Is this the year the Nationals finally escape the first round?
I had to look outside of my own awkwardness and gaze at the bizarre miscollection of characters before me. How had these people ever even met each other at all, much less agree to congregate for this specific purpose? Each were so individually bizarre, seeming not like real people but lazy caricatures imagined up by a writer even more bored than I. But this was indeed a real gang, with insights into each other I felt best off not knowing. Yet my curious nature would jump at the chance.
'NL East. Lots of weaknesses here.' Mr. Familiar resumed. 'Sandlot, this is your territory. Take the lead.'
'Yay!' Sandlot giggled with glee, her fingers fumbling with the fuses in her pockets. 'Interesting year in the East! I've got one team I think is going to blow up on the league, and another team that should be blown up from the league! Ha hah ha!'
'Oh boy...' Magic Mel groaned.
'Quiet you. Starting by shooting the fish at the bottom of the barrel, those dud Miami Marlins.'
'Stupid Marlins.' I grumbled.
'Biggest question with them Marlins this season will be... this there anything to be even slightly interested in?' Said Mr. Familiar. 'Unless you're a big J.T. Realmuto or Starlin Castro fan, what's the point here? Why do you even exist?'
'That's awful harsh.' Magic Mel said, frowning.
'Sure, but who thinks that unless they get hurt, either Castro or Realmuto will be on this team in four months anyway?' I asked. 'Unlike Wei-Yin Chen or Martin Prado, those two are still good players without awful contracts around their necks. I just think that you can only so obviously tank a team into the ground so many times and assume you'll bounce back like a superball.'
'A superball loaded with dynamite...' Sandlot imagined, tapping her fingers. 'And that's what the Marlins keep doing, bring in some big names and fire them away like cannonballs almost right away.'
'I feel sorry for their fans.' Magic Mel said, his hands upward. 'Having to go through such hell over and over.'
'Fans! Ha! Good one, Mel. Look fellas, each of yous give me one thing about this team to watch out for.' Challenged Mr. Familiar. 'Just one thing.'
We each thought silently for a moment to contemplate the question, except for Northsider who was likely contemplating fries or onion rings with his Triple Tavern Burger order.
'Well, I'm curious to see how Lewis Brinson looks.' Magic Mel replied. 'Could be a stud in the mud for them.'
'Until they trade him.' I quipped. 'My only interest is whether they ever wear those gray road jerseys again. Those things are ugly with a capital awful.'
'I'm hoping somebody hits a home run straight into the home run sculpture over the fence, and it explodes into a million pieces like a firework!' Sandlot said giddily. 'That would be the highlight of their season.'
'That'd be a highlight period.' Mr. Familiar nodded.
'Ha ha ha! Oh yes, oh yes... well I'll say 98 losses, bottom of the barrel. Next! Bam! New York Mets. I love em, but everything has to go right. Right? Right?'
'A lot, sure. Here's a team completely built on young starting pitching and they finished 14th in the league in ERA!' Mr. Familiar said dramatically. 'Syndergaard only pitched 30 innings, Steven Matz pitched 67 and was bad, Matt Harvey pitched 93 and was real bad, Zack Wheeler finally returned and was even worse. Only deGrom was any good at all!'
'Injuries destroyed them, sure. But I think they've made some solid moves.' I countered. 'Instead of completely banking on bouncebacks, they added Jason Vargas for some veteran depth. I've always been a big Todd Frazier fan and think he's gonna look great over there, plus Jay Bruce is back and they have a chance to see if the corpse of Adrian Gonzalez has anything left.'
'I like the offense big time. It's gonna ambush people.' Sandlot nodded. 'If the killer C's, Conforto and Cespedes can keep in the lineup, plus Brandon Nimmo stealing Juan Lagares' at bats and Travis d'Arnaud getting a healthy season in... I feel pretty calm actually... guys this might work! If they're all healthy... it'll be relaxing and fine...'
'Even with Jose Reyes at shortstop all the time?' Mr. Familiar asked.
'Gawdamnit!' Sandlot bursted, lighting and throwing a firework out our nearby open window. After a subtle boom she looked evilly at us all and mumbled "88 losses" under her breath.
A moment later there were some sirens and a police officer entered Tommy's Tavern. He looked around for a bit, shrugged and nodded goodbye to Marcy the waitress. Meanwhile we'd all been waiting for Sandlot to continue the discussion, but instead she'd been quietly eyeing the officer. Not with fear but with anticipation. I cannot recall feeling so uncomfortably weird.
'The Phillies!' Sandlot exclaimed suddenly, making me jump from my seat. 'I've got them down for third. Thoughts?'
'They should be better, I think.' Magic Mel said confidently. 'Between adding Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, and young prospects starting to emerge like J.P Crawford and Scott Kingery, they've actually got some pieces now.'
'Don't forget bout Nola either.' Mr. Familiar added. 'That there rotation is real young besides Arrieta. But a chance to be decent, unless their new manager messes it up...'
'Gabe Kapler seems to be burning conventional managing to the ashes doesn't he? Ha ha ha!' Sandlot laughed. 'Candles in the manager's office, quotes from philosophers on the whiteboards... ping pong tournaments! What do you think, Eephus?'
'Aghh! I mean um, well uh...' I mumbled, startled at being called upon. 'I think all that stuff only works as far as how much you're winning. If it's a losing situation, not gonna fly.'
'Well said! Personally I like a lot of their players, but a very stars and scrubs roster. And those usually crash and burn into a thousand flaming pieces ha hah! It'll be interesting to see Rhys Hoskins for a full season, even miscast as an outfielder, but 86 losses. Big improvement from last year though.'
'So... Atlanta in second place?' Mr. Familiar asked. 'I mean, that's where you've got em. Because no way possibly you've got...'
'Don't put thoughts in my mouth, mister!' Sandlot interrupted, tugging at a large fuse in her chest pocket. 'But... you're right. Atlanta shocks em all and finishes in second, challenging for the wildcard even!'
'I'll tell you how... Ronald Acuna how!'
At that precise moment there was another "boom" that sounded from outside, much more powerful than the previous one. My beer glass rattled on the table. Sandlot was very pleased and continued:
'Acuna has the potential ability to impact every offensive facet of the game. He hit 20 minor league homers at the age of 19, stole 44 bases, slashed .344/.393/.548 in 54 AAA games. He's gonna arrive in the majors with a serious bang!'
There was no noise this time, much to her disappointment.
'Huh. But right, you're looking at a serious impact player here, with an imminent arrival to the big leagues in a couple weeks. He's good enough to play now, but service time creeps gotta service time.'
'The service time question is a good one, since it's a move so obviously harmful to a player's future earnings, yet makes so much sense for a baseball organization to do since you gain that extra year of cheap contract control over a player.' Magic Mel interjected. 'I despise it on a human level, but I understand it. And I even like it when it's my team doing the same thing with a young exciting player.'
'Flaws in any system are bound to be exposed and taken advantage of eventually.' I nodded. 'But back to it. I can see the optimism here. Lots of high upside youth coming fast.'
'Yeah! Not just Acuna, but second baseman Ozzie Albies is only 21 and was fantastic in an extended shot last year.' Sandlot explained. 'Luis Gohara is another young left-hander with serious potential, he's probably on the way by May or June. Plus think of the ammunition they've already got. Shortstop Dansby Swanson was a dud grenade last year and is forgotten now, but he's still just 24 and has that still fresh top prospect pedigree. Foltynewicz and Newcomb are a couple of mid 20s starters with decent MLB seasons already under their belts, and Julio Teheran is still around and still just 27 for like the eighth straight season.'
'That's where I'm at with them guys.' Mr. Familiar stated with an accompanying cough. 'On the upswing sure. Don't trust the starters, still a bit too young. Not buying it. Not quite yet'
'Damn your torpedoes!' Sandlot protested. 'Well fine. I'm putting them down for just 75 losses, an explosive debut for Acuna and a solid second place.'
A huge eruption from outside shook the entirety of Tommy's Tavern, shattering my beer glass and making the table beside us completely collapse.
'Ah there it is.' Sandlot smiled. 'All right so the Washington Nationals are obviously gonna win this thing again. Bryce Harper free agent year, blah blah blah... do they escape the first round at long last?'
'Nope, because the Padres take them down.' Said Magic Mel.
'Come on!' Mr. Familiar groaned.
'I kind of hope they don't. I sort of like this "Curse of the Expos" storyline that's happening.' I explained. 'At least in my mind it's happening.'
'It's weird because they're such a good team every year, and yet they've also always been that "also ran" because of the Cubs, the Dodgers, or the Cardinals and Giants if we go back four or five years.' Mr. Familiar said. 'They're that modern prototypical team that's really good for a long time but never breaks through.'
'Like the Raptors.' I grumbled.
'The who? Whatever. The Nationals win this thing, 65 losses. I'm just gonna run outside for a moment.'
Sandlot leapt from her seat and zipped out through a back door instead of the larger and closer front doors. Just a moment later the police officer from earlier entered Tommy Tavern's again, inspecting each of us more intently. His eyes met mine and gazed deep into my knowledge, as though he sensed I knew the insanity that was happening here. The jig was up. But as he approached me Marcy the waitress intercepted him with a plate of waffle fries. This completely changed the officer's expression, and after a few bites he tipped his cap and was out the door again. Marcy gave me a wink and was gone into the kitchen. I exhaled, though uncertain what I actually wanted to happen.
Washington Nationals -- 97-65
Atlanta Braves -- 87-65
Philadelphia Phillies -- 76-86
New York Mets -- 74-88
Miami Marlins -- 64-98
(once again, my own secret notes:)
Nationals: Runaway winners. Nobody in this division and barely anyone in either league is in the same class as the Nats. Rotation depth, two legit aces at the top in Scherzer and Strasburg, and the midseason additions last year of Kintzler, Madson and Doolittle seem to have solved their constant late inning bullpen troubles. Their offense meanwhile is everything anyone could ask for. Power? Enter Bryce Harper, or Anthony Rendon, or Ryan Zimmerman. How about speed? Here's Trea Turner, or Michael Taylor. Depth? Howie Kendrick is hanging around, or Brian Goodwin, or Matt Adams. A mix of everything? Daniel Murphy everybody. Oh, and they potentially get a full year out of Adam Eaton this go around. Catching is the weak link, with the ghost of Matt Weiters and the somehow even deader ghost of Miguel Montero sharing the gig. Also I know the big story all year will be Bryce Harper's impending free agency, but unless Washington is just unwilling to pay him anything respectable why would he leave? Where is there a better situation right now that needs an outfielder? Maybe he bolts if Washington gets bounced in the NLDS again, in which case... we all knew the pinstripes were coming. I'll have another one, bartender.
Atlanta: Lots of exciting stuff. But they're a year away I think. Closer than the Reds at least. I think they've got a good shot at .500 though, and then we'll see what their new ninja GM does with that big prospect depth... dude has a history in these sorts of situations.
Phillies: Similar to Atlanta, except I have less an idea what they're actually trying to do. Getting Carlos Santana (at a lot of money no less) really makes no sense when Rhys Hoskins has to move to the outfield to accommodate, and outfield depth is something you actually have a bit of. The Gabe Kapler Experience will be an adventure but I kind of hope it works out, seems like an interesting unconventional dude. Not many MLB players take a year off to manage a minor league team, then come back and play (well!) for a few more years.
Mets: They've got a chance, but it all has to work out. Those starters have to stay healthy, Cespedes has to be more 2015 Yoenis than 2017 Yoenis, and they've got to hope father time lets them off the hook for a while longer. Lots of position players over 30 (Frazier, A. Cabrera, Bruce, Cespedes, Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez) that they'll need production from. But it's a weak division, so they'll be decent if some of those things don't work out. In 2017, none of them did.
Marlins: Oh who cares. After the Stanton trade, I hope for the first time in his life that Derek Jeter gets very comfortable with losing. Or very uncomfortable with it. Either one is good.
Washington Nationals -- 103-59
New York Mets -- 85-77
Atlanta Chops -- 78-84
Philadelphia Phillies -- 73-89
Miami Marlins -- 56-106
That's it more the National League. Up next the junior circuit, wherein a mysterious character finally speaks...