PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) — For years, the NL East has been soft as a bunt single.
Even before Bryce Harper decided to stay inside the division, four of the five teams spent this offseason swinging for the fences. In addition to defending champion Atlanta, the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals all have enough firepower to potentially contend for the playoffs.
“This is probably going to be the stiffest competition in a division race in my career,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said at spring training.
It’s certainly a noticeable transformation.
In the past eight seasons, the NL East has won a grand total of two playoff series and produced one pennant winner — with the 2015 Mets responsible for the entirety of that October success.
Two years ago, Washington finished a whopping 20 games in front, and no other team in the division was better than 77-85.
Last season, Atlanta rolled to a surprise title at 90-72, the fewest wins of any postseason participant. No other NL East squad did better than two games above .500.
Miami has endured nine straight losing seasons. Philadelphia hasn’t been a winner since 2011. New York’s last 10 years, two winning records.
But now, an influx of talent and a cavalcade of new faces have the division shaping up as a force for years to come.
By the looks of it, the NL least is suddenly a beast.
“I don’t think there’s another division harder right now. Every team is pretty much loaded,” Phillies outfielder Nick Williams said.
This winter alone:
Atlanta signed third baseman Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP.
New York acquired five recent All-Stars in Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie and Wilson Ramos.
Washington spent $140 million to plug Patrick Corbin into an imposing rotation that already featured Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
And the Phillies plucked away two big stars from division rivals, trading with Miami for catcher J.T. Realmuto and luring Harper from the Nationals with a record $330 million contract.
“It’s almost like the AL East — great pitching, great lineups 1 through 9. But that’s what you live for. You want to face the best,” Braves All-Star pitcher Mike Foltynewicz said.
“People took us a little lightly last year and now we’re the ones kind of getting chased. But no panic button or anything. We made great moves before everyone started going haywire,” he added. “It’s kind of cool to see that we might have stirred it up for these guys.”
Even the less-heralded moves showed all four organizations were serious about winning right away.
Atlanta brought back veteran catcher Brian McCann and re-signed All-Star outfielder Nick Markakis.
The busy Mets added reliever Justin Wilson and outfielder Keon Broxton, among others, significantly improving their bullpen, bench and overall depth under new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen.
Washington boosted its relief corps with Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal, secured a pair of first-string catchers in Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, and addressed issues on the right side of the infield with Brian Dozier and Matt Adams. Anibal Sanchez was signed away from Atlanta for the back of the rotation.
Philadelphia paid $50 million for 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, another $23 million for late-inning reliever David Robertson, and traded for two-time All-Star shortstop Jean Segura.
“It seemed like every other week the Mets, the Phillies, the Nationals were signing someone or trading for someone,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman said.
With only the young Marlins, in the early stages of their massive rebuild, expected to struggle (again) this season, the NL East appears to pack uncommon depth.
As more and more clubs strip down and reboot with unproven prospects, the division is the only one in the majors with four teams forecast to have winning records in the PECOTA projections on Baseball Prospectus. Philadelphia and Washington are pegged for 89 wins, with the Mets at 87 and Braves 84. The prediction for Miami is 67.
“It’s definitely beefed up,” Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler said. “Everybody’s gotten better.”
“I think there’s a lot of teams in our division ready to win. I hate saying that because everybody should be ready to win. But you know, once one team adds somebody, if you’re the other teams you’ve sort of got to top that,” he explained. “When they add a bullpen guy you’ve got to add a bullpen guy to get better, stay ahead.”
It’s not as if the NL East was starved for talent before.
Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom won the NL Cy Young Award last season, beating out three-time Cy Young winner Scherzer and Phillies ace Aaron Nola.
Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and Washington counterpart Juan Soto ran 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting.
And every team has touted minor leaguers now in play, including Pete Alonso (Mets), Victor Robles (Nationals) and Mike Soroka (Braves).
“It looks like a really tough division. Whoever comes out of that is going to be battle-tested,” Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo said. “I think you just go ahead and look at the starting pitching around this division and you see right away that every single at-bat is going to be a battle. It definitely is something that’s empowering, no doubt, and gives you a lot of confidence that people look at your division and think very highly of it. But again, it just means that every game is going to be a dogfight.”
One thing the NL East wasn’t lacking all these years was heated rivalries, which should only grow more intense.
And if the Braves, Mets, Nationals and Phillies knock each other around all season, maybe the division will be decided by which team beats up on the Marlins the most.
“Obviously with Bryce going to the Phillies, I think a lot of people lean toward them as being kind of the favorite in our division, but to me the Nationals are really good,” Miami manager Don Mattingly said. “This division got really good quick, which is good. I think it’s good for us, actually. There’s gonna be some black and blue.”
AP Baseball Writer Noah Trister and AP freelance writers Chuck King, Corey Long and Dick Scanlon contributed.
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