Baseball is finally back and in full swing with the start of April. I’ll be covering the National League East over the course of the year. If you’re new to the division, feel free to check out my preview of the division, to see how the teams should fare over the course of 2016. Unfortunately, the end of Spring Training means some of the teams will have to return to their chillier homesteads and dream of the days where they get to make their trips down to Miami and Atlanta.
The Nationals are looking to pick up right where they left off in Spring Training, with a hot 3-1 start to sit atop the division. But that’s a pretty trivial matter in the minds of Nats fans compared to Herbert Hoover adding a new face in the President’s Race at Nationals Park. While I’m guessing Hoover was chosen more for his love of baseball than his time in office, it’s still always nice to see the Nats continuing to grow the spectacle; although why Hoover’s eyes are yellow remains a valid question.
But having mascots race on the warning track isn’t all a team needs to win games, apparently. The Braves have less wins in 2016 than Two-Bit the Drill has in his career (one). On the bright side, manager Fredi Gonzalez has the best hugger in the league in Freddie Freeman to console him until they can break the goose egg.
The rest of the East hasn’t been so hot out of the gate either. The Mets are 2-3, the Phillies are 2-4 and the Marlins are 1-3.
The biggest surprise out of these three has to be the Mets. It’s certainly far too early to start panicking, but Matt Harvey is already 0-2 to begin the year and has recorded less than 3 Ks in back-to-back outings for the first time in his career. The Mets had decent pitching outings, but the offense has been predictably quiet and will continue to pose a question for the team.
The Phillies are producing very well on offense, but their pitching has been an issue for them, just as many feared it would be. The Phils have scored the most runs in the division with 18, but have allowed 28 through 6 games. If the Phillies can shore up this offense/defense imbalance, they could find this year to be very constructive in the rebuilding process.
Marlins pitchers are throwing about as accurately as the real thing would on the mound. The staff has 16 walks through 29 innings of work which has helped play a part in their 1-3 start. It doesn’t help that they started their season off against a reinvigorated Detroit Tigers team and a smoking hot Nationals team either. With that said, their offense is tied with Philadelphia at the top of the East with 18 runs scored. If Miami can shore things up on the mound and provide less free passes, some of the narrow losses, like the one suffered Sunday in Washington, could turn into victories.
Through the week, the division between predicted top two and bottom three of this league can be very easily seen in the runs allowed category. The five teams all sit at the bottom of the NL offensively in runs, but the Nationals and Mets have just 12 runs allowed each (the best in the NL). The Marlins have allowed 23, the Phillies 28, and the Braves are at 38. Now, let’s take a more in depth look at the teams in the NL East working from the top down.
1. Washington Nationals (3-1)
The first week of play only confirmed a lot of suspicions about the Nationals coming into the season. The first being that Bryce Harper is still really good at baseball. He belted his first homer of the year in his first at-bat of the year in Atlanta, and sits at two through just four games. Daniel Murphy is also producing at the plate, leading the team with 5 RBI and also homering on Opening Day. The starting rotation has looked good in their 2016 debuts, with three of the four delivering quality starts and allowing a combined 4 runs between them.
The two worries for Washington continue to be their bullpen and injuries. Jonathan Papelbon is 3 for 3 in save opportunities so far, but getting it over to him with the game intact has not always been easy for the middle arms. Ben Revere was not on the injury-watch list coming into the year; there were some worries about older players like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, but nobody suspected Revere would go down with an oblique strain on Opening Day. The good news is that his replacements Michael Taylor and Matt den Dekker have already displayed that they can produce in Revere’s absence. Taylor drove in the game-tying RBI in the top of the 9th on Opening Day, and den Dekker drove in 2 runs in the Nats’ 3-1 win in game 2 against the Braves.
Washington starts this week at home for a four-game bout with the Braves before going to Philadelphia for a three-game series. Their schedule remains fairly light throughout the majority of April, especially if their starting pitching can continue to hold down the fort.
2. New York Mets (2-3)
The Mets split their two-game World Series rematch versus the Royals to open up the year and dropped two of three at home against NL East rival Philadelphia. Matt Harvey hasn’t looked like himself in his initial two starts, giving up 7 runs over 11.2 innings and only striking out 5 batters. The rest of the staff has looked very good, however. Noah Syndergaard delivered a scoreless outing against the reigning World Series champs and Bartolo Colon shows he can still make plays at 42 years old (and deliver a quality start in the process).
Unfortunately for Colon and the rest of this Mets rotation, the offense has been quiet to start 2016. The Mets would end up shouldering Colon with a loss 1-0 in that game despite a strong 7.1 innings of work. The top average on the team is already below .300 with David Wright hitting .267 through 5 games. Neil Walker is producing runs at the plate, leading the team with 5 RBI, but other than that the Mets bats have been very quiet. Yoenis Cespedes, definitely seen as the potential spark offensively for this team is hitting just .200 and leads the team with 7 strikeouts.
Mets fans came into the season knowing that their offense would just have to provide enough run support for a stellar rotation. But with Matt Harvey in an early slump and Jacob deGrom potentially going on paternity leave, they may have to step it up and provide more at the plate. New York hosts Miami for three games before heading to Cleveland for a three-game series.
3. Philadelphia Phillies (2-4)
Philadelphia’s offense is tied for the best in the NL East with the Marlins. Sadly, this still puts them in 11th in the NL in run production. Ryan Howard is showing that he still can provide the big bat, knocking 2 homers through 6 games. A couple of young guys, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez, are hitting above .400 to start off the year as well. The Phillies are showing that they have the components to build a contending team some years down the road, they just lack experience.
The pitching continues to be somewhat troublesome for the Phillies. While they are a far cry from the worst in the NL (almost half as many runs allowed as Colorado), they still are getting shelled in the bottom three-fifths of the rotation. Jeremy Hellickson has looked very good in two starts. He was just one-third of an inning shy of opening up the season with two quality starts. He held the Mets to 2 runs on just 3 hits in 7 innings of work, and has 11 strikeouts so far this year. Aaron Nola went 7 innings in his initial outing against the Reds, striking out 8 and giving up just 1 run. Vince Velazquez also had an auspicious first start in a Phillies uniform, going 6 scoreless and fanning 9 Mets.
The Phillies start a 10-game homestead with a four-game series against San Diego. They finish out the week in a three-game bout vs. Washington.
4. Miami Marlins (1-3)
Who says that fish can’t walk? Miami arms have walked 16 batters in their initial 29 innings of work. Administering so many free passes puts undue stress on these young pitchers who are already under pressure acclimating themselves to the Bigs. Wei-Yin Chen and Jose Fernandez both suffered rough outings at the hands of the Detroit Tigers to open the year. Chris Conley only went 1 inning in his start against Washington, and ended up ceding 3 runs on just 2 hits in that time.
Dee Gordon is looking good in the leadoff spot, as usual, hitting .421 thus far. Giancarlo Stanton is off to a respectable start, with a .294 average and 1 home run so far. Christian Yelich is also off to a strong start, hitting .321 with Miami’s only other dinger. Yelich has proven his offensive worth over the first two full seasons with the Marlins, and could be a strong asset as the year progresses.
Miami travels to New York for a three-game series before coming home to host the Atlanta Braves this week.
5. Atlanta Braves (0-5)
The Braves are using 2016 as a year to rebuild. Ask them, ask me, ask a vast majority of people in baseball and they’ll all tell you that. All the same, it’s got to hurt to be a Braves fan this year. Nick Swisher and Adonis Garcia are the leading players for the Braves at the plate so far. Swisher is hitting .300 with 4 doubles in 20 at-bats, and Garcia has one of the team’s 3 homers so far. One of the other guys with a home run, Freddie Freeman, is off to a surprisingly rocky start. Freeman has just one hit besides his first inning blast on Opening Day.
The pitching hasn’t looked very good stat-wise either. Only two guys on the team that have appeared on the mound haven’t surrendered a run yet. Julio Teheran has had a hard time on the hill as a starter, he’s gone just 10 IP in 2 games, with a 8/7 strikeout to walk ratio. There wasn’t a lot of pressure on the Braves to perform this year, so expect to hear that a lot when people discuss the Braves throughout the year. They’ll continue to take beatings on the mound as this year continues to trudge on in Atlanta.