The race for the NL East is set to be one of the most competitive once again. With the Mets making massive moves in free agency and the Braves building a perennial contender, this division could feature two 100-win teams. The Phillies are coming off of a World Series appearance, and the Marlins are no slouches. The Nationals could be one of baseball’s worse teams, but they have some young talent and intrigue.
Prediction: Ronald Acuña Jr. joins the 40/40 club
There are currently only four members of the 40/40 club in the history of Major League Baseball. The last player to do it was Alfonso Soriano in 2006. However, the last player to sniff this milestone was, in fact, Acuña Jr. in 2019, when he hit 41 home runs and stole 37 bases.
We all know Acuña Jr. has 40 home runs in the tank. He had 24 home runs in 82 games before going down with an injury in 2021. Last year he only hit 15 in 119 games but wasn’t truly healthy yet. His max exit velocity didn’t suffer much last year as he posted the second-highest mark of his career, but his average launch angle fell by over 7 degrees.
The launch angle last year is a cause for concern. After posting average launch angles over 18 degrees in 2020 and 2021, Acuna Jr. saw that number fall to 10.8 degrees last year. That corresponded with him posting the lowest barrel rate of his career. It is really hard to hit home runs if you are not hitting the ball in the air, but with a clean bill of health, expect his average launch angle to return to above 15 degrees.
The real question is if he is able to steal 40 bases. Before the injury, Acuña Jr. was one of the fastest players in baseball, finishing in at least the 95th percentile for sprint speed each year. He slowed down a tick last year, but he looks to be fully healthy again this season. He stole 29 bags in 119 games during the 2022 season after returning from a torn ACL. That put him on a pace for 39 bags in a full 162 last year.
Remember that Acuña Jr. just turned 25 years old, and modern medicine works wonders. Just nine months after tearing his ACL, Adrian Peterson returned and rushed for over 2000 yards. Expect a similar type of bounce-back for Acuña Jr. this year.
Prediction: Luis Arraez finishes with a batting average over .345
The last player to hit over .345 in a full season was Mookie Betts in 2018, but if there is a player that can do it again, it is Luis Arraez. While he won the AL batting title last year, Arraez only hit .316, but he has more in the tank. He puts the ball in play as much as anyone and features insane contact ability with great plate discipline.
Last year, Arraez posted a 94% zone contact rate. If you throw Arraez a strike that he likes, he is going to swing and put it in play. He has a great knowledge of the strike zone. While he doesn’t have an amazing chase rate, it is still among the top 25% in baseball. Part of the reason that shouldn’t be a concern is that when Arraez did chase last year, he made contact 89.4% of the time. When Arraez chases, it is on close pitches, and they are ones that he can put in play for base hits.
Couple that with a whiff rate of 7.1% and you have one of the best contact hitters in all of baseball. The Marlins can take comfort in the fact that they now have a guy who has only posted a double-digit strikeout rate once in his career. This dude puts the ball in play constantly, and it is going to pay dividends for a team who needs a player like this.
His expected batting average was also in the 97th percentile last year. Hitting .345 is certainly attainable, especially in a home park that has seen a higher batting average on contact than his old home of Target Field.
New York Mets
Prediction: Pete Alonso leads MLB in home runs for the second time
This certainly is not a prediction that is too far out there by any means. Pete Alonso has been one of the premier power hitters in baseball since his rookie year in 2019. He has finished first, third, third, and second in the NL home run race over the last four years.
Since debuting in 2019, Alonso has solidified himself as a force at the plate. Last year, Alonso finished in third place for the MLB home run crown with 41 bombs. He has continued to improve with his plate discipline by striking out less each season. His average launch angle was also the highest of his career last season at 18.2 degrees. If he can stay right around there, he should be able to put out enough home runs to capture the MLB home run crown.
In his three full MLB seasons, Alonso has played at least 150 games every year, including 160 games last season. He is going to receive plenty of plate appearances. Alonso has also featured one of the highest barrel rates in baseball during his career, finishing in the 86th percentile last year.
In every year of his career, Alonso has chased the MLB home run crown, and he captured it once. This year, he’s going to do it again. Aaron Judge put together a historic season last season; this year is Pete Alonso’s turn to do the same.
Prediction: The Phillies miss the playoffs
The Phillies put together a magical run last year after making it into the playoffs as a Wild Card team. This year, we could see the Phillies suffer from a bit of a World Series appearance hangover. They added Trea Turner this offseason but are going to be without their best player, Bryce Harper, for an extended period of time.
Some things to consider include that the NL East has two of baseball’s best teams in the Braves and Mets. Another is that this pitching staff was less than remarkable last year. They finished with the 18th-best ERA and sixth-highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with a bad defense behind them. Without significant changes to the pitching staff, it is hard to expect those stats to change much this year.
To dive into the defense a little bit, the Phillies finished with -38 OAA and -33 RAA. Both of those marks were good enough for 29th in all of baseball. They added Trea Turner, which means Bryson Stott will be at second base this season. They also will have a full year of Brandon Marsh in center field. Both of those changes will help with the defense, so it shouldn’t be as bad as last year, but it is going to be really hard to win enough games with a defense this bad.
However, the real determining factor for the Phillies this season is whether or not their offense can be good enough to overcome their shortcomings on defense. They finished in the top ten last season in numerous offensive categories, including expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) and OPS. This was a top-ten offense last year, but I do not think that is going to be enough to carry them to the playoffs again.
This feels like a team with a good offense but an average pitching staff and terrible defense. The Phillies will not be terrible, but they will miss the playoffs by a game or two.
Prediction: MacKenzie Gore finishes top-10 in NL Cy Young voting
This might be a bit out there, but these are bold predictions, and there is no doubt that Gore has what it takes to be a Cy Young candidate. Gore is 24 years old and entering his first full season of Major League Baseball.
He has played parts of four seasons in the minors but only thrown 250 innings. In those 250 innings, he has posted a 2.91 ERA with 320 strikeouts. The one thing that Gore needs to work on is dialing in on the command. With time this season, he should be able to get the walks under control. In his 70 big league innings last year, Gore was walking almost five hitters per nine.
In his brief major league stint last year, Gore posted the same stuff+ rating as Alek Manoah. Stuff+ is a bit of an arbitrary stat and doesn’t show the full picture, but the point is Gore can be a star on the mound. He has a good fastball and two above-average breaking balls to play with. His fastball posted a -5 run value (per Baseball Savant) last year in just 70 innings. If he can lean on the fastball and work in his slider and curveball to put hitters away, he could make serious strides this season.
As the season progresses this year, expect Gore to get better. The more major league hitters he sees, the more he will settle in and begin to build up his confidence. It is going to be tough, but on a team with no expectations, Gore could put his head down and shove this year.