Spring Training is underway and in a game where anything can happen, and does; since the 2000 season the League has crowned 11 different World Series Champions and why should 2017 be any different with a new winner joining a growing fraternity.
I will spend the next few weeks looking at the 6 divisions and potential playoff match-ups as the should be holiday of Opening Day approaches. While we may see a few surprise roster changes as spring breaks that I may have failed to address don’t expect any to make such a difference that it changes the flow of preseason predictions anymore than injuries, call ups and flukes will do to derail these columns by mid-July. In so many words, I have about as much chance predicting winners as you would throwing darts at an MLB map.
The National League East has one of the best pitching rotations on paper, arguably by some the best hitter in the game after a monster 2015 and a fairly mediocre 2016 had detractors laughing, and finally three teams in various stages of rebuilding.
Let’s start with the good:
New York Mets (NL East Division Winner)
The Mets would be a World Series contender and the big team in New York if the game of baseball had options like MLB the Show and you could turn injuries off. Alas, baseball is not a video game and the Met have been dealt major blows over the past few seasons losing Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom each to injury while having closer issues between Jeurys Familia’s legal issues and prior closer Jenrry Mejia’s suspensions for PEDs. All the turmoil just on the pitching staff has been enough to keep the Mets out of what could have been a strong run over several seasons and instead was just a 4 games to 1 loss to the Royals in the 2015 World Series.
Looking forward without the baggage of the past 3 years is where the Mets need to be if they intend on winning. Matt Harvey is the “old man” of the staff but he is still only 27 years old (technically deGrom is a year older, but tenure and all). Having Harvey, deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in your rotation and choosing a 1-2-3 is like trying to pick your favorite Lindt Ball candy from a variety pack and going with only one, not easy. Syndergaard has the most upside, he is 24 years old, no history of injury and well you know, he is Thor. Harvey and deGrom are not old by any means, just older than Syndergaard. And you can never dismiss arm injuries with a pitcher as just history. All three are Cy Young contenders, but if you twist my arm Syndergaard is the Ace. Round out the rotation with Steve Matz and Robert Gsellman and you have five starters from their own farmed that trainers groomed to be Mets starters. And when I say groomed I mean it, 3 pitchers with mullets, the Times needs to look into this right away. Mets starters can win 75 games on their own if they stay healthy and conceivably be five Top 5 finishers in the NL Cy Young.
Now that I am done gushing over their pitching staff let’s talk about the diamond.
The corners are the biggest concern. Can New York keep Duda and Wright on the field together for any length of time? If one goes down, preferably Duda if the Mets want to continue to win, Jose Reyes is a solid candidate for a position change, and could probably serve as a solid first basemen, but he is also an injury question mark. Walker and Cabrera are good middle infielders with plenty of experience. They may be in the declining years of their career, but they can manage 45 homeruns between the two of them and put in 150 RBIs.
The outfield is either going to be really great fun for Queen residents to watch, or they will be the downfall of the club. By Opening Day all three starters should be 30 years old and able to hit 30 homeruns. If they put on a show New York will love them, but good luck getting on course if the season starts slow, very hard to avoid the cat calls when the bleacher screaming is within earshot.
New York is leaving this pick highly questionable with a lot of injury potential that could result in a finish as bad as the Phillies, and a lot to stay positive about if they finish with all the appendages still attached to their hips and shoulders. I am banking this in New York’s year to shine in the National League and run away with the East.
The bigger question is: Where does NYM go from here?
Washington Nationals (Downward Momentum)
There are the fair share of picks from national media for the Nationals to rip up the East with 95 wins. They are wrong. Much like the Mets of 2014, 2015 or 2016 look for the Nats to play host to the Injury Clinic of America this season and live up to all my modest expectations. Bookmark this pick and read it again in October.
No the Nationals will not make the playoffs.
Bryce Harper will not bounce back. His hair may, but beyond that the talk for 2 years will be who will sign him for 50o million dollars. No one I hope, he is not turning any team around, yes I am looking at you Philadelphia.
Daniel Murphy will not hit .350 with 25 homeruns again, he was either meeting with Victor Conte or so mad at the Mets he was on a revenge tour. He will come down to Earth in ’17.
Jayson Werth is 37, his career has always been turbulent, but at 37 you don’t rebound and he hasn’t since 2013. He is in the last year of a 21mil/yr contract, look for both parties to walk away after the deal. Jay may continue to play but it will be for a low-budget AL club that needs a DH.
That said, the Nationals have a great pitching staff. Scherzer and Strasburg are top of the rotation guys and would not surprise anyone if they had 20 wins going into September, but their pitching is not this teams downfall, beyond your aces you run into Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez both B-quality starters that put together some good streaks. If anything the rotation is what will keep them in contention for a wild card chase through the All-Star break and give fans a false sense of hope. Don’t buy into it, if this team sees 85 wins it will be a miracle.
Atlanta Braves (Future Upward Momentum)
The Braves are not surprising anyone this year, maybe not for 2 years. But they will sneak up on you and own this division again for the 2020’s. The last time the Braves had this type of run they bounced back and ruled the National League for a good decade with a few pitchers who may have won a Cy Young or two, maybe 7 between them. But this is not a history lesson, you don’t win by who you once had.
The Braves don’t have a lot of names that most people know to talk about. Sure they have brought in Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips, both who a great veterans, but the names that will make Atlanta fan excited should be Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb and Kolby Allard to name a few of their highly ranked prospects. Aside from Swanson you might not see any of their top farmhands for another season when they preview at the end of the 2018 campaign. Swanson has the tools to be what Derek Jeter was for the Yankees in Atlanta, don’t misconstrue this, I am not saying he is the next Jeter. If he has the skills experts expect he could lead the growing youth movement and be the idol of a generation in the southeast. It is not easy to sit and wait, but that is what Atlanta has to do to truly succeed, don’t trade these pieces for a chance to contend for a wild card game, if anything sell anything you have for another ingredient to add to the pie. Just like you can’t win from the past, don’t bank much on the future, even if it looks as good as Atlanta’s. They can not just expect this to pan out, they need to fight and make smart decision for that spot in 2019.
The tools Atlanta has for 2017 are good enough to float around .500 or more realistically 72 wins. Kemp is going to bounce back after years of injury and traveling, this is his only shot before he is relegated to platoon. He was not bad last year, 35 homeruns is never bad season unless you are a guy that is 75 points of your MVP numbers in batting average.
If anything is worth watching this year it is interest in what Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey can continue to do to defy father time. 85 years old between the two of them and still playing as well if not better than their ace and potentially young enough to be either pitcher’s son, Julio Teheran.
Miami Marlins (Questionable)
Where does Miami sit in 2017? That is a huge question I really don’t want to answer and I know no one wants to discuss, but here it is.
How do you move forward without Jose Fernandez? You can look at the problem two ways:
Personnel view – Fernandez was a great kid. Always smiling, and even so much so there was question of how serious he took the game because he was always happy. That is a huge loss to people emotionally, take Dee Gordon, he hit that homerun and was a wreck by third base… hell I was a wreck when they took the field in Fernandez jerseys. Is it possible for the team to focus on winning and not the giant #16 that will linger over the stadium for a few years. I almost feel like the Marlins as a club will not recover from this until players turn over and it cycles out the JoFer era players.
Business view – This is absolutely terrible to approach the issue it this way, but as a an organization you must. Fernandez is gone, no compensation, just gone. There was always a chance someone signed him away one day when he hit free agency, but teams can see this coming and will trade or get compensated if the player is restricted. Not here, Fernandez was Miami’s best pitcher, one of the leagues biggest stars and one day he was just taken from the rotation forever without a plan or compensation in place. That is not an easy obstacle to hurdle, what do you do when you are a small market club, that will take time for the front office and Don Mattingly to address.
Miami has some talent that you can’t dismiss. Their outfield is made up of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna; then you put Ichiro Suzuki as the reserve and veteran voice and you have potentially the best hitting outfield in the National League. If Ichiro can teach Stanton some of his secrets he could become the complete monster at the plate and eat pitchers for breakfast. Stanton has power, but if he learns to have half of the control and patience that made Ichiro’s career he could be the hitter this generation feels that Harper will become.
The infield is made up more for the ability to play ball rather than hit. Adeiny Hechavarria is one of the most amazing defensive shortstops to watch, he might not field 100% clean but he will make plays that no one can, his arm and range are phenomenal. And Dee Gordon, what needs to be said, Mini Flash is one of the best all around players in baseball and exciting to watch on both sides of the plate. Dee will hit .300plus, steal everything not bolted down, and win the Gold Glove at second, nothing he doesn’t do every year and will continue to do. If I could build a team he would be one of my top infield targets and the only guy I could consider to lead off in a perfect world.
Miami has a fairly decent lineup and their ability to play defense is there. I might say this lineup with a great pitching staff could be a solid playoff force, but they don’t have a great pitching staff, they have Wei-Yin Chen and Eddy Volquez anchoring the staff. On most clubs these guy would round it out and be a 4 and 5 starter at this point in their career. The lineup trying to pace the 4.50 era these pitchers will maintain will be a task to big to manage, until the Marlins will put as much into free agency as they did into their gorgeous park this team can not recover from the terrible loss they suffered in September.
Philadelphia Phillies (Downward Momentum)
Right now the Phillies have little chance to be a serviceable team. Over the past few years they have traded off every quality player they have had and started to put all their payroll into available cash with about 100 million free and another 24 million coming off the books. They have good young talent in Maikel Franco who will mature as the team rebounds. But beyond Maikel many pieces are expendable or short-term players who they can drop when the time is right. Philly is not becoming a small market team, they are planning a massive free agent spree and will at some point be making a major run at some big names, as I mentioned above I am assuming Harper.
This season at least expect for Philly to fight for the worst record in baseball and maybe sell off some more parts along the way. But when the free agent market is to their liking this team will rebuild from a borderline Triple A misfit bunch into a bought and paid for hit squad of high-priced hitters and 33-year old Cy Young winners.