NL East 2017 preview: Nationals, Mets set to do battle for the division crown
With the Nationals take the NL East again, or will the Mets steal it? Or will someone shock the world?
Ah, the National League East. Anecdotally, itâs the division most prone to streaks. After all, many of us either grew up or went through our teens with the Braves winning every single year.
Point of fact: The Braves did take 11 straight NL East titles from 1995-2005. Then after one Mets division title, the Phillies won five straight of their own. Since then, weâve seen the Nationals play the part of the best team in the division every other year, winning three of five titles but playing one of the leagueâs biggest disappointments in 2013 and 2015.
Coming off a 95-win season and division crown, the Nats look loaded, but itâs an odd-numbered year. Do the Nats again disappoint?
First, letâs take one last look back at the year that was in the division:
2016 W-L record
Record in 1-Run Games
The thing that stands out there the most, to me, is the fourth-place Phillies and how much they overplayed just a 71-win season. When something that like that happens with a playoff team (ask the 2012 Orioles or 2016 Rangers), all we hear about is how that team isnât actually good and instead just lucky.
When itâs a team that is actually bad, though, it sometimes falls through the cracks that the team should have been far worse than it was.
Quite simply, it doesnât bode well for the Phillies to continue their rebuild in positive fashion this season.
On the flip side, many love the position of the Braves.
After a division title in 2013, the Braves regressed to 79-83 in 2014 and then decided to tear it all down. What followed was a massive, albeit quick, rebuild. They head into SunTrust Park this season with expectations of a positive season. After all, only the Mets and Cubs had better records in the NL after August 20.
Still, it would be rather surprising if the Braves jumped right back into contention for the division title. There appear to be two powers here. The Nationals and Mets have combined to win four of the last five NL East titles and itâs overwhelmingly likely that itâll be five of six come October.
Still, the games have to be played and itâs fun to note that the 2012 Nationals werenât supposed to win the division. The Phillies with their stacked rotation were supposed to take their sixth division title in a row. So maybe someone surprises in 2017 here?
Not according to the simulations ...
SportsLine Proj. Wins
SportsLive Div. Odds
Westgate Div. Odds
SportsLine Playoff Odds
Now letâs take a quick glance at each team individually.
The mostly likely theme for these Braves is better but not there yet. I canât see them losing 90 games again, but itâs really hard to see them winning more than, say, 84, which theyâd need to do in order to make the postseason again.
This is fine, of course, because jumping from fewer than 70 wins to the playoffs rarely happens. What the Braves really need to do in the first year of their new ballpark is excite the fan base, and I believe they will.
Two main things to watch on the Braves here are the stars of the present and future.
Freddie Freeman, the present, is coming off a year that couldâve won him MVP on a better team. He hit .302/.400/.569 with 43 doubles, six triples and 34 homers. Was it an aberration or a breakout? He was only 26 years old, so itâs possible this is the new him. His second half last year was absurd, by the way. He hit .323/.433/.634 with 18 homers in 70 games.
The future should be Dansby Swanson, though (or maybe Swanson and Freeman?). The 2015 overall No. 1 pick caught a glimpse of The Show last season, hitting .302 with a 118 OPS+ in 38 games. The shortstop has the upside to be a five-tool superstar and is the favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year in 2017. Heâll be a fun one to watch develop and that happens this season.
Of course, the rotation leaves a lot to be desired, due in part to the tragic death of Jose Fernandez. Speaking only in baseball terms, that left a huge void atop the rotation. Instead of a Cy Young favorite, Edinson Volquez is probably the ace of the staff. Or Wei-Yin Chen. Or Dan Straily.
You get the idea.
Further, Martin Prado was injured during the World Baseball Classic and could miss around a month.
This squad has a good offensive catcher, a great base-stealing second baseman and a stellar outfield along with a good bullpen. Those, and more, will all be needed to overcome the Prado injury and lackluster rotation.
New York Mets
The Mets return essentially the same roster as last season. Some might file that as a negative, considering they won 87 games and lost in the Wild Card Game as an encore to making the World Series.
Letâs think about that for a second, though.
Yes, Bartolo Colonâs 33 starts are gone, but Robert Gsellman is actually very good.
What if the Mets get 30-plus starts from all of the above along with Cy Young-caliber Noah Syndergaard?
Further, the offense ranked 11th in runs in the NL last year. They were hit with injury woes and major issues in driving home runners from scoring position. Health canât be predicted, but thereâs enough talent here to expect around league average offensive production.
One item of concern is the impending Jeurys Familia suspension for domestic violence. Given the precedents in place, though, itâs probably going to be around a month.
Bottom line: Itâs hard to see the Mets getting worse. And, again, they won 87 games last year. Ninety-plus is within reach here.
On one hand, the Phillies improved last year by eight games. On the other, a lot of things went wrong.
Maikel Franco didnât have near the year many were either expecting or hoping to see. Prospect J.P. Crawford took a step back. Top pitching talent Aaron Nola fell apart and then had an arm injury. Vince Velasquez had arm issues and took steps back after a ridiculous start to the season.
Overall, the team that was 15-10, then 22-15, ended up 20 games below .500 with a run differential that says they were actually far worse than that.
Itâs hard to see contention this season. Instead, what matters are steps forward.
Franco, Crawford, Nola, Velasquez, along with the likes of Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Jerad Eickhoff and more need to take big steps forward. The prospects in the upper levels of the minors (aside from the aforementioned Crawford) need to do the same.
Then maybe we can talk about the Phillies contending in 2018.
From a certain point of view, itâs a shame it has to be this way. The Nationals could coast through a 95-win season and an NL East title and it would be their fourth in the last six years. And the common refrain would be, âSo what, now what?â
That is because in each of the previous three playoff seasons, the Nationals were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Itâs an unbelievably talented roster -- especially if Trea Turner is as good as everyone thinks and Bryce Harper resembles the 2015 version of himself -- and thereâs no doubt this team should be heading to the playoffs.
Itâs just that anything less than reaching the NLCS would be considered a total failure. And even a loss in the NLCS round would probably be disappointing.
Itâs high time to stop simply making the playoffs in D.C. This team needs to perform in October and make a deep run.
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