3/24/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
In pitching-rich NL East, Nats primed to rise to top
Questions surround reigning division-champion Braves; Marlins, Mets on the rise
By Paul Hagen / MLB.com
The Nationals are clearly the team to beat in the National League East.
This is not a recording.
A year ago, you might recall, Washington was also the consensus pick to take the division. But the Nats didn't gel until it was too late, and they missed the playoffs entirely despite winning 26 of their last 38 games.
There are plenty of reasons to suspect that the Nationals will bounce back strong this season. While four of the five teams in the division have to consider starting pitching their greatest asset, the Nats took a rotation that already included Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann and added Doug Fister to it. On paper, that's pretty imposing.
They've amassed enough talent that the focus is just on staying healthy and having each player do what he's supposed to do. They don't need anybody to overachieve to win.
And winning the division is important. In the last 10 years, only two of 12 Wild Card playoff teams have come from the NL East.
The Braves finished 10 games ahead of the Nationals last season, but they will be without right-handers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the entire season due to reconstructive elbow surgery. While Atlanta can't be counted out, any team would be devastated by losing two top starters.
The Marlins appear to be on the rise once again with oodles of talented young players. The only question is how many of the top prospects will reach their potential and how quickly. But if Miami can find a way to score more runs, it will be a tough opponent this season.
Mets fans can look ahead and imagine what a rotation with Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard will look like in a year or two, especially after all three young arms get a little big league experience. But it shouldn't be overlooked that New York finished third last season, so they can't be written off entirely.
The Phillies still have big names and players who know how to win, but many of the stars have been nagged by injuries in recent years. As a result, good health is even more crucial than normal. If everything falls into place, though, the aging nucleus could have a last hurrah.
Of course, with so much good pitching and so many questions about the offense, there could be a lot of close, low-scoring games in the NL East this season. And that creates a climate in which almost anything is possible.
Strengths: The middle of the lineup -- Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis -- and back of the bullpen, led by closer Craig Kimbrel, are areas the Braves count on. The durability of Gattis is a bit of a wild card since he'll be the regular catcher for the first time, but he has legit power (21 homers in 354 at-bats last season). Kimbrel had 50 saves and an incredible 98 strikeouts in 67 innings while allowing just 39 hits. Power arms Luis Avilan, David Carpenter and Jordan Walden help get the game to him. Atlanta's relievers combined for a franchise record 2.46 ERA in 2013.
Weaknesses: All you need to know is that the Braves probably know more about 23-year-old Julio Teheran, who has just over a year of big league service time, than any of their starters who will open the season. Mike Minor and newly-acquired Ervin Santana are each expected to miss a start or two and Gavin Floyd, coming off Tommy John surgery, could be back by the end of April.
Spot to watch: Center fielder B.J. Upton batted just .184 in his first year with the Braves after signing a five-year, $75.25 million deal, and second baseman Dan Uggla hit only .179 in the third year of his five-year, $62 million contract. Especially with the rotation iffy until reinforcements arrive, strong seasons by both players would be a big boost to the offense and help prop up the rotation, especially at the beginning of the season.
Sign of trouble: Third baseman Chris Johnson batted .321, but he had a batting average on balls in play of .394. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons hit 17 home runs. In his previous three seasons, including the Minor Leagues, he hit a total of nine. Right fielder Jason Heyward has shown he can be a difference-maker, but he has been inconsistent while suffering two unavoidable injuries last season. It will be a bad omen if Johnson and Simmons slip and Heyward doesn't step up.
They'll be rolling if ... : Santana, Minor and Floyd have to pitch deep into games when they become available. As good as the bullpen is, the relievers could be burned out early if the starters don't eat enough innings. So if the rotation can take some of the pressure off the bullpen, the Braves should be in position to keep a lot of games close early and win them late.
Strengths: Pitching, pitching and more pitching. Even though the Marlins lost 100 games last year, they set a franchise record for team ERA. The rotation is led by reigning NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Jose Fernandez, and he's backed up by hard-throwing right-hander Nathan Eovaldi (3.39 ERA in 18 starts) and Henderson Alvarez (3.59 in 17 starts). Both should have upside. Jacob Turner (3.74 in 20 starts) and Tom Koehler round out the rotation. The bullpen is anchored by Steve Cishek, who had 34 saves and struck out 74 in 69 2/3 innings while allowing just 53 hits.
Weaknesses: The Marlins didn't just finish last in runs scored in the Major Leagues last season: They scored 85 fewer runs than the White Sox, the team immediately above them. The Fish were also last in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. They finished last in home runs even though left fielder Giancarlo Stanton is one of the most feared sluggers in baseball; opposing teams routinely pitched around him. To try to protect Stanton and inject some pop, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, first baseman Garrett Jones and third baseman Casey McGehee have been added. McGehee hit 28 home runs for Japan's Rakuten Golden Eagles last season.
Spot to watch: The Marlins have an abundance of young talent like left fielder Christian Yelich, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and center fielder Marcell Ozuna, so how quickly the kids develop is a key. The 23-year-old Ozuna deserves extra attention because he's coming off surgery to his left thumb and is making a position change. He's primarily been a right fielder throughout his career, and while he has the speed and arm strength to play center, it's not the position he's accustomed to.
Sign of trouble: An injury or prolonged slump to any of the first three starters would put manager Mike Redmond in a pickle. There's depth in the rotation, but it's still young. And even if the offense improves, this team figures to go as far as its pitching takes it.
They'll be rolling if ... : Miami's lineup has a nice blend of youth and experience with Saltalamacchia, Jones, McGehee and second baseman Rafael Furcal. If the youngsters blossom and the veterans come together and force pitchers to give Stanton something to swing at, the Fish could be a dangerous team.
New York Mets
Strengths: Even with Harvey out until at least August, the Mets should be competitive most nights because of their starting pitching. Dillon Gee led the team in wins last season. Jon Niese was 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA after coming off the DL on Aug. 11. Wheeler had an impressive rookie season. Add in free-agent acquisition Bartolo Colon and manager Terry Collins has four starters capable of pitching 200 innings. Daisuke Matsuzaka figures to open the season as the fifth starter, but hotshot rookie Syndergaard is expected to be called up during the season, and with Rafael Montero also available, there is some depth in case of injuries.
Weaknesses: Where are the runs going to come from? The Mets finished 11th in the NL with 619 runs scored last year, but they traded their most productive bat, out-of-nowhere surprise Marlon Byrd, to the Pirates with a month to go last season. To replace him, they signed left fielder Curtis Granderson and right fielder Chris Young. Third baseman David Wright isn't the home-run threat he used to be and has missed significant playing time because of injuries in two of the last three years. General manager Sandy Alderson looked into replacing Ruben Tejada at shortstop. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud is a key. He needs to hit.
Spot to watch: The expectation is that Ike Davis will probably end up being the starting first baseman over Lucas Duda, and the Mets have no idea what to expect from him. He could be the player who hit 32 homers and drove in 90 runs with a .771 OPS in 2012. Or he could be the player who hit nine homers with 33 RBIs and a .661 OPS last season while also spending time at Triple-A Las Vegas trying to regain his swing. The answer could help determine how many games the Mets win this season.
Sign of trouble: Lack of production from Davis at first base, d'Arnaud at catcher and the shortstop position (the Mets have at least contemplated the possibility of signing free agent Stephen Drew) would be a problem. And if Colon, who turns 41 in May, can't come close to matching his stellar 2013 season with the Athletics or another starter goes down, the highly regarded Syndergaard can't be expected to be an immediate ace.
They'll be rolling if ... : The top four starters are the lynchpin for the season. Manager Terry Collins needs Niese, Gee, Wheeler and Colon to approach 800 innings. If that happens, the team should be in most games. It's said that all a starting pitcher can do is keep his team in the game and give the hitters a chance to win it. If healthy, all these pitchers are capable of that.
Strengths: A rotation headed by left-handers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and bolstered by the late acquisition of right-hander A.J. Burnett gives the Phillies a 1-2-3 punch that should match up against anybody once Hamels is 100 percent. He will open the season on the disabled list following a bout of shoulder tendinitis and is expected to miss the first month. Right-hander Kyle Kendrick showed his potential (6-3, 3.12 ERA) in his first 12 starts last season. Veteran right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who walked one or fewer batters in 15 of his 24 starts for the Rays last year, was signed as a free agent.
Weaknesses: The Phils scored 610 runs in 2013 -- their second-lowest full-season total since 1972 -- and will come back with virtually the same lineup this season, with the exception of unproven Cody Asche at third base and 36-year-old Byrd in right field. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has stressed repeatedly that the team needs its veteran nucleus -- shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley, first baseman Ryan Howard and catcher Carlos Ruiz -- to play up to its capabilities, but lack of production continued to be a concern during Grapefruit League play.
Spot to watch: Before rupturing his Achilles on the final play of the 2011 NL Division Series, Howard had averaged more than 43 home runs the previous six years. In the last two seasons he's hit a total of 25. And while the cleanup hitter isn't the only reason they didn't make it back to the postseason in 2012 and '13 after winning the division five straight years, that's a big part of it. Howard says he's now recovered, so if he can bounce back it would be significant for a team that ended last season with its fewest home runs (140) since 1998.
Sign of trouble: Closer Jonathan Papelbon's velocity dropped in 2013 and he blew seven save opportunities, six of them with two outs in the inning. If he's not more effective, manager Ryne Sandberg may have to start juggling a bullpen that doesn't have an obvious ninth-inning alternative.
They'll be rolling if ... : Hamels had the seventh-lowest run support among all Major League starters last season. Lee had the sixth-best ERA in the NL, but he went just 14-8. The Rays scored a total of 17 runs in Hernandez' 13 losses. If the lineup can produce enough runs to support the rotation and the bullpen comes together, the Phillies could be in good shape.
Strengths: With a top of the rotation (Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez) that combined for a 3.20 ERA, general manager Mike Rizzo added right-hander Fister (14-9, 3.67 for the Tigers) in what certainly looks like one of the better offseason pickups. Strasburg has to be considered a strong NL Cy Young Award candidate, while and Gonzalez (third in 2012) and Zimmerman (seventh last year) can't be ruled out for hardware, either. With the announcement that left-hander Ross Detwiler will open the season in the bullpen, new manager Matt Williams had Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Chris Young to choose from as the fifth starter.
Weaknesses: The bench was an issue last season. The Nationals hope to have addressed it with several moves. Outfielder Nate McLouth (.786 career OPS against right-handed pitching) was given a two-year contract after Scott Hairston (.815 vs. lefties) was acquired last season. Jose Lobaton was signed as a backup catcher and Jamey Carroll was added for infield depth. If Anthony Rendon wins the starting spot at second base, Danny Espinosa will have to make the transition to being a part-time player.
Spot to watch: Keep an eye on center fielder Denard Span. On Aug. 20, Span was batting .264 with a .669 OPS. From that point until the end of the season, he went on a tear that included a 29-game hitting streak, batting .329 with an .835 OPS in those games. And the Nats, who had a losing record before Span started hitting, finished with a flourish, going 26-12 to close out the season. The leadoff spot is always important, of course, but Washington especially like its chances if Span can pick up where he left off.
Sign of trouble: The Nationals replaced hitting coach Rick Eckstein with Rick Schu at midseason last year. When the schedule ended, the team had scored 75 fewer runs and the team OPS had dropped from .750 to .710. As a result, everybody will be watching the bats closely when the season opens.
They'll be rolling if ... : Right fielder Jayson Werth had a .931 OPS last year. Bryce Harper remains one of the most exciting young players in baseball. But both missed significant time with injuries last season. If they stay healthy and the rest of the lineup plays up to its capabilities, Washington should be tough to beat.
Just like a new car loses value as soon as it's driven off the lot, preseason predictions depreciate once the regular season begins. The Nats were reminded of that, to their chagrin, last year.
Once again, though, Washington looks like the team that has the talent, the depth and the balance to end up on top. Now all we can do is sit back and see if that results in a first-place finish this time.
DARK HORSES: Marlins, Mets
NEVER SAY NEVER: Phillies
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.