We are precisely 40 days away from the start of the 2016 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Tuesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. Last week, we kicked our series off with the American League West. Now: The National League East.
Last week, I argued there were only five teams in all of baseball that didn't have at least a faint hope at winning a championship in 2016, weren't even pretending that they had any hope. That's an astoundingly low number. That's 83 percent of a league going into the season believing it has a chance, a number no other sport can match.
The problem, at least as far as the NL East is concerned, is that two of those five teams are in the same division. And a third team is the Marlins. There are many storylines in the NL East this year, but, ultimately, only two teams will matter. Their battle is the reason to watch. It's an excellent reason.
NL East predicted order of finish
5. Atlanta Braves, 60-102
The Braves are going to be depressing this season in two entirely different but not unrelated ways. First off, on the field, they'll be horrible. Their lineup has one legitimate hitter in it -- Freddie Freeman -- and isn't even young and interesting; this team somehow has Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Jeff Francoeur, which is sort of amazing to think about. The rotation has been gutted after Julio Teheran, who is hardly a sure bet himself. There were some smart trades in the offseason -- Braves fans are going to love them some Dansby Swanson in a year or two -- but nothing that's going to move the needle this season. It's gonna be ugly, start to finish.
But that is, as it turns out, kind of the point. This is the final year for the Braves at Turner Field, before they move to the Cobb County suburbs, where no public transit is allowed, right at the intersection of two major freeways that are nightmares to drive on when there isn't game day traffic. Turner Field is a perfectly nice, average baseball stadium, but it is not beloved or even old enough for anyone to develop a ton of nostalgia for it. Last season, it was already a ghost town lame-deck stadium, with whole concession areas unattended for whole innings and an undeniable who-cares-we're-bolting-this-joint vibe permeating every aspect of the fan experience. You think it's going to be better when the Braves are 35 games out in September? The Braves have made some forward-thinking moves that will benefit them when they arrive in Cobb County, but what they've done to this franchise in the short-term, both on the field and (especially) off, has infuriated Atlantans and turned a large number of people off the whole enterprise. Sure, sure, wins fix everything, and if the Braves make the playoffs in 2018, everyone will probably be back on board. After all, this is the team with the best farm system in the Majors, according to Keith Law. Help is coming soon. This is a (big) step backward before Cobb County blossoms.
That doesn't make it any better, and it doesn't make it right. The Braves will be impossible to watch this year. They're OK with that.
4. Philadelphia Phillies, 66-96
It was probably two or three years late, but the Phillies finally, finally hit the reset button. And their reset button feels like it has a little more promise. This is a team that, when it comes time to spend money, will have plenty of it to spend. Law himself says the Cole Hamels trade may end up being their "Herschel Walker" trade, and for all the mockery that came former general manager Ruben Amaro's way, he didn't do the worst job of restocking the cupboard before he left.
And there's even some talent on the big league roster. Maikel Franco was a bit of a revelation last year, and Odubel Herrera had his moments as well. And Aaron Nola is a promising young starter who will be given a full season to show off what he can do. The Phillies still have massive holes, but most of the expensive veteran flotsam has at last been thrown overboard.
But not all of it, which brings us to Ryan Howard. This will be Howard's final year in Philadelphia -- in the last, worst joke of the Howard contract, the Phillies will have to pay him a $10 million buyout after this year just to make him go away -- and he will make $25 million to be a platoon first baseman … at best. I know it's fun and easy to mock Howard, but this is a former MVP and Rookie of the Year who won a championship with the Phillies and was a proud, smiling public face of the franchise for nearly a decade. Not many players can do that, particularly in a city like Philadelphia. One hopes he'll be remembered for that, and not for the albatross he has become. (One suspects this will not be the case.)
3. Miami Marlins, 76-86
The Marlins might have the two most talented, electric players in the division in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez. Take note when the Marlins visit your city, because if Fernandez is pitching, you've got a chance to see the best baseball has to offer on the mound and at the plate.
The key word there is "chance." Fernandez is still not 100 percent -- he'll be on an innings limit this year, anyway -- and for all the talk about Stanton finally being healthy, the next time he plays more than 150 games in a season will be the first time. And if neither one of those guys is playing, there's not a lot going on here. The Marlins have some young talent, particularly if Christian Yelich breaks through the way everyone was hoping he was going to last season. And the team did make some moves to address their depth issues, the sort of thinness that pushed them to play Ichiro Suzuki in 153 (!) games last season.
This team will rise and fall with Stanton and Fernandez. It would be delightful to see them both healthy and leading a charge this year. Forgive the skepticism here, but I will believe it when I see it.
Hitting coach Barry Bonds should be fun, though.
2. New York Mets, 92-70
Every offseason move the Mets made was a great one, from the smart surgical strikes (upgrading from Daniel Murphy to Neil Walker) to the small scale (Asdrubal Cabrera to play shortstop but able to bounce around the infield) to the downright fortunate (having Yoenis Cespedes end up back in their laps after they'd essentially said goodbye). Mets fans are used to their team not backing up all the support they give them, and say what you will about the Wilpons -- lord knows much can be said -- but they didn't go away and hide after the World Series appearance. (Even if, seriously, they caught quite the break with Cespedes, and even with that, it could be only one year.)
So why do I have them unable to defend their division crown?
Two reasons. One, I think the Nationals are about to make a big step forward, which we'll get into in a couple of paragraphs. And two, the Mets are basing their whole success on two theoretically strong but particularly flimsy legs. They're counting on hitters in their 30s and pitchers in their early-to-mid-20s. If all lines up, the Mets could win 100 games. But what are they getting out of David Wright? Can Curtis Granderson keep up his late-career resurgence? What if Cespedes isn't quite a superstar? And can all those pitchers remain healthy?
If the Mets get the best out of everybody and keep everyone on the field, they win the division. But after all the good fortune from last year … it feels like a minor turn could be in their future. Still, this is a playoff team, one likely to win more games than it did last season. LOLMets seems a long time ago already.
1. Washington Nationals, 94-68
Great gig Dusty Baker has found for himself. Find a supremely talented team led by the NL MVP and a rotation that's potentially dominant 1-5, one that couldn't put it together last season and ended in a fiery explosion of dysfunction and sometimes literal in-fighting as a neophyte manager fiddled idly by. Come in as the "change" manager and then get credit when it all settles down and the team does what a team with its talent should do.
That is to say, the Nationals underachieved last season, but they also had all sorts of things go wrong that shouldn't go wrong … and are unlikely to go wrong again. This isn't a team you predict to win more than 100 games anymore, but that rotation is still terrifying, and they still have Bryce Harper, who just might end up being better than he was last season. (Speaking of terrifying.) The Nationals have a ton of bounce-back candidates and some help right around the corner on the farm.
Baker will get the pats on the back if the Nationals win this division the way they were expected to last season, and if they get back to where they should be, I suppose he will deserve them. But the Nationals weren't as bad as they looked last year. They'll be back to where they should have been all along this year.