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MLB Opening Day 2016: NL East preview

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The Mets look poised to repeat as champions, but Bryce Harper could will the Nationals to contention. Sorry other teams.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is just around the corner. In the interest of preparing you for it, the writers here have come up with a short preview of each team. For each team, we chose either the make-or-break story of that team, the thing that other teams would try to copy should ultimate victory occur, or the most important thing for that team to have a successful season. It could be some or all of the above. We then selected a single statistic that represented that story.

This division is really the Mets vs. Nationals. The Phillies and Braves are rebuilding, while the Marlins probably just won't be good enough. The Mets have amazing young pitchers and retained Yoenis Cespedes. The Nationals lost Ian Desmond, but they still have Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.

Mets

Make or break stat: Starting rotation payroll

2015 value: $6,517,625 (less than Bartolo Colon's salary - this will be said again)

The number that is most significant to understanding the potential success of the 2016 Mets is 6,517,625. Once converted into currency form, that figure ($6,517,625.00) is the paltry sum paid to Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matzcombined. Their starting rotation is potentially the best in baseball, is under control for several seasons, and currently, the entire thing costs less than Bartolo Colon ($7.25 million).

As cost escalates for starting pitching and more salary languishes on the disabled list, acquiring elite, young pitching talent in the draft and by trades may become a popular strategy for teams looking to create depth. In particular, a team operating with a tight budget like the Mets needs cheap production to provide flexibility. This allows the room to make an unconventional offer to an impact player like Yoenis Cespedes, or fill the inevitable midseason holes that appear due to pitching injuries. Just ask the 2015 NL Champion Mets, ranked 20th in 2015 payroll, who were without Wheeler and Matz for significant periods of last season – flexibility helps.

-Spencer Bingol

Nationals

Make or break stat: Position players with fWAR above 3

2015 value: 1

In 2015, the Nationals had just one position player post an fWAR above 3.0. It’s simultaneously impressive and revealing to note that Bryce Harper’s 9.5 fWAR season was 7.2 fWAR more than second place Danny Espinosa, who had a 2.3 fWAR season. This discrepancy reveals that one of the Nationals’ problems in 2015 was a lack of solid production behind their star right fielder. Getting healthy and productive seasons from the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth would go a long way toward restoring the Nationals as favorites.

Depth was not an issue for the rotation. Max Scherzer had a Cy Young-worthy year, while Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann each posted seasons that would make them the staff ace on a lot of other teams. Zimmermann is gone now, but the Nationals hope that Joe Ross can translate his impressive 2015 debut to a full season.

Aside a lack of support on offense, the Nationals in 2015 suffered from a toxic environment that got worse as the season progressed and can be partially blamed on manager Matt Williams. He’s gone too, and Dusty Baker will replace him at the helm.

The Nationals have a very good team. If the rotation can get close to replicating their 2015 success and if the supporting cast on offense is a little more supportive, it’s very easy to see the Nationals competing with the Mets for the AL East crown—and winning it. If that happens, new manager Dusty Baker will likely receive a lot of the credit. Nobody has a good way of measuring the effectiveness of a personality-driven manager, but it’s widely recognized to be important. A successful Nationals team in 2016 might cause other teams to go searching for their own old school skipper.

-Eric Garcia McKinley

Marlins

Make or break stat: Bottom-5 Positions Leaguewide

2015 value: 3

2016 value (projected): 4

Ah, the Marlins. An easy team to hate, known for nepotism, prioritizing money over performance in blatant fashion, and being owned by the man who took baseball out of Montreal. And yet:

Photo credit: Rob Foldy/Getty Images

I guess we like the Marlins now.

Contention in 2016 won't be particularly easy, though Florida does have the advantage of playing nearly a quarter of their games against the woeful Braves and Phillies. Still, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs give them only a 14.5% and 16.3% chance, respectively, of making the playoffs, either via the Wild Card or the Division, despite possessing two of the most electric young players in baseball. Giancarlo Stanton is the best power hitter in the game, and his 2015, though limited by an injury to his hamate bone, was pretty bonkers. His .341 ISO led the league (minimum 300 PAs), he produced somewhere around 4 WAR (by either FG or BP) in about half a season, and he did things like this:

His counterpart on the other side of the ball is Jose Fernandez, who also had a 2015 shortened by injury (recovery from Tommy John) and dazzled in his limited time. Among starters with at least 60 IP, he had the third-highest K/9 and second-lowest FIP, and he did things like this:

Problem is, behind them, there's not much else for the Marlins, which was true in 2015 as well.

Position 2015 WAR Rank Projected 2016 WAR Rank
C 26 28
1B 29 29
2B 4 11
SS 6 28
3B 13 19
RF 7 2
CF 24 15
LF 19 5
RP 14 29
SP 26 17

When people talk about a "stars-and-scrubs" roster, usually what they really mean is a "stars-and-average-or-slightly-below-average-players" roster, but the former really does describe Miami. In addition to Stanton and Fernandez, Wei-Yin Chen and Christian Yelich are very good, and Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon are also solid players. Beyond that, though, their roster is pretty much a barren wasteland, and if they make the playoffs, it'll be because some of their seeming scrubs surprised just about everybody. JT Realmuto is only 26, so he could conceivably break out, but with terrible framing (the third-worst FRAA among catchers, per Baseball Prospectus), the offensive bar he'll have to clear to be valuable is high. Similarly, Justin Bour is only ("only") 27, but we're pretty sure he can't hit lefties, which leaves Chris Johnson getting a couple hundred PAs, and he's both worse and older than Bour himself. The projections don't believe in Adeiny Hechavarria, but he just had a solid year by both fWAR and WARP, so maybe they're being too pessimistic. When taken together, that's a whole lot to have to go right for the Marlins to play in October. Unless the aforementioned Mr. Bonds can work some serious magic with the roster, this roster is going to have some gaping holes, and that's not something a team can easily overcome.

-Henry Druschel

Braves

Make or break stat: MLB debuts from non-relievers

2015 value: 6 (out of 16)

Like the Phillies, the Braves will be mired in a lost season. They have traded away pretty much anything not nailed down, and they got out the hammer to pry things away that were nailed down (Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons). The only "core" players remaining from their extension extravaganza of a few years ago are Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran. Freeman is a very good player, and Teheran has been inconsistent but also has so much potential. This season is preparation for their move to Cobb County.

In the interest of crafting a product that will engage fans for their new stadium (to say nothing of the ethics of the situation), the Braves will need to throw all kinds of pasta against the wall to see what sticks. Veterans could be dangled for further trade pieces, and it’s not like the veterans are blocking anyone anyway. The Braves added to the MLB core by grabbing Ender Inciarte, but aside from him and the aforementioned Freeman and Teheran it seems like every spot is up for grabs. The Braves now need to figure out which prospects within their treasure trove will help put fans in the new stands come 2017.

-Kevin Ruprecht

Phillies

Make or break stat: Total innings from Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vincent Velasquez, and Mark Appel

2015 value: 184.1

Let’s be honest here. The Phillies are going to be bad. I wrote an article awhile back espousing a rose-colored glasses path to contention involving Marcell Ozuna, but that was a best-case scenario among best-case scenarios. That article also involved Aaron Altherr, who sadly got injured, and I’m not allowed to have nice things. The real scenario involves discussing the merits of a 100-loss season. There are not many.

The goal for the Phillies this year really has to be to set up for the future. In that vein, they have several promising young arms in the rotation. Aaron Nola, who was drafted only in 2014, has a lot of prospect sheen and a little MLB success under his belt. Jerad Eickhoff is a little bit older but had greater success in his 51 innings, though there are sustainability issues with his BABIP. Vincent Velasquez has great stuff but might have control problems. Mark Appel is/was a hugely hyped prospect who is inching ever closer to the majors. Should these youngsters log a large number of innings, it means a couple things. First, they displaced veterans because they were better. Second, they stuck as starters. Four young, cost-controlled starters can lead to a lot of great things, including fan engagement in a (mostly) lost season. Should these players get injured or be ineffective, I think listless would an appropriate word to describe the Phillies’ season.

-Kevin Ruprecht

Correction: The Mets were not without Harvey for significant periods of last season. Spencer has been given a talking-to.