Not So Predictable N.L. East

Conventional wisdom is frequently more conventional than wise. For the last half dozen years, we have been led to believe that the Washington Nationals were the team to beat in the National League East and a probable World Series participant. In the event that the Nationals somehow failed to get there, the New York Mets would take their place and, actually, that did happen once, in 2015. If it is still the conventional wisdom in 2017 it may actually work out for once but we need to recognize that there are big changes coming in this division and therefore it may be advisable not to bet the farm, if one still has one.

The easiest thing to do as a baseball observer is  to look upon the veritable mountain of statistical information now available and decide that, well, so and so has had a remarkably good season or career. On the other hand, the most difficult  thing to do as  a baseball observer may very well be to look upon the actual, live performance of a very young player and evaluate his potential as a future major league ballplayer. Most of us are not so good as scouts; many of us can read numbers. Until the time comes when the Hall of Fame accepts members based on the average velocity of their fastballs or the speed of the ball as it rockets off the barrel of their bats, we will have to continue to base our evaluations on wins and losses or scoring more runs than the other guys. The expectations of success for the Nationals have largely been based on the assumption that Stephen Strasburg was going to be the next Roger Clemens and Bryce Harper the next Mickey Mantle. If you could make the Hall based on the number of words written or spoken in awe of talent, those two would already be there. They have each shown flashes of real brilliance and there is still plenty of time for Harper, who will be 25 in October and Strasburg, who will be 29 in July, to get it done. As for the Mets, the talented crew of young pitchers is the main weapon they have featured, and the talent is real. No one looks forward to facing Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, or Zack Wheeler. However, chances are they won’t have to because what they have consistently led the league in so far has been surgeries.

So, while those two teams are probably a bit over rated, some of their opponents in the division may now be under rated. For instance, the Atlanta Braves. We may not have to suffer through the “chop” or that awful warrior chant this fall when the playoffs begin, but the Braves are improving as they break in another new yard with another corporate name. It’s an interesting staff of starting pitchers they have assembled. Old man Bartolo Colon will be 44 next month and he was one guy that Mets manager Terry Collins could count on last season as he won 15 games with a 3.43 earned run average. He joins knuckleballer R. A. Dickey and veteran lefty Jaime Garcia in the new Atlanta rotation along with holdovers Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran. The Braves have the unpredictable Jim Johnson in the bullpen . Catcher Tyler Flowers has some pop with the  bat but doesn’t throw well.

The double play combination is also interesting as long time Cincinnati standout Brandon Phillips takes over second base with very promising youngster Dansby Swanson at shortstop. Adonis Garcia is merely adequate at third but Freddie Freeman continues to be a star at first base with good defense, a .302 batting average, 34 home runs and 91 runs batted in last year at age 27. Ender Inciarte covers center field as well as anyone but needs to reach base a bit more. Matt Kemp no longer has the range or arm strength of his youth and is confined to left field now but he smacked 35 homers and drove in 108 last season. Nick Markakis has lost a step and a half but is still more than adequate in right field and still hits well.

Washington ‘s Jayson Werth is comparable to Kemp as he now patrols left instead of right and turns 38. The difference is he’s not hitting so much anymore either. Adam Eaton was obtained in a trade with the White Sox to play center field for the Nationals. He’s got the arm and hits and runs well but his range is more suited to a corner spot. Offensively, right fielder Harper hopes to have a season more like 2015 than last year, when he fell off to .243 with 24 homers. With Eaton aboard, Trea Turner, another budding star, goes back to shortstop full time. He hit .342 in 73 games. Matt Wieters should approach replacing Wilson Ramos at catcher if he stays healthy. Anthony Rendon is great at third and steady at the plate. Ryan Zimmerman moved to first base because throwing was difficult at third, and he is okay there on defense but hits infrequently now. Daniel Murphy had an incredible season offensively last year. The way he plays second base, he needs to continue that. You know all about Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross, and Tanner Roark. They’re good. The real super star on that staff, however, is Max Scherzer. He’s rather old school: lots of innings, 20 wins, lots of strikeouts. So, yes, the Nats are very good.  Are the playoffs a certainty? No.

The Mets are not, of course, just about pitching. The great Cubano Yoenis Cespedes remains in left field with superior offensive and defensive abilities. Another supposed star of the future, Michael Conforto, may perhaps be more like the next  Ron Swoboda than the next Roger Maris. Jay Bruce, formerly of Cincinnati fame, retains his power stroke if not his powerful arm in right field. Curtis Granderson is in center field more or less by default, as a strained oblique  hampers Juan Lagares, their best defensive outfielder. New York could probably use somebody  like Gregor Blanco or Angel Pagan as a fourth outfielder. Jose Reyes will man third base as David Wright continues to battle age and injury. Asdrubel Cabrera has become an all around good player at shortstop with pretty good offensive numbers for playing in that home yard. Neil Walker is slightly better defensively than Murphy was  and showed some home run pop before back surgery became necessary. He will be watched closely. It looks like Lucas Duda is the dude at first base and he now needs to hit like one. Rene Rivera is their best catcher but Travis  D’Arnaud will play more because he hits more. I’m not writing a damned thing about those pitchers except to say that top reliever Jeurys Familia will not be involved in the first 15 games because he had familia problemas.

The Philadelphia Phillies could surprise people a lot. The infield is developing with Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez at short and second in their mid twenties and Maikel Franco only 24. First baseman Tommy Joseph is only 24 and he is already a big improvement over Ryan Howard. Cameron Rupp hasn’t made anyone forget Chooch yet but he’s okay and getting better. The pitching could be surprisingly good or really awful, I don’t know. They were kind of both awful and good last year and you can’t trust that damned ballpark. I’m a bad pitching scout because they all look like Sandy Koufax to me. This year they added the enigmatic veteran Clay Buchholz. He knows hitters’ yards. Odubel Herrera is a good center fielder who will get plenty of exercise being flanked by Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick. Kendrick is a helpful veteran who can still play infield too.

Don Mattingly has made a great career in baseball working almost exclusively for villainous owners but, as manager of the Miami Marlins, it looked to some of us as though his big reward might have been coming last year. Now, with the devastating loss of Jose Fernandez it is conventional wisdom to assume that the Marlins will flounder. Could not resist, sorry. There remains, however, a lot of winning baseball talent to be managed, and Mattingly is the kind of guy to do that. The biggest word in springtime is if. If Dee Gordon can perform the way he did before whatever he was doing was found out, that would be a huge plus. If Giancarlo Stanton plays all season, that would be bigger than Donald Trump’s inflated ego. J.T. Realmuto is a potential all star at catcher. Martin Prado is a steadying influence and should perform well once he comes off the disabled list. Among a crop of outstanding shortstops in the majors currently, Adeiny Hechavarria has people all over the world learning how to spell his name. So the left side of the infield and half of the other side is top notch. Justin Bour needs to hit many many home runs to keep his job at first base. The outfield rivals Pittsburgh’s in quality, with Marcell Ozuna getting better in left, Christian Yelich superb in center, and Stanton (27 homers in 119 games and a good arm) in right. As for pitching, the signing of free agent Edinson Volquez will help if he has a season more like some of his  previous ones than his awful season with Kansas City last year. He has had an up and down career to say the least, but when he’s been good he has won.Dan Straily was very good for the Reds last year, Tom Koehler is mediocre at age 31, lefty Adam Conley was impressive in 25 starts last year, but Wei-Yin Chen needs to improve over his 4.96 ERA. The bullpen will be helped by veteran Brad Ziegler this season, and A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough, and Junichi Tazawa are more than adequate.

It’s not going to turn out the way we think it will. That’s why it’s fun.

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