Is there a weaker division in baseball that the NL East? Both Philadelphia and Atlanta are going through wholesale rebuilds as we enter a new season. The biggest move for Miami, a 71-game winner last year, was hiring Don Mattingly to manage its young core. That leaves the door wide open for Washington and New York, two clubs trying to restock their rosters after losing key pieces this offseason. With Spring Training approaching, the battle for the NL East has become a very intriguing storyline.
We’ll start with The Jinx, also known as the Washington Nationals of 2015. That ballclub had so much talent no one blinked when players, fans, and Vegas agreed they would win the World Series. Since then, the club lost Jordan Zimmermann, a key rotation piece; Yunel Escobar, who hit .314 in 139 games; Ian Desmond, the everyday shortstop; and Denard Span, the club’s center fielder (when healthy), among others.
The Nats will return with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez at the top of the rotation with Tanner Roark and Joe Ross filling out the back end. While losing Zimmermann will sting on some level, Washington has a formidable top three. The poor defense behind the rotation left both Gonzalez and Strasburg with much lower FIP numbers than than ERA, which is usually a telltale sign of wretched fielding.
With Danny Espinosa replacing Ian Desmond at short, the club can say goodbye to the massive error total and otherwise poor metrics. Daniel Murphy will play second base, negating some of the defensive improvement, but his left-handed bat and low-strikeout rate are exactly what the Nats need in the lineup. More good news came January 9 when the front office dealt Drew Storen to Toronto in exchange for Ben Revere. Now Washington has a high-average lefty in the leadoff spot and a real solution for center field.
The Nationals’ upgrades give them a promising outlook for 2016, assuming good health from the roster and cooperation from Jonathan Papelbon. For New York’s part, the front office has scrambled to fill the club’s several holes.
Heading into the offseason, the Flushing braintrust was willing to let Murph walk while the search for someone to replace Yoenis Cespedes commenced. Not far from pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida, the Mets position players look set. Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza will form a center field platoon with the corner outfielders already set. Neil Walker replaced Murphy at second, which ought to be a wash in terms of overall output, while Asdrubal Cabrera will man shortstop.
There is no way these additions will provide the type of offensive spark Cespedes did for the club in 2015, so the Mets have to hope for the best from Michael Conforto, David Wright, and Lucas Duda in both health and production. At this point, the idea of bringing back the Cuban sensation (or any other slugging outfielder) is an extreme long shot. The Mets’ sensational young pitching staff will be the rock that once again has to carry the club, and there may be a run of offensive lulls to endure in Queens this year.
With the three-horse race in the NL Central, it’s difficult to see the Wild Card coming from another division in 2016, so Mets vs Nationals is one of the most interesting races as we open the year. Whichever club comes out ahead will have to own the bad teams in the division next season, and there will be bitterness if one loses too many to the Phillies or Braves.
There is no discounting the mojo Bryce Harper carries into the 2016 season, either.With a stronger support staff and better news coming out of the trainer’s room behind the MVP, it’s hard to see the Nationals repeating last season’s debacle. We can count out three clubs already in this division; as for the remaining two, there should plenty of fireworks this summer. They open the season close to a draw.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.