It's the National League East, and I just realized this: Is there a division of owners more despised by their fans than this one? Outside of Ted Lerner in Washington, it's not exactly a group of owners who have built good faith with their fan bases.
Anyway, with the Phillies finally entering full rebuilding mode, that increases the chance a wild-card team will come out of the East. A look at each team's path to the playoffs ...
2014: 96-66, +131 run differential, lost in NLDS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 88-74, +61
The Nationals will be the big favorite in a division without an obvious No. 2 team -- the only team in the division, in fact, projected to finish above .500. Notice, however, that the projection system at FanGraphs doesn't see the Nationals as a 95-win team. Yes, projection systems tend to forecast regression for good teams and improvement for bad teams; even so, the 88-win forecast suggests the Nationals shouldn't be considered locks for the division.
So what's their path to the playoffs? Certainly, it begins with riding what may have been the best rotation in the game in 2014. The Nationals led the National League with 17.6 FanGraphs WAR from their rotation (second in the majors to the Tigers) while posting an MLB-best 3.04 ERA, ranking first in OPS allowed and second to the Dodgers in strikeout-to-walk ratio. FanGraphs projects the rotation at 12.5 WAR in 2015; I'll take the over, especially if the club doesn't trade away Jordan Zimmermann. Of course, if they do trade him, it may be because they've signed Max Scherzer, and Scherzer in the NL could put up some huge numbers.
It's hard to see a rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann, the criminally underrated Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark failing to lead the Nationals to 85 wins, unless two of them suffer significant injuries. It's a great rotation of pitchers in their primes, and there's no obvious reason to expect them to regress much in 2015.
After that, you start with Anthony Rendon. In his first full season in the majors, he led the NL in runs scored and finished fifth in the MVP voting. A lot of people are going to pick him as their preseason MVP. But is Rendon even the best young player on the club? Bryce Harper will be entering his age-22 season. His postseason performance may be the sign that he's ready to have that monster, MVP-caliber season.
If Rendon and Harper put up better numbers, I don't see a better lineup in the NL than this one:
CF Denard Span
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Jayson Werth
LF Bryce Harper
SS Ian Desmond
Espinosa is the weak spot, although he's a plus defender. General manager Mike Rizzo may upgrade the position before the winter is over. The bullpen -- fourth in the majors in ERA -- should be strong again with Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett.
It's hard to find a weakness. Even the bench should be better with outfielder Steven Souza available after tearing up Triple-A. Crazy things can happen, but if I'm picking one sure bet to reach the postseason, I'd go with Washington.
2014: 79-83, +11 run differential
2015 projection: 79-83, -18
This could be fun:
Maybe pitching isn't actually 75 percent of baseball, but that's the kind of rotation that can carry an otherwise mediocre club into the postseason if Harvey is back to 100 percent after missing 2014 following Tommy John surgery, deGrom flourishes after winning Rookie of the Year honors, and Wheeler continues to improve and harness his electric stuff. You even have quality depth in the likes of Dillon Gee and prospects Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. I'm not sure any NL team can match the Mets one through eight in the rotation.
The Mets signed Michael Cuddyer in a controversial move that cost them their first-round pick, and we know they're on the search for a shortstop but may have to settle for in-house candidate Wilmer Flores. The offense was middle-of-the-pack in 2014, but the best bet for improvement won't necessarily be Cuddyer or at shortstop, but better years from David Wright and a breakout season from catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
Wright slumped to a .269/.324/.374 line with just eight home runs in 535 at-bats. His OPS dropped more than 200 points since 2013. As he admitted at the end of the season, a shoulder injury had affected him much more than he let on. So Mets fans can be optimistic that a healthier Wright will return to his All-Star form (moving in the fences will help a bit, as well). D'Arnaud had a solid rookie season and hit .265/.313/.474 in the second half. If he matches that rate of production -- and maybe boosts that OBP a bit -- he's going be an All-Star catcher.
So, killer rotation, solid offense and the best defensive center fielder on the planet in Juan Lagares. There's a lot to like here. The bullpen will need to prove its 3.14 ERA in 2014 wasn't a fluke. The Mets have had six straight losing seasons. This path to the playoffs says that streak ends.
2014: 79-83, -24 run differential
2015 projection: 75-87, -48
After winning at least 89 games each of the past four seasons and making the playoffs three times, the Braves had their worst season since 2008 and will be trying to avoid their first back-to-back losing years since 1989-1990.
How do they do that and get back into the playoffs? Well, consider that the 2014 Braves were still in first place as late as July 20. They were just 1.5 games out of the wild card entering September before collapsing with a 7-18 record in the final month.
They still have a talented young core to build around. Freddie Freeman is one of the best all-around first basemen in the league, and at 25, this may be the year he taps into his power potential and hits 30 home runs instead of 18. Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the game; he hit just .244 last year even though he struck out just 60 times in 576 plate appearances. He's a contact hitter who hit 17 home runs in 2013, so there's still more potential in the bat improving. Craig Kimbrel is still arguably the best closer in the game. Julio Teheran won 14 games with a 2.89 ERA, and Alex Wood emerged with a 2.78 ERA in 171 innings. Oh, and for now, Justin Upton is still here.
That's a lot of frontline talent. To build a winner around it, you don't have to stretch reality very much:
1. Chris Johnson hits more like he did in 2013 than like he did in 2014.
3. Shelby Miller provides a solid season behind Teheran and Wood.
4. Mike Minor bounces back. He was worth 3.1 WAR in 2013 when he posted a 3.21 ERA, but he was replacement-level in 2014 with a 4.77 ERA.
5. B.J. Upton has a ... OK, let's not get carried away.
The Braves may have another couple of more moves in them. Maybe they trade Justin Upton for a young starter and move Evan Gattis to left field, with defensive whiz Christian Bethancourt taking over at catcher. Maybe they sign a pitcher. Maybe they just keep Justin Upton and have him and Freeman be one of the best 3-4 combos in the National League.
2014: 77-85, -29 run differential
2015 projection: 79-83, -14
It's been a busy offseason for the Marlins, so let's see how the team looks right now.
2B Dee Gordon
1B Mike Morse
SP Mat Latos
SP Tom Koehler
So what do you have? A lineup with the most feared hitter in the National League, two young outfielders in Yelich and Ozuna who were worth a combined 8.0 WAR in 2014 and should improve in 2015, a speedy leadoff hitter in Gordon who helps solve the team's second-base issues and more depth on the bench now. You'd like to see an upgrade at third base, but the Marlins were seventh in the NL in runs last season, and you envision a big improvement.
What makes them even more interesting is the potential in the rotation, however. Alvarez, Eovaldi and Cosart will all be in their age-25 seasons. Alvarez is coming off a 2.65 ERA, while Cosart looked impressive after coming over from the Astros, with a 2.39 ERA in 10 starts and just two home runs allowed in 64 innings. Both have power arms, and while the advanced metrics don't like them because of low strikeout rates, that's because both have unique approaches. Alvarez throws a hard sinker that generates a lot of ground balls, while Cosart throws a cutter that, so far in his career, has induced a lot of weak contact down in the zone. Eovaldi has one of the best fastballs in the league, but he is still working on his secondary pitches.
The point here: The projection systems aren't going to rate Alvarez and Cosart very highly, but they're good bets to outperform their FIP, as they did in 2014. The other point: There is big upside here if Latos remains healthy, Eovaldi improves and Fernandez returns at full strength. There is also depth with Koehler, who had a 3.81 ERA, and Haren if he stays around.
The Marlins are a young team with a few vets sprinkled in. Young teams tend to improve. They have an MVP candidate in Stanton. They have speed at the top of the lineup. They'll be in full beast mode with Morse bringing added enthusiasm. The division could be weak outside of the Nationals. Jeffrey Loria has a plan, and it just may work.
2014: 73-89, -68 run differential
2015 projection: 70-92, -92
Sorry, I can't fake this one.
The Phillies have already started trading off parts, and it's likely that Cole Hamels and Marlon Byrd will be next. The Phillies already project as the worst team in the majors, and they're the one team where you can't envision a path to the playoffs, even in the most optimistic of scenarios.