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NL East season preview: What's in store for the Braves, Phillies, Mets, Marlins and Nationals in 2024?

The Braves are aiming for a seventh straight division title. The Phillies have other ideas.

The last time a team other than the Atlanta Braves won the NL East was 2017. Ever since reigning MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. made his MLB debut in 2018, no team in the division has been able to dethrone the Braves. And this season, with its impressive core still very much intact, Atlanta yet again enters as the favorite to capture its seventh straight NL East title.

But the Phillies have other plans. The rollicking crew from the City of Brotherly Love has knocked out their division rivals as a wild-card team the past two Octobers, but they want more: the franchise’s first NL East title since 2011.

Meanwhile, the Marlins return most of a roster that shocked the baseball world last year by sneaking into October on the strength of a historically good record in one-run games. How NL Manager of the Year Skip Schumaker and first-year president of baseball operations Peter Bendix work together to shape the roster will determine whether these Fish can pull off another stunner.

Behind a seemingly unlimited bushel of money, the Mets entered last year with the highest payroll in MLB history and even higher expectations. Then the whole operation was deemed a disaster by July, and the sell-off began. With new faces now in leadership, it will be fascinating to see how the Mets handle things with a depleted starting rotation and much, much less hype.

And the Nationals? Well, the Nats just hope everybody has fun (and their young core continues to take steps forward).

Here’s a first look at the 2024 NL East.

Other divisions: AL East. AL Central. NL Central. AL West. NL West.

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ATLANTA BRAVES

Projected record (per FanGraphs, as of March 18): 97-65

Best-case scenario: Atlanta breaks the record for most wins in a regular season. The offense repeats its record-shattering, 124 OPS+ performance from 2023 behind another Ronald Acuña Jr. MVP season. Spencer Strider, who has been one of the unluckiest pitchers in MLB history so far, puts together a season for the ages, averaging 14 punchouts per nine innings on his way to a sub-3.00 ERA and a unanimous NL Cy Young Award. Max Fried, who was limited to 14 starts last year, stays healthy and finishes as a Cy runner-up. Chris Sale and Charlie Morton both tell Father Time to pound sand, and the Braves end up with a stupid dominant rotation once pitching prospects AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep come up and carve in July. Atlanta wins 118 games, sweeps the Phillies in the NLDS and doesn’t lose an October ballgame on the way to its second World Series title in four years.

Worst-case scenario: The Braves offense, which stayed so healthy and performed so well last season, returns to normalcy. All the key characters — Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Sean Murphy and Matt Olson — are merely good and not great. The Jarred Kelenic trade doesn’t pan out, and Marcell Ozuna’s power is sapped by age as he creeps toward 35. The pitchers not named Strider or Fried underwhelm or get hurt, and the Braves are forced to rush Smith-Shawver and Waldrep before they’re ready. Atlanta falls into a wild-card spot (this team is so good that even a worst-case scenario includes the playoffs) before another early October exit leaves Braves country frustrated and perplexed.

Make-or-break player: Chris Sale. Strider and Fried are two of the best 10 pitchers in the game, but a baseball team needs at least five starters. Sale, whom the Braves acquired in the offseason for promising young infielder Vaughn Grissom, presents an extremely wide range of outcomes. So far in spring training, the gangly seven-time All-Star has looked rejuvenated and comfortable after a half-decade of injury and subpar pitching. If Sale can turn back the clock, Atlanta will have a third frontline guy to pair with Strider and Fried. But there’s also a chance the 35-year-old is really and truly cooked. He could very easily get hurt — Sale has just 31 starts since the end of 2019 — which would leave the Braves in a sticky spot with their rotation.

Season prediction: The Braves win the division again, and it’s not particularly close. Strider and Fried are the most bankable one-two pitching punch in baseball, and the bullpen is strong enough to make up for a relatively iffy back of the rotation. Even if everyone in Atlanta’s lineup takes a step back, this would still be the best offense in the sport; it’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which this team doesn’t make the playoffs. How the Braves perform in the roulette wheel of October is anybody’s guess, but with Strider, Fried and a motivated core, I’m not betting against this group to win the whole thing.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Projected record: 85-77

Best-case scenario: A full season from an injury-free, locked-in Bryce Harper means a third career MVP for the future Hall of Famer. Trea Turner and Nick Castellanos put their October scuffles in the past and recapture All-Star form. J.T. Realmuto rides a reworked swing to the best offensive season of his career. Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott show off more power, while Brandon Marsh proves he can hit left-handed pitching. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola lead the best rotation in baseball, buoyed by a Christopher Sánchez breakout. The Phillies outlast the Braves in the division to win their first NL East title since 2011 before stampeding through the playoffs to give Harper and Co. the World Series title the city is craving.

Worst-case scenario: Too much old wood makes a leaky boat. Most of the Phillies hitters haven’t shown signs of aging quite yet, but Harper, Realmuto, Castellanos, Turner and Kyle Schwarber are all on the high side of 30, as are Wheeler, Nola and Taijuan Walker. Injuries and age-related decline decimate the Phillies earlier than anyone expects, forcing the team’s mediocre farm system into the limelight. The vibes go sour by May, and the fan base turns on Turner, whom they cheered back to life last August. What should’ve been this core’s peak turns into an unforgettable embarrassment, and the Phillies finish under .500.

Make-or-break player: Trea Turner. In the first season of his 11-year pact with the Phillies, Turner took fans on a roller-coaster ride. He was abysmal for the first four months and an MVP-level hitter for the last two, but then he morphed back into a pumpkin during the NLCS. There’s literally a decade left on the shortstop’s deal, so any level of offensive consistency would be very comforting for the Phillies.

Season prediction: A replay of the past two regular seasons. The Phillies can’t hunt down the Braves but secure a wild-card spot behind a homer-knocking lineup and shut-down starting pitching. Whether the Phillies can sophisticate their offense approach in October — see their damning bugaboo against Arizona last year — will determine whether the season ends with confetti or regret.

Can Bryce Harper and the Phillies finally unseat the Braves in the NL East? (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)
Can Bryce Harper and the Phillies finally unseat the Braves in the NL East? (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports) (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

[Read more: MLB 26-and-under power rankings: Mets' lack of pitching holding them back, Marlins' young arms keeping them afloat]

NEW YORK METS

Projected record: 80-82

Best-case scenario: Who needs a $374.7 million payroll when you can win with a $316 million payroll? The core of an offense — Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso, Starling Marte and Francisco Lindor — that carried the 2022 Mets to 101 wins gets more support from down-order hitters in 2024. Catcher Francisco Álvarez bops 40 homers in his sophomore season while using his elite receiving skills to shepherd an undermanned rotation until Kodai Senga gets back from a shoulder injury. The Luis Severino bounce-back makes backpage headlines in the Big Apple, and a healthy, resurgent Edwin Díaz saves 50 games under a thunderstorm of trumpets. First-year manager Carlos Mendoza brings a new identity, and the Mets exceed low expectations to snag a wild card.

Worst-case scenario: The razor-thin pitching totally collapses, and the Mets give up seven runs a game. It’s hard for Díaz to close out a game they’ve already lost. The older-than-you-think top of the lineup — Nimmo, McNeil and Lindor — ages more quickly than you’d like. Owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns can’t get an extension done with slugging first baseman Pete Alonso, but the team stays just close enough to contention that they can’t trade him at the deadline, and the Polar Bear leaves for nothing in free agency. A year after running the highest payroll in MLB history, the Mets are forgettable and trending in the wrong direction on the field. But at least it's cheaper!

Make-or-break player: Francisco Álvarez. The 22-year-old has quite a high floor as an elite framing catcher with 35-homer raw power. But as a rookie last season, Álvarez struggled to (1) contain the running game and (2) make sufficient contact. If he can improve one or both of those things, he has a real shot to become one of the best backstops in the sport.

Season prediction: These Mets are perplexing. Nimmo/McNeil/Lindor/Alonso/Alvarez/Marte is the type of lineup that could win a World Series. The bullpen is potentially fantastic, with Adam Ottavino, Brooks Raley and Drew Smith tossing things to a healthy Díaz. But it’s hard to envision this pitching rotation keeping the Mets in games. Senga’s shoulder injury was an absolute backbreaker that leaves a squint-and-you-like-it, stare-and-you-don’t quintet of Quintana, Severino, Sean Manaea, Adrian Houser and Tylor Megill. My take: The Mets finish third in the division, thanks to a head-banging offense, but far from a playoff spot. The farm system continues improving, and Moneybags Cohen goes all-in to sign Juan Soto in the winter.

MIAMI MARLINS

Projected record: 80-82

Best-case scenario: Jazz Chisholm’s new, McNugget-less diet enables a 155-game, 6-WAR, top-five MVP season. Tim Anderson shows he isn’t cooked and hits .300. Luis Arraez hits .400. Jon Berti hits .500. New president of baseball operations Peter Bendix brings a more analytical perspective that helps the Marlins continue their dominance in close games. Eury Pérez, who was one of the best pitchers in baseball last May and June before he got hurt, wins the Cy Young as a 21-year-old. Miami’s embarrassment of riches on the mound allows them to make a trade at the deadline for Juan Soto, whose Yankees are way out of the race. Manager Skip Schumaker proves last year wasn’t beginner’s luck as the Marlins improbably chase down the Braves for the franchise’s first NL East title.

Worst-case scenario: Chisholm tantalizes in starts and stops but can’t stay off the IL. Josh Bell and Jake Burger don’t hit for enough power to be a true middle-of-the-order tandem. Anderson really is cooked. Jesus Luzardo takes a step back, Pérez is slowed by injuries, AJ Puk can’t transition to the rotation, and the Marlins really miss Sandy Alcantara (out for the season due to Tommy John). All those one-run wins become one-run losses, and the Marlins finish *gasp* behind the Nationals. Schumaker, frustrated by the (in)direction of the franchise, jumps ship for a better job in the offseason, and the Marlins are left without the game’s most respected young skipper.

Make-or-break player: Jazz Chisholm. We’ve seen the magic in spurts but never over a full season. In a sport that values consistency and reliability, Jazz has yet to prove that he’s a franchise player. But the talent is there; that has never been a question. With renewed focus and intensity, this could be the year Chisholm puts all the pieces together. And it better be. Last year, Miami made an inexplicable run to the playoffs without a fully-operational Chisholm. It’s doubtful they can do so again.

Season prediction: The 2024 Marlins are better than the 2023 Marlins but win fewer games because the pendulum of baseball luck swings back toward equilibrium and clocks them in the face. Miami was a comically unsustainable 32-12 in one-run games last year. A passive offseason didn’t do much to improve the roster, and the offense still lacks a real power threat. Schumaker and the pitching depth should keep the Marlins in striking distance over the summer, but a lack of home run juice will prove to be their downfall.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Projected record: 66-96

Best-case scenario: All four players acquired in the Scherzer/Turner and Soto deals — MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruizmake the leap from “promising” to “actually good.” Patrick Corbin’s new cutter propels a renaissance in the final year of his contract, and the Nats flip him at the deadline. One of the Nick Senzel/Joey Gallo/Jesse Winker reclamation projects actually works, and the Nats find themselves with an intriguing lineup built around Abrams, the underrated Lane Thomas and whichever vet turns back the clock. The offense gets a jolt over the summer when James Wood and Dylan Crews, two of the game’s top hitting prospects, get the call and hit the ground raking. A shaky bullpen and a dearth of pitching depth push a playoff spot out of reach, but with the core of the next good Nats team solidified, the front office gets active in the offseason and Washington is set up to contend in 2025.

Worst-case scenario: The quartet of players acquired in the Scherzer/Turner and Soto deals all fail to make the leap from “promising” to “actually good.” None of the reclamation projects pops, and the Nats can’t trade any of Winker, Gallo or Eddie Rosario at the deadline. The bright spots over the past few seasons, players such as Joey Meneses, Lane Thomas and closer Kyle Finnegan, prove to be little more than flashes in the pan. Neither Wood nor Crews debuts, slowed by injuries or underperformance, and the other promising hitting prospects stagnate in the upper minors. The Nationals, another year removed from the glory of 2019, get no closer to their next taste of October.

Make-or-break player: MacKenzie Gore. Washington’s farm system is loaded with position players but lacks any obvious difference-makers on the bump. That puts even more importance on Gore, who remains the most likely National to evolve into anything resembling an ace. The 25-year-old has a special fastball, a true weapon with velocity, vertical movement and extension that plays against lefties and righties. To take the next step, Gore needs to improve the command of his heater and hone another consistent secondary offering to pair with his beautiful, high-arc curveball. Not too long ago, Gore was considered the best pitching prospect in the world, and he still has all the components to reach that ceiling. Whether the Nationals are the right organization to get him there, well, that’s a different question.

Season prediction: Abrams and Gore make the jump. Gray improves his walk totals, but the home run rate kicks back up. Ruiz still struggles to hit for power. Gallo looks rejuvenated in a zero-pressure environment and nets the Nats a real prospect at the deadline. The pitching staff gives up too many runs to inspire consistent optimism, but Wood and Crews debut in July and absolutely exhilarate the fan base. Washington finishes last in the NL East but sets itself up to finish fourth in 2025.