The Nationals took the division and entire league by storm in 2012, winning an MLB best 98 games. The division also provided the higher ranked wild card team in the Braves, with the Phillies close but just out of reach of a playoff berth. The Mets were once again about as fun to watch as paint dry, but the Marlins surprised everyone in their new ballpark’s inaugural season, not in the way they would have liked however. The lost an astounding 93 games, which was an additional three losses on their 2011 total despite adding big name players in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, with their payroll topping #100MM for the first time in franchise history. Their fire sale and the Mets’ continued woes on and off the baseball field leave three contenders for the division crown, with the two elite up and coming threats in the Nationals and Braves, and the Phillies looking to make one last push before age finally catches up with their old and beaten roster.
1st Place- Braves
Pros- While many may have the Nationals winning the division, our research has deemed the Braves as a better and more certain favorite. The pitching on the Braves is downright filthy, starting with Kris Medlen and his 1.57 ERA/3.9 WAR over 138 innings. They also bring the ever consistent Tim Hudson with young guns Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor. In the mix for the fifth spot is prospect Julio Teheran, who dropped down many lists after an awful 2012 campaign, mostly chalked up to his fastball being straight as an arrow and his lack of quality secondary offerings. He has being nothing short of dominant this spring, and even though a hot spring can be misleading, it can also be a sign of great things to come. Continuing in the Braves’ youth movement is the young, homegrown hitters they bring in Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons and Brian McCann. They all bring dangerous bats (Simmons’ a little less so) with skills akin to a wizard in the field (Simmons a little more so). The additions of the most talented and underperforming brothers in Justing and BJ Upton should boost the lineup as well, with many speculating that playing together will help them reach their five tool potential. And one can’t forget the bullpen, which is almost inarguably the best in baseball, and one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory. They boast the next Mariano Rivera in Craig Kimbrel, with the bridge from the starter to him as strong and any with Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
Cons- Finding weaknesses in this ballclub is like trying to critisize the Mona Lisa; yeah, you can do it, but you’re splitting hairs. One thing that might be an issue is the health of the starting pitchers. Three have already gone under the knife for Tommy John, released the suddenly ineffective and hurt Jair Jurrjens, and they traded off the injury riddled Tommy Hanson . Julio Teheran has violent jerks and motions in his delivery, which left some people thinking his terrible ’12 campaign has less to do with his pitches and more to do with his arm health. This has lead people to wonder if the pitching development needs to do a better job of fixing mechanics, or how well manager Fredi Gonzalez controls his pitchers’ workloads, especially Craig Kimbrel who saw a huge drop off in September of 2011. This might just be bad luck, but it looks more like something isn’t right in Atlanta with the pitching, and it needs to be fixed. The Upton brothers also consistently do worse than what fans know they are capable of, except for maybe a hot season or few months through their careers, showing that they still have the potential, just can’t tap into it consistently. The Braves need them to reach it if they want to compete with the Nationals for the division title, because the difference between the two teams is miniscule.
Player to Watch- Justin Upton has been the more consistent and arguably better brother over their careers, but the Bossman Junior is going to be what makes this lineup go. Projected to be slotted in the number 5 spot, a role he had experience in during his time in Tampa, he will have many opportunities to give his team runs with Simmons, Heyward, Justin and Freeman all batting before him. He will also get chances to use his speed to score from hits on successive batters in McCann and powerhitting second baseman Dan Uggla. He showed a huge power surge in September 2012, and where he always seems to hit better in September than every other month, scouts have said it looked like he fixed his swing to be more consistent with his power and batting average. If he can muster up a .270 or .280 batting average, he should hit around 30 home runs again, making him a legitimate middle of the order bat with plus-plus speed, hitting in the middle of one of the deepest lineups in baseball.
Prospect to Watch- If his spring is any indication (for the record, hot springs lead to regular season results about 50% of the time), Julio Teheran is ready not only for the big league rotation, but to be an impact pitcher immediately. He not only has his fastball climbing up into the mid 90′s again, but his secondary offerings have all been plus pitches in his outings. He’s turned from a thrower into a pitcher, a tough transition for someone who throws as hard as him. His fastball also has added life, a result of him learning how to put spin on the ball for his secondary pitches. With Teheran finally not just focusing on lighting up the radar gun, he has a chance to lead the Braves to the division crown and more.
Swing Factor- The only thing that could stop this team from making playoffs is a giant meteor hitting Atlanta straight on (knock on wood). The health of their pitching is the determining factor of whether they win the division. They need the Tommy John recovery group to continue their success stories without any more injury, and without adding another member to the club. Gonzalez needs to work his young pitchers better than he did in 2011, and 2012 was a good indicator he knows how to do that. With the young staff getting older, they build more stamina, allowing them to go deeper and without as much injury. If Teheran steps up to become the uber-prospect he has shown himself to be, this team won’t be focusing on the NL East crown; their sights will be set much, much higher.
2nd Place- Nationals
Pros- The first thing that jumps out about this team is the pitching. The three headed monster at the top of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman is as good, probably better, than any other in the majors. Strasburg has been billed as the best pitcher not named Cy Young, and has yet to prove otherwise thanks to dominant outings abound during his first full season in the majors. Gonzalez had a breakout year in 2012, with or without steroid rumors from the Biogenesis controversy, finishing third in the Cy Young balloting. Zimmerman quietly put together a stellar campaign as well, one that would rank among the best any number three pitcher has had the past few years. The rest of the rotation rounds out well with the newly acquired Dan Haren and Washington favorite Ross Detwiler. The bullpen, which was already stacked with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, now has Rafael Soriano, who was just lights out last year taking over for Mariano Rivera on the Yankees. The pitching will keep this team in just about every game, but it’s the offense that will win them around 100 games in 2013. Bryce Harper had one of the best seasons every by a teenager which put him already as an impact major leaguer. He looks to do even better in 2013 to anchor a deep lineup that boasts Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, Denard Span and perennial all-star Ryan Zimmerman.
Cons- The Nationals received help all over the lineup, but some of it looks unlikely to reproduce their strong 2012 seasons. One right off the bat is the newly resigned LaRoche, who is coming off a career year of 33 bombs. This appears to be an outlier though, because his HR/fly ball ratio increased more than just a few ticks, and throughout his career he has averaged closer to 25 homers, including a three year period he hit exactly that each season. Another player likely to come back down to earth is shortstop Ian Desmond. 25 long balls at shortstop is an enviable number, and where it looks like this was at least partly because of development (he’s still only 27), some of it was also helped because of more fly balls leaving the park than should have. He can still be an above average hitter, but don’t expect him to reproduce those numbers- regression is coming. The lineup is strong, but it’s potential isn’t anywhere close to where the Braves’ is, which is why we give them the edge. The health of Stephen Strasburg is also a big question mark. Like Braves’ ace Medlen, Strasburg went under the knife for Tommy John earlier in his career, and the Nationals have been careful with how they structure his innings. He should be off the leash in 2013, but if the torn UCL was because of mechanical issues, the Nats need to make sure those issues are as forgotten as the NLDS game 5 against the Cardinals last year.
Player to Watch- With so many solid players on this roster, it’s almost impossible to choose just one player to watch. But it is impossible to not look at Bryce Harper, who is a superstar in the making. Last year he may not have put up the Ruthian numbers Mike Trout did, but in 2011, when Trout was 19 as Harper was in 2012, Trout hit for a 220/281/390 triple slash line. Harper? Oh yeah, he hit 270/340/477. We aren’t saying Harper is gonna do even better than Trout’s historic rookie season, and not even that he is going to come close; but we aren’t counting it out either. Harper has better bat speed and more raw power, plus he has more experience and plays in a better hitters park. He may not have the death row combo of hitters behing him that Trout does with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, but with his talent he doesn’t need to worry about lineup protection. If Harper comes out tearing it up, the rest of the lineup will follow suit, and that is exactly what is needed for Nattitude to bring home the NL East title for the second year in a row.
Prospect to Watch- With the lineup and pitching set in stone, there’s very little room for a minor league player to come up and make an impact. If LaRoche or a corner outfielder gets hurt though, expect the Nats to call up Chris Marrero, the slick fielding hard hitting first baseman. He may not have the impact bat other organization prospects Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin have, but he is much closer to the big league level, with a little experience already in 2012. With a full season he could hit around .270 with 15-20 as a rookie, and expect that number to increase as he matures. He may not be an immediate impact bat if called up, but he will make it easy to forget the absence of the injured player he replaces.
Swing Factor- The Nationals pretty much will clinch a playoff spot on opening day, but they will have season long competition from the Braves, and maybe even the Phillies, for first place in the division. For them to win it all the Nats need the lineup to prove that last year’s big numbers were not only sustainable, but repeatable with the potential to improve on as well. Harper will take that next step, and the rest just needs to maintain, but if that all happens, look out, because this team is as good as any we’ve seen in a long time.
3rd Place- Phillies
Pros- The Phils have dropped off of many radars after last season where they were never really a serious playoff contender, but people are also quick to forget that the year before baseball experts were calling the rotation the best they’d ever seen, and the lineup as strong as any in baseball. Age has caught up with a few players, but the talent is still there, and with everyone healthy to start the season (besides catcher Carlos Ruiz who is suspended for 50 games for amphetamine use) it looks like they could be contenders once again. The rotation isn’t quite at the depth of the Braves or Nationals, but the trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels is as strong as any in the NL. The lineup is powerful as well, with sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley finally both healthy and ready for 162 games (although 150 is more likely). Jimmy Rollins continues to be a sparkplug for the offense, and the addition of Ben Revere gives them the fastest Revere America has seen since Paul, horse included, to add even more speed to the top of the order. Jonathon Papelbon is one of the most consistent closers in baseball and will continue that in 2013, so they will be able to preserve almost every lead going into the 9th and sometimes 8th as well. If the troubled Dominic Brown can right ship, and 26 year old prospect Darin Ruf can translate his power (38 bombs in double A) to the majors, the lineup will be balanced enough to contend with the other top teams in the division.
Cons- The Phillies are showing us what it looks like when the large contracts players sign out of free agency look like towards the end. They are full of old and overpaid players, guys who are performing close to replacement level, and who no one would take on in a trade (well, never count out the Dodgers, but they should take note). Halladay started to lose his mojo last year, and although this looks like an aberration rather than a trend, he also noted that he is getting older, and is not the same pitcher that he used to be. His velocity has declined, scouts have noticed a lack of command and his pitching arm is starting to land him disabled list stints. Ryan Howard is one of the most overpaid player, who has plus power but lack of average and defense bring his value close to that of an average major league player. He would be more valuable in a first base platoon with John Mayberry Jr. but management would never allow that because of his mammoth contract. Chase Utley’s knees have been bothering him more frequently the past two years, and where he seems healthy this year, it doesn’t take much for the pain to flare up again and put him on the shelf for a month or even more. Get the picture? The Phillies are growing old, and they know it. There aren’t too many more opportunities left for this team’s core, and they have to ward off injuries with all of their might in order to take advantage.
Player to Watch- Ryan Howard started last season on the DL because of a torn Achilles’ tendon. This tendon may not be the most crucial when it comes to swing mechanics, but you always have to take injury into account when looking into a down year. Howard finished 2012 with a -1 WAR; yes, as in, he added a loss to the Phil’s record. But there was room for optimism after that year still. His HR rate was as high as it has ever been, and if he can keep that up, he could mash 35-40 bombs with ease. His Batting Average on Balls in Play was also about 35 points below his career average, meaning he should regress to a much higher batting average. If he cuts down on his heavily increased strikeout rate his production will increase even more, and he will help anchor a lineup right on the heals of the heavily favored Nationals and Braves.
Prospect to Watch- Everyone’s eyes have been on Dominic Brown the past few years to see if he can pull his act together and reach his potential as a five tool outfielder, but by doing so they also overlooked another prospect in the Phillies’ system, even if he is a little bit older, in Darin Ruf. Ruf smacked 38 homers last year in the minors, and even though he was optioned to Triple A to start the season, he shouldn’t stay there long. His power is legit, and if there’s an injury or lack of production (*cough*dominicbrown*cough*) he should be the first person called up. His defense in left field is passable at best, but it’s the only place he can play, especially with all the other positions committed already. The Phillies need to find a way to plug him in the lineup, because he will help drive in runs at a high rate, and be an invaluable power hitter on the cheap for a team that has it’s salary budget stretched almost as far as it can go.
Swing Factor- It’s the same as the Braves, health, but for different reasons. The Phillies are old and battered and bruised and on the downturn of their careers, not just a few pitchers who had Tommy John. The Phillies need to not just stay healthy, but get maximum production from all of their players, most notably Howard and Halladay, as the rest have still been producing with some degree of consistency. There’s no doubt that this team can contend in any division, and if they catch all the right bounces they won’t just be sneaking in with a wild card spot, but they’ll be on top of the division.
4th Place- Mets
Pros- There isn’t a whole lot to like about this team with the abysmal outfield and middle infield, plus the bullpen situation. One bright spot is they have Captain America, David Wright, manning the hot corner for a long time after signing an extension over the offseason. Ike Davis holds fort over at first base with his good walk rate and even better power numbers in the formerly power suppressing Citi Field. He topped 30 homers last year and though he may not increase that number, it’s a great place to level off for any player. The time for the Mets may not be now, but they are starting to build a bright future, starting with the starters. Prospect Matt Harvey made his much anticipated debut last year putting up and ERA of 2.70 in limited innings, and top ten prospect Zack Wheeler looks ready to make his debut this year. They also acquired top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud in the trade for RA Dickey. He has the potential to hit for a high average with high power numbers with plus defense while also wearing the tools of ignorance, something very few people have done throughout the history of the sport. These are key cogs in the rebuilding of the Mets’ team, and having two elite starting pitchers with an elite battery mate is as good a place as any to start.
Cons- The Mets have a good start on the rebuilding process, but they lack depth at most positions and need more pitching prospects. The Dickey trade was a great place to start, but looking at all the needs they have one can’t help but wonder if trading David Wright to help replenish the system even more would have been a better idea. The outfield is miserable and should help them get closer to that top draft pick. The Met have a long road ahead before they are contenders, and even though they have a good start, they need more young talent before their future can look bright.
Player to Watch- After a hot breakout last year, all eyes in Flushing will be on Matt Harvey as he pitche his first full season. He has shown a good four pitch mix with a fastball that tops out at 98 mph, and a nasty slider at 88 mph with a bite at the end that can only be described as unfair. He’s a workhorse and strikeout machine, so expect to hear about him more and more as the season goes on. He is well on his way to becoming one of the faces of the next wave of pitching prospects, which also includes…
Prospect to Watch- Zack Wheeler. He was acquired from the Giants for Carlos Beltran in 2011, a trade looking lopsided more and more as time passes. He throws a mid 90′s fastball with a plus curve that has had minor league hitters swinging out of their shoe his entire career. He hasn’t thrown much at Triple A so expect him to start the season there, but don’t expect him to stay long. He has little left to prove at that level and barring a Shelby Miller type awakening, he’ll receive his first cup of tea around mid season. He’s arguable the best pitching prospect behind Dylan Bundy of the Orioles, and his future looks about as good as it gets.
Swing Factor- If by some miracle of God Himself the outfield and bullpen become full of all-stars overnight, I see the Mets making playoffs. Otherwise, and in a more likely scenario, I see them toiling around the bottom, securing a high draft pick which will further help their rebuilding process. They aren’t fun to watch- for now.
5th Place- Marlins
Pros- Giancarlo Stanton’s moonshots.
Cons- Well, basically everything else. The farm system has improved but the real impact players are still in the low minors. Everything that made this team fun to watch (besides Mr. Stanton) has left thanks to trades with the Dodgers and Tigers, and a charity event they funded in Toronto. Jefferey Loria is becoming one of the most hated owners in baseball, after ruining baseball in Montreal (though in his defense, there wasn’t much to ruin) and now in Miami. He has his new shiny ballpark he barely paid for and had a star-studded team and still couldn’t spark the interest of the 5 million plus residents in the Miami area. It’s a shame for the real Marlins’ fans because they are as loyal as any, despite all the ridicule they face. This team is going nowhere fast, and likely never if they continue to be owned by Loria.
Player to Watch- Entering last year as the Tigers top prospect, Jacob Turner looked pretty average last year. Acquired for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, his impact has been negligible so far. That shouldn’t last too long though, as he has shown flashes of dominance, and looks like he might just need some more consistency to get his hot fastball missing bats like he had in the minors, the reason he became a top prospect in the first place.
Prospect to Watch- With the best prospects in the system still far away from making an impact at the major league level, Adeiny Hechevarria is the best prospect who is also closest to the big league team. Expected to break camp with the team, he’s about as good a fielder as you can find at short, though his pitfall is that of many great fielding shortstops- he struggles to do much offensively. He won’t be as bad as some (looking at you Jose Iglesias) but his bat needs to be more consistent. Some scouts still think he could hit above .280, and even if that is a stretch, that’s plenty fine when he saves as many runs as he does with the glove. This year should tell us more about him and whether he has what it takes to stick around at the major league level. Though that seems more likely when considering he plays on the Marlins.
Swing Factor- The Marlins make playoffs in 2013 because that giant, hideous, rotating, carnival-type structure out in center turns out to be an alien spaceship destroying all the teams who actually care about what they do on the field, which will spare the Astros, and make literally the most exciting World Series because both teams are so bad you never know what will happen! Little league home runs? I expect no less than five per game!
(Ed. Note: We apologize to the Marlins fans who have to read us ridicule the decisions of your team. We hope you are not offended and if you are, we apologize even more.)