As the 2017 MLB season approaches, the resident baseball nerd here at FirstandMonday.com will be rolling out his pre-season previews, one division at a time.
Today, we kick off the festivites with the NL East. The division was once dominated by the Braves and their 14 straight division titles, but the Nationals are the big dog these days with the Mets trying their darndest to nip at their heels. How’s it looking this year? Let’s find out.
1. Washington Nationals
2016 record: 95-67
If you took the time to read an NL East preview, or really any MLB preview article, you know the usual suspects for the Nationals. Scherzer, Strasburg, Harper, Werth… But young Trea Turner, who burst onto the scene in 2016 after a cup of coffee in the bigs in 2015, may just be the biggest straw that stirs the drink in DC. He will slide into the infield mix this year, taking over a short stop after manning center field for much of last season after the Nats added Adam Eaton from the White Sox to take over in center. An outfield of Werth, Eaton and Harper could be pretty, pretty rough defensively… But if Werth can stay healthy (big if at his age), they could be an offensive force. Daniel Murphy had a monster inaugural season in Washington in 2016 and a repeat performance could go a long way to making sure this offense is elite.
Max Scherzer may miss the start of the season with a finger injury, but he shouldn’t be out for any extended period, and the rotation should be very solid. Tanner Roark had a great 2016 and looks poised to permanently supplant Gio Gonzalez as the #3 in the rotation, but Gio as the four and young Joe Ross presumed as the five looks pretty darn good on paper.
Key player: SS Trea Turner (3.5 WAR in 2016 in just 73 games). Really, really tough to pick who’s most important to the Nationals, but I gave the nod to Turner based on his move to short and how he lit the league on fire last season. Harper will be Harper, Scherzer will be Scherzer, but Turner is the piece that could really put this team over the top.
2017 projection: 95-67, #2 seed in NL
2. New York Mets
2016 record: 87-75
Man, I just don’t know what to make of this team. If you just take a peek at the starting rotation, they look nearly unstoppable. Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey, Matz… But in 2016, Matt Harvey wasn’t Matt Harvey, and despite more than solid numbers, Jacob deGrom saw a significant dip in velocity which resulted in a procedure last September to relocate the ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow. He’s back throwing off a mound early in Spring Training and looks to be ready to go for Opening Day, but that’s something to watch for sure.
On the offensive side, the Mets managed to resign Yoenis Cespedes to a new four year deal. He was banged up for much of 2016 but still managed to post a 2.9 WAR. He’s capable of more though, especially if he’s not going to be asked to play center field, where he really doesn’t belong. A Cespedes/Curtis Granderson/Jay Bruce outfield looks likely and, like with the Nationals, will be ugly defensively but solid at the plate. David Wright is probable to begin the season on time after undergoing neck surgery last year, but at this point in his career I think it’s safe to assume that his health is always going to be in question. Once the brightest star of the organization, he’s now more of a tertiary piece in the overall puzzle.
Key player: SP Matt Harvey (4.86 ERA, 0 WAR in 2016). If the Mets are going to make a run at the Nationals for the NL East crown, it all has to start with the big three of Syndergaard, deGrom and Harvey at the top of the rotation, and a repeat of last season for Harvey won’t get that done. Last year he was coming off of arm surgery, so it’s reasonable to expect that 2017 will be much better.
2017 projection: 89-73, NL Wild Card
3. Miami Marlins
2016 record: 79-82
Obviously the biggest news in the Marlins world is the untimely death of ace starter Jose Fernandez. One of the absolute brightest young stars in the game, the loss of Fernandez is immeasurable to the Marlins organization both on and off the field. But, we’re here to talk about the on-field, so we’ll do just that. With the loss of Fernandez, young Adam Conley looks to be the #1 starter for the Fish in 2017. 2016 was just his second MLB campaign, but he posted a 3.85 ERA in 25 starts and looks poised to take the next step this season. Veterans Wei-Yin Chen and Edinson Volquez follow young Conley in the rotation and neither were very good in 2016, but a change of scenery for Volquez and a return to health for Chen will be keys.
The elephant in the room for the Marlins offense will once again be the health of Giancarlo Stanton. A menacing force when he’s actually in the line up, Miami badly needs a healthy 2017 campaign from the artist formerly known as Mike if they’re going to improve on their 2016 results. Also on the health front, the oft-injured Christian Yelich is in the same boat. The ability to stay on the field and playing at a high level by these two will go a long way in determining the Marlins 2017 fate, as they may need to slug it out on many an occasion while youth in the rotation finds it’s footing.
Key player(s): OF Christian Yelich and OF Giancarlo Stanton (combined to miss 50 games in 2016). I know it’s two, but it’s necessary here. Marcell Ozuna is a great player, but these two absolutely have to stay healthy for the Marlins to make any headway this season. Yelich only missed seven games last season, but he played the majority of the season banged up with various ailments. Yelich stays healthy and hits 30 home runs, Stanton stays healthy and hits 40 home runs and this club could be in the NL Wild Card discussion.
2017 projection: 82-80
4. Atlanta Braves
2016 record: 68-93
As much as my Braves homer cap wanted to put them higher, I just can’t do it… Yet. The starting rotation is both very young (Julio Teheran, 26 and Mike Foltynewicz, 25) and very old (Bartolo Colon, 43 and RA Dickey, 42) with the recently acquired Jaime Garcia sandwiched in the middle. The Braves are a rebuilding club in transition, as Colon and Dickey are simply in-house to keep rotation seats warm for a bevy of young starting pitching talent that Atlanta has in the pipe line. The Braves need Foltynewicz to build on his 2016 campaign, which was uneven, but showed promise. He has all the stuff in the world, but progressing maturity will be key.
Out in the field, the Braves look and feel are much the same as the rotation. NLROY pre-season favorite Dansby Swanson will begin his first full season manning short in Atlanta, and while it seems like he’s been in the league forever, MVP candidate first baseman Freddie Freeman is still just 27. And before you scoff at the MVP comment, peep dat’ 6.0 WAR he posted in 2016. Elsewhere however, the field is littered with old dudes like Nick Markakis, Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips, who are still on the shelf past their respective expiration dates. Much like in the rotation though, placeholders they are. Kemp and Markakis will be split in the outfield by Ender Inciarte, who’s one of the top two defensive center fielders in the game and, along with Swanson, a key building block for the Braves future.
Key player: CF Ender Inciarte (2016 NL Center Field Gold Glove, 6.9 dWAR in three MLB seasons). Inciarte is amazing with the glove, no doubt, but it was his bat that opened eyes in the second half of last season. This year he’ll be expected to both make up for terrible corner outfield defense AND lead off the line up every single night. His ability to excel at both are huge for Atlanta both this year and beyond. It’s not playoff time in Atlanta just yet, but the Braves are ahead of schedule on their rebuild and the farm is chock full of top end pitching talent. Soon, National League. Soon.
2017 projection: 78-84
5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016 record: 71-91
Much like the Braves, the Phillies are a rebuilding team in transition to what they hope will be their next winner. Philadelphia did however spend the offseason finally ridding themselves of some old baggage from the last winner, so this team is going to be extremely young this season. The rotation has tons of both youth and promise, but expect the growing pains to continue. Jeremy Hellickson looks to be the #1 starter and he’ll be followed by youngsters Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff. Clay Buchholz looks like he will be both the literal and figurative anchor in the five slot, but don’t be surprised if he’s pushed out by another youngster as the Phils continue to build toward the future.
On the offensive front, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera look like the position players to lead Philadelphia in 2017 and beyond, but Michael Saunders, who came out of nowhere to hit 26 home runs last season for the Blue Jays, should help out as he holds down right field. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who posted a 3.3 WAR in 2016, will also be a key piece for the Phillies. Much like Atlanta this team isn’t going to be ready for prime time just yet in 2017, but 2018? Look out.
Key player: SP Aaron Nola (missed final two months of 2016 with elbow strain). Nola says he’s back to 100% early in spring training, and if true that will be huge for the Phillies. If he can remain healthy and in the rotation for the bulk of the season, it will go a long way toward his development as the presumptive ace of the Phillies rotation for years to come.
2017 projection: 74-88