I'm starting to think the 'quick' part is false advertising...
The division preview tour continues. Featuring wacky uniform changes, super teams, grand entrances, contract
years, retirement tours, fire... sales, Dusty trails, and of course perpetual futility! We finish off the National League with the NL East, a head bag of a division chalked full of heady goodness. Lets roll.
(*plus-minus indicates how many runs they outscored/were outscored by)
---New York Mets (2015: 90-72, 1st (!), +7, *+70)---
A Cespedes For The Rest Of Us
It's an easy choice, really. Unless total injury disaster strikes or Dusty Baker's old school strategies are just what the Nationals need, it's hard not to see the Mets repeating as champs. They've brought back most of the gang, replaced Daniel Murphy with a superior player in Neil Walker, improved their depth with pickups like Asdrubal Cabrera and Alejandro De Aza, and they still have an embarrassment of riches with young power starting pitchers. A key issue will be health, as there is some significant injury history with this squad (particularly the position players). Young pitchers do have that dream shattering habit of getting hurt, of course. But with even decent injury luck this should be a good all around squad.
There are a lot of likeable aspects to this team. Bartolo Colon continues eating the ravages of age by posting solid season after solid season (watching him bat is also endlessly fun), David Wright has that all-American do-good look about him that's easy to root for, Lucas Duda is indescribably appealing, but maybe the most fun guy to watch this spring has been El Talento, Yoenis Cespedes. Among his various well-publicized entrances, the dude arrived to a spring training workout on horseback, like a sheriff in the old west. "I'm a goin clean up this here division". Cespedes choosing to stay with the Mets was a great decision, both for the team and the player. The fit is just too good both ways.
What's also just too good? The Mets young pitching. Harvey, Thor, deGrom, Matz. They even get Zack Wheeler back in July, if you weren't jealous enough. They have the best starting pitching in the division and a good enough offense, which will be good enough for the crown.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 94-68, NL East Title
---Washington Nationals (2015: 83-79, 2nd, 7 GB, *+68)---
But Nine Misfortunes? I'd Like To See That
Like I said at the beginning of my San Diego Padres blurb, this did not go according to plan. Unlike with the Padres, it wasn't because of a bunch of square pegs being jammed into a Snakes and Ladders board. The 2015 Nationals had a lot of misfortune: promising third baseman Anthony Rendon missed a huge chunk of the season and was not himself when finally healthy, catcher Wilson Ramos was borderline unplayable because of a putrid bat (.616 OPS), Ian Desmond pulled a reverse contract year by being terrible, Jayson Werth's beard was the best part about his game, and of course they became impossible to cheer for from August onward by acquiring Jonathan Papelbon. If not for Bryce Harper's bat going el fuego and turning into Babe Ruth, this would've been a team well below .500.
That being said, I'm calling a huge bounceback here for multiple reasons. First the great equalizer, starting pitching. Despite the departures of Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, there's still a mighty fine top three of Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, followed by promising youngster Joe Ross and the forgotten man Tanner Roark. Second, the 2015 Nats bullpen was very good (despite some dramatic and badly timed implosions) and that same cast is returning minus Drew Storen. Say what you will about Papelbon but he's still a very good reliever, now pardon me I have to go wash out my mouth. Third, they underperformed. By run differential they should have won six more games than they did, which suggests a talent level not fully utilized. You can argue that point about a lot of teams though, which brings me to my fourth point: the Dusty Baker Effect. Contrary to much popular opinion, Dusty Baker is a very good big league manager... in the regular season. He's won several division titles and has been successful everywhere he's been, which moves him past the realm of "coincidence" and into "he might be onto something". Especially when you consider the mess the Nationals were by the end of the season, having a steady, seasoned, respected (emphasis there) veteran skipper like Baker might just be what this veteran team needs. The playoffs is where Baker screws up, and I think he'll get a chance to continue that trend (or not?) this season.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 91-71, NL Wildcard
---Miami Marlins (2015: 71-91, 3rd, 19 GB, *-65)
Get Rid Of Those Sideburns
Wouldn't it be just so nice if Giancarlo Stanton could stay healthy for one entire season? Just one, don't wanna push it here. But imagine, the guy could hit 60 homers and nobody would be surprised, plus at least 40 of those would need additional postage. Alas, we'll have to wait and see.
The Marlins were a mess in 2015. Former Dunedin skipper and ML catcher Mike Redmond took a team that some expected to contend for a playoff spot and led them to a 16-22 start. Disappointing but not at all a disaster, and with 120+ games left there was plenty of time left for a talented team to turn it around. So Jeffrey Loria fired him, because that is such a Jeffrey Loria thing to do. He's got a reputation to live up to, people! The GM, Dan Jennings, was tasked with finding an in-season replacement for Redmond. So he said "sucks to your asthmar" and chose himself for the role, despite never having coached above the high school level. The Marlins went 55-69 under Jennings, which is a slightly better pace than they'd played under Redmond. Something to really build upon for Jennings, who was learning on the job? Nah I'm just messing with you, Loria fired him too. It's like if Donald Trump ran a baseball team, except that'd actually have a chance of being funny compared to what's actually happening.
Well now what for the Marlins. They hired Don Mattingly as their new manager, a bold gesture of a move that signifies... hey look over there! But there's some actual measurable good news for this club looking forward into 2016. Star stud starter Jose Fernandez hopes to at last pitch an entire major league season, which should be a lot of fun (an aside, there were rumours the Marlins were looking to trade Fernandez in the off-season. What are they, nuts? Oh right...), and there should be lots of Stanton home runs to enjoy. From a numbers standpoint, the most interesting storyline however might involve the oldest man on the team. Despite a dreadful 2015, the Marlins brought 42 year old Ichiro Suzuki back on a big league deal, where he'll likely resume his role as their fourth outfielder. Ichiro currently sits at 2935 hits in the majors, leaving him 65 shy of the coveted 3000 threshold that guarantees his punched ticket to Cooperstown (I personally think it shoulda been punched five years ago, but numbers gotta number). There's no guarantee though, unlike last year with Stanton missing 90 games and Marcell Ozuna being bad, that Ichiro will get enough chances for those 65 hits, especially if his .229/.282/.279 line from 2015 returns for an encore. Geez, Ichiro. That's the kind of performance Josh Thole looks at and shakes his head.
I'm not super high on the Marlins, frankly. Last year they had some pieces where you could see everything falling together for a wildcard run, but this year? Bleh. If Yelich and Ozuna can maybe hit a few home runs and not reek (respectively), Dee Gordon proves his flukey fluke flukeness wasn't a fluke, while you get 30+ starts from Fernandez and 140+ games out of Stanton, you can maybe see it. But you can also imagine this being another disaster. I'll take the middle ground.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 79-83
Philadelphia Phillies (2015: 63-99, 5th, 27 GB, *-183)
Phil Up The Loss Column
What's fascinating about the Phillies current situation is how virtually everybody predicted this was going to happen for like seven years. The Phillies were really, really good back then remember. And it's almost poetic how this decline has come about, like a sonnet that gradually leads you down into its conclusion. They won the World Series in 2008, lost it in 2009 to the Yankees (ugh), lost the NLCS to the Giants in 2010, lost the NLDS to the Cardinals in 2011, were a third place .500 team in 2012, had two straight spin-yer-wheels-harder seasons of 73 wins in 2013-2014, before finally embracing full awfulness last year and narrowly avoiding 100 losses. It was like they went up a ladder and knew once they reached the glorious heights of the top they'd have to slowly climb back down. But that glory is always worth it. Ladders fly forever.
Well big shocker folks, but they're gonna be bad again in 2016. And they won't even be an interesting bad team. Third baseman Maikel Franco for a full season is intriguing, Aaron Nola is a promising young starting pitcher, Odubel Herrera can really flash the glove in centerfield, but that's it. The rest of this roster is filled (or "philled") with eroded veterans, also ran D prospects, inexperienced youngsters and the occasional dude trying to rebuild their value so they can get the heck outta there (I see you, Jeremy Hellickson). Yeah they'll be terrible. There's really not much else to say.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 65-97
Atlanta Braves (2015: 67-95, 4th, 23 GB, *-187)
Brave New (Ballpark) World
On July 7th, 2015, the Atlanta Braves were 42-42. I recall being flabbergasted and annoyed at this fact, for in this very same preview a year ago I confidently predicted the Braves would be terrible and would boast the very worst offense in baseball. Well for the rest of the year they happily obliged, going 25-53 down the stretch, including a 6-30 run from mid-August into late September. Atlanta's best players in 2015 were arguably Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman and Shelby Miller. So the Braves traded two of those three, their own version of a strategy I like to call: "Hey everybody! We have no intentions on being good for the next four years! Just thought you should know!" Yeah yeah, in the Shelby Miller trade they stole a controllable and very cheap piece in WAR darling Ender Inciarte, also while hypnotizing Arizona GM Dave Stewart into throwing in first overall pick Dansby Swanson. That's some tidy business, and I'm sure those two will look very nice when the Braves open up their new ballpark in a few seasons. Which is what this all comes down to. They have no intention of being any good at all until they move into that park. So until then it's punch the clock, lose lots of games, keep paying A.J. Pierzynski to play for you while bottling up poor Freddie Freeman's tears for the concession stands. I have no clue how they played .500 ball for the majority of last season, considering how much they were eventually outscored by, but it won't happen again.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 59-103, Worst team in baseball
That's it for the National League! (Geez, there are a lot of bad teams out here.) Next up is the AL West, where that fishy fella who plays for the Angels resides. What's his name? Ike Bass? Tim Tuna? Have to double check.