2016 Division Preview – National League East

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Welcome to part three of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the NL East.

Defending Champion

New York Mets

Past Five Champions

2015 – New York

2014 – Washington

2013 – Atlanta

2012 – Washington

2011 – Philadelphia

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 96.4

Best Player

Bryce Harper, Nationals

As a 22-year old, Bryce Harper was the unanimous winner of the NL MVP award, just the ninth time in the history of the award that it was awarded unanimously.  Let’s repeat the first part of that sentence:  As a 22-year old!!!  It’s easy to forget just how young he actually is considering he has now played four full seasons, and let’s hope his performance last year puts to bed the whispers that he is a bust.  After all, what he did in 2015 was unprecedented.  He led the league in runs (118), HR (42), OBP (.460), SLG (.649), OPS (1.109), OPS+ (195) and WAR (9.9), and added 99 RBI, 38 2B, and a .330 average.  The Trout vs. Harper debate was seemingly settled in Trout’s favour, but not anymore.

Honourable Mention: Yoenis Cespedes, Mets; Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

Best Pitcher

Max Scherzer, Nationals

His signing last winter was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle that would see the Nationals romp to the NL East crown and reach the World Series.  Unfortunately things didn’t work out for the Nats, but you can’t blame Scherzer.  He put together another terrific year, finishing with a 2.79 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 276 K in 228.2 IP, and a league leading 8.12 K/BB ratio.  He also delivered three of the best games in 2015 by Game Score: a near perfect game, ruined only by a HBP on the last batter on June 20 (game score of 97); a complete game 1-hit shutout with 16 strikeouts on June 14 (game score of 100); and his second no-hitter of the season, punctuated by 17 K’s on October 3 (game score of 104).

Honourable Mention: Matt Harvey, Mets; Jacob deGrom, Mets

Three Storylines For 2016

1. Bryce Harper

As discussed earlier, Bryce Harper had a season for the ages in 2015.  He unanimously won the NL MVP award, and finished in the NL top-5 in WAR, Average, OBP, SLG, OPS, R, Total Bases, 2B, HR, RBI, BB, OPS+, and Extra Base Hits.  His 9.9 WAR ranked as the 178th best single season mark in the history of the game, and the 27th best season in history by a player 22 or younger.  Of players from the modern era (1940 and beyond) it ranks as the fourth best season ever by a player that young: Dwight Gooden (1985, 20), Mike Trout (2012, 20), Ted Williams (1941, 22), Harper / Bert Blyleven (1973, 22).  The big question now is can he do it again?  Was 2015 a stepping stone towards a Hall of Fame career?  Or was last season an outlier, with the normal Harper closer to the 2012-2014 version, marred by inconsistency and injury?  Regardless of how the Nationals fare, it will be fascinating to find out.

2. Rotation For the Ages?

The Atlanta Braves of the early-to-mid ’90’s are widely believed to have one of the best starting rotations in recent history.  Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery dominated the NL for years, with the first three eventually landing in the Hall of Fame.  The rotation was the backbone of the incredible Atlanta dynasty that won 14 consecutive division titles.  It’s early, and the players are still very young, but we could be witnessing a rebirth of that rotation in New York.  The Mets projected top-4 of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz is enough to make other teams drool.  They are young (at 27 deGrom is the senior member), and good (Syndergaard’s 3.24 ERA and Matz’s 8.6 K/9 were the worst ratios among the four).  And worst of all for members of the NL East, there is a fifth member set to return from Tommy John surgery in 2016: 25-year old Zack Wheeler.  The Mets have some sluggers (Yoenis Cespedes), but a return to the playoffs hinges upon that awesome and terrifying rotation.

3. The Mystery Marlins

A serious question: when is the last time anybody was able to accurately project the Marlins?  They won it all in 1997, then promptly dismantled the team.   They won it all in 2003, then promptly dismantled the team.  They loaded up for the 2012 season, were picked by many to win it all, failed, then promptly dismantled the team.  In 2014 they were a popular pick for dead last, yet won 77 games and appeared to be heading up, before they plummeted back to 71 wins last year.  2016 is a new year, but will it be the same old Marlins?  They are loaded with exciting young players, including Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon, and Adeiny Hechavarria.  The brought in pitching help by signing Wei-Yin Chen.  But they are also the Marlins, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see half the team hurt or traded by August. If everything goes right, 90+ wins is a possibility….just as easily as 90+losses.

Interesting Stat

Much is made of the Mets rotation, and for good reason.  But at the other end of the spectrum are the Atlanta Braves.  Earlier in this column I remembered the good old days of Smoltz / Maddux / Glavine / Avery, and how successful they were.  How times have changed.  Last season six pitchers made 15 starts for the Braves.  Only two finished the season with ERA’s of under 4.00, and both (Shelby Miller and Alex Wood) are now pitching elsewhere.  According to ESPN, Atlanta’s rotation is projected to be (with 2015 stats):

Julio Teheran – 4.04 ERA, 1.5 WAR

Matt Wisler – 4.71 ERA, 0.4 WAR

Bud Norris – 6.72 ERA, -1.8 WAR

Manny Banuelos – 5.13 ERA, -0.2 WAR

Williams Perez – 4.78 ERA, 0.0 WAR

Two other potential starters are:

Jhoulys Chacin – 3.38 ERA, 0.4 WAR

Mike Foltynewicz – 5.71 ERA, -1.4 WAR

Combined, those seven pitchers sport a 4.87 ERA and -1.1 WAR, a mark that would have ranked as the second worst rotation in baseball in 2015.  Some of those pitchers are young with bright futures, but unless the future arrives quickly, it is going to be a long, tough year in Atlanta.

Who Should Win

New York

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

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