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NL East preview: Mets or Braves on top? Can the Phillies do it again? What to make of Marlins, Nationals?

Our countdown to MLB Opening Day continues with a deep dive on the National League East.

Baseball season is right around the corner, which means it’s time for divisional previews! Between now and MLB Opening Day on March 30, Yahoo Sports will be rolling out our thoughts on each division, including a quick recap of the offseason and best- and worst-case scenarios for each team.

We began Tuesday with the AL East. Today, we’re tackling the National League East.

New York Mets

Projected record (per PECOTA, as of March 9): 95-67

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: Already drawing ire from his fellow team owners, Steve Cohen and his enthusiastically open wallet usher in an era of star-studded Mets dominance with a ticker tape parade in New York.

Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer cement their legacies with a Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling-style romp through the league, staying fresh for the stretch run thanks to more reliable depth arms such as Jose Quintana. Kodai Senga’s “ghost fork” becomes a staple of pitching Twitter GIFs, and Edwin Diaz again strikes out more than half the batters who dare to face him.

Pete Alonso leads the league in home runs, Jeff McNeil contends for another batting title, and Francisco Lindor ascends beyond the offensive heights of his Cleveland days, going 30/20 with a career-best on-base percentage. Francisco Alvarez astounds the majors with smoked line drives, adapts well to catching a couple of days per week and wins Rookie of the Year honors, besting Brett Baty, who lifts the ball enough to put the Carlos Correa drama out of the fatalistic minds of Mets fans.

After vanquishing the Braves and riding Verlander and Scherzer to a World Series triumph, team owner Steven Cohen makes a not-so-subtle pitch for the winter’s top free agent (cough, Shohei Ohtani, cough) to join the fun and take up the ace mantle alongside a secured core of strong hitters.

Worst-case scenario: Pitchers in or approaching their 40s turn out to be health risks. Verlander and Scherzer spend lengthy stints on the injured list, and the Mets’ hopes in the cutthroat NL East are dragged asunder by middling substitute performances from David Peterson and Tylor Megill. A contending Angels club rebuffs a trade-deadline pursuit of Ohtani, and the two-way superstar reiterates his desire to stay on the West Coast.

Brandon Nimmo’s bad injury luck returns, and the Mets fail to find a replacement in center field. Several regulars tip into decline, led by Starling Marte, and the youngsters don’t hit enough to win manager Buck Showalter’s trust. Grasping at a wild-card spot all summer, the Mets end up in a final-weekend race with the Phillies, evoking heartbreaks of old despite Cohen’s lavish new money.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? There’s so much reason for hope. In fact, hope is probably understating the emotions a fan base should feel with Verlander, Scherzer, Lindor and the rest in tow. Yet the Mets have not escaped the shadow of dread, a predominant feeling of the Wilpon ownership years. Even last year’s rollicking, 101-win proof of concept was tackled at the 1-yard line by those pesky Braves. The challenge for 2023 will be vanquishing that feeling by pure dominance or by earning the confidence that going forward, it’s the Mets who will come knocking in the fall. — Crizer

Atlanta Braves

Projected record: 93-69

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: When the big, looming question revolves around who will fill the seventh and eighth spots in a batting order otherwise loaded ‘til kingdom come with young (or youngish) stars (or superstars), most of the scenarios are pretty, pretty good. Healthy seasons from Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, continued excellence from Austin Riley and double-down performances from Rookie of the Year combatants Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider add up to a terrifying, league-best monster that soars past 100 wins.

Now established as a starter, Strider expands his inning total to form a dominant one-two punch with Max Fried, and the rest of the rotation holds serve, buoyed by the long-awaited return of Mike Soroka and the defensive prowess of new starting catcher Sean Murphy. Fully recovered from his 2021 knee injury, Acuña posts his second 30/30 season and makes noise in the MVP race. Matt Olson hits a high similar to his 2021 campaign with Oakland, blasting 40 homers with a terrific on-base percentage.

Vaughn Grissom steps in at shortstop and becomes the latest stellar student of Ron Washington’s school for infielders, and the Braves find among their minor signings a pop-up contributor in the outfield. Flush with long-term talent, they roll to a second World Series title in three seasons as the rest of the league shudders from flashbacks to the 1990s.

Worst-case scenario: GM Alex Anthopoulos is banned for using dark magic to convince his players to sign all those extensions, and all of them are annulled in an echo of the John Coppolella international signing scandal.

No, in reality, a Braves collapse begins with health issues for Acuña or Fried and rapid regression for the less proven young players Atlanta is relying upon. Sophomore slumps for Harris — whose swing-happy profile raises some alarms — and Strider put pressure on less heralded depth, and the talent isn’t quite there. Grissom’s struggles force Orlando Arcia into a starting gig, and left field and designated hitter turn into revolving doors of mediocrity.

Kyle Wright’s backslide and Charlie Morton’s dip into age-related decline render the rotation a liability, and a vaunted bullpen struggles to pick up the slack, losing a string of close games to division rivals. Superstars on the Mets and Phillies play up to expectations, and the Braves get bounced in the wild-card series. Anxieties about long-term investments in the suddenly murky futures of several young players rule the winter.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Acuña, Albies, Harris, Murphy, Strider, Riley. The Braves are the envy of the league because they have those six names penciled in already for 2026. Success is health and prosperity for that core. And perhaps adding to it by securing the services of Fried or aiding a Grissom breakout. — Crizer

Philadelphia Phillies

Projected record: 90-72

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: In their ideal world, Phillies fans would spend a full year from this past October through November in a state of smug delirium, never coming down from the high of snapping their decade-long absence from the postseason in glorious, NL-pennant-winning fashion. The 2022 season was a fever dream of vast emotional swings, from midseason managerial firings to setting a World Series home run record, but it ended two games too soon to be a true dream come true. In 2023, they set about proving that it wasn’t just a fluke (phluke?); it was the belated culmination of a bold team-building strategy.

The first few months of 2023 serve as a rude awakening to the rest of the league that while Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa dominated the headlines this offseason, the Phillies went ahead and signed the most durably talented player available: Trea Turner. With stolen bases more accessible than ever and his new home park slugger-friendly, Turner posts his first 30/30 season to contend for an MVP. Buoyed by the addition of his friend and former teammate, Bryce Harper returns ahead of schedule, and by late October, no one even remembers the months he was out.

Ranger Suárez and Taijuan Walker fill out a formidable rotation behind Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler, but all their competence is overshadowed by 19-year-old Andrew Painter breaking camp with the big-league team. Fans call themselves “Painter’s muses,” shirts are made, and to cap a sterling rookie campaign, Painter becomes the youngest pitcher ever to win a World Series game. No one even cracks jokes about the defense.

Worst-case scenario: The Phillies start out riding awfully high for a team that wouldn’t have cracked the postseason in any year before 2022. Then 2023 is a painful reality check that their biggest obstacle is still getting out of their division with a playoff berth.

The Turner signing was still a good move, and there’s no reason to have second thoughts (yet). But the lineup falters behind him, especially in Harper’s early absence. The Phillies’ phalanx of sluggers gets real thin after the first line goes down. J.T. Realmuto takes a step back because that’s what 32-year-old catchers are wont to do, and Nick Castellanos repeats his 2022 performance instead of his 2021 one.

In this timeline, Painter still joins the rotation (after recovering from his UCL sprain), but it proves to be a rash decision. His early struggles prompt a wave of arm-chair managing by local pundits who once showered Rob Thomson with adulation. And the bullpen with the seventh-worst ERA last year honestly isn’t that different. (Don’t let the small sample of October skew your memory.) Craig Kimbrel? You mean the guy who was otherworldly a decade ago? His strikeout rate continues moving in the wrong direction — which is to say down.

The Phillies aren’t bad, per say; in fact, maybe they manage a few more regular-season wins than they did in 2022. But in this division, that might not be good enough for even second place.

Alternative worst-case scenario: The Phillies win the World Series, thereby plunging the country into an economic depression.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Money isn’t everything, but the 2023 Phillies have the fourth-highest payroll in baseball, and we’re talking about a potential scenario in which they miss the postseason entirely. Dave Dombrowski’s deceptively simple strategy of paying for star players looks like a fun and effective strategy right now — but that needs to still be the case come November.

The Phillies have six players making $20 million or more this season — tied with the Mets for most in MLB — with Harper and Turner topping that list. The long-term priority has to be maximizing that pricey core, and that won’t happen if they’re sitting at home in October. — Keyser

Miami Marlins

Projected record: 80-82

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: Trading away Pablo López didn’t help, but Miami’s pitching staff keeps them close in nearly every game. Alcantara again leads baseball in innings pitched, topping his own 2022 numbers and prompting trend pieces wondering whether this signals a reverse in the downward trajectory of starters’ innings. Trevor Rogers spent the offseason refinding his 2021 breakout form and, without all the in-season tinkering of last year, turns back into a double-digit K/9 kind of starter.

The offense, while not especially effective, isn’t a drag to watch. The Marlins quickly establish a reputation as the anti-Three True Outcomes team — for better and for worse. With Arraez and Segura at the top of the lineup, it seems like there’s always action on the basepaths. Renewed attention on stolen bases in the wake of MLB’s rule changes highlights the skills of otherwise anonymous utility players such as Jon Berti and plays to the strengths of Jazz Chisholm. The cover star of “MLB The Show” flourishes with a full healthy season for fans to fall in love with his playing style. He campaigns for a spot in the Home Run Derby, and even though he doesn’t win, his dynamic style is the main takeaway from the event.

Worst-case scenario: Fans grow frustrated as it becomes clear that not only are the Marlins still not serious contenders, but also it’s tough to tell what they’re even building toward. Sure, the idea to trade pitching for offense made some sense, but when injuries strike the rotation, that one-time position of strength starts to look a little shaky. Couldn’t they have kept López and paid for a bat in free agency?

The total lack of pop in the lineup proves to be an insurmountable hurdle, and the Marlins lead baseball in runners left on base. Chisholm enthusiastically embraces his new role in the outfield, but a handful of egregious errors draw fans’ ire, even if the offensive woes are the real reason the team finishes below .500.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Getting on a clear path to contention. Maybe the front office already has one, but it certainly isn’t evident from the outside. Alcantara’s pre-Cy Young extension (through 2026, with a club option for 2027) should provide a pillar to build around and the payroll flexibility to be aggressive in doing so. But the Marlins have yet to take advantage of the latter, though that’s more of an offseason task. In season, they can figure out which of their at-or-near-big-league youngsters are part of that plan. — Keyser

Washington Nationals

Projected record: 62-100

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Juan Soto … none of them is coming back (though three of the four play in the Nationals’ division), but in a just world, the returns for those painful trades turn out to be the core of the next great Nationals team. It wasn’t so long ago that Washington won the World Series (and didn’t even really get a victory lap … things really did go downhill fast), and in the best-case scenario, the swift teardown of that team begets an equally swift return to contention.

But not this year — not that swift. Even if everything breaks right, the Nats are unlikely to get out of the NL East’s basement. Still, there are glimmers of good stuff to come. CJ Abrams turns out to pair real power (and better patience) with his defensive prowess, the kind that made him a top-10 MLB prospect entering last season. The other major-league piece in the Soto trade, MacKenzie Gore, now healthy, streamlines his delivery and looks like a future front-of-the-rotation starter. Josiah Gray, of the Scherzer/Turner 2021 trade, doesn’t lead the league in home runs and walks allowed, and he, too, matures into the kind of pitcher who could start on a contending team. Meanwhile, Kiebert Ruiz shows that his slow start was just that.

Washington’s floundering former high picks pan out, too: Carter Kieboom comes back from a Tommy John absence swinging, and headline writers everywhere are able to enjoy the pun potential of his hame. Cade Cavalli stays healthy, steadies his command and garners Rookie of the Year consideration.

Worst-case scenario: The Nats gave up multiple likely future Hall of Famers in the span of a 12 months and got back a bunch of guys who all stall out as fine-ish major-leaguers — or worse. The D.C. stints for Abrams, Gray, Kieboom and Cavalli haven’t been inspiring thus far, and in this timeline, they stay that way.

It’s particularly painful to watch players with such high potential — and so much expectation baked into their circumstances — struggle as manager Dave Martinez preaches patience for his young team, even as the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clear.

Elsewhere, the lower-level, high-upside players who were part of the Soto package take a step back under the Nationals’ tutelage. Player development has been a weakness for this team in recent years. The returns from blockbuster trades vaunted their farm system into the top half of the league; now the Nats have to not squander it.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? In a lost season, success for the Nationals will be determined away from the field. The talent on the 2019 club might have papered over the problems, but the organization as a whole has been behind the curve for a while now. The process of modernizing their player development and analytics is already underway, including staffing up in the front office and across affiliates. This year, the Nationals have to make use of all those new hires and the new data coming from recently installed Hawk-Eye systems to actually optimize the guys on the field. The results might not be evident publicly just yet, but the future of the team will depend on it. — Keyser