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    Monday, May 29, 2023

    NL East preview: Braves, Phillies, Mets to duke it out again

    Mets starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws during the second inning of a spring training game against Houston on March 10, 2023 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP Photo)

    Atlanta — The National League East made a strong argument as the majors' toughest division in 2022 and lines up as perhaps even better this season.

    The NL East boasted two 101-win teams — the Atlanta Braves, who won their fifth consecutive division title, and the New York Mets. A third playoff team from the division, the Philadelphia Phillies, advanced to the World Series.

    The NL East is poised for another strong run. FanDuel Sportsbook lists the Braves, Mets and Phillies among its top eight picks to win the World Series. The AL East, which also sent three teams to the playoffs last season, has three of the betting site's top nine World Series picks as the next strongest division.

    “Now there’s three big-headed monsters in this division and it’ll be a battle to the end like it always is,” said Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud.

    The stiff competition in the division fueled an offseason of big spending.

    The Mets expect to carry a record payroll of $370 million after adding AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander on an $86.7 million, two-year deal. Verlander will join Max Scherzer to top a made-for-the-postseason rotation that includes two more newcomers, José Quintana and Kodai Senga.

    The Phillies signed shortstop Trea Turner to a $300 million, 11-year deal. The Braves' offseason was most notable for losing shortstop Dansby Swanson, but they traded for catcher Sean Murphy and then signed him to a $73 million, six-year contract.

    The Mets led the division for all but six days last season before finally being caught by Atlanta. The Braves know they might face an even more difficult challenge of extending their string of division titles.

    “Oh yeah, this division is elite again," d'Arnaud said. "The Mets are gonna be great. The Phillies are great. They just won the NL title. The Marlins are always sneaky. They always play well.”

    How they project

    1. Atlanta Braves

    The 2021 World Series champions must adjust to losing a team leader and fan favorite to free agency for the second straight season. Swanson signed with the Cubs one year after Freddie Freeman joined the Dodgers. With Vaughn Grissom sent to the minors, Orlando Arcia will open as the starting shortstop, leaving an offensive drop-off from Swanson. The top two 2022 NL rookies, center fielder Michael Harris II and hard-throwing right-hander Spencer Strider, must continue to play strong supporting roles for Ronald Acuña Jr. in the outfield and left-hander Max Fried in the rotation, respectively.

    2. New York Mets

    Owner Steve Cohen spent nearly $500 million on free agents. Verlander and Scherzer give the Mets a pair of three-time Cy Young Award winners. Age is a concern, as Verlander is 40 and Scherzer is 38. All-Star closer Edwin Díaz injured his knee celebrating a victory with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and is expected to miss the entire season. The rebuilt rotation also took a big hit this spring, losing Quintana (stress fracture in his rib) until at least July. Two prospects to watch for at some point are third baseman Brett Baty and catcher Francisco Álvarez.

    3. Philadelphia Phillies

    Bryce Harper still has nine years left on his $330 million, 11-year free-agent deal, but he could miss at least two months as he recovers from elbow surgery. Turner will help keep the offense moving. He gave Phillies fans a preview of his power potential when he hit a clutch grand slam for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. But first baseman Rhys Hoskins figures to miss the entire season after tearing his left ACL late in spring training. The Phillies were the last team to clinch a playoff spot last season and the last one standing in the National League. Manager Rob Thomson no longer has the interim tag and has a full season to show last year was not simply a one-off that can’t be duplicated without Harper fully healthy.

    4. Miami Marlins

    Looking for offensive help, Miami added AL batting champion Luis Arraez and two-time All-Star Jean Segura. The Marlins traded away longtime starting pitcher Pablo López to get Arraez. They still boast one of the deepest rotations in the division, led by 2022 NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara. He's followed by Johnny Cueto, Jesús Luzardo, Braxton Garrett and Trevor Rogers. Right-hander Edward Cabrera could emerge as a breakout member of the group.

    5. Washington Nationals

    The Nationals have finished last in the division each year since their World Series title in 2019. Such stars from that championship team as Turner, Scherzer and Juan Soto are long gone. It’s unclear whether the one star who stuck around, right-hander Stephen Strasburg, will ever be healthy enough to pitch in the majors again. The rebuild is centered on the development of shortstop CJ Abrams, catcher Keibert Ruiz and starting pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray. Washington's 2020 first-round draft pick, Cade Cavalli, seen as a future rotation fixture, will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery.

    Injury concerns

    Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo is recovering from a sprained right ankle and knee. Manager Buck Showalter still hopes Nimmo can recover in time to be ready for the season opener.

    Braves closer Raisel Iglesias (shoulder inflammation) will open the season on the injured list. Left-hander A.J. Minter and right-hander Joe Jiménez are among the ninth-inning options while Iglesias recovers. Murphy was Atlanta's top offseason addition, but the trade with Detroit for Jiménez could prove to be more important than first anticipated.

    Also, Phillies left-hander Ranger Suárez (forearm) won't be ready for the start of the season. The Marlins say they aren't concerned about Cueto (arm soreness) missing work.

    Trade-deadline fodder

    Washington added some bit parts, including first baseman Dominic Smith and third baseman Jeimer Candelario, on what essentially are prove-it deals. The Nationals could flip those players or other veterans at the trade deadline for more prospects to add momentum to their rebuilding effort.

    AP Baseball Writer Mike Fitzpatrick and AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich, Daniel Gelston and Alanis Thames contributed to this report.

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