NL East Division Preview: Can The Mets Stay Healthy Enough To Catch Nats?

Ryan Mayer

Spring is slowly sweeping its way across the country, which can only mean one thing: baseball season. The boys of summer are back and, with Opening Day right around the corner, it’s time to dust off your glove and maybe catch up on some of the expectations for the 30 MLB teams this year. That’s where CBS Local Sports’ division preview series comes in. We’ll take you around the league giving you an overview of each team and their expectations heading into the year. 

We start today with the NL East, where the Mets may finally have their young rotation healthy and could challenge the Nationals for division supremacy. 

**Win totals courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook

Washington Nationals

Last year: 95-67, lost NLDS 3-2 to Dodgers

Vegas Win Total: 90.5

The Nationals rebounded nicely last year from a disastrous 2015 and won the division by eight games. They got another Cy Young season from Max Scherzer, a surprising breakout from former Met Daniel Murphy, a resurgence from former top prospect Anthony Rendon and saw the arrival of their next top prospect in shortstop Trea Turner.

On the downside, Stephen Strasburg got hurt again and made just 24 starts, Bryce Harper labored through a down year (.243/.373/.441) and their combustible closer, Jonathan Papelbon, did just that: combust. All of this ended in another first-round exit from the postseason, sending the team back to the drawing board once again as the Harper free agency clock ticks ever closer.

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Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the offseason, the Nats made some… interesting moves. They traded top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito to the White Sox for center fielder Adam Eaton, let Wilson Ramos walk in free agency, signed Matt Wieters on a one-year deal to replace him, and didn’t sign or trade for a big-name closer. So, they didn’t fix one of their biggest problems from last year while bolstering their lineup with a couple of moves.

I’d expect a return to something closer to 2015 form from Harper, especially after news of him being injured last season came to light. As much as it seems like he’s been here forever, Harper is just 24. He’s likely to return to form, but my questions lie with the closer spot and the health of Stephen Strasburg. The rotation is solid without Strasburg, but it’s potentially dominant with him. His spring start is concerning considering he’s sporting a 7.30 ERA and opponents are hitting .306 against him. The biggest question here is the bullpen, but that shouldn’t stop the Nats from being a very good team once again. Over 90.5

Rotation

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross

Lineup

(C) Matt Wieters, (1B) Ryan Zimmerman, (2B) David Murphy, (SS) Trea Turner, (3B) Anthony Rendon, (LF) Jayson Werth, (CF) Adam Eaton, (RF) Bryce Harper

New York Mets

Last year: 87-75, lost in Wild Card round playoff game to San Francisco Giants, 2nd place NL East

Vegas Win Total: 88.5

The Mets entered the 2016 season ready to return to the Fall Classic after falling to the Royals in 2015. They had a stable of young, flame-throwing arms, a solid (if aging) lineup, and a good bullpen. Then, the wheels came off. Matt Harvey made just 17 starts before being sidelined for the year with thoracic outlet syndrome. Young lefty Steven Matz went down after 22 starts with bone chips in his elbow. The seemingly durable Jacob DeGrom fell prey to the injury bug, needing surgery to repair his ulnar nerve. David Wright missed over 100 games, Travis d’Arnaud missed nearly as many, and outfielder Michael Conforto struggled through his first full season (.220/.310/.414).

That all accounted for, it’s kind of amazing that they finished just eight games behind Washington in the division. That was thanks to Yoenis Cespedes having a super human year (.280/.354/.530, 31 HR 86 RBI), Noah Syndergaard blossoming into a full blown star (14-8, 2.60 ERA, 5/1 K/BB ratio), Bartolo Colon being an ageless wonder, and a couple of young pitchers in Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman stepping up to fill the void left by DeGrom, Harvey and Matz.

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Credit: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

This year, the pitching horses are all supposed to be healthy. Colon is gone (to the division rival Braves), but the youngsters in Lugo and Gsellman are still available and Zack Wheeler (remember him?) is supposed to be back as well. However, Harvey (5.89 ERA, .316 BAA, 1.42 WHIP), Matz (4.26 ERA, .327 BAA, 1.58 WHIP), and Wheeler (8.59 ERA, .300 BAA, 1.91 WHIP) have all struggled mightily this spring, with Matz recently being scratched from a start due to some tenderness in his elbow.

Asdrubal Cabrera is solid at the shortstop spot and has another year on his deal while the Mets wait for top prospect Ahmed Rosario to arrive. The team also brought back Cespedes on a nice contract. Jose Reyes gives them a good option at third, while Neil Walker is fine at second and Lucas Duda (if healthy) is a solid first base option. Questions abound in the outfield as the team seemingly has all corner outfielders and not one true center fielder. Cespedes, Granderson, Jay Bruce, Conforto, are all better at a corner spot, but right now the team is going with the 37-year-old Granderson in center. That’s… not ideal.

All that said, a healthy Syndergaard and DeGrom with a mix of Harvey, Matz, Wheeler, Lugo and Gsellman should be good enough to carry this team back into division contention. Over 88.5

Rotation

Noah Syndegaard, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz (currently injured), Zack Wheeler/Seth Lugo/Robert Gsellman

Lineup

(C) Travis d’Arnaud, (1B) Lucas Duda, (2B) Neil Walker, (SS) Asdrubal Cabrera, (3B) Jose Reyes, (LF) Yoenis Cespedes, (CF) Curtis Granderson, (RF) Jay Bruce

Miami Marlins

Last year: 79-82, 3rd place NL East

Vegas Win Total: 76.5

No preview of this year’s Marlins team can go without mentioning the tragic loss of their former ace Jose Fernandez last September. Fernandez was well on his way to super-stardom and losing a player like that hurts a franchise of course, but the loss of Fernandez as a person, friend, and member of the Miami community hurts even worse. As the Marlins open a new season, it will be hard not to notice the hole left in the rotation.

This team was built around Fernandez, a solid bullpen, and a lineup of young bashers last year. The same is true this season. The biggest questions are in the starting rotation, but the strengths are pretty good. We’ll start with the strengths.

First, the lineup. The outfield could be one of baseball’s best with masher Giancarlo Stanton in right, Christian Yelich in left and Marcell Ozuna up the middle. That trio combined for 71 HR and 248 RBI and that was with Stanton missing 43 games and slumping for a full month. With better health from Stanton (no guarantee at this point) and continued growth from the other two guys, the outfield looks stacked. The infield isn’t too shabby either with Dee Gordon leading the way at second, Justin Bour bombing away at first and catcher J.T. Realmuto quietly coming off his best season and still just 25 years old. Adeiny Hechavarria is okay at shortstop (better defensively than with the bat) and Martin Prado was originally penciled in at third. However, he’s now dealing with a hamstring injury and an unknown timetable for return. Derek Dietrich (128 games .279/.374/.425) will step into that role for the time being. Overall, it’s a young lineup that performed well last year and, with continued growth from the young guys, should do the same this season.

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Credit: Norm Hall/Getty Images

Secondly, the bullpen. It features All-Star closer A.J. Ramos (40 saves, 2.81 ERA), David Phelps (2.28 ERA), Kyle Barraclough (2.85 ERA), and Dustin McGowan (2.82 ERA) from last year’s group. The Marlins also added Brad Ziegler (career 2.44 ERA) and Junichi Tazawa (career 3.58 ERA) in free agency. The MLB game now has transitioned to teams trying to shorten the game with dominant bullpens and the Marlins group looks equipped to do that in order to try and make up for the shortcomings of the rotation.

Now, we get to the rotation where things are a little more up in the air. The team added Edinson Volquez (5.37 ERA last year) and Dan Straily (3.76 ERA last year) to try and bolster a group that also includes Wei-Yin Chen (4.96 ERA 123.1 IP), Tom Koehler (4.33 ERA 176.1 IP) and Adam Conley (3.85 ERA 133.1 IP). There’s nothing spectacular jumping out at you among this group and there aren’t really any highly touted prospects in the pipeline.

The rotation is a big question mark. If they can get average performances from Volquez and Straily, and the bullpen is able to hold together, the Marlins could make a run at a Wild Card spot. But, that’s a lot to ask from a below average starting rotation. Under 76.5

Rotation

Edinson Volquez, Dan Straily, Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler

Lineup

(C) J.T. Realmuto, (1B) Justin Bour, (2B) Dee Gordon, (SS) Adeiny Hechavarria, (3B) Derek Dietrich, (LF) Christian Yelich, (CF) Marcell Ozuna, (RF) Giancarlo Stanton

Atlanta Braves

Last year: 68-93, 5th place NL East

Vegas Win Total: 73.5

The Braves have jumpstarted their rebuilding process as they open a new home this year, SunTrust Park, in Cobb County, Georgia. Last year the Braves made the savvy trade for young shortstop Dansby Swanson, who acclimated nicely in his MLB debut late in the season (.301/.362/.442 in 38 games). Then, this offseason, they went out and grabbed some big-name veterans to try and help supplement an otherwise young roster.

The Braves signed Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and catcher Kurt Suzuki in free agency and traded for Jaime Garcia and Brandon Phillips. Combine those acquisitions with the one of Matt Kemp at the deadline last year and you’ve got a lineup/rotation with a nice mix of youth and veterans. The Braves aren’t necessarily contenders again because of these moves, but they should be markedly better than their 68-93 finish last season. Colon and Dickey have both struggled in spring training, but, it isn’t as concerning considering their track records.

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Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The other additions of Phillips, Suzuki and Garcia have looked solid so far this spring. Garcia has posted a 2.63 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP with opponents hitting just .213 against him, while Phillips (.286/.386/.388) and Suzuki (.379/.419/.621) have hit well so far. Combine that with the first full season of Swanson and another season of prime Freddie Freeman and the Braves are looking like a team that should be significantly better than they were last year. Does that mean a run at a playoff spot? Maybe, but more likely, they remain just outside the Wild Card race down the stretch. Under 73.5 (not by much)

Rotation

Julio Teheran, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia, Mike Foltynewicz

Lineup

(C) Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki, (1B) Freddie Freeman, (2B) Brandon Phillips, (SS) Dansby Swanson, (3B) Adonis Garcia, (LF) Matt Kemp, (CF) Ender Inciarte, (RF) Nick Markakis

Philadelphia Phillies

Last year: 71-91; 4th place NL East

Vegas Win Total: 73.5

The Phillies painful rebuilding process is beginning to show some signs of light at the end of the tunnel. They burst out of the gate last season with a 14-10 month of April before going 57-81 the rest of the way as the youth and talent level of the team began to show. This year, some more top prospects are close to making their debuts and the team made some sound veteran signings to fill out the lineup until those young guys are ready to make an impact. It’s likely another year of missing the playoffs in the city of brotherly love, but there are reasons for hope as fans look towards the future.

We’ll start in the lineup, which added veteran outfielder Michael Saunders and utility man Howie Kendrick to its ranks this offseason. Saunders and Kendrick are both on one-year deals (though Saunders has a club option for 2018) and they help to fill out the outfield alongside breakout center fielder Odubel Herrera while the club waits for a couple of youngsters (Nick Williams, Roman Quinn) to get ready.

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Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

In the infield, not much has changed from the end of last year as Cameron Rupp, Tommy Joseph, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco are all back. Ryan Howard is gone, clearing the way for a full-time role for Joseph, and the team is hoping for more of a bounce back season from Franco after a dip in his average (.280 to .255). They’re also awaiting the arrival of highly touted (12th in Baseball America’s Top 100 list) shortstop J.P. Crawford. Crawford will start the year at Triple A and if all goes well, will likely move up sometime this season. Also potentially primed to move up is catcher Jorge Alfaro (41st Baseball America), who was one of the prizes of the deal that sent Cole Hamels to the Rangers.

As for the rotation, that’s where many of the question marks reside with this team. The Phillies’ young trio of Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff flashed in the early part of the season before getting hurt/tailing off during the final few months. Nola was shut down in August with sprains of ligaments in his elbow and his return from that injury this spring has been rocky to say the least with a 6.62 ERA in 17.2 innings with a .288 BAA and 1.53 WHIP.

Velasquez battled biceps soreness last June and wasn’t as effective after his return. Eickhoff was the lone consistent workhorse of the three, compiling 33 starts and nearly 200 innings (197.1) with a 3.65 ERA. Those three will be part of the rotation again this year with the front office hoping Velasquez and Nola can take the next step in their development and stay healthy. The other two rotational spots are likely to go to veterans in Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Bucholz. Hellickson performed very well for the team last year and generated some buzz around the trade deadline, while Bucholz was acquired via trade from Boston this offseason. Both have struggled this spring (5.92 and 5.94 ERA respectively) but they’ll still be expected to hold down spots while some prospects continue to develop.

Overall, it’s another rebuilding year in Philly, but there are some bright spots on the horizon. Over 73.5

Rotation

Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Bucholz, Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff

Lineup

(C) Cameron Rupp, (1B) Tommy Joseph, (2B) Cesar Hernandez, (SS) Freddy Galvis, (LF) Howie Kendrick, (CF) Odubel Herrera, (RF) Michael Saunders

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

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