Welcome to part three of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the NL East.
Past Five Champions
2014 – Washington
2013 – Atlanta
2012 – Washington
2011 – Philadelphia
2010 – Philadelphia
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 97.8
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
After taking a step back in 2013, Stanton broke out last year and proved that he is perhaps baseball’s most elite slugger. He topped the NL with 37 HR, a .555 SLG, and 24 intentional walks, and added 105 RBI and a .950 OPS on top of that. And that was after missing the final stretch of the season after getting hit in the face by a pitch. His production earned him a Silver Slugger award, and a second place finish in NL MVP balloting. It also earned him the most outrageous contract in sports: 13-years, $325-million. Safe to say he’ll be around for a while.
Honourable Mention: Anthony Rendon, Nationals; Bryce Harper, Nationals
Max Scherzer, Nationals
He was the biggest fish available on the free agent market, and the Nationals took the bait, signing Scherzer to a 7-year, $210-million megadeal. Scherzer began his career in the National League with the Diamondbacks, and his return to the senior circuit immediately makes him the best and most fearsome pitcher in the East. Scherzer led the American League in wins for the second year in a row last year with 18, and though his rate stats fell from his Cy Young winning 2013, he more than made up for that with 252 strikeouts and 220.1 IP. Scherzer joins a Nationals team that looks dominant on paper, hoping to pitch his way back to the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
Honourable Mention: Cole Hamels, Phillies; Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Three Storylines For 2015
1. Washington Domination
The Nationals won the division in a landslide last season, finishing a whopping 17 games in front of the Mets and Braves. This year, they just might win it by more. They were already the best team heading into the winter, and then they added former Cy Young winner Scherzer to a rotation that already includes Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. Plus, they won by so much last year even with Bryce Harper struggling all season with injury and consistency. Add the fact that the Braves and Phillies are in decline, the Mets just lost Zack Wheeler, and the Marlins won’t have Jose Fernandez for at least half the year, and this division race might be over before it even begins.
2. End of an Era
The Philadelphia Phillies were baseball’s model franchise for a long stretch of the mid-2000’s. They won five straight NL East titles, went to two World Series (winning one), and finished over .500 10 years in a row. But those days are gone. The last few seasons has been the start of Philly’s decline, and this year might be the worst yet. The core that was so important to the glory days is either gone (Jimmy Rollins), aging (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard), or injured (Cliff Lee). The only real difference maker on the roster is Cole Hamels, and if you believe the rumour mill, he will be wearing a different uniform by the trade deadline. It seems like only a matter of time until GM Ruben Amaro blows it up and gets rid of Utley as well. Let the rebuild begin.
3. Parade of Injured Pitchers
What is it with the NL East and pitching injuries? The season hasn’t even begun yet, and two of the biggest difference makers are already gone, with Wheeler and Lee set to miss the entire season. However, the two most important arms in the division are both scheduled to be back in the ’15 campaign, and how quickly they can get back to their normal, devastating selves will have a huge impact on whether or not there will be a division race. Miami’s Jose Fernandez, one of the best young pitchers in the game, is slated to return in June or July from Tommy John surgery. The 22-year old was in the midst of a dominant start last year when he was cut down, going 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA and 0.95 WHIP through 8 starts. In New York, Matt Harvey is set to make his long anticipated return as well, after missing the entire 2014 season with Tommy John. Harvey finished 4th in Cy Young voting in 2013 after a 9-5, 2.27 ERA line, and his presence atop the Mets rotation is mandatory if they are to take a step forward in 2015.
With the addition of Scherzer to their rotation, the Nationals have by far the most fearsome starting-5 in baseball. The rotation is so good, that they are moving their best starter (in terms of WAR) to the bullpen. That’s right, Washington’s best pitcher in 2014 was Tanner Roark, he of the 5.1 WAR, which ranked ahead of Zimmermann (4.9), Fister (4.5), Strasburg (3.5), and Gonzalez (2.3). WAR might not be everybody’s idea of a perfect stat, but it does a great job of rank ordering the best of the best, and shows that Washington might want to think twice about who they demote to the pen. If anything, it proves that the Nationals, alongside having baseball’s best rotation, also has baseball’s best insurance policy.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column in early April.