In recent years, developments in the NL East have shown us that the short-lived tide of Philadelphia dominance is rolling out, and the young crops of Washington and Atlanta are surging into the powerhouses of the league. Meanwhile, the Marlins and Mets remain the jokes of the division and are not expected to contend in the near future. These stereotypes and consistent outlooks will once again characterize the talk of spring among NL East followers, but there are several storylines below the radar that may have a greater impact on the race than experts report.
As the 2013 season wound down, the Atlanta Braves developed some serious emotional problems. From their immature plunkings of Bryce Harper to their home run spats with the Marlins and Brewers, the Bravos exhibited an unprecedented wave of insecurity. And after they skated into the postseason on a padded division lead and a few syndicated fights, they were beaten by the Dodgers in four games and knocked out of contention. Whether the aforementioned insecurity stemmed from an ongoing spat with the opponents or was rooted in internal or clubhouse issues, it’s not a good sign for the Braves going forward. Maybe the offseason break was enough to reboot Atlanta’s hot heads. But if we can learn anything from the 2012 Marlins, it’s that issues of chemistry off the field boil over and wreak havoc on the field. We’ll see what happens with the behavior of the Braves this year.
While the Braves pondered their playoff choke, the Nationals bolstered their starting rotation by trading for righty Doug Fister. Fister won 14 games for Detroit in 2013, and pitched over 200 innings. However, his 3.67 ERA was a bit higher than his Major League average, and he was only bailed out by the Tigers’ potent offense. Unfortunately, the Nats’ bats were dismal in 2013 and scored 140 fewer runs than the Tigers did last season. Whether Washington’s offense can jumpstart this season will be key to Fister’s success or lack thereof.
Matt Williams was hired as Washington’s new manager, taking over for the wise, old-school Davey Johnson. Williams had been a base coach for the Diamondbacks since 2010, and is a young, firey personality–completely opposite of Johnson. If the team takes a liking to their new skipper and adjusts well, things can only get better for Washington. But the manager is an important variable in the Nationals season.
The Mets finally had a decent offseason this year. They signed free agent Curtis Granderson and starter Bartolo Colon. Granderson missed much of the 2013 season after breaking his forearm in Spring Training and then doing likewise to a pinky finger later in the year. He will be 33 when the season begins, and will likely never return to his 40 home run form that he boasted for two consecutive seasons for the Yankees, especially since he will be playing in the expansive Citi Field. But his presence in the lineup will be more protection for David Wright than the Mets have had in a long while, as long as Granderson stays healthy.
Unfortunately for New York, ace Matt Harvey is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and will likely be out for the whole year. So unless the Mets’ starting rotation has a fantastic season all-around and can make up for Harvey’s absence, I don’t see the team making a serious run. But their potent lineup, if it stays injury-free and lives up to expectations, is good enough to at least be a nuisance in the NL East.
Miami’s biggest move this offseason was the addition of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who signed a three-year contract with the Fish. The Marlins have not had a catcher with a consistent and dangerous bat in a long time. In a best-case scenario, Salty’s lineup presence will protect Giancarlo Stanton enough that Stanton can at least see a fair amount of pitches to swing at. But as we’ve learned from the Marlins in the past, best-case scenarios almost never play out.
Jose Fernandez will be in his second year, his first full season, in the big leagues, and will likely only get better. But all-around, the Marlins are not there yet.
Again, the Braves and Nationals will be favored to duke it out for the division crown. If the Braves have overcome their mental problems from last season and can shake off their playoff defeat, they can certainly win this division again despite their dry offseason. And if the Nationals have a hard time scoring runs again in 2014, no matter how good their pitching, the Braves will have an even easier season. But if Washington’s offense comes out strong and supports the rotation, and if Matt Williams keeps this team chemically bonded, D.C. will bring home an NL East crown.
The Braves play in Washington for the Nats’ home opener on April 4th, and the two teams play a series in Atlanta the following week. In the six head-to-head games they play in the first two weeks we’ll get a taste of the contention between these two powerhouses.