Today we take a look at the National League East, a division in the most literal sense of that term. Two contenders, one clear middle team, and two no-chancers.
As always, teams are listed in predicted order of finish:
Washington Nationals (2015 record: 83-79, 2nd place)
Manager: Dusty Baker
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
CF Ben Revere
LF Jayson Werth
RF Bryce Harper
If you wrote a book about the disappointments of the 2015 season, the Nationals would be your first chapter. Pegged by many to go to (and win) the World Series, the Nats dragged themselves to the finish line and wound up just four games over .500. The lone constant in the lineup was Bryce Harper, who at age 23, is the youngest unanimous MVP winner in MLB history. His late-season dugout scuffle with closer Jonathan Papelbon was a symbol of the team’s frustrations, and was the final nail in the coffin of manager/old-school thumper Matt Williams. Replacing Williams is another old-school guy in Dusty Baker and the Nats’ front office hopes that Baker’s new voice can keep the Nats on their toes for a full season.
Behind the plate, Wilson Ramos will return to call the game for the pitching staff. His home run and RBI totals were up in 2015 (15 HR, 68 RBI) but his OPS was a putrid .616, as he seriously struggled to get on base. Defensively, he racked up a caught stealing percentage of 44%, which is pretty good considering the league average was 28%. The staff should be confident throwing to him. Jose Lobaton, another offensive question mark, backs him up.
Ryan Zimmerman returns to man first base after playing just 95 games last year. The Z-Man looks to bounce back to his career .283 average. In 2015, he posted decent power numbers (16 HR, 73 RBI, .773 OPS). If he can stay healthy, he can be dangerous in the middle of the order.
Second baseman Daniel Murphy was the biggest addition to the roster during the off-season. Coming over from the division-rival New York Mets, where he went on a tear in the NLDS and NLCS (before getting mystified by the Royals in the World Series), Murphy adds left-handed pop to the order. Defensively, Murphy can provide solid, if not stellar, defense and his kind of errors are the ones that don’t show up in the box score: the mental ones. We will have to wait and see what sort of impact he will have in Washington.
Another player hoping to bounce back from injury is Anthony Rendon at third base. Limited to 80 games in 2015, Rendon looks to stabilize the upper half of the Nats’ order. If he stays healthy and hits in front of Bryce Harper in the lineup, Nats’ fans can expect early leads often this season. Rendon is an above-average defender. Stephen Drew will be ready to back up here (and at second and short) in case of injury.
Danny Espinosa will provide stopgap insurance at shortstop coming into the season. Poor defense and poor contact at the plate should relegate Espinosa to the bench once the Nats are ready to call up top prospect Trea Turner.
In the outfield, the injury bug hit left fielder Jayson Werth as well last year, limiting him to just 88 games in 2015. When he did play, his numbers were down across the board, highlighted by his .685 OPS. At age 36, there really isn’t much time left for Werth to prove himself capable of a bounce-back season, so he needs to come out of the gate on fire with the much younger Michael Taylor nipping at his heels. Denard Span signed on with the Giants in the off-season, so the Nats went out and added Denard Span’s doppelgänger in Ben Revere. Revere possesses the same tools as Span, with A+ defense and speed. He will hit at the top of the order. Over in right is Harper. Staying healthy has always been the key for Harper, and 2015 was really the first season he was capable of doing so. He put up a stellar .330/.460/1.109 line last year; look for more of the same when he’s on the field.
The number-one slot in the rotation is held down by Max Scherzer, coming off a 2015 season that saw him pitch two no-hitters. His 14-12 record was more indicative of a lackluster offense than his own efforts. Scherzer should be a Cy Young contender again this season. Number-two starter Stephen Strasburg had two different seasons in 2015. His first ten starts saw him compile a 6.55 ERA, but after returning from the DL on June 23, he compiled a 1.76 ERA and looked like his old self again. If healthy, a 1-2 punch of Scherzer-Strasburg will make it tough to win a short series against this team. Gio Gonzalez is a solid third guy in the rotation, even though hitters made more contact off him in 2015. Expect a respectable, if not good, season from him. Rounding out the rotation for the Nats will be former reliever Tanner Roark and 22-year-old Joe Ross, who showed promise in his 2015 rookie run and should be in the rotation all season.
In the bullpen, the sometimes-problematic Jonathan Papelbon returns as the closer. Pap has always been a consistently solid game-ender, even though his velocity is coming down. His control is still there and he should have plenty of opportunities for saves. Shawn Kelley and Trevor Gott provide solid setup relief from the right side, while Oliver Perez will be called upon as the left-handed specialist. Blake Treinen and Yusmeiro Petit round out the ‘pen.
Prediction: A steady hand in the dugout and good health keeps this team in the hunt all season. First-place in the NL East.
New York Mets (2015: 90-72, 1st place, National League Champions)
Manager: Terry Collins
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
3B David Wright
1B Lucas Duda
2B Neil Walker
That the Mets shocked the baseball world and made it to the World Series in October showed that patience pays off with young prospects. Through shrewd dealings and investment in draft picks, GM Sandy Alderson has turned a Mets franchise that was a perennial late-night television joke into a playoff contender. Offense will be the question in 2016, as in, “do they have enough?” just as it was this time in 2015. They definitely have the power arms in the rotation to contend.
d’Arnaud only played 67 games in 2015 due to an elbow injury, but when he was healthy and in the lineup, he was solid, proven by his .825 OPS. If he plays a full season, he can hit 20 HR and with around 80 RBI. Kevin Plawecki will back him up.
Duda has first base locked down based on his 27 HR in 2015. He has good plate discipline and more of the same is expected from him in 2016. Wilmer Flores will see time at first when Duda sits, and all around the infield on other days.
At second base, playoff hero Daniel Murphy left for Washington so the Mets traded starting pitcher Jonathon Niese to the Pirates for Walker. Walker is a lot like Murphy with his numbers, hitting .269 with 16 HR and 71 RBI in 2015. If he doesn’t improve against left-handed pitching, he may find himself platooning with Wilmer Flores. Free agent signee shortstop Cabrera completes the new double-play combo for the Metropolitans, bringing offensive consistency, generally ranging around 15 HR per season and hitting around .260.
Team captain Wright, returns to third base in 2016; however, spinal stenosis may prevent him from playing every day. In only 38 games last season, he still managed to display his bat with an OPS of .814. After letting Ruben Tejada go during spring training, Flores and Eric Campbell will backup the Captain.
In the outfield, Conforto will open the season as the leading candidate to start in left and will be tested in his sophomore season, but if 2015 is any indication, expect a solid season from him. In center, Cespedes returns on a big three-year deal (with an opt-out after Year One). Citi Field is no match for his monster power, and oh boy, that arm! Cespedes can churn out MVP-type numbers and carry a team on his back for stretches. In right field, Granderson had a welcome return to form in 2015, and if he holds the course, expect another 25-homer season. Lagares and Alejandro De Aza provide solid back-up options in the outfield.
The starting rotation is the best in baseball, and it is also the youngest. Harvey came back from Tommy John surgery in 2015 to win 13 games and post a 2.71 ERA, along with 188 Ks. His insistence on staying on to try and finish Game 5 of the World Series also showed his competitive fire. Harvey’s innings will continue to be watched, but all indications are that he will be healthy and tough to beat. deGrom won 14 games, but probably should have won more if it wasn’t for the anemic (early on, at least) offense supporting him. The Mets will get plenty of quality starts from him again in 2016. Syndergaard has one of the best fastballs in the league and his rookie season signaled to all other teams that the Mets have built a beast of a rotation. He needs to show better command of his secondary pitches at a consistent rate. The left-handed Matz will start the season in the rotation, but his innings will also be monitored, as he has never thrown more than 140 in any professional season. The durable and seemingly ageless Colon will anchor down the final spot, likely until Zack Wheeler returns in mid-season from his 2015 TJ surgery.
In the bullpen, Familia holds down the closer role. He converted 43 of 48 save chances and mixed a very tough-to-hit fastball will excellent command. Three blown saves in the World Series may have some wondering about his ability to handle pressure, however. Former closer Reed is an option when Familia needs rest or if he gets injured. Bastardo is the left-handed setup man, with the ‘pen being rounded out by Robles and Blevins.
There are no questions surrounding the Mets and their ability to stay close in ball games thanks to their rotation. A lot needs to go right in order for the offense to be better than 2015, where they ranked second from the bottom in team batting average. Still, they have enough firepower to outclass many other teams and will reach the playoffs again in 2016.
Prediction: Second-place in the NL East and a wild card spot.
Miami Marlins (2015: 71-91, 3rd place)
Manager: Don Mattingly
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
2B Dee Gordon
3B Martin Prado
1B Justin Bour
CL A.J. Ramos
The 2016 version of the Miami Marlins are a team on the rise*. They have a solid core of young talent, and are led by a perennial MVP candidate in Stanton, the face of the franchise. Hopefully, that face can stay healthy for the rest of his career and give South Florida fans a reason to come out and watch this team play. The young talent is led by a new skipper in Mattingly**. He opted not to return to the Dodgers, and many thought there was a difference in philosophies between the front office and Donnie Baseball. He doesn’t have a roster loaded with heavy contracts and opposing personalities in Miami, so it will be interesting to see if Mattingly can instill a winning attitude in these kids.
*Editor’s Note: The views of Chris Jordan do not reflect those of any right-minded individual. This team stinks because of their ownership. Jordan’s been mixing NyQuil and DayQuil, obviously.
Realmuto gets the nod behind the dish. He is a decent contact hitter for a catcher but doesn’t have a lot of patience. Still, he has the potential for a 15-homer season and he runs surprisingly well. His 27% caught stealing rate ranked him ninth in MLB for 2015 and he also ranked tied for seventh in fielding percentage, so he provides solid defense behind the plate. Jeff Mathis will back him up.
Over at first base, Bour comes off a solid 2015 season, his first full year in The Show. He struggled against lefties and may find himself sitting in favor of Chris Johnson if that does not improve in that area. Bour brings 20-25 home run potential with a batting average that will sit anywhere from .250-.270. He ranked 10th in the bigs in fielding percentage with 6 errors, so there is also room for improvement with the glove too.
Gordon comes off an All-Star 2015 season at second base. The son of former reliever Tom “Flash” Gordon hit a league-leading .333 with an ML-best 58 stolen bases while scoring 88 runs. He gets on-base with his contact skills despite a total lack of plate patience (just 25 walks). He’s still 27, so don’t expect a drop-off this season, but more of the same. Defensively, only Jose Altuve of the Astros had a better fielding percentage at the keystone in MLB.
The Opening Day starter at third base will be Prado. A shoulder injury cost him some time in 2015, but he closed the season with a .288 average, 9 HR and 63 RBI, so he put up another season consistent with his career averages. Prado is arguably the best defensive third basemen not named Evan Longoria*. Ex-Brave Johnson can also fill in at this position.
Editor’s Note III: [coughs loudly] Adrian Beltre and Nolan Arenado [coughs, goes for a water].
Hechavarria will man short for the Marlins. He provides solid, reliable defense (sixth in MLB in fielding percentage in 2015) but offensively there is not much power and above average speed. Derek Dietrich can fill in when needed.
In the outfield, Yelich opens the season in left, coming off a season where he hit .300 and stole 16 bases. He provides good contact and discipline at the plate. He hits at the top of the order and can get in scoring position for Stanton, so the Marlins may score first quite often. In center, Ozuna gets a second chance after a disappointing 2015. He was so disappointing that he was shipped down to AAA for a short while*. If he gets back to his 2014 numbers, the Marlins have protection for Stanton. Speaking of Stanton, he opens in right. The key with Stanton is simple: stay off the DL. When he is in the lineup, he provides power not seen much elsewhere in all of MLB. Is this the year that he finally does it? The Marlins have the opportunity to contend all the way to the end of the season if he stays healthy and Ozuna becomes a productive hitter again.
*Editor’s Note IV: Whether it was due to poor performance, or a rift with Darth Loria, Ozuna did compare his time in AAA to prison. Prison or the Marlins? Hmmm…tough call.
The rotation is anchored by Fernandez, who came back from Tommy John surgery in July but went down with a biceps injury soon after and never really settled in. He was impressive in his few outings with his velocity and command, though. A full season from Fernandez — monitored closely of course — will be a fun thing to watch. Left-hander Chen comes over from the Orioles as a free agent. He pitched well in a hitter-friendly park in Baltimore, so it should be assumed that a pitcher-friendly park in Miami will find him successful. Third-starter Cosart had a nerve issue that brought along Vertigo-like symptoms in 2015, and this may have affected his numbers. At 25 years old, staying healthy all year will be key to getting him back on track. Number-four arm Koehler was the beneficiary of an injured rotation and a lack of better options in 2015. He posted 11 wins and a 4.08 ERA, but allowed way too many baserunners (1.339 WHIP) and may have a short leash this season with the rotation filling out.
Veteran right-hander Edwin Jackson Youngster Conley fills out the final spot as the Marlins wait for their pitching prospects to develop.
*Conley was announced as the fifth starter for the Fish. Jackson will likely fill a swingman role for the time being.
The bullpen will be less one key component as closer hopeful Carter Capps went down with a torn UCL and is done for the season. Closer-to-be Ramos posted an 11.1 K/9 rate while saving 32-of-38 last year. His control is an issue at times and with Capps down for the count, the Marlins may be well-served to eye other options. The setup team includes Dunn from the left side and Barraclough from the right. Barraclough could be a closer option if Ramos falters. Hand alternated between starting and relieving in 2015, but with the addition of Chen, he figures to be in the bullpen. Morris and Jackson fill out the rest of the ‘pen, which may be a weak spot for the Marlins.
With a healthy season from Stanton, a bounce-back year from Ozuna and a full season from Fernandez, the Marlins have the makings of a dark horse and are definitely a contender within the next few years. A questionable bullpen and rotation depth will keep them from making the playoffs, but this team is a good spoiler down the stretch.
Prediction: Third-place in NL East.
Atlanta Braves (2015 record: 67-95, 4th place)
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
SS Erick Aybar
Manny Banuelos (Note: injured due to elbow soreness; current replacement TBD)
CL Jason Grilli
The 2016 Braves are a team in transition. They’re in rebuilding mode but have made some deals that set them up for success in the future. Shelby Miller was traded to the Diamondbacks in exchange for 2016 top draft choice and shortstop-of-the-near-future Dansby Swanson and Inciarte, who will shore up center field for the Braves. Pitching prospect Sean Newcomb came over from the Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade and is regarded as the organization’s No. 2 prospect behind Swanson. So while the team is selling off its present, they hope fans will buy into the Braves’ future.
The 39-year-old Pierzynski returns to catcher this season. He’s coming off a surprising 2015 where he hit .300, but that was probably more of an aberration than anything. He is more than adequate defensively and can handle a pitching staff and his veteran presence behind the plate can only help a pitching staff with an average age of 25. Backup (and former Brave prospect) Tyler Flowers, coming over from the White Sox is fine, but the Braves need more young depth at the position.
Freeman injured his wrist last season and missed 44 games overall. He will return healthy and provide steady defense at first base. His power isn’t as prolific as some other players at his position, but he has always hit for average and is excellent at getting on base. He will be pitched around quite a bit with nobody in the lineup to protect him.
Peterson will handle the bulk of second base to start the season, although by the end of the year, who knows what the keystone will look like for the Bravos.
Garcia was impressive after his call-up late in the season so he will get a look at 3B to start 2016. Veterans Kelly Johnson and Gordon Beckham provide some depth all around the infield.
Aybar will open at shortstop, coming over from the Angels in the Simmons deal. At 32, Aybar is seeing his speed decline — once one of his strong suits. He makes contact, but cannot get on base with any regularity.
Cuban defector and 2015 trade addition Hector Olivera is going to be given a shot in left field to start the year. Inciarte will provide nice defense in center and he also hits for average (.303) and can run (21 steals). In this lineup, he may not get many opportunities to score, however. Nick Markakis is the veteran in right field. He can still hit his way on base and provides some good defense, but his power is long gone. Drew Stubbs and prodigal son Jeff Francoeur provide veteran depth here.
The rotation is young, with 30-year-old Norris the elder on this staff, which may be his only contribution after a terrible 2015 with Baltimore and San Diego (3-11, 6.72 ERA). Teheran is the ace, though he is coming off a pretty dismal 11-win season. He couldn’t get lefties out in 2015 (.894 OPS) and his walks went up (51 in 221 innings for 2014; 73 in 200 innings for 2015). Wisler is coming off a rookie season that saw him win eight games and would probably be a back-of-the-rotation guy on a better team. The jury is still out on his abilities but he should get a longer look in 2016.
Former Yankee prospect Banuelos made six starts before hitting the DL with bone spurs, but should be healthy for 2016. Finally, Perez will round the rotation. At 24, he still has time to find his command and have more than a few flashes of brilliance down the line.
The Braves have a couple of options at closer. The veteran Grilli was holding that spot down last year before hitting the DL with an Achilles injury that wiped out his 2015. Vizcaino took over and looked impressive, saving 9-of-10 down the stretch. Veteran Johnson is also down there in case of emergency. The Braves will be trying out several rookies (and some veteran retreads) to flesh out the bullpen, as the setup and long-relief situations do not look good.
Prediction: The Braves have some young talent waiting in the wings, but they are certainly not ready this season. It will be another long year down South and the Braves will finish 4th in the NL East.
Philadelphia Phillies (2015 record: 63-99, 5th place)
Manager: Peter Mackanin
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
1B Ryan Howard
Let the rebuilding commence! The Phillies have shed some veteran contracts, they have shed Ruben Amaro from the GM position and replaced him with Matt Klentak and they have made some shrewd deals to help buff up the farm system. The Phillies have suffered three straight losing seasons after spending 2007-2011 in contention. The downfall of this team came when everyone got old real fast and the “win now” deals of the past stripped the Phils’ farm system. This year truly begins the rebuild toward another successful run in the future, but there will still be some growing pains to go through.
Rupp should get the bulk of the starts behind the plate, as Carlos Ruiz ages and becomes a less productive player every season. Rupp hits lefties well, but needs to improve against righties. His handling of a young pitching staff is still in question, but the Phillies have Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp in development, so Rupp is a stopgap until one of them is ready.
Howard and his albatross contract will return to first base in 2016. He has a team buy-out clause for 2017, so unless the Phillies can find a taker for his loaded deal, he will get the bulk of playing time. He can still hit righties at a decent clip, but he may sit against tough lefties, giving Darin Ruf a chance to shine.
Hernandez opens the season at second. He is a light-hitting speedster who can also take a walk to get on base, but this lineup will not drive him in very often. His defense is above average, as his speed helps him get to grounders in the hole.
Franco was having a fine rookie season at third base before breaking his wrist in August. He is a solid contact hitter with the potential for a 20-homer season, maybe more down the road. At 23-years-old, there is still room for improvement, which is a scary thought for opposing teams.
Galvis returns at shortstop, where he is coming off the best season of his career in 2015. Don’t expect much power from Galvis, or a lot of walks, as his .302 OBP in 2015 indicates. Top prospect J.P. Crawford may get a look before the season ends. Andres Blanco will back up at short and second.
In the outfield, there are still some holes to fill, and the Phillies may end up with totally different corner outfielders by season’s end. In left field, Asche, once he’s healthy, will get a look, having been displaced from third by Franco in 2015. Asche’s numbers thus far in the big leagues have not been all that impressive, but the Phillies really don’t have many options right now, so he will get the chance to play. In center, Herrera was a bright spot on a team that didn’t have many. A Rule 5 draft pick from the Rangers, he jumped from Double-A to play every day for the Phillies, hitting .297 and stealing 16 bases. In right field, once again because of a lack of options, Peter Bourjos will get the Opening Day nod, at least until Altherr is healthy. Bourjos is an excellent defender who is normally a late-inning replacement, but his .200 batting average in 2015 will need to improve for him to keep the job.
Looking at the rotation, 22-year-old Nola should get the Opening Day nod. He had a surprisingly solid debut season with a 6-2 record and a 3.59 ERA. He pitches in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, however, and will need to keep the ball down in order to succeed, and the Phillies’ infielders will need to be on their toes defensively. Hellickson comes over from Arizona to take the second spot. He has not been able to find his form from his days in Tampa Bay, but a healthy Hellickson could still turn it around. Former Pirate Morton is the veteran of the staff. He comes from a pitcher-friendly park in Pittsburgh to a bandbox in Philly, so his soft-tossing ways better result in some ground balls or it could be a long season for him. Eickhoff will get a late start to the season as he broke his thumb on the first day of spring training, but he has a spot in the rotation waiting for him. He showed good command and a decent fastball in his eight starts in 2015, so a full season from him will be something to watch on this team. Velasquez will compete for the fifth spot after coming over from the Astros. He has a solid fastball which he mixes well with his slider and change. He needs to improve his command, but his upside is promising.
In the bullpen, with the departure of Giles to Houston, Hernandez gets the nod for the closer spot. This basically shows that the Phillies ‘pen is a mess. However, Hernandez has the stuff to take the lead in that role. Cubs’ castoff Russell will be in the mix to set up from the left side, with Hinojosa from the right. Rounding out the ‘pen will be right-hander Gomez, veteran righty Mujica (another option for closer if Hernandez falters) and lefty Oberholtzer, another former Astro coming over in the Giles deal. He is also an option for the rotation if someone pitches poorly.
2016 is not going to be a good year for the Phillies, but there are plenty of reasons to still be optimistic for the organization’s future. A new GM who is intent on rebuilding the farm system, some good young players at the big league level and in development, and Ryan Howard’s contract almost coming to an end.
Prediction: Tooth-and-nail with Atlanta for fifth place, but the Phils take the final spot.
Tomorrow, we will put the American League Central, home of the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals, under the microscope.