The NL East is squaring up to be a two horse race once again in 2016. The returning National League champion New York Mets look to defend their title with one of the scariest rotations in all of the MLB. But the Nationals looked absolutely monstrous through March, and it’s worth noting that they sat atop the East for a majority of 2015 before sputtering to the finish. Here is how the NL East will look by the end of the regular season.
1. Washington Nationals
I think the Nationals have the strongest balance between offense, defense, and pitching coming into 2016. The reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper is primed for another big year. The rest of the offense looks strong as well. The outfield has a lot of depth with Michael Taylor on the bench, which helps take some of the burden off of an aging Jayson Werth in left field, while Ben Revere looks to make a splash with a different team within the East. The former Philadelphia outfielder will see a lot of action at the top of the lineup, and has plenty of guys behind him to bring him home.
Two other factors worth noting: The Nationals are actually healthy coming into this year. Ryan Zimmerman at first has looked slightly more injury prone in his older years, but he seems to be 100% along with Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, who all missed time with injuries in 2015. Finally, the Jonathan Papelbon issue seems to have passed under the bridge in the offseason, so he can focus on shoring up the Nats bullpen which has been suspect over the past few seasons.
Impact Players: Offense – Daniel Murphy, Pitching – Gio Gonzalez
Murphy showed how much of an impact he can have throughout the playoffs last season. If he can provide a hot bat for the Nats in the heart of the lineup, then this offense has the potential to wreak havoc on pitchers throughout the MLB. His addition at second base also relocated Danny Espinosa to short, so it will be interesting to see if the middle infield looks slightly less porous than it did with Ian Desmond there.
Gio was a stud in 2014 and mediocre in 2015. If Max Scherzer has another stellar season and Stephen Strasburg can stay healthy then it falls on Gio to round out what could be a killer 1-2-3 punch in the Washington rotation.
2. New York Mets
What the Mets lack in offense compared to the Nats they make up for in pitching. That isn’t to say that the Mets offense is bad or that the Nats pitching is bad, but you can’t say enough about how scary this rotation is for New York coming into 2016.
My one double-take here is Bartolo Colon. Colon has done very well since coming to New York, despite his age, but I can’t help but feel like his 19th season in the MLB will be a rough one. That said, the remaining four starters have already stood out in their first few seasons in the MLB. Matt Harvey has looked stellar as the ace, and should continue to do so this year. I think what prevents the Mets from winning their second straight division will be arm fatigue or pitch counts. Harvey may be at the point in his career where pitch counts are no longer needed, but Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are both just second year starters, and the Mets may want to tread carefully with them to ensure they have long, successful careers with the organization.
Impact Players: Offense – Yoenis Cespedes, Pitching – Jeurys Familia
Cespedes will need to be a sparkplug in what could otherwise be a fairly small ball Mets lineup. Lucas Duda and Curtis Granderson may be the only other real power threats on the team, but Granderson also has a lot of Ks. Cespedes will need to provide a solid mix of contact hitting and power in the heart of the New York batting order.
With this potential small ball lineup, closer Jeurys Familia will be coming into a lot of close games in 2016. He was great in 2015, only blowing 5 saves in 48 attempts, and will have to post similar numbers again to seal victories in 2016.
3. Miami Marlins
The Marlins have enough talent to be a dark horse in the NL East, but they have underperformed the past few years with teams sitting on similar talent curves. Hitting coach Barry Bonds hopefully will have a positive impact on Miami in 2016.
Another requirement for the Marlins to stand a chance in the East will be Giancarlo Stanton remaining healthy. Stanton missed significant time in 2015 due to injury, and being one of two real hitting threats on the team means losing him hugely impacts offensive production.
On the pitching side of things, Wei-Yin Chen has steadily improved throughout his career in the MLB and seems primed to be a strong #2 pitcher in the rotation. Outside of Chen and Jose Fernandez, however, it’s hard to see this Marlins rotation making a real splash against strong offenses, like Washington.
Impact Players: Offense – Justin Bour, Pitching – Adam Conley
Bour is the only other true power threat aside from Stanton in the lineup. While in a perfect world for Marlins fans, Stanton does not miss any games, it is a long season and there will most likely be games without Stanton in the lineup. This means a lot of the burden will fall on Bour in the cleanup spot to bring guys like Dee Gordon home and get the offense rolling for a weaker pitching staff than Washington or New York.
Conley is a young guy, entering just his second year in the Bigs. I think it’s safe to say he won’t be blowing anyone away in the #5 spot in the rotation, but if he’s able to exhibit some potential this year, he could end up serving as valuable trade bait or be a strong spot in the rotation down the road.
4. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies surprised a lot of people this Spring Training, but I don’t think they’ll be transferring this success into regular season results in 2016. What it did do is provide Phils fans with a glimpse of what’s to come in the future. Philadelphia is in the midst of rebuilding, so expectations shouldn’t be high this year, but it will provide good experience for younger guys down the road. Ryan Howard seems to be entering the twilight of his career and does not seem to have the same oomph at the plate as years past.
It will be another rough year for Phillies fans, but this will be a good time for the organization to sift out who it wants to keep in Philadelphia and who it intends to put up on the trading block over the next few seasons. Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola are the only starters I see maybe having an impact in games, the rest of the rotation just seems weak.
Impact Players: Offense – Mikael Franco, Pitching – Jeremy Hellickson
Franco hit 8 homers this March. He’s entering his first year as a full-time starter at third base, and has the potential to establish a lot of confidence in the league. If he’s able to develop this now, he could become a valuable leader on the field for the Phillies organization in years to come.
Hellickson has had moments of brilliance throughout his career. He had a lot of hype surrounding his being drafted by the Rays, and lived up to it in his first three seasons. He’s been in a slump as of late, however, but a good season in 2016 could keep him around in Philadelphia for a while longer.
5. Atlanta Braves
There’s very little going for Atlanta coming into 2016. They were bullied all of Spring Training, and I don’t see that changing once the regular season starts. The plus side is that Freddie Freeman is looking much healthier than last season, and hopefully he will be able to provide for the Braves offense as he has in years past. Nick Markakis is another batter who did well with Atlanta last season, but two hitters isn’t going to be enough to make this season a success. The Braves are going to have to find a way to get batters to step it up in 2016, but I don’t see it happening.
The pitching doesn’t look much better this year in Atlanta, Julio Teheran will have to duel against some of the top aces in the National League, and I just don’t think he’ll have the stuff or the run support to do it. It will be a very unceremonious final chapter in Turner Field’s storied history. In a couple of years, the Braves should be up in form with one of the best farm systems in the nation, but until then they’ll continue to be at the bottom of the division.
Key Players: Offense – Freddie Freeman, Pitching – Jason Grilli
Freeman will have to remain healthy to give the Braves any semblance of offense in 2016. He missed over 40 games in 2015 but still led the team in home runs and RBIs, which shows how much the team needs him to produce.
Jason Grilli has the potential to be valuable trade bait for playoff-contending teams that want a veteran closer. If Grilli is able to demonstrate his value prior to the trade deadline, the Braves could use him to pick up some big names or prospects for future seasons.