Division Outlook: NL East

NL East 2014 Final Standings
Washington Nationals         96     66
Atlanta Braves                       79     83
New York Mets                     79     83
Miami Marlins                      77     85
Philadelphia Phillies             73     89

Looking ahead at the National League East, you wouldn’t be incorrect to see a division filled with three distinct tiers. Tiers that all but invert the expected order of finish that baseball fans have come to expect from this historically consistent division. At the top, you have the best team in baseball, followed by two fast-rising young teams with proven but raw talent in the middle, and the former powerhouses resting on bizarre rebuilding strategies in the basement.

2014 was supposed to be the Nationals year, even if midway through the season they were hidden behind other overachieving teams and the third straight season losing their budding star Bryce Harper to nagging injuries. By September, led by the arms of Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg, and the finally properly appreciated Jordan Zimmerman, the Nats climbed into first place, where they’d stay, favorites to take October. As we all know, they instead ran into the buzzsaw that was the San Francisco Giants. Actually, the Nats played San Francisco better than any other team in the postseason, with a few breaks in their direction we could be talking about a repeat. In the offseason, the Nats stayed relatively quiet, choosing not to shake up a strong roster. That is, until they dropped $210m on the best free agent available, Max Scherzer, in late January. The move prompted writers to predict the team would deal away one of their seasoned starters. Instead, the Nats look to take that embarrassment of riches into the 2015 season. As for the offense, at some point Bryce Harper should bust out, Danny Espinosa will be better, and Anthony Rendon continues to rise. The bullpen might be the Nats only weak spot, as trading away their best bullet in Tyler Clippard leaves major duties to an underachieving Drew Storen and forgotten Casey Janssen. On the other hand, Tanner Roark was sensational in 2014 and now he’s relegated to spot starter behind the main horses. Look for Roark to pick up much of the bullpen slack. Searching for a flaw on the Nationals squad is part and parcel with predicting an injury or unexpected dips in production. On paper, this team needs to get to the World Series to avoid being a disappointment.

Before Scherzer’s deal sucked the air out of the room, the Miami Marlins announced a contract that was as perplexing as it was grandiose. Opening up the checkbook, the Marlins handed superstar right fielder, Giancarlo Stanton, a 13-year, $325mil deal that all but assures he will spend the rest of his career with the team. There are opt-out clauses littered throughout the deal and you’d be a fool not to see this thing getting real ugly about halfway through. For now, Stanton is sucking down bottles of champagne the size of bulldogs and the Marlins look like a franchise eager to compete right away. Placed with Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna, Stanton and the young team already sport the finest outfield in the majors. The Marlins also dealt top prospect Andrew Heaney to the Dodgers for Dee Gordon. A risky move, surely, that also offers a dynamic top of the order option ahead of power down the line. It’s reasonable to assume that the success of the 2015 Marlins rests on whether or not we get first-half 2014 Gordon or second-half 2014 Gordon. The Marlins were competitive last year even without elite starter Jose Fernandez, who will be back by the end of May. This success is partially due to Henderson Alvarez, a young junk pitcher who keeps balls on the ground and eats innings. Alvarez is a prime example of a guy who won’t make it look very pretty, but can be counted upon to consistently get you seven innings. Winning teams need these types of starters. Adding Mat Latos and Dan Haren offers competent, solid back of the rotation starters while Jared Cosart and Tim Koehler continue to improve as rotation plugs or bullpen support. The loss of Nathan Eovaldi (and his 198 innings) will hurt, but the addition of Martin Prado reinforces an already potent lineup with a slap-hitting, sure-fielding utility veteran. Miami won 77 games a year ago while finishing middle of the pack in team pitching and hitting. That extremely young team will improve together this coming year. Intelligent buy-low add-ons complement the high-upsides of the youth making for a roster that could compete now. As we know, if the Marlins make the playoffs they always win the World Series, so the sky’s the limit in South Beach.

Nobody who isn’t half-insane or living just south of the Bronx will ever confidently pick the New York Mets to succeed without doubting themselves or quantifying many “ifs,” “coulds,” “buts” or caveats. In a nutshell, the Mets roster, especially their pitching, looks promising… but they are still the Mets. So, read everything that follows with a grain of salt. Prior to season-ending Tommy John surgery in 2013, Matt Harvey was the All Star Game starter with a 2.00 FIP and a 9.63 K/9. He’s back now. Last season, Jacob DeGrom looked surprisingly lights out in his 22 starts, going 9 – 6 with a 2.67 FIP, good for Rookie of the Year honors. Beyond DeGrom, the guy previously hyped as Harvey’s running mate, Zack Wheeler, was pretty darn consistent, striking out 9 per 9 and finishing with a 3.55 ERA – just one point off his FIP. These three don’t even get to Noah Syndergaard, an MLB-ready arm who has lived in top ten prospect lists for the past few seasons and might slot in as the number four starter by July. Even if Syndergaard needs more time, the Mets have John Niese, Dillon Gee, and the ageless Bartolo Colon who can eat innings while keeping the shaky offense in ballgames. About that offense, the big splash this offseason was signing Michael Cuddyer. Aging and never really all that good when not playing in Coors Field, Cuddyer is a very Mets signing who will likely be a liability from the jump. But maybe not. Travis d’Arnaud could breakout and continue to anchor the staff. Daniel Murphy and Luca Duda are mercilessly underrated on the right side of the infield and David Wright can still be a tough out from third. What this team can do is field the baseball, as proven by the marginal change in FIP to ERA lines. Juan Lagares might have to cover more ground than most centerfielders next to Granderson and Cuddyer, but he’s Juan Lagares so at least there’s that. The Mets might be very good. They might be very bad. They might be very middle. But what we can bank on is they will be very Mets.

At the trade deadline in 2014, baseball fans were laughing about Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro stubbornly sitting on his pile of aging talent rather than shopping for prospects. In the offseason, Amaro was willing to spin long time shortstop Jimmy Rollins for a pair of solid pitching prospects from the Dodgers. It seems like a small move that will do little to shed Amaro’s image as a visionless traditionist too trigger-happy with bad contracts. However, having one of the top ten arms in baseball, Cole Hamels, on team-friendly contract for the next four years isn’t the worst idea ever. Barring a complete implosion, Hamels’ value will only rise, allowing the Phillies to keep people in the seats while developing their limited but promising farm system. Some are predicting the Phillies to win as few as 55 games in 2015 and indeed if things don’t break perfectly the season could be a wash right out of the gate. The fear might be a bit overblown as beyond Hamels, the Phils still have a productive bat in Chase Utley (when he’s on the field), an inconsistent but reasonable contributor in Ryan Howard (when he’s on the field), an underrated table-setter in Ben Revere, and a solid bullpen that sports Jonathan Papelbon as well as 2014 revelation, Ken Giles. Even if everything goes right, the Phillies will be a bad team, but there’s little reason for Phils fans to jump off buildings just yet. Giles, shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford, and third baseman Mikael Franko offer hope already living in the system. Zach Efflin and Tom Windle from the Dodgers offer future mid-rotation depth, plus the older guys could still be trade pieces for needy teams in the summer. If the Phillies resign themselves to shedding that team that was supposed to win in 2011 but never did and embracing a rebuild, they are not as horribly far off as some might believe.

Like the Phillies, Atlanta has watched a promising roster descend into the abyss of semi-rebuild mode. For the Braves, the change has been harsh and primarily caused by bats that went radio silent for the past 162 games. That implode prompted ownership to fire GM Frank Wren and bring in a tandem of John Hart and John Coppolella, who then spent the offseason trading away their best hitters for more pitching. Make sense, right? Say what you will about Evan Gattis, he’s at least a capable starting everyday hitter with plus power who will likely smash 30 HRs in Minute Maid Park this year. Justin Upton will always be maligned because of the shadow his hype assured, but he’s still a perennial All Star who may be entering his peak. Neither one of them plays for the Atlanta Braves anymore. In addition to keeping the worst position starter in BJ Upton and his awful contract, the Braves threw the bank at a right fielder entering his decline years in Nick Markakis. Beyond being a potential overreaction, the vision seems downright crooked. Yet, like the Rays in the American League, Atlanta has arms. In fact, they may have some of the best young pitchers this side of the Nationals. They finished with a 3.38 team ERA, good for fifth in baseball in 2014, and that was without the additions of Shelby Miller and Mike Foltynewicz. Another year closer to their primes, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Alex Wood create a formidable trio up top and the bullpen still sports the best closer we’ve seen since Mariano. Crazy as it sounds, the Braves might compete, or at the very least look a lot like the pitching-happy, bat-anemic Padres from a year ago. I wouldn’t mortgage the house on them making the playoffs, but giving up completely on the Braves could be a mistake.

NL East 2015 Projected Standings
Washington Nationals       94     68
Miami Marlins                     88     74
New York Mets                    85     77
Atlanta Braves                      70     92
Philadelphia Phillies            69     93

Featured Image: Via Terez Owens

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