2016 MLB Preview: NL East

by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)

New York Mets

89-73 Projected Record

A dominant Mets rotation–made up of five young starters with the ability to strike out 200 guys a year and consistently post ERAs under 3.00 across the board–was something that had been forecast for the last three or four seasons, but with devastating injuries to Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler in consecutive seasons, it was beginning to feel like a prophesy that would go unanswered. However, after a preview last season helped the Mets grab the NL pennant, we’re finally here. The Mets rotations heading into the season looks like this: Jacob deGrom (27), Harvey (26), Noah Syndergaard (23), Steven Matz (24), and Grandfather Time (42-year-old Bartolo Colon), until Wheeler (25) comes back in June or July. 

 

Super rotations are usually terrifying on paper, but aren’t as much of a sure thing as they seem. Somebody gets hurt, somebody’s skills decline, someone off a breakout isn’t all they were cracked up to be, someone falls apart as part of a new team. Here are the last two notable MBL super rotations.

2015: The Nationals’ rotation had a league-best 3.04 ERA in 2014. They added Max Scherzer to their rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez in the offseason. The results? Fister was kicked off the rotation mid season, Strasburg was hurt most of the year, Zimmermann showed declines in K rate, walk rate, and had his ERA and FIP jump a full point. They went from first to seventh in a season, with a 3.7 ERA in 2015.

2011: With Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels leading a rotation that ranked fourth in baseball, the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee in the offseason. Their ERA improved to the league’s best in 2011, and the team made the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season with the most wins in the franchise’s history. However, the glory days were short lived. Oswalt was hurt during the 2011 season and didn’t play for the team the following year. Halladay was injured in 2012, triggering a quick and unexpected decline into oblivion. In 2012 they dropped to the middle of the pack in ERA and missed the playoffs.

The Nationals were a disaster last season, while the Phillies had one year of dominance followed by four years of darkness. Will the Mets take after the Nationals, the Phillies, or buck the trend and have a dominant rotation for years to come?

They have youth and team-control on their side, unlike the other rotations that were far more costly and had a few older arms in the mix. Also, unlike the Phillies, the Met’s rotation is five-deep, not four, which should go in their favor. Still, the major league track records for Mats and Syndergaard are extremely short, so despite their instant success, it might be wise to temper expectations slightly.

However, the other thing the Mets have going for them is offense. The team had the most runs in the NL after the All-Star break, and by retaining Yoenis Cespedes this offseason, trading for Neil Walker, and signing Astrubal Cabrera, the offense should be near the top again.

 

The Met’s dream season may have come a half-season early, but after making it to the World Series last season, it’s hard to picture them losing that momentum this year. The Nationals could put up a fight, but beating up on the bottom feeders in the NL East should give the Mets enough wins to become a wild card at the very least.

Washington Nationals

87-74 Projected Record

Like many last season, I predicted the Nationals to win the NL East and win the second-most games in baseball. However, although the top of their roster looked loaded when healthy, I cautioned people to get too excited due to a lack of depth in the field and the bullpen.

From last year: “Going into opening day, it looks like Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth will be on the disabled list, and that really showcases what the Nationals’ weakness is: projected health. At full strength, they have the strongest starting lineup in baseball, with great defenders scattered through the field, a rotation that’s six pitchers deep, and a lineup that can do damage in spots one through six. However, they really don’t have too much depth to replace guys when they miss time, and Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman and Werth all have bad histories of being injured.”

Health and depth in-fact ruined the National’s season. Werth started cold, then missed almost half the season, taking him until September to somewhat resemble himself offensively.  Span missed the first three weeks of the year and then hit the DL again in July.  Rendon didn’t play his first game until June, and never showed the same power and speed he displayed in 2014. Even after a move to first base to preserve his health and limit his defensive woes, Zimmerman missed 67 full games and had his OBP drop almost 40 points.

The team’s bullpen, which had lost Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard in the 2014-2015 offseason, imploded, especially after the acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon threw Drew Storen out of whack.

And the super-rotation the Nats had build after signing Max Scherzer was not as overwhelming as people expected. Scherzer was fine, perfect at times, but Stephen Strasburg had an odd, under-reported injury that decimated his first-half numbers and shelved him at times in May, June and July. Jordan Zimmermann showed declines in K rate, walk rate, and had his ERA and FIP jump a full point. Doug Fister was more or less MIA in 15 starts, and Gio Gonzalez was only really in the rotation because they needed a lefty.

However, coming out of what otherwise nightmare season was Bryce Harper, NL MVP. In his first season playing in more than 140 games, he posted a .330/.460/649 slashline, scored 117 runs and hit 42 homers (naturally, all career highs). Most importantly, he avoided the DL and seemed to escape the nagging injuries he had suffered through his first three season.  If Harper can jump from a one win player to a player worth nine in a calendar year, there’s optimism that a healthy Rendon, a healthy Strasburg, a healthy Werth and a healthy Zimmerman could also make improvements back to their expected talent levels in an offseason.

Also, most of the moves the team has made this offseason do improve their depth a little and give some stability. Pound for pound, is Papelbon a better closer than Drew Storen? Ehh, huge contract and choking the MVP aside, he probably is. Are 145 games of Ben Revere more valuable than 120 games of Denard Span? Over the full season, probably. As shockingly well Yunel Escobar played last season, Daniel Murphy is a more consistent offensive player year by year, and could play third and first base when needed.

With the moves, Michael Taylor and Clint Robinson, who were both relied upon once injures mounted last season, should be considered depth, and could show gains overall thanks to the MLB experience they gained in 2015. Danny Espinosa should nicely fill a utility role once Trea Turner proves he’s ready for the full-time shortstop gig, which could be pretty early in the season.  Stephen Drew isn’t a good player anymore, but as a low-cost bench bat and glove when needed, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

While the rotation will be missing Zimmermann for the first time since 2009 and the team dumped Fister in free agency, top prospect Lucas Giolito should be called up midseason, and in 2015, Joe Ross was a revelation for 13 starts.

At first glance, the Nationals might not look as flashy as they did the last two seasons, but overall, the depth they’ve added should vastly limit their downside, and their upside is almost as high as it’s ever been. The emergence of the Mets last season make the hurdle to climb much greater, but the Nationals should give them a run for their money for most of the season.

Miami Marlins

78-84 Projected Record

Most teams that I project to be this bad don’t have a 23-year-old ace like Jose Fernandez (2.38 FIP and over 10 strikeouts per nine in his first 47 starts) or a 26-year-old slugger like Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins have been blessed with two potentially generational talents, but due to a rotating door of managers, constant changes in philosophy (and injuries to both players that have caused them to miss chunks of the last two years), haven’t broken 80 wins or finished within 17 games of the division leader since Stanton was called to the majors in 2010.

In anticipation of the Marlins move from almost Miami into Miami in 2012, the front office traded for big-name manager Ozzie Guillen (the teams third manager in four months) and went on an offseason spending spree (signing Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle) in order to prove to fans that they were dedicated to fielding a winning team in the new park.

The dedication lasted until the trade deadline, when they shipped away half of their infield and their top starting pitcher. After the 69-win season found the team at the bottom of the division again, they fired Guillen and traded away essentially everything they had acquired the offseason before.

After Fernandez’s breakout in manager Mike Redmond’s first season, the Marlins added a handful of free agents to go with him: Casey McGee, Garrett Jones, Jeff Baker, Rafael Furcal, Carlos Marmol, and their most expensive addition, Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

The team wasn’t particularly special, but a small, late-season push to end the 2014 gave the team had some hope, pushing the front office to acquire some win-now propositions for their prospects. Through trades, they added Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Martin Prado and a few secondary pieces while sending away prospects Anthony DeSclafani, Andrew Heaney, Enrique Hernandez, and Nathan Eovaldi (all who had very admirable seasons with their new teams), with Jones and McGee.

After the moves, the team was only able to win 71 games. They fired Redmond six weeks into the season and “promoted” GM Dan Jennings to replace him. Saltalamacchia didn’t even last that long, and was release entirely with a year and a half left on his deal. Latos and Michael Morse (another offseason addition) were bad when on the field and dumped for salary relief at the deadline. Stanton and Fernandez both missed time due to injuries, and another promising young player, Marcel Ozuna, was demoted for half a year apparently because of poor play and a bad attitude.

This offseason has been subtler than the past few, and in all honesty, the Marlin’s actually have a pretty solid roster coming back this season. They didn’t lose anyone noteworthy in free agency or through trades, added Wei-Yin Chen to bolster the rotation, and Don Mattingly as manager. Their outfield is young, fast and plays defense with an ability to get on base. Their infield is a mix of two young and productive offensive players on the right, a shortstop with spectacular defense and a crafty veteran at third. And their bullpen has one of the most dynamic arms in the majors in Carter Capps, and he wasn’t even the closer last season.

If this roster was attached to the A’s or the Reds I would probably be all over them for 81+ wins, but it’s impossible to ignore the recent track record. The Marlins have shown time and time again incompetence, instability, and irrationality. Even if the team looks to be on pace to get 80 mid season, there’s no telling who might get traded for a prospect or to save money.

Philadelphia Phillies

69-93 Projected Record

Through the 2015 calendar year, the Phillies did what baseball heads had been clamoring for since their exit from the 2011 postseason. The team ridded themselves of trinkets of past success in exchange for greener pastures in the future. They traded former MVP Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers before the season, and one-by-one up to the trade deadline, they sent off Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Ben Revere and Jonathan Papelbon to contenders for a slew of high-upside prospects.

While faces of the franchise were slowly being exported, the Phillies introduced the future. Rookie Maikel Franco smashed 14 homers and drove in 50 runs in only half a season, and seems to be the permanent answer at third base. Aaron Nola debuted one week before Hamels was traded away and replaced him at the top of the rotation. In 13 starts, Nola seems to be as good as advertised, limiting base runners and maintaining an ERA in the mid threes. Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez were pleasant surprises. Herrera showed more power than he ever had in the minors and improved in centerfield through the end of the season, while Hernandez developed into a useful utility player with an unexpected ability to get on base. Finally, Ken Giles emerged as one of the 10-15 best relievers in the game, which allowed the team to move him at his peak value in the offseason (A team expecting to finish near the bottom of the league again this season doesn’t need a shut-down closer).

This year, top-prospect J.P. Crawford should take the reigns at shortstop. He’s a great defender, and although he’ll probably never develop the power Rollins showed in his tenure, he was able to draw as many walks as strikeouts in the minors and has the speed to run out doubles and steal 25+ bags in a full season.

An improving offense will not be enough to compete in the East this season, especially because their rotation is still a mess. I do think they can squeak out a few more wins than people are expecting, however. There are still obvious holes on the roster, but the top of their farm system–Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Jorge Alfaro, Mark Appel–could be able to slowly patch things together. Also, with Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz most likely coming off the books after the season, they could dive into the 2017 free agent market with more cash than they have in recent years, and with less positions of need. They’ll show improvements this season, and could make a jump in 2017.

Atlanta Braves

62-100 Projected Record

I have the Braves as the worst team in baseball this season because I think it’s pretty clear they aren’t trying to win at the moment. They traded away star shortstop Andrelton Simmons for a nice crop of prospects and Erick Aybar, swapped their ace Shelby Miller for Ender Inciarte and two prospects, and flipped outfielder Cameron Maybin, who was coming off a resurgent seasons, for two minor leaguers. I don’t dislike any of those trades for the future, but none of them make the 2016 team any more compelling than they would have been.

Also, the Braves signed the likes of AJ Pierzynski, Bud Norris, Jim Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and Kelly Johnson this offseason–all to one-year deals and all to play regular roles with the team. They need to fill a roster, and that’s a crop of cheap, somewhat professional players. If one of them has a surprisingly solid start to the season, the Braves might actually be able to get something out of them at the deadline, like they did with Johnson last season and Bonifacio the season before.

They’re rebuilding, but with a stacked system and a quickly lowering payroll, the plan is obviously to get the team ready to compete in 2017, when they open up their new ballpark. 2017’s opening day lineup will look nothing like the one that takes the field this spring. That’s a good thing, but the idea of throwing 2016 away before it begins is depressing.

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