Elegy for 2021: Recapping the NL East, Team by Team

After a one-year hiatus due to the oddity and non-celebratory feeling of a season truncated by a raging pandemic, we’re bringing back the Elegy series in a streamlined format for a 2021 wrap-up. Think of this as a quick winter preview for each team, discussing the questions that faced each team ahead of the year, how they were answered, and what’s next. Do you like or hate the new format? Let me know in the comments below. We’ve already tackled the AL and NL Central, the NL and the AL West, and the AL East. We wrap up this series for 2021 with the NL East.

Atlanta Braves (88–73)

The Big Question
Could the Braves hold off the Mets and the rest of the NL East? Coming off their third consecutive division championship, Atlanta had a relatively low-key offseason, signing Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly and re-signing Marcell Ozuna. That’s not to say those were terrible signings by any stretch of the imagination — I thought they all had strong arguments in their favor — but it did feel light when the Mets acquired Francisco Lindor and showed an unusual willingness to actually enter a season with rotation depth. ZiPS had Atlanta as the favorite entering the 2021 season, but only by a fraction of a percentage point over New York.

How It Went
As you probably remember, they won the World Series! That’s the goal, of course, but what amazes me about the Braves is that they accomplished the rare feat of being an unlucky World Series champion. Mike Soroka’s season never really got started thanks to shoulder pain, and later, a re-injured Achilles’ tendon; even his 2022 season is in jeopardy. Ozuna struggled at the plate, and after some disturbing and credible domestic violence allegations against him, was placed on administrative leave; there’s a decent chance he won’t play another game in the majors. And then, just before the All-Star break, Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL, ending his 2021 season. On July 23, Atlanta’s playoff probability bottomed out at 7% in the FanGraphs projections as the team was 47-50 and third in the division.

But rather than retool for 2022 as many expected, the Braves attempted to rebuild the outfield on the fly. On deadline day, the team acquired Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario for the outfield (Joc Pederson had already been added earlier that month) and Richard Rodriguez to add to the bullpen depth. The four new outfielders combined for 44 homers and 2.9 WAR in 676 at-bats, rescuing the lineup from an outfield of Abraham Almonte, Guillermo Heredia, Orlando Arcia, and Ehire Adrianza. Winning 12 of the last 14 games put away the Phillies convincingly.

What’s Next?
The most immediate task is re-signing Freddie Freeman. While him hitting a homer in his final at-bat en route to the Braves winning the World Series would be a good fairy tale ending, Freeman’s 32, not 42, and the Braves still need a first baseman. It had long been taken for granted that Freeman would return to the team, but no extension was ever agreed to, and once a player hits free agency, all bets are off. There are paths to making up for his loss if he signs elsewhere, but the players available in free agency make that tricky. There’s no comparable first baseman peddling his services this winter, and signing the best third baseman available, Kris Bryant, and moving Austin Riley to first base also looks like a downgrade.

Based on everyone signed to a roster, ZiPS sees the Phillies as the best team in the NL East by a hair, but Atlanta would shoot back to the top of the heap if Freeman signed today. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do, and outfield help remains a priority. Acuña has reportedly recovered very well from his ACL tear, but any injury that severe creates uncertainty, and it would be perilous to start the season with an outfield of Duvall, Cristian Pache, and Drew Waters.

Player Projection Spotlight: Max Fried (Preliminary)

ZiPS Projection – Max Fried

2022 14 6 0 3.35 27 27 153.3 136 57 16 39 149 135 4.0
2023 12 6 0 3.38 25 25 141.3 129 53 15 36 136 134 3.6
2024 12 7 0 3.43 25 25 141.7 131 54 15 36 135 132 3.5

Fried’s not a power pitcher, but he dominates just the same with aggressive control. Where a lot of pitchers achieve success by conning batters into futile flailing at breaking pitches, Fried does this one better, freezing hitters with stubborn patience by dropping a curve or slider right into the bottom of the strike zone rather than beyond for strike three. After ranking 19th in rest-of-career pitching WAR in ZiPS, Fried might crack the bottom of the top 10 this time.

Philadelphia Phillies (82–80)

The Big Question
Was doing nothing enough? While the Phillies didn’t literally do nothing, it was hard to say the team was much better at the start of 2021 than it was at the end of 2020. J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius were signed just before Spring Training, but the team already had both in 2020, so it’s hard to actually call them upgrades from the previous season. Archie Bradley was a good addition, but Philadelphia otherwise made low-key, cheap signings around the periphery of the roster, signing players such as Chase Anderson, Matt Moore, Héctor Rondón, and Matt Joyce.

How It Went
Unsurprisingly, the .500ish team from 2020 that didn’t make any really significant upgrades was also a .500ish team in 2021. Surprisingly, the rotation finished fourth in the majors in WAR, but that was essentially just Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, who combined for 70% of the total. Wheeler is one of the favorites for the soon-to-be-announced NL Cy Young award, though Corbin Burnes probably has the edge. “Matt Moore got 13 starts” is basically how you say the back of a rotation is a mess without actually saying the back of a rotation is a mess.

On the plus side, Bryce Harper finally had another MVP-esque to match his fantastic 2015. Harper vs. Trout never became the modern day Mays vs. Mantle we hoped it would, as Trout lapped Harper a long time ago. But Harper was still 45th in career WAR among position players through age 27, so it’s unfair to characterize him as an actual underachiever, though it almost felt like he was during some stretches. His beastly 2021 added 10 WAR back to the ZiPS career projection — it now stands at 73 WAR, which would currently rank ninth in history among right fielders between Paul Waner and Reggie Jackson.

In any case, the Phillies belatedly addressed the rotation situation by acquiring Kyle Gibson and entered the final week of the season as the only team that could still catch Atlanta, but a sweep at the hands of the Braves air-brushed them out of the postseason picture.

What’s Next?
As an organization, the Phillies have a lot of hard questions to ask themselves. The team more or less spent five years rebuilding from 2013-17, and with a new TV deal providing a big boost to their revenues and a willingness to spend, the future looked very bright. But the team’s farm was never as productive as Atlanta’s, and the cash advantage failed to make up the difference. After hovering around .500 in 2018 and ’19, the Phillies axed manager Gabe Kapler and hitting coach John Mallee, proclaiming Joe Girardi as having what the organization was missing. But they’ve mainly gotten the same disappointing results the last two years; meanwhile, Kapler didn’t have any apparent issues “knowing how to win” with the 2021 Giants.

The reality the Phillies face is that they’re just not a good team. Now, they currently rank 11th in WAR at 39.7, implying an 87-win team in our Depth Charts, but that’s essentially a function of having no key contributors eligible for free agency. If they’re not willing to blow through the luxury tax threshold (assuming there still is one), it’s hard to see this team adding enough talent to be anything more than an 80-85 win team hoping for misfortune at the top of the division. It’s now been a decade since the Phillies scored more runs in a season than they allowed.

Player Projection Spotlight: Alec Bohm (Preliminary)

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Alec Bohm

90% .299 .368 .499 451 67 135 27 3 19 81 48 9 127 3.7
80% .284 .350 .458 454 64 129 24 2 17 75 45 8 113 2.8
70% .275 .340 .433 455 62 125 23 2 15 70 44 6 104 2.2
60% .269 .332 .425 457 61 123 22 2 15 68 42 5 99 1.9
50% .264 .326 .410 458 60 121 21 2 14 66 41 5 94 1.6
40% .261 .320 .398 460 59 120 20 2 13 64 39 5 90 1.3
30% .256 .314 .386 461 58 118 19 1 13 61 38 4 85 1.0
20% .246 .302 .367 463 56 114 18 1 12 58 36 4 77 0.5
10% .234 .289 .340 465 53 109 17 1 10 53 34 3 67 -0.2

ZiPS was optimistic about Bohm being a high-BABIP, mid-power third baseman with just enough defense to be above-average overall, though not a star; 2021 dissuaded the system from that view. Bohm never really drove balls with much loft, and he struck out far too often for a player who is going to be reliant on putting a lot of balls in play. His contact rate was satisfactory, but you can’t become Placido Polanco unless you make contact like Placido Polanco. Without a high average or defense with ambition above adequacy, 12-18 homers a year likely won’t cut it.

New York Mets (77–85)

The Big Question
In what creative way would the Mets implode? I’ve described Mets fans in the past as having a very Russian sense of fatalism, in which they’re paradoxically both optimistic and expecting the worst. Given the team’s history, it’s hard to feel differently about the organization, infamous for pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. Even the most successful team in their history, the champion 1986 Mets, took just a few years to crumble into a failing circus. Steve Cohen taking ownership of the team and relegating the Wilpons to the history books created a justifiable feeling of hope. The team had a busy offseason, with the biggest coup being landing Francisco Lindor from Cleveland and signing him to a massive extension. But the team also spent money elsewhere, leaving the Mets with better depth than they usually had going into the season.

While I was highly skeptical about the James McCann signing — ZiPS projected him to hit .239/.297/.390 for 1.4 WAR — it was nice to see an owner with an apparently genuine interest in doing more than the minimum to improve the team.

How It Went
The Mets.

On the field, the Mets struggled conventionally, with injuries dragging down their upside while underperformance, most notably from Lindor, did the rest of the job. After struggling to put runs on the scoreboard for the first half of the season, the lineup, buttressed by returns from injury and the acquisition of Javier Báez, performed respectably over much of the season’s final months. But the rotation did not and after Jacob deGrom’s last start in early July, the starters combined for an ERA right around five.

But every good Mets failure has to have that extra absurd cringe. The Mets did their best impression of one of Rome’s frequent Year of the X Emperors. Since this time last year, the team has had four GMs and possibly a fifth soon. Brodie Van Wagenen was the first, fired by new owner Cohen immediately after the deal was official. Next up was Jared Porter, who was fired after a month when it was discovered he had harassed a female journalist during his tenure with the Cubs. In August, Zack Scott was arrested for DWI and placed on administrative leave; he was dismissed after the season. Without Scott, the team’s been run by a committee of senior executives, most notably Sandy Alderson, an arrangement that also worked wonderfully for Rome. Adam Cromie might be the team’s GM by next week, but it also could be emoji shrug.

What’s Next?
It’s not a great time for the Mets to have such organizational dysfunction because the team has needs, and the payroll is tight if they elect to stay under the threshold. The Mets were aided significantly last year by Robinson Canó’s suspension, which removed his salary from the books, a $24 million bonus they won’t have for 2022 unless he tests positive for PEDs again. Michael Conforto would be a serious loss, and while the rotation could still theoretically be okay, that would require health from both deGrom and Carlos Carrasco, which can’t be assumed at this point.

Player Projection Spotlight: Francisco Lindor (Preliminary)

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Francisco Lindor (Preliminary)

90% .295 .381 .582 522 99 154 36 3 36 99 69 23 160 7.7
80% .278 .363 .533 525 94 146 32 3 32 91 66 20 143 6.5
70% .267 .348 .495 529 92 141 30 2 29 84 62 18 129 5.5
60% .262 .341 .482 531 90 139 29 2 28 82 60 17 124 5.1
50% .257 .334 .469 533 89 137 28 2 27 79 58 16 118 4.7
40% .252 .328 .456 535 86 135 27 2 26 76 56 14 113 4.3
30% .246 .319 .430 537 85 132 25 1 24 72 54 13 104 3.7
20% .239 .311 .412 539 82 129 25 1 22 68 52 12 97 3.1
10% .229 .298 .384 542 79 124 22 1 20 63 49 9 86 2.3

It was an unimpressive debut season for Lindor in New York, but at least his power came back in the second half, even if it was too late for it to really matter. 2018 was likely Lindor’s peak, but ZiPS still sees a rebound as likely; the computer thinks his BABIP should have been about 30 points higher in 2021 than it actually was. As long as his defense holds up, it will be hard for him to not push the Mets toward a pennant. Unless 2021 starts overflowing into 2022, the Mets have bigger problems to worry about.

Miami Marlins (67–95)

The Big Question
The Marlins had one of the most exciting groups of young starters pitching in the majors, but could they score enough runs to make the team relevant? Miami just squeezed into the playoffs in 2020 thanks to the expanded format, but the lineup required a lot of surprising performances from over-30 talent just to get to 11th in the NL in runs scored. Starling Marte, acquired in August 2020, had another year until he hit free agency, but few reinforcements came, as the Marlins spending almost nothing until signing Duvall to a one-year, $2 million contract in February.

How It Went
The question was not answered in a remotely positive fashion. The Marlins only outscored the Pirates and two of their only sources of offense, Marte and Duvall, ended the season wearing different uniforms. The pitching staff did what it was supposed to, with the team’s top four starters (Sandy Alcantara, Trevor Rogers, Pablo López, and Zach Thompson) combining for a 3.03 ERA. The dollar-store bullpen ranked sixth in baseball in FIP and seventh in overall WAR. Miami got playoff-quality pitching yet finished at 67-95 thanks to a stunning inability to put runs on the scoreboard.

What’s Next?
The Marlins’ fundamental problem last year was not remedied by indolence. The young pitching still looks terrific, with Sixto Sánchez, Jesús Luzardo, and others to provide even more upside in 2022. But the lineup is fighting for the status of the least talented unit in baseball. Jesús Sánchez and, hopefully, JJ Bleday will help soon, but the Marlins need far more than they could provide, even in the best-case scenario. This young pitching won’t stay young — or inexpensive — forever, so the big question is whether the Marlins will actually invest in offensive talent or just be happy to shoot for 75 wins a season before their next fire sale. I am not optimistic.

Player Projection Spotlight: Sandy Alcantara

ZiPS Projection – Sandy Alcantara (Preliminary)

2022 12 8 0 3.36 28 28 171.3 146 64 18 45 174 128 4.1
2023 12 7 0 3.38 26 26 159.7 136 60 17 40 162 127 3.8
2024 12 7 0 3.39 27 27 164.7 141 62 18 41 168 127 3.9

A lot of fans around baseball may not have noticed because, well, it would require watching the Marlins play baseball, but 2021 was the year Alcantara removed “future” from “future ace.” Now, he made the All-Star Game in 2019, but he suffered from a similar problem to Nathan Eovaldi when he was with the team in that he had explosive stuff but struggled to put away batters with two strikes. But that changed in 2021 as he started throwing his slider more like a cutter, trading in some break for velocity. ZiPS even sees some upside remaining in his strikeout rate.

Washington Nationals (65–97)

The Big Question
Is it rebuilding time in Washington? They won the 2019 World Series largely on the backs of a handful of ultra-superstars, but Stephen Strasburg‘s injury and Patrick Corbin’s decline, when combined with the evaporation of the team’s secondary talent, resulted in a below .500 follow-up to their championship season. Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell were added to the roster, and with Juan Soto and Trea Turner still around and a possible bounce-back season from Corbin, perhaps the Nats could be interesting.

How It Went
Washington’s Opening Day victory over the Braves threatened to be the high-water mark for 2021 until a June surge put their win-loss record back in the black. The trials and tribulations of the Mets left the NL East wide open, and the Nats woke up on July 1 in second place, just two and a half games behind.

The pitching imploded in July, and Washington fell to fourth place by the All-Star break. The only good news for that organization is that everything happened to blow up before the trade deadline. When the 2018 team fell out of first place, they hung around the edge of contention just enough to hold onto Bryce Harper and only got the compensation pick. There was no such delusion this time around, and practically every veteran with trade value except Soto and Bell were shipped to warmer climes. Even Trea Turner, still under team control for another season, was traded while the getting was good.

From July 1 on, the Nationals went 25-59, the worst record in baseball.

What’s Next?
It’s hard to see the Nats avoiding a serious rebuild at this point, given the lack of talent at the major league level. Soto just turned 23 and is the obvious player for the team to build around. He’d probably also lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the MLBPA actually agreed to MLB’s proposal to make players free agents at 29 and a half (they won’t). Washington’s first priority is making sure he’s in town for at least the next decade. Outside of that, it’s going to require a lot of patience and a lot more success with their draft picks than they have been over the last decade; going back to 2013, Nick Pivetta is the team’s most successful draft pick in the majors so far, and he plays for Boston now.

Player Projection Spotlight: Juan Soto

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Juan Soto (Preliminary)

90% .365 .517 .742 493 137 180 35 5 47 161 157 27 224 11.6
80% .346 .495 .678 500 135 173 32 4 42 148 150 21 203 10.1
70% .331 .479 .638 505 131 167 29 3 40 141 145 18 188 9.0
60% .320 .466 .607 509 129 163 28 2 38 134 141 14 178 8.2
50% .315 .460 .593 511 126 161 27 2 37 131 139 13 173 7.8
40% .307 .451 .564 514 125 158 26 2 34 125 136 13 163 7.1
30% .299 .444 .544 515 121 154 26 2 32 119 135 12 156 6.5
20% .287 .430 .511 519 118 149 24 1 30 112 131 9 145 5.6
10% .273 .415 .480 523 116 143 22 1 28 106 127 8 133 4.7

I’ll admit it: I just wanted to see Soto break ZiPS. And I think he might have. Last spring, I spent some time talking with Jayson Stark about whether Soto was the next Ted Williams. The amazing thing is that neither of us thought the idea was absurd. MLB should simply redefine the strike zone as “whatever Juan Soto won’t swing at.” He might not always be the best overall player, but he’s the most gifted offensive player of this generation.

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