Now on to the National League. We start in the upward-trending NL East which seems to crown a new champion every year. The last repeat came when the Philadelphia Phillies dominated the East by winning 5 straight years from 2007- 2011 and claiming a World Series title in 2008. However, they’ve been in a steady decline ever since and are now joined by the Atlanta Braves in the basement. Currently the Washington Nationals and New York Mets are the clear favorites to represent the division in the NLDS while the Miami Marlins are just a little short of being a contender. Let’s take a look at how all of that might change in 2017..
Atlanta Braves (2016: 68-93, 5th Place)
Lineup: After so much turmoil and struggle when their old lineup turned over and the organization made questionable trades, the Braves might finally be moving in the right direction. Freddie Freeman had once stood alone as the only good player in Atlanta, as he perhaps questioned signing an unprecedented 8-year contract with the dead-end franchise. Now, things are beginning to change as the Braves begin the long process of restoring their former glory. The face of this rebuild is rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson. A standout at Vanderbilt, Swanson quickly rose through the minor leagues to earn an Opening Day roster spot for the Braves this year. He’s a young, energetic player who fights for every ground ball and never wastes a pitch thrown his way. He’s not a superstar yet, but I believe he’ll be the integral reason the Braves become a winning team again. It’ll also help for the younger prospects to learn from veteran hitters like Brandon Phillips and Matt Kemp. The biggest key for the Braves will be not making the same mistakes they made in years past when these veterans ultimately retire.
Pitching: Much like Freeman is the majority of Atlanta’s offense, Julio Teheran is the Braves’ best bet to pitch. Teheran’s claim to fame is his inexplicable ability to avoid walking batters. He walks less than two opponents per game, and boasts a career WHIP of just 1.159… incredible. Best of all, he’s only 26! On the other side of the spectrum, the most beloved player in baseball is right behind him, soon-to-be-44-year-old Bartolo Colon. The 285-pounder is still going strong and fans love to watch him pitch every 5th day. The oldest player in the MLB, the Braves will milk every second they can with the legendary “Big Sexy”. Following the pattern, Jim Johnson is the reliable arm from the bullpen. The longtime pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles has been a journeyman as of late. This is probably a reason for his struggles, so the Braves will hope that as he gets comfortable in Atlanta, he’ll return to his dominant form. In case Johnson truly is past his prime, Arodys Vizcaino waits in the wings as he learn the ropes and prepares to be Atlanta’s marquee closer in the next few years.
2017 Goals: The Braves are well on their way to continuing the tough rebuilding process. They have young stars in the infield, a bright ace, and veteran leadership to keep everyone focused. As long as fans don’t expect to win right away in the new Sun Life Stadium, everything will be just fine.
My Expectations: I was once very skeptical of the Braves, but it appears they’ve turned the page and want to start fresh in 2017. A new stadium, a new young prospect, and lots of hope for the future have Atlanta in prime position to be back on top by 2019. If they have enough money in their budget, the chaos of the 2018 free agency market could provide ample opportunity to even expedite their plans.
Philadelphia Phillies (2016: 71-91, 4th Place)
Lineup: To understand the Phillies game plan, you must understand what happened to one of the most dominant forces in the National League. The likes of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins were running roughshod through the MLB a decade ago. So where did they go? They didn’t retire… they just got old. When the entire core of your organization gets old and loses the spunk they had to win batting titles and claim pennants, you need to fill in the gaps with younger stars. Well, the Phillies were way behind on that turnaround. When the best infield in baseball lost its luster, Philadelphia was in free fall. At the time, they had a budding farm system, but the prospects just weren’t ready to make waves in the MLB yet. Now, those prospects have found themselves in the Show and hope to be big names within the next couple years. In fact, speedy center fielder Odubel Herrera is already an All-star. Powerful corner infielders Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph also have tons of potential to anchor the Phillies’ lineup. While there is a less-than-ideal gap between the success of the past and the success of the future, Philly has finally turned the page and looks forward to returning to greatness.
Pitching: The pitching is an eerily similar story to the lineup trouble. Veteran stars Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels suffered the same fate as Howard and Co., and the Phillies had nobody to replace them. Stuck with washed-up older guys to fill their rotation slots, the Phillies hastily monitored the future of their pitching. For 2017, they have a very young lineup consisting of Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola. Their wins have been stymied due to a lack of offensive production, but their above average ERA and ability to produce strikeouts show they are capable of making an impact. The best move of the offseason was acquiring a solid veteran in Clay Buchholz. While he is past his prime, it’s necessary for such a young rotation to have a mentor to guide them through the daily struggles of being on the mound. The bullpen is young too, and the closer position is relatively up in the air. Manager Pete Mackanin expects Jeanmar Gomez to be the closer on opening day, but due to his struggles to end 2016, Hector Neris could take over at any time. In any case, the Phillies still have a lot of inexperience that will be taken care of in 2017.
2017 Goals: Philadelphia has developed a plan to get back on top of the NL. It’s unfortunate that it took this long to formulate, but with perhaps the most potential in the MLB, the Phillies could be scary down the road. After finishing dead last in 2015, Philly showed tremendous progress by jumping up to 22nd in the league last year. While still not very good, it goes to show just how quickly the Phillies might be moving up in the ranks.
My Expectations: I think the Phillies should be gunning for winning within a few games of .500. Going from a 63-win season to 71 was astounding, especially considering that many analysts projected that they’d do even worse. So, the realistic expectation of adding another 8-10 wins in 2017 would put Philadelphia squarely on pace to perhaps take back the title in 2019. That is, if the Braves’ similar plan doesn’t surpass them.
Miami Marlins (2016: 79-82, 3rd Place)
Lineup: The Miami Marlins are another one of those teams stuck in the middle. Slowly on the rise since 2011, the Marlins have finished 3rd the past two years and are itching to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003. In fact, the only 2 times they made the playoffs (1997 and 2003) they won the World Series. With an undefeated record in the postseason, you can bet Miami would have high hopes if they could just squeak in. The highlights of the Marlins’ lineup are the playmaking ability across the outfield. However, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna still barely hold a flame to the powerful Giancarlo Stanton. Known for his ability to hit the ball nearly 500 feet on any given swing, Stanton is always a scary matchup for opposing pitchers. To balance the tremendous power, Dee Gordon routinely ranks in the top of the league in steals. It is a true asset to be able to rely on his ability to swipe bags.
Pitching: Both the Marlins and Major League Baseball suffered a huge loss at the end of the 2016 season. The young pitching sensation José Fernandez passed away suddenly in a boating accident when coming home from a fishing trip with his friends. Fernandez always showed tremendous passion and love of the game, and the loss of his energy will be felt for many years to come. Hopefully the loss of the Marlins superstar can motivate Miami to perform, but it’s truly a gut-wrenching loss. Now, their pitching staff is left in ruins, with Edinson Volquez and Adam Conley being their best bets. Volquez has been suspended in the past for PED use, and Conley is still very young and working on command of his breaking balls. A.J. Ramos is a solid closer, though. He anchors a very talented bullpen featuring sidearmed Brad Ziegler and Kyle Barraclough. Look for them to be pitching a lot due to the poor starting rotation.
2017 Goals: The Marlins probably want to be competitive and break through into the playoffs. Unfortunately, with the state of the organization right now, I’m just not sure that’s realistic. They either have to start making some big name trades to try to fill the void Fernandez left, or reassess their position in the league. They are very close, but I think the more they try to scrape up those few extra wins, the more they’ll move backwards.
My Expectations: Miami has the potential to be a dark horse in the NL East, but it’s a long shot. They have a lot to play for to avenge the loss of their teammate. I’m just not sure they have the talent to do so. I expect the Marlins to push to the last minute to make the postseason, but that could be a mistake. Falling short again keeps them in this tough position, and it may be better to be sellers before they go all-in.
New York Mets (2016: 87-75, 2nd Place)
Pitching: I’m going to start with pitching for this team, as it’s more appropriate considering the end of their 2016 season. After a relatively solid year, albeit facing much adversity with injuries, the Mets fought just hard enough to get the last spot in the playoffs. In a gritty battle between Mets ace Noah Syndergaard and San Francisco Giants legend Madison Bumgarner, the Mets found themselves shut out of the playoffs. It was Bumgarner’s third playoff shutout in as many years, and unfortunately for New York, they just ran into a buzzsaw. Nobody was more torn up about it than Syndergaard who tweeted, “Baseball has a way of ripping your (heart) out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.” That’s just what the Mets have to do. No one can put into words how the heartache of a loss like that feels (well, maybe the Orioles), but they have to collect themselves and push that much harder this year. As for now, they have a completely healthy rotation. Syndergaard gets help from cool hands like Jacob DeGrom and Matt Harvey. When healthy, they are one of the most dominant rotations in the league, piling up approximately 42 wins by themselves during a full season. But, the closer role will be up in the air to start the season. Jeurys Familia was one of the best 9th inning men last year, but he faces a TBD suspension to start 2017 for alleged domestic violence. The Mets will need to fight through the uncertainty and gain stability quickly so they can lock in on making it back to the playoffs.
Lineup: New York has a very balanced lineup. In fact, it very much coincides with the New York Yankees. The outfield boasts bombers in Jay Bruce and Yoenis Cespedes. The former Yankee Curtis Granderson covers centerfield extremely effectively, and he’s known for his speed on the base paths, too. First baseman Lucas Duda is another strong hitter, but he is prone to strikeouts. Manager Terry Collins loves to put him in the heart of the lineup where his big swing is most utilized, but if that swing doesn’t connect, it can be detrimental. The most unique thing about New York’s roster is the fact that they have not one… not two… but three switch hitters in their lineup, the most of any team in the league. Jose Reyes was given a second chance by the Mets after his domestic violence dispute forced him into free agency, and Neil Walker and Asdrubel Cabrera are savvy hitters who know how to stretch counts to get on base.
2017 Goals: New York will try to move past the bad draw they got last year by advancing farther in the postseason. The only thing that stands in their way is health, the Washington Nationals, and Madison Bumgarner. The last thing they want is to face another single-elimination game with Mad-Bum, so they’ll be gunning for the division title.
My Expectations: It’s all about staying healthy and finding stability. If the Mets keep their rotation together and Familia returns to the team in good standing, the sky is the limit. But if their rotation crumbles and Familia fails to find his lockdown pitch upon his return, the Mets could be a huge disappointment. All in all, there is a lot of talent here, and they certainly have a legitimate shot to surpass the Nats even with a few setbacks.
Washington Nationals (2016: 95-67, 1st Place)
Lineup: Weird fact of the day: The Washington Nationals have never won a playoff series. Never. The Montreal Expos did it in 1981 before the team moved to D.C., but they’ve never won in the history of being in the nation’s capital. So as desperate as the Mariners are to make it to the playoffs, the Nats might be just as desperate to win in the playoffs. After an offseason full of rumors and activity, the Nats hope they can field a team to get over the hump as soon as possible. The biggest move was the controversial call to send 3 top pitching prospects to Chicago in exchange for Adam Eaton. This was intriguing due to the fact they had fielded offers from stars with a much bigger upside and for less money, i.e. Andrew McCutchen. What’s also weird is that by giving away the farm (no pun intended), they lost all leverage in gaining a much-needed closer. Nonetheless, Eaton is a very consistent player that the Nats control for the next 5 years, and stability is never a bad thing. D.C. boasts many other playmakers as well. Daniel Murphy finished second in the race for the batting title last year, proving his amazing 2015 postseason was no fluke. Speaking of fluke, Bryce Harper will try to prove he simply had an off-year in 2016. Even so, he was still well above the league average in home runs and RBIs, but he is capable of much more. Other standouts include veteran Ryan Zimmerman and 23-year old Trea Turner. The Nationals will be as fun to watch as any team in the league.
Pitching: The Nationals pitching is just as phenomenal as the batting. Two-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer leads a hot young rotation. When Stephen Strasburg isn’t injured, he can hit triple digits with his fastball and mow through hitters. He averages an amazing 10.6 strikeouts per game over his 7-year career. Behind him is the quickly-rising Tanner Roark. While he lacks stamina, he’s as dominant as they come in through 6 or 7 innings. But the glaring weakness for Washington is their bullpen. Lacking a true closer, they’re likely to experiment with different relievers to find out who will get the majority of saves. Manager Dusty Baker playing a game within the game to determine which of his young relievers can best handle the late game pressure is an unnecessary distraction. Hopefully they can find their answer quickly so Baker can focus on other pressing matters. Better yet, a trade for someone like David Robertson could be beneficial if it’s for the right price. However, the Nats dug themselves a hole when they gave up as much as they did for Eaton.
2017 Goals: Often a preseason favorite as of late, the Nationals want a World Series championship. Even so, I think they’ll take simply winning their first-ever playoff series. There is no excuse for not making it into October, and they have a very good chance at holding off the Mets for their 3rd NL East title in 4 years.
My Expectations: The Nationals once again have all the makings of a World Series contender, but they simply can’t get it done in the playoffs. They thrive on flying under the radar, but once the spot light is on, the cracks in the wall begin to appear. As long as the pattern continues, I’m not sure I sense a breakthrough. The difference will be if the players buy in on owner Mike Rizzo’s plan to go all-in this year by selling their prospects, or if all the chaos demoralized the Nationals and sends them in a downward spiral.