MLB Season Preview: NL East
By: Sam Soergel
Only one team finished above .500 last season in the NL East, but it looks like that won’t happen again in 2015. The Marlins brought in good players that can add to their already young core. The Mets have great young pitching, and the defending division champs in Washington look like the best team in the National League if not all of baseball.
Atlanta Braves (2014: 79-83, 2nd Place)
Key Additions: Shelby Miller (P), Jonny Gomes (OF), A.J. Pierzynski (C), Nick Markakis (OF), Jason Grilli (P), Wandy Rodriguez (P), Eric Young Jr. (OF), Alberto Callaspo (IF)
Key Losses: Evan Gattis (C), Ervin Santana (P), Emilio Bonifacio (IN/OF) Jason Heyward (OF), Justin Upton (OF)
The Braves do not look like the dominant team that they once were, but they still have some bright spots. They signed Nick Markakis to a four year deal. Markakis took home a Gold Glove last year in Baltimore and will provide some much needed outfield help after Jason Heyward was traded to St. Louis and Justin Upton was traded to San Diego. The Braves need Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J. Upton) to have a better season than last year (.208/.287/.333). Jonny Gomes is currently on top of the depth chart in left field. If the veteran falters, Eric Young Jr. would take his place. Never much of an offensive threat, Young is valued for his speed, but if he or Gomes could pick up their offense along with Upton, the Braves outfield could be decent. They also lost Evan Gattis in a trade and Ervin Santana signed with the Twins. Santana put up respectable numbers last year, going 14-10 in his only year with the Braves. Shelby Miller came over in the St. Louis trade and will be the Braves third starter. After Miller, however, the rotation doesn’t look so good. Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons are still in Atlanta, and they are key to the success the Braves have in 2015, if any.
Andrelton Simmons: Simmons is an amazing fielder. He won the gold glove at short the last two years and could easily make it three years in a row. He’s not the best hitter (.244/.286/.331), but he has done much better than that in spring training. If his bat comes alive this year with his glove staying as good as it is, he could become one of the best all-around shortstops in the game. He is also only 25 and under team control until 2020. Simmons is a cornerstone around which the Braves can build a team.
Front of the Rotation: Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are valuable 1 and 2 starters for the Braves. Both had good years in 2014 and Teheran was an All-Star. They both had ERAs under three as well. If they can replicate the success that they had last year, the Braves’ front of the rotation will be a strong one. Offseason acquisition Shelby Miller put up good numbers as well last year going 10-9 with a 3.74 ERA. With numbers like that, he’ll fit right in the third starter role, and be another helpful piece in the rotation.
Back of the Rotation: Things don’t look so good after Miller, however. Mike Minor went 6-12 last year with an ERA close to 5, and he could possibly start 2015 on the DL with shoulder tightness. Minor’s replacement in the 4th starter role would be 36 year old Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez was released by the Pirates last May after an awful two starts and injuries. It would help if Wandy could return to his Houston Astros form, but, at 36, it is not very likely. After him, it’s Eric Stults. Stults went 8-17 last year in San Diego, but those numbers might have been better were it not for the Padres’ terrible offense. Still, if Wandy Rodriguez and Eric Stults are the Braves 4 and 5 starters, the back end of their rotation is lacking.
Miami Marlins (2014: 77-85, 4th Place)
Key Additions: Ichiro Suzuki (OF), Martin Prado (3B), David Phelps (P), Dee Gordon (2B), Michael Morse (1B), Dan Haren (P), Mat Latos (P)
Key Losses: Nathan Eovaldi (P), Garrett Jones (1B), Casey McGehee (3B)
The Marlins have high expectations for 2015. They have a great young core featuring outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, newly-acquired second baseman Dee Gordon, and 2013 rookie of the year Jose Fernandez, who is expected to be back by June after Tommy John surgery last season. And then there’s superstar Giancarlo Stanton; the Marlins just inked him to a monster 13 year, $325 million contract. That was not their only move of the off-season. They acquired Gordon, Martin Prado, David Phelps, Dan Haren, and Mat Latos in trades, and they signed Mike Morse and hitting machine Ichiro Suzuki. After Fernandez, the rotation stays strong with Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart, then Latos and Haren. The Marlins look primed to contend for at least a wild card spot in 2015, and maybe even more in the future.
Core: The Marlins have a young core. Out of the 8 starting fielders, only Prado and Morse are over 30. Dan Haren is the only starting pitcher over 30. With all this young talent developing, the Marlins could be a great team for years to come. They signed Christian Yelich to a seven year extension, and they have Stanton for the next 13 years. Stanton has amazing power, Yelich has speed, and Ozuna has a strong arm. Hechavarria is a good fielder, and Gordon is one of the fastest in baseball. This core is filled with talent, and some of it is still getting better.
Rotation: Once Fernandez is healthy, the Marlins will have a great rotation with a lot of depth. Fernandez most likely will be an ace. Alvarez will be right behind him. He has great stuff and posted a 2.65 ERA in his 2014 all-star season. Once Cosart came over from Huston he put up a 2.39 ERA and only gave up 2 homers in 64 innings. Latos has put up respectable numbers throughout his whole career and Dan Haren will be a good 5th starter. There’s still pitchers that aren’t in the rotation that could make a spot start if needed; Tom Koehler, Brad Hand, and David Phelps could all step up. They have a really solid bullpen, too.
Not the Nationals: The Marlins really don’t have any glaring weaknesses. The players on their bench are good enough to be bench players, their bullpen and rotation are strong and have enough depth to last the season. Their lineup is one of the better in the division, but there’s only one problem: they aren’t the Nationals. It looks like on paper that they are close to going toe to toe with the Nats for the division, but the Nationals are too good. It might be a few years until that happens. The only thing about all the young talent the Marlins have is that it might not all be able to produce or replicate the individual success that some of the team had last season.
New York Mets (2014: 79-83, 2nd Place)
Key Additions: Michael Cuddyer (OF), John Mayberry Jr. (OF), Jerry Blevins (P), Alex Torres (P)
Key Losses: Eric Young Jr. (OF)
The Mets were quiet this offseason, but they did bring in outfielder Michael Cuddyer from Colorado. He’s 36, but hit well last year although injuries limited him to 49 games, and he had a great 2013 as well. He’ll be joined in the outfield by 2014 gold glove winning centerfielder Juan Lagares and the once dangerous Curtis Granderson. Lagares has not shown much power in his two big league seasons, but his glove is valuable playing between a 36 and 34 year old. The Mets hope Granderson can return to form in 2015. Last year he only hit 20 homers with a .227 average. The Mets are currently discussing an extension with first baseman Lucas Duda, another valuable piece to the lineup. Duda hit 30 homers last season. The strongpoint for the Mets is their young pitching. Matt Harvey is back after Tommy John surgery, and Jacob deGrom won rookie of the year in 2014. Unfortunately another starter, Zack Wheeler, will miss 2015 because of Tommy John. At AAA, Noah Syndergaard continues to be strong and might make it into the rotation before September call-ups. Dillon Gee will replace Wheeler, but Syndergaard or even Steven Matz could become one of the starting five. Age could possible affect 41 year old Bartolo Colon, a one time Cy Young winner, or another injury could lead the Mets to rely on either of these two prospects.
Pitching: As said above, the Mets have great young pitching. A rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz looks mighty dangerous, given the prospects live up to expectations. If they do, this could be one of the best rotations in the division, maybe even all of baseball.
David Wright: “Captain America” had an off year in 2014, but he is a great presence in the clubhouse. A strong veteran presence like he has is great for all the young players on the Mets. Wright is only 32, so hopefully he has a few more .300 seasons left in him.
Bullpen: Closer Jenrry Mejia is the best player in the Mets’ bullpen. Last year, the closer had almost 30 saves. Carlos Torres and Jeurys Familia are average bullpen help, but then it doesn’t look so good for the start of the season. The next three down on the depth chart are injured or not ready to come back from injury. Below them are young inexperience players. Luckily, the Mets acquired Alex Torres and Jerry Blevins this week to help. At best, the bullpen looks average, and if the Mets want to make GM Sandy Alderson look good on his prediction of at least 89 wins, the bullpen will have to be better than average.
Philadelphia Phillies (2014: 73-89, 5th Place)
Key Additions: Aaron Harang (P), Jordan Danks (OF), Jenmar Gomez (P)
Key Losses: Antonio Bastardo (P), A.J. Burnett (P), Jimmy Rollins (SS), Marlon Byrd (OF)
2015 did not get off to a good start for the Phils. Starter Cliff Lee is out for the year due to an elbow injury. That’s a big blow because even with Lee and Cole Hamels, the rotation would not be very strong. They traded away one of their best players in Jimmy Rollins, also traded Marlon Byrd, and lost A.J. Burnett to free agency. Burnett was not very good for Philadelphia in 2014, but a lot of the team also struggled. Thankfully, Aaron Harang, who had a good 2014 for the Braves, signed a one year deal with Philly this offseason. Ryan Howard has not lived up to his contract; last year, he only hit .223 and led the league in strikeouts. The Phillies could use a good season from him as well as veterans Chase Utley and catcher Chooch Ruiz, but it would still be tough for this team to finish above last place. Their centerfielder, Odubel Herrera, has never played a game in the bigs, and while some of the bullpen put up respectable numbers last year, it’s not as strong as other teams’ bullpens. Utley and Howard can produce, but the other side of the infield is not as good. It does not look like 2015 will be a good year for the Phillies, but anything is possible.
Prospects: The Phillies do have some players scattered across MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, but some of them are still a few years away. Maikel Franco can play 1st and 3rd; he has a good chance to make the team some point this year. He was a September call-up, but did not do very much. Pitcher Aaron Nola made it to double-A only two months after he was drafted, and the Phillies believe J.P. will be able to take Jimmy Rollins’ place, but he still has a way to go. Things don’t look too good for the Phillies now, but there are at least some bright spots in the farm system.
Everything else: Ok, that might be exaggerating a bit, but the team is a lot different than the one that won the World Series seven years ago. The main players (Howard, Utley, Ruiz) are all getting older. GM Ruben Amaro has put the team in a bad spot with his questionable moves (or lack thereof) and contracts. He’s even come out against Ryan Howard. The Phillies a probably will be one of the worst teams in the NL in 2015. They were bad last year, and with injuries and average to below average players, it will be more of the same this year.
Washington Nationals (2014: 96-66, 1st Place)
Key Additions: Max Scherzer (P), Yunel Escobar (SS), Casey Janssen (P)
Key Losses: Adam LaRoche (1B), Asdrubal Cabrera (SS), Tyler Clippard (P), Rafael Soriano (P)
The Nats lost more key players than they acquired in the offseason, but that doesn’t matter. They are still the best team in this division and possibly all of baseball. They signed max Scherzer to a 7 year/$225 million contract. He was the best free agent pitcher on the market, and he was rewared. Scherzer has gone 39-8 in the last two seasons, taking home the Cy Young in 2013. He’ll be in a rotation where each of the first three starters are legitimate threats to take home the Cy Young this year. A rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez is fantastic. The lineup is just as good as the pitching staff. Led by Bryce Harper, the Nationals can expect at least average offensive production from every position. Denard Span led the league in hits in 2014, third baseman Anthony Rendon finished 5th in MVP voting, Ian Desmond took home a Silver Slugger, and it appears Ryan Zimmerman will hit at no matter what position you play him. The Nationals have no glaring weaknesses and look like they can make a deep postseason run.
Pitching: The Nats have an amazing rotation, and like I said above, any of the top three starters are Cy Young threats. Fourth starter Doug Fister finished 8th in Cy Young voting last year, and Gio Gonzalez had a down year last year, but his numbers will be just fine for a fifth starter. Tanner Roark would be the sixth starter and he had an ERA under 3 last year as a starter. Even if one starter gets hurt, the Nationals still probably have the best all-around rotation in baseball. The bullpen is just as good. Drew Storen will be the closer and he’ll be backed by Aaron Barrett, Craig Stamen, Matt Thornton, and other great pieces.
Health: Right now, it looks like the only problem the Nationals have is keeping everyone healthy. Denard Span might miss opening day because of core muscle surgery. Werth could miss opening day after shoulder surgery. Rendon sprained his MCL, and Janssen has tendinitis. None of these are season-threatening injuries, but if multiple key pieces get hurt, it could be a challenge for the Nats to distance themselves from the pack.
So here’s how they’ll finish:
1st: Nationals (97-65) – The Nats will most likely run away with the division. The Marlins could hang around for a while, but, behind a super rotation and a great offense, the Vegas odds makers say it’s their World Series to lose.
2nd: Marlins: (87-75) – The Marlins are a great young team. Giancarlo Stanton leads a lineup with great speed and great power. It wouldn’t be surprising if they snatch a Wild Card spot in 2015
3rd: Mets (84-78) – The Mets are another team with a lot of young key pieces. If their young rotation stays consistent, and the bats provide a big boost, they’ll have a winning season.
4th: Braves (76-86) – A lackluster back of the rotation and a lot of offensive question marks will lead the Braves to a second consecutive losing season in 2015.
5th Phillies (63-99) – The Phillies won’t put a dangerous team on the field this year. Hopefully, things can only go up from here, but that might not even be the case.