Division-by-division: NL East …
Leading up to Spring Training, I’ll take a look at each of the six divisions in hopes of providing an overview for what to expect this coming season. First up, the NL East.
Last year’s record: 96-66, 1st place (lost to Dodgers in NLDS)
Key additions: UT Ryan Doumit, RP Luis Vasquez, SP Gavin Floyd, 1B Mat Gamel
Key subtractions: C Brian McCann, SP Tim Hudson, SP Paul Maholm, RP Scott Downs
Biggest strength: The ninth inning, where Craig Kimbrel has cemented himself as the best closer in baseball by posting a 1.48 ERA and converting 138 of 153 save chances the last three years.
Biggest question: Filling the gaps. The Braves overcame a lot in 2013 (struggles by B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, injuries to Tim Hudson and Jason Heyward), but lost a few important pieces over the offseason and will need a lot more to go right.
Most important player: B.J. Upton. He batted a ghastly .184/.268/.289 in the first of a five-year, $75.25 million contract and needs to step up for an offense that is now without McCann (and still with Uggla).
In 25 words or less: The Braves handily won the division despite dealing with a lot of adversity last year, but the Nats are better and their holes are bigger.
Last year’s record: 62-100, 5th place
Key additions: 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Rafael Furcal, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 3B Casey McGehee, RP Carter Capps
Key subtractions: 1B Logan Morrison, 3B Placido Polanco, OF Justin Ruggiano, OF Chris Coghlan, RP Chad Qualls
Biggest strength: Pitching, particularly young pitching. Despite losing triple-digit games, the Marlins had the best ERA in franchise history (3.71) and did it with an assortment of pre-arbitration pitchers with upside — Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Steve Cishek and, of course, NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez.
Biggest question: Offense. The Marlins ranked last in the Majors in runs scored last year. They’ve since added several new bats, but Furcal (coming off Tommy John surgery), McGehee (spent 2013 in Japan), Saltalamacchia (back issues) and Jones (.578 career OPS against lefties) all have questions.
Most important player: Giancarlo Stanton. He was limited to 116 games and an .845 OPS because of a strained right hamstring in 2013 and needs to produce in 2014 — either to help the Marlins’ needy offense, or to maximize a trade.
In 25 words or less: They’re an ownership and financial mess, but somehow the Marlins have done what they’ve always done — accrue young, talented pitching.
Last year’s record: 74-88, 3rd place
Key additions: OF Chris Young, OF Curtis Granderson, SP Bartolo Colon, SP John Lannan
Key subtractions: SP Johan Santana, SP Shaun Marcum, RP LaTroy Hawkins
Biggest strength: Starting pitching, even without Matt Harvey and in the post-Santana era. With Colon, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee and Jon Niese, and top prospect Noah Syndergaard likely joining them midseason, it’s their best chance to compete, now and in the future.
Biggest question: Relief pitching. They ranked 22nd in bullpen ERA last year, and they don’t know what they’ll get out of closer Bobby Parnell (2.16 ERA and 22 saves) coming off neck surgery.
Most important player: Harvey, even though he won’t even pitch this year. The 24-year-old right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery 26 starts into a brilliant sophomore season that saw him finish fourth in Cy Young voting and will spend the entire year rehabbing. If he returns to form in 2015, he’ll join a young and dynamic rotation, and then the Mets can really get going.
In 25 words or less: It’s nice to see the Mets finally spend on free agents, but there are still too many holes to compete in a tough division.
Last year’s record: 86-76, 2nd place
Key additions: MGR Matt Williams, SP Doug Fister, RP Jerry Blevins, OF Nate McLouth, INF Jamey Carroll
Key subtractions: MGR Davey Johnson, SP Dan Haren, INF Steve Lombardozzi, RP Ian Krol, 1B/3B Chad Tracy
Biggest strength: Talent across the board. With Fister joining Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, their rotation is spectacular. With Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, etc., their offense is dangerous from top to bottom. With Rafael Soriano, Craig Stammen, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, their bullpen is solid in the back end.
Biggest question: A rookie manager, and whether or not he can put it together for a veteran team that has World Series aspirations and underachieved last season.
Most important player: Blevins, or Xavier Cedeno, or any other lefty reliever who can consistently get lefty hitters out in a division loaded with dangerous lefty bats. It’s the Nats’ biggest (and, perhaps, only) weakness.
In 25 words or less: Barring injury, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a playoff team. Plain and simple.
Last year’s record: 73-89, 4th place
Key additions: OF Marlon Byrd, C Wil Nieves, SP/RP Roberto Hernandez, RP Brad Lincoln, RP Chad Gaudin
Key subtractions: SP Roy Halladay, SP John Lannan
Biggest strength: The top of the rotation. Not many teams can boast a 1-2 punch as lethal as Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
Biggest question: The health and production of the assortment of high-priced, aging superstars — namely, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Jonathan Papelbon.
Most important player: Howard. He’s owed a guaranteed $75 million over the next three years and needs to revert back to the MVP form he’s now three years removed from.
In 25 words or less: Ruben Amaro Jr. is trying to squeeze out all that’s left from this championship fruit, but it may have already dried up.
Predicted order of finish …