Finally, we come to the National League East. This division looked like it could turn into the best in baseball for years to come this time last season -- then Jeff Loria sold his second major league city up the river, the Phillies doubled down yet again on age and conventional wisdom, and the Mets, well, the Mets are still the Mets. The Wilpons will have the team torn from their overreaching grasp eventually, but not before they've dragged the franchise through bankruptcy, public humiliation, and a proud partnership with noted pyramid- schemers Amway.
Once again the teams are ranked from 1st to 5th -- best to worst in the division -- on their lineup, fielding, rotation, and bullpen. When I talk about a team's rotation, I'm not using whatever guesstimates are available on the internet about how the precise order that'll be in place when the team breaks camp; the pitcher I think most highly of is the ace, the next best one is the #2 starter, and so on. Keep in mind that while I prefer upside to consistency in general terms, I also don't think most players are going to repeat career years unless I have a good reason for it.
First Place: The Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals won't stroll into the playoffs -- no team ever does in a division like the NL East -- but they're the prohibitive preseason favorite to not only win the division, but the World Series. There's a reason for that: no team in baseball is, on paper, right now, more complete than the Nationals. The Angels are missing starting pitching; the Tigers have poor depth and can hardly field their positions; it's unclear how the Rangers are going to score the kinds of runs they have in years past -- the Washington Nationals have none of these problems. Their offense might actually be the weakest part of the team -- and that's taking into account superstar prospect Bryce Harper, what the Nationals hope will be a full season from Jayson Werth, face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman and newly acquired centerfielder Denard Span.
The question marks surrounding the lineup mostly pop up at the backend of the group: Ian Desmond had a slugging-heavy career year last season boosted by a massive upward tick in the number of home runs he hit. That's probably not a sustainable pace going forward -- none of his other slugging numbers noticeably increased, and he walked about the same number of times per PA in 2012 as he did the year before -- but middle infield bats are so bad around the league these days that even a moderate regression leaves him in the upper half of the pack. Adam LaRoche, who returns as the everyday first baseman, is an even greater risk for regression as he's older and just put up the best year of his career at age 32, slugging .510 only a year after being a disappointment in every facet of his offensive game during a short stint in the nation's capital, hitting only .172 and slugging a paltry .258. Danny Espinosa at second is a below-average bat, and the Nationals will turn to Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos behind the plate as catchers 1A and 1B -- and if Ramos makes good on his potential, he won't be 1B for very long.
In the field, the Nationals improved by trading for Denard Span to man centerfield, dealing Mike Morse to Seattle and sliding Bryce Harper, who could also play center if need be, over to left where he's more comfortable. Werth will return to right field where his arm plays well, assuming all his recent injuries haven't impeded his ability to make plays out there. While Ian Desmond is not very good at this whole shortstop thing -- though he's got the tools to succeed there and has made a strong effort to improve -- Danny Espinosa is an above-average to good fielding second baseman and Ryan Zimmerman is one of the better fielding third basemen in the game. Adam LaRoche can hold down first base acceptably well, and the catching situation should wash out to around league average.
The rotation, of course, is the sparkling gem of the roster. Stephen Strasburg is one full, non-restricted, limiters-removed season from being a consensus top five pitcher in baseball (for those who don't already have him there), and he adds value on a National League team by being a great hitter at the plate, too. The team picked up Dan Haren on a one-year deal to prove that the Angels' concerns about his hip were unfounded and that some team should invest three to four years in him, and considering he's been healthy all spring, and his resume over the past three seasons, he's looking like one of the best back-of-the-rotation starters in baseball. Then, of course, there's Gio Gonzalez, the former Athletics ace that's now the #2 man behind Strasburg, and Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, two arms the Nationals groomed up from their farm system into the major league rotation. It's an extremely formidable group, though with slightly less depth than it had last year with Detwiler as the swingman -- Craig Stammen, Yunesky Maya and Ryan Perry are the cavalry now should something go wrong.
The Nats went out and signed Rafael Soriano, and if a team is trying to win a World Series, then acquiring a premier quality relief arm, even at the undoubtedly inflated free agent market value of such talent, is preferable to skimping in favor of cost control and winning the payroll efficiency war. Baseball is a multibillion dollar industry; if a team is looking to add the finishing pieces to an already elite team, it's eminently reasonable they pay the premium. The pen lost some of its luster, and its best left-handed reliever, when Sean Burnett departed for Anaheim but it is still a championship-caliber bullpen with a lot of top end talent in setup man Drew Storen and fireman Tyler Clippard.
Second Place: The Atlanta Braves (Wild Card)
The Braves made a couple big splashes this offseason to try and close the distance between themselves and the Washington Nationals; with a better rotation they'd be out-and-out favorites to win the East and perhaps the World Series, and even as it is they stand a pretty good chance of catching the Nats. That's because they went out and acquired the Upton brothers -- BJ in free agency, Justin in trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks -- and combined with Jason Heyward, immediately assembled the best outfield in Major League Baseball, even better than Trout/Bourjos/Hamilton in Anaheim. The Braves almost don't need other hitters after those three to form a solid, top-notch core, but they still have Freddie Freeman, who's only 23 years old and still a year or two away from entering his power prime, hitting cleanup and Dan Uggla at second base. Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson should be an effective platoon at third base and Andrelton Simmons can hit a little bit for a shortstop. While Gerald Laird is the everyday catcher until Brian McCann returns from the DL, McCann shouldn't be gone too much longer and for the time being at least, Evan Gattis is an intriguing backup for the backstop.
The Braves are the best in the East in the field, though not overwhelmingly so. Simmons is great up the middle and both Heyward and Justin Upton are elite defenders in the corners; assuming BJ Upton's motivated now that he's out of Tampa -- and motivation has been a very real issue with Upton across his career, not just a dog whistle complaint -- he is more than up to the task of manning center. Dan Uggla is not very good at second but perhaps still a bit underrated due to that memorable horror show of an All Star Game in 2008. The Juan Francisco half of the third base platoon will have problems at the hot corner, but Freeman can hold down first base just fine.
The rotation is anchored by Tim Hudson, a veteran pitcher in the twilight of his career, and Kris Medlen, who went on a historic tear at the end of last season that shouldn't be used as a benchmark for his future performance. He should still be a good starter in 2013, but expecting an ERA under 2.00 would be a bit much. After Medlen, though, the rotation is uninspiring at best -- Mike Minor? Paul Maholm? Julio Teheran, who might still be destined for the bullpen? Both Minor and Maholm significantly outperformed their peripherals last year -- which, in fairness, may very well continue given the quality of the Braves defense -- and Teheran needs to find a consistent breaking ball that's able to get major league hitters out before he puts questions about his future role to rest. So far, he hasn't proven he has one yet. He's got the raw talent though, and could soon over take both Minor and Maholm in the rotation. Brandon Beachy is close to finishing his recovery from Tommy John surgery, however, and should be able to rejoin the rotation early in the season to give it a shot in the arm.
The bullpen has the flashiest closer this side of Aroldis Chapman or Mariano Rivera -- I don't think relief pitchers should ever win MVP or Cy Young Awards, but Craig Kimbrel is the kind of guy I'd vote for if I did. Unfortunately Jonny Venters, his setup man, was injured earlier this week; it remains to be seen how long he'll be out of action. Eric O'Flaherty will step up to fill his shoes until Venters is back in the saddle; O'Flaherty was lucky last year, but he was also good. In Cory Gearrin and Luis Avilan the Braves have a pair of middle relievers with very shiny 2012 ERAs, but in very few innings pitched and with little track record before last year; they should regress a bit in their performance, but as long as they're used properly -- and sparingly -- they should be fine.
Third Place: The New York Mets
Rotation: 3rd (2nd)
I think the Mets are going to surprise people this year (specifically Philadelphians) with their play, and the credit for that will go mostly to the moves General Manager Sandy Alderson has made to improve the young core of the Mets team while simultaneously cutting his ownerships' payroll overhead. It's been an impressive -- though considering the team's financial circumstances, not laudable -- juggling act, and it should begin to pay off this year.
First things first: should the Mets pass the Phillies in the standings like I think they can, it will not be on the strength of their lineup. The Mets hitters still have a lot of work to do, especially at the outfield positions -- should his recently improved plate discipline be for real, Jordany Valdespin would be the only complete outfielder on the major league roster. However, the Mets' current plan appears to be a complicated outfield platoon featuring Lucas Duda/Kirk Nieuwenhuis/Marlon Byrd as the "regular" outfield against right handed pitching, with Collin Cowgill spelling Duda and Byrd against left handers and Valdespin roving around as a super-sub on top of that, playing five days a week and splitting time between every outfield position as well as possibly some innings at second base. If you think platoons these days are as rare as unicorns, well, the Mets outfield could be positively mythical. David Wright, the team's newly minted captain, should continue that leadership at the plate as the team's best hitter, followed by Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy. John Buck's coming off a terrible season in Miami, but I don't think Buck's going to be the team's primary catcher for most of the season; once the Mets are satisfied that Travis d'Arnaud is fully recovered from his knee injury (and his service clock is properly gamed) he should be brought back up to be the big league team's everyday catcher, getting perhaps as many as 400 plate appearances there. It's up to him to sink or swim, but I think he'll swim.
If not for their outfield woes, I'd have the Mets first or second in the division in fielding, and even then Byrd's a competent right fielder and Nieuwenhuis knows his way around center -- it's Lucas Duda that's the problem, and boy is he a problem. The Mets will enjoy the year-round interleague play because it will give them consistent opportunities to put Duda at DH and get someone else out there in the field. Ruben Tejada is a good fielding shortstop, though while Daniel Murphy has worked hard to get himself up to average at 2B, there's not much he can do about his range. David Wright is elite at third base, and Ike Davis handles first well. D'Arnaud has shown no signs of his knee bothering him so far and remains a well above-average defender behind the plate.
The rotation is the strength of the 2013 Mets. I think that while the group will start out quiet, by the end of the season the only staff in the East better than Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Shaun Marcum and Johan Santana will be in Washington. In their talks to acquire R.A. Dickey, the Jays actually preferred Niese -- and checking the scouting reports on the tall left-hander it's clear why. Niese finally started to put it all together at the end of last year, cutting his 2012 ERA down a run from the previous season and displaying his best peripherals yet. Niese is only 26 and is entering his prime with a clean bill of health on his arm. Matt Harvey gave Mets fans a taste of what he could do last year and has the pitches and command to surprise a lot of people this season, though he probably won't be quite as good as 2012's 2.73 ERA; Wheeler will start the year in the minors but has gotten far enough along in his development that he should pitch his way to the majors by midseason at the latest. Wheeler, of course, was the top pitching prospect in the Giants organization before Brian Sabean dealt him for half a season of Carlos Beltran. Shaun Marcum battled injury last year and is still trying to completely return from it, but he's been an effective pitcher without needing flashy velocity his entire career and once he's healthy has a decent chance of staying that way. Dillon Gee is a fine enough fifth starter with enough upside to him that he might turn into something better; however, Johan Santana might fill out the backend of the rotation instead for a portion of the season. Santana's been an injury worry the last few seasons -- and became ineffective almost the minute he threw the Mets' first no-hitter -- but he still should be able to contribute for those innings he's able to throw.
The bullpen will give a decent portion of it back, of course. A team as cash-strapped from above as the Mets has to choose somewhere to neglect, and this year it's the bullpen. At one point three non-roster invitees -- Pedro Feliciano, Scott Atchison and LaTroy Hawkins -- looked poised to make the club; Feliciano has already been optioned, but the other two are right in line for jobs in setup and middle relief, respectively. Though Bobby Parnell should be solid for the Mets at the back of the pen, with reclamation projects like Brandon Lyon, Atchison and Hawkins in the pen, the Mets are in for a long year in relief -- even if every other rosy prediction in this section comes true, the state of the Mets' pen could easily sink them to fourth. That said, I don't think it will.
Fourth Place: The Philadelphia Phillies
Pitching: 2nd (3rd)
The Philadelphia Phillies finished in third last year thanks to extremely disappointing seasons from the Mets and Marlins and the strength of their pitching staff; the pitchers are back, a year older, but the team still hasn't addressed the core issues that are pushing it further down in the standings. The lineup is aging, but portions of it should be effective so long as they can stay healthy; Ryan Howard looks like he's back to his old self (even though his old self was declining heavily against lefties, a concern that can't be put to rest no matter how good a spring he has -- he has to hit them when the games count), but the team that actively acquired Michael Young and Ben Revere has to deal with their bats every day, and they can only be saved by Domonic Brown living up to his storied potential. Brown's been perhaps the best player in baseball in spring training this season, and while I don't think that will continue I do think he will be very productive in a corner outfield role for the Phillies, if they consistently play him. And with Charlie Manuel's well known predilections for Laynce Nix and John Mayberry, Jr., and the front office's outstanding commitment to Delmon Young as the everyday rightfielder, Brown might find his playing time squeezed no matter how well he's hitting the ball.
In the field the Phillies are a disaster, perhaps as bad as the Tigers -- perhaps worse. The infield is decent up the middle as long as Chase Utley's healthy, which is not something that can be counted on anymore considering the state of his knees, and Jimmy Rollins has been declining there for a while. Michael Young is a sideshow in the field these days, as he's already displayed during camp, and Ryan Howard's mobility at first wasn't great even before his tore his Achilles. The Phillies are still committed to giving Delmon Young playing time every day in the outfield when his ankles finally heal, but he is perhaps the worst corner outfielder credibly employed for that job right now by a major league franchise. Ben Revere is extremely fast but has poor instincts and routes in centerfield. The Phillies will do the pitchers in front of them no great service.
The rotation was good enough to handle the declining level of play behind them last year; I think this is the season that particular camel's back breaks. Roy Halladay is no longer the pitcher he once was, and there's no shame to that; he should at least be able to put a season like last year's together, but he's no longer a staff ace. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are both still very good pitchers, ace quality -- especially Hamels -- but Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan at the back of the rotation will spell disaster. I see the unit being good to start the season, but as injuries take their toll on the team behind them and the Mets' young pitchers step up, I think the Mets will pass them both in overall quality of rotation and in the standings. Understand: this is nothing against Hamels or Lee. I just don't think the pieces around them will allow them succeed this year to the level they have in the past.
The bullpen should still be effective, with Jonathan Papelbon at the top and Mike Adams the primary setup man behind him. Adams in particular has had a great spring, and Antonio Bastardo is a quality relief arm as well, but a bullpen can only do so much and the problems that the rest of the roster have will eventually overwhelm it.
Fifth Place: The Miami Marlins
The Marlins don't deserve a player by player breakdown or an examination about how well their 2013 might go; what they deserve is new ownership that's dedicated to making good on the commitment the city of Miami made to them when they built a new stadium. The Marlins will not contend this year. They're not built to. There are a number of halfway decent young players from Toronto's system in there, half of whom might turn into regulars down the line, and there's Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich, the Marlins' top two prospects, but everyone whose service or contract clock is ticking -- Giancarlo Stanton, Ricky Nolasco, Logan Morrison -- deserves nothing more or less than a team that's actually dedicated to winning games at the major league level. I just spent 600 words tearing the Philadelphia Phillies apart, but they're light-years beyond what's happening in Miami because no matter how wrong I think Ruben Amaro Jr.'s front office is about this player or that, or how silly I think a contract they hand out is, the Philadelphia Phillies want nothing less than a World Series every single season they put a team on the field. Would that anything nearly as complimentary could be said of the management of the Miami Marlins.