This is the fourth installment of a six-part, in-depth view of each of Major League Baseball’s six divisions for the upcoming season.
1. Washington Nationals
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 98-64, 1st in NL West
Pitching: 3.33 ERA ranked 2nd in MLB
Hitting: .750 OPS ranked 8th in MLB
Lineup: Washington welcomes back most of what was a very productive lineup last season. Rookie phenom Bryce Harper returns to build upon his Rookie of the Year season and could establish himself as a top 10 outfielder in the game. His power potential is off the charts. The Nationals hope to get a full season out of right fielder Jayson Werth, and if so, he could transform the Nationals from a Top 10 offense to a Top 5.
Coming over in trade from the Twins, centerfielder Denard Span will provide a spark in the leadoff spot. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, shortstop Ian Desmond (off a career year in 2012), third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and first baseman Adam LaRoche return as a solid infield that will provide plenty of power.
Pitching: What’s not to like? A weight that will be lifted off the backs of Nationals players and fans alike, as Stephen Strasburg will not face any questions about his availability in September. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann once again join Strasburg to construct a formidable one through three, possibly the best in the majors. Dan Haren joins the staff with a one-year deal in an attempt to prove he’s still capable of dominating lineups after a drop-off in 2012 with the Angels. Ross Detwiler rounds out the rotation.
Washington had two solid closer candidates in Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, so what did they do in the offseason? Acquired closer Rafael Soriano, of course! Though the Nationals had to surrender a first-round pick for 2013, they now place even more pressure upon defending teams to score early.
Outlook: After blasting their way to 98 wins last season, all eyes are now on the Nationals to repeat their success. Washington certainly wasn’t complacent over the winter. They have no glaring holes and go into 2013 with a stronger team. Having Stephen Strasburg in the postseason should give them the force needed to advance to the World Series.
2. Atlanta Braves
|Upton the elder|
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 94-68, 2nd in NL West
Pitching: 3.42 ERA ranked 5th in MLB
Hitting: .709 OPS ranked 21st in MLB
Lineup: After a tearful goodbye to Braves legend Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves went to work in a busy offseason. The Braves made their first big splash by handing a five-year deal to free agent centerfielder B.J. Upton. One Upton wasn’t enough, so they came to agreement with the Diamondbacks in a deal that sent utility-man Martin Prado and starter Randall Delgado, among others, for outfielder Justin Upton, B.J.’s younger brother.
Jason Heyward will return to form an impressive outfield. Their new outfield doesn’t come without a caveat, however. If you’re a believer in WAR (Wins Above Replacement), there stands a chance that the Braves outfield actually got worse. The difference in WAR between the 2013 outfield and Michael Bourn/Prado/Heyward of last year adds up to greater than six wins in the latter’s favor. If Justin Upton gets over his thumb injury from last year and B.J. and Heyward hit to their potential, the Braves could still have the best outfield in the majors.
Gone is Chipper, who will likely be replaced by Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson. Second baseman Dan Uggla and first baseman Freddie Freeman rejoin the lineup. Andrelton Simmons, possibly the best defensive shortstop in baseball, will fill out the rest of the card, followed by Gerald Laird, who will get the playing time at catcher until Brian McCann returns.
Pitching: Atlanta boasts a very good bullpen. Craig Kimbrel had possibly the best season of all time for a closer last year and will return to shorten the game by an inning. Eric O’Flaherty and Jordan Walden will combine to shut offenses down in the final innings of the ballgame. Jonny Venters could do the same, but there is current concern over the status of his valuable left elbow.
The Braves’ rotation is nearly as good, though they will be without Brandon Beachy until sometime just prior to the All-Star Break. Tim Hudson will lead a pitching staff that features impressive young hurler Kris Medlen, lefty Mike Minor, and Paul Maholm. Top pitching prospect Julio Teheran will hold down the fort until Beachy returns.
Outlook: With a void at third created by Chipper’s departure and a slightly inferior rotation than Washington, the Braves will fall short of the division crown. The Braves hold little doubt that they will return to the playoffs, however. If the Nationals suffer any injuries, Atlanta will be ready to pounce.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 81-81, 3rd in NL East
Pitching: 3.83 ERA ranked 11th in MLB
Hitting: .716 OPS ranked 16th in MLB
Lineup: Philadelphia’s offense is going to live or die by the health and production of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Howard’s OPS has declined in each of the past four seasons. Though he no longer looks like a top first baseman, he can still muscle out 30+ home runs. Fans will be crossing their fingers on the health of Utley’s knees. Arguably the most underrated player of the past decade, a healthy Utley would provide a strong presence in the middle of the lineup with plus defense at second.
Perhaps the only sure bat in the lineup comes in the form of 34-year old shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Still a threat to blast 20 home runs and steal 30 bases, the Phillies will need more of the same in 2013. Michael Young will man the hot corner, after his production fell off significantly in his last year with the Rangers. Outfielder Domonic Brown may take a step forward this season, while new centerfielder Ben Revere brings speed to the lineup. Delmon Young will eventually join the team to play right field. A designated hitter last year, Young struggled defensively when given a shot at left, so it’s hard to imagine him even being competent in right. His offense certainly won’t make up for his defensive shortcomings.
Pitching: Lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee rival any 1-2 punch in the major leagues. I’d love to put Roy Halladay on that pedestal, but you can’t ignore the reports of his fastball sitting at 86-89 miles per hour and occasionally hitting 90 during spring training. The right-hander’s earned-run average rose to 4.49 last year, the worst in his career as a full-time starter. Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan will take the final two spots.
Jonathan Papelbon is still a great closer, and the bullpen will be helped by Mike Adams as a set-up man, if healthy. The rest of the bullpen is not as great, though Antonio Bastardo fanned 81 batters over 52 innings last year and presents a solid option from the left side.
Outlook: If Halladay’s velocity returns, he would go a long way in making Philadelphia a Wild Card threat. There remain significant concerns outside of Halladay, however. Not only do Howard and Utley need to be healthy, Young needs to bounce back, Brown has to break out offensively, and the bullpen needs to perform better. The Phillies will most likely be on the outside looking in for the second consecutive season.
4. New York Mets
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 74-88, 4th in NL East
Pitching: 4.09 ERA ranked 20th in MLB
Hitting: .701 OPS ranked 23rd in MLB
Lineup: David Wright remains the face of the franchise and will be the only major threat in New York’s lineup. First baseman Ike Davis pounded 32 home runs last year, but he will need to cut down on his strikeouts (141 in 2012) and hit for a better average (.227) to be a persistent threat. The rest of the infield may struggle to combine for 15 home runs. Lucas Duda, Jordany Valdespin and Marlon Byrd will most likely make the Opening Day lineup in the outfield.
Pitching: Be sure to tune into Matt Harvey’s starts this season, because he’s going to be fun to watch. Jon Niese looks to duplicate a solid season in 2012 (3.40 ERA), and Dillon Gee will slide behind him. Shaun Marcum is a legitimate mid-rotation starter when healthy, but there are serious concerns over the health of his shoulder. Jeremy Hefner will be the fifth starter. Johan Santana will eventually join the pitching staff, but he is out indefinitely while dealing with his shoulder.
New York was .01 points away from tying Milwaukee for the worst bullpen earned-run average in the majors last season. Bobby Parnell will close out games this season, but improvements need to be made elsewhere.
Outlook: The Mets will perform somewhere along the lines of what they did last year. They have help on the way in frontline pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, but the Mets are a few years and several moves away from becoming a playoff threat once again.
5. Miami Marlins
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 69-93, 5th in NL East
Pitching: 4.09 ERA ranked 20th in MLB
Hitting: .690 OPS ranked 27th in MLB
Lineup: What do you do if you’re Jeffrey Loria and spend $191 million on free agency only to have a disappointing season? You dismantle the team! Sad pictures will circulate around baseball of a mostly empty Marlins Park in 2013. Giancarlo Stanton has the most raw power out of any player in baseball, and he will once again put on a display all throughout baseball. The rest of the offense is mostly going to be hard to watch.
Centerfielder Justin Ruggiano is the only projected Opening Day starter outside of Stanton who may reach double digits in home runs. Left fielder Juan Pierre will provide speed at the leadoff position and is a candidate to be traded mid-season. Miami’s infield may put up the worst production in the majors.
Pitching: Gone are Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle, and Anibal Sanchez from the rotation. Ricky Nolasco, Nate Eovaldi, Wade LeBlanc, Henderson Alvarez, and Kevin Slowey make up this season’s starting five. No starter projects for an earned-run average below 4.00. After struggling in spring training, Jacob Turner will get another chance sometime this season in the rotation.
Steve Cishek will be given the opportunity to hold down the closer spot for the entire season, while the rest of the bullpen doesn’t figure to improve much from the cumulative 4.06 earned-run average it put up last year.
Outlook: The Marlins will most likely avoid having the worst team in the majors, thanks to the Houston Astros. While their major league club will struggle in 2013, Miami went a long way in fortifying its minor league system with several off-season trades. In addition, starting pitcher Jose Fernandez and centerfielder Christian Yelich, both drafted by the Marlins, will soon make an impact on the 25-man roster.
Links to previous articles in this series:
2013 Major League previews: AL East
2013 Major League previews: AL Central
2013 Major League previews: AL West
Pierce Jefferson can be reached via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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