COMMENTARY | Most previews have Washington running away with the NL East this season, but that's what they all said last year before the Nationals crashed and burned.
Atlanta is expected to challenge for the division and at least get a wild-card spot, but are the Braves' young players really that good? Philadelphia has been deemed too old, but are the Phillies really ready for the retirement home?
New York is rebuilding, so nobody expects much from the Mets this season. And Miami is in another one of their nearly annual rebuilding modes that will have the Marlins among the worst teams in baseball.
That's what you'll read in other previews, but I don't necessarily think that's how things will play out.
Let's take a look at each team in their predicted order of finish"
While everyone else is, ahem, burying the Phillies for being too old, I think they have the most talent in the division. The Phillies didn't lose any significant players this offseason, since Roy Halladay's final season was horrible. But they did add a top of the rotation starter and a quality outfielder. They will also get their starting center fielder back from injury, a quality lefty reliever back from suspension and possibly the return of a healthy Ryan Howard.
Here is the projected lineup and rotation:
Yes, the Phillies roster is old, but so was Boston's last season when they won the World Series. So were the Cardinals in 2011 and the Yankees in 2009. Old doesn't necessarily mean bad in baseball. Young players get hurt too (More on that later). The Phillies are just hoping that their veteran core has one more run left in them.
The lineup is filled with left-handed power bats like Utley, Howard and Brown, which made the signing of Byrd a necessity. He breaks up the left-handers in the middle of the lineup. But the real issue with the team's hitters is going to be how well they bounce back from a down season. Revere is coming back from a broken ankle that ended his season in June. Howard hasn't been right since he tore his Achilles in 2011. Utley actually figured out how to manage his knee problems and play 131 games last year, but can he do it again? And Ruiz finally got a medical exemption for Adderall, so he won't be serving any suspensions this season. The Phillies don't need career years from their hitters. Just reaching their career averages would be good enough to make this offense potent. And another step up in his progression from Brown would be a welcome site from the one-time top prospect.
The rotation has one of the best 1-2-3 combos in all of baseball. Lee and Hamels are legitimate aces on any staff in baseball. They regularly produce sub-3.00 ERAs and a WHIP around 1.00 and there is no reason to believe they won't do so again in 2014. Hamels is a few weeks behind due to forearm tendinitis during the offseason, but he's expected to only miss a few April starts. Last season, Burnett led the NL with 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings and his 1.43 ground-ball to fly-ball ratio also led the NL. Those two skills will come in handy in Citizens Bank Park. Kendrick and Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) round out the rotation, with Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez as the wild card since he hasn't really pitched much over the last two seasons. Overall it is a strong starting rotation.
The bullpen was a mess last season, but bullpens are the one thing that can change from year-to-year on baseball teams. The Phillies have to hope Papelbon's fastball was just missing the juice of a pennant race and not a sign of declining skills. Lefties Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman give them a couple of good late inning arms. Anything they get from Mike Adams will be a plus.
Overall, I believe that the Phillies have the most talent in the division. Now it's just a matter of that talent staying on the field long enough to produce the results required to win the division.
I may be the only person who doesn't think the Nationals will be a great team. Then again, I was one of the few who didn't think they were going to be great last season when they went a disappointing 86-76 and missed the playoffs. While the Nationals may have the best rotation in baseball, especially after trading for Doug Fister, their hitting leaves a lot to be desired.
Here is the projected lineup and rotation:
Jordan Zimmerman - RHP
Gio Gonzalez - LHP
Doug Fister - RHP
Ross Detwiler - LHP
The problem with the Nationals' offense is that their projected starting lineup rarely hits the field together. Zimmerman and Werth are always missing time with various injuries. And as great as Harper's talent level may be, he also can't stay healthy. Span started off well after being acquired in a trade before last season, then went into the tank for most of the season. Danny Espinosa was so bad he lost his job to Rendon. And LaRoche's entire career has been full of ups and downs at the plate. Even with all the big names, this offense simply does not produce. Injuries play a big part in that, but they also aren't nearly consistent enough at the plate.
Where the Nats are consistent is on the mound. Strasburg, Zimmerman and Gonzalez combined for a 3.21 ERA and 1.13 WHIP last season. As if that wasn't imposing enough to opposing batters, they replaced the average-at-best Dan Haren with Fister. Fister had a 3.31 ERA in 89 starts in the AL, so he might be able to get that ERA below 3.00 in the NL where he gets to face the opposing pitcher and his infield defense will be much better than it was in Detroit. The only possible issue in the rotation is the same issue the Nats have with their lineup, injuries. For all his immense talent, Strassburg is also injury-prone.
After the Nats went into last season without a lefty in the bullpen they smartly traded for lefty Jerry Blevins, who had a 2.18 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over the last three seasons. He will be used quite often in the NL East where there are many dangerous left-handed hitters. Rafael Soriano returns in the closer role and he'll be set up by Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, who can both step into the closer role should Soriano falter. This bullpen has a chance to make a huge turnaround from last season's disappointing performance.
The Nationals have lots of big-name talent, but they just can't seem to stay healthy. The team did make big improvements in the offseason by filling some holes. Now all they need to do is get a little lucky by avoiding the injury bug and they just might be able to fulfill all those lofty projections everyone has for them. Unfortunately, for the fans in Washington, I don't see that happening.Atlanta Braves
The Braves won the NL East last season, but had a very bad offseason. They lost Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Eric O'Flaherty and replaced them with backup Ryan Doumit and a 31-year old Gavin Floyd trying to come back from Tommy John surgery. Count me among those who don't think the Braves will repeat.
Here is the projected lineup and rotation:
Jason Heyward - LF
Justin Upton - LF
Freddie Freeman - 1B
Evan Gattis - C
Chris Johnson - 3B
Andrelton Simmons - SS
Dan Uggla - 2B
B.J. Upton - CF
Mike Minor - LHP
Julio Teheran - RHP
Brandon Beachy - RHP
Alex Wood - RHP
Losing McCann is a big blow to the offense, that will now rely on Justin Upton and Freeman. Those two are great, but the rest of the lineup isn't exactly bursting with stars. Heyward regressed and hasn't turned into the perennial All-Star everyone assumed he would be. Meanwhile, Gattis, Uggla and B.J. Upton all strike out way too much. If it weren't for their big contracts, I doubt B.J. and Uggla would even make the team with those sub-.200 batting averages. Johnson showed promise last season, but Simmons is more of a glove man in this lineup. This lineup can hit the long ball, but that focus also leads to a ton of strikeouts. That approach to hitting can also lead to prolonged slumps.
The Braves' rotation is certainly filled with talent, but there are some question marks. Minor and Medlen appear to be top of the rotation stars, but will Teheran be able to avoid a sophomore slump, after a fine rookie season (14-8, 3.20 ERA)? Those pitchers will certainly miss the veteran leadership of Hudson. Besides Floyd, the Braves are also banking on another pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery. Beachy had the surgery in 2012 and made 5 starts last season. The problem is that he has never even thrown more than 150 innings in a single season in his career. He is not a good gamble.
While the Braves had the best bullpen ERA in baseball last season, they aren't a sure thing to reproduce that success. Young relievers are very unpredictable from year-to-year. Besides losing lefty O'Flaherty, they will also be without fellow lefty Jonny Venters, who is recovering from, wait for it, Tommy John surgery. That leaves Luis Avilan as the only lefty in the pen until/if Venters comes back. Of course, Craig Kimbrell has established himself as probably the best closer in baseball.
The Braves have some young talent, but without Hudson and Chipper Jones, who retired in the offseason, the team won't have any veteran leadership. That's more important than you think with guys like the Uptons around. They are also relying on a bunch of pitchers coming back from major surgery. I think the Braves will disappoint.
The Mets are in still in full rebuilding mode. Whether they want to admit that it was caused by their failed Bernie Madoff investments or not is a story for another day. I know the Mets went out and signed Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon, Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde, but after ace pitcher Matt Harvey underwent Tommy John surgery in October, there is no question that they are playing for 2015 and beyond.
Here is the projected lineup and rotation:
Jonathan Niese - LHP
Dillon Gee - RHP
Zack Wheeler - RHP
Jenrry Mejia - RHP
I know people think Granderson is this great hitter, but that is just because he played for the Yankees. Granderson 's injury-plagued 2013 season continued what has been a steep decline in his production. His power is diminishing, his batting average is plummeting and his strikeouts are soaring. Not exactly a great combination. And now he has no lineup protection at all. Ike Davis might not even win the 1B job after a horrific 2013 and d'Arnaud is a rookie. He's a highly-touted rookie, but still a rookie. Wright is a great hitter, but he can't carry the offense by himself. Murphy should continue to steal bases, but is that really enough? No, it's not.
Any rotation that possibly has a 40-year-old Colon as its ace is in serious trouble. The loss of Harvey can't be overstated. He went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA in 26 starts last season, before blowing out his elbow, and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting. Wheeler is the best of the other youngsters on the staff. Once Harvey returns next season, the Mets will have a fine young staff with loads of potential. Unfortunately, this team will take its lumps in 2014 while the young pitchers learn on the job. They will probably end up promoting Noah Syndergaard (obtained with d'Arnaud for R.A.Dickey) and Rafael Montero sometime in the second half when they have already been eliminated from the race.
The bullpen is a mess. Last year's closer, Bobby Parnell, had offseason surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck and just started throwing. The Mets' backup plan is Farnsworth, who much like Parnell, only has a fastball and Valverde, who had a 5.59 ERA before the Tigers gave up on him last season.
I have no idea why the Mets signed a 33-year-old Granderson, who is clearly in decline, to a four-year, $60 million deal when they should just be playing all their youngsters for the future. This team will have trouble finishing fourth in the NL East this season and everything they do should be geared towards 2015 and beyond. The Mets are going to be terrible in 2014, but better days are ahead.
The Marlin were as bad as everyone predicted last season, while losing 100 games. That's what happens when you gut a roster and reduce the payroll from $102 million in 2012 to $50 million in 2013. The saddest thing about the 2014 Marlins is that their big money free agent, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, signed for three years and $21 million. That $7 million average salary makes him the highest paid player on the team, just above Giancarlo Stanton's $6.5 million. Speaking of Stanton, he and last year's NL Rookie of the Year, pitcher Jose Fernandez are the only true talents on the entire roster.
Here is projected lineup and rotation:
Nate Eovaldi - RHP
Jacob Turner - RHP
Henderson Alvarez - RHP
Tom Koehler - RHP
This is probably the worst lineup in the majors. Outside of Stanton, there isn't a hitter that an opposing pitcher needs to fear. And Stanton has had his share of injury problems over the last two seasons, when he missed 85 games. He still managed to club 61 HRs and 148 RBIs in that time, which tells you how good a hitter he really is. Unfortunately, with a stiff like Jones hitting behind him, what possible reason would any pitcher have for giving Stanton anything to hit. Salty is completely overrated. Furcal and McGehee stink. And although Ozuna is a great fielder, he can't hit. Christian Yelich is the only other hitter with any potential in this entire lineup.
The pitching staff, outside of Fernandez is putrid. Eovaldi, Turner and Alvarez lack any kind of strikeout stuff and Koehler isn't a lock for the last spot. Brad Hand is a possibility there, but eventually Miami's 2012 first round pick, Andrew Heaney will be in the rotation. Miami's cheap owner will keep him in the minors for a few months to keep his arbitration clock from starting. But back to Fernandez. His rookie season as a 20-year old was amazing. He went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts for a team that only won 62 games all season. He struck out 182 batters in 172 2/3 innings, only walked 3 batters per nine innings and opposing batters only hit .182 off of him. It will be interesting to see if he can get better.
The bullpen is led by closer Steve Chisek, but he makes $3.8 million and will be arbitration-eligible soon, so he'll be traded in July. They did add a few arms to the pen in Carter Capps, Henry Rodriguez, who throws 100- mph and took a flier on Cubs castoff Carlos Marmol. The Marlins don't figure to have very many leads to protect, but they are sure to be in a few close games when Fernandez pitches since they won't score many runs.
The Marlins will contend for the title of worst team in baseball and it seems that's just what ownership wants. This isn't one of those years where they make a run for a championship, but those only come along every decade or so. It will be fun to watch Fernandez pitch and Stanton hit, but that's it.
As South Park, CO, police officer Barbrady once said, "Nothing to see here. Move along."
Bob Whalon is a life-long Philadelphia sports fanatic who follows the home teams religiously, but isn't above pointing out what they're doing wrong. The highlight of his sports fandom was the Phillies' 2008 World Championship, and he isn't quite ready to let go of the greatest era of Phillies baseball just yet.
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