2015 Predictions: NL East

Let me preface this blog by saying that I 

for the NL East race this year. Last year, the Nationals won the division by 17 games and were the only team above .500, but there is such prevalent buzz around so many of the teams for so many reasons that I think it will be the division race to watch. While the Nationals are again a clear favorite, the Mets and Marlins are dark horses to finish close to the top and compete for a Wild Card spot. During my Hall of Fame internship, two of my fellow interns, one a Mets fan and the other a Marlins fan, would always start talking smack about each other’s teams. That was during the dark days of 2013 when the Mets and Marlins were racing to finish last, but two quick years later and they will both be flirting with a playoff spot. This division race is so compelling I might get MLB TV just so I can watch some of the interdivisional games. Let’s go!

2014 Results
1. Washington Nationals, 96-66 (best record in NL under first year manager Matt Williams)
2. Atlanta Braves, 79-83
3. New York Mets, 79-83
4. Miami Marlins, 77-85
5. Philadelphia Phillies, 73-89

Although the Nationals ran away with the division last year, the remaining four teams were only separated by 6 games. Now that most of them have revamped their rosters and can legitimately contend for an October callback, the Nationals will still win the division but it is going to be down to the wire for second place and possible playoff implications.

Atlanta Braves
Losses: RF Jason Heyward, RP Jordan Walden, SP Aaron Harang, SP Ervin Santana, LF Justin Upton, C Evan Gattis, 2B Tommy La Stella
Additions: RF Nick Markakis, RP Jim Johnson, SP Shelby Miller, LF Jonny Gomes, IF Alberto Callaspo

The Braves were efficient in their offseason. Any lost entity was added quickly and swiftly with minimal collateral damage to their farm system. While they lost an iconic Jason Heyward to the Cardinals, they sought out a nearly statistically identical player in Nick Markakis from the Orioles. It will be his first year in the NL so his offense may be slow to start but his defense will travel; he is the reigning AL Gold Glove winner for right field. Losing Justin Upton will definitely hurt but adding a free swinging and brawny Jonny Gomes isn’t a bad addition at all. Alberto Callaspo will fill a desperately gaping hole at second base next to the game’s best defender in Andrelton Simmons. All in all, the Braves didn’t quite stockpile weaponry but they certainly reloaded from a disappointing 2014. Veterans Freddie Freeman and the aforementioned Simmons need to take it upon themselves to lead the team; specifically young catcher Christian Bethancourt and struggling outfielder BJ Upton.

Projected Lineup
1. Andrelton Simmons, SS
2. Nick Markakis, RF
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Jonny Gomes, LF
5. Chris Johnson, 3B
6. Alberto Callaspo, 2B
7. Christian Bethancourt, C
8. BJ Upton, CF
9. Pitcher

Last year, Freeman led the team with a .386 OBP, followed by Heyward, La Stella, Justin Upton, and Gattis, who are all wearing new uniforms. Gomes is as close as the Braves come to a prototypical power hitter, but they will have to walk more and rely on situational hitting if they want to compete.

Projected Rotation
1. Julio Teheran
2. Mike Minor
3. Alex Wood
4. Shelby Miller
5. Mike Foltynewicz  (new from Houston, all 16 career games came last year)

I made the dumbest fantasy decision in history last year in dropping Teheran before he went on complete an All-Star 2014 campaign that featured a 2.89 ERA and 1.081 WHIP, both career bests. Though only entering his age 24 season, Teheran will be the ace of the staff and as long as the supporting cast can stay healthy, they are all good pitchers capable of at least 12-15 wins. I thought Atlanta would have been a perfect landing spot for free agents James Shields or Max Scherzer; an ace with a proven track record coming to a place whose pitching needs fortifying. Wrong.

Miami Marlins
Losses: 3B Casey McGehee, SP Nate Eovaldi, 1B Garrett Jones
Additions: UTIL Don Kelly, OF Ichiro Suzuki, SP Mat Latos, SP Dan Haren, 2B Dee Gordon, 1B Mike Morse, 3B Martin Prado

I should give the 2014 Offseason of the Year award to the Fish just for picking up the lethal Donnie Kelly, but they did get other players too. Early last year, the Marlins got bad news about 2013 ROY Jose Fernandez, which sidelined him for the entire 2014 season and most of this season as well. However, they managed to stay afloat on the back of Giancarlo Stanton, until he went down after getting hit in the face by a Michael Fiers fastball in September. After that, the Marlins slipped from 4 below .500 to 8 below .500, eliminated from playoff contention. The story for this year will be how well Stanton can adjust to seeing live pitching again. I know he’s said in interviews that he’s completely ready and has no fear of getting back in there but who knows what will happen if someone tries to brush him back? Regardless, like 2014, if they can just hang around and play .500 ball until Fernandez comes back, look out. Dee Gordon brings a top-of-the-order speed and table-setting threat that they had been lacking for too long. Michael Morse will offer great protection to Stanton, something he had been lacking and still managed to have a career year. Rather than pushing the rest of the pitching duties on Alvarez and Eovaldi like last year, veterans Mat Latos and Dan Haren will pick up the slack and collect somewhere around 10 wins each. The future is bright for the Fish if the injury bug stays away.

Projected Lineup
1. Dee Gordon, 2B
2. Christian Yelich, LF
3. Giancarlo Stanton, RF
4. Michael Morse, 1B
5. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
6. Martin Prado, 3B
7. Marcell Ozuna, CF
8. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS
9. Pitcher

It’s a great combination of role players, veteran talent, and young energy. Sprinkle in a little Don Kelly here and there and it’s a making for a successful season.

Projected Rotation
1. Mat Latos
2. Henderson Alvarez
3. Dan Haren
4. Jarred Cosart
5. Tommy Koehler

If I were the pitching coach, I would simply repeat “hold on until Jose gets back.” The rotation will be the X-factor of their success. Can they survive until Fernandez gets back? They endured last season without him and now that this year is much more hopeful, there is all that much more pressure.

New York Mets
Losses: Nothing major, really.
Additions: RF Michael Cuddyer, OF John Mayberry, Jr.

Michael Cuddyer was the only free agent signing I predicted correctly so by that logic I will be able to foresee everything the Mets do this season. First and foremost, GM Sandy Alderson said the Mets are good enough to improve by 10 wins, which would put them at 89 for 2015 and in the thick of the playoff hunt. I don’t think they’ll improve quite by that many though they will break .500 and contend. They are also bringing in the fences in right field at Citi Field, making for (potentially) more power numbers for lefties Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda, who hit 30 home runs a year ago. Speaking of Granderson, he will move to left field to make room for sweet-swinging Michael Cuddyer, which completes a very athletic outfield with Gold Glover Juan Lagares in center. Though the shortstop question is still at the forefront of the 2015 season, David Wright and Duda will be a solid 3-4 combination in the lineup that may not churn out a .400 OBP but certainly slug close to .500.

Projected Lineup
1. Juan Lagares, CF
2. Daniel Murphy, 2B
3. David Wright, 3B
4. Lucas Duda, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Curtis Granderson, LF
7. Travis d’Arnaud, C
8. Ruben Tejada, SS
9. Pitcher

Projected Rotation
1. Matt Harvey
2. Bartolo Colon
3. Jacob deGrom
4. Zack Wheeler
5. Jonathan Niese/Dillon Gee/Noah Syndegaard

The Mets pack a punch with their rotation. With Matt Harvey returning from Tommy John surgery, his innings will be heavily limited, putting a lot of pressure on 2014 ROY deGrom and the ageless wonder Colon. Even without Harvey, who started the 2013 All-Star game, the Mets finished 5th in team ERA last season and that will likely go down as they all gain a little more experience.

Philadelphia Phillies
Losses: SS Jimmy Rollins, OF Marlon Byrd, SP AJ Burnett, RP Antonio Bastardo
Additions: SP Aaron Harang

The Phillies played philanthropic donors this offseason, knowing full well it is a rebuilding stage. GM Ruben Amaro is open to sending Cole Hamels elsewhere but wants nothing but top prospects in return, which makes sense. The Phillies know this year won’t be their year, so if they can prepare for to hit the ground running in 2017 and beyond, then it will be a success. Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz are borderline ancient, as is Cliff Lee, and they have all steadily declined in recent years. The other big storyline: for the first time in his 13 year career, Jimmy Rollins will not be wearing a Phillies uniform. JRoll wasn’t just a great shortstop, he was a Phillies icon. He set the franchise record for hits last year, passing HOFer Mike Schmidt in the process. This will be the first year since 2004 that JRoll and Chase Utley are not the starting middle infielders and the first time since 2002 that one of them isn’t on the roster. 10 years of the same people at the same position is so rare anymore; it’s not just losing chemistry and synergy but losing a friend on the team. We’ll se if Utley can put that behind him and make another All-Star team like he did in 2014 and if new SS Freddy Galvis can survive the pressure of big shoes to fill. Bright spot: Ben Revere led the league in hits last season, making him a valuable commodity at the top of the order.

Projected Lineup
1. Ben Rever, CF
2. Domonic Brown, LF
3. Chase Utley, 2B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B (Yeah I’d still put him clean up, wanna fight about it?)
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Cody Asche, 3B
7. Darin Ruf, RF
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Pitcher

Projected Rotation
1. Cole Hamels (if he isn’t dealt)
2. Cliff Lee
3. Aaron Harang
4. David Buchanan
5. Jerome Williams

It’s a transition period for the Phillies, and teams should use them as a case study for why mega-contracts to young players aren’t always a good idea. 2015 simply won’t be their year.

Washington Nationals
Losses: 1B Adam LaRoche, RP Tyler Clippard
Additions: RP Casey Janssen, 2B Yunel Escobar, SP Max Scherzer

The Nationals won the Max Scherzer sweepstakes, collecting him for 7 years and $210 million, deferred across 14 years. The Nationals are by far the most soundproof team in the National League and possible the entire Major Leagues. There are very few weaknesses on either side of the ball, making them many writers’ preseason favorites for the 2015 World Series. Ryan Zimmerman, despite an injury plagued 2014 season, will be moving to first base for the first time in his career and Jayson Werth, similarly, will be moving from right field to left. Both have Gold Glove capability (Zimmerman won one at third in 2009), so I doubt it will create much consternation. What makes the Nationals so lethal is their humility and their chemistry. Williams is a no nonsense manager, unafraid to fire up his players by getting in their face and raising his voice (a la benching Bryce Harper for not running out ground balls). Offensively, there isn’t a superstar on their roster; though Bryce Harper may be the most talked about player in the MLB, he isn’t a superstar. They all contribute equally and their fundamentals are sound. Good defense, good situational hitting, and great pitching.

Projected Lineup
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Anthony Rendon, 3B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
4. Jayson Werth, LF
5. Bryce Harper, RF
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Yunel Escobar, 2B
9. Pitcher

The Nationals won’t have a 40 home run hitter or have anyone win a batting title, but I don’t think anyone in the organization or a fan would complain. 96 wins is a heck of a season and all they did was improve in the offseason. Though Rafael Soriano is still floating around in free agency, he lost the closing job last year anyway and barely made the postseason roster. Signing the 2013 AL CYA and the 2014 AL wins leader is never a bad thing to add to a pitching staff that led the NL in ERA, hits, runs, earned runs, and walks allowed. Easily the best starting rotation in the Major Leagues.

Projected Rotation
1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Doug Fister
5. Gio Gonzalez

Fister went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA last season. Since being traded to the Tigers in 2011, he is 48-26 with a 2.83 ERA, which is good enough to be the ace of most teams yet is the 4-starter for the Nationals! When a team comes into town, it is customary to check the pitching match-ups, hoping that you don’t have to face a staff’s ace (for example, whenever the White Sox come to Detroit, I hope against hope that Chris Sale pitched the day before). With the Nationals, though, there is no break. Whatever set of three starters you get will be probably the three toughest days of the season. The only weakness I can foresee: Max Scherzer in a new, much more competitive division that has smaller ballparks. He gives up his fair share of fly balls and in smaller places like Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philly, things could get dicey.

Without a doubt, this is the hardest division to predict. It will be so competitive but at the same time the Nationals are such a good team that I don’t think they’ll be touched, making it a three horse race for second.

2015 Predictions
1. Washington Nationals, 98-64.
Likely NL champions. The best thing working for them is their lack of a superstar.
2. New York Mets, 85-77.
Great rotation and outfield, depends on Matt Harvey’s success after a year and a half off.
3. Miami Marlins, 84-78.
Like the Mets, depends on how they can do until Fernandez gets back. Supporting cast around Stanton will confirm at least a .500 season.
4. Atlanta Braves, 83-79.
Better than last year, but they didn’t improve as much compared to the previous three teams. Need more pitching, centerfielder. 
5. Philadelphia Phillies, 70-92.
Rebuilding year. Once the 2008 glory days have worn off and Howard, Chooch, and Utley have moved on, the transition can begin.

This was honestly the hardest division to pick so far and I don’t think any of the AL divisions will come close to being this competitive. Depending on how all of these teams do against each other, we could see a Wild Card emerge.

Thanks for reading.

 

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