In the National League East things are getting tight in a hurry.
Last season, everyone (myself included) picked the Washington Nationals to run away with this division. Could you blame me? They had a bullpen, a deep lineup, a strong rotation, and the manager to lead them. They were also coming off a season in which they had already won the division, so forgive me for picking the favorites.
But boy did I struggle again this year.
The Atlanta Braves won the division last year by 10 games and had the second best record in the National League. During the offseason they locked up all of their young talent and are preparing to move to a new ballpark in 2017. In other words, life is good in Atlanta. The New York Mets are in the midst of a very impressive rebuilding process, and had it not been for an injury to Matt Harvey they could have turned this into a three team race. Miami is well-known for their fire sales, but almost as impressive is their front-office’s ability to field a competitive team after jettisoning such talent. The Marlins, led by Giancarlos Stanton and Jose Fernandez, should be a team to watch as the season progresses.
Phillies fans really aren’t going to like what I have to say. So I’ll get on with it.
- Division’s Best Player: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves (.319 BA, 23 HR, 109 RBI, .396 OBP, .897 OPS)- Freeman took that leap to lead the Braves and their young contingent to the postseason. He was one of the top statistical first basement in the majors in 2013 and appeared to get stronger as the year went on. The Braves locked him (and a host of others) up in the offseason, to the tune of eight-years, $135 million dollars. As far as position players go he’s been the best across the board for the Braves and compared to others in the division.
- Division’s Best Pitcher: Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 0.979 WHIP, 187 K’s, 176 ERA+, 9.7 K’s/9)- Last season when the Marlins decided to put Jose Fernandez in the rotation last season I thought it was a move that could stunt his development as a pitcher. Boy was I wrong. Fernandez put on a clinic and established himself as one of the best young arms in the game. With a high 90’s fastball and control of his breaking stuff he rode that skill set all the way to the 2013 All-Star game and the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He also made us forget, if only for a moment, who that guy up in Washington D.C. is.
- Division’s Best Manager: Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves- I do think Fredi is a good manager, but he kind of claims this title by default. I’ve never thought much of Terry Collins, and the jury is still out on Mike Redmond, Matt Williams and Ryne Sandberg. But don’t get me wrong, Gonzalez is no slouch. His Braves have averaged 93 wins per year, won the National League East by ten games in 2013, and was a Craig Kimbrel decision away from forcing a game five in Atlanta against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. He is a good manager, has done a great job replacing the great Bobby Cox, and while I can agree to disagree on a lot of moves he doesn’t hurt this team with his decisions.
- Division’s “X” Factor: Evan Gattis, Atlanta Braves- This team is in obvious “win now” mode and can’t afford any slips. That said, the loss of McCann behind the plate is the biggest of all the losses the Braves took this offseason. I’ve gone on record as saying McCann is the superior talent at catcher. He didn’t make seven All-Star appearances on name, he was the best offensive catcher in baseball for close to a decade and his handling of the pitching staff in Atlanta was masterful. Gattis has to do more than “fill-in” for McCann. I know it sounds strange, but having Brian McCann behind the plate for the better part of the 2000’s was a huge advantage for the Braves in this division. Especially when you look at McCann’s numbers against the rest of the National League East. Without stable production behind the dish and on offense from that spot they could be in for a bumpy ride back to the playoffs.
- Atlanta Braves (2013 Finish: 1st (96-66)) I understand the concerns surrounding the Braves and their starting rotation. Kris Medlen isn’t just a pitcher they lost, he was one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball since sliding into the Braves rotation in July of 2012. Brandon Beachy was on track to be one of those guys, but he too got derailed by elbow issues. But lets not forget something: The Braves still have a very good baseball team. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood, and Ervin Santana make for about as good a four man rotation as you’re going to see in this division. Especially Teheran, who emerged as a top of the rotation talent his rookie year last year. The bullpen remains among the best in baseball with Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, and Luis Avilan ready to assume end of the ball game duties, and despite the last time seeing David Carpenter giving up a home run to Juan Uribe in Los Angeles to end the NLDS last October, he was one of the most effective relievers in the National League posting numbers of 4-1, with a 1.78 ERA in 56 appearances in 2013. The Braves are ranked ahead of the Nationals, for me, because I feel their lineup is still better than what Washington has put together. Their bullpen is stronger, and winning 96 games with two regulars playing well below replacement level is almost unheard of. I expect Dan Uggla and BJ Upton to bounce back, I see a monster year from Jason Heyward, and while the rotation lost a couple of arms, they should be sound again in 2014. My number one concern? Evan Gattis. I’ve gone on record many times saying he isn’t as talented as Brian McCann at the position. If he can prove me wrong all the better, but he’s going to be someone to keep an eye on.
- Washington Nationals (2013 Finish: 2nd(86-76)) The groans out of our nations capital are warranted but I have my reasons for not jumping on this train just yet. There is definitely something to Bryce Harper’s inability to stay on the field (as we speak he was almost taken out today by a knee to the head on a hard slide), and I think the Doug Fister trade is a little overrated. Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez are a solid three at the top of that rotation, but while I expect Strasburg to continue his development, I still think Gonzalez walks too many (which will haunt him) and Zimmermann faded badly in the second-half (as he has just about every season). Rafael Soriano isn’t as reliable at the end of the game as he once was, and the supporting cast throws hard but have proven hittable. They also weren’t as good defensively, and didn’t do much to address that this offseason. Other than hiring Matt Williams (who will bring new attitude to the Nationals) they’ll need to grow a little more and play a little higher than most of their ceilings. I don’t see that happening in an improved overall division.
- New York Mets (2013 Finish: 3rd(74-88)) I ALMOST feel bad for the New York Mets. Almost. This year could have been a special year in Queens for the “Amazin'” Metropolitans. Then Matt Harvey got hurt and that dark horse prediction went out the window for me. Listen, with David Wright, Curtis Granderson, Travis d’Arnaud, and Daniel Murphy this team is figuring something out. Had you paired Bartolo Colon with Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey (with super prospect Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings) this team had the makings to make some serious hay in the National League East. That is how important Harvey is, however. His mere presence took them from also-ran to postseason hopefuls. Kudos to Sandy Alderson for the job he has done in acquiring the pieces to make the Mets competitive from where they were 24 months ago. They are a year or two away, but don’t be surprised if a solid season comes sooner than later.
- Philadelphia Phillies (2013 Finish: 3rd(73-89)) It isn’t often I pick on general managers by name, but one has to wonder what it is Ruben Amaro, Jr. is trying to accomplish in Philadelphia. Let me get this out of the way before I explode: AJ Burnett for $16 million dollars for one year? Adding him to an already injury-riddled and thin rotation just doesn’t seem like the greatest of ideas. Not to mention bringing back Marlon Byrd and doing nothing to fortify that bullpen that ranked second to last in major league baseball in WHIP (only the Astros were worse), 27th in the majors in ERA, and 28th in the majors in opponents batting average. Ryan Howard just isn’t the same player and has become more of a liability on both sides of the diamond. If Chase Utley can remain healthy he is still one of the top-10 second basemen in the game, but that is all contingent on him staying healthy. I honestly wavered on this teams position in the NL East and seriously considered putting them fifth. This is the last season I give them the benefit of the doubt, even more so since I feel a lot of these pieces will be traded at the deadline this season.
- Miami Marlins (2013 Finish: 5th(62-100)) I mentioned earlier the complete sale job the Marlins pulled on the city of Miami. They got the stadium, brought in the “talent” and then promptly sold it all to the highest bidder when the ship started sinking. In fact the Marlins are the only franchise I know that sold hope to two fan bases and sunk both of them (Miami and Toronto). Despite all of that the Marlins will be miraculously competitive. They kept the one position player worth anything in Giancarlos Stanton. They brought up Jose Fernandez at age 20 and he is already established as one of the top-10 to -15 pitchers in baseball. Derek Dietrich (acquired in from Tampa Bay in Yunel Escobar trade), Adeiny Hechavarria (acquired in trade from the Blue Jays), Nathan Eovaldi (acquired from the Dodgers in the Hanley Ramirez trade), and Henderson Alvarez (acquired from Blue Jays) are legitimate prospects who can (and will) make this team competitive in a hurry. I’m not a fan of the jerk job they’ve done with the city in Miami, but the personnel running the baseball side has always done a fine job of getting the right pieces back. This is a good young team, and I expect them to make things competitive for those who play them, difficult for those who want to clinch anything on their turf.