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MLB End-of-May Check-in: NL East

New York may be the capital of the world and Washington may be the capital of the nation, but Atlanta remains the capital of the NL East.

Atlanta Braves v Oakland Athletics Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

Every day, Pinstripe Alley offers updates on what the Yankees’ top American League opponents are up to through the Rivalry Roundup. The AL East is well-trodden ground there, but with the month of May coming to a close, we’re going to take a peak around MLB as a whole and check in with each of the other five divisions. Who’s surprising? Who’s underwhelming? Who’s simply mediocre at the moment? Read on and find out.

First Place: Atlanta Braves (32-22)

Top Position Player: Sean Murphy (2.8 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Spencer Strider (2.1 fWAR)

Since joining the National League East in 1994, the Atlanta Braves have mostly made the division their plaything. They continued their run of division titles that began in the NL West in 1991 for 14 consecutive seasons (discounting the strike-shortened ‘94) before ending in 2005. They only won it once in the next 12 years before seizing control once more in 2018 with this generation of Braves, and they’ve captured the crown in each of the past five years.

Barring something unforeseen, that dominance is unlikely to change in 2023. Despite a lackluster performance from reigning NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II (46 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR since returning from injury in late April), their offense ranks second in runs/game in the NL, behind only the Dodgers. Leading the charge has been Ronald Acuña Jr., whose league-leading 22 stolen bases and elite .327/.408/.561 slash line not only make him the early MVP favorite, it also puts him on pace for the first 40/60 season (40 home runs, 60 stolen bases) in league history. Add in the contributions of A’s alums Sean Murphy and Matt Olson as well as Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley, and it becomes apparent why the Braves are a run-scoring machine.

But that’s not all. Led by one of the best pitchers in the game, Spencer Strider, Atlanta boasts a pitching staff that leads the NL in ERA and runs against/game. While the team does have some weaknesses on the mound — with Max Fried on the IL, the rotation is a bit thin after Strider, Bryce Elder, and Charlie Morton, and closer A.J. Minter has been prone to meltdowns — they are, on the whole, one of the most complete teams in baseball.

Second Place: Miami Marlins (28-26)

Top Position Player: Luis Arraez (1.2 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Jesús Luzardo (1.2 fWAR)

If you’re surprised to see the Miami Marlins sitting in second place in the NL East, well, you’re not the only one: in our preseason predictions post, the writers here at Pinstripe Alley unanimously pegged Miami as the fourth-best team in the division.

So, were we incorrect? The early statistics say yes actually, but not in the way you’d think. Heading into action last night, the Marlins had a -41 run differential, sixth-worst in baseball; that gives them a Pythagorean record of 22-32, which would actually be worst in the division. They’re playing well above their heads, and are in many ways the beneficiaries of a division that has yet to find its footing.

That’s not to say, though, that the Marlins don’t have the pieces to put things together and make a bit of a run. Luis Arraez, Jesús Sánchez, and Jorge Soler give Miami an elite top-of-the-lineup, and while Sandy Alcantara has struggled a bit — perhaps the result of fatigue after leading the league with 228.2 innings and six complete games last season — he and top prospect Eury Pérez have the potential to give them a 1-2 punch rivaled by none.

Will that be enough to keep this smoke and mirrors act alive? Only time will tell.

Third Place: New York Mets (27-27)

Top Position Player: Brandon Nimmo (2.1 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Kodai Senga (0.6 fWAR)

Where to begin? Coming into the season, the New York Mets had arguably the most-hyped starting rotation in baseball. Their Opening Day starter was Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner whose 56.1 fWAR since 2013 leads all starting pitchers. Their No. 2 pitcher was Justin Verlander, a three-time Cy Young Award winner (including the reigning AL Cy Young) and 2011 AL MVP, whose 40.0 fWAR in the same period ranks sixth. Joining them in the rotation was free agent signing Kodai Senga and familiar faces David Peterson and Carlos Carrasco.

That rotation has fallen far from the hype. Both Carrasco and Verlander have missed time with injuries, and neither has been particularly effective when on the mound. Scherzer has been remarkably inconsistent, equally capable of giving up five-six runs as he is of shutting down his opponents, and briefly became the face of the 2023 sticky substance controversy. Peterson played himself out of the rotation.

On the offensive side, the main story has been Pete Alonso, whose 20 home runs through the end of May puts him in position to challenge Aaron Judge’s NYC home run record. Besides him and rookie catcher Francisco Alvarez, however, the lineup has been underproducing: Francisco Lindor, for example, has just a 100 wRC+. Still, this lineup is better than it has been, and should help turn this team around.

In terms of old friends, David Robertson has returned to form as one of the game’s elite closers, so if the Mets do fall out of contention, he could once again become one of the trade deadline’s biggest trade chips.

Fourth Place: Philadelphia Phillies (25-28)

Top Position Player: Brandon Marsh (1.4 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Zack Wheeler (2.3 fWAR)

The defending NL champs have had a rollercoaster of a season so far. They opened the season by losing four straight and five of their first six, then went 14-8 in their next 22, then lost six straight, then won five straight, then lost six straight, before settling into a mediocre 5-4 record in their last nine. That has combined to put them, for the second straight season, below .500 at the end of May.

Despite having Bryce Harper (139 wRC+), Nick Castellanos (120 wRC+), and Brandon Marsh (131 wRC+) atop their lineup, the Phillies have struggled to score runs this year, with their 4.28 runs/game ranking 11th in the National League — though in fairness, they only got Harper back from Tommy John surgery in May. Big free agent acquisition Trea Turner has struggled after a big World Baseball Classic, slashing just .243/.288/.383, while Kyle Schwarber has been the bastion of inconsistency. The team is really feeling the spring training loss of Rhys Hoskins as well: their first basemen have accrued just 0.3 fWAR, 18th in the league.

On the mound, the team is hard to quantify. Their five runs against/game ranks third-worst in the NL, while their FIP of 4.00 ranks seventh best. The likely cause of that? No matter which metric you use, the Phillies have one of the worst defenses in the league. Their -21 Defensive Runs Saved is better than only the A’s. Their -8 Outs Above Average is seventh-worst, and their -1.6 UZR/150 11th-worst. Unless the team improves with the glove, the pitching staff will need to improve on its already top-five 15.9 K-BB% to see major improvements.

Last Place: Washington Nationals (23-31)

Top Position Player: Jeimer Candelario (1.6 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: MacKenzie Gore (1.1 fWAR)

The Washington Nationals are not the Oakland Athletics or Kansas City Royals. That’s about all the good things that can be said about them, though, as they sit nine games out of first place and record-wise ranks as the worst team in the NL, sitting just behind the Colorado Rockies and [checks notes, then double-checks them again] St. Louis Cardinals.

What is most impressive to me is that the Nationals are as bad as they are despite not being absolutely terrible at any one thing. Their offense ranks at perfectly league average, at least according to OPS+; despite this, they struggle to score, with their 4.20 runs/game ranking among the worst in the NL. The rotation ranks in the bottom third, having accrued just 3.0 fWAR over the first two months, and their bullpen’s 0.5 fWAR ranks 24th. Despite this, the Nationals are only slightly worse than league average at giving up runs, as their 4.69 runs against/game are just 0.05 runs worse than the NL average.

At the end of the day, however, this is expected. Both their lineup and rotation contains multiple players 25 and younger. Sure, nobody wants to be in last place, but I doubt the Nationals organization is beating themselves up too much about it. This is a team not built to win in 2023, but with an eye towards the future.