NL East Division Preview: Can The Mets Challenge The Nationals For NL East Supremacy?
by 13 March 2018, 6:04 PM
The National League East looks to be one of the least competitive divisions in baseball. However, the Mets hope to challenge the Nationals in 2018.
The National League East is set to be one of the least competitive divisions in baseball. The Nationals return much of the same team that won 98 games last season, while the Marlins, who earned the second-place finish last year, traded away star players Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich in an attempt to reduce payroll. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves continue along their own rebuilds.
Miami’s several trades have weakened a division that was already weak. Their fire sale this offseason should benefit the New York Mets the most, who hope to climb back to second place in the division and earn a Wild Card berth. Here is how the teams fare.
First Place Finish: Washington Nationals
A lineup that was fifth in runs scored in 2017 returns almost all of the same players. Jayson Werth’s departure resulted in Washington planning to slot Adam Eaton in left field while allowing Michael Taylor to be the full-time center fielder. Considering Werth’s below-average defense later year (.889 fielding percentage along with a -2 defensive runs saved), Eaton should provide at least a defensive upgrade in left field. After suffering a season-ending injury last year, Eaton is set to be ready for Opening Day.
New manager David Martinez has a deep lineup that has a great balance of speedsters and power hitters.
Strengths: Strong Lineup and Deep Rotation. This is a team that has no easy outs in the lineup. Trea Turner and Adam Eaton are two of the fastest players in the league. Statcast shows that Turner has a baserunning speed of 29.2 feet per second while Eaton is not far behind at 28.9 feet per second. This puts Turner as the 15th-fastest player in all of baseball and Eaton tied for 22nd. Not only does Eaton provide a solid glove in left field, but he is one of the best all-around outfielders in baseball. Although manager Dave Martinez may consider having Turner leading off, Turner does not have the on-base ability Eaton has. Turner’s 4.9% walk rate last season was ranked as the 25th worst in baseball.
Weakness: Catcher. Matt Wieters is not bad, but he showed serious signs of decline last year, especially on the offensive end. He sported career lows in batting average and on-base percentage while being worth a -0.6 WAR. The Nationals backup catcher options, Miguel Montero and Pedro Severino, have not offered any hope they can earn significant playing time. Montero only hit .216 with a .656 OPS in 2017 with the Cubs and Blue Jays while Severino has had only 69 at-bats over parts of three major league seasons. J.T. Realmuto makes a lot of sense for them, but it remains to be seen whether the Marlins will trade him, let alone to a division rival. Jonathan Lucroy was an option for them until he signed with the A’s last week.
Key Position Battle To Watch: Fifth Starter. Since the Nationals did not sign Jake Arrieta, their current rotation is projected to include Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark. However, the fifth starter spot is still tenuous. AJ Cole stands to be the favorite for now, and Nationals officials seem confident in him. Despite his 5.88 ERA in 18 starts at Triple-AAA Syracuse, Cole finished with a 3.00 ERA in his last eight starts at the major league level. Although there is no obvious candidate to take the spot from Cole, he needs to perform well in Spring Training to keep the Nationals from seeking a free agent upgrade.
Prediction: The Washington Nationals are once again a World Series contender. With a strong offense buoyed by Bryce Harper and high-average, high-OBP players like Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals have a chance to have the best offense in the majors. Their pitching staff, meanwhile, is deep enough even without Jake Arrieta. This is a team that for three straight years has excelled in the regular season only to underperform in the postseason and get knocked out in the NLDS.
Second Place Finish: New York Mets
The New York Mets actually had a pretty good offseason. Their starting starting rotation is healthy and they signed players that filled their immediate needs. Bringing back Jay Bruce at $39 million for three years and signing Todd Frazier for $16 million over two years were both steals. This does not even consider that the Mets are only paying Adrian Gonzalez, a proven first baseman, the league minimum at slightly over $500,000 while the Braves are paying him over $20 million to play for their rivals. In 2018, the Mets will be putting together a more balanced offense that should be improved from last season.
Strengths: Outfield and pitching depth. Once Michael Conforto comes back from shoulder surgery, he will become a key cog in the Mets lineup. Manager Mickey Callaway will probably slot Conforto in the third spot or in the leadoff spot if Rosario struggles early. With Conforto back in the lineup, the Mets heart of the order becomes one of the most dangerous in the National League.
With the Mets signing of Jason Vargas to a two-year deal, the Mets now have nine potential pitchers who have started in the major leagues. The signing also gives Mets insurance if the team suffers an injury epidemic similar to the one last year [and every year].
Presumably, the Mets would be able to start five with two or three (probably Wheeler, Gsellman, and Lugo) being utilized in the bullpen, most likely in a position of long relief. Ideally, Mets manager Mickey Callaway will have his starters pitch through the opposing team’s lineup twice (besides ace pitchers Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard) before bringing in Wheeler, Gsellman, or Lugo in for two or three innings before handing the ball over to his closer, whoever it ends up being. With the amount of pitchers the Mets have, Callaway can get creative with how he utilizes his arms and if one or a couple of them get injured, the team can feel better knowing that reliable arms would be ready to replace the injured pitcher(s).
Weaknesses: Inexperience at shortstop. With Jose Reyes a liability at shortstop, Amed Rosario will get his opportunity to solidify his spot at the position. With Rosario’s major league debut out of the way due to his call-up last year, the Mets expect him to successfully audition for full-time duty at shortstop. Rosario is a big question mark going into the regular season. Can he be counted on at the top of the lineup and in the field? During his time in the majors last year, he became known for his lack of plate discipline (only saw 3.8 pitches per at-bat, good for below-average in the MLB last year) and inconsistency. The Mets are hoping that Rosario shows the team something in Port St. Lucie that can help them feel better about starting him in a few weeks.
Key Position Battle To Watch: First base. Adrian Gonzalez is no longer the five-time all-star first baseman that he was. Instead, he is a veteran that has to prove he can still provide a consistent bat and passable defense. Dominic Smith’s struggles suggested that he was not quite ready for full-time duty. However, Gonzalez’s position as the Mets starting first baseman is not secure throughout the entire year. After being worth a -1.2 WAR last year and sporting a career low in slugging percentage, Gonzalez needs a revival or may find himself on the bench sooner rather than later.
Prediction: The Mets were ravaged by injuries to their pitching staff last year. The Mets are clearly hoping that their pitchers (especially Harvey, Matz, and Wheeler) all return to form in 2018. Michael Conforto’s return in May should also be a major boost to their offense and push Lagares back to his role as a fourth outfielder. The Mets have the talent to return to the postseason, but their pitchers will need to stay healthy and effective in order for that to happen. That may potentially be too much to ask for.
Third Place Finish: Philadelphia Phillies
With Carlos Santana in town and a full year of Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies are hoping that they can post their best offense since their run of five consecutive National League East division titles from 2007-2011. Their pitching should be improved as well after signing a front-line starter in Jake Arrieta. A look at their projected lineup shows that they have many players who should be able to get on base at a much better rate than previous years, which may create more opportunities to score runs.
Strengths: First base. This was a position the Phillies did not have to worry about for more than a decade until a few years ago once Ryan Howard begin his inevitable decline. By signing Carlos Santana to a three-year deal this offseason, the Phillies turned one of their major weaknesses into a strength. Santana brings a veteran presence to a young Phillies locker room as well as offense that was lacking last year (27th in runs scored). His average of 28 homeruns and 83 RBIs over the past couple years should provide stability in the middle of the Phillies batting order. Santana’s career OBP (.365) should be a boon for Herrera, Hoskins, and Williams’s offensive productions.
Weaknesses: Inexperience and Inconsistency. This is what a rebuilding team always has to be concerned with. The truth is that four of their probable starting position players this coming year (Hoskins, Williams, Alfaro, and Crawford) have minimal big league experience. The possibility exists that one or several of these players regresses or takes a step back.
Meanwhile, two of their other starters, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, have not progressed into consistent sources of offense. Franco’s decline is especially troubling. Although he played well in 2015, his BABIP, as well as his offensive value to the team, has declined over the past two years:
This is the opposite of what you want to see from a young player. Franco’s regression makes this year more important for him than ever. He needs to provide the Phillies with proof through results on the field that he is worth keeping around as the everyday starter at the hot corner. If he cannot reverse his current trend of poor on-base skills and a dwindling batting average, Franco may watch the Phillies seek an upgrade over him next offseason.
Key Position Battle To Watch: Aaron Altherr vs. Starting Outfield. With Hoskins, Herrera, and Williams looking like safe bets to be the starters in the outfield, Aaron Altherr appears to be the odd man out. As a right-handed hitter, Altherr could force his way into the lineup against lefties, considering that Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams are both left-handed hitters. However, Herrera does hit well against righties (.279) and lefties (.288). Williams’ spot, on the other hand, is more vulnerable. Although he hits fine against righties (.293) and lefties (.274), he also has a 19% swinging strike rate, suggesting contact issues. Considering the average swing strike rate in the MLB was 9.5% in 2017, Williams’ shows a high-whiff and ultra-aggressive plate approach. Altherr, on the other hand, has a 12.3% swinging strike rate, which is still higher than the league average but significantly lower than Williams. Altherr also earned a 120 wRC, which was 20% higher than the MLB average in 2017 and ten points higher than Williams (110 wRC).
This leads to the question of why the Phillies would start Williams over Altherr. The Phillies made it clear with their signing of Jake Arrieta that they were looking for a front-line starter. Altherr, although a solid outfielder, has had injury concerns in the past. Williams, meanwhile, was one of the baseball’s top prospects in 2014. The Phillies have been rumored to be interested in acquiring pitching and Williams has been the player that teams have been interested in the most. The Phillies’ reasons for playing him over Altherr, therefore, may be to generate more trade interest in him in the hopes of striking a better deal for them.
Prediction: The Philadelphia Phillies are still in the midst of their rebuild. Freddy Galvis is gone to San Diego, but J.P. Crawford is set to take over the shortstop position. Expectations for the young player have been high ever since he was drafted 16th overall in the 2013 MLB Draft. His most important attribute is his plate discipline. Throughout his baseball career, J.P. Crawford has showed an ability to draw walks.
An approach at the plate does not simply go away. While Crawford’s high strikeout rate (25.6%) is still a concern at the big league level, the Phillies are hoping that he adjusts more to MLB pitching with a full major league season. His development on this front will be key to the Phillies success in 2018. If Crawford can establish himself as the shortstop of the future for the Phillies, their outlook becomes brighter.
The Phillies will not be contending for the playoffs this year, but Arrieta and Santana will make them more competitive. The concern for them should be that their young players like Crawford, Nick Williams, and Jorge Alfaro continue to develop.
Fourth Place Finish: Atlanta Braves
Freddie Freeman is now healthy from a fractured wrist that ended his 2017 campaign prematurely. He returns to a Braves lineup that contains many of the young players from 2017 while potentially adding one of the top prospects in baseball to the lineup.
Strengths: Freddie Freeman. He is the unquestioned leader of this team and the face of the franchise in the post-Chipper Jones era of Braves baseball. He will be tasked with mentoring his young teammates while providing consistent offense in the third spot in the batting order. Freeman had a good year last year, sporting a batting average above .300, an on-base percentage above .400, and a slugging percentage over .500. The Braves will need him to post similar numbers in order to score enough runs to keep them competitive in games.
Weaknesses: Power hitting. This is a team that could struggle to generate much offense. Even with Freddie Freeman back in the lineup, the Braves lost three of their biggest homerun hitters (Matt Kemp, Matt Adams, and Brandon Phillips). Meanwhile, outside of Freeman, their next three power threats are Ender Inciarte, Tyler Flowers, and Kurt Suzuki. Flowers and Suzuki have not tallied at least 10 home runs in the past two seasons. As a result of their limited power upside, it is hard to see how the Braves offense, which averaged 4.52 runs per game last year and good for 20th in the MLB, improves in 2018.
Key Position Battle To Watch: The Fifth Starter. With a couple weeks in Spring Training to go, the Braves are still sorting out their rotation. Right now, Julio Teheran, Brandon McCarthy, Mike Foltynewicz, and Scott Kazmir seem like locks. However, their fifth spot is still an open competition between Matt Wisler and Sean Newcomb. Wisler in particular has pitched well. In seven innings so far, Wisler has a 0.00 ERA with a 0.71 WHIP with zero walks, five strikeouts, and five hits given up.
Meanwhile, Newcomb has a 4.50 ERA but has only given up four hits (three of them home runs) in six innings. With only two walks and six strikeouts, Newcomb has been doing a great job pounding the strike zone. Although the Braves do not need a fifth starter for the first couple weeks of the season due to their scheduled breaks, who the Braves choose to fill the fifth starter spot in mid-April will be something to keep an eye on throughout the rest of Grapefruit League play.
Prediction: The Atlanta Braves are not going to be a great team this year either. The goal this year should be to see if any of their young players show any signs of improvement. It would not be a surprise to see the Braves try and trade their remaining veteran players (Markakis or Flowers) at the trade deadline in July for more prospects. In the meantime, the Braves are probably looking at another season in which winning 70 games may be a challenge.
Last Place Finish: Miami Marlins
The fire sale in Miami saw four main contributors from last year’s team (Dee Gordon, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich) shipped off to other teams while two starters from 2017 (J. T. Realmuto and Martin Prado) have been dangled in trade talks. As a result of the Marlins plan to shed payroll, the team will be playing many young players in 2018, including some who have little to no major league experience.
Strengths: Speed. The youth that the Marlins plan on playing this year all have the potential to wreak havoc on the basepaths. Braxton Lee, who shared the Southern League batting title at Double-A Jacksonville last year, is known for his speed and athleticism. JT Riddle (28 feet per second) and Starlin Castro (27.1 feet per second) also possess above-average speed that could help the Marlins steal bases against opposing pitchers with relative frequency.
Weaknesses: Many. This is a team that has very few positives. Martin Prado is 34 and coming off an injury-plagued season in which he sported his worst batting average and on-base percentage of his career. Starlin Castro does not even want to be in Miami. Neither does J. T. Realmuto. Meanwhile, the Marlins will be playing many young players with big league potential but little experience. A tough learning curve for these players will be expected.
Key Position Battle To Watch: The Outfield. Since the Marlins have traded away Stanton, Ozuna, and Yelich, their entire outfield is getting an extreme makeover. Manager Don Mattingly has said that Derek Dietrich will be assured a spot in the lineup, but the other remaining spots are up for grabs. The Marlins will have their young players battle it out throughout the rest of Spring Training to determine who wins the job. Cameron Maybin, who the Marlins signed a few weeks ago, will not be in this competition. Instead, he will be a defensive replacement and mentor to his young teammates. Between Brinson, Sierra, and Lee, Magneuris Sierra seems like the odd man out. He has not shown much in the minor leagues thus far, and even though his brief stint with the Cardinals saw him post a respectable .317/.359/.676 batting line, 60 at-bats at the big-league level is too small a sample size to declare him MLB-starter ready.
Brinson, meanwhile, only has 21 MLB games under his belt and posted putrid numbers when he did play. However, he is ranked as MLB Pipeline’s #13 overall prospect and posted impressive numbers at the minor league level (.287/.353/.502) unlike Sierra.
Prediction: This team is going to be bad. The rebuild in Miami begins, and no star talent will be coming to South Beach for a while. The Marlins will be throwing their younger players to the wolves, hoping that added experience will help them grow and develop. One hundred losses is an incredibly realistic possibility and the Marlins will most likely end the season as the worst team in baseball.
(All statistics and information came from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.)
Edited by Peyten Maki.
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