Spring training 2014: Touring the NL East

Starting today, we'll be looking at different divisions around baseball to preview the season.

In an effort to break out of the minor league/draft mode we've been in here at TCB for the past two years, we'll be trying to bring you more major league content. That includes occasional forays into the rest of the league, like the preseason watch lists for Rookie of the Year and Cy Young voting.

Today we're kicking off a look at each division around baseball with the National League East. As we get closer to the season, we'll also look at each team in the AL West to see how Houston's opponents in 2014 will fare.

Overview

Basically, the NL East comes down to two teams and then everyone else. One of the most fascinating pennant races this year may come down to the Atlanta Contract Extensions and the Washington Nationals. Atlanta ran away with the division a year ago after bringing in the Upton brothers. They should again be strong, despite losing a few key free agents.

The Nationals, meanwhile, struggled through the first half of the season before turning things around. If they stay healthy, too, these two teams could be climbing on top of each other all season. If the Marlins, Phillies and Mets struggle to reach .500, that should provide even more fodder for those top two teams to race out in front of the pack.

Because of their talent and because of how the division looks, it's easy to see the winner of that pennant race having the best record in the National League at the end of September. Think the Cards/Pirates race from last season, only amplified.

Of course, the flip side could occur. If any of those bottom teams turn out half-decent, the entire division could beat itself up and mean the division winner creaks into the playoffs with barely 90 wins. That's what makes the NL East so fascinating to watch this season.

The favorite

Gotta love the Nationals. Last season felt like a lost opportunity for them, even as they won 86 games. They still finished well behind the Braves, who lost Brian McCann in the offseason. Combine that with the Atlanta loss of Tim Hudson and the Nats' gain of Doug Fister (more on this in a minute) and the Nationals should be the early favorite in the division.

If Bryce Harper is healthy, he should take a step forward and lead the offense. A non-injured Danny Espionosa should also hit much, much better than he did a year ago. Even if he doesn't, the Nats will have a full season of Anthony Rendon somewhere on the diamond to combine with good seasons from Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond.

The dregs

Oh, Marlins. Even when you have a good, young team, you do things weirdly. Calling up Christian Yelich worked well last season, but Jake Marisnick may have gotten hurt by his callup. Signing Jarred Saltalamacchia was a great get to reinforce a young lineup, but relying on Rafael Furcal and Casey McGehee, both of whom didn't play in the majors last year, for starting jobs is silly. Oh, and Garrett Jones is also in the mix for first base, despite turning 33 this year and posting a 97 wRC+ in 440 plate appearance for the Pirate last year.

It's a weird team that has some brilliant players (Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Yelich), but some gaping holes. Should be fun to watch at times, but I also wouldn't be shocked if they imploded in on themselves.

The wild card

The New York Mets are going through a transition year. Without Matt Harvey this year, they're probably a year away from competing for the top of the division (or a .500 record). But, if a few of their smart free agent signings work out this year, the Mets could rebound and make a run in 2014.

For instance, Chris Young has a chance to improve on what Marlon Byrd gave the Mets in 2013. Most people count Young out, but there's still potential there and, if he can stay healthy, Young still brings plenty of power for a relatively good defender. Also, Bartolo Colon may get by with smoke and mirrors, but he could benefit by moving back to the National League and make up at least some of Harvey's production.

If a couple of the Mets young pitchers take a step forward and Ike Davis doesn't go to sleep in the first half again, the Mets could be very interesting.

The possum lovers

What in the world is going on in Philadelphia? First, they aggressively get older. Then, they sell out any hope of getting younger in the draft (we'll talk about this later today). Then, they capture a poor, simple, baseball-lovin' possum.

And yet, they still think they can compete for a playoff spot.

Yikes.

Last year, the Phillies won 73 games but had a run differential of a 66-win team. If there's reason for optimism, it's that most projection systems like the Phillies as a 77-win team in 2014. That seems wildly optimistic to me, since the Phillies only had one position player post an fWAR over 2.0 last season. This is an aging roster that isn't getting better. But, maybe the possum will bring them luck. After all, they do have two of the best pitchers in the league in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

Best offseason move

Nationals trade for Doug Fister - This is easily the best move of the offseason, not just for this division, but for all of baseball. For a fringy second baseman and two young, unproven pitchers, the Nats picked up a top 20 pitcher in the game.

Though he was overshadowed by the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez in that Detroit rotation, Fister quietly put up FIP- of 78, 81 and 81 in the past three seasons, meaning he was roughly 20 percent better than the American League over that stretch. His ERA-, a measure of how he prevented actual runs, ran about the same at 73, 83 and 90.

On paper, this is a huge win for the Nats, who can pair a reliable Fister with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez. All three of the latter posted fWARs of 3.0 or better and had ERA- of 90 or lower last season. Fister only increases the depth of that rotation and turns it into one of the best rotations in the National League.

Worst offseason move

Phillies sign Marlon Byrd -My main problem with the Byrd signing is it reflects a lack of self knowledge by the Phillies. What that team does not need is another old outfielder. It needs young players. Yet, its offseason strategy was to sign Byrd and try to make another run at the playoffs, instead of trading a Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels to bolster that farm system. Byrd may very well be a good player for them. His track record, however, suggests there is just as likely a chance for him to become just an average player in 2014 and beyond. For that, the Phillies gave him two guaranteed years at $8 million per plus an option year. Seems a little steep for a 36-year-old.

Division MVP

Bryce Harper - Just a hunch. A year older, Harper could put up some pretty impressive numbers if he stays healthy. He doesn't have quite the stolen base numbers of Jason Heyward, but check out Heyward's line in 2012 when he was worth 6.4 fWAR: .269/.335/.479, 27 homers, 21 steals.

Harper has posted higher walk rates and a slightly higher isolated power average last year. If his defense ticks up to how it was in 2012 and he continues to develop, Harper could have a huge season for the bounce-back Nationals.

Predicted finish

1) Washington

2) Atlanta

3) New York Mets

4) Miami

5) Philadelphia

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