Mets take aim at Nationals, who are trying to get past NLDS for first time

After losing to the Dodgers in the National League Division Series last October, the Nationals go into the season with a reputation to fix.

Can they win the NL East and go beyond the first round of the postseason? They're 0-3 in the Division Series - losing also to the Giants and Cardinals - since moving to Washington in 2005.

Manager Dusty Baker is determined to get the World Series back to Washington for the first time since 1933.

The Nationals are the favorite to win the division, but the general consensus is that if the Mets rotation is healthy, they'll challenge.

The Marlins have a splendid offense, but their rotation is average at best.

The Braves and Phillies are rebuilding, but either could make surprising progress.

The Braves have the bats, but their old-man pitching staff is suspect. The Phillies have the better pitching, but who knows about their offense?

The NL East shapes up like this:

ATLANTA: The Braves are rebuilding, but the also might be a surprise team after starting last season 0-9 and finishing 24-14 in their final 38 games. ... Brandon Phillips, returning to his hometown after a trade from Cincinnati, is the Braves' new second baseman. His likely .280 average will fit in well with a lineup that has Matt Kemp (.350/.408 in 56 games for the Braves in 2016) as protection for Freddie Freeman, eyeing a 30-home run season with a .290 average. ... Shortstop Dansby Swanson, who grew up a Braves fan, has a chance to be a face-of-the-franchise type player. He and the Nationals' Trea Turner will have interesting comparisons as they grow in the NL East. ... Former Oriole Nick Markakis has double-digit homer power, and the potential for .280. ... Center fielder Ender Inciarte has a chance for 20 steals in the leadoff spot. He's an underrated player. ... Julio Teheran is the rotation ace, but age 40-plus guys Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, as well as lefty Jamie Garcia, are in the rotation to give the team's prospects - Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair and Mike Foltynewicz - a chance to grow without being rushed. That's the biggest risk: What happens if Colon, Dickey and Garcia show their age and inconsistency? Last season, Colon was 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA while leading the Mets with 191 2/3 innings pitched.

MIAMI: In a nutshell, the Marlins have a strong offense, power arms in the bullpen, but an average-at-best rotation, so that will be a challenge for manager Don Mattingly. ... After going from 71 wins in 2015 to 79 last year, the Marlins were thinking they were on the rise. But now they are dealing deal with the tragic loss of star pitcher Jose Fernandez, (2.86 ERA and 12.5 strikeouts per nine last season) who was killed in a boating accident last fall. Manager Don Mattingly says his players can honor Fernandez's legend by having fun in the game and sticking together. ... The rotation banks on the progress of Adam Conley, a rebound from Wei-Yin Chen and 30 starts from an average Edinson Volquez. The Marlins say Chen's elbow injuries are history and that he should be solid this season. ... Giancarlo Stanton, 27, is the most recognizable player on the team, but he's missed 131 games in the last two seasons. Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna are capable of each hitting .280 with a combined 45 home runs. ... A. J. Ramos is the closer. The best bullpen pitcher is Kyle Barraclough, who had 113 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings last season.

NEW YORK: The analysis for the Mets is simple: If the rotation is healthy, they will contend in the NL East. Noah Syndergaard, 24, is the only pitcher without health issues from a year ago. He was 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 218 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings last year. The Mets expect Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz to be healthy. Zach Wheeler, coming back from elbow surgery, will likely start in the bullpen. ... The Mets have the best chance to dethrone the defending division champion Nationals. In 2016, the Mets won 87 games and lost to the Giants in the wild card game. ... Their biggest offseason moves were to retain outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, the 35-home run, 100-RBI guy for the middle of the order, and second baseman Neil Walker, who accepted a qualifying offer after finishing the season on the disabled list with a back injury. ... Cespedes will be joined in the outfield by center fielder Curtis Granderson, a 30-home run guy, and Jay Bruce, 29, who slumped the final two months after arriving in a trade from Cincinnati. Bruce average 26 home runs a season for the Reds, but hit .174 with four home runs for the Mets. ... Third baseman David Wright, 34, signed with the Mets through 2020, has a right shoulder impingement and starts the season on the disabled list. He missed 230 games combined in the last seasons, first with spinal stenosis in 2015 and a herniated disc in 2016. ... Jose Reyes will play third in Wright's absence with Asdrubal Cabrera, Walker and Lucas Duda in the infield. Duda's back could be an issue. The first baseman missed 107 games last season because of back injuries after hitting 57 home runs combined in the previous two seasons. Bruce worked out at first during spring training and could be an option to give Duda time off. ... The Mets can hit home runs - a team record 218 last season - but they also hit .225 with runners in scoring position

PHILADELPHIA: The Phillies, a force in the NL the last decade, have torn down the team, rebuilt it and expect to make more improvements after going from 63 wins in 2015 to 71 wins last season. When they declined the contract option for Ryan Howard in November, they got rid of the final tie to their dominating years from 2007 to 2011. ... At 26.9 years, the Phillies had the second-youngest team in the majors last season. The nucleus of age 25 and younger include third baseman Maikel Franco, centerfielder Odubel Herrera, and pitchers Aaron Nola and Jerad Eichoff. ... Franco has potential for 25 home runs. Herrera is a speed-power guy potential of 15 home runs and 20 steals while Nola and Eickhoff are each capable of 200 innings to lead the rotation. Another good-looking young pitcher is Vince Velasquez, who had 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2016. ... Jeremy Hellickson, who had 12 victories and a 3.71 ERA last season, leads the rotation. On-again, off-again Clay Buchholz, acquired from Boston, is another experienced starter at the top. ... Tommy Joseph takes over for Howard at first base. Joseph hit 21 home runs in 315 at-bats last year. ... The Phillies also liked how their middle infielders came together in shortstop Freddie Galvis (20 home runs, 17 steals last year) and second baseman Cesar Hernandez (six home runs, 17 steals). Hernandez has developed into a steady leadoff batter with a .371 on-base percentage last year. ... Two new corner outfielders, Howie Kendrick in left field and Michael Saunders in right, flank Herrera in center.

WASHINGTON: The new defensive alignment will have Adam Eaton in center field, Trea Turner at shortstop and former Oriole Matt Wieters catching. ... Last season, Turner played center field in place of the slumping Ben Revere. Turner had 13 home runs and 33 steals, one of nine players to have double-digit home runs and at least 30 steals. Eaton's defense is excellent and he's capable of hitting at the top of the order, as his .362 on-base percentage from last season shows. Wieters has potential for 20 home runs. ... Unlike last season, Bryce Harper's shoulder is healthy, and if his spring is any indication, he's going to return to his NL MVP form of 2015. ... Can Daniel Murphy hit .347 again this season? Probably, considering the discipline he has at the plate. ... This is the final year of Jayson Werth's contract and he'd like nothing better than to win a World Series. He hit .244 after a dreadful start last season. ... After three down years marked by injury, Ryan Zimmerman is on the hot seat to show that he can still play. If not, the Nationals have Adam Lind, but Zimmerman's spring says he can return to hitting .275-20-80. ... Max Scherzer, the NL Cy Young winner with 20 wins and a 2.98 ERA last season, will start Game 3 after batting an injured knuckle in spring training. ... Stephen Strasburg (the opening day starter), Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross round out the rotation. ... Strasburg dominates, assuming health. Roark is under-rated, Gonzalez inconsistent. Ross is talented with an exceptional slider and coming off an injury season. ... Who will close? Good question. The Nationals have yet to make an announcement about the ninth inning.

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