2017 Division Previews – National League East

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

Defending Champion

Washington Nationals

Past Five Champions

2016 – Washington

2015 – New York

2014 – Washington

2013 – Atlanta

2012 – Washington

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 95.0

Best Player

Bryce Harper, Nationals

Harper’s numbers fell off a cliff last season, but he remains the best, most dynamic and most polarizing player within the confines of the NL East.  After winning the MVP award in 2015 Harper was expected to continue his rise to superstardom, potentially even joining (or passing) Mike Trout as baseball’s top player.  Instead he fell apart.  He hit 18 fewer HR and 14 fewer 2B, scored 34 fewer runs, drove in 13 fewer runs, and his batting average decline by 87 points, his OPS drop by 295 points, and his WAR drop from 9.9 to 1.6.  But he gets the nod here due to his raw talent and his youth, ahead of a few veterans who posted career years (Daniel Murphy and Freddie Freeman), and a few other enigmas like himself (Yoenis Cespedes and Giancarlo Stanton).

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

Best Pitcher

Max Scherzer, Nationals

The East is loaded with ace quality pitchers, but it’s hard to pick against the 2016 NL Cy Young award winner.  Scherzer was electric last season, topping the league with 20 wins, 228.1 IP, 284 strikeouts, and a 0.968 WHIP.  His season was highlighted with a historic start in May against Detroit, when he tied the major league record with 20-strikeouts in a 9-inning game.  Last season marked the fourth year in a row he has finished in the top-5 in Cy balloting.  With down years by franchise cornerstones Harper and Strasburg, he was one of the main reasons behind Washington’s NL East division title.

Honourable Mention: Noah Syndergaard, Mets; Jacob deGrom, Mets

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Division of Enigmas

The word enigma is defined as a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand, and no division has more players that fit that definition than the NL East.  As discussed earlier, Bryce Harper is one of baseball’s most confounding players.  Is he the player who won the Rookie of the Year award as a 19-year old in 2012 and posted one of the best single seasons in MLB history while winning the MVP in 2015?  Or is he the guy who missed 106 games in ’13 and ’14 due to injury, or whose performance cratered in a miserable 2016?  But Harper is far from alone.  Stephen Strasburg, Giancarlo Stanton, and Matt Harvey have all been anointed to baseball’s upper echelon only to fall flat seemingly year after year.  To a lesser extent, players like Travis d’Arnaud and Steven Matz (NYM), Odubel Herrera (PHI), Marcell Ozuna (MIA), and Matt Kemp (ATL) continue to fall short of lofty expectations.  It will be interesting to see how many (if any) of these players can finally take the next step forward.

2. New York Health

Heading into 2016 the New York Mets starting rotation was labelled baseball’s best by several publications.  And why not? Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom were fresh off leading the Mets to the World Series, and they were set to joined by top prospect Zack Wheller.  But due to a variety of injuries, things have yet to work out in the Big Apple.  Only Syndergaard reached the 30 start plateau in 2016.  deGrom was held to 24 starts, Matz to 22, and Harvey to only 17.  Wheeler, meanwhile, hasn’t thrown a big league pitch since September of 2014.  If healthy, this group still projects as elite.  But with the departure of Bartolo Colon to Atlanta, there is even less room for injury in 2017.

3. Intrigue in Atlanta

Long the model of consistency, the Atlanta Braves have fallen on hard times with back-to-back 90+ loss seasons.  But things are getting very interesting in Atlanta.  With the team set to move into a brand new stadium, it is clear that they don’t plan on rebuilding for long.  Several shrewd trades over the past year have gifted the Braves several exciting young players, including former number 1 pick Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte, adding them to a team that already had the talented Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran.  With a bunch of live arms in the high minors the Braves then acquired several veterans to provide leadership and stability, including Matt Kemp, Brandon Phillips, R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Jaime Garcia.  There is a very good chance that the Braves lose over 90 games and finish last again.  But there is also a shot that everything comes together and they surprise a lot of people.  Regardless of what happens, it will definitely be interesting.

Interesting Stat

The Miami Marlins enter 2017 as fringe contenders.  After losing 82 games in 2016, the Marlins will no longer have Jose Fernandez fronting their rotation meaning the middling additions of Edinson Volquez and Dan Straily will have little room for error.  But that could change if their offense performs to expectations.  The Marlins scored 655 runs last season, the third fewest in the National League, and also finished second last with 128 HR and fourth last with a .716 team OPS.  For a team with one of the best outfields in all of baseball (Ozuna, Yelich, Stanton), the speedy Dee Gordon, and useful bats like Martin Prado and Justin Bour, those totals are both shocking and unacceptable.  Injuries had a lot to do with the suppressed run totals, but even moving into the middle of the pack in the NL could translate in a few additional wins that could make all the difference between contender and pretender.

Who Should Win

Washington

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

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