching isn’t good enough to carry them beyond .500.

Prediction: Wild Card

Miami Marlins

Strengths: Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez lead a new wave of young rotation arms that are developing faster than expected. With so many great third basemen, you don’t hear much about Brian Anderson, but he’s a good ball player. Speedy, young outfielders will track down balls in the gap. Starling Marte is still on this team.

Weaknesses: The bullpen is largely unproven and the lineup lacks a real threat.

Best Player: Alcantara

Wildcard: Magneuris Sierra

Best Case: Some of the other young arms like Pablo Lopez, Nick Neidert and Elieser Hernandez develop and the team fights and scratches to a .500 record.

Worst Case: The Marllins get off to a slow start in a competitive division and trade away Marte at the deadline before sinking to last place.

Prediction: 5th place

New York Mets

Strengths: The strongest lineup this team has had since 2006 features power, speed, contact and balance. Adding a dynamic offensive player like Francisco Lindor to an already good lineup is scary for other teams. Jacob deGrom is without question the best pitcher in the game. A solid and versatile bench and some extra rotation arms should help the Mets overcome the usual injuries. They’ll get a jolt in early June when Noah Syndergaard returns.

Weaknesses: Outfield defense. Starting the season with three of our best pitchers on the IL. A poor fielding third baseman. Question marks in middle relief.

Best Player: deGrom

Wildcard: Syndergaard

Best Case: Those three pitchers return to health and the Mets find another reliable bullpen arm or two among who’s currently on the roster or available at mid-season. With this high octane offense, the pitching doesn’t need to be great, just good and reliable for them to make the playoffs. If Syndergaard comes back strong, this team could win the division and advance in the playoffs.

Worst Case: Syndergaard, Seth Lugo and Carlos Carrasco don’t all make it back and the pitching staff struggles.

Prediction: 1st place

Philadelphia Phillies

Strengths: A good lineup with six of their regulars capable of hitting 20+ homers. A strong top of the rotation.

Weaknesses: The bullpen was terrible last year and Archie Bradley won’t be enough to fix it. The backend of the rotation looks like a problem.

Best Player: Bryce Harper

Wildcard: Spencer Howard

Best Case: Howard has a big rookie year to give the Phillies four capable starters and the lineup stays healthy and keeps the team above .500 til the trade deadline when they bring in some reinforcements for the bullpen.

Worst Case: Zack Wheeler or Aaron Nola gets injured or Zack Efflin comes back to earth and the pitching proves too thin for this team to be competitive.

Prediction: 3rd place

Washington Nationals

Strengths: Rotation is one of the best with 3-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Veteran Jon Lester is first in line to fill out the backend with Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross competing for starts. The addition of Brad Hand should strengthen what should be a solid bullpen. Juan Soto is an absolute monster and Trea Turner is an All Star at shortstop.

Weaknesses: Soto will get walked 150 times as his only protection is Josh Bell. The rest of the lineup besides those two and Turner is hardly imposing. This team hasn’t replaced the departed Harper and Anthony Rendon and can’t consistently score runs. They have too many players than can field but not hit and vice versa.

Best Player: Soto

Wildcard: Carter Kieboom

Best Case: Kieboom develops, Victor Robles starts hitting, and Kyle Schwarber stays healthy and adds thump to the lineup. The key pitchers avoid the IL and this team can battle for a wild card.

Worst Case:  Too many errors in the field, too many runners stranded on base and not enough health among an aging pitching staff.

Prediction: 4th place

Can Diaz, May, and Lugo lock down the late innings?

Edwin DiazIt’s been a busy off-season for the Mets and the front office has done an admirable job filling out the 40-man roster with talent, versatility, and depth. The offense, defense, bench, and rotation should all be significantly improved over last year and primed for a playoff run. But as history tells us, a weak bullpen can torpedo a promising season. After all, ever the best starting pitchers rarely throw complete games anymore, so it’s very often left to the relievers to hold the lead or keep the game close.

As for closing, Edwin Diaz figures to hold that role again. Will we see the strikeout machine we saw in 2020 or the homerun derby pitcher we saw in 2019? This is a very big and scary question to consider. What was the main cause of Diaz’s brutal 2019 – the slick ball, the change of scenery, or the pressure of playing in New York? Maybe the raised seems last season helped him find his slider and maybe he got used to his teammates and the big city. Or, as some have suggested, maybe he thrived under the reduced pressure of not having to pitch in front of a packed ballpark. The fans may return at some point this season and the baseballs will be changing again so we can’t rest too easy on our expectations here. One positive is that new catcher James McCann is regarded as a better receiver, pitch framer, and overall defensive catcher than his predecessor and that can certainly help Diaz.

The good news is that there are alternatives if Diaz falters. Newly signed Trevor May is another hard-throwing strikeout pitcher who can be a lockdown setup man and step in to close if needed.  Over the past season and a half in Minnesota, May struck out a whopping 117 batters in just 87.2 innings. Seth Lugo, though expected to begin the season on the IL recovering from surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, also has some closing experience, as well as the ability to pitch multiple innings. It would be reassuring if the Mets could add one more bullpen piece before the season starts to at least hold the line until Lugo returns, likely in mid May.

The Mets’ 2021 bullpen also features two former All-Star closers in Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances. Due to injuries or ineffectiveness, neither has been dominant for several years now. However, the hope is that both are healthy with something to prove and at least one of them will prove effective as a useful setup man. The lefty Aaron Loup seemed to transform from an average reliever to a very effective one last year with Tampa Bay and he cranked it up a notch in the playoffs. In nine 2020 post-season appearances, Loup was effective in eight and allowed no home runs. He will certainly be in the late inning mix.

The rest of the bullpen may be something of a revolving door as pitchers shuttle back and forth to Syracuse depending on injuries, needs, effectiveness, and options. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Righties Robert Gsellman and Miguel Castro are likely to be on the opening day roster. The latter can strike batters out, but also gives up way too many walks. Gsellman can go multiple innings and start in a pinch, but it’s been a few seasons now since he’s been really effective.

Jacob Barnes, Franklyn Kilome, Sam McWilliams, Sean Reid-Foley, Drew Smith, Stephen Tarpley, Daniel Zamora Yennsy Diaz figure to battle for the last spot, along with a number of spring training invites, like Jerry Blevins, Tommy Hunter, Mike Montgomery, Arodys Vizcaino, Ryley Gilliam, and others. There’s something to be said for the old adage of “strength in numbers,” but by mid-season, the Mets will certainly have had an opportunity to get a sense of who, if any, of these cast-offs, journeyman, and upstarts is worthy of sticking around in Queens.

Our bullpen is deep in terms of live arms worth a look, but it’s remarkably shallow in terms of arms that Manager Luis Rojas and Mets fans can truly rely on. It would be great if Betances, Familia or Gsellman can make a comeback or if one of these other relievers could emerge, but at the moment it looks like we have four go-to arms and one is injured. This won’t be enough to get us through the long season. Hopefully, Sandy Alderson and Zack Scott can find one more bullpen addition over the next few weeks. Otherwise, this will be our biggest area of concern and may be worth revisiting at the mid-season trade deadline.