The Future Is Bright for the NL East, and the Present is Kind of Predictable

It's a two-team race in the NL East between Washington and New York, but don't sleep on the Braves and Phillies in the years to come.

by Rian Watt
Mar 15 2017, 1:40pm

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There's a version of the National League East where the New York Mets win 100 games and run away with this thing; there's another where Dusty Baker confounds another generation of statheads and leads a Washington franchise stuck in neutral to its first-ever World Series. Unlike MLB's other five divisions, there's not a dominant favorite here, though Washington has the edge. Also unlike the other five divisions, there's not a lot of ambiguity about what the teams are trying to do. New York, Washington, and Miami are going for it, while the Braves and Phillies are reloading for a future that's closer than most expect. This is a good division now. Next year, it could be the best in the game, with five teams challenging for the crown.

Washington Nationals

On paper, the Nats look like the crown of the division. Unfortunately, looking good on paper—and then falling down somehow, somewhere along the line—has kind of been Washington's thing these past few years. Since arriving from Montreal in 2005, the franchise has yet to win a postseason series. Still, not a single game has yet been played in 2017, so paper is all we have, and on paper the Nats line up nicely.

This winter's big addition, Adam Eaton, was a good get, though he cost a pretty penny, via trade with the White Sox; he will shore up an outfield that already features the otherworldly talents of Bryce Harper, who's still only 24, and veteran Jayson Werth. The infield is pretty solid, too, with three All-Star-caliber talents in Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, and Anthony Rendon.

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Those last two aren't quite household names, but they should be. Rendon is among the four or five best third basemen in the league, when healthy. Turner is the fastest man alive, non-Billy Hamilton edition. He, like Harper, is just 24 years old, and lest you think he's falling behind by playing his first full season at the same time as Harper's entering his fifth, just remember that Harper is a demented freak and any comparisons to him are unfair.

Anyway. The place Washington is most likely to fall apart—besides in the clubhouse, where they've struggled in years past—is in the 'pen. The rotation looks pretty solid, with Max Scherzer leading a crew of talented if injury-prone hurlers. But Mark Melancon, last year's closer, departed to San Francisco through free agency, and Washington was unable to entice either Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman to replace him. So the team enters the spring with only Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen as reasonably solid options for Baker.

Washington is the jigsaw puzzle that doesn't fit quite right. If all they end up being is the sum of their parts, they'll win the East by five or seven games, but that's no sure bet.

New York Mets

A few years ago, the Cubs decided to build their franchise around young sluggers and buy veteran pitching along the way. The Mets charged hard the other way and chose to bet against the house, on pitching. There's no worse bet in baseball than on a young pitcher's arm, and no bigger payoff. New York's big play was set five years ago, when they acquired Noah Syndergaard from the Jays in exchange for R.A. Dickey, and they've held course since.

This off-season, during which the team acquired not a single big-league player but which saw starters Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz all return from injury, was a big nod to the reality that the cards in Queens are already on the table. If things work out for the Mets, the rewards could be tremendous. If they don't, the relatively sorry state of the offense means there aren't too many hands left to be played.

The season really could go any number of ways. Each Met starter has the talent to win a Cy Young, and if they all play even at par, New York could easily challenge the Nationals for the division. If one or more pitchers go down, however, there's not a lot of room for error. The Mets rotation is talented but not deep, and the hitters, excluding the electric Yoenis Cespedes, are a pretty uninspiring bunch, and prone to streakiness of their own.

The Mets will go on runs where they win a bunch of games in a row, and there'll be whole weeks where they look like champions. If they make it to the playoffs with everybody's arms in one piece, they're well positioned to go deep. But they're dancing on a pretty small needle.

Florida Marlins

Usually, you'd look at a roster like Miami's and say something about indecision, and a team unsure which way to turn. But that's not fair to the Marlins: their plans and their worlds were overturned over the summer when Jose Fernandez, their dazzling star, passed away unexpectedly at age 24. Fernandez was bigger than the game, and the shock and devastation of his loss is felt far beyond South Florida, and it will linger far longer than the few months it leads the headlines. For the years he played it, baseball's brilliant light shone most brightly through him.

The remaining Marlins are left to pick up the pieces. Giancarlo Stanton, the strongest man in the game, and the ever-underrated Christian Yelich lead things on the positional front (with an assist from second baseman Dee Gordon, who got into some steroid trouble last year but remains an offensive threat), while Wei-Yin Chen, Edison Volquez, and Tom Koehler will be tasked with carrying the rotation forward. The bullpen is fine.

But this closed analysis of wins and losses is beside the point. The Marlins' tragedy this past summer was our own.

Ichiro and two random Marlins outfielders. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Braves

The Braves might be OK in 2017, and they've taken some conscientious stabs at respectability in acquiring Brandon Phillips from Cincinnati and keeping the hard-bitten, nearly forgotten Freddie Freeman at first base. Ender Inciarte, the center fielder, is a very good player, as well. But the future of the franchise is playing shortstop at age 23, in the singular person of James Dansby Swanson, and Atlanta is a better bet for success down the line than a run this year.

The Braves rebuild always had a whiff of corporate nonsense about it, what with the move away from a perfectly acceptable 20-year-old ballpark in the center of town to a taxpayer-funded entertainment multiplex in suburban Cobb County. That corporate nonsense is still there, and in full force, but at least the team appears to have executed a pretty damn successful rebuild. Baseball Prospectus recently ranked Atlanta's system the best in baseball, and few would quibble with that. Swanson leads the way, but there's impact talent in spades playing in North Georgia, and some of it will soon make its way to historic, um, SunTrust Field.

As far as this year is concerned? Have fun watching Swanson find his way in the league as the kids come up around him.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies were ranked fifth on the same BP list that put the Braves first, and they, too, have done a pretty good job of stockpiling talent that'll matter without losing too much of their fan base along the way. Philadelphia spent the off-season bringing in veteran talent—starter Clay Buchholz, who I'm told qualifies, alongside outfielders Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders—intended to help bring along the kids. That could work, but don't expect much out of Philly this year.

Don't be shocked, though, if these guys make a big leap in 2018. The rotation, led by Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff, is better than you think, and the prospects will start reinforcing the big club positionally as soon as this year. With a few well-placed free-agent acquisitions next off-season, this team could be challenging for the division title in 24 months. They certainly have the money to play at that level, and thanks to a few years of smart trades and patient development, they're starting to have the talent to make spending worth it.

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