Is there a pre-spring favorite in the NL East?

There hasn’t been a legitimate, down-to-the-wire pennant race in the National League East more than a decade now, not since the Phillies hung on to top the Mets during the final weekend of the 2008 season. The division hasn’t been decided by fewer than seven games since 2012, when the Nationals finished four games ahead of the Braves (but were never seriously threatened in September).

Is this the year that finally changes?

There’s certainly an argument right now that the NL East is the best division in baseball, with four of the five clubs having made a concerted effort this winter to build a winning roster. And with some very high-profile free agents still unsigned but linked to some of the aforementioned teams, there’s a chance for even more roster improvement before opening day.

We have no way of knowing yet how this will all play out, but here’s a question for you as pitchers and catchers prepare to report for spring training later this week: Is there a clear-cut favorite in the division?

The Braves may have run away with the title last season, finishing 90-72 to the Nationals’ 82-80 final mark. But their moves this winter - signing veterans Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann to one-year deals - didn’t draw nearly as much attention as the moves made by the division’s other participants.

The stat-heads aren’t all that bullish on Atlanta. Baseball Prospectus projects them to win only 85 games (and finish fourth). FanGraphs.com has them winning only 82 games (tied for third).

The Phillies also aren’t the darlings of the analytically minded, at least not as currently constructed. We know there’s a decent chance they’re still going to add either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado at some point, but for now they’re projected to win 86 (Baseball Prospectus) and 82 (FanGraphs) games.

The Mets are perhaps garnering the most praise after a surprising debut offseason for agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen, who decided not to sell off veterans but instead to acquire even more. FanGraphs has them winning 85 games, with Baseball Prospectus even more optimistic at 88.

scherzer-slings-white-0908-sidebar.jpgAnd then there are the Nats. It’s nothing new for the hometown team to enter spring training with lofty expectations, and sure enough they are still regarded as the cream of the NL East in spite of last season’s troubles and the (for now) loss of Harper. Baseball Prospectus believes they’ll win the division at 89-73. FanGraphs believes they’ll finish atop the standings at 91-71.

Now, we all know these projections don’t mean diddlysquat. Go back and revisit last year’s numbers for a good laugh (or cry). But it’s interesting that the Nationals still are viewed as favorites, even with the Braves’ talented young core returning after a breakthrough season, even with the Phillies adding to what already was an improved team last year, even with the Mets going for broke with their star-studded rotation.

Do the Nationals deserve to be considered a step above the rest of the NL East? That’s debatable. Yes, they appear on paper to be better than they finished last year, but they have far from a perfect roster.

If not the Nats, though, who? Who deserves to enter the spring with a target on their backs? The Braves probably feel like they do. The Phillies, if they land Harper or Machado, could try to make a case for themselves. The Mets, by virtue of the Jacob deGrom-Noah Syndergaard pitching duo, have to like their potential.

Who’s your pick? Who has the edge in the NL East as spring training begins?



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