MLB: NL East Memorial Day Week Check-In

The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies were seen as head-and-shoulders above the rest of the NL East at the start of the season, with the Braves projected as a 100-win World Series contender and the Phils as a solid playoff team. The early part of the season has *almost* validated that. They are clearly the class of this division. They are clearly both headed for October. But it’s the Phils who are playing at a sizzling pace, while the Braves try and keep up.

Here’s our early check-in on both of these teams and a quick look around at the rest of the NL East:

Philadelphia (37-15)
If you’re scoring at home, that record is a .712 winning percentage, which pro-rates out to 115 wins. Unsurprisingly, the way we can sum Philly’s first two months is a simple “They do everything well.” They lead the National League in runs scored and in staff ERA.

There’s even room for improvement on the offensive side. While Bryace Harper has been vintage (.388 on-base percentage/.541 slugging percentage), there are several players that are underperforming what they’re capable of. Brandon Marsh is off to a slow start and Nick Castellanos is off to an absolutely putrid start. While Kyle Schwarber has hit nine home runs and continues to churn out walks, his slugging percentage is a meager .381.

So, even if Trea Turner cools down a bit when he gets back from injury—the shortstop was at a stat line of .370/.505 before going on the IL—they are plenty of players likely to step it up. And, quite frankly, it’s not as though Turner is incapable of continuing at that pace.

The same goes for Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola in the rotation, with ERAs of 2.53 and 3.05 ERA. Cristopher Sanchez has is having a good year of his own.

Ranger Suarez is the pitcher who has been off the charts. I haven’t researched every team in the National League yet, but I’m hard-pressed to think that a 9-0 record and 1.36 ERA makes you anything other than the Cy Young frontrunner.

But, if I might contradict my simple assessment of Philadelphia from up top, they might be doing everything well. The bullpen is spotty, ranking ninth in the 15-team National League for relievers’ ERA (which shows you good the starters are, that the staff as a whole still leads the NL). They’re getting great work from Matt Strahm and Jeff Hoffman, but closer Jose Alvarado has been a bit spotty.

To that end, it’s worth watching what manager Rob Thomson does with Spencer Turnbull. Splitting time between the rotation and the pen, he’s got a 2.52 ERA. With fifth starter Taijuan Walker struggling at a 5.06 ERA, Thomson may give Turnbull more starts. But that depletes a pen already in need of reinforcement. As problems go, this one is First World. It still bears watching, because it’s tough to maintain a championship-level pace—much less an insane 115-win pace—when you don’t have bullpen depth in the long summer months.

Atlanta (29-19)
The Braves might be six games back, but they can’t be too displeased. First of all, when you’re playing baseball at a 98-win pace yourself, there’s not much left to do but stay the course and wait for the frontrunner to come back to the rest of the world . Even better for Atlanta is that their lineup is filled with hitters who really haven’t gotten started.

Everyone across that great infield, from Matt Olson to Ozzie Albies to Austin Riley to Orlando Arcia, is hitting well below what we can probably expect. Ronald Acuna, off his MVP year in 2023, has a .362 OBP and has stolen 15 bases. But the power hasn’t shown up yet. Sean Murphy has only played one game behind the plate and is working his way back from the IL.

Major credit has to go to 35-year-old backup catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who is slugging .483. And even more credit to the big DH, Marcell Ozuna. With a .318 batting average, 15 home runs and 47 RBIs, Ozuna has almost single handedly kept Atlanta’s offense in the middle of the league for runs scored.

Middle of the league has been more than enough offense to win, because the Braves are getting great pitching. The rotation quartet of Max Fried, Chris Sale, Reynaldo Lopez and Charlie Morton are all pitching well. Sale looks vintage, with a 2.22 ERA. Lopez simply looks dominant, with a 1.54 ERA. The bullpen, a problem area a year ago, is deep. Brave relievers have the second-best ERA in the NL, with Raisel Igelsias doing extremely consistent work in the closer’s spot.

Morton being 40-years-old has to qualify as a concern, but a deep bullpen allows manager Brian Snitker to handle the veteran’s workload between now and October. The major concern is this—if we are looking at a “vintage” Sale, then we are also looking at a guy who is going to fade or get hurt by August. With Spencer Strider, their 20-game winner from last year, out after Tommy John surgery, the Braves may be looking for more starting pitching.

Washington (22-27) & New York (21-29)
The Mets, based on Over/Under win totals in the preseason, were expected to at least be over .500, which keeps you in the playoff race. Why are they underachieving? They short answer is simply that they’re the Mets. The more specific answer is that Pete Alonso, while hitting home runs, is only batting .240. Jeff McNeil is having a bad year at the plate. So is J.D. Martinez.

In fact, Brandon Nimmo’s .362 on-base percentage is the only notable stat for New York offensively. And that comes with a .216 batting average. So, seeing Nimmo take his walks is basically the highlight for the good, but mistreated fans, at Citi Field.

Washington was expected to lose 95 games, and they can certainly still get there. For now, though, the Nationals are kind of hanging in. They’re one good week from getting in the playoff race, or one bad week from being the team everyone expected. The core four starting pitchers—Trevor Williams, Jake Irvin, MacKenzie Gore and Mitchell Parker are doing a nice job.

The Nats also have four good relievers in Kyle Finnegan, Derek Law, Hunter Harvey, Dylan Floro. Combined with the starters, Washington is a solid sixth in the National League for staff ERA. They don’t have any offense and are unlikely to fix that with summer deal. But a lot of these arms are young. There’s a future in Washington.

Miami (18-34)
This is just kind of a sad case. Sandy Alcantara has been out for the year. The Marlins lost their first nine games and never recovered. Earlier this month, they traded Luis Arraez, the 27-year-old second baseman who had won two straight batting titles. Only one year after fighting their way into the playoffs, it’s looking like a lost season on South Beach.

I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter, because Atlanta and Philadelphia will both be there in the Division Series again, and we’ve seen the last two years that homefield advantage doesn’t matter, with the Phils having pulled the seeding upset both times. But the specter of last year’s Tampa Bay Rays, or the 2022 New York Mets hangs over a race like this—both great teams that came up short in a division race, and then lost the best-of-three wild-card round.

Philadelphia coming back to being “only” a 100-win caliber team makes this an even race again. Which means the really interesting check-in time on this race will probably be August 1—after we see what moves both the Phils and Braves make at the trade deadline. Philadelphia will need some relievers. Atlanta looks like that, by then, they’ll need another starter. Let the summer shopping begin.