N.L. East Moves Toward Parity

It’s easy to agree with what conventional wisdom tells us because then we can all be wrong together, such as believing that skits on Saturday Night Live are actually funny. The easy thing to believe as far as the National League East is concerned is that in 2016 it will be a fight between two superior teams, the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals. That may very well be what happens, but the Mets and Nats are good , not great, teams and the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins all have reasons to believe that things are getting better. Let’s hope that it ends up becoming a more interesting race than we all assume it will be. Change is inevitable despite what residents of convalescent hospitals may believe.

The past few seasons it has been reported that the Washington Nationals were an under achieving team blessed with more talent than they were demonstrating on the field, especially since they had not only Bryce Harper but also a fine array of good young pitchers. That’s one reason that Matt Williams is back to coaching and not managing. When Max Scherzer joined the staff it seemed as though Washington had every bit as much talent on the mound as those fabled Mets. However, Jordan Zimmermann is now a Detroit Tiger. Lefty Gio Gonzalez remains almost good. Tanner Roark appears to have had a confidence reducing off year last season after a stellar 2014. Stephen Strasburg is still more of a colt than a horse after a 127 inning 2015. The lineup is not the same either. Denard Span went west and until Ben Revere shows up, the Nats don’t really have a leadoff hitter.  At age 37, Jayson Werth has become a shadow of his former self both in the outfield, where his range and throwing arm had once been very strong, and at the plate, where his power hitting in the clutch had been feared. Ryan Zimmerman first lost it in the field due to injury but now he has also become just an average hitter. Danny Espinosa is a credible replacement for Ian Desmond at shortstop but is better suited for second base. At second resides transplanted Met Daniel Murphy, who will continue to add runs when he bats and also when he fields. Harper, of course, makes a lot of things happen. Except for his base running, he has become a complete player, and he continues to improve. So the Nationals are well equipped but do not threaten to become the juggernaut that the Cubs are starting to resemble. Dusty Baker, however, is a considerable improvement at the helm who tends to get more out of players than the average manager.

Can the Mets repeat? Yes, mainly because while that starting rotation of pitchers does not exactly resemble the Cleveland team of 1954 or ’55, there really is talent and depth among the five or six inning starters they use. Plus, I will venture to say that their lineup is now actually superior to the Nationals’. It will make a big difference to have Yoenis Cespedes all season and Neil Walker will be a slight upgrade over Murphy at second base. If Asdrubal Cabrera is the shortstop all season they will also be better off there than they were in 2015. Curtis Granderson is a fine fellow and a pretty good all around ballplayer but he is miscast as a leadoff hitter (151 strikeouts). Will David Wright be able to overcome his spinal stenosis and have a full, productive season? We shall see. Will Michael  Conforto blossom as the every day left fielder? Again, we’ll see.Juan Lagares is good to have around as outfield insurance and would be a good leadoff batter if he could reach base more frequently. Travis d’Arnaud has become one of the better catchers in the league. The erratic Lucas Duda teams with Cespedes and Walker to give the Mets a fairly powerful middle of the lineup.

The Miami Marlins loom as a possible sleeper selection in the East. Jose Fernandez leads a starting pitching staff that has shown some real potential and both he and slugger Giancarlo Stanton will make a big difference by being available all season in 2016. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria , left fielder Christian Yelich, second baseman Dee Gordon, center fielder Marcell Ozuna, and catcher J.T. Realmuto are all emerging stars and third baseman Derek Dietrich shows offensive promise. Watch out for these guys as the season rolls on. New manager Don Mattingly and, yes, batting coach Barry Bonds offer good support for these youngsters.

The Philadelphia Phillies have their heads above the swampy mire of bad old contracts now and should improve a good deal this season. Ryan Howard will probably be at first base forever as a reminder of spendthrift days but his RBI are important. More importantly, third baseman Maikel Franco, center fielder Odubel Herrera,  second baseman Cesar Hernandez, and shortstop Freddy Galvis all provide hope that, once a pitching staff emerges, the Phillies will be in contention once again.

The Atlanta Braves have become everybody’s favorite team to rag on but I really don’t think that they are that bad. Of course, I may be unduly influenced by the memory of their decades of dominance in the East, and it’s hard to take a team seriously that has A.J. Pierzynski as their starting catcher, but I will not join the chorus predicting a 100 loss season for the Braves. Pierzynski showed last year that he can still hit as he approaches age 40 and his baseball savvy will no doubt help the stable of young pitchers that Atlanta employs. Erick Aybar is still a quality shortstop and young Jace Peterson is pretty good at second base. Nick Markakis has slowed a bit compared to his Baltimore days but is still more than adequate in right field and Jeff Francoeur is back in town to help Freddie Freeman with the offense.  As with the Phillies, the key for the Braves will be when and if the young hurlers develop.

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