Path to the playoffs: NL East

USA Today Sports

Welcome to the worst division in baseball, at least in 2015. The Mets finished 18 games over .500 on the season, but only because they were 18 games over .500 against teams in the NL East. Against everyone else, they had a .500 record.

Will things be different in 2016? It's again shaping up as a two-team race unless the Marlins ... oh, never mind. It's probably a two-team race.

New York Mets

2015: 90-72, plus-70 run differential, lost World Series

2016 projected record from FanGraphs: 89-73

2015 payroll: $109.8 million

2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $103.6 million

The biggest reason for optimism and a repeat trip to the World Series is, of course, the starting rotation. Not that anybody thinks 2015 was a fluke, but the rotation was remarkably consistent:

First half: .249/.292/.384, 3.42 ERA

Second half: .246/.289/.382, 3.47 ERA

The scary thought for the rest of the NL East: The rotation could get even better. You know how good these guys are, and the 2016 edition could include a full season from Steven Matz and the possible return of Zack Wheeler to back up the trinity of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard (choose your order). Everyone's favorite, Bartolo Colon, is also back.

Could anything go wrong? Sure. While Wheeler went down in spring training with Tommy John surgery, after Syndergaard was promoted, all five starters remained healthy. Four guys started at least 29 games, and Harvey missed a couple of starts only because of his innings limit. In some fashion, it's likely that the only thing that can bring down the Mets is injuries to the rotation.

Then again, teams with excellent run prevention have missed the playoffs before. The Indians allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL in 2015 and did not reach the postseason. The Royals allowed the fewest runs in the AL in 2013, fewer than they did in 2014 and 2015, but missed the playoffs. The Mariners allowed the fewest runs in 2014 and 2009 with nothing to show for it.

So the Mets will have to score runs. They were seventh in the NL in runs in 2015, but in August and September they had the second-best offense in the majors, behind only the Blue Jays. It wasn't just Yoenis Cespedes. Travis d'Arnaud returned from the DL and had an .820 OPS the second half; Michael Conforto came up from the minors and hit; Curtis Granderson had an .885 OPS the final two months; and even David Wright posted a .381 OBP after his return.

The 2016 team has added Neil Walker and signed Asdrubal Cabrera. This gives the Mets necessary depth in the infield in case Wright's balky back acts up. Still, the clearest path to the playoffs includes a healthy season from Wright and Wilmer Flores backing up at all three infield positions. The fans wanted a big free-agent outfielder. Mets ownership failed to oblige, instead signing Alejandro De Aza to platoon in center with Juan Lagares. Hey, at least it's not John Mayberry and Darrell Ceciliani.

Washington Nationals

2015: 83-79, plus-68 run differential

2016 projected record from FanGraphs: 90-72

2015 payroll: $169.2 million

2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $137.6 million

1. Have Bryce Harper do awesome things again. It would help if he did more of those awesome things against the Mets.

2. Have Max Scherzer do awesome things again. Avoiding an August slump (0-3, 6.43 ERA) this time around would be beneficial.

3. Stay healthy. Yes, fans across the country took great pleasure in all the "experts" being wrong about the preseason World Series favorites, but they did suffer a lot of injuries. Anthony Rendon played just 80 games; Denard Span, now a free agent, played 61; Jayson Werth played 88; and Ryan Zimmerman played 95. Stephen Strasburg missed some time, and Doug Fister, also a free agent, made just 15 starts. So yes, injuries did kill the Nats. They also have a roster of injury-prone players, so there's no guarantee this won't bite them again.

4. Have a better bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen are still here, but the Nats have also brought in Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez and Shawn Kelley for better depth. FYI: The Nats had a 3.46 bullpen ERA, and the Mets had a 3.48. The Nats were 74-0 when leading after eight innings, but they lost eight games they were leading after seven.

5. Let Trea Turner play. He's ready to take over from the departed Ian Desmond at shortstop, and he will provide more OBP, more speed and better defense. The Nats nearly acquired Brandon Phillips to play second base, which would have allowed Danny Espinosa to start at short with Turner getting more seasoning in the minors. But the job should be Turner's. The kid can play.

6. Sign one more free agent. There's room in the budget. Maybe it's Howie Kendrick to play second base. Daniel Murphy, even with his defensive issues, could be a fit to give the Nats a needed left-handed bat. Or how about Cespedes? He could play center field and move Michael Taylor into a fourth-outfielder role, or he could play some left field to rest Werth and put Taylor's glove in the lineup.

Miami Marlins

2015: 71-91, minus-65 run differential

2016 projected record from FanGraphs: 80-82

2015 payroll: $63.1 million

2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $55.2 million

We have to get a little imaginative to determine a playoff path for these next three teams, although it's certainly more plausible for the Marlins than the Braves or Phillies.

So ... 32 starts and 250 strikeouts from Jose Fernandez ... 150 games and 50 home runs from Giancarlo Stanton ... the 2014 version of Marcell Ozuna (4.5 WAR) instead of the 2015 version (0.4 WAR) ... Christian Yelich repeating his second half (.342/.392/.473) for a full season ... less Ichiro (sorry) ... a full season of dominance from Carter Capps (18 hits and 58 strikeouts in 31 innings!) ... Dee Gordon winning another batting title ... Justin Bour slugging .519 again versus right-handers but improving that .326 OBP ... and a rotation that has more than one starter making more than 21 starts.

Let's stop there, because this is the key. Tom Koehler made 31 starts. No other starter made more than 21. Dan Haren was second on the team with 129 innings. You're not going to make the playoffs without a more settled rotation. So the Marlins have moved to improve their rotation, right?

Of course they haven't. It's the Marlins. Instead, they've talked about trading Fernandez.

Atlanta Braves

2015: 67-95, minus-187 run differential

2016 projected record from FanGraphs: 68-94

2015 payroll: $107.5 million

2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $84.2 million

FanGraphs projects the Braves and Phillies as the two worst teams in the majors, as they were last season.

Could a miracle happen? The young pitching on the Braves' 40-man roster doesn't impress me all that much. Julio Teheran regressed last year. Matt Wisler has a nice arm but hasn't figured out how to get out lefties (who hit .327/.416/.569 against him). Mike Foltynewicz throws 100 mph but not always over the plate. Manny Banuelos has also had control issues throughout his career. The Braves have an arsenal of young arms, but most of them will spend much of 2016 in the minors.

On the offensive side, the Braves will need monster seasons from Freddie Freeman and Hector Olivera just to improve on their majors-worst 573 runs. The Braves were last in home runs and next to last in doubles. Adonis Garcia and Cameron Maybin tied for second on the team after Freeman with 10 home runs. So ... umm, like I said, miracles can happen. The 1990 Braves went 65-97. The 1991 Braves went 94-68 and didn't stop losing for 15 years.

Philadelphia Phillies

2015: 63-99, minus-183 run differential

2016 projected record from FanGraphs: 66-96

2015 payroll: $145.6 million

2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $101.1 million

So you're probably wondering how the Phillies have a $100 million payroll with a team that might lose 100 games? So am I. They're paying Ryan Howard $25 million in his final season. As part of the Cole Hamels trade, they picked up Matt Harrison's $13 million salary. They bought out Cliff Lee for $12.5 million. So that's half the payroll right there.

Anyway, the Phillies aren't going anywhere in 2016. They brought in Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton to headline the rotation alongside second-year right-hander Aaron Nola. Hellickson is coming off a 4.62 ERA with the Diamondbacks, and Morton is coming off a 4.81 ERA with the Pirates. And now they get to pitch in front of a worse defensive team! Yep, the Phillies were last in the majors with minus-92 defensive runs saved. They did sign Peter Bourjos, so he will at least help the outfield defense while contributing little with the bat.

There will be reasons to get excited about the Phillies, however: Maikel Franco's first full season; the possible arrival of shortstop J.P. Crawford; starter Vincent Velasquez, acquired in the Ken Giles trade, could be a big surprise; Nola; Jerad Eickhoff, part of the Hamels trade, looked good in his late-season call-up; and less David Buchanan and Sean O'Sullivan in the rotation.

Let's say either the Mets or Nationals finish .500. Maybe the Pirates don't solve their rotation holes and win 83 games in that tough NL Central. Maybe the NL West teams all beat up on each other, and the division winner gets to only 86 wins. Then everything breaks right for the Phillies, and they win 87 games and a wild card. Everyone can dream!