10 Important Questions About the NL East Heading Into 2015
How good are the Nationals going to be? Can the Marlins make a run at the Nats? Will the Mets be able to hang in the division race? And how bad have the once-proud Braves and Phillies gotten?
The National League East looks much different now than it did five years ago when the Braves and Phillies were the ones ruling the roost and the Nats were at the bottom of the pile, scratching and clawing out from under an avalanche of losses. Now it's Washington featuring a Super Rotation, while Atlanta and Philadelphia will be fighting over who gets to live in the basement this season. Meanwhile, Miami and New York will try to keep up with a Nats team that appears loaded with arms but has question marks in other spots.
So, as we continue to get ready for the 2015 season, let's ask some tough questions concerning the NL East in 2015.
How Many Games Will the Washington Nationals Win?
Given the state of the rotation, with Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister lined up for the season, a win total in the 90s seems all but a given. But there are some areas of concern.
Jayson Werth is still recovering from shoulder surgery. The Nationals just lost their center fielder, Denard Span, until at least May after he had surgery on his abdomen. And their best overall player, Anthony Rendon, hurt himself in a spring training game last Monday while making a diving attempt at a ground ball. It turns out he has a mild sprain of his left MCL and is going to be out for an undetermined amount of time. This does not count the long injury histories of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and outfielder Bryce Harper.
If this team can avoid any more injuries, it's likely they can get through this mess with that starting rotation and win 93 or 94 games. Our algorithms predict 91 wins for the Nats this year, but injuries, like life, are unpredictable.
How Many Games Will Bryce Harper Play?
Harper has only had three seasons so far in his brief career but hasn't managed to play a full season in any of them yet. In those three seasons, Harper has played more than 130 games just once, his rookie season, when he played 139 games in 2012. In 2013 he played in 118 games, and last year, it was only 100.
Obviously, that's not a great trend, but the two-time All-Star is just 22 years old and it seems likely that, at some point, he's going to manage to stay on the field for more than 130 games again. Given the injury situation noted above, it's paramount that Harper stay on the field, because when he does, he's one of the most dynamic players in the league.
Harper could be a perennial MVP candidate. He's just got to actually be playing baseball to do it. I say he plays more than 130 games and, dare I say it, more than 150.
Will Giancarlo Stanton Hit 40 Home Runs?
40 home runs is a reasonable goal for Stanton this year. Our projections put him at 37, and it just so happens that his career high in homer is 37, done twice, last year and in 2012.
However, it should be noted that Stanton hit those 37 bombs in 2012 in only 123 games played and last year did it in 145 games. Pretty much everyone agrees that, if Stanton manages to play 150-155 games, he could approach 40, especially now as he's just entering his prime at 25 years old.
But health will be the key for Stanton. He was on his way to playing a full season for the first time ever last year until he was freakishly hit in the face by a pitch. Seeing how he recovers from that, and avoids other nagging injuries, will be the key to Stanton challenging that 40-homer total.
Can the Marlins Draw 2 Million Fans?
The Marlins are expected to be pretty good this year. They've got a slew of great young position players, including perhaps the best outfield trio in the National League in Santon, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich, and should get back one of the most dynamic young starters in the game at midseason, Jose Fernandez. They truly have the pieces to contend with the Washington Nationals in the NL East, and I think they're good enough to win one of the two NL wild cards this year.
But here's the question. Will anyone be there to see it?
When the Marlins opened their new ballpark in 2012, a little more than 2.2 million people came out to watch the team that season. But interest quickly faded, not helped by a lackluster squad that finished in last place in '12 and '13 and in fourth place last year. And it should be noted, in both of their playoff seasons 1997 and 2003, the team drew 2.36 and 1.3 million people, respectively. Quite a difference.
Expectations are high this year. This is a team fans should want to come out and see. Will they? I remain skeptical on this one.
Can Lucas Duda Hit 30 Bombs Again?
Last year Duda came out of nowhere to hit 30 homers for New York, finishing fourth among all Major League first basemen. However, in the three seasons prior he hit 10, 15, and 15 long balls, although he played in fewer games each of those seasons than he did last year (100, 121, and 100 compared to 153 last year).
Perhaps the 29-year-old is just flourishing now that he's finally being given an opportunity to play everyday. Our projections put him at 27, which I think is still a bit high, to be honest. I just don't see the same power surge coming for Duda this year, although he should still be a very productive Major League first baseman.
How Low Will Matt Harvey's ERA Go?
Matt Harvey is ridiculous, guys.
The man missed all of the 2014 season after injuring his elbow late in 2013 and undergoing Tommy John surgery. But he's back now, and in his first few spring outings is humping it up there at 98 and 99 miles per hour. You know, just like every Tommy John surgery recipient does.
Harvey is a premier pitcher in the National League and, if he can stay healthy, is a Cy Young candidate. He has a career ERA of 2.39 in 237.2 innings, and he certainly has come out of the box with his A-plus fastball this spring. He did get roughed up in his last outing, but that's not unusual for pitchers as they work on their secondary pitches and get their pitch counts up.
Our projections have Harvey putting up a 2.84 ERA in 171 innings this year, which might actually be a bit conservative for the Mets' ace right-hander. I think he'll do even better than that, although I don't think he'll approach the 2.27 ERA he put up in 26 starts in 2013. Somewhere in the 2.50 range feels right to me.
Will Melvin Upton Hit Above the Mendoza Line?
There is no doubt that Atlanta's signing of Melvin Upton Jr. to a five-year, $72.25 million deal before the 2013 season has turned out to be one of the worst free agent contracts of the last decade. During his time with the Braves, Upton has hit .198 with a .279 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .314. Compare those numbers to his stats in eight seasons in Tampa in which he hit .255/.336/.422 with stolen base totals in the 30s and 40s.
That player seems to have completely vanished, yet Atlanta has no choice other than to continue to play him every day in center field. Last year, Upton hit .208 while in 2013 he hit a ghastly .184.
Our projected stats have Upton at .216, which seems like a fairly reasonable projection, but that's not a whole lot above the Mendoza line of .200. Although, did you know that Mario Mendoza, the player after whom this dubious distinction was named, finished with a career batting average of .215? Dude's getting shortchanged here.
How Many Wins Will the Braves Get This Year?
Since 1991, that Braves have finished with a record below .500 exactly three times. That was done in 2006, 2008, and last season, when they went 79-83 and finished 17 games behind the Nationals in the NL East.
But there's not a ton of talent to go around, and the Braves have admitted they are rebuilding. If they finish below .500 this season, it will be the first time in a quarter century (since 1989-90) that the franchise has had two losing seasons back-to-back.
Crazy. How low will they go this year? They won't be Phillies bad, but they'll be pretty bad.
How Many Starts Will Cole Hamels Make for the Phillies?
Last year, Hamels' last start before the July 31 trade deadline was his 19th of the season, on July 29th, but he missed the first few weeks of the season due to shoulder fatigue. In 2013, a season in which he started healthy, his last start before the deadline was his 22nd.
Without knowing exactly what schedule Hamels will be on once the season starts, and assuming he doesn't miss a start or go on the disabled list this year, I figure Cole will make about 21-22 starts before July 31 rolls around. If you pick the "under," you're pretty much assuming that Hamels gets traded this season, and if you pick the "over," you're saying Hamels stays with the Phils for the whole season.
Yes, Hamels could be traded at the August 31 waiver trade deadline, but it's very hard to get a player of Hamels' caliber through waivers without another team making a claim. So, I'm thinking July 31 or bust.
Will The Phillies Approach 100 Losses?
Cliff Lee was placed on the 60-day disabled list on Monday for the second straight season and will not throw a baseball as he attempts to rehabilitate his achy elbow for a third time. Yes, this is the very definition of insanity, although it's understandable the 36-year-old on the final year of his contract doesn't want to endure a surgery and grueling rehabilitation.
However, with Lee's great career likely over, and a potential Hamels trade looming at any moment, you could be looking at a Phils' rotation with Aaron Harang (who has yet to pitch this spring because of bad back), Jerome Williams, David Buchanan, Chad Billingsley, and Kevin Slowey at some point this season.
Offensively, the Phils' best power hitter is Ryan Howard, and their second best power hitter is, um, yeah you see my point here. That team might average two homers a week.
It could be a very ugly season in Philadelphia, one that could see this team hit triple digit losses.