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Big League Stew

NL East 2014 preview: Nationals in good shape to reclaim first place

David Brown
Big League Stew

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(Getty Images/USA TODAY)

With opening day coming soon, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We'll examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few key players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and breakout stars. Next: The National League East.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

1. How much better will Bryce Harper get?
Injuries prevented Harper from improving exponentially on his rookie season, but he still batted .274/.368/.486 with a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than in his rookie campaign. He wants to improve his on-base percentage and the best way to do that, he says, is to let bad pitches go. It remains to be seen what his offseason weight/strength game will yield; we might very well hear stories in a year about how he felt "too muscle bound" as a result of his training. Harper's inherent talent is immense, but he's also learning. If he plays 150 games, he'll probably be an MVP candidate.

2. What are the Phillies doing?
General manager Ruben Amaro made two moves — adding free agents A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd — that would have looked very prudent if the Phillies were in a position to contend. But Amaro seems to think it's 2008, and the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard are five years younger. Rollins and Howard are untradable. Utley had a nice comeback in 2013 but he's brittle. Cole Hamels' shoulder hurts. The back end of the rotation is weak and the bullpen might be terrible. If the Phillies get incredibly lucky, they might hang around the wild card race. But if they have just the tiniest bit of misfortune with injury and the general decline that comes with age, they'll come awfully close to last place.

3. How long will the Marlins keep Giancarlo Stanton?
It's easy to predict the Marlins will sell off their top slugger, because that's what they've done time and again with other assets. Stanton is under team control until 2016, so the urgency isn't there yet to lock him up long term. But there's also a lack of urgency for Stanton to want to be locked up, considering the periodic tearing down of the roster the Marlins engage in. Stanton has said he'll know a lot more about where the Marlins are headed in a year, and that's when he'll probably decide to engage in long-term contract discussions.

4. Will the Braves pennant hopes survive these injuries?
You never know, as Joaquin Andujar used to say about baseball, but it's hard to imagine them angling for a playoff spot without pitchers Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and (for a time, anyway) Mike Minor in their rotation. No to get maudlin, but there's even a chance the Braves might struggle to stay above .500. 

5. Will the Mets start to look like 2015 contenders in September?
David Wright would love if it happened, considering he hasn't participated in a playoff series since 2006. They have a top 10 farm system, at least one evaluator says, and some of that talent will be finding Citi Field this season. And soon, they'll be in position to add more payroll, like a New York team should. It looks like they have a plan, and that plan is working — unlike other teams in the NL East.

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Evan Gattis. (AP)



FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. Jake Marisnick: Christian Yelich gets more hype (not undeservedly) and Marcel Ozuna has had the inside track on the starting job in center for the Marlins, but Marisnick has good power, decent speed and is only 22.

2. Evan Gattis: A late bloomer with a great backstory, Gattis did most of his damage before injuries wrecked the second half of his season. Could hit 30, 35 home runs — an improvement the Braves definitely will need.

3. Stephen Strasburg: He and Jose Fernandez ought to be dividing the Cy Young awards that Clayton Kershsaw (and Matt Harvey?) don't win in the coming decade. Fearless prediction: He will throw a no-hitter in June.

4. Stephen Drew: What?! He's not even signed. But he makes sense for the Mets come June when the compensation pick tied to him will expire, making him a "freer" free agent.

5. Zack Wheeler: A Matt Harvey-like talent but with some command issues to muddle predictions for the future, he still could be a very good No. 2 starter for years to come. Or maybe a No. 3, with Noah Syndergaard on the verge of coming up.

PREDICTIONS

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(USA TODAY)



NL East MVP: Jayson Werth

NL East Cy Young: Jose Fernandez

NL East Rookie of the Year: Travis d'Arnaud

NL East breakthrough star: Anthony Rendon

Order of finish

1. Washington Nationals — Four excellent starting pitchers (at least), a lineup with no holes, a dependable bullpen on the back end, a wounded rival. This should be their time.

2. Atlanta Braves — It would have been a good race, probably, if they hadn't lost so much already.

3. New York Mets — 2015 can't come soon enough.

4. Philadelphia Phillies — Cliff Lee would yield a lot in a deadline deal, and it's way past time for Ruben Amaro to start thinking in those terms for the entire roster.

5. Miami Marlins — What will be the next whim of owner Jeffrey Loria?

COMING ON WEDNESDAY: AL Central, NL Central

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David Brown edits Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rdbrown@yahoo-inc.com and follow him on Twitter!

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