2015 National League East Preview: Sizing Up Rings
You'll have to forgive Bryce Harper. He's a little excited.
At their spring training complex on Wednesday, the Nationals' dynamic and injury-prone outfielder was asked what his thoughts were after the Nats signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract this off-season.
Bryce Harper after finding out #Nats signed Max Scherzer: "I just started laughing. I'm like: 'Where's my ring?'"— Mark Zuckerman (@ZuckermanCSN) February 25, 2015
So yeah, there is no pumping the breaks in Washington, not after the splash they made with Scherzer this winter. In fact, our new preseason power rankings have Washington as the second-best team in baseball behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers. The rest of the NL East, however, should avert their eyes.
The rankings below are based on each team's nERD score, which is a numberFire-specific stat that calculates how many runs a team would be expected to defeat a league-average team by on any given day on a neutral site. For more details, click it here.
So, let's take a look at how the NL East shapes up in 2015.
1. Washington Nationals
nERD: 0.58 | Projected Win-Loss: 91-71 | Division Odds: 80.9% | Playoffs Odds: 87.1%
No team in baseball is favored to win their division more than the Nationals. The Dodgers are next-closest at 70%, but Washington really benefits from the state of the rest of the division, which doesn't place a team any higher than Atlanta at number 21 in our rankings.
The addition of Scherzer gives the Nationals a Super Rotation that also features Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister. Tanner Roark is also standing by as a pretty terrific injury replacement or long man out of the bullpen, just in case.
There is no doubt the Nats should be heavily favored to win the division, but I'm sorry Bryce, winning a championship isn't a lock. There are questions as to whether Ryan Zimmerman will take to first base. There are questions whether Harper can stay healthy for a full season. And the bullpen could struggle a bit if Drew Storen can't re-assume the closer role. Jayson Werth is also dealing with a shoulder issue that is keeping him from full workouts for now.
All that being said, there is no doubt the Nationals are the best team in the division and should probably take the NL East by 10 or more games when all is said and done.
2. Atlanta Braves
nERD: -0.22 | Projected Win-Loss: 79-83 | Division Odds: 7.7% | Playoffs Odds: 18.6%
It's interesting that our projections have the Braves as the team with the second-best record and second-best odds to win the division, although the space between Atlanta and the Mets and Marlins is only one and two games, respectively. Still, Atlanta had an off-season that saw it spin off many of its veteran players and go into full rebuild mode.
Gone is two-thirds of the Braves' outfield last season. Jason Heyward is off to St. Louis and Justin Upton is now the left fielder for those new-look San Diego Padres. That leaves only Melvin (formerly B.J.) Upton remaining from last year's starting outfield. Sadly for Braves fans, he was not exactly the best of the group.
In Heyward's place is the newly acquired Nick Markakis, who might not be ready for Opening Day after offseason neck surgery. Atlanta signed the 31-year-old to a four-year, $44 million deal in one of the more unexplainable signings of the winter. Eric Young Jr. is currently atop the depth chart as the starting left fielder with Evan Gattis also traded away this winter to Houston. Last year, Heyward and Justin Upton combined for 9.0 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). Their 2015 replacements put up 3.7 last season.
Hey, at least Freddie Freeman survived the purge. Sorry, Freddie.
As for the starting rotation, there will be a battle for the Opening Day start between two very good starters, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. Teheran posted a 2.89 ERA in 221 innings last year with 186 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.08. The left-handed Wood made 24 starts and posted an ERA of 2.78 last season with 170 strikeouts in 171.2 innings and a WHIP of 1.14. Shelby Miller, acquired in the Heyward trade, will be the number-three man. He posted a 3.74 ERA in 183 innings last season. Mike Minor and Eric Stults will be the team's final two starters, and both hope to improve on a less-than-impressive 2014.
The back of the bullpen should remain rock solid, with closer Craig Kimbrel back for at least one more season. His ERA ballooned last year from 1.01 in 2012 and 1.21 in '13 all the way up to 1.61 last year. Clearly the decline is upon us. Seriously though, given the rebuilding nature of the Braves, I'm not really sure why Atlanta didn't try to trade him this offseason, too. A pair of former All-Star closers, Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson, will be tasked with being Kimbrel's late-inning set-up team.
This is clearly a team in transition, and I personally would have them further down in the power rankings.
3. New York Mets
nERD: -0.25 | Projected Win-Loss: 78-84 | Division Odds: 6.0% | Playoffs Odds: 14.9%
For the first time since 2008, the Mets go into a season with legitimate hopes of actually making some noise this season. Although they were ranked just 23rd in our preseason rankings, there is a collection of young talent that, if coupled with solid play by the veterans on hand, could turn New York into a serious wild card contender.
As with most teams, it all starts with the rotation. And in the case of the Mets, it all starts with the return of Matt Harvey, who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October of 2013. Harvey had emerged as one of the NL's best starters two years ago with a 2.27 ERA and a 6.0 fWAR for New York in 26 starts in '13. He'll lead a rotation that features another promising prospect, Zack Wheeler, and last year's surprise Rookie of the Year, Jacob deGrom. Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Bartolo Colon round out the bottom of a rotation that could make life tough on NL hitters this season.
Another key to any success New York may have this year is the play of David Wright. Can Wright regain the form that made him one of the best third basemen in all of baseball? Also, can Lucas Duda repeat his 30-homer season of 2014? Is young catcher Travis d'Arnaud ready to be the player many thought he'd be when he was one of the game's most highly-touted prospects? Can Juan Lagares continue to play the amazing run prevention game he did last year in center field? And can veterans Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer hold off Father Time for one more season?
The back end of the bullpen is a bit of a question mark, as no clear closer is established as of yet. Bobby Parnell is the most likely candidate to take the job, but he's going to miss the first two to three weeks of the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. That means Jenrry Mejia or Jeurys Familia could get some save opportunities early. Either way, New York has three late inning arms that can close things down.
And don't sleep on prospect Noah Syndergaard, who struggled in Triple-A last year, but is still the team's top pitching prospect. He could get a call up at some point this season.
4. Miami Marlins
nERD: -0.35 | Projected Win-Loss: 77-85 | Division Odds: 4.3% | Playoffs Odds: 10.8%
Like the Mets, Miami has a young stud ace who is coming back from Tommy John surgery. However, Jose Fernandez won't be ready to start the 2015 season with the rest of his team. So, the Opening Day start will fall to Henderson Alvarez, who was the team's best starter after Fernandez went down last season. Alvarez had a 2.65 ERA and a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.58 while striking out just 5.34 batters per nine last year. Mat Latos, Jarred Cosart, Dan Haren, and Tom Koehler have the last four spots taken care of until Fernandez comes back and knocks one of them out.
The Marlins' true strength lies in their dynamic outfield, with the game's best slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, center fielder Marcell Ozuna and left fielder Christian Yelich forming what some believe would say is the best outfield in all of baseball. Last season, those three players combined for 14.1 fWAR. It will be interesting to see how Stanton responds to game action after missing the last couple weeks of the season after getting hit in the face by a pitch.
The team is also excited about the speed that new second baseman Dee Gordon gives them. Gordon hit .289/.325/.378 with 64 stolen bases and 92 runs scored for the Dodgers, worth 3.1 fWAR. The Fish hope to get more production and steadier defense from shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria this year, and they certainly hope Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits better than .220 this season. They are also hoping that they've finally solved their first base problem as well, bringing aboard Mike Morse to give them some pop at that position. Solid veteran Martin Prado will play third and was brought in to provide veteran leadership.
One area of real strength is the bullpen, which had the second highest fWAR in the National League last season. They're anchored by closer Steve Cishek, with set-up man Bryan Morris stabilizing the eighth inning on most nights. Mike Dunn and A.J. Ramos will also likely play major roles in the Miami 'pen this season.
Frankly, I like the Mets and Marlins more than the Braves this year, and even though Atlanta is ranked higher in our projections, it's only by a minuscule amount.
5. Philadelphia Phillies
nERD: -0.64 | Projected Win-Loss: 72-90 | Division Odds: 1.1% | Playoffs Odds: 2.6%
One team that everyone in baseball assumes is going to be pretty bad is the Phillies. That five-year run of excellence was a lot of fun, but now the time has come to pay the bill for being slow to rebuild.
The Phils actually had themselves a decent offseason, shipping out shortstop and team icon Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers in exchange for young pitching. The underwhelming Freddy Galvis will take over until uber prospect J.P. Crawford is ready, perhaps in 2016. Outfielder Marlon Byrd is also gone, traded to the Reds, which means their outfield will likely consist of some combination of Domonic Brown, Ben Revere, Grady Sizemore, Darin Ruf, and Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera.
Ryan Howard is back for yet another season at first base. The Phils are desperately hoping he shows something in the first half of the season, enticing some American League team to bring him aboard as a designated hitter. Chase Utley is still around and actually seems happy about it. Third base will feature an interesting battle between incumbent Cody Asche and prospect Maikel Franco. Asche will be given the opportunity to hold the job, but if he struggles, Franco will get the nod some time in late May.
As for the rotation, it's led by walking trade rumors Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, both of whom will probably be gone by the time the team reaches July. The Phils made a nice addition in the offseason by signing Chad Billingsley to a one-year, low-risk, high-reward deal. They also signed veteran Aaron Harang to a one-year contract and retained veteran Jerome Williams to round out the rotation with second-year man David Buchanan acting as insurance and long relief. But that is one motley crew after Hamels and Lee.
The one area of strength is the bullpen with closer Jonathan Papelbon still closing games and grabbing his junk. Young fireballer Ken Giles reminds some of a young Kimbrel, and lefty Jake Diekman is murder against left-handed hitters. They form a very nice trio at the end of games, and the Phils are loaded with other hard throwers although many of them also struggle to control it.
It's hard to see a path for the Phils to be anything but cellar dwellers in 2015, and our projections see them as the second-worst team in baseball with only the Arizona Diamondbacks slated for fewer wins. Frankly, it's better than I thought it would be.
But at least the rebuild has finally begun in Philadelphia.