NL East preview: Washington Nationals lead way

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg pitches batting practice in spring training.
A full season from Stephen Strasburg could cement a deep postseason run for the Washington Nationals.

Hey baseball fans! “The sun came out today; we’re born again, there’s new grass on the field…”

Well, not just yet, but spring training’s on the tube, and I’m getting email prompts to buy tickets, so baseball season’s on the way! If you haven’t yet checked it out, have a listen to my appearance on First Sports with Steve Bortstein, on FOX Sports Radio, where Steve and I broke down the 2013 NL East (mine was the first in a series of six TTFB appearances on First Sports, breaking down the coming season division by division). As a supplement, see below for my National League East 2013 picks. Your comments are welcome!

Washington Nationals

They have most of the parts in place. A jaw-dropping young superstar in Bryce Harper; a historically good (so far) ace, in Strasburg; hitters, defense and a solid bullpen; and a good veteran manager who seems to be able to manage different personality types (see the ’86 Mets). Denard Span is a good pickup in center field: he’s fast, dangerous and defensively strong, and in a strong lineup, he could really produce. And adding Kurt Suzuki, a solid veteran catcher who can hit a bit and has managed many young pitchers, can be more of a difference-maker than people believe. I think 100 wins will be hard to accomplish in what looks like a tough division, but I think the Washington Nationals will come pretty close.

X-Factor: Adam LaRoche. Every year, he worries both fans and fantasy owners until about mid-summer — at which point he tends to go bonkers. He’s another solid veteran presence; he also has a good glove and prodigious power, and peaking late is generally better than peaking early. However, if his early-season swoon lasts too long, or he has anything like a significant dropoff (which is a threat after such a long career, though his kind of player ages very well), the Nats could lose one of their main anchors.

Prediction: 98 wins

New York Mets

After a couple of seasons where they alternated disappointing swoons and thrilling hot streaks, the Mets seem poised to make a move. They’re battle-tested and have demonstrated an ability to hit in the clutch (last season, they were one of baseball’s best at two-out scoring). Lucas Duda is now in left field, where he has less ground to cover and seems to be acclimating. Offensively, he might be the division’s biggest dark horse, as he’s got cartoon-home-run power but is also a decent situational hitter. David Wright had a great season at the plate last year and has finally found something resembling consistecy in his throws from third base. The Mets have an abundance of on-the-cusp young talent, including Ruben Tejada, who’s one of the quietest .300 hitters in baseball and a fluid, unspectacular-but-good shortstop. Zack Wheeler seems poised for a breakout year, and seems unafraid of pressure. Shaun Marcum, acquired from the Blue Jays, has managed to put together one solid season after another in a division full of hitter’s parks. If Ike Davis — whose glove at first base is high-caliber and whose power is prodigious, but whose plate disposition is at times stupefying — returns to trending upward, then Wright will feel less pressure to be a “power hitter” and just hit like a three-spot guy with decent power. Another guy who will create a ripple effect in the lineup is Travis d’Arnaud, who seems to be as good as advertised — and isn’t bad defensively, either. Marlon Byrd is a nice pickup, and Daniel Murphy looks like a bonafide professional hitter. If they stick to situational hitting, the Mets could be one of the National League’s best offenses.

X-Factor: Bobby Parnell. He throws triple-digits, but sometimes seems surprisingly hittable. The Mets have to continue to cultivate him as a pitcher, and not just a heat-hurler. The “when in doubt, throw harder” school of closing works for almost nobody, and Parnell’s silly-fast fastball seems to have a relative lack of natural action on it. Which is to say, time your swing right and it’ll hit itself out of the park. If Parnell learns to keep hitters off balance and set at-bats up, then his 100 mph fastball will go back to looking like 100 mph, and we’ll have ourselves a closer. If not, the Mets’ capable-but-baffling middle relief will go back to being streaky and beleaguered, and the Mets will go back to mostly losing seesaw epics and mostly winning when their starters throw gems.

Prediction: 90 wins

Atlanta Braves

They have a wicked bullpen, and a seemingly loaded outfield. They’re young, they put together a good run last season and they appear to be up and coming. Then they united the Upton bothers, and to some, the sky’s the limit. The thing is, B.J. is not a high-batting-average guy, and Justin’s power seems mysteriously streaky. Both show signs of being hot and cold, and positioned next to each other and expected to take the Braves over the top, they might struggle. Playing next to your superstar brother can be liberating or pressurizing; I think it could go either way with these two. Moreover, this is a team that’s a little strikeout-prone, which could be a problem in a division full of good pitching. Their starting rotation has fallen off, and despite middle relief being daunting, did they kill their arms last year? Young arms can be funny, and Tim Hudson will eventually actually age … will it be this year? Last but not least, their outfield defense is dynamic, but their infield defense is suspect.

X-Factor: The bullpen. They logged a lot of innings last year, and that sort of thing can make or break a young fireballer. If their bullpen is just as absurd as it was last year, it can shorten games to 7 innings and make them a real threat; then again, with a spotty infield defense and a team that strikes out like it’s going out of style, the games could be out of hand by the seventh inning if the starting pitching isn’t lights-out. Which, right now, it doesn’t seem to be.

Prediction: 89 wins

Philadelphia Phillies

Their living launching-pad park and killer staff will save them from a total flop, though they’re in real danger of continuing the slide indicated by last year’s .500 finish. Jonathan Papelbon — not exactly always a stabilizing influence — and Roy Halladay seem to be similarly concerned, as indicated by their recent commentary; they might have a point, as the rest of the division (except the Marlins) seem to be taking active steps to get better, and their core is aging and/or battling tough injuries. They’ve reportedly been pursuing Giancarlo Stanton, and that could be huge for them — otherwise, their outfield could go either way, and they don’t seem to have a lot of stabilizing influences. Ryan Howard‘s Achilles tendon health could make or break this team’s ability to consistently put up runs.

X-Factor: Michael Young, who might have a resurgent season in a new league and a hitter’s park with new pitchers who don’t know him. Being 36 isn’t too old for a hitter’s hitter like Young, who relies more on line drives and versatility than one particular jaw-dropping attribute. Moreover, he’s got the kind of strength that could turn a lot of his line-drive gappers into home runs in the aforementioned bandbox where he’ll play half his games. He’s also a veteran with a history of winning, and he’s generally non-disruptive, which could make a difference in a clubhouse that’s a little brash.

Prediction: 82 wins

Miami Marlins

I can’t figure out what they’re trying to do. The question is, can the Marlins figure out what they’re trying to do? They brought in Ozzie Guillen last season, I guess to keep them in the national conversation (because, if nothing else, he can’t stay out of the news) and whip the crew into shape by way of verbal fireworks. The thing is, his schtick doesn’t work on everyone, and the Marlins basically imploded on his watch — so in a wise move, the Marlins jettisoned him after last season. Unfortunately, they also lost most of their exciting and established talent … so new manager Mike Redmond is taking over a team that’s basically starting from scratch. Casey Kotchman, a veteran first baseman and potential centering influence, is injured; their only real known quantity in the starting rotation is Ricky Nolasco, who can be terribly streaky; Stanton appears to be a bona fide banger, but is very young and not dynamic enough — yet, anyway — to lead them; and, well, their ballpark seems to be the most eye-catching thing about them right now. Jose Reyes‘ report that Marlins owner Jeffrey Luria encouraged him to buy a Miami house right until they traded him won’t help morale, either. The Marlins are totally under reconstruction, and it could take a while, given the strength of the division.

X-Factor: How well Mike Redmond adapts to his new team, which is still mostly adapting to each other.

Prediction: 76 wins

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