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The NL East plot lines that could transform 2020 season

The NL East is competitive enough that — like a baking recipe — slight alterations will create wide variance.

And, even at this late offseason date, a few changes register as way more than slight. The Mets named a new manager before the old one showed up for the first day of spring training. The Braves and Nationals battled back and forth for Josh Donaldson, and he wound up … a Twin. Atlanta, thus, needed a third baseman and signed … an outfielder, maybe the best one available in free agency, to, of all things, a one-year contract.

The four main NL East contenders were among the most active teams in a docile market last offseason. The Braves, Nationals and Mets then had three of the NL’s five best records in 2019. Throw in the Phillies, and that is half the NL clubs that were .500 or better.

The Mets and Phillies have been more tempered this offseason. Still, both named new managers (the Mets doing it twice, in fact), and Philadelphia handed a nine-figure guarantee to lure Zack Wheeler from New York.

The gambling website BetOnline.ag released Over/Under win totals Thursday that suggest the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour: Braves 91½, Nationals 90½, Mets 86½ and Phillies 85½. That’s six games separating four teams. No other division sets up with so many, so close. Some thoughts on plot lines for the NL East two weeks away:

1. Will the Mets rue passing on Joe Girardi?

He won’t say it publicly, but all things being equal, Girardi found the Mets more appealing than the Phils. But he did not get a sense he was a frontrunner in New York while knowing the job was his in Philly. So Girardi will bring competence and professionalism in place of Gabe Kapler.

The Mets decided upon a high-risk/high-reward wild card in Carlos Beltran and already are burned. Luis Rojas has the template to be an outstanding manager. But Girardi is an outstanding manager.

2. Ronald Acuna vs. Juan Soto.

Perhaps Fernando Tatis Jr. or Wander Franco or someone else will emerge. But the successor to the best player in the world, once Mike Trout abdicates the throne, for now revolves around special players still far from their prime — Acuna will play this season at 22, Soto at 21.

Acuna’s overall game is better, in part because he can play center field. But Soto has Joey Votto’s plate discipline, Freddie Freeman’s lethality and proof from last October that he can rise in the biggest games. With Donaldson, Atlanta’s cleanup hitter last year, gone to Minnesota and Anthony Rendon, Washington’s No. 3 hitter last year, off to the Angels, the importance of Acuna and Soto also grows.

3. Who misses their elite third baseman most?

Washington decided it could only retain one of its big-ticket free agents, and the organizational lean is always toward starting pitching. So Stephen Strasburg received a seven-year, $245 million pact and Rendon fled West. The Nats tried to land Donaldson, but when the bidding exceeded their comfort zone, they enlisted Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Eric Thames, hoping they and prospect Carter Kieboom could collectively compensate for Rendon’s absence.

The Braves, who had success last year with one-year deals for free agents who couldn’t find their markets in Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel, did it again with outfielder Marcell Ozuna (one year, $18 million). That leaves third base to Johan Camargo and Austin Riley.

Jacob deGrom; Joe Girardi; Juan Soto Mets Nationals Phillies NL East
Jacob deGrom; Joe Girardi; Juan SotoAnthony J. Causi, AP (2)

4. Who fixed their bullpen?

All four main NL East contenders had huge pen problems last season. Atlanta did the best at in-season alteration, which helped win the division. Now, the Braves have done the most work this offseason by signing Will Smith, retaining Chris Martin and Darren O’Day, and not moving out Shane Greene and Mark Melancon.

The Nats brought back Daniel Hudson, who got the last out of the World Series, and signed Will Harris, who for the Astros gave up the decisive homer to Howie Kendrick in Game 7. The Mets are doubling down that the talent of Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia will emerge in 2020, and gambled that Dellin Betances can return from shoulder and Achilles tendon injuries. The Phillies are hoping Girardi’s deftness in maneuvering a bullpen will help, and perhaps they receive some turn-back-the-clock success with Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris and Drew Storen.

5. Who is the ace of the NL East?

Is it Jacob deGrom — who will be trying to join Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers to win three straight Cy Youngs (they both won four)? Is it Washington’s Max Scherzer — who is trying to join Johnson, Maddux, Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens as the only pitchers to win four total Cys? Has Strasburg moved by Scherzer as the Nats’ ace? Is Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola going to be more like the guy who finished third in the 2018 NL Cy race?

Is Atlanta’s Mike Soroka going to grow further after finishing second to Pete Alonso for NL Rookie of the Year in 2019? Is Wheeler going to be worth the five years at $118 million? Or will he not even be as good as Cole Hamels, who Atlanta gave $100 million less for just 2020? Has anyone noticed that Washington’s Patrick Corbin has the fifth most strikeouts and sixth most innings over the past two years? Would you be shocked if this were the year in which Noah Syndergaard or Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz had results fully match their talent?

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