N.L. East Division Preview (03/29/17)
We continue on with our MLB Divisional Previews as we profile the N.L. East. The East features teams at two extremes, with the Nats and Mets both profiling as top ten teams, and the Braves and Phillies both profiling as bottom ten teams. The Marlins lie somewhere in between.
With their offseason upgrades, the Nationals are the best team in the NL East heading into this year's campaign. Matt Wieters and Adam Eaton were acquired this winter and should boost the offense. Eaton has been one of the most consistent outfielders in baseball, as he has posted 118, 119, and 115 wRC+ numbers while nearly reaching +13 WAR over the past three seasons. Bryce Harper is obviously the big name in the lineup though. In his first five seasons, Harper has been a good player and well above average; however, he's also only had one huge year (2015) where he was one of the best players in baseball. If Harper can take the next steps he's been expected to make for the last few seasons, the Nationals will be nearly impossible to stop inside the division.
The pitching staff is loaded with potential. Joe Ross and Tanner Roark have shown the ability to pitch at high levels and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer, but the real key to the pitching staff is Stephen Strasburg and the health of his right arm. Strasburg has pitched to a career 3.17 ERA, 2.85 FIP with impressive strikeout numbers. The issue is he's only thrown over 180 innings twice in his first five seasons. The Nationals will rely heavily on a healthy Strasburg if they hope to reach the promise land this year. Gio Gonzalez rounds out a great rotation that could potentially see all five starters pitch below a 4.00 ERA.
The Nats' rotation may be great, but the bullpen is questionable and and completely unproven. Shawn Kelley has shown promise over the last two seasons but less so over his career. Blake Treinen has an impressive repertoire but has only thrown to a 3.43 FIP in his short career, which is good, but not great. Koda Glover is the new man in the pen and is being consider for the closer role after his stellar Spring Training. Glover has a total of 19.2 professional innings but has flashed a triple digits fastball with an unhittable slider when he's throwing strikes. Despite the uncertainty, there is a very high ceiling in this pen if all goes right. Washington will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
The Mets follow the Nationals with a 21.5% chance to win the NL East, and are a virtual coin flip to make the postseason. The lineup is nearly unchanged from last season, aside from adding Jay Bruce at the Trade Deadline. The lineup and pitching staff are polar opposites. The offense is filled with proven veterans at the Major League level, who are likely on the downside of their careers, while the pitching staff is all younger arms that should be on the incline of their careers. Yoenis Cespedes seems to still be the monster we've come to expect but guys like Asdrubal Cabrera, Neil Walker, Jay Bruce, and Jose Reyes are almost certainly on the decline in their careers. The future of the Mets offense would be best served if some of those guys struggle or miss some time to allow Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo some time at the Major League level.
Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz... wow. Sure, Harvey had some setbacks last season after a few injuries where his strikeout rate declined, but he still held a 3.47 FIP despite his ERA jumping to 4.86. If Harvey is able to get some of his lost velocity back, he'll be just fine in the Mets' rotation. Syndergaard took huge strides last season with velocity, throwing triple digits at times with sliders in the mid-90s. He had an impressive 2.60 ERA but his 2.29 FIP would suggest he was even a bit unlucky. This rotation is stacked, plain and simple.
Jeurys Familia and Addison Reed will support the back end of the bullpen this season. They each threw 77.2 innings last season, a massive amount for a reliever, at impressive rates. The two impressive arms in the back end should allow the starters to come out earlier, preserve their arms throughout the year, and remain healthy. New York will use Fernando Salas, Hansel Robles, and Jerry Blevins in setup roles, and while there are certainly worse situations to be in, there are better ones to be in as well. Overall, the Mets are just a slight step behind the Nationals, but this is a solid baseball team from top to bottom.
The Marlins may have the most impressive outfield in baseball with Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton. The problem with the lineup is they have an incredibly weak infield. All infield positions, outside of Justin Bour (who is a platoon player), lack power and potential outside of a few singles. The excitement will be coming out of the outfield with Giancarlo Stanton projected for mid-30s home runs by most projection systems. Yelich even added 21 home runs last season after not reach double-digits in any other season. Regardless of the lack of power though, this is a very balanced lineup that will give opposing pitchers an extremely tough go of things.
The death of Jose Fernandez crippled the starting rotation; however, this starting rotation wouldn't have been saved by him on his own. Edinson Volquez and Dan Straily are the newcomers to the rotation and could potentially be the top two guys, although it's really anyone's guess with these five starters. Tom Koehler, Wei-Yin Chen, and Adam Conley round out a rotation that simply isn't very good, although we think Chen can surprise this season. These five pitchers also have the luxury of playing in front of a great defense, which should help them out a bit.
The Marlins best starter may be in the bullpen. David Phelps has show the ability to be a swing man between the bullpen and starting rotation, but he would be much better served getting more innings for the depleted staff. Phelps saw some velocity jumps that improved his standing as a Major League talent. Not to mention, the Marlins' bullpen is already impressive. A.J. Ramos, Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa and Kyle Barraclough would be just fine without Phelps getting the mid-relief duty. Unless three or more pitchers makes large strides in the rotation this year, expect Phelps to get moved up pretty quickly. Miami is a better team than most people believe, but unless some of their starting rotation significantly outperforms their projections, it'll be an uphill climb, especially with the Nats and Mets in the same division.
The Braves overhauled their team over the last two seasons. They kept the little core that they once had and saw positive results in the second half of last season. Dansby Swanson could be yet another young, standout shortstop in the Majors this season. More of his flash should come in the field as opposed to at the plate even, though he hasn't really struggled at any level of the minors. The Braves have added a few of older players like Brandon Phillips and Matt Kemp over the last year as well. Neither is great anymore and are both in rapid decline, but they are cheap buys that could be easy to move to contenders at the deadline for young, controllable players.
The rotation also got overhauled with older pitchers. Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia will join their ace, Julio Teheran. Much like the older position players, these guys are cheap buys that could be easy to move at the deadline for younger prospects. Mike Foltynewicz is a key guy to watch for the Braves' rotation this season. "Folty" saw some big jumps in velocity over the last season or so and is showing signs of outperforming his projections this season. If he fails inside the rotation, he'd make a fine reliever for a bullpen that needs some help.
It's remarkable that Jim Johnson was given another chance in the Majors after his putrid 2014 and 2015 seasons. He did bounce back to a degree for the Braves last season pitching to a 3.01 ERA, 2.71 FIP. These aren't any elite relievers in this pen by any means, so Johnson remains Atlanta's best option in the closer role, for now. Flame throwing reliever, Aroyds Vizcaino, would be the Braves preferred closer, but he's had a host of control issues. Vizcaino's triple digit fastball has lacked the ability to stay in the zone as evident by his 14.3% walk rate last season. It's easier said than done, but if he can get his walk rate closer to league average, Vizcaino could be another elite closer in baseball. Until then, the Braves bullpen needs some help, although they'd be better off not competing just yet this year, and it doesn't look like they will with one of the worst offenses in baseball.
The Phillies are projected to be in the basement of the N.L. East yet again, but it's possible that they may be better than we think. Don't get me wrong, the floors are low; however, there are also some high ceilings in the lineup, rotation, and bullpen. For starters, the Phillies added Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick to the lineup. Odubel Herrera will sit between the two in the outfield as one of the next young stars in baseball. Over the last two seasons, Herrera reached 111 and 110 wRC+ with impressive defense to accumulate +7.8 WAR. Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco, and Tommy Joseph all project as plus hitters and plus players this season. The offense, overall, isn't there quite yet according to most projection systems, but they are improving for future years and are still very young.
The rotation isn't much different. Young guys like Jerad Eickhoff, Vincent Velasquez, and Aaron Nola have shown impressive flashes. Nola seems to be the guy to watch. Even though he was a disappointment with a 4.78 ERA last year, Nola's FIP of 3.08 is proving he is much better than we realize. Simply put, he was extremely unlucky with sequencing and with runners on base last year. His 55.2% ground ball rate is already at insane levels and he even had his strikeout rate jump to 25.1% with the ground ball rate improvement. Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz are expected to carry a lot of the load for the Philadalphia rotation, but they may actually be the two worst pitchers of the starting five.
The bullpen is more of the same. Hector Neris is the quietest reliever in baseball who boasts a 31.1% strikeout rate. Neris' splitter, with sharp downward action, is one of the most difficult pitches to hit in all of baseball. Jeanmar Gomez, Pat Neshek, and Joaquin Benoit will accompany him in the bullpen; however, we should expect Neshek and Neris to take over the later bullpen roles as the season progresses. Aside from the aformentioned names, there really isn't a whole lot of talent here. The Phillies are building nicely for the future, but their time may still be a year or two away.