MLB 2014 Preview: National League East

After coming up short in 2013, will the Nationals slide past their rivals and retake the NL East title in ’14?

NATIONALS

The Nationals won 86 games last year but were a big disappointment. Considering the history of the Expos/National, this seems to be contradictory, but things have come together recently for this club and it’s poised to win the NL East in 2014.

The big offseason move for this was to acquire underrated, and apparently undervalued, SP Doug Fister. Fister continues to dominate MLB hitters despite a fastball that sits below 90. He sports the 9th best pitching fWAR since the start of 2011. That’s better than James Shields, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, and Gio Gonzalez over that same time period in fewer innings than all but Greinke. Fister will be under team control for two years, and the Nats managed to snag him for a UIF (Steve Lombardozzi), a LOOGY (Ian Krol), and a SP prospect that has the upside of a middle of the rotation starter. Fister essentially replaces the departed Dan Haren (1.5 fWAR last year), so this is a major upgrade.

Although the Nationals may have been a disappointment last year, they still were a good team. This year’s version is one of the best bets in baseball to make the playoffs, and should be considered a favorite over Atlanta due to the quality of Washington’s starting rotation, which includes studs Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg in addition to the aforementioned Fister and Gonzalez.

BRAVES

Finishing 9th in offense/defense WAR last year and 7th in pitching WAR, the Braves won 96 games and their 12th division championship. With the notable exceptions of C Brian McCann and SP Tim Hudson, the cast of characters remains largely the same in Atlanta.

Hudson pitched well last year (1.7 fWAR), but McCann is the more significant loss. McCann posted a fWAR of 2.7 last year, and is rightly considered one of the premier catchers in baseball. Evan Gattis performed well in his first big league exposure last year (110 wRC+ in 382 innings), but he was an extremely fast riser who came virtually out of nowhere. If Gattis can hit that well as a regular, then the Braves will be no worse for wear.

In the offseason, Atlanta extended RP Craig Kimbrel (4 yrs/$42MM), SS Andrelton Simmons (7 yr/$58MM), and 1B Freddie Freeman (8 yr/$135MM). Kimbrel is a premier reliever, and the Simmons deal is great in light of what the Rangers gave their SS Elvis Andrus (8 yr/$120MM). The Freeman contract is controversial because the Braves bought out his three arbitration years and then extended him at 5 yr/$110MM. If Freeman can sustain his 2013 performance level (4.8 fWAR) through the next three years, then the Braves have gotten a steep discount. That’s a big ‘if,’ however.

Although those moves bear watching over time, Freeman, Simmons, and Kimbrel were already under team control for 2014 and Atlanta does need to replace Hudson and McCann, but the Braves should, once again, contend for the NL East crown and at least a Wild Card spot.

METS

The 2013 Mets were either the worst of the middle third of teams or one of the best of the bottom third. Either way, you have to squint very hard to see a contender this year or that’s apparently what the front office did when they signed OF Curtis Granderson (4 yrs/$60MM) and SP Bartolo Colon (2 yrs/$20MM).

In general, I prefer the Colon contract to the monster deals of higher profile pitchers. Colon has warts (he turns 41 this May and has been suspended for PED), but even the best pitchers are more susceptible to rapid decline or injury than the best position players. Colon has pitched to a WAR of 9.1 over the past three seasons, so he has something left in the tank. Nonetheless, the Mets should be focusing on finding the next Bartolo Colon. The Granderson signing makes even less sense. Other than 2011, when Granderson posted a wRC+ of 146, his recent history suggests that he needs to play a passable CF for his bat to have much value, and the odds of that happening will decrease rapidly as time goes on.

As for bright spots, the Mets do have SP Matt Harvey slated to return from Tommy John surgery and 3B David Wright is one of the best players in the game. The Mets would likely argue that they have a budding core with Harvey, Wright, SP Zach Wheeler, SP prospect Noah Syndergaard, and C Travis D’Arnaud, but they should have waited to see how things would play out before adding expensive pieces.

MARLINS

The Marlins will be less terrible this year than last year. They have some excellent young talent (SP Jose Fernandez and OF Giancarlo Stanton namely), but they have absolutely no depth. Teams with modest financial resources have to win at the margins, and Miami isn’t even trying.

The trade of OF Logan Morrison to Seattle for RP Carter Capps is a prime example. Let me say that I like Carter Capps. He strikes out a lot of guys, and if the ball starts to stay in the park for him, he can be an effective reliever. But even an average hitter is worth more than an effective reliever,and Morrison owns a career 108 wRC+. Morrison may put it all together and become a 3- to 4-win player. The Marlins need to hit on that upside and not trade it away for a guy whose upside to be traded as a “proven closer” sometime down the road.

The Marlins should be improved over last year but it depends on how long Giancarlo Stanton is around. The ceiling for this team is fourth place in this division.

PHILLIES

The Phillies are a disaster that might be worse than Miami in some ways. At least the Marlins have the excuse of a $50MM payroll. The Phillies posted a team fWAR of 16.7, and 13.2 of that was accrued by three players: 2B Chase Utley, SP Cliff Lee, and SP Cole Hamels.

To address their lack of depth, the Phillies brought in OF Marlon Byrd (2 years/$16MM) and SP A.J. Burnett (1 year/$16MM). In a vacuum there is nothing objectionable about these moves; both are short-term deals for players who have had success recently. Byrd posted an fWAR of 4.1 last year and Burnett’s was 4.0. The problem is that Byrd turns 37 this year, and Burnett reached that age in January. Once again, the Phillies are paying for past production and doubling down on veterans. It reminds me of a scene from “The Simpsons” in which Homer has the bright idea to literally dig the trapped group’s way out of the huge hole they have made.

Barring injury, the Phillies should be better in 2014, but they also outperformed their Pythagorean Win/Loss by 8 games last year. If nothing goes horribly wrong, they will finish fourth, and if everything goes just right, they may sneak into third.

Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

Ty Whetstone

Ty Whetstone is a lifelong baseball fan that was turned on to Sabermetrics by posting on baseball message boards. In his real life, he works as an accountant. He enjoys traveling with his family and playing golf in his free time.