The MLB season starts tonight and the build up for fans everywhere has been exhilarating. Every team has a reason to be optimistic about their team’s season and with a clean slate anything can happen. Here is the run through of how the NL East division fairs and each team’s top story line to begin the year.
The NL East this season should yet again be a two-horse race once again between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets. To be honest, it’s probably the weakest division in baseball with both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies hitting the reset button whom have set their stakes for a rebuild.
The Washington Nationals: Will they get along?
There’s no question the Washington Nationals have great talent on their roster, which sets themselves apart from the majority of teams in baseball. However, it’s been a fault in team chemistry that’s tripped the Nationals in past years. If Washington wants to finally live up to their lofty expectations, then big personalities such as Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon undergo some drastic changes within the clubhouse.
The turning point of Washington’s season last year was when GM Mike Rizzo decided to trade for hotheaded closer Papellbon. It was a perplexing move at the time, because their current closer, Drew Storen enjoyed an All-Star type first half and the Nationals were primed to win the division. This changed when Papelbon demanded that he wanted to be a closer to wherever he was traded to. Once this occurred, this could’ve thrown off Storen’s rhythm, which was revealed by his miserable performance in the season’s second half.
There’s a saying in sports sometimes that the best trade is the one you don’t make and I firmly believe if the Nationals wouldn’t have acquired Papelbon, then their season could’ve had a different outcome. Chemistry and camaraderie are huge in sports and especially baseball because it’s such a long season, it’s important to mend strong relationships with all teammates. When Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper it was clear the chemistry wasn’t where it needed to be to make a playoff run.
This off-season it was obvious that leadership needed to change. The Nationals went out and hired veteran manager Dusty Baker, whose been out of baseball since 2011. This has a great chance to pan out for Washington as this couldn’t be the more perfect hire for a team that lacks structure. Baker’s patience along with a hint of experience in dealing with huge personalities that included the likes of Barry Bonds back in San Francisco. Baker understands how to handle hostility and shaken chemistry in a clubhouse. With that being said, I don’t think he will tolerate Bryce Harper dogging it at times or hostile confrontations in the dugout.
Chemistry was the dagger to the Nationals playoff hopes last season, hopefully for their sake a new voice and leadership will prevent clubhouse tension and bring back the focus of winning baseball games.
New York Mets: Matt Harvey’s Health
The New York Mets look to build on the momentum of last year’s NL Pennant and get back to the World Series. It’s no secret how they’ve done it. Dominant starting pitching led by Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zach Wheeler who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
They live and die with these young studs due to their inconsistent offense, even with the addition of outfielder Yoenis Céspedes who can carry a team for a three-week stretch if necessary. However, with this deep starting rotation New York doesn’t really have to score an enormous amount of runs to be successful.
Unfortunately, Harvey’s status for tonight is uncertain as he deals with kidney issues. Injuries are something you can’t control, and can certainly derail a career. A quality-starting pitcher like Matt Harvey doesn’t grow on trees so the Mets must be absolutely sure he is 100% healthy. The Mets have had a history of being very cautious with young hard throwing right handers.
For Harvey, he is extremely important to the Mets’ success this season so if he must miss a few starts in April to get his kidney situation cleared up that’s much better than a long-term injury in the heat of a pennant race. Harvey is the bell cow of the Mets’ rotation and if he misses any significant time it will throw the other young starters out of whack. A lot of them haven’t pitched over 200 innings yet in their careers. The Mets’ success is predicated on the starting rotation and is their best chance to battle for a World Series title once again.
Miami Marlins: Can They Stay Healthy?
The Miami Marlins have an opportunity to be very pesky and annoying to play throughout the 2016 season. The biggest key for them will be overall team health. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton and ace pitcher José Fernandez headline that list. Stanton is one of MLB’s most prolific home run hitters. However he’s had terrible luck with injuries throughout his career. Already Stanton has missed the bulk of the last two seasons with injuries to his face and wrist.
As we’ve seen in the past, Miami’s offense suffered when Stanton is taken out of the lineup. If Stanton can stay on the field for 150+ games, his numbers would be absolutely ridiculous and the Marlins’ lineup hold firm. Stanton has averaged 30 HRs in his first six seasons and was on a record pace last season with 27 home runs in just 74 games.
The Marlins lineup features lead off threat Dee Gordon, whose not only wrecked havoc at the plate, but on the base paths. LF Christian Yelich when healthy has the potential to be heavily productive at the top of Miami’s order. Yelich had a slash of .300/.366/.416 through 126 games in 2015. The reality is, if Stanton can stay on the field then everyone on the Marlins improves which should increase production offensively.
The last player they can’t afford to miss significant time is pitcher José Fernandez. Fernandez’s 2015 season was cut short due to Tommy John surgery, prior to the injury he was 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA and well on his way to a very impressive season. After the injury the starting rotation suffered substantially, which derailed Miami’s season all together.
Fernandez is one of the games best pitchers, but living up to his potential has been the detriment for him so far. Overall, he is an astounding 22-9 with a 2.40 ERA and has yet to lose in his home ballpark, where he’s 17-0. Amazing numbers for a guy that is just 23 years of age with a lot of innings left on his arm. Assuming the Marlins will be judicious with his innings and preserve him for the long-term. If they’re able to keep the core of team in place, then they’ll have a reputable chance to make moderate noise in September.
Atlanta Braves: The Pitching Staff
The Atlanta Braves are in the middle of a massive rebuilding project that’s seen 24 transactions involving 86 players since the start of the 2014 season. It’s probably going to be a very long year, but the future is very bright for this organization. As for the 2016 season, the biggest question is who’s going to get opponents out. There’s just one final day before the games count and the Braves still have so many holes involving the pitching staff.
Julio Teheran, Bud Norris, and Matt Wisler showcase the top 3 of Atlanta’s rotation, however it took time for final two starters — Williams Perez and Jhoulys Chacín to make the team. Ultimately, another major concern resides in the bullpen. The fact of the matter is that Atlanta will be carrying only one left-hander breeds uncertainty.
The rotation Atlanta currently has won’t scare anyone on paper. But it’s mainly the development of these starters that will end up being the deciding factor of the Braves’ season. On a positive note, all of Atlanta’s starters finished last August and September off strong. Williams Perez struggled a little bit, but proved that when that he can deliver.
The key phrase to use while watching Atlanta’s season play out “is trust the process”. Remember, the Braves are way ahead of the pace from last year’s farm system, which at the time was ranked 29th. Now it’s rated top three in baseball. Atlanta will have to utilize their abundance of talent in the farm system wisely to gain confidence for the future.
Philadelphia Phillies: Maikel Franco
The Philadelphia Phillies are also involved in a massive rebuilding project. Even through it all, however, Philadelphia has definitely found their third baseman for the future in 23-year-old Maikel Franco, who’s as taken Major League Baseball by storm. In just 304 at-bats during his rookie season, he hit 14 HRs and drove in 50 runs, unfortunately his season was cut short due to a wrist injury.
This spring training, Franco picked up right where he left off, by hitting an MLB leading nine homers and 23 RBIs. Franco is for sure a cornerstone piece of the Phillies’ mystifying young puzzle.