Wednesday, April 2, 2014

MLB 2014: National League East

He is the most outwardly competitive star player that the game has seen since 'Charlie Hustle', Pete Rose himself, retired back in the late 1980's.

He has been a phenom, a young stud destined for baseball superstardom, since he was a teenager and appeared on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" at age 16.

He is Bryce Harper, the leftfielder for the Washington Nationals, and the things that his talent and competitiveness can accomplish on the diamond are the main reasons that the Nats won the NL East in 2012, when he was chosen as the National League Rookie of the Year. They are the same reasons to pick Washington to get back to that lofty perch this season.

Harper will play the entire 2014 season still at just age 21, an age when many are still in college, and when most players are still trying to fight their way on to a big league roster. But he already is nearly two years into his MLB career.

His 22 homers, 18 steals, and 98 runs scored helped to earn him that 2012 ROY. His numbers were not nearly as impressive a year ago, but it was not due to any jinx of a sophomore slump. Harper crashed into a wall in May after getting off to a torrid start. He was never the same, losing nearly a month and 100 plate appearances.

Now back for more, he is bigger and stronger entering the 2014 season. If he manages to stay healthy, something that may always be a challenge given that he plays the game as if his hair is on fire, there is no reason that he cannot approach NL MVP-caliber numbers.

Here are my predictions for the National League East in 2014:

1) Washington Nationals
The Nats franchise was born as the old Montreal Expos in a 1969 expansion, and played their first 36 seasons north of the border before moving to the U.S. nation's capital for the 2005 season. They became an NL power in the late-70's and into the early-80's, when they won their first NL East crown in 1981. But that was to be their only sustained success. Ever since losing out on a possible 2nd great season due to the baseball strike of 1994, the old Expos were never able to get competitive, and it ultimately cost Montreal it's franchise. The Nationals continued to struggle after the move south, but emerged to win the franchise 2nd NL East crown in 2012. Now loaded with strong young players, they have to be considered at least divisional co-favorites for 2014. The above mentioned budding superstar that is Bryce Harper is one reason. He plays left in an outfield that also included speedy Denard Span in center, and veteran Jayson Werth in right. They have speed, power, and play excellent defense, and when healthy are among the handful of best all-around outfields in the game. The infield is no slouch either. The corners are manned by Adam LaRoche at 1st and Ryan Zimmerman at 3rd, a pair of true talented veteran professionals and leaders. Ian Desmond is a budding star at shortstop. At 2nd base, young Anthony Rendon will try to finally establish himself as a regular by holding off Danny Espinosa. Most of the bench production will come from the Epinosa/Rendon combo, as well as Nate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen. The Nats pitching is strong as well. The rotation is strong and deep, led by the quartet of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister. There is plenty of rotation depth if injuries hit, with arms such as Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, Ross Detwiler, and Craig Stammen. Rafael Soriano is a solid, proven closer, and he has Tyler Clippar, Drew Storen, and Jerry Blevins to support him. The Nats should be able to hold off the Braves in a tough NL East battle in 2014.

2) Atlanta Braves
Before the season even began, the Braves suffered the kinds of losses to their pitching rotation that would decimate most clubs and completely derail their seasons. But Atlanta has always had pitching depth, and 2014 is no different. The losses will make things more challenging, but there is plenty of talent remaining to keep them both a divisional and Wildcard contender. With both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy gone for the season due to Tommy John surgeries, the club signed free agent Ervin Santana. He will join a group that still includes exciting young Julio Teheran, tough lefty Mike Minor, talented opportunist Alex Wood, and either David Hale or Aaron Harang. Minor is battling minor (no pun intended) problems and began on the DL as well, but will be back no later than May 1st. The bullpen is led by perhaps the best closer in baseball in fireballer Craig Kimbrel. He is supported by the talented group of Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, and Jordan Walden. Johnny Venters should be back from his own TJ surgery at some point in June. The Atlanta everyday lineup has a chance to be special, even with the loss of team leader Brian McCann to free agency. 1st baseman Freddie Freeman emerged as an NL MVP candidate last year, and new catcher Evan Gattis as one of the league's most feared sluggers. Steady Chris Johnson at 3rd, exciting young shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and veteran slugger Dan Uggla at 2nd round out the infield. The outfield features the Upton brothers, Justin in left and B.J. in center, along with Jason Heyward in rightfield. Most of the bench appearances will come from Ryan Doumit, Jordan Schafer, and Ramiro Pena. The pitching losses make repeating as division champs a challenge, but this team is talented enough still to make that happen. Any more losses, however, and they may have to fight to hold on to 2nd.

3) Philadelphia Phillies
For more than a decade from 2001-2011, the Fightin' Phils were contenders in the N.L. East division, and they actually won the division crown in 5 straight seasons from 2007-2011, including a World Series title in 2008 and a franchise-record 102-win season in 2011. But some players began leaving as free agents, others got injured and/or got old, and the team collapsed, first to the .500 mark in 2012, and then to last year's 4th place finish at 16 games under the .500 mark. It was the first time since 2000 that the Phillies finished that low, their first losing record since 2002. One of their once-vaunted group of Ace pitchers, Roy Halladay, began to lose it a year ago, and retired this off-season. So can there possibly any hope for this still aging, still hobbled group to somehow regroup for one more run? There is indeed hope, but much has to go exactly right. It starts with the trio of infield bats that carried the team for much of their successful years: 1st baseman Ryan Howard, 2nd baseman Chase Utley, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Howard will play 2014 at 34 years of age, while Utley and JRoll each play it at 35. Utley bounced back in 2013 to show he can still be a dangerous run-producer. Howard and Rollins don't have to equate their 2006 & 2007 NL MVP campaigns, but they do need to prove that they can again also be dangerous run-producers. Also playing it old is longtime catcher Carlos 'Chooch' Ruiz, now 35 years old himself and coming off a season in which he was suspended for PED usage. 3rd base is now manned by young Cody Asche, trying to hold off top organizational prospect Maikel Franco at the hot corner. In the outfield, the Phils signed 36-year old Marlon Byrd to man rightfield, but they do have a pair of young talents in centerfielder Ben Revere and leftfielder Domonic Brown. The bench depth comes from John Mayberry Jr, Tony Gwynn Jr, Carlos Hernandez, Darin Ruf, and Freddie Galvis. On the mound, the Phils signed veteran free agent A.J. Burnett to eat up Halladay's old innings, and he deepens the Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels-led rotation that also includes longtime organizational man Kyle Kendrick and journeyman Roberto Hernandez. Jonathan Papelbon remains a strong closer. He will be supported by a bullpen that has a lot to prove, including arms such as Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Jake Diekman, and Justin DeFratus. The Phillies need a turn-back-the-clock season from their veteran bats, as well as production in their bullpen. Right answers, they unexpectedly contend. Wrong ones, they slip towards the bottom, and some of the longtime pillars may end up being dealt away as it all finally gets blown up.

4) Miami Marlins
The franchise was born as the Florida Marlins in MLB's 1993 expansion, and took on the more appropriate local "Miami" designation for the 2012 season. They have won a pair of World Series, in 1997 and 2003, both from Wildcard playoff positions. So while they have that pair of championships, and the subsequent pair of NL pennants, they have never won the N.L. East outright. They have also never tasted sustained success, as ownership blew up both Series winners immediately upon winning, never wanting to carry the high payroll that fielding a consistent winner would require. Thus the fans of the Fish have enjoyed 3 straight winning seasons just once in their history, and have never finished closer than within 6 games of a division crown. The current group may finally be building towards that sustained success. They have a pair of crown jewel building blocks in powerful rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton and pitcher Jose Fernandez, last year's NL Rookie of the Year. Centerfielder Marcel Ozuna and leftfielder Christian Yelich are two more young talents who may be longterm pieces to a winning puzzle. The club signed catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to bring his championship experience and leadership. It's the infield where this team still needs major work before it can contend. Right now the corners of Garrett Jones at 1st and Casey McGehee at 3rd can only be considered stop-gaps. The middle infield of 2nd baseman Derek Dietrich and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria has to prove itself. Most of the bench work will come from a mix of Reed Johnson, Donovan Solano, Greg Dobbs, Jeff Baker, and Jeff Mathis. Following up Fernandez in the rotation are a group of interesting arms in Nate Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner, and Tom Koehler, with Brad Hand and Kevin Slowey looking for an opportunity as well. In the pen, Steve Cishek is a solid closer, and is setup by A.J. Ramos, Carlos Marmol, Mike Dunn, and Dan Jennings. The Fish could easily finish in the basement this season. But they could also start to get production from more than Stanton and Fernandez, and bolt towards 3rd place.

5) New York Mets
The Mets have been a mess for the last five years, and there does not seem to be much hope that 2014 will be the season for a turnaround. However, they have some excellent young pitching coming with which they could build the foundation for sustained success in the 2nd half of this decade. The franchise was part of one of baseball's earliest expansions, and that first team all the way back in 1962 went 40-120, the worst regular season record in MLB history. They experienced the 'Miracle Mets' World Series title in 1969, went back to the Series again surprisingly in 1973, but never became a true sustained contender until the mid-80's. That team culminated in a pair of N.L. East crowns in 1986 and 1988, and an incredible comeback win of the 1986 World Series. They again rose to contention from 1999-2001, reaching the 2000 World Series, and from 2005-08, but that last group fell far and fast. They have fallen, and they can't get up. 3rd baseman David Wright remains the veteran leader and face of the franchise, as well as just having won the 'Face of MLB' title. He is joined in the infield by shortstop Ruben Tejada, 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy, and 1st baseman Ike Davis, the latter of whom has been a major developmental disappointment. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud is finally healthy after years as a top prospect, and may be ready to take over behind the dish long term. The outfield features former Yankee star Curtis Granderson in left, defensive whiz Juan Lagares in center, and Chris Young in right. The bulk of the bench production should come from Lucas Duda, Josh Satin, and Omar Quintanilla. The Mets rotation was devastated by the loss of Ace youngster Matt Harvey to Tommy John surgery, and they will have to wait until 2015 to get him back on track. For now, a mix of ageless veteran Bartolo Colon, talented young Zack Wheeler, and organizational men like Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Jenrry Mejia will have to hold down the fort. There is talent there, and there is more coming from the minor leagues in the next year or so. It is a group that with Harvey's return and the debut of a couple more of the prospects should rapidly improve by 2016 at the latest. The pen is led by Jose Valverde, with closer Bobby Parnell just suffering a possibly season-ending injury. Jeurys Familia, Carlos Torres, and Gonzalez German set him up. Veteran John Lannan is around for rotation depth and long relief. The Mets just seem too dysfunctional as a mix right now to win. But when the young kid pitchers all get on track in the major leagues over the next couple years, watch out.

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