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2014 NL East Preview

The East is a two-team race, but ample young talent will keep things interesting for the cellar dwellers

Fourth up in our division preview series: the NL East, where the Nationals enter as favorites after taking a mulligan on 2013, the Braves attempt to brave a passel of pitching injuries, the Mets wait for the pitching cavalry to arrive, the Phillies try not to fall deeper into the abyss, and the Marlins look for the next Jose Fernandez.

Note: I’m ordering the teams by Vegas lines. If you want to know how I think they’ll finish, check back on Monday, March 31, for my season predictions.

For more, check out the AL East, AL CentralAL WestNL Central, and NL West division primers, the MLB Warning series, and all of Grantland’s 2014 season-preview goodness.

(Projected lineups and rotations via MLBDepthCharts.com.)

Washington Nationals

bryce-harper

Vegas line (via Sportsbook.com): 90 wins

Key additions: Jerry Blevins, Doug Fister, Jose Lobaton, Nate McLouth

Key losses: Fernando Abad, Dan Haren, Nate Karns, Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi

Projected lineup (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for AVG/OBP/SLG):
CF Denard Span (.274/.326/.377)
SS Ian Desmond (.270/.318/.433)
RF Jayson Werth (.273/.358/.454)
3B Ryan Zimmerman (.275/.344/.463)
LF Bryce Harper (.277/.361/.504)
1B Adam LaRoche (.246/.328/.432)
C Wilson Ramos (.269/.321/.443)
2B Anthony Rendon (.263/.339/.413)

While I’ve already touted Anthony Rendon as a prime 2014 breakout candidate, the biggest performance jump on this offense could actually come from Bryce Harper. Check out this Baseball-Reference list of Harper’s main comps through age 20, and then look at what those players did in their age-21 seasons:

Player/OPS+
Tony Conigliaro: 122
Ken Griffey Jr.: 155
Mickey Mantle: 144
Cesar Cedeno: 162
Jason Heyward: 93
Al Kaline: 139
Vada Pinson: 118
Sam Crawford: 167
Sherry Magee: 135
Mike Trout: 179

All of these players are outliers, since 20-year-olds rarely play in the majors, let alone hit as well as Harper did last year. Harper now has 1,094 major league plate appearances under his belt, and many of his core numbers — his walk rate, his strikeout rate, the fact that he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone and is delivering fewer swings and misses overall, etc. — indicate that the gained experience is serving him well. Assuming he can avoid another injury, Harper should be in for a huge season.

Projected rotation (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for IP, FIP):
Stephen Strasburg (185, 2.98)
Gio Gonzalez (202, 3.42)
Jordan Zimmermann (187, 3.58)
Doug Fister (149, 3.24)
Tanner Roark (113, 4.15)

Something about the Nats’ apparent Doug Fister heist feels off, right? We’d heard plenty about the Tigers’ desire to free up a rotation spot for Drew Smyly and shed payroll,1 but the package they got for Fister is so sparse that it makes me wonder if they know something the rest of us don’t. That said, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is a sharp shopper with a history of making good deals, and Washington ran Fister through the usual medical tests to ensure he was healthy. The brief elbow scare that popped up earlier this month seems to be a distant memory following his strong spring training outing on Saturday. All appears well.

If the trade feels too good to be true, it’s probably because Fister is better than most people realize. The flashier Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer overshadowed him in Detroit, and even Anibal Sanchez earned more headlines last year, effectively making Fister the most overqualified fourth starter in the league. But Fister brings great command and high ground ball rates, he’s durable (89 starts the past three seasons), he’s affordable ($7.2 million this year), and he offers two more years of team control. Assuming there’s no grand conspiracy afoot, Fister might be the player who finally pushes the Nationals over the hump.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The Nats’ bench should be one of the league’s best, with former second-base starter Danny Espinosa now providing promising power off the pine, Scott Hairston and Tyler Moore bringing additional righty pop, and Nate McLouth serving as one of the best fourth outfielders in the NL. And while the bullpen could probably use one more impact arm, a reliever is the easiest commodity to acquire at the trade deadline.

Best-case scenario: Winning the World Series. This is an excellent team, and claiming a championship is a realistic goal.

Worst-case scenario: Anything short of an NL East title would be a major disappointment.

Bold prediction: Meet Bryce Harper, 21-year-old2 NL MVP.

Atlanta Braves

bj-upton

Vegas line: 86.5 wins

Key additions: Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd, Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana

Key losses: Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Brian McCann, the evil spirit that possessed B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in 2013 (hopefully)

Projected lineup:
RF Jason Heyward (.262/.349/.460)
CF B.J. Upton (.227/.302/.394)
1B Freddie Freeman (.286/.365/.483)
3B Chris Johnson (.275/.318/.420)
LF Justin Upton (.265/.354/.456)
2B Dan Uggla (.213/.319/.392)
C Evan Gattis (.252/.302/.464)
SS Andrelton Simmons (.266/.314/.398)

It’s tough to overstate how terrible B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla were in 2013. Upton hit .184/.268/.289, posting the 11th-worst offensive season by any outfielder in the past century on a park- and league-adjusted basis.3 Uggla hit 22 homers and drew 77 walks, but he also posted the fourth-lowest batting average by any player in 100 years, so no amount of positive counterpoints will make that look any prettier.

Bizarrely, though, those awful performances might actually bode well for the Braves in 2014. Sure, they lost Brian McCann, one of the best all-around catchers in the game. And yes, the starting rotation is riddled with injuries (more on that in a bit). Still, if the Braves can wring even half-decent performances from second base and center field this year, they should see a three- or four-win improvement from that alone.

Projected rotation:
Julio Teheran (196, 3.84)
Alex Wood (179, 3.36)
Aaron Harang (65, 4.75)
David Hale (94, 4.72)
Ervin Santana (189, 4.05)

Oy. The Braves have already lost starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the year, plus Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd for the start of the season, and the barrage of injuries will seriously test the team’s impressive stockpile of young pitching talent. The big move to fight those losses, however, was the one-year deal the Braves gave to veteran Ervin Santana. In theory, moving from the AL to the NL should make life easier for the 31-year-old right-hander, which could mean a bonanza season given the solid numbers he posted last year.

That said, Santana caught a few breaks in 2013, starting with a stingy .267 batting average on balls in play that wasn’t much lower than his .282 career mark, but still looks a bit fluky given his 20.9 line-drive percentage, the second-highest of his career. His 76.9 percent strand rate, meanwhile, was a career high, and traces back to the Royals’ very good and very deep bullpen, and maybe a bit of luck. Santana has been inconsistent over the course of his career, wielding one of the game’s deadliest sliders but a below-average fastball that makes him a sitting duck when he falls behind in the count. Atlanta needed bodies, and Santana’s price was certainly right. He won’t be a panacea for this deeply wounded starting five, though.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The Braves led the majors with a 2.46 bullpen ERA last season. With the rotation severely weakened this year, however, the pen will likely need to shoulder a much heavier load, which could lead to negative results. Getting contributions from relievers other than the big four of Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, and Luis Avilan may be vital to the team’s chances. And while the Braves have few options behind B.J. Upton in center, Tommy La Stella offers an intriguing alternative behind Uggla at second base.

Best-case scenario: Minor rejoins the rotation before long, Uggla and B.J. Upton return to form, and the Braves take advantage of a weak wild-card class to sneak back into the dance.

Worst-case scenario: While playing in the same division as the Mets, Phillies, and Marlins bodes well for remaining competitive even if things go badly, the Braves’ injuries make spending October on the golf course a real possibility.

Bold prediction: A revamped swing puts B.J. Upton back on track with a 25/25 season.

New York Mets

Vegas line: 75 wins

Key additions: Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson, John Lannan, Jose Valverde, Chris Young

Key losses: Shaun Marcum, LaTroy Hawkins

Projected lineup:
LF Eric Young Jr. (.243/.311/.332)
2B Daniel Murphy (.279/.318/.401)
3B David Wright (.280/.364/.469)
RF Curtis Granderson (.226/.314/.422)
CF Chris Young (.225/.309/.404)
1B Ike Davis (.233/.332/.427)
C Travis d’Arnaud (.243/.306/.396)
SS Ruben Tejada (.254/.309/.326)

While the Never-ending Wilpon Financial Quagmire of Despair sometimes makes it tough to see, GM Sandy Alderson has quietly done a nice job of restocking the Mets with young talent. Zack Wheeler (acquired for a two-month Carlos Beltran rental) showed flashes of brilliance in his debut season last year, while Noah Syndergaard looks ready to become the third member of whatever we’re calling the trio of dynamic young righties Matt Harvey, Wheeler, and Syndergaard should form by 2015. (Generation L?)

Alderson has also acquired some bats, and he needs Travis d’Arnaud to come through as much as he needs the pitchers to succeed. The 25-year-old catcher was the 37th overall pick in the 2007 draft, and he spent six seasons in the minors before finally reaching the Mets in August 2013. He posted lousy numbers (.202/.286/.263) as a late-season regular, though to be fair, 112 plate appearances during a player’s first major league stint aren’t much to go on. The real question is whether d’Arnaud can stay healthy. Despite a solid .286/.347/.476 minor league line that included some gaudy numbers in the high minors, he battled injuries for much of his time down on the farm. It’s tough to say whether that means he’s brittle or has simply suffered bad luck, and even the Mets can’t know for sure. What the Mets do know: 25-year-old power-hitting catchers who offer six years of largely cheap team control are extremely valuable. If d’Arnaud develops into a star as the Mets hope, this team could improve faster than many expect.

Projected rotation:
Dillon Gee (160, 4.15)
Bartolo Colon (203, 3.63)
Zack Wheeler (171, 3.98)
Jon Niese (123, 3.72)
Daisuke Matsuzaka (76, 4.93)

Syndergaard might not be up until June, if the Mets want to give him some more seasoning and avoid starting his arbitration countdown too early. But since we’ve already talked about the impending Harvey-Wheeler-Syndergaard era, please allow this bit of frivolity: Bartolo Colon is going to hit this year! We got a taste of his sweet stroke on Saturday, and it was magical:

It’s impossible not to get excited about the prospect of a man as big as Colon running the bases. Jokes aside, though, his renaissance remains a genuinely amazing story, even amid past PED issues. He throws fastballs almost exclusively, so hitters know what’s coming, yet they can’t seem to square up and hit the ball all that hard or far. Colon is becoming one of my favorite players, and he’s a big reason why I’m optimistic about the Mets being decent this year, despite losing Harvey to Tommy John surgery.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The Mets’ extensive efforts to trade Ike Davis over the winter went nowhere, so for now they have two players with redundant skills and only one position in Davis and Lucas Duda. While that’s not great for the starting lineup, it is good for the bench. Throw in defensive ace Juan Lagares, who should arguably be starting over Eric Young Jr., and the Mets have some serious bench weapons. The bullpen, on the other hand, could struggle again this season. Jose Valverde projects as one of the top setup men, which bodes poorly.

Best-case scenario: The kids all flourish, allowing the Mets to finish this season around .500 and emerge as contenders as soon as next year.

Worst-case scenario: At year’s end, people are talking about the Wilpons’ money woes instead of the team’s top young players.

Bold prediction: A season after batting .205, Davis finally breaks out and becomes a quality everyday first baseman, maintaining a .260 average while belting 30-plus homers.

Philadelphia Phillies

jimmy-rollins

Vegas line: 74.5 wins

Key additions: Bobby Abreu, Reid Brignac, A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Shawn Camp, Roberto Hernandez, Brad Lincoln, Jeff Manship, Wil Nieves

Key losses: Tyler Cloyd, Erik Kratz, John Lannan 

Projected lineup:
CF Ben Revere (.283/.323/.341)
SS Jimmy Rollins (.247/.313/.372)
2B Chase Utley (.258/.337/.432)
1B Ryan Howard (.238/.312/.446)
RF Marlon Byrd (.264/.313/.423)
LF Domonic Brown (.269/.331/.477)
C Carlos Ruiz (.272/.340/.405)
3B Cody Asche (.251/.302/.396)

So, when do the trades start? The Phillies are reportedly interested in dealing Jimmy Rollins for young talent, which makes sense considering Rollins is 35 years old and owed $11 million in a season in which the Phillies are headed nowhere. Chase Utley’s a better player at this stage of his career than Rollins is, but he just signed a two-year deal with three option years, so it might take longer for an Utley trade to materialize. Ryan Howard, meanwhile, is probably unmovable given his diminished skills and huge contract. The deal most worth pursuing is shipping Jonathan Papelbon and the two years/$26 million left on his deal for virtually anything of value. There are enough lineup holes here to make sweating a prospect’s position a pointless exercise.

Projected rotation:
Cliff Lee (218, 3.02)
A.J. Burnett (179, 3.53)
Kyle Kendrick (143, 4.30)
Roberto Hernandez (76, 4.26)
Jeff Manship (47, 4.91)

This is it until Cole Hamels gets healthy. Cuban defector Miguel Gonzalez looked like he might be the man for the no. 5 hole after agreeing to a six-year, $48 million deal in July, but medical tests revealed shoulder problems, prompting the Phils to slash their offer to just three years for $12 million. While those shoulder problems will force Gonzalez to begin the season in the minors, the 27-year-old could pop back on the major league radar this year, given his sometimes electric fastball-splitter-changeup combination.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Most of Philly’s potential reinforcements will start the season in the minors, giving the team hope for 2015 and beyond, if not this season. Maikel Franco looks capable of doing the most damage as the Phillies’ starting third baseman this year, but he’s yet to play above Double-A, and management wants to give Cody Asche a longer look. Ethan Martin, meanwhile, could eventually join Gonzalez in the back of Philly’s rotation. I’m hearing good things about this Bobby Abreu kid, too.

Best-case scenario: The Phillies trade as many big-contract old guys as possible, conceding 2014 but building for the future.

Worst-case scenario: GM Ruben Amaro Jr. signs a 10-year contract extension.

Bold prediction: Franco grabs the starting third-base job by May 1 and clubs 20-plus homers as a rookie.

Miami Marlins

yelich

Vegas line: 70 wins

Key additions: Jeff Baker, Brian Bogusevic, Rafael Furcal, Reed Johnson, Garrett Jones, Carlos Marmol, Casey McGehee, Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Key losses: Logan Morrison, Placido Polanco, Chad Qualls, Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Webb

Projected lineup:
2B Rafael Furcal (.259/.321/.363)
LF Christian Yelich (.259/.329/.404)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.263/.362/.543)
1B Garrett Jones (.244/.306/.426)
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.235/.302/.408)
CF Marcell Ozuna (.251/.295/.413)
3B Casey McGehee (.245/.308/.383)
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (.245/.284/.337)

Christian Yelich, the Marlins’ 22-year-old outfielder, didn’t hit for much power in his first big league stint, but he did post a strong 11.4 percent walk rate while ranking among the top quartile of players in line-drive rate. That line-drive stroke is what helped him win Miami’s minor league player of the year honors two times, and also what sparked projections of multiple .300 seasons in the big leagues. It’s tough to know Yelich’s ceiling since he’s so young and hasn’t fully grown into his lanky 6-foot-4 frame. Even if Baseball America’s no. 15 prospect is years away from peaking, though, he’ll be fun to watch this year, which bodes well for a team that’s light on star power after Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez.

Projected rotation:
Jose Fernandez (196, 2.97)
Jacob Turner (172, 4.50)
Nathan Eovaldi (171, 4.09)
Henderson Alvarez (159, 3.89)
Tom Koehler (141, 4.56)

Jose Fernandez is my muse and Nathan Eovaldi is one of my prime breakout candidates. But let’s talk about Andrew Heaney, who could be the bright new face in this rotation by year’s end. During his minor league career, the 22-year-old lefty has struck out nearly a batter per inning and fanned nearly four batters for every walk, with just four home runs allowed in 122⅓ innings pitched; pitcher-friendly environments or not, that’s still pretty damn good. With a fastball that can reach 97 mph, a plus slider, and a changeup that can be an effective weapon against right-handed hitters, Heaney might soon be the elite rotation running mate that Fernandez deserves.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Jeff Baker, a legitimate lefty raker, bagged a two-year deal to help the Fish resist the temptation to call up top third-base prospect Colin Moran before he’s ready. The reserves are pretty ineffectual after Baker, though. The bullpen, meanwhile, was surprisingly effective last year, with Steve Cishek, Mike Dunn, and A.J. Ramos all striking out more than a batter per inning and emerging as a capable late-game trio. The rest of the pen might look a little thinner this year now that Ryan Webb is an Oriole, but having a fourth strong reliever isn’t exactly a priority for a team coming off a 100-loss season.

Best-case scenario: Fernandez, Heaney, Eovaldi, and Jacob Turner shine, making the Marlins a surprisingly scary opponent in 2014, and setting them up to be even scarier in 2015.

Worst-case scenario: It rhymes with Shmernandez and Shmabrum. Now let’s never speak of it again.

Bold prediction: By August 1, Stanton either has a new contract with the Marlins or plays for a different team.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, NL East, Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri