Expected to be the National League’s weakest division going into the year, the East has instead been a tight three-team race between the Braves, Phillies and Nationals. No one’s going to run away with this one, but how do the five squads stack up as the first half comes to a close? Here are our midseason grades for the NL East.
Atlanta Braves (45–33)
This was supposed to be a season of gradual improvement for a feisty but flawed and rebuilding Braves team—maybe a finish within a few games of .500 and a second half spent playing spoiler. Instead, here sits Atlanta, comfortably in first place thanks to a blossoming of young talent, throwback seasons from its veterans and an MVP-worthy campaign from Freddie Freeman. The lineup is a buzzsaw, led by Freeman (an NL-high 162 OPS+), 21-year-old Ozzie Albies (17 home runs in 2018, or two more than he hit across four seasons in the minors), and the reincarnated Nick Markakis (.326/.391/.484 at 34).
The rotation has been stricken with injuries, but it’s held up enough to put the Braves deservedly atop the division; their +71 run differential is second best in the Senior Circuit. And with a loaded farm system at his disposal, GM Alex Anthopoulos has plenty to work with if he wants to swing a trade for an impact arm or bat at the deadline. The Braves got here early, but they look like they’re here to stay.
Philadelphia Phillies (41–36)
Like Atlanta, Philadelphia has come to contention a bit ahead of schedule, though this offseason’s biggest additions—Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana—certainly reflected a belief that the team had what it took to make noise in the NL. So far, so good: After some early stumbles from new manager Gabe Kapler, the Phillies have settled in as a team to be reckoned with in the NL East and wild-card race. For that, you can thank Rhys Hoskins, who’s proving that his smashing 2017 debut was no fluke, and Odubel Herrera, fully broken out at age 26, as well as staff ace Aaron Nola.
But there are still issues up and down the roster: the left side of the infield hasn’t produced, and the rotation behind Nola, Arrieta and the surprising Zach Eflin has been spotty. Most problematic, though, is the bullpen, which has been awful: Hector Neris lost the closer’s job thanks to a 5.59 ERA and eight homers allowed in 29 innings, and the crew behind him can’t hold leads with any consistency. Hard-throwing rookie Seranthony Dominguez is doing all he can, with 31 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings since being called up, but to be a true contender, the Phillies need better from that unit.
Washington Nationals (41–37)
Looking at the state of the NL East before the season, it was easy to imagine the Nationals running away with the division by the All-Star break. All they had to do was vanquish the rebuilding Braves and Phillies, a tanking Marlins squad, and a Mets team that habitually trips over its own feet. Instead, with Atlanta and Philadelphia better than expected, Washington has found itself in a scrap for first. Not helping matters is a lethargic offense that ranks 11th in the NL in runs per game (4.1) and OPS+ (89). You can pin those struggles on long absences from 2017 stalwarts Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy, black holes at catcher and second base, and an extended slump from Bryce Harper.
Things are better in the rotation, but not by much: Max Scherzer is still superhuman, with a 197 ERA+ and 13.5 strikeouts per nine, but with Stephen Strasburg hurt, Washington’s lack of pitching depth has been exposed. For once, the bullpen is the least of the Nationals’ issues, thanks to shutdown lefty Sean Doolittle, who’s blown only one save this year. This is a rickety team loaded with talent but unable to execute, and perhaps proof that you can’t take a predicted postseason spot for granted.
New York Mets (32–45)
Where do you start? Few teams, even those who came into the season with no hope or plan of contending, have looked as flat-out bad, listless or without direction as the Mets. Since starting the year 11–1, New York has gone a staggering 21–44, or a 110-loss pace over a full season, and is tied for the fewest wins in the NL. The Mets are 5–18 in the month of June, haven’t won a series in a month, and have just two victories at home in their last 14 tries. The offense is dreadful, the rotation aside from NL Cy Young frontrunner Jacob deGrom is uneven, and the bullpen lacks impact arms.
Per usual, injuries have sunk the Mets at multiple points, costing them Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes for long stretches, while the team’s big offseason additions—Jay Bruce, Adrian Gonzalez, Anthony Swarzak, and Todd Frazier—have all stumbled. Through it all is the usual refrain that’s stuck to the franchise for the last three seasons: cheap ownership, a myopic front office (that just lost general manager Sandy Alderson indefinitely, and perhaps for good, due to health reasons), incomprehensible decision making with roster and disabled list spots, and a bizarre, crippling loyalty to unproductive veterans like Jose Reyes. The glow of that stunning 2015 World Series run couldn’t be more in the distance. This team is a total disaster that feels more unsalvageable by the day.
Miami Marlins (32–48)
On the one hand, the Marlins are awful: the worst record in the NL, last place in the division, the fewest runs scored in the league and the second-most allowed, and a -111 run differential that’s third-worst in all of baseball. On the other hand, awful is exactly what the Marlins were supposed to be after shamelessly tanking this winter, and they’re not even as bad as expected.
This Goodwill roster had all the ingredients for 100-plus losses, but so far, Miami’s only (“only”) on pace for 98. That number should dip due to a Triple A-caliber starting rotation and as the few remaining productive pieces in the lineup get moved—catcher J.T. Realmuto and first baseman Justin Bour in particular feel like locks to have new addresses by July’s end. Regardless, it feels pointless to put a first-half grade on the Marlins, who didn’t even bother studying for this particular exam, much less cracking open the textbook. Bad team is bad on purpose: That deserves an F on principle, even if the execution has been closer to a C. Let’s split the difference.