The Washington Nationals look like the best team in baseball.
Fresh off a 96-win campaign — a season in which Nats hurlers led the majors in ERA — Washington added former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to front the rotation. Can you imagine facing Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann in a short series? Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister would be #2s on most rotations; in Washington, they’re #4 and #5. Health could be a factor early: star outfielder Jayson Werth continues to recover from offseason surgery; leadoff hitter and center fielder Denard Span is going to miss time in April as he heals from surgery on an abdominal muscle; last season’s MVP, infielder Anthony Rendon, is nicked up, too; and Bryce Harper is always one headfirst slide away from a stint on the disabled list.
But this is a team built for a title run. After two playoff appearances the past three seasons, anything short of a deep October run will be a disappointment for this club.
One of the reasons to be so bullish about the Nationals is the fact that they get to play many of their games against the rest of the scrubs in this lackluster division.
Things are looking better for the Mets and the Marlins, both longtime doormats in this division. The Marlins have a great young outfield led by the $300 million man, Giancarlo Stanton. But the supporting cast is the best in Stanton’s brief career. Scouts love Christian Yelich, say he’s a future batting champion. Marcell Ozuna had a breakout 25 HR season last year. Veteran imports Martin Prado and Mike Morse lengthen the lineup a bit. The Marlins are banking on Dee Gordon’s electric first half and choosing to ignore his so-so final three months. The pitching staff is capable and if they stay afloat the midseason addition of ace Jose Fernandez could vault the Marlins into the wild card discussion.
The Mets entered the season with wild card aspirations as well, although that kind of talk sounded a lot more realistic prior to Zack Wheeler’s season-ending surgery. As it stands, the Mets will rely on the return of young ace Matt Harvey, who has looked great this spring. In Jacob DeGrom, Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee, the Metropolitans have a decent (if unspectacular) rotation. And there’s more help down on the farm in Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Rafael Montero. I don’t know what to think of the lineup. David Wright looks like he’s lost a step. Same for Curtis Granderson. Michael Cuddyer is 85 years old. I could see the Mets piddling around at .500 this season.
How the mighty have fallen. Time was the Phillies and Braves were the class of the NL East. Both clubs are in the midst of rebuilding efforts, so don’t look for much from them in 2015. At this point, it’s hard to remember that the Braves were a first place club last July. They spent the offseason dealing away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, which would seem to signal a complete dismantling. But the decision to sign Nick Markakis to a four-year, $40 million deal makes little sense for a club in transition. Freddie Freeman will hold the fort down as the Braves prepare for a move to the suburbs in a few years. Maybe by then they’ll be ready to be a factor once again. But for now, this might be the worst Atlanta team in 25 years.
At least the Braves get to play the Phillies a lot. It’s only a matter of time before they deal Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. Cliff Lee is looking like he might be done. And Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are shells of their former selves. It’s been a long slow fade for a club that won 102 games in 2011. Time to give the youngsters a look and build toward the next run of division crowns.