The Washington Nationals have Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. What does that mean? It means they have the best pitcher in the NL East, the second-best young hitter, the deepest rotation and the most potent front five in any line-up. They are extremely well managed and maybe more important than anything, feel like it’s their time to dominate. They have no discernible weaknesses. The Washington Nationals are going to win this division. Besides the Detroit Tigers winning the AL Central, this might be the easiest call of the entire MLB preseason.
Can any team even challenge them? What would have to go right for any other squad to penetrate the seemingly predestined playoff spot for the Nats?
Atlanta Braves: First and foremost, the Braves offense would have to stop themselves from becoming the all-time MLB leaders in strikeouts for a season. With Freddie Freeman, the Upton brothers, Dan Uggla and Jayson Heyward, it’s very well possible. The Atlanta offense will either have to cut back on the punchouts, or simply bludgeon the ball all across the field and negate a possible roster of five players with 130+ K’s in a season.
But most importantly, their rotation has to be without any hiccups. Kris Medlen must prove that his Cy Young-worthy second half wasn’t just a few months of really solid baseball. Tim Hudson has to keep himself relevant in the game as he strikes out fewer and fewer batters. Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have to be at least Major League replacement level pitchers, if not slightly more than that. Brandon Beachy has to return midseason from Tommy John surgery last year and come into prime form for the stretch drive late in summer. The Nats are better than the Braves, no question, but if everything goes right for Atlanta? It’s very, very close.
Philadelphia Phillies: A whole lot. As our man The Raw Librarian discussed yesterday in his season preview, for the Phils to contend this year, a lot has to go right in order for them to even approach the Nats:
Let’s say everything comes together. In the offense, we get a bounce-back, 2010 version of Michael Young, a healthy, motivated Ryan Howard, 155 games out of Chase Utley and Dominic Brown continues his torrid spring training pace all season. As for the pitching staff, Roy Halladay really is just “sick” and rebounds to vintage Halladay form, Cole Hamels proves why he earned a 6-year $144 million dollar extension by putting together his first 20 win season, Cliff Lee gets better run support and Mike Adams and Johnathan Papelbon are lights out in the 8th and 9th inning. Carlos Ruiz returns from his 25 game suspension and replicates his offensive output from last season, while Ben Revere provides stellar defense in the outfield and absolutely wrecks havoc on the base path. Teams don’t figure out that Kyle Kendrick is not very good. If ALL of these things happen, the Phillies can reach 95 wins and regain the top spot in the NL East.
That summary touched on nearly every player on the Phillies improving on their performances from last season. That’s not good news.
New York Mets: Pray.
Miami Marlins: Pray a little bit harder.
Top Dog: Washington Nationals
The Braves are going to be a very, very good team, but the Nationals have a better rotation, a better offense and only a slightly worse bullpen (but perhaps even if Jonny Venters is seriously injured). There’s really no other choice here.
First Loser: Atlanta Braves
The Braves simply look like they’re runners-up in the talent department. The Nats have better pitchers, more patient hitters and less injury concerns. In any other division, the Braves would be at least a toss-up to win the division. To do so against Washington, Teheran would have to dominate, Medlen would have to continue his 2012 second half, the ‘pen would have to continue their flawlessness and the line-up would have to hit 430 homers. That’s probably not all going to happen.
Cellar Dweller: Miami Marlins…but it’s close
At first glance, it’s an elementary decision. The Florida Marlins have one player in their starting 8 fielders that would crack the Nationals’ line-up (Giancarlo Stanton). They have an offense consisting of veterans looking to hang on (OF Juan Pierre, 3B Placido Polanco, 1B Casey Kotchman), untested rookies (2B Donovan Solano, SS Adeiny Hechavarria and C Rob Brantly) and outdated prospects (OF Justin Ruggiano). They have two guys in their starting rotation that have more than two years of experience, and two “veterans” that have averaged between a 4.65 and a 4.68 ERA the past four seasons. They will have zero fan support after stripping any valuable veteran off the major league club and a young, first-year manager in Mike Redmond. They will be bad, and they will be bad often.
But the New York Mets? After talking with resident Amazins’ fanboy Pucklius earlier this winter, there was a little cause for optimism. SP Matt Harvey, Jonothan Niese, Dillon Gee alongside future batterymate Zach Wheeler looks like a solid little rotation that might be able to give the big boys trouble this year. Along with 3B David Wright, 1B Ike Davis, 2B Daniel Murphy and of course Johan Santana, this squad might not be awful. Then I looked at the other positions around the diamond.
The Mets might have one of the worst bullpens in the National League–so bad in fact, that they are “waiting” for the return of Frank Francisco to close down games (if indeed, the latter is possible). Of course, the relief corps might only be matched in their in their decrepit state by the outfield, which is undoubtedly the worst everyday three-man group in the majors. It consists of: Marlon Byrd, who was washed up two seasons ago, and some combination of Jordany Valdespin, Lucas Duda and Colin Cowgill, the three of which sound like a multicultural new age boy band.
However, even with as putrid as the Mets might be this year (more in Pucklius’ full preview coming later today), it appears that the few premium talents they have will keep them half a head’s length above the Fish from Florida. But just barely. The race for the bottom in the NL East might be more intriguing than the battle for the division crown.
1. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves
3. Philadelphia Phillies
4. New York Mets
5. Miami Marlins
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