Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
Opening Day is right around the corner. As the calendar gets ready to turn to April, we prepare for another spring/summer full of the thrills of the diamond. With spring training games starting to wind down and teams heading back to their hometowns to get the season started, it’s time for some previews of how we project each division to play out. Follow along with us throughout the week as we go around the horn.
Last year the New York Mets took the city of New York – or at least the borough of Queens – on an unforgettable ride deep into March and into the World Series against the Kansas City Royals. Even in their wildest and most homer-istic dreams no Mets fan could have reasonably expected what transpired last season to actually happen. This is the Mets we’re talking about after all.
But with great results come great expectations and this year the Mets won’t have the benefit of sneaking up on anybody or playing above what’s expected of them. What’s expected of them is another trip to the Fall Classic; except this time, it’s to be followed up with a parade down the Canyon Of Heroes. If not, the season is a failure.
While that’s how the season will have to end for the Metropolitans’ 2016 campaign to be a success, it all begins for the Mets in the NL East. Losing the NL East isn’t tantamount to losing a World Series – or vice versa – but it is vital to a long postseason run and avoiding at all costs the dreaded one-game playoff.
Here are the teams that will be standing in their way and a closer look at what the 2016 Mets have to offer.
2015 Champions – New York Mets
2016 Projected Order Of Finish
1. New York Mets
2. Washington Nationals
3. Miami Marlins
4. Philadelphia Phillies
5. Atlanta Braves
New York Mets
If you take a look at the Mets’ entire opening day roster you’ll quickly realize that there’s no reason to believe this team won’t be better than the 2015 National League Champion version. Wait, you’re not actually concerned about the fact that the Mets haven’t won in 12 straight spring training games, right? Relax, just like Matt Harvey, this team will be more than fine.
The Mets’ bread and butter is obviously still their starting pitching rotation made up of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and southpaw Steven Matz, ages 27, 27, 23 and 24, respectively. They’re all young, they’re all accurate flamethrowers who can make the best of hitters look really bad and each of them now has playoff experience and nearly a year’s worth of major league pitching under their belts, which will only help their development as great pitchers.
On top of those four, the Mets will be welcoming back top prospect Zack Wheeler back into the fold in June/July when he makes his return from Tommy John surgery.
The Mets finished the 2015 season with a team ERA of 3.43, good for fourth in the league. There’s no reason to think they can’t improve on that number with ease.
In addition to the Mets’ other-worldly starting rotation, they now boast a formidable lineup that should complement their young starters nicely.
Having slugger Yoenis Cespedes under contract for the next three years and more importantly for a full 162-game season will work wonders for a Mets offense that was more than occasionally anemic before his arrival in Queens.
But Cespedes isn’t the only bright spot in the Mets lineup.
Highly-touted prospect Michael Conforto showed that he might just live up to his big time potential late last year over the course of the 56 games he played. He belted nine home runs and had 26 RBIs in that short majors stint, but added three more homers in the playoffs – two in one game against the Royals – giving fans what they hope is a taste of what’s to come.
Add to that mix a (hopefully) healthy David Wright, Neil Walker from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lucas Duda and Curtis Granderson and you have all of the makings of a team that should win the NL East. No pressure, guys.
Don’t think for a split second that the Washington Nationals winning this division is a stretch by any means. The Nats are very similar to the team that was projected to win the NL East going away last season before the upstart Mets put them out to pasture towards the end of the summer.
In fact, if anything, you’d expect the Nationals to come out guns blazing after their improbable implosion that was almost Metsian in its very nature.
A few major changes to report from the Nationals, the most obvious of which being Matt Williams’ firing. Filling in for the often ineffective (some would say inept) Williams is veteran bench boss Dusty Baker, whose experience and calm demeanor will hopefully help relax his players along with some of the tension that was created late last year. In case you forgot, this is what I mean by tension.
Anyway, speaking of that Bryce Harper guy, watching him follow up last year’s ridiculous MVP campaign is going to be a blast. Can he possibly improve on last year’s 42 home run, .330 average and 99 RBI season? On top of that, even if he does, can his supporting cast do enough this year to get the Nationals into the playoffs or the driver’s seat in the NL East?
The Nats might not have enough to pull that off, but they’ll likely be nipping at the Mets’ heels most of the year.
It was a down year for the former NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of his teammates but things could be looking up for Miami heading into 2016. For one, the return of star pitcher Jose Fernandez went as planned last year and he’s poised to pitch a full season for the fish. On top of that, Stanton is definitely looking for a bounce back from the injury-riddled campaign he had to endure after signing his massive contract at the end his breakout 2014 season.
Stanton headlines a Marlins outfield that should be among the best in baseball this year and could help keep the team afloat while masking some other deficiencies.
Similarly to the Nats, the Marlins also have a new manager in Don Mattingly. Mattingly did a respectable job in Los Angeles but was never able to make the Dodgers greater than the sum of its parts and he caught the ax for it at the end of last year.
So can Mattingly get the most out of a young and unproven roster and make them contenders? Not likely this year. They lack the offensive talent to compete. But, depending on the health of their stars, this team could finish close behind the Nationals with a respectable third place finish.
Yet again, they could also finish close to the bottom of the division with ease as well if things go the way they did last year in Miami.
The Phillies, much like their local NBA counterparts, have officially entered into full-scale rebuilding mode. After dealing Cole Hamels to the Rangers, unloading Jonathan Papelbon onto the Nationals and sending Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley westward last season, the only big-money contractual obligations left on the Phillies’ books are Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz’s contracts, both of which are up at the end of this season.
Once this season ends, the Phillies will be unrecognizable from the Phillies teams we’ve known over the last decade or so. Filling in for the aging stars that brought so many winning seasons and a World Series title to Philadelphia in 2008 will be a cast of young and unproven players looking to show they’ve got what it takes to be the next generation of Phillies greats.
It’ll start, inevitably at some point this season, with shortstop J.P. Crawford. Crawford is still down in the Phillies’ farm system but is ranked as the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball and will almost certainly make his MLB debut this season.
Crawford is regarded as the future of the Phillies, but someone who might take umbrage with that is the team’s current third baseman, 23-year-old Maikel Franco. Franco had a wildly impressive first year in the bigs with 14 home runs, 50 RBIs and a .280 average in just 80 games played.
By all accounts, he’s crushing it – literally, crushing it – in spring training this year and could be poised for a monster year for Philadelphia.
While things are looking up for the Phillies in the infield, on the rubber things are still going to be pretty awful in 2016.
Last year the Phillies’ rotation was abysmal, ranking 29th in ERA (5.23) 28th in innings pitched with 882. They are looking to 22 year old Aaron Nola to continue his rise to ace status but behind Nola there isn’t much room for optimism. Newly acquired vets in Charlie Morton and Jeremy Hellickson bring experience to the Phillies staff but will likely struggle to reach double-digit win totals this year. Jerad Eickhoff has plenty of potential, but an erratic start to his spring has him slotted as the No. 4 starter going into the season.
Overall the Phillies have a few things to look forward to but winning a lot of games in 2016 likely isn’t among them. It’s all about developing and evaluating young talent and getting them used to the rigors of a 162-game season for the Phillies this season.
At the major league level this year, the Braves are going to be a mess. Currently, Freddie Freeman is the only major producer on the Braves’ roster that will put any fear into an opponent’s heart with any regularity. This year he’ll be complemented by a handful of aging veterans like Nick Markakis, A.J. Pierzynski outside of Ender Inciarte in center field. Adonis Garcia, a largely unproven 30-year-old Cuban-born third baseman may just end up being the Braves cleanup hitter behind Freeman. Could he belt 30 home runs and help take some pressure off Freeman? Maybe, but unlikely.
Even if the Braves’ elder statesmen can string together respectable seasons, the Braves are still going to have one of the worst starting rotations in baseball this year.
Julio Teheran once again headlines a Braves staff that was 27th in the league with a 4.41 overall ERA and right behind him sits Bud Norris, who had a 3-11 record last year with a 6.72 ERA. The Braves’ No. 3 and No. 4 starters are young pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Matt Wisler, both of whom have had a rough spring training but have potential upside at least. Still, they won’t be able to rely on much, if any run support and won’t have any room for error.
Although it looks bleak for the Braves in 2016, bubbling beneath the surface is an arsenal of prospects the Braves are steadily amassing that when ready should thrive in MLB. But, most of their top young guns seem like they’re at least a year away from making an appearance in the majors, so 2016 should be an ugly one for Atlanta that sees them plummet to the bottom of the NL East standings.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.
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