2016 National League East Preview

Washington Nationals OF Bryce Harper was awesome last year. Scary awesome. Photo Courtesy: Scott Ableman
Washington Nationals OF Bryce Harper was awesome last year. Scary awesome.
Photo Courtesy: Scott Ableman

By Patrick R. Malone

Baseball is back. The smell of peanuts, beer and highly-caloric food monstrosities is almost upon us. But first things first, time to pick the winner of the NL East and its runner-ups.

Washington Nationals (95-67)
The Washington Nationals did two big things last season: first, they underachieved, big time. Secondly, longtime, mother flippin’, prodigy Bryce Harper finally came into his own and in doing so became the NL MVP. Oh, and Max Scherzer had a damn good season.

Harper was awesome last year. Scary awesome. What’s even scarier is that he’s only 23 and could be even better this season.

And while they did underachieve last season (83-79), I believe those same variables shouldn’t be an issue this year. In fact, the Nationals have a new manager. Dusty Baker gets the honor of steering this hopefully not so dysfunctional club, albeit an extremely talented dysfunctional club, back in the right direction.

Pitching
The Nationals pitching staff is pretty darn good. First year National Scherzer was everything the Nats could have hoped for last season, going 14-12, 2.79 ERA, 228.2 IP, 276 SO, .918 WHIP and 10.9 K/9. He even threw two no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game down to the last strike before hitting Jose Tabata.

Then there’s the other former first-round pick Stephen Strasberg to help anchor the Nationals rotation—that is, as long as he is healthy. Strasberg had respectable numbers last season (11-7, 3.46 ERA, 127.1 IP, 155 SO, 1.107 WHIP and 11 K/9), but spent 60 days on the disabled list, while only appearing in 23 games.

With Jordan Zimmermann in the American League now, Strasberg will have to give the Nats some meaningful innings this season. Scherzer can’t do it all on his lonesome again.

Hitting
Everyone knows/expects what Harper’s going to do. But what about the rest of the team? Remember Anthony Rendon? He was lost for much of the 2015 season, but is healthy and looks to get back to his 2014 near-MVP form. As a reminder, the then 24-year-old Rendon hit .287 with 21 home runs and 83 RBIs. He was worth 6.6 WAR and also finished 5th in MVP voting. Yeah, the Nationals want Rendon back.

The Nats lineup will have plenty of power between Harper and Rendon, as well with Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmermann and newly added ex-Mets postseason hero Daniel Murphy.

The key for this team going forward will be health. If they can stay healthy, they should win the division under their new skipper.

New York Mets (92-70)
The New York Mets shocked the world last year and made it all the way to the World Series, which they eventually lost in heartbreaking fashion. But as predicted last season, it was their pitching that carried them all the way to the post season and on to the World Series (including Daniel Murphy’s postseason heroics).

The Mets also had some of the better luck in the league with everyone seemingly healthy all season long. Their luck, however, could come back down to earth some this year. I still have them winning two more games than they did last season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit a few road bumps or two along the way.

Pitching
The Mets have one of the youngest and best rotations in the league, lead by Matt Harvey. Harvey will be a free agent after this season, so we should get to see a lot more of Harvey and his nasty slider without any innings limit talk. More Harvey means more wins for everybody, well mostly the Mets.

Jacob DeGrom has been brilliant since his rookie season just two years ago. The former Rookie of the Year put up Cy Young caliber numbers in 2015 (14-8, 2.54 ERA, 191 IP, 205 SO, 0.979 WHIP and 9.7 K/9) and looks to continue his success this season once more.

Noah Syndergaard (9-7, 3.24 ERA, 150 IP, 166 SO, 1.047 WHIP and 10 K/9), the 22-year-old phenom acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays a few seasons ago, looks a lot more confident so far here in Spring Training. Between Syndergaard and Steven Matz (4-0, 2.27 ERA, 35.2 IP, 34 SO, 1.234 WHIP and 8.6 K/9), having a full season in the Mets rotation will pay dividends. This rotation could challenge all of baseball as the best in the MLB.

Hitting
The Mets got a huge boost and somehow were able to retain Yoenis Cespedes (.287/.337/.604). Having a hitter like Cespedes anchoring the middle of the lineup will help some of the other big hitters see more fastballs. He had 35 home runs last season, 17 of which were with the Mets. Keeping Cespedes was a major win for New York.

And let’s not forget about left fielder and 23-year-old Michael Conforto who hit .333/.313/.733 with two home runs and four RBIs in the World Series. Conforto provides the Mets with a major upgrade in left from day one—a major upgrade over the ever-aging Michael Cuddyer—and provides some thump from the left side of the plate.

David Wright (.289/.379/.434) should be healthy manning the hot corner and Lucas Duda, who hit .244/.352/.486 with 27 home runs, should continue to provide some pop from the left side of the plate.

Miami Marlins (77-85)
The Miami Marlins had a losing season for the sixth time in as many years. Last year I thought this could be the year that they compete for at least second in the division, but aside from Dee Gordon and Giancarlo Stanton, there wasn’t much to be excited about. One could make the case for Jose Fernandez coming back for 11 games and looking relatively healthy after recovering from Tommy John surgery too.

They are still a relatively young team, with Martin Prado holding down the old-man-fort at 31. Miami brought in former Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and former polarizing, slugger Barry Bonds, perhaps possibly pushing this club into the right direction this season. I’m scoring them low here, but maybe, just maybe they, along with Mattingly, could prove me wrong this year.

Pitching
Jose Fernandez will once again lead this teams pitching staff as its ace. Fernandez came back from TJ surgery for 11 starts and went 2.92 with 79 SO. His 2.24 FIP suggests Fernandez was actually pretty damn good for those 11 starts. Now with a healthy offseason, the Marlins will start the year with the top of the rotation intact.

The Marlins brought in Wei-Yin Chen (11-8, 3.34 ERA, 191.1 IP, 153 SO, 1.218 WHIP and 7.2 K/9) and Edwin Jackson (4-3, 3.07 ERA, 55.2 IP 40, 40 SO, 1.168 WHIP and 6.5 K/9) to bolster their staff. But with the loss of the young hurler and potential closer Carter Capps (1.16 ERA, 31 IP, 58 SO, 0.806 WHIP and 16.8 K/9) for the year due to TJ surgery, there are still question marks regarding Miami’s pitching staff.

Some of these question marks may not be answered until some regular season baseball has been played though.

Hitting
Stanton (.280/.379/.572 the past two seasons) made great strides two seasons ago when he hit 37 home runs. The then 25-year-old continued that success last season, hitting 27 dingers (23 of which happened before the All-Star break) before injuries derailed his season.

Gordon (.333/.359/.418) had somewhat of a break-out season last year. The NL batting champ became an All-Star for the second time in his career, as well as, earned a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award. Can he continue that success in 2016? Maybe. But coming into 2015, Gordon was just a .272/.314/.345 hitter. Time will only tell if he is indeed last year’s version of himself.

If the Marlins are going to be successful, they are going to need first year hitting coach Bonds to help their overall approach. In 2015, the team hit .260 and ranked 8th in the league, six points higher than league average at .254, but ranked at the bottom in both on base percentage (.310 OBP) and slugging percentage (.384 SLG).

But, with the addition of Bonds, those numbers should increase, as well as Miami’s inability to draw walks. In 2015, Miami ranked dead last in walks with 375. At Bond’s peak, he was one of, if not, the most patient hitter in baseball. It stands to reason that if Bonds translates to a good hitting coach, then maybe his methods (not all his methods…) can and will translate to the Marlins approach.

Philadelphia Phillies (66-96)
Well, technically I have them finishing better than I did last year. But unfortunately, they will finish with a worse record than their previous season, which ended with 99 losses. The Phillies organization is full of young promise. They have one of the best farms in the league and they own the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. But the next few years will prove to be growing years (and many growing pains) for many of their young cast of players, as well as, the fan base.

Pitching
There is literally nothing here. The Phillies traded away Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers, Jonathan Papelbon to the Washington Nationals and Ken Giles to the Houston Astros. The rotation and bullpen are both question marks.

Here’s the bright spot: youth.

Aaron Nola, 22, will lead the Phillies rotation. Previously ranked 12th by Baseball America’s 2015 top 100 prospects, Nola got his first stink in the big leagues last season, which ended to a tune of 6-2, 3.59 ERA, 77.2 IP, 68 SO, 1.197 WHIP and 7.9 K/9.

Then there’s 23-year-old Vince Velasquez. He was acquired in the Giles trade with Houston. Velasquez made his debut with the Astros in 2015, going 1-1, 4.37 ERA, 55.2 IP, 58 SO, 1.275 WHIP and 9.4 K/9. Velasquez is off to a great spring, which bodes well for the Phillies rotation plans.

Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft also acquired from the Giles trade, could make his way into the rotation if he rediscovers some of his consistency that made him so good at Stanford. Then there is Jake Thompson. The young righty was acquired in the Hamels trade and projects to be a middle of the rotation player (MORP).

There is little to believe in Philly, as far as in the now goes. But the future, well, the future here could be very bright.

Hitting
Maikel Franco. Phillies fans got to see the 23-year-old third baseman up close and personal. In 80 games, Franco hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs. And although Franco was sidelined in August with a fractured left wrist, he’s plenty healthy now and is off to a fantastic start in Spring Training. In 57 plate appearances, Franco is hitting .302 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs for the spring.

You Philly fans out there, also have OF Odubel Herrera (.261/.344/.374) to look forward to. Herrera, 24, runs real, real fast. As a rookie, he had 16 stolen bases, a number that could rise in 2016.

Fans can also thank the Rangers for providing the possible future of the centerfield and catching position. Outfielder Nick Williams and catcher Jorge Alfaro are both participating in Spring Training this year and could eventually see some playing time in the majors this season if Philly needs the depth.

Soon Philadelphia, soon.

Atlanta Braves (62-100)
Hey Atlanta, not all is bad. Your team somehow managed to steal top prospect Aaron Blair, 2015 No.1 overall pick Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte for Shelby Miller. Fist bump Atlanta. And while your team will most likely be the laughing stock of the MLB this season, you may hold your head high because you, you Atlanta, have the best farm system in baseball.

What does that mean? It means there will be a youth movement, new little Braves running around the playground. It will take a few years, hell the Braves might even be able to pull of the Astros plan of action, but for the first few years it will be brutal—utterly brutal.

Pitching
The Braves rotation is currently under construction. They lost Shelby Miller (fist bump Atlanta) and Alex Wood, who is now with the LA Dodgers.

They have Julio Teheran as their current TORP (top of the rotation pitcher). Teheran had a mediocre first half last season, but got better down the stretch. At Turner Field, he was really good, going 8-2, 2.89 ERA, 109.0 IP, 100 SO, 1.064 WHIP and 8.3 K/9. But away from Turner Field was a different story (3-6, 5.40 ERA, 91.2 IP, 71 SO, 1.593 WHIP and 7 K/9). Teheran will need to continue the success he found at home to help stabilize this pitching staff made up of question marks.

After Teheran, there’s Bud Norris, who is looking to remake something of what’s left of his career, and 22-year-old right-hander Matt Wisler. Not much else is certain at this point, as the last two spots in the rotation are currently up in the air. Jhoulys Chacin is in the mix, as well as, 23-year-old Mike Foltynewicz.

Jason Grilli is healthy and should get the first shot at closing duties. Other than that, there isn’t much to further look at here….

Hitting
The Atlanta Braves offense hinges all on one man—Freddie Freeman.

If Freeman is back to 100 percent, the Braves numbers should be better than last years. Speaking of 100 percent, Nick Markakis spent the offseason recovering from neck surgery and should help bolster the offence.

Sadly, Andrelton Simmons is gone (but Dansby Swanson!) and in his stead is the serviceable Erick Aybar (.276/.315/.378 for his career with the LA Angels). The Braves are also hope Ender Inciarte can be a force at the top of the order.

Last year, Adonis Garcia added a little pop. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but if he can improve on last year’s numbers, it will help make up for the defensive woes that will now be apparent on the left side of the infield.

The Braves were dead last in the NL in home runs, RBI, SO and SLG. There isn’t much hope, as far as big offensive numbers go. The Braves and their fan base can only hope the kids are called up sooner, rather than later.

How the N.L. East will finish in 2016
1) Washington Nationals (95-67)
2) New York Mets (92-70)
3) Miami Marlins (77-85)
4) Philadelphia Phillies (66-96)
5) Atlanta Braves (62-100)

Check out our other Divisional Previews
AL Central here
NL West here
AL West here