Nationals clear favorites to win NL East, but must win in postseason

After losing four Division Series in the last six seasons, the Nationals go into the season a clear favorite to win the National League East.

Last season, they won the division by 20 games over the second-place Marlins. No team has ever won consecutive division titles by at least 20 games. Maybe the Nationals will be the first.

Miami, though, is the odds-on favorite to finish last.

That leaves the Phillies, Mets and Braves to battle for second place. If the Mets get a healthy rotation, they'll be solid. The Phillies' rebuilding - especially with Jake Arrieta - is a step ahead of Atlanta's.

But both are coming on strong. The Nationals better get to the World Series as soon as they can.

Predicted finish: Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Braves, Marlins.

Here is information that will make you look smart at the water cooler:

ATLANTA: The Braves lost 90 games last season, but they are loaded with young blue-chip talent that could make them contenders faster than their plans say. ... One of the brightest prospects is left fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., 20, who hit 21 home runs with 44 stolen bases at three minor league levels last season. ... Shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Ozzie Albies, 21, are strong up the middle, but are still developing, as is third baseman John Carmago, who hit .299 as a switch-hitting rookie last season. Swanson went to the minors last season, but wound up with a .360 on-base percentage when he returned. ... Center fielder Ender Inciarte, who arrived from Arizona in the trade for right-hander Shelby Miller, is a plus defender who collected 200 hits last season, the first Brave to do so since Marquis Grissom in 1996. ... Right fielder Nick Markakis is 34 and his power is fading - he hit eight home runs last season - but he's a gutsy player with excellent fundamentals. Markakis has 2,052 career hits. ... First baseman Freddie Freeman can be an All-Star and NL MVP candidate if he stays healthy, but he's been on the disabled list two of the last three seasons. ... Right-hander Julio Teheran, 27, is the rotation ace and he hasn't lived up to potential as a consistent starter. Last year, his ERA was 4.49. Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz has been in the big leagues for four seasons and the Braves say it is time for him to be consistent: An ERA in the 3.60 range would be good. ... Two prospects that are going to get a lot of innings are left-handers Sean Newcomb, who had a 3.99 ERA in his final nine starts last year, and Luiz Gohara, who was a big strikeout pitcher in the minors.

MIAMI: The Marlins have been to the postseason twice, in 1997 and 2003, and won the World Series each time. This year, there's a slim chance they make the postseason, and the team could be on course to have a triple-digit loss season. ... Considering the Marlins ranked 28 in attendance last season - even with Giancarlo Stanton going after 60 home runs - Marlins Park figures to be a ghost town this season. ... The Marlins, with new executive Derek Jeter, stripped down a team - trading outfielders Marcell Ozuna (St. Louis), Stanton (Yankeees) and Christian Yelich (Brewers) and second baseman Dee Gordon (Seattle) - that in 2017 ranked fifth in runs scored (778). The Marlins wanted to rebuild their farm system, but signing a couple of starting pitchers in a depressed market might turned this year's Marlins into a contender. ... The Marlins' two most recognizable players are catcher J.T. Realmuto and first baseman Justin Bour. Realmuto is one of the best all-around young catchers in the game. He's strong defensively and last season he hit .278 with 17 home runs and 68 RBIs. ... Bour, 29, a Rule 5 draft pick, has been playing in the shadow the bigger-name players that are gone. Bour hit 25 home runs with 83 RBIs last season even though he was limited to 108 games because of an oblique strain. The Marlins figure he can be a 30-home run, 100-RBI guy with health. ... The second baseman, Starlin Castro, who was traded by the Yankees to the Marlins, hit .300 for the Yankees last season. ... The Marlins' best starter is right-hander Dan Straily, who is a consistent pitcher but is nothing spectacular. Last season, he led the Marlins with 181 2/3 innings. He had a 4.26 ERA. ... Right-hander José Ureña had a 3.82 ERA last season.

NEW YORK: In a slow offseason, the Mets were active, bringing back outfielder Jay Bruce and adding two infield corners, third baseman Todd Frazier and first baseman Adrián González. ... Frazier, 32, takes over at third for David Wright, 35, who has been sidelined with constant neck and back injuries. Wright has three years and $47 million left on his contract. Frazier, a strong defensive player who bumped his on-base percentage up to .344 last season, has hit at least 25 home runs in each of the last four seasons. He hit 40 home runs for the White Sox in 2016 and a combined 27 for the White Sox and Yankees last season. ... González, 35, is a career .288 hitter and was limited to 71 games last year with the Dodgers because of a back injury. He wound up losing his job to rookie Cody Bellinger, the NL Rookie of the Year. A spring injury slowed first baseman prospect Dominic Smith. ... Frazier's defense on the left side will be paired with shortstop Amed Rosario, a prospect with a good defensive range and questions about how well he can hit. ... Asdrúbal Cabrera plays second. ... The Mets' return to contention depends on the health of their starters. Right-handers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, who pitched 30 1/3 innings last season, lead the rotation with righties Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. Wheeler has a strong spring after a lousy finish in 2017. Harvey, a staple in 2015, has struggled with injuries the last two seasons. Syndergaard looks healthy and terrific. ... The Mets expect Michael Conforto, and his sweet left-handed swing, to return from a shoulder injury by May 1. Then, with Jay Bruce (36 home runs combined for the Indians and Mets last season) in right field, where does Conforto play when healthy? ... The Mets will be a better team just when outfielder Yoenes Céspedes, a potential 30-home run bat, is healthy. He played in 81 games last season. ... One key bullpen addition: right-hander Anthony Swarzak, who had 91 strikeouts with 77 1/3 innings and a 2.33 ERA for the Brewers and White Sox. Swarzak will help improve a bullpen that had a 4.62 ERA last season. Right-hander Jeurys Familia will close after being limited last season by a shoulder injury. ... The Mets lost 92 games last season, so manager Terry Collins was done and replaced by Mickey Calloway, a former Cleveland pitching coach who has never managed.

PHILADELPHIA: The Phillies, with 66 wins in 2017, are optimistic they can move in the right direction because they finished last season 37-38. ... The Phillies added right-hander Jake Arrieta, 32, and first baseman Carlos Santana, an on-base and power guy. ... Arrieta joins a rotation that has right-hander Aaron Nola and questions. Arrieta had a 2.28 ERA in the second half of 2017 for the Cubs, but that was nothing compared to the 0.75 ERA he had in the second half of 2015, which helped him win the NL Cy Young Award. Arrieta has a 3.08 postseason ERA. ... Nola had a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts last season, including a 1.71 in a stretch of 10 starts. This could be his breakout year. ... The Phillies are banking on bounceback seasons from right-hander Vince Velasquez, who missed most of last season with injuries but had 152 strikeouts in 133 innings in 2016, and right-hander Jered Eickhoff, who also battled injuries in 2017 but had a 3.65 ERA in 197 innings in 2016. ... The Phillies also like righty Nick Pivetta, acquired from the Nationals in a July 2015 trade for right-hander Jonathan Papelbon. Pivetta had a 6.02 ERA last season, but 140 strikeouts in 133 innings. ... Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek fortify a bullpen that gets to closer Héctor Neris, who was 16-for-16 in save chances the final two months of last season. ... Santana's signing means that Rhys Hoskins, who hit 18 home runs in 170 at-bats last season, moves to left. He'll be in an outfield that has center fielder Odúbel Herrera (.281) and right-fielder Nick Williams, a left-handed batter that hit .288 with 12 home runs last season. ... Santana's on-base percentage (.363) will improve the Phillies offense, which had a .315 on-base percentage last season. The rest of the infield is second baseman César Hernández, shortstop J.P. Crawford and third baseman Maikel Franco with catcher Jorge Alfaro. ... Their new manager is Gabe Kapler, who has never managed but comes with an unconventional, do-everything-possible-to-get-ready intensity that seems more conducive to college football that baseball. ... The Phillies are trying to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

WASHINGTON: Expectations are sky-high in D.C. A playoff appearance isn't enough. The Nationals, who host this year's All-Star Game, also want to bring the World Series back to D.C. for the first time since 1933. And, if they win, it'd be the first Washington team to win a World Series since 1924. ... Right fielder Bryce Harper enters his free agent year, and so that's going to be a closely watched story. He's already got one NL MVP, but he's also been injured a lot, playing in more than 140 games twice in six seasons. ... Harper will play along side center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who, given a third chance, established himself last season (.271, 19 home runs, 17 steals) and left fielder Adam Eaton, who hit safely in 17 of 23 games and a .393 on-base percentage last season before a knee injury in late April finished his season. ... Eaton will bat leadoff and, in addition to his steals, he could hit double figures in home runs and triples. ... The other potential free agents are second baseman Daniel Murphy, who is recovering from knee surgery and won't be in the opening day lineup in Cincinnati, and left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who will be challenged to match last year's 15 wins and 2.96 ERA. ... Gonzalez will be in a rotation that includes right-hander Max Scherzer, who says he can improve on his NL Cy Young season of a year ago when he had 12 strikeouts per nine innings and a WHIP of 0.90, and right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who had a 0.84 ERA in his final eight starts of 2017 and then dominated the Cubs in Game 4 of the Division Series. ... Right-hander Tanner Roark, who pitched better in the second half than he did in the first, but overall his 4.67 was un-Roark like. ... The bullpen, an issue at the start of last season, is set with the Big Three at the back, with right-handers Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler setting up the closer, left-hander Sean Doolittle, who saved 21 of 22 after coming to the Nationals in a trade from Oakland. ... Catcher Matt Wieters, 31, hit .225 last season. He played solid defense, but this year, the Nationals think that his bat will wake up if he catches fewer games. ... Shortstop Trea Turner, if he can avoid injury, he has the potential to steal 65 bases with 20 home runs. Turner and third baseman Anthony Rendon, who hit .301 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs with a .403 on-base percentage in 2017, are a dangerous duo on the left side. ... First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, 33, turned his career around last season with 36 home runs and a .930 OPS. Can Zimmerman repeat those numbers? ... Matt Adams, who played first base for St. Louis and Atlanta, is left-handed power off the bench, replacing Adam Lind. ... The manager's experience levels keep changing with this team. It has gone from the experience of Davey Johnson to the inexperience of Matt Williams, to the veteran leadership of Dusty Baker and now to Davey Martinez, who has never managed at any level but has spent a decade as Joe Maddon's bench coach with the Rays and Cubs.

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