NL East 2015 preview: Now the Nationals must live up to the hype

With opening day approaching, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We're examining each division over the next two weeks, looking at the big questions, the important players and making our predictions. Our series starts with the NL East.

Winning your division in MLB is never a gimme, but the closest thing this year is the NL East, where the Washington Nationals improved an already good team by adding top free agent Max Scherzer. The Nats won the division by 17 games last year, the biggest gap in baseball. Their talented lineup and stellar pitching staff has at least Bryce Harper thinking this is the year the Nats get a World Series ring

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The Nats don’t figure to be chased by their usual foes, the Atlanta Braves, who appear to be in rebuilding mode. But both the Miami Marlins and New York Mets are better and looking to surge toward second place and maybe even the postseason. The Marlins, in particular, had a strong offseason. The Mets are getting ace Matt Harvey back to go with rookie of the year Jacob deGrom. The pitching looks good, but they’ll need some help scoring runs.

As for the Phillies, well, even they know they’re going to be bad. Let’s delve deeper into the division with Big League Stew’s Chris Cwik, Mike Oz and Mark Townsend.

Max Scherzer makes a good Nats pitching staff even better. (AP)
Max Scherzer makes a good Nats pitching staff even better. (AP)

The Nationals are no strangers to big expectations. They're also no strangers to falling short after not advancing beyond the NLDS each of the past three seasons. To combat that troubling trend, general manager Mike Rizzo went out and added Scherzer, the top free agent available, to an already stacked starting rotation. He also avoided contract drama with Harper, while maintaining depth at every level of the roster. Everything is in place for a deep postseason run, but October has little regard for expectations. It only rewards execution.

The Braves are in a weird position. Despite notching 90 wins each of the past two seasons, they elected to fire general manager Frank Wren and hire John Hart as president of baseball operations. What followed was an offseason that resembled the beginning of a rebuilding effort — they traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis while allowing Ervin Santana to walk in free agency — but included the addition of several win-now veterans, such as Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes, A.J. Pierzynski and Jason Grilli. It's difficult to tell what the plan is, but the short-term outlook seems grim in a quickly improving division.

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The NL East passed the Phillies by three years ago. Now that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has come to grips with that reality, he can slowly shift into a rebuilding project that could really take off during the regular season. That makes the Phillies more interesting to other fan bases because they could easily shift the balance of power based on when and where they trade certain pieces. As for life at Citizens Bank Park, infield prospect Maikel Franco should arrive this summer to provide some excitement, but it might be wise to keep Eagles jerseys close by.

Mat Latos is among the additions to the Marlins for 2015. (USA TODAY Sports)
Mat Latos is among the additions to the Marlins for 2015. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Marlins became a popular postseason pick after handing Giancarlo Stanton the biggest contract in American sports history, a 13-year, $325 million deal, and later adding Dee Gordon, Michael Morse, Martin Prado and Mat Latos to the mix. If there's hesitance, it almost certainly stems from Miami's history of committing and quickly bailing on long-term plans. However, a big difference with this team is that it already looked built to contend in the short term with an impressive core of young talent led by Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Jose Fernandez. If Fernandez can return from Tommy John surgery by July and look like himself in the second half, the Marlins should make several teams uncomfortable.

Collins survived the 2014 season while firmly planted on the hot seat. Now he'll have to do it again with New York's expectations on the rise. Collins' fate will largely depend on things beyond his control, such as how well David Wright and Matt Harvey bounce back from injuries, but he'll need to be sharp and the Mets will have to stay competitive. The visit he received from owner Fred Wilpon following a blowout spring training loss on March 9 was indicative of the short leash he's likely to be on. But Collins understands his position better than anyone.

New Braves pitcher Shelby Miller. (Getty Images)
New Braves pitcher Shelby Miller. (Getty Images)

SHELBY MILLER: The Braves made a gutsy trade this offseason, shedding one year of Jason Heyward for four years of Miller. The 24-year-old had a frustrating sophomore year. His 3.74 ERA was solid, but his strikeout rate dropped to 16.6% and his walk rate shot up. Things changed in the second half, as Miller started toying with a sinker and altered the grip on his curveball. The result was a 2.92 ERA over his final 74 innings. While his 4.20 FIP over the second half is nothing to write home about, Miller’s ability to make adjustments suggests there’s more room for growth here.

MATT HARVEY: After a lengthy layoff because of Tommy John surgery, Harvey appears ready to dominate the league once again. While it’s unwise to overreact to spring training games, Harvey’s stuff has looked impressive. The big question is how much the Mets will push him coming off the surgery. New York could be a fringe playoff candidate, and they’ll need Harvey to be around in September and October if that’s the case. It’s not really a question of whether he’ll put up great numbers again, it’s a question of whether he’ll be around when the Mets really need him.

BRYCE HARPER: Three years into his career, Harper still hasn’t quieted his doubters. He’s been incredibly productive when healthy, but injuries have prevented him from putting up MVP-caliber numbers the last two seasons. Just 22, Harper is still younger than nearly every player in the majors. When compared historically to other players at the same age, Harper still looks like a superstar in the making. The only thing holding him back is health. If he can shake those demons, he’ll contend for the National League MVP this year.

CHRISTIAN YELICH: A recent extension gave Yelich some long overdue national attention, but there’s still a good chance he’s extremely underrated among casual fans. Yelich may not develop elite power, but he’s pretty darn close to being a five-tool player now, and he’s still just 23. On top of that, he plays strong defense in one of the more spacious outfields in the majors. He’ll have to settle for being the second banana behind Giancarlo Stanton over his career, but Yelich could develop into one of the most exciting players in the league. He’s only going to get better from here, and that’s a scary thought.

Cole Hamels' days with the Phillies are numbered. The question is: Where's he going next? (USA TODAY Sports)
Cole Hamels' days with the Phillies are numbered. The question is: Where's he going next? (USA TODAY Sports)

COLE HAMELS: Though he won’t spend the entire season in Philadelphia, Hamels remains the most important player on the club. At this point, there’s no reason to question the performance. Hamels has been one of the most durable, consistent pitchers in the majors since he was called up back in 2006. That’s exactly what makes him such an attractive trade target for other teams. Because of that, the Phillies are holding out for the best deal possible, and rightfully so. Hamels is one of the few players on the club who can bring back the elite, young talent the Phillies so badly desire. It’s no surprise the Phillies are facing a massive rebuild, and what they can get for Hamels will play a major role in how quickly the team can turn things around.

It's that time of the year where everything can still go really right for a team, or things can get really bad.

(USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

• Best case: Matt Harvey proves as indestructible as Batman and Jacob deGrom fits perfectly into a Robin costume. The super heroes them climb like the NL standings like it's a Gotham City skyscraper.
• Worst case: Their big offseason acquisition Michael Cuddyer has no magic left at the plate, and he joins Curtis Granderson as another free-agent disappointment.

Best case: The Marlins are hanging with the Nats in July and Jose Fernandez returns looking like an ace again.
Worst case: Stanton can't duplicate last year's MVP-like performance and their offense flounders.

Best case: All the other teams in the division decide to stop playing baseball and take up cricket instead. The Phillies win the NL East again!
Worse case: They can't pull off a successful fire sale and get a less-than-spectacular haul for Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, etc.

Best case: We knock them out for two years and they wake up in 2017 with a sparkly new suburban ballpark waiting for them. 
Worst case: They finish worse than the Phillies.

• Best case: Bryce Harper finally maximizes his potential and Anthony Rendon matches his 2014 success, and the Nats do everything the pundits predict. Finally.
•Worse case: They don't win the World Series. Anything less is a disappointment this year, plain and simple. 

Scherzer and Strasburg should take the Nats to the top of the NL East. (AP)
Scherzer and Strasburg should take the Nats to the top of the NL East. (AP)

Order of finish: 1. Nats, 2. Marlins, 3. Mets, 4. Braves, 5. Phillies
NL East top hitter: Giancarlo Stanton
NL East top pitcher: Max Scherzer
NL East top rookie: Noah Syndergaard

Order of finish: 1. Nats, 2. Marlins, 3. Mets, 4. Braves, 5. Phillies
NL East top hitter: Bryce Harper
NL East top pitcher: Matt Harvey
NL East top rookie: Noah Syndergaard

Order of finish: 1. Nats, 2. Marlins, 3. Mets, 4. Braves, 5. Phillies
NL East top hitter: Giancarlo Stanton
NL East top pitcher: Jordan Zimmermann
NL East top rookie: Noah Syndergaard

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