Will the Braves be challenged within the division?

Associated PressIn this Sept. 4, 2020, file photo, Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman celebrates as he crosses home plate after hitting a grand slam to center field during the fourth inning of the second baseball game of the team's doubleheader against the Washington Nationals in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Braves are the prohibitive favorites to win the National League East Division for a fourth consecutive season. With the bulk of this team's starting eight returning (still waiting on news about Marcell Ozuna) and with its best starting pitchers returning, including Mike Soroka from a torn Achilles; along with two free agent signings – Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton - there is no reason to pick any other team.

But just for chuckles, how close is the rest of the division to being a legitimate threat to supplant the Braves as the division's best? Lets start from the bottom up shall we.

Washington Nationals

My how far the 2019 World Series champs have fallen in less than two years. The Nationals had one of the best rotations in the division at one time. But they were younger and healthier then. Max Scherzer is still in the conversation for the best pitcher in the National League. He tallied a 3.74 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 12 starts last season. But fellow starter Patrick Corbin got lit up in 11 starts last year with a 4.66 ERA and a 2-7 record. Stephen Strasburg pitched only five innings last year before being sidelined with hand issues. Needless to say, pitching is a major question mark.

The Nationals have pieces to work with in the field led by Juan Soto, who is on the verge of superstardom. He batted .351 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs in just 154 at-bats in 2020. But they need to add pieces if they expect to improve upon last year's last-place finish.

New York Mets

A team with more questions than answers are the Mets, which maybe why they are the team mostly mentioned for free agents – they don't know what they want. The Mets recently signed free-agent catcher James McCann but are also rumored in the sweepstakes for free agents outfielder George Springer, starting pitcher Trevor Bauer and second baseman DJ LeMahieu. 

The Mets have a collection of talented pitchers, headlined by Jacob deGrom. I still regard him as one of the top pitchers in baseball. In 12 starts last year, deGrom compiled a 2.38 ERA with 104 strikeouts and a 0.96 WHIP. Along with Marcus Stroman and a potentially healthy Noah Syndergaard, who is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the Mets have the makings of a top-notch starting staff. Especially if they can sign Bauer, who gave the Braves fits in the playoffs last season.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies have a few things going for them. They have one of the game's most dynamic stars in outfielder Bryce Harper. He didn't disappoint last year even though his team did, finishing with 13 homers and 33 RBIs in just 58 games.

They are also one of, if not the favorites, to resign catcher J.T. Realmuto, the best in the game. But with the two stars leading the Phillies lineup the last two year, the team finished no better than third in the division standings. The hiring of Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations is definitely a step in the right direction but that direction won't be trending upward for the foreseeable future.

Miami Marlins

Finally, the Miami Marlins, who finished in second place last year and fell short to the Braves in the Division Series of the playoffs, have talent to work with and an experienced coaching staff, led by manager Don Mattingly. It's a team that can rival the Braves for best young pitching staff, led by Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Elieser Hernandez and Sixto Sanchez. Alcantara tallied a 3.00 ERA in seven starts. Lopez finished with a 3.61 ERA in 11 starts. Hernandez amassed a 3.16 ERA in six starts, and Sanchez recorded a 3.46 ERA in seven starts. They are talented but what will those stats look like over a 162-game season?

All told, the NL East offseason is expected to stay intriguing but it is hard to imagine a team making enough moves to keep pace with the defending champs, even if the Braves don't re-sign Ozuna. The gap is wide and figures to stay that way.

Clint Thompson is a special contributor to the Valdosta Daily Times.

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