Division Preview: NL East

We’ve moved our from the west — both NL and the AL — and covered both the NL and AL Wests the last two days. Today, we’ll do both eastern divisions, starting with the National League.

The Projected Standings

Team Wins Losses Division Wild Card World Series
Nationals 94 68 86% 8% 17%
Mets 81 81 7% 23% 1%
Marlins 81 81 6% 20% 1%
Braves 73 89 1% 3% 0%
Phillies 66 96 0% 0% 0%

The easiest division in baseball to handicap. The favorites just have to avoid implosion to punch their ticket to the postseason, with only two teams even pretending to put up a fight, and neither one looking quite ready for the postseason yet. The fight for second place could be a Wild Card battle, but more likely, there is only one playoff team here, and it’s probably going to be the one we’d all expect.

Washington Nationals

Just keep everyone healthy; that’s basically the Nationals plan for the next six months. Yes, the game is played on the field and not on paper, and teams that look good heading into the season don’t always succeed, but the Nationals margin of error is so large that they’re likely to win the NL East so long as they don’t suffer a string of serious injuries.

Health is always the variable that can throw things into chaos, and if we were looking for a bone to pick with the Nationals off-season, it’s that they didn’t put enough backup plans in place to fend off disaster if their hitters start dropping like flies. While they couldn’t have predicted that Denard Span, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon would all miss Opening Day, having Dan Uggla get a lot of playing time is a start down the path to a disappointing finish.

But even with a patched-together line-up for the first month of the year, the Nationals should stlil be fine. Their rotation is the best in baseball, and while the bullpen isn’t full of sexy names, it’s full of good arms, several of whom could probably slide into many other team’s rotations. The offense doesn’t have to be great; it just has to be decent enough, and it should be. I remain completely sold on the fact that Bryce Harper is going to have a monster season in the very near future, and it well may happen in 2015. If it does, you can basically close the door on the NL East; this team is really good without him being a superstar, but if he turns into one this year, it’s probably the best team in baseball.

New York Mets

The Mets remind me an awful lot of the Indians. Neither team has a true star hitter, though both have well above average position players once you factor in their defensive value, and their line-ups are deep enough to make up for the fact that they are a little underwhelming in the middle. Both teams are betting heavily on young pitching, with an ace at the top of the rotation followed by a lot of interesting kids with upside.

But the Indians have actually committed to those kids out of the gate, while the Mets are still considering giving the ball to Dillon Gee on a regular basis, with Bartolo Colon mixed in as a stark contrast to the pups around him, so while their organization contains as many interesting young arms as Cleveland’s, they’re a bit less likely to get the same level of 2015 production. Given the fact that Cleveland doesn’t have a team projected to be 13 wins better than them in their own division, the Mets more conservative approach is probably more prudent than trading development for the short-term gain, but it might cost them some portion of their chance to sneak into a Wild Card spot.

If the Mets want to make a playoff run this year, their best bet is to start the season strong, but with Gee or Colon struggling along the way, putting pressure on the organization to put Noah Syndergaard in the rotation. If he gets 150 innings and pitches anywhere near his projections, the Mets aren’t that far off the Padres, Cubs, and Giants in the Wild Card race. But he doesn’t get 150 innings if they leave him down until July, and I’m not sure the rest of the team is good enough to make a Wild Card run with their second best projected starter in the minors for half the season.

It’s an oversimplification to say that New York’s season will be decided by when Syndergaard replaces Dillon Gee, but the Mets only a few wins off projected totals of the teams in Wild Card position, and there aren’t many more obvious upgrades than swapping out a bad starter for a good one. The team still carries all of the same risks that any team building around young pitching does, so this could fall apart, but there is a path to a postseason game in Queens this year; it just relies on a lot of young arms all pitching very well for nearly the entire season.

Miami Marlins

The Marlins have certainly generated their fair share of hype this off-season, locking up both Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yellich and making moves for some name-value players like Mat Latos, Dan Haren, and Dee Gordon. The resulting moves, and the impending return of Jose Fernandez, have a good amount of people climbing aboard the team’s bandwagon and proclaiming them as a real threat to the Nationals in the NL East, or at least a good Wild Card team. I just don’t see it.

The top of the roster is terrific, especially if Fernandez comes back at anything close to what he was before his elbow exploded. The Marlins really might have the best outfield in baseball, but among potential contenders, they almost certainly have the worst infield, which makes for a stars-and-scrubs collaboration of hitters that doesn’t look as good once you add it all together. Their two power sources — Stanton and Michael Morse — both have a history of health problems, and when either or both or out of the line-up, this team will not score very many runs.

Even when both are healthy and launching home runs, this is probably a feast-or-famine offense, especially when you stack the bottom of the order together with Dee Gordon likely hitting leadoff. This offense doesn’t look good enough, to me, to win without high-level pitching, and without a full season of Fernandez, I don’t see a high level pitching staff here.

There’s a lot of star power and a potentially great core of talent to build around, but I don’t see enough good role players to contend with the Nationals. They could make a Wild Card run if everything goes right, but I’d peg them as the eighth or ninth best team in the National League headed into the year, and probably not quite ready to live up to the hype quite yet.

Atlanta Braves

Christian Bethancourt, owner of a career .246/.271/.272 batting line in the majors, is projected to be the team’s third best position player. That’s a problem. Now, maybe like the Braves, you’re more optimistic about Nick Markakis, but even then, the rest of the position players beyond Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons are a nightmare. The Braves spent their off-season collecting interesting young arms for the future, and when you look at the group of hitters they’re going to put on the field in 2015, it shows.

The upside, though, is that the pitching actually is pretty interesting. Shelby Miller and Trevor Cahill are both interesting buy-low guys who might be fixable, and if Roger McDowell can get either of them back to prior form, the starting five starts to look pretty good. But while Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are good young pitchers, neither one profiles as a true #1, and we can’t just assume that the Braves can fix both Miller and Cahill without some struggles along the way. Toss in some starts from Wandy Rodriguez or Eric Stults while they wait for Mike Minor to get healthy, and the Braves rotation isn’t going to be good enough to make up for an offense that is likely going to be horrendous.

So 2015 isn’t going to go very well in Atlanta, most likely, but they’ve made it clear that they’re transitioning the roster to be ready to win in two years, when their new ballpark opens. With Freeman and Simmons and a host of young arms who might still be good by then, that plan can work, but they’re going to have to find four or five good position players between now and then, because a line-up where Nick Markakis is your second best hitter is a line-up that isn’t going to win many games.

Philadelphia Phillies

If the Phillies trade Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Jonathan Papelbon this summer — as I expect them to do — their best remaining player might be Cody Asche, who has been worth +0.6 WAR in his first 613 big league plate appearances. So, yeah, this team is pretty bad.

The good news is that this is rock bottom. It’s only up from here, and being this lousy will get the Phillies some valuable draft picks and a lot of money to throw around in building their farm system through international signings. Things can only get better, and with the Phillies financial resources, it shouldn’t take them as long as it would take most teams to crawl out of a hole this big.

But this is a pretty deep hole, and the post-trades version of this roster is going to be unwatchable, rivaling the Astros of a couple of years ago. Even the 96 loss forecast here is optimistic, as it assumes full seasons of the veterans who likely won’t end the year in Philadelphia. Realistically, not losing 100 games would be an accomplishment, and if they trade Hamels and Utley early enough in the season, 105 to 110 losses isn’t out of the question.

Things will get better, but it won’t be this year, and it probably won’t be next year either. This is going to take a while to recover from.

We hoped you liked reading Division Preview: NL East by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

You did a good job covering the Nationals’ worst-case scenario, but I am also worried by how many predictions for the team are based on the expectation that Bryce Harper will take a big step forward and nobody in the rotation will take any steps back. (Granted, Tanner Roark is pretty great insurance.) It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the team fails: a couple guys go down injured; Fister, Scherzer, Roark, and/or Gonzalez exit their primes; Harper doesn’t go crazy.

It still requires a perfect storm. I’d guess the projection is right, and this team ends up doing pretty great things. But if they don’t, we can’t act too surprised.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

The Nationals have enough of a projected lead that I can’t imagine they lose the division unless they have a 20th percentile scenario AND the Mets or Marlins have a 80th percentile scenario. I mean, based on these projections, the Nats could fall to 86 wins and still win the division, even if we give a few of those wins to the Mets.

BMarkham
Guest
BMarkham

For his career Harper has been worth 4 WAR/600 PA. So the projections are only suggesting he stays mostly healthy and has a half a win improvement on his career rates, which seems reasonable for a player 9 months younger than Kris Bryant.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21

It’s not very hard to imagine a Nationals team that underwhelms and stumbles to an 86-win season and a first-round exit. (From my lips to the baseball gods’ ears.) It is pretty hard to imagine a Nationals team that stumbles so badly that they actually throw the division to the Mets or Marlins.

PackBob
Guest
PackBob

You can say similar things for every team: if key guys are injured or don’t perform, the team will be worse than what is projected. Or, guys stay healthy, some perform better than expected, and the team will be better than projected.

Based on talent, the Nationals should be clear favorites. After that, any kind of scenario can be proposed and it then becomes a prediction rather than a projection.