The Post’s Ken Davidoff previews the NL East.
1. Atlanta Braves
O/U wins: 91.5
Key player: Freddie Freeman. It would seem impolite to not grant this designation to the reigning NL Most Valuable Player. Throw in the fact that the lifelong Braves star can be a free agent after this season — he’s largely expected to stay put — and this low-key stud will occupy more attention than usual.
Player who’ll need to step up: Drew Smyly. The Braves gave the veteran lefty $11 million based on what they saw in seven 2020 appearances, five of them starts; he pitched poorly in 2019 and not at all in 2017 or 2018. Atlanta owns a pretty strong track record on gambits like this (see: d’Arnaud, Travis).
Name you’ll get to know: Cristian Pache draws this spot for the second straight year because he still owns rookie status even after playing regularly in the NL Championship Series. While the removal of the designated hitter intensifies the competition for reps in this lineup, he should get his share.
Biggest question mark: Is Austin Riley the long-term answer at third base? About to turn 24, he hasn’t displayed tremendous proficiency with either the bat or the glove. On a roster sure of full things, the 41st-overall pick of the 2015 draft stands out as a curiosity or even a concern.
How it’ll go down: Fool me three times, shame on … everyone? These guys never start the year as the favorites to win this division, and now they’re going for their fourth straight crown. They have created the sort of culture that sustains success. There’s no reason to think that’ll suddenly vanish.
2. New York Mets
O/U wins: 90.5
Key player: Pete Alonso. The 2021 Paul Bunyan seems to carry an outsized influence on his team’s fate, as is the case with many larger-than-life personalities. He has appeared bound and determined to erase his disappointing sophomore campaign with a memorable rebound.
Player who’ll need to step up: J.D. Davis. After much Hot Stove League conjecture surrounding the Mets’ hot corner, Davis retained his incumbent status and will receive the opportunity to reclaim his title as Brodie Van Wagenen’s best acquisition. He’ll need to slug more and (obviously) field his third-base position better than he did last season.
Name you’ll get to know: Khalil Lee. The Mets expressed excitement when they jumped into a larger trade (Andrew Benintendi from the Red Sox to the Royals) to land this speedy outfielder. Common sense says he’ll receive some opportunities to show his stuff.
Biggest question mark: Which will prove the greater impetus for Luis Rojas to purchase Tums in bulk, the Mets’ defense or their bullpen? The lack of the DH really hurts them, impacting their fielding at first base, left field and center field. The relief corps, meanwhile, features big, expensive questions in Dellin Betances and Jeurys Familia, and Edwin Diaz will have to close games in front of fans again.
How it’ll go down: Too much roster depth exists for Steve Cohen’s maiden voyage to end in disaster. With a resurgent Alonso leading an excellent offense that has added Francisco Lindor, and Jacob deGrom starting every fifth day, they should make their way back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
O/U wins: 80.5
Key player: Archie Bradley will be looked upon (and paid accordingly) to stop the historic bleeding that emanated from the 2020 Phillies’ bullpen, turning a playoff team into one that spent October at home. The right-hander became a bullpen force with the Diamondbacks in 2017 and has put up consistently strong numbers.
Player who’ll need to step up: Take your pick among homegrown Spencer Howard or free agents Chase Anderson and Matt Moore. One of those three must reach back to previous heights (or projections, in Howard’s case) to join Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin and give the Phillies’ starting rotation a strong front four.
Name you’ll get to know: Howard is still a rookie after enduring a rough, six-start big-league debut in 2020. He has accomplished and shown too much for the Phils to bail on him now. He’ll need to cut down on the walks after issuing 10 free passes in 24 ¹/₃ innings last year.
Biggest question mark: Can Scott Kingery give the Phillies anything for the $24 million they invested in him before he so much as played in a big league game? The infielder-outfielder will begin the season at the organization’s alternate site after a terrible spring training in the wake of a poor 2020 that followed a very rough case of the novel coronavirus.
How it’ll go down: There’s much to like about the Phillies, who added an All-Star executive in Dave Dombrowski over the winter to work with their All-Star manager Joe Girardi. Despite Dombrowski’s running start, which included the re-signings of Didi Gregorius and J.T. Realmuto, they still can’t and won’t match the manpower of this division’s top two clubs.
4. Washington Nationals
O/U wins: 84.5
Key player: Stephen Strasburg. The recipient of the biggest contract in franchise history started that pact with a thud, pitching in only two games before getting sidelined. He must look far more like his 2019 World Series MVP self and lead this starting rotation in order for this to work.
Player who’ll need to step up: Victor Robles, like his division rival Pete Alonso, followed a bang-up 2019 rookie season with a highly concerning 2020 sophomore funk. While the Nats don’t count on Robles to be an offensive stud, they need him to serve as something more than an automatic out while turning back into a defensive stud.
Name you’ll get to know: Tim Cate. The University of Connecticut product, a southpaw, has put up 184 strikeouts against 48 walks in 195 ²/₃ minor league innings, topping out with Single-A Potomac in 2019. The 23-year-old could help as a bullpen piece or a replacement starting pitcher.
Biggest question mark: Do the Nats have enough starting pitching after their big three of Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin (who wasn’t great last year)? Ultra-accomplished veteran Jon Lester and relative youngsters Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde will attempt to answer that concern affirmatively.
How it’ll go down: The Nats might very well win the NL Central. Unfortunately for them, they don’t play there. A top-heavy roster (time now to recognize the great Juan Soto and Trea Turner) features some notable holes beneath. There are enough interesting buy-low plays (Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber in addition to Lester) on which to dream, yet probably too many to win this intense division.
5. Miami Marlins
O/U wins: 70.5
Key player: Brian Anderson. The closest facsimile this young club has to a homegrown grizzled veteran, the 27-year-old third baseman led the team to its first postseason appearance since 2003 last year and will be counted on to lead the effort to prove that was no small-sampled fluke.
Player who’ll need to step up: Jorge Alfaro. Acquired from the Phillies in the 2019 J.T. Realmuto trade, Alfaro, 27, hasn’t fully eradicated the high hopes once projected for him. Like the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, the catcher lost his starting job in the playoffs last year (to Chad Wallach) and is being afforded another opportunity.
Name you’ll get to know: Sixto Sanchez. You may very well already know Sanchez, who joined Alfaro in that Realmuto deal. Now you’ll get to know him better, and since he hasn’t lost his rookie status, he’ll be a bona fide contender for NL Rookie of the Year honors if he picks up where he left off last season.
Biggest question mark: How real was what they accomplished last year? They went 31-29, which even a bad team can do for 37 percent of a standard baseball season. They then swept the Cubs in the first round, not nothing, yet it would be irresponsible to translate that into full-season viability.
How it’ll go down: Do you remember the 2005 NL East? The Nationals finished last … at 81-81. That could be these Marlins, an exciting team with a new, historic general manager in Kim Ng competing in baseball’s toughest division (but also with some easy targets in the NL’s other two divisions). There’s hope for the future. Maybe not for 2021, though.