In our Silver Linings series, we’re checking in on the most promising developments for non-contending teams during an otherwise disappointing 2018 season. Today, we’ll hop over to the National League East.
While the Phillies are all but eliminated and sit just 1.5 games ahead of the Nats, they hung in the race longer and the 2018 season represented a big step forward nevertheless. Accordingly, we won’t go looking for silver linings in Philadelphia. But we will look at the three worst-performing clubs in the division, including one organization that was rebuilding from the start along with two of the most disappointing teams in baseball this year.
Nationals: Young Outfielders
With Bryce Harper mired in a curious slump for much of the season’s first half, and top-of-the-order dynamo Adam Eaton again on the shelf with ankle issues, the Nationals – a paragon of ignominy and disappointment over the past few seasons – turned for an offensive boost to an unlikely source: 19-year-old Juan Soto, who entered the season with just 301 professional plate appearances, none of which had come above the Low-A level. Soto responded in a way few rookies – and virtually zero teenagers – have, slashing .297/.410/.518 after his May 15th call-up and carrying the club offensively through much of the summer. Soto’s seemingly slump-proof output has been buttressed by an insanely high 16.1% BB rate and a preternatural ability, for a left-handed hitter, to handle same-side arms: his 145 wRC+ ranks third among all major league hitters with at least 100 PA in left-on-left matchups. With Harper set to hit free agency after this season and sign perhaps the richest deal in major league history, Washington has insured itself beyond its wildest hopes: a true star, shining vibrantly before their eyes (for years to come, at a bargain rate of pay).
Though it was somewhat of a lost season for Washington’s most heralded prospect entering the 2018 campaign, 21-year-old Victor Robles, a consensus top-5 prospect among major outlets, offers another ray of hope for a franchise in desperate need of a spark as it transitions toward a future without many of its past stars. Robles, who missed a good chunk of the season with a hyperextended elbow, slashed just .278/.356/.386 in limited action for Triple-A Syracuse, though he did steal 14 bases in just 40 games for the Chiefs. The product of the Dominican Republic garners effusive praise for his work on defense, with MLB.com lauding his ’exceptional range and instincts’ and ’off-the-charts athleticism.’ Despite the tepid output at the plate in ’18, Robles still projects as a plus hitter with a chance for above-average power.
With those two cornerstones in place, a healthy Adam Eaton, baserunning whiz Trea Turner – whose 40 steals in 49 attempts have catapulted him to 4.2 fWAR, good for 2nd among all National League shortstops – and Anthony Rendon, perhaps the league’s most unheralded star, the revamped Nationals offense appears to yet again be a strength as the team prepares for the ’19 campaign.
Mets: Rotation Core
The Mets, who began the season in ecstasy and will end it in despair, had few bright spots on the offensive side of the ball this year. Young lynchpins Amed Rosario and Michael Conforto have had, at best, uneven seasons (albeit with generally promising finishes), and high-profile offseason signings Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier offered little in the way of amends. Brandon Nimmo’s newfound power stroke was a pleasant surprise, but for the most part, New York relied far too heavily on ineffective veterans and underperforming youngsters.
The rotation, however, was a different story. Jacob deGrom, currently on pace for the third lowest ERA in franchise history at 1.78, is in the midst of an historic streak, having allowed 3 ER or fewer in 27 consecutive starts, the longest such streak in major league history. DeGrom, who turned 30 in June, is under control through the 2020 season and could be a prime trade chip for a franchise in desperate need of an overhaul. Of course, all indications are that the Mets don’t want to part with their best player. As for Noah Syndergaard, the man they call Thor has turned in another stellar season. Even if he failed to produce results quite as dominant as some might wish, he finished with 9.30 K/9 against 2.39 BB/9 and again limited homers at an elite rate. Syndergaard’s age (26) and remaining years of team control (3) make him nearly as attractive a trade piece as DeGrom, though health is perhaps something of an ongoing question. Thor’s career FIP- (park- and league-adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching) of 67 ranks 17th all-time among hurlers and trails only the late Jose Fernandez and Clayton Kershaw among qualified starting pitchers.
Of course, those two hurlers were expected to perform. Even as Matt Harvey foundered and ended up departing, the Mets found a hugely valuable piece in a rather unexpected place. Former top prospect Zack Wheeler, whose early-career success was interrupted by a brutal run of injuries, enjoyed a renaissance as the summer progressed – turning the corner from poor results last year and early in 2018. Wheeler exhibited much-improved command, evidenced by a career-best 2.71 BB/9, which allowed him to compile 4.2 fWAR – easily eclipsing his career total over parts of three seasons with New York. Even Steven Matz, who struggled for much of the season’s first half, has turned in six consecutive quality starts while lowering his ERA to 4.03, and, perhaps more importantly, has bucked the injury bug that’s bit him routinely throughout his 9-year professional career.
The prospective new regime in New York will have much to consider in their first few months on the job, not least of which will be the fate of their talented young hurlers. Wheeler, 28, will enter Free Agency after the 2019 season and is the most likely candidate to be dealt, but a full-scale sell-off would go a long way toward replenishing a top-heavy farm and big league roster that shows more atrophy than promise. DeGrom and Syndergaard would, without question, net franchise-altering returns, but are they moves that ownership (with a new front office regime expected) will be willing to make? The winter of 2018 promises to be a fascinating one in the Big Apple.
Marlins: Superstar catcher
In a season with perhaps the lowest league-wide expectations since, well, the one following the last Marlins firesale, the new Miami regime had little to look forward to in 2018, and, as it turned out, even less to smile about.
The pitching staff was an unmitigated disaster, with 29 hurlers combining to post a 127 ERA- through the season’s first 152 games, easily the worst mark in MLB. Signs of life were scarce, though offseason acquisition Caleb Smith did strike out 10.24 batters per nine across 16 starts, showcasing a live fastball and a slider that ranked among the league’s best. And Trevor Richards, signed out of the independent Frontier League in July of 2016, rode a devastating changeup throughout the minors to the big league rotation in ’18, where poor command and a propensity for the gopher ball led to a 4.95 ERA mark through 23 starts, though he has struck out over a batter per inning as well.
Things weren’t much rosier on the offensive side, where just four regulars posted league-average or above batting lines. One of those players, rookie Brian Anderson, has ridden a .268/.351/.391 line and stellar UZR marks to a 3.0 fWAR total thus far in ’18, though his DRS totals are far less generous. Top prospect Lewis Brinson has posted a putrid .201/.241/.350 line to this point, and minor leaguers Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Magneuris Sierra – key prospect returns in offseason deals that sent away Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich – each struggled mightily at their respective minor league stops in ’18.
But J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins’ 4th-year catcher, has established himself as the premier backstop in the game. His .282/.347/.497 mark thus far is good for a 131 wRC+ in spacious Marlins Park, easily pacing MLB catchers offensively. And Realmuto is a well-regarded defender and overall athlete. After back to back 3.5+ fWAR seasons leading up to the 2018 campaign, Realmuto has raised the bar even further this season, posting 4.9 fWAR in just 118 games behind the dish. His 12.4 fWAR since the beginning of the ’16 season is tops among major league catchers, and with the Marlins still in the nascent stages of a wall-to-wall rebuild, he enters the offseason as one of the most coveted trade candidates in all of baseball. While the Fish have only two more seasons of control to sell, they’ll come at fairly affordable rates. And contending teams in search of a big move will be hard pressed to acquire a similarly appealing alternative behind the dish.