The National League East used to be something of a "glamour" division in Major League Baseball. Anytime you have a division that features a New York team, there's going to be a little added attention naturally. But with pennant contenders in Atlanta and Philadelphia for so many years, and the occasional run from Miami, then the Washington Nationals getting into the act, the N.L. East was right up there in terms on talent and media attention in the game.
But the past few seasons, as the Braves and Phillies got a little long in the tooth -- then completely overhauled their big league rosters -- the division has been trending downward, both in accumulative talent and attention.
The Nats and Mets are clearly the class of the division, with the Marlins in the middle and the Braves and Phillies competing not only at the bottom of the division, but the entire National League. The following, then, is a preview of what to expect and look for out of the division rivals in 2016.
New York Mets
Key subtractions: 2B Daniel Murphy, LF Michael Cuddyer, SS Ruben Tejada, 3B Juan Uribe, SP Jonathan Niese, SP Dillon Gee, RP Jenrry Mejia, RP Tyler Clippard, RP Bobby Parnell
Key additions: 2B Neil Walker, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, OF Alejandro De Aza, RP Jim Henderson, RP Antonio Bastardo
The Mets figure to be the Nats biggest -- maybe only -- challenge to the division title. They won 90 games last season, then marched past the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs on their way to the World Series against the Kansas City Royals, where they were unceremoniously dumped by the Royals contact-and-speed game, losing four games to one.
The strength of the Mets clearly is their pitching staff. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are as formidable a foursome as there is in the game. Add ageless Bartolo Colon or any number of attractive youngsters on at the end, and it's hard to imagine a prolonged losing streak with that much accumulated talent. Zach Wheeler could be a midseason addition as he recovers from elbow surgery. Logan Verrett and Rafael Montero provide some depth.
The bullpen, long the butt of running jokes, has been solidified the past couple of seasons. Jeurys Familia took over at closer from multiple-PED culprit Jenrry Mejia and put together a 43-saves season while putting up a 1.85 ERA. Former closer Addison Reed isn't what he used to be, but will be tasked with the set-up now. New York added tough lefty Antonio Bastardo and old friend Jerry Blevins returns from injury.
The question with the Mets is how much offense they'll produce. Last season's trade deadline acquisition Yoenis Cespedes will play center and provide plenty of pop. Impressive second-year left fielder Michael Conforto and veteran right fielder Curtis Granderson fill out the outfield, with Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza as backups.
The Mets changed up the middle, with Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker coming in for Ruben Tejada and current Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy. Both are slight upgrades, with Walker providing better defense at the keystone and Cabrera a much better hitter than his predecessor.
The corners are manned by slugger Lucas Duda and fading veteran David Wright, who continues to be plagued by a degenerative condition in his back. Travis d'Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki return at catcher.
Prediction: The Mets go neck-and-neck with the Nats all season long at the top of the division.
Key subtractions: 1B Michael Morse, CI Casey McGehee, 2B Donovan Solano, C Jarrod Saltalmacchia, SP Dan Haren, SP David Phelps, SP Mat Latos, RP Steve Cishek, SP Henderson Alvarez
Key additions: MGR Don Mattingly, SP Wei-Yin Chen, SP Edwin Jackson, OF Justin Maxwell, CI Chris Johnson
The Marlins are perennially rebuilding, even when they are competitive, but their daily roster returns pretty much intact from last year's 90-loss season (71-91). They still finished in third place in the division while rotating washed up veterans with some promising younger players. This season promises to be no different. In fact, the most interesting thing about them might be new hitting coach Barry Bonds.
Miami has two bona fide stars: oft-injured outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and oft-injured starter Jose Fernandez. Stanton clubbed 27 home runs despite playing in just 74 games, and Fernandez went 6-1 in 11 starts in a season shortened by Tommy John recovery. Healthy, the two of them are enough to keep the Marlins competitive, at least on the days Fernandez pitches. Neither one seems to stay healthy for very long, unfortunately for the Marlins.
The rest of the rotation reads like a who's who of the witness protection list: Wei-Yin Chen, jettisoned by Baltimore; former Houston prospect Jarred Cosart; middling veteran Tom Koehler; and clinging to the shreds of his career Edwin Jackson. Miami's top prospect, Tyler Kolek, is just 20 and pitched at Low-A last year.
Supporting Stanton in the lineup are speedy second baseman Dee Gordon (.333/.359/.418; 58 steals) and first baseman Justin Bour, who came out of nowhere to hit 23 homers last season. Traditional foe Martin Prado will man third and slick-fielding Adeiny Hechavarria is at short. Emerging catcher J.T. Realmuto is the full-time starter after his 10-homer, 126-game rookie season last year, while Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna will be in left and center respectively. And 42-year-old Ichiro is still in pursuit of his 3,000th MLB hit. He enters 2016 needing 65 more.
A.J. Ramos returns as the closer after a 32-save season, but the rest of the bullpen really isn't that much to write home about, though Kyle Barraclough's name is fun to say.
Prediction: Ichiro indeed gets his 3,000 MLB hit, though it takes him to the last week of the season playing almost fulltime in the month of September to get there. For the Marlins, it's all about marketing.
Key subtractions: GM Ruben Amaro Jr., OF Ben Revere, 2B Chase Utley, OF Domonic Brown, OF Jeff Francoeur, SP Aaron Harang, SP Cole Hamels, SP Jerome Williams, CL Jonathan Papelbon, RP Justin De Fratus, RP Ken Giles
Key additions: OF Peter Bourjos, OF Tyler Goeddel, SP Jeremy Hellickson, SP Charlie Morton, SP Vince Velasquez, SP Matt Harrison, RP David Hernandez, RP Edward Mujica
Ah, the Phillies. Just the sound of their name is enough to make most Nats fans' blood boil. Every since Stan Kasten invited the Phaithful to invade Nats park for opening day, the Phillies have been personas non grata around these parts.
The Phillies used to be the bullies of the division, but are now just a shell of what they once were. Gone are the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee and Cole "fake tough" Hamels. In their place are a collection of mostly anonymous spare parts while the new administration picks up the pieces from the wildly inconsistent Ruben Amaro, Jr. regime. They gave 343 plate appearances to Jeff Francoeur last year, for heaven's sake.
The Phillies finished a woeful 63-99 last season, fifth in the division. They'll challenge that mark in its futility again this year. Looking at the lineup, it's tough to pick out the Phillies "best" player. It's probably shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford already, but he's just 20 years old and won't be on the radar for a couple of seasons.
By WAR last year it was outfielder Odubel Herrera, who hit .297/.344/.418 with 16 steals, though he was caught eight times. At 24 now, he's a useful player. Third baseman Maikel Franco, 23, hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 homers in his first extended tryout, and he looks like he could be a building block. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez stole 19 bases and slashed .272/.339/.348. You can see I'm grasping now.
The OBP-averse Ryan Howard is still employed in Philly, finally in the last of what turned out to be one of the worst contracts in baseball history. He hit 23 homers last year, but suffered through .229/.277/.443 with an iron glove to get there. Woof.
As for the pitching staff? The "ace" is prospect Aaron Nola. He was a quick riser through the minors and has a good amount of polish already at the tender age of 23. He was 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA and solid K rate, but lefties hurt him and he tired down the stretch. Presumptive opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson comes over from Arizona to eat innings, and Charlie Morton and his 4.40 ERA from Pittsburgh are there to do the same thing. Perpetually injured Matt Harrison is already on the disabled list until July.
The closer is another Diamondback refugee, David Hernandez, who put up a 4.28 ERA (4.74 FIP) in 40 games in the desert last year.
Prediction: Howard gets fewer than 250 at bats in his swan song and the Phaithful resort to wearing paper bags over their heads -- the ones that will still go to the park.
Key subtractions: SS Andrelton Simmons, OF Cameron Maybin, SP Shelby MIller, INF Chris Johnson
Key additions: SS Erick Aybar, 2B Gordon Beckham, OF Emilio Bonifacio, OF Ender Inciarte, SP Sean Newcombe, SP Chris Ellis, SP Dansby Swanson, SS* Aaron Blair SP
Where to start? In three years of so, the Braves may very well have the best pitching rotation in baseball. This year, though? The Braves are going to be one of the worst teams in baseball.
They have some useful arms now -- Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos...they all have some stuff. But by the time you read this, some of it might be traded off already. New GM John Coppolella is the one tasked with rebuilding the Braves as they play in the last year of their downtown stadium, and he's treating the Braves roster the way some play fantasy baseball, making trades every other day because he can. He's acquired some very good arms (Aaron Blair, Sean Newcombe, Touki Toussaint), but none of them will play in Atlanta this season.
The Braves won't be bad because of their pitching, though. It's the hitting. As in, there's none of it. They have been next-to-last and last in runs scored the past two seasons, and it won't be any better this year. Freddie Freeman is still the first baseman, and he's still a Nats-killer, but after that? Not much. Nick Markakis is in right field for his second season there, and he can still get on base (.296/.370/.376), but he managed just three homers -- yup, three, and hasn't driven in more than 60 in four seasons now. He's their clean-up hitter.
Center fielder Ender Inciarte came over from Arizona in the Shelby Miller deal and can play some (5.3 WAR in '15), and the Braves hope 31-year-old Cuban almost-rookie Hector Olivera hits in left field. Empty batting average Erick Aybar takes over at short for Andrelton Simmons. And the rotting husks of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher are still on the roster.
Prediction: Any name you recognize in the above preview (except maybe Freeman) will be traded off for more pitching.
[ed. note - " * = The article previously referred to Dansby Swanson as a 'starting pitcher' instead of a shortstop."]