As the 2018 MLB season approaches, the resident baseball nerd here at FirstandMonday.com will be rolling out his pre-season previews, one division at a time. To kick things off, we take a gander at the NL East. The Nationals will look to take the division for the third straight year, while the Mets look to keep their entire team off the DL again. Rebuilding clubs in Atlanta and Philly will try to keep up, and a tanking Marlins club will try to resist just closing up shop all together.
1. Washington Nationals
2017 record: 97-65
Okay, so this is kind of a one-team race. Sure, a myriad of things could happen, but outside of several shocking events, the Nationals could easily, and likely will run away with this division again. Their rotational top three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are as good as it gets, with the three posting a combined 20.7 WAR last season. Gonzalez is in a contract year too, so except him to do his best to boost his 6.4 WAR number from last season even more for a big payday next offseason. The bullpen was a garbage fire early last season, but mid-season acquisitions of vets Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson calmed the chaos, and both will return this season with Doolittle holding down the 9th inning responsibilities.
Bryce Harper, like Gio Gonzalez (and Manny Machado, over in the AL), will be playing for a contract this season and that should be a scary proposition for the National League. He headlines the Nationals offensive unit, but it’s far from a one-man show. Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy are all-star caliber players in their own right, and Washington will also get Adam Eaton back in 2018. Eaton, after being acquired from the White Sox in the 2016 offseason, played just 23 games for the Nationals last season before an injury ended his season. Simply put, this will be one of the deepest and most potent offenses in all of MLB.
Key player: SP Gio Gonzalez – Honestly it’s very difficult to pick a key player for the Nationals, and Harper is an easy and obvious choice, but I went with Gonzalez because of what he can do for the rotation. You know pretty much what Scherzer and Strasburg will deliver, but if Gonzalez pitches the way he did in 2017 again in 2018, it makes Washington three-deep with ace like production at the top of their rotation.
2018 projection: 100-62, NL East Champion, NL #2 seed
2. New York Mets
2017 record: 70-92
Holy injuries. The candidates for the Mets rotation looks like a who’s who of bright young pitching stars… But Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Stephen Matz and Zack Wheeler have all faced issues with both injury and ineffectiveness that have left the Mets with a truly wild card group of starters. Harvey looked like the ace and anchor of the staff from 2013-2015, but Tommy John surgery and a plethora of other injuries have derailed his career, and it’s hard to tell what the Mets may get from him this year and beyond. Syndergaard pitched in just seven games last year due to injury, but like Harvey, looked like a potential future ace in 2015 and looks to regain that form. The Mets will count on Jeurys Familia to be able to hold down the back end of the bullpen as he did in 2015-2016, but overall the bullpen could be a bit of an issue.
The offensive side of the coin also provides a large helping of uncertainty. In the offseason the Mets added vet Todd Frazier to hold down third, while also bringing back Jay Bruce to help out in the outfield. Yoenis Cespedes figures to be the biggest overall offensive threat, but he played in just 81 games last season and he spent significant time on the DL. First base is a huge question mark with this club, as they added veteran Adrian Gonzalez to the mix along with younger Dominic Smith, but Gonzalez’ bad back and Smith’s relative inexperience both hold a lot of uncertainty.
Key player: SP Noah Syndergaard – For the Mets to make a run at the Nationals, or an NL Wild Card, they’re going to need both Syndergaard and de Grom to be a healthy 1-2 combo at the top of the rotation. de Grom was health last year while Syndergaard was not, so he gets the nod here as the key piece to the Mets trying to make the playoffs.
2018 projection: 83-79
3. Atlanta Braves
2017 record: 72-90
The Braves rebuild, which started after the 2013 season, is still in progress and will continue to inch toward hopeful-contention in 2018. Atlanta looks to get a LOT of young arms in the rotation mix this season, but it will likely kick off the campaign with familiar faces toeing the rubber. Julio Teheran will get the opening day start, looking to rebound from a disastrous 2017 that saw he and the Braves new home-run-happy ballpark, SunTrust Field, not get off to a good start. Mike Foltynewicz and veteran Brandon McCarthy look to hold down the next two spots in the rotation, but the back end could be comprised of as many as five different candidates. Luiz Gohara was a smart bet for one of those spots, but a spring groin injury has set him back and he now looks likely to start the season in the minors. Youngsters Sean Newcomb, Max Friend and Lucas Sims along with veteran Scott Kazmir will all compete to try to get into the mix.
Outside of first baseman Freddie Freeman, the offensive side of things is completely devoid of power, and that’s an issue. Young Curacaoan Ozzie Albies will begin his first full season at second base and he, along with center fielder and defensive wizard Ender Inciarte will form a solid 1-2 at the top of the line up, and Freeman will hit third, but past that is anyone’s guess. Powerless vet Nick Markakis enters the final year of his deal in right, but help could come by way of promotion of the #1 prospect in baseball (according to most ranking outlets), outfielder Ronald Acuna. Acuna will likely begin the season in the minors due the effort to preserve his service time, but he’s a smart bet to join the big club before the end of April.
Key player: OF Ronald Acuna – The young Venezuelan is considered by many to be the best prospect in baseball, and the rebuilding Braves need him to join the team and be the complimentary piece to Freddie Freeman’s lineup keystone. Acuna will start the season in AAA for service time concerns, but will join the Braves in mid-April and, if all goes well, will be the face of the next winner in Atlanta.
2018 projection: 77-85
4. Philadelphia Phillies
2017 record: 66-96
The Phillies, like the Braves, have been knee-deep in a rebuild that they hope is coming fairly close to completion, but are they getting ahead of themselves? Three years and 75 million dollars to an aging Jake Arrieta seems like that might be the case. Phils front office brass seem to think that a 1-2 punch of the former Cy Young winner and youngster Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation might be the start of an NL Wild Card formula, but we’re not convinced. The rest of the rotation is full of question marks, and needs to see some guys step up before the club itself can move forward. Jared Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta were all, well, not very good last year, and need to do more in 2018 if the Phillies are to believe that their current path is the best or if they need more help there.
The offense should be pretty solid. The Phillies added FA 1B Carlos Santana from the Indians in the offseason, and his lefty power bat should play well in bandbox Citizens Bank Park. CF Odubel Herrera, 3B Maikel Franco and young left fielder Rhys Hoskins, who burst onto the scene surprisingly in 2017, should also do their fair share of depositing balls into the stands. 2B Cesar Hernandez, while not a power bat, is a sneaky good hitter as well and should do more than hold his own in contributing to the overall run-scoring effort.
Key player(s): SP Jared Eickhoff/Vince Velasquez/Nick Pivetta – Arrieta/Nola will be the 1-2, but for the Phillies to truly take a step forward, at least one of the above trio has to step forward and solidify the back end. The talent is there, but the results have yet to show.
2018 projection: 76-86
5. Miami Marlins
2017 record: 77-85
I mean, does any of this matter? Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman bought the club from Jeff Loria, and then came in and did a slash and burn job so thorough it would impress even… Well, Loria. Gone are Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna and in are, some guys. As of this writing, Dan Strailey is still there though, and he looks to lead a rotation comprised of guys who do collect an MLB paycheck.
Again, as of this writing, JT Realmuto, Starlin Castro and Justin Bour (sorry for them), do still play for the Marlins so they’ll headline the offensive effort. Realmuto and Castro have made no bones about their desire to be traded, so they could easily be playing for other clubs soon, but Bour looks to be stuck in Miami due to the less-than-robust market for mashing first baseman with little versatility to do much else. However, one potentially bright spot could be CF Lewis Brinson who came to the Marlins in the Christina Yelich trade. If there’s a silver lining to be seen for Fish fans, it’s to see how Brinson develops from his top prospect pedigree.
Key player: CF Lewis Brinson – There’s nothing Brinson or anyone else can do to make this team compete this year, but it will be interesting to see how he develops. He will presumably play every day in center in Miami, and that should be fun-ish to watch.
2018 projection: 58-104