Can the Phillies keep up in the N.L. East?

Although some Phillies fans may not want to admit in the heat of a debate with a Mets fan, most of them are always paying attention to what is going on in New York. If the Mets are good, then it’s going to be an uncomfortable season. If they are not, then it becomes sweeter for Philly denizens to remind their New York buddies about it.

Of course, Phillies followers also have to monitor the latest happenings involving the Atlanta Braves. Heck, that has always been the case. Atlanta is more likely to be a regular contender than New York, and even though their supporters don’t invade Citizens Bank Park like Mets fans do, the Braves are usually a bigger obstacle where it counts, which is in the standings and on the path to the National League East title.

Are the Mets and Braves Destined To Remain Ahead Of the Phillies?

Starting Pitching Concerns: Will They Linger?

There was a lot of excitement among Phillies fans when the team added Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, further elevating an offense that could be the best in the division. But after 12 games, should we already be concerned that the Phillies are going to have to be satisfied with finishing ahead of the Marlins and Nationals? Heck, Miami has some good young talent, so finishing third is no given either.

Realistically, we all know it’s a long year, and if the Phillies are in contention when it matters most, we will all forget the mediocre start to the season. But at the same time, with the defending World Series champion and a big-spending rival hungry to end a long title drought, there can be legitimate fear that Philadelphia is the third-best team in the division.

No one in town enjoyed it when the Mets came down to Philadelphia in the first series of the season and took two of three games on the way to winning seven of 10 to start the season. What is scary about the 2022 Mets is how good the starting pitching has been so far without their best pitcher. Entering play on April 18, the New York starters had a 1.07 ERA, the lowest recorded mark for any team ever in 10 games.

New acquisition Max Scherzer has not even been their best starter with Jacob deGrom out. His 3.25 ERA has been the highest of all the starters. Sure, playing against Washington and Arizona has helped, and such levels of success are not sustainable over a long season, but Philadelphia’s starting pitching has been a significant area of concern at the same time.

After taking a massive beating from Miami on Sunday, Zack Wheeler has a 9.00 ERA. We know he is a better pitcher than what we saw in his second start of the year, but the Phillies need Wheeler to consistently display his top form from the 2021 campaign, because the team needs its starting pitching to be on par with the best in the division to contend this season.

The advanced statistics pointed to Aaron Nola being unlucky last season, but he is off to an uninspiring start, having allowed seven earned runs in 9.1 innings pitched in his first two starts. If the Phillies cannot get quality outings from Wheeler and Nola all season long, then they may as well concede the division to New York and Atlanta. Ranger Suarez has a 5.87 ERA so far this season. He can be a big key to the Phillies’ chances of vying with the Mets and Braves for the National League pennant.

Braves Will Be Better, Marlins Already Stinging N.L. East Opponents

Losing Freddie Freeman certainly hurt the Braves, but Matt Olson is a fine replacement. The Braves were 5-6 entering play on April 18, but Ronald Acuna Jr. should return in May. Ozzie Albies is off to a terrific start to the season and Marcell Ozuna has looked very good in his return to action. Albies and Ozuna had combined for eight homers in the first 11 games.

The Atlanta starting pitching, though, is not looking any better than Philadelphia’s. Max Fried had the lowest ERA of the top three starters at 5.73, as Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson were both over 6.00 after 11 games. As with the Phillies, though, we expect the Braves’ starting pitching to be better than it has looked so far, and the Atlanta bullpen also looks like an area of strength.

The Marlins may not be ready to contend, but they will certainly be a tough opponent in 2022, as the Phillies discovered this past weekend when they lost three of four to Miami. To be a winning team, you must beat the teams you are supposed to beat, and the Phillies didn’t do that. The Marlins served notice that they are not going to be walked on by their divisional rivals this season.

We cannot overreact to early sample sizes, and there should still be a lot of hope for the Phillies. According to Caesars Sportsbook, they have the third-best odds to win the N.L. East at +400. The Braves are at +140 and the Mets are at +145. The Philadelphia lineup does lack a true leadoff hitter, but once Joe Girardi settles on a regular order, the top five will be a group that should be a crux of any push to the postseason. 

Starting pitching is going to be the ultimate difference in the division. The Mets won’t be quite as good as they are now all season, and the Phillies should be better than the Braves in that regard. It’s been a frustrating start to the season, but once Nola, Wheeler, and Suarez get into their grooves, no one will be running away from the Phillies in the N.L. East. Savvy Phillies fans know that it will be a major challenge to get past the Mets and Braves, but the early results are by no means a true indication of how the divisional race may play out over the weeks and months ahead. The playoffs should be a very realistic goal even if the divisional crown is not attainable.

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