NL East Preview
March 22, 2014
By Matt Zylbert
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There’s an old adage that pitching wins championships, and if that is truly the case, then the 2014 Nationals appear to be in tip-top shape entering the upcoming campaign. Yes, they also had sky-high expectations last year, as they were coming off a season in which they won their first NL East title since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington D.C. almost a decade earlier, but injuries derailed that effort, and this year’s roster should actually be better, especially on the pitching side. Starting at the top, there is Stephen Strasburg, already one of the best aces in all of baseball, and the great thing about him is that he’s only getting better. Strasburg also had offseason surgery, which should ensure he’s 100-percent to begin the season. Behind him are two guys who would be aces on a lot of other clubs, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, who are both coming off tremendous campaigns, especially Zimmermann after registering the best season of his five-year career. However, it is the addition of Doug Fister that arguably propels this pitching staff all the way to the top, as he’s been one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball over the past few years. Ross Detwiler is good, too, and maybe the best No. 5 starter in the National League. Even if someone goes down, which is possible considering the injury history involved here, Washington has very promising youngsters waiting in the wings, like Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan, who can fill in beautifully. Roark has an incredibly high ceiling that could make him a well-known commodity sooner than later. The bullpen, meanwhile, has more than enough to preserve the work of its starters, still being led by Rafael Soriano at closer. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are excellent in their roles as set-up men, and the team added another plus arm in Jerry Blevins.
First-year manager Matt Williams should really have no issues concerning his pitching, and when you look up and down his lineup, the same should apply for his hitters as well. He’s got a budding superstar in Bryce Harper, who, even though he was a bit limited last year thanks to injuries, has shown more than enough thus far to cement why he is one of baseball’s young phenoms. Plus, like Strasburg, Harper had surgery in the offseason, which, hopefully for the Nats, means he can stay healthy in ’14. If that happens, look out. Ryan Zimmerman has been good for awhile since being Washington’s first-ever draft pick and there’s no reason for that to change, as he continues to man the hot corner. Meanwhile, the other corner infielder, Adam LaRoche, is still here as well shinning a decent bat and an outstanding glove at first base. It might be Ian Desmond, though, who is becoming the Nationals’ best infielder, as he enjoyed a nice break-out campaign in 2013 and figures to pick up where he left off, still only being 28-years old. With other solid hitters like Jayson Werth and Denard Span, the Nationals have an above-average lineup. As long as they can stay healthy, especially in their pitching corps, there’s no reason they can’t contend for first in the division. That rotation - one through five - is just way too talented to not achieve something special this season.
Predicted Record: 95-67
There are very few constants in life. One such constant, though, revolves around the Braves and the fact that they are always competitive. After all, since 1990, this is a franchise that has had only two losing seasons - two! - while nabbing 15 division titles, five National League pennants, and one World Series championship along the way. The thing that really irks Braves fans, though, is that final number, having just one championship victory to show for all their success, but at least last season got them back in that direction, as they captured their first NL East crown since 2005. Offensively, Atlanta has a plethora of dangerous bats, starting with Freddie Freeman, who has already evolved as arguably the team’s most dependable hitter. Jason Heyward was supposed to be just that when he broke into the big leagues, and while he hasn’t met the high expectations that were set upon him, he’s still developed into a solid everyday player. Justin Upton is also a stand-out for his production, although the same cannot be said for his brother B.J. Upton, who was absolutely abysmal last season. Dan Uggla was also a big disappointment, but if he and the latter Upton can bounce back to what they’re capable of, that would be huge. The Braves lost longtime catcher Brian McCann to free agency, but still have fan-favorite Evan Gattis in his place, while shortstop Andrelton Simmons is coming off a nice rookie showing.
Historically, the Braves have always had fabulous starting pitching, and despite losing Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, the same should hold true in 2014 - if they can stay healthy, that is. During Spring Training, Atlanta has seen two of its main fixtures, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor, plagued with injury issues, so much so that it looks like Medlen will miss the entire year, while Minor is slated for the shelf to begin his season. Furthermore, Brandon Beachy is also experiencing physical setbacks, this after struggling a bit last year following Tommy John surgery, so that’s certainly a red flag. Luckily, the Braves have some quality depth, such as in the last-minute acquisition of Ervin Santana, who was phenomenal last year in Kansas City. Atlanta also added veteran Gavin Floyd, although he won’t be healthy till around May. Sophomores Julio Teheran and Alex Wood enjoyed successful rookie seasons in ’13 and figure to be two of the main pieces through which this rotation will operate. Also watch out for fellow youngster David Hale when he gets plugged in there, as he’s someone that has enormous potential to be special for a long time. Fortunately for Atlanta, there are no health concerns as far as their top-ranked bullpen is concerned, which still boasts the presence of Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best closer in baseball. With top-notch set-up men like David Carpenter, Luis Avilan, and Jordan Walden, it’s no wonder this is an elite group. Getting the ball to them, though, could be a problem with their rotation being decimated by injuries. Ultimately, that could decide where this team ends up at season’s end.
Predicted Record: 84-78
Miami Marlins (Best Bet: Over 68.5 Wins)
It’s hard to get excited about an organization that is coming off a 100-loss season, especially one that is historically known for making questionable personnel moves, but the 2014 Marlins might be one of the few exceptions to that general sentiment. Why, exactly? It may be hard to believe that one man can change the outlook for an entire franchise, but that just might be the case with Jose Fernandez, who dazzled anyone and everyone that watched him pitch at any point after making his major league debut last April. Not only did Fernandez make the all-star team and finish in the top three in NL Cy Young voting, he also took home NL Rookie of the Year honors, while exhibiting all the tools that could make him one of baseball’s best aces over the next decade. And interestingly, the Marlins actually have a talented ensemble of pitchers right behind him on their staff. Jacob Turner, once a top prospect himself in Detroit, was very solid for most of last year, as was Nathan Eovaldi. Those are two critical building blocks that, if they continue their forward progress as above-average major league starters, can really accelerate Miami’s current youth movement. Furthermore, they also have Henderson Alvarez, who threw a no-hitter on the last day of the season, which probably isn’t a coincidence, as he showed promise before coming to the club from Toronto. It doesn’t stop there, as the Marlins have a young bullpen with potential, too. Steve Cishek was terrific last year in his first experience closing out games, converting on all but two of his 36 save opportunities. With hard-throwers Mike Dunn, A.J. Ramos, and newcomer Carter Capps setting him up, there actually could be a recipe for success here. The team also added Carlos Marmol, who still could be very useful in a late-inning role.
Unfortunately, it’s not just quality pitching that wins ballgames, so Miami is hoping for a much-improved offensive showing this season, after finishing last in baseball in batting average and runs scored a year ago. Of course, the effort will revolve around Giancarlo Stanton, who arguably is the most important player in the organization. Stanton, as many already know, has the potential to be the most premier home-run hitter in the game, and being just 24-years old, the sky really is his limit. Thus, given the contract issues that loom over his head, it’ll be extra important to field a productive roster around him, or the Marlins might lose him at some point. Garrett Jones was one name acquired for this push, and considering the power he’s shown in Pittsburgh, that could end up being a wise move. Miami also signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who will be an upgrade at catcher on both sides of the ball. The thing that will make or break their lineup, though, could be the progress shown by youngsters Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, who are two of the top blue-chippers the Marlins possess. If they both break through, it could have a domino effect for the rest of the lineup, and if Miami is able to score runs consistently, they genuinely have the makings of baseball’s next break-out team. Look out.
Predicted Record: 78-84
New York Mets
If you ask most Met fans, they’ll tell you they’re still a year away from being a legitimate contender - when the great Matt Harvey comes back from Tommy John surgery - but is it possible they can get back to .500, or maybe beyond that, as early as this season? If you really think about it, the answer just might be yes. Without question, the absence of Harvey, who has already solidified his standing as one of baseball’s best aces for the future, sends shockwaves through the outlook of New York’s “other” baseball team, but even without him, there is still a potentially delightful rotation in place here. To help fill the void, the Mets signed veteran Bartolo Colon, and while it’s doubtful he can duplicate his renaissance season from a year ago, there’s still a fine chance he can remain successful in the lighter-hitting National League. Even if it doesn’t pan out as desired, the Mets have another potential ace on the rise in Zack Wheeler, who is coming off a very impressive rookie campaign and has the same potential Harvey does in evolving into a franchise-type pitcher. The Mets have solid depth behind them with Jon Niese and Dillon Gee, who have both provided steady pitching over the past few seasons, and at some point, they’ll get a good look at another one of their arms of the future in Noah Syndrgaard, who also has unbelievable potential. It’s unfortunate that the bullpen still has its question marks, as while Bobby Parnell was terrific last year closing, the fact remains he’s coming back from neck surgery, which might hinder him early on. Furthermore, New York has a slew of unproven youngsters like Vic Black and Jeurys Familia setting him up, which could end up being a major weakness, just as the bullpen was last year.
On offense, the Mets were a disaster in 2013, finishing only above the Marlins in team batting average and slugging percentage. This year, they addressed those offensive woes, bringing in Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, both of whom should serve as two immediate upgrades in the outfield given what they had prior. Eric Young is there, too, after being a nice spark at the top of the order last year as soon as he was acquired. The infield doesn’t have as many dynamic players, but it does boast team captain David Wright, who is still one of the best third basemen in all of baseball and a serious presence in the middle of the order. Catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud has potential to be a similar type hitter, although he didn’t really hit much in his first taste of big-league action a season ago. The biggest issue, however, is at first base, where the Mets have some sort of messy platoon consisting of Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, and/or Josh Satin. If there are no improvements there, odds are they’ll remain a bottom-feeder offensive team again, which would be a shame, because even without Harvey, the starting pitching can still be superb.
Predicted Record: 77-85
If last year was any indication, there could be some dark days ahead for the Philadelphia organization, which is coming off its first losing season since 2002. Yes, it’s been awhile since the Phillies have found themselves below the majority of their division rivals, but that appears to be the case entering 2014 under new manager Ryne Sandberg. That’s not to say this club has no potential for a successful season, as they still possess some of the key veterans that have fueled them in the recent past, to go along with the blooming youngsters on this roster. Two of those aforementioned veterans are Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, and despite their older age, both proved last year once again that they are still two of the better left-handers in all of baseball. In fact, both comprised one-third of the six National League pitchers that recorded over 200 strikeouts a year ago, and the Phillies are actually getting another veteran from that list to join them this season in A.J. Burnett. If all three can stay healthy and make over 30 starts this year, that could be a huge factor that keeps the Phillies involved in the hunt. Meanwhile, behind them is second-year man Jonathan Pettibone, who was good in flashes last season before getting hurt and has potential to develop into a fine upper-rotation starting pitcher. The bullpen, on the other hand, is more of a variety in terms of age, still anchored by veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon. While many believe Papelbon is at the twilight point of his career, he’s still widely considered as one of the better closers in the NL, and with Antonio Bastardo and Mike Adams setting him up, it’s certainly an above-average group.
Amongst the batting order for the Phillies is a similar trend, being dominated by mostly older veterans in their mid-30’s. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, the two longest-tenured members of the team, are still here comprising the middle infield, and while both are clearly in the decline stages of their career, they each may have one more productive season left. Ryan Howard is also an old staple of this lineup, although he’s coming off consecutive years that have been cut short by significant injuries. If he can somehow stay healthy, that’s a main source of power for the Phils, but that’s a big “if.” At the very least, if he does go down again, Philadelphia has a capable replacement in Darin Ruf. Another returning veteran, longtime catcher Carlos Ruiz, has seen his best days at the plate well behind him, but his most valuable asset is the rapport he has developed with the pitching rotation. In the outfield, the Phillies are a little younger with Dominic Brown and Ben Revere, two dynamic players that energize this lineup, and will be joined by the newly-signed Marlon Byrd, who is coming off a career season, albeit at 36-years old. Cody Asche, the youngster manning the hot corner, has some nice potential as a sleeper candidate. It’s clear the window is closing on this aging roster, and with their fellow NL East residents all getting better, it will probably be a difficult campaign for the Fightin’ Phils.
Predicted Record: 71-91
Final Say on the NL East: Things could start to get more interesting in the NL East, after years of having seemingly the same three teams rule over the rest. One of those teams, the Phillies, look like they’re about to enter rebuilding mode for the first time in a long while, considering all the aging players and potential injuries they have on their hands in both their offense and pitching. Thus, they’re in trouble as far as 2014 is concerned. Meanwhile, the Braves could be in a tricky spot, given all the injuries they’ve endured throughout spring training. Overall, they should have enough depth to get by, but it also could potentially open the door for either the Marlins or Mets to surpass them, both of whom should be improved this season. While most figure the Mets are still a year away from being a serious contender, it might be the Marlins who are the most intriguing, as their young pitching looks really sharp and might have enough juice to push them into a position to shock people. If they could improve on last year’s woeful hitting, that could really set them up as this year’s surprise team in the National League, but that’s also a big “if.” That leaves the Nationals as the most sure item left, and with how incredibly deep their starting pitching is, it’s tough to envision them not making some sort of deep run this year. One through five, they can match up well against anyone, and even though they’re currently listed at a relatively unfriendly -125 to win the division, it might be the best futures bet in the NL East.
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