(Brad Mills / USA Today Sports)
Today, we take a look at the NL East, a division featuring great pitching (Syndergaard, Scherzer, Nola, and more), young studs (Swanson, Turner, and Harper even if he has been around for years and years), and Bartolo Colon. Previews are given in alphabetical order; standings predictions will be released before Opening Day.
2016 Record: 68-93 (5th in NL East, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $123,153,633 (19th)
Offseason Moves: The Braves added three starting pitchers over the offseason: veteran RHPs Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, along with former Cardinals LHP Jaime Garcia. The team also added IFs Micah Johnson and Sean Rodriguez, along with trading Mallex Smith for the Mariners #5 prospect, flamethrowing 20-year-old Luiz Gohara. Former Braves C A.J. Pierzynski retired over the offseason, and the team lost a few pitchers that did not do much for the Big League club.
2017 Outlook: The Braves are mid-rebuild, but this team will be ready to contend soon. Dansby Swanson is a superstar waiting to break out at SS (and the overwhelming favorite for NL Rookie of the Year), while Freddie Freeman has been a complete beast throughout Spring Training. This team has bats. Inciarte and Markakis are very underrated in the outfield and with the bat (you have to love guys that save 27-28 runs per year in the field that can hit for a .340+ OBP), while Matt Kemp rediscovered his hitting ability at times last year. The interesting thing for this Braves team is pitching. Julio Teheran has proven himself to be a reliable ace atop the rotation and is still just 26-years-old (how!?). Past that, though, the Braves would need great years out of two 40+-year-old pitchers, Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, and that just does not seem realistic. Jaime Garcia is injury-prone too, which is a worry for the Braves. Could the young guys, such as Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, step in and pitch well? Perhaps. Will their bats score runs? Probably. Will the bullpen be good? I have no clue how a bullpen with Jim Johnson and Ian Krol could possibly succeed as a guy who saw plenty of the 2015 Detroit Tigers bullpen, but hey, Jason Grilli became a star closer in Pittsburgh at one point. I don’t even know, man.
Player to Watch: Ender Inciarte
I typed out Dansby Swanson’s name, then paused. How basic do I really want to be? No. Watch out for Ender Inciarte. After a horrendous start to 2016, with a .227/.294/.306 line, Inciarte came alive in the second half. In seventy starts, he batted an incredible .341. Now, his BABIP suggests that both of these are very off. His first-half BABIP was .255, while his second-half BABIP was .387. Something’s not right there. That said, if everything evens out, Inciarte will still bat around .280-.300. Plus, Inciarte is very likely to win his fourth Gold Glove in four years if he saves another 27-28 runs in 2017. (Side-note, Markakis saved 28 last year, Inciarte 27. Wow.) Look out for this Braves outfield, it’s special.
– Zane Harding
2016 Record: 79-82 (3rd in NL East, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $80,461,206 (28th)
Offseason Moves: The Marlins signed C A.J. Ellis, LHP Jeff Locke, 1B/OF Tyler Moore, RHP Junichi Tazawa, RHP Edinson Volquez, and RHP Brad Ziegler in free agency. A trade with the Reds brings RHP Dan Straily to Miami. They lost several players to free agency, most notably RHP Andrew Cashner and RHP Fernando Rodney, who were both acquired mid-2016 from the Padres. LHP Mike Dunn, OF Jeff Francoeur, 3B Chris Johnson, and C Jeff Mathis also were not re-signed.
2017 Outlook: In 2016, the Marlins remained in contention for a place in the postseason until the final week of the season. That week will be remembered as the worst week in Marlins history, and for reasons unrelated to their results on the field. The shocking and tragic death of their ace Jose Fernandez on September 25 cast a shadow over the Marlins and the entire baseball community. Baseball became irrelevant at that point to anyone associated with the Marlins. The absence left by Fernandez’s death is impossible to replace. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball, leading the Majors with his 12.49 strikeout per nine innings and finishing second among all pitchers with a 6.1 fWAR. The team hopes their acquisitions of Edinson Volquez and Dan Strailly will partially fill in the gap, but their expected rotation of Volquez, Strailly, Tom Koehler, Wei-Yin Chen, and Adam Conley combined for a 6.0 fWAR in 814 innings in 2016, just short of Fernandez’s feat alone in 182.1 frames. On offense and in the field, their lineup will look quite similar to the 2016 version, returning all ten of their players with at least 300 plate appearances. Outfielders and Team USA World Baseball Classic teammates Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich lead the offense. Without Fernandez, the offense will have to improve from their 27th best 4.07 runs per game for the team to match their middling results from 2016. While this may be doable with full seasons from Stanton and Dee Gordon, the team will likely miss the postseason for the 14th straight year.
Players to Watch: Giancarlo Stanton and Dee Gordon
Giancarlo can crush a ball, that much is certain. Since he made his big league debut in 2010, he’s the only player to hit a home run at least 490 feet, and he’s done that three times. His career at-bats per home run of 14.33 ranks 7th all time, between Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew and slugger Sammy Sosa. The question for him is if he can stay healthy for a full season, as he’s only played in 827 of the Marlins’ 1075 games (76.9%) since his debut on June 8, 2010, with injuries to his knee, hamstring, face, hand, and groin causing him to miss time. If he can finally string together an injury-free season, expect him to be among the league leaders in home runs and slugging percentage.
Dee Gordon, meanwhile, the 2015 All-Star, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger, NL batting champion, and MLB stolen base leader should be back for a full season after missing half of 2016 with a PED suspension. He may not replicate his career 2015 season of 4.7 fWAR but is still one of the best on the basepaths and a solid hitter for average.
– Joshua Kremers
New York Mets
2016 Record: 87-75 (2nd in NL East, lost in Wild Card)
2016 Payroll: $156,642,515 (12th)
Offseason Moves: The Mets did not lose anybody too great of value (unless you want to include 43-year-old stud Bartolo Colon, whose reliability down the stretch allowed for the younger guys to rest). Semi-notable losses include Alejandro De Aza, James Loney, and Logan Verrett. On the other side, the Mets made one of the bigger offseason moves in re-signing their offensive centerpiece, Yoenis Cespedes. They also bring back Neil Walker, Fernando Salas, and Jerry Blevins, who were all free agents.
2017 Outlook: With the lowest FIP and third lowest xFIP in 2016, it’s no secret that the Mets’ strength in 2017 will be their pitching. The question is whether their rotation can stay healthy enough throughout the year to pick up the slack for their weak offense, as there are lingering concerns about Harvey’s health, the durability of Matz and deGrom, and Wheeler’s future. As for that mediocre offense, the Mets will hope to improve upon a wOBA of .315 and a wRC+ of 97, both of which were tied for 16th in the majors. This will only happen in-house, however, as the Mets didn’t go out and get any new bats for their lineup, so fans better hope their hitters have been putting in lots of offseason work. Some of that improvement could come from Jay Bruce, who hit an atrocious .219 with a .294 OBP and .391 slugging percentage in 50 games after arriving in New York. Given his struggles against lefties, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him enter some sort of platoon in the deep Mets outfield. David Wright, is as big a question mark as ever, though he should see the field at some point this season. Perhaps he, Reyes and Flores can bring some production from the hot corner. Unless the Mets can address their offensive concerns it will be difficult for them to make a postseason run, making the playoffs is certainly within reach, though.
Players to Watch: Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce
Former Mets’ top prospect Michael Conforto came out red-hot in 2016, hitting .365 with 4 homers in March and April. His next best month in 2016 was September when he hit a for a lowly .237 average (still 15 points higher than Bruce’s second half average). If the Mets want to contend in 2017 they will need on-base productivity out of the right field slot, as Cespedes, Granderson, Duda, and Walker should provide plenty in the power department. Look for the Mets to give Conforto a chance to force himself into the lineup, as Bruce’s career .248 average and .318 OBP won’t cut it if the Mets want to have a consistent offense.
– Griffin Murphy
2016 Season: 71 – 91 (4th Place in NL East, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $107,610,500 (20th)
2017 Outlook: The Phillies will look to build on last year’s momentum that included an 8 win improvement and the arrival and breakout of various talented prospects. 2017 will be the first season since 2000 without one of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, or Ryan Howard on the roster, and 17 years later that is definitely a good thing. The key for both next season and beyond will be the performance and development of their starting pitchers. Alongside Aaron Nola, Vince Velazquez (10.4 K/9 in 2016) and Jerad Eickhoff (113 ERA+ and 3.4 WAR in 2016) have flashed the potential to round out a formidable future top 3. Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and Freddy Galvis will look to turn around a lineup that ranked dead last in the Majors with 610 runs last year. Ultimately, wins are not what matter for the 2017 Phillies, as the front office and fans will be looking for continued improvement from an intriguing young core.
Player to Watch: J.P. Crawford
The silver lining to losing is always high draft picks, and with J.P. Crawford the Phillies struck gold. Aaron Nola still has the looks of a hopeful future ace despite some 2016 regression (9.8 K/9 but only 87 ERA+), and Maikel Franco clubbed 25 HR, but it’s Crawford that really has Phillies fans buzzing. Scouts love his outstanding defense as well as a patient approach at the plate that’s well beyond his years. Looking to make his long-awaited debut in 2017, the former 16th pick and current number 2 prospect according to MLB.com has all the makings of the next superstar Shortstop in the current golden age of young Shortstops.
– Max Smith
2016 Season: 95 – 67 (1st Place NL East, lost in NLDS)
2016 Payroll: $163,018,658 (14th)
2017 Outlook: There’s no denying that given the team’s talent, payroll and recent success, Bryce Harper and fans alike are beginning to wonder “Where’s my ring?”. The rotation led by a one-two punch of 2-time Cy Young Winner/reigning Strikeout king Max Scherzer and a hopefully healthy/electric Stephen Strasburg ranks amongst the best in the league—and that’s without even mentioning Tanner Roark, a late-bloomer who has broken out over the last few seasons, delivering a 148 ERA+ in 2016. The bullpen and the closer role remain iffy, though the Nats return returns setup man Shawn Kelley (12.4 K/9 in 2016), the hard-throwing Blake Treinen (2.0 WAR in 2016), and 23-year old Koda Glover, all of whom have a chance to handle 9th inning duties for the team this year. On paper, the Nationals already boast a formidable lineup, but whether it lives up to its potential will ultimately determine how far this team can go. Ryan Zimmerman’s production has plummeted (69 OPS+ in 2016 despite a previous career average of 122.2 OPS+) as his salary has soared, Jayson Werth is now 37, and all of baseball is wondering whether Bryce Harper will return to his Bonds-ian heights of 2015. Despite these questions, the Nationals return one of the best rosters in the Majors, added an impact bat in Adam Eaton, and should be expected to once again win the NL East, and maybe finally make a deep playoff run.
Player to Watch: Trea Turner
Anybody that paid attention to the Nats in 2016 knows that the season was split into two distinct halves: before Trea Turner and after Trea Turner came up to the Majors. In a mere 73 games, Turner hit .342/.370/.567 with a 144 OPS+, 33 steals, and perhaps most surprisingly 13 HR, quickly becoming the electric dynamo at the top of the lineup that Washington has needed for years. Now back to his natural position of shortstop, Turner has the potential to be the most exciting part of a team that already features Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and Jayson Werth’s beard.
– Max Smith