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Beyond the Box Score 2018 MLB previews: NL East

Can anyone stand in the Nationals’ way?

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Left to right: Bryce Harper (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports), Noah Syndergaard (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports), Freddie Freeman (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports), Aaron Nola (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports), J.T. Realmuto (Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports).

Our long, winter nightmare is over. Baseball is back! To get ready for the 2018 MLB season, we at Beyond the Box Score are previewing all 30 teams, looking at the moves they’ve made since last year, the player (or players) who could make a big difference this year, and reflecting on their overall outlook. We’ll roll out previews for each division over the next two days (AL on Tuesday, NL on Wednesday). Enjoy, and welcome back!

Washington Nationals

2017 record: 97-65, first in NL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 89-73, first in NL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 89-73, first in NL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: first in NL East (18/18)

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals
Perhaps his last year in the District.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Hired Dave Martinez as manager.
  • Signed RHP Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $1 million contract.
  • Signed 1B Matt Adams to a one-year, $4 million contract.
  • Signed C Miguel Montero to a minor-league contract.
  • Re-signed RHP Brandon Kintzler to a two-year, $10 million contract.
  • Re-signed 2B Howie Kendrick to a two-year, $7 million deal

It was a pretty quiet offseason for the Nationals. Their two biggest additions — Benoit and Adams — will start the year on the disabled list and on the bench, respectively.

The biggest move, though, was the replacing of Dusty Baker with Martinez as skipper. Martinez has not managed at the MLB level, but he served as the Cubs’ bench coach for the last three seasons, helping them win the World Series in 2016. Prior to this, Martinez worked in Tampa Bay as the Rays’ bench coach as well. As a player, Martinez played in 16 big-league seasons, slashing .276/.341/.389 over 6,480 plate appearances with the Expos, Cubs, Rays, White Sox, Giants, Braves, Rangers, Reds and Blue Jays.

Other than that, the Nationals stayed fairly quiet this offseason. They brought back two of their trade deadline acquisitions in Kintzler and Kendrick, who should both contribute positively with an entire season in Nationals red, white and blue.

Players to watch: Adam Eaton and Michael Taylor

It took top prospect Lucas Giolito, first round pick Dane Dunning and Reynaldo Lopez for Washington to get Eaton, but in late April, it was announced that he had a complete tear of the ACL in his knee. He ultimately missed the rest of the season and couldn’t help the Nationals make a postseason run.

Eaton had established himself as one of the most underrated players in the game with the White Sox. From 2014 to 2016, he earned 13.1 fWAR, putting up a wRC+ at or above 117 in all three seasons. He had a .297/.393/.462 slash line in his first 107 plate appearances in a Nationals uniform before the injury, putting him on pace — though it was a very small sample — to have the best season of his career.

Taylor came in to replace Eaton and did a phenomenal job in that role. He slashed .271/.320/.486 over 432 plate appearances, hitting 19 home runs, stealing 17 bases and posting a 105 wRC+. Together with his great defense, that meant Taylor was worth 3.1 fWAR. His valiant effort off the bench has earned Taylor a starting job in the outfield, replacing Jayson Werth (who signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners).

If Eaton is able to return to form, the Nationals will see an upgrade in the outfield. Werth’s -0.3 fWAR will be gone, and an outfield of Bryce Harper, Taylor and Eaton could end up being one of the most valuable in the league. But Washington needs Eaton to play just as well after his ACL surgery as he did before. If his swing in spring training is any indication, the Nationals should be very excited.

2018 outlook

The NL East is the Nationals’ to lose. The Mets are decent, but they still have too many issues to really make a run at the division crown, and the Braves, Phillies, and Marlins (lol) are still too far aw1ay. The Nationals are one of the most complete teams in baseball, and that’s why they have had the success that they have had in recent seasons.

Look at it this way. The Nationals have two Cy Young candidates in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, a perennial MVP candidate in Harper, and plenty of underrated value across the diamond, from Anthony Rendon’s 2017 6.9 fWAR to Ryan Zimmerman’s 36-homer resurgence. Even their regular weakness — the bullpen — has been fixed, with Kintzler’s signing and last year’s trade for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.

The only issues the Nationals might have is at catcher. Matt Wieters had the worst season of his career in 2017, with an ugly 62 wRC+ negating his solid defense. The team brought in Montero to provide depth, but he hasn’t provided positive value since 2015, and the Cubs cut him last year after he called out the pitching staff for not keeping runners close.

On the whole, though, the Nationals are still deep enough to make a postseason run. Is this when they finally get over the hump and make it to the League Championship Series for the first time since moving to D.C. ? With Harper in his walk year, it could be their last chance.

Devan Fink

Philadelphia Phillies

2017 record: 66-96, fifth in NL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 81-81, second in NL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 76-86, third in NL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: second in NL East (11/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Philadelphia Phillies
Get used to seeing Arrieta in red.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Hired Gabe Kapler as manager.
  • Signed RHP Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract.
  • Signed 1B Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Tommy Hunter to a two-year, $18 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Pat Neshek to a two-year, $16.25 million contract.
  • Signed 2B Scott Kingery to a six-year, $24 million extension.

Arrieta and Santana are the two big names on this list. While Arrieta is certainly a lesser version of his former self, he should be able to provide stability at the top of a very young rotation. The 32-year-old was worth 2.4 fWAR in 168 13 innings last year, but his 2.28 ERA and .288 wOBA against in the second half suggests he might not be done just yet.

The Arrieta deal was the Phillies’ largest guarantee to a free agent since 2010, when they signed Cliff Lee for five years and $120 million. The front office, led by General Manager Matt Klentak and President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail, seemingly is preparing for a period of contention going forward.

Santana, on the other hand, at age 31 has been the definition of consistency throughout his entire career. Since his first full season in 2012, Santana has never posted an fWAR lower than 2.1 (2015) or higher than 3.7 (2016). He typically hits for a low average, but his career 15.2 percent walk rate, compared to just a 17.0 percent strikeout rate, has kept his career OBP at .365. He also provides pop at the plate, posting isolated power numbers of around .200 all throughout his career.

At a minimum, these four deals make the Phillies more interesting. And that’s what Klentak and MacPhail want, even if it doesn’t translate to a postseason appearance this season. Next offseason, the Phillies may be able to use Arrieta, Santana and one of their young, budding stars to recruit some of the big-name free agents that’ll be hitting the market. Bryce Harper to Philly, anyone?

Player to watch: Maikel Franco

From Arrieta to Kingery to Rhys Hoskins to Aaron Nola, there will be many players to watch on the Phillies this season. But none could have more of an impact on whether this team has a make-or-break year than Franco.

For years, Franco has frustrated the Phillies organization. With high hopes that he would break out to become a power-hitting third baseman, Franco has fallen short thus far. In his first big-league cup of coffee in 2015, Franco hit .280/.343/.427 with 14 home runs and a 129 wRC+, making him worth 1.5 fWAR. But after posting a wRC+ of 91 in 2016 and 76 in 2017, he has to be on thin ice with the organization, especially with Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson as free agent options next offseason.

Franco has said that he hopes to join the fly ball revolution in the hopes of producing bigger power numbers. After posting a 45.4 percent ground ball rate in 2017, that seems like a good idea. It is impossible to know if he will succeed, but if the Phillies want to make the playoffs (or at least get above .500), they will need every player to step up to their full potential. And for a player that was among the first in Philadelphia to be called up in this “new wave” of prospects, his time seems to be running out.

Franco still has the tools to make the Phillies’ lineup even scarier in 2018. He just has to apply himself and get it done.

2018 outlook

In the City of Brotherly Love, baseball season could be interesting for the first time since 2011, when the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games and took home the NL East crown for the fifth straight year. It’s been pretty much downhill since, but after they bottomed out in 2015 the Phillies have slowly started to trend upward. The 2018 season could just be the beginning of a new era of dominance for Philadelphia baseball.

This year is crucial for the Phillies. This is when we find out how far the rebuild truly has come. Save for Santana, every player in the Phillies’ Opening Day lineup projects to be 27 years old or younger. In the rotation, everyone’s 26 or younger, excluding Arrieta. The youth is here in Philadelphia, and it no longer consists of filler pieces like Freddy Galvis, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, who provided the bridge to J.P. Crawford, Rhys Hoskins (or Carlos Santana, depending on how you look at it), and Jorge Alfaro.

The prospects are here in Philadelphia. It’s time to trust those prospects, and it’s time to cheer on the successes and to understand the failures.

This could be the most exciting season of Phillies baseball in seven years. They could be playing in October. Or it could be another flop year. The prospects might just need some more time. At a minimum, it’s reasonable to expect improvement over a 2017 Phillies team that was just 66-96 (despite having a 72-90 expected record based on run differential).

Even if they don’t make the playoffs, this will be a fun year for baseball in Philadelphia.

Devan Fink

New York Mets

2017 record: 70-92, fourth in NL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 80-82, third in NL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 82-80, second in NL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: third in NL East (8/18)

MLB: San Francisco Giants at New York Mets
Can the rotation stay healthy this year?
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed Mickey Callaway as manager.
  • Signed LF Jay Bruce to a three-year, $39 million contract.
  • Signed 3B Todd Frazier to a two-year, $17 million contract.
  • Signed 1B Adrian Gonzalez to a one-year minimum contract.
  • Signed LHP Jason Vargas to a two-year, $16 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Anthony Swarzak to a two-year, $14 million contract.

The biggest winter signing for the Mets isn’t a player, it’s their newly minted manager. After five years in Cleveland as a key factor behind the AL’s best rotation, Callaway gets his chance to be the man in charge, and is blessed with another team rife with arm talent. As good as the Indians’ pitching was under him, it’s a bold move for the Mets to bank on whatever magic he wielded in Cleveland making its way to Flushing.

Managers aren’t pitching coaches; they have a lot more on their plate. But the statement of the move is plain: Callaway is there to get the the pitchers to perform, and the team needs that to happen to if they want to succeed. He is forward-thinking — he’s already talking in press conferences about using relievers in high-leverage situations, a la Andrew Miller in Cleveland and focusing on more in-depth scouting — and could be the new voice the Mets need to break their funk.

As for players, the Mets invested most heavily in the offense, plainly banking on the pitching returning to form. Bruce makes a return after short stint in Cleveland and his best year since 2013. He hit more home runs than he ever has with 36, and the 9.2 percent walk rate is his highest since 2011. Michael Conforto looks to return by the beginning of May, and between Bruce, Cespedes and Juan Lagares, there’s going to be some hard decisions to make in the outfield. But until then, Bruce is central to the Mets getting a good start.

The team also invested in a much-needed David Wright insurance policy (realistically, what can you expect from him these days, anyway?) and got Frazier to come over from the Yankees. Frazier is 12th in total home runs over the last three years with 102, and he owns a 110 wRC+ over that span. His 2017 saw him walk 14.1 percent of the time, far and away a career high, in conjunction with a 104 wRC+. Between his above-average bat and his solid glove at third, Frazier is sure to be a strong contributor to the Mets’ good fortunes.

New York brought in Gonzalez to play first, replacing the departed Lucas Duda, which is something. A-Gon is three years removed from being a solid first baseman, and two removed from a 111-wRC+, 18-home run campaign. Last year, he lost his job to Cody Bellinger after earning -1.1 WAR for the Dodgers in only 71 games. Quite the feat. The Mets probably should’ve held onto Duda, but what do I know?

Trend to watch: Injuries

It would be quicker to list the players the Mets didn’t lose to injury at some point last season. Between six different starting pitchers, Cespedes, Conforto at the end of the year, and other nagging maladies that felled player after player, it was nothing short of amazing how cursed the team seemed and how many games its stars lost to the disabled list.

New York did make some changes in the offseason to help keep its player healthy. Callaway is here to help with the pitching performance — and the team as a whole, one would hope — while an overhaul of the strength and conditioning program back in November hopefully helps guys avoid the dings and dents of a 162-game season.

But the campaign is already starting on unsettled ground — Conforto will miss the first month of the season after shoulder surgery, Vargas has a fractured hand, and Wright is out for two months. If another round of miserable injury strikes, it makes you wonder what curse was laid upon this team. With all this talent and all the DL time, it’s getting a little ridiculous at this point.

The Mets need their stars to stay on the field and perform; otherwise, the season will be over in short order. Their only likely path to the postseason is the Wild Card, and with the Nats, Cubs and Dodgers ruling their respective divisions at the moment, a host of other NL teams are in the same chase. If the team — and the pitching in particular — stays healthy, a 2015 redux could be in the offing. That’s a big ‘if,’ though, even with all the supporting staff changes.

2018 outlook

There’s a sense of hope swirling around the 2018 Mets. The same feeling surrounds most any team as April approaches, but in this case there’s a sense of desperation tinging that hope. The last two seasons following the World Series loss were variously disappointing, leaving the team and fan base looking for answers. In 2016, they fell to the Giants in the Wild Card game, and 2017 only got worse.

The rotation, the backbone of the team, is only getting older and closer to free agency. The fanbase is antsy, especially with the team across town regaining its place at the top of its own division. Too many things have gone wrong lately. Queens needs a good season.

The Mets are projected to win somewhere between 80 and 82 games by PECOTA and various Vegas outlets. That seems conservative, based on the potential in that rotation and the hitters added to an offense that was 10th in baseball with 22 WAR. New York is certainly banking on pitching health and some kind of Callaway magic, and that staff allows for a lot of upside to be considered. But between the resurgent Phillies (projected to win 81 games by PECOTA, one more than the Mets) and the still-dominant Nationals, the Mets have a tough road ahead.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, barring another spate of injuries they’ll be in a very tight race for those two Wild Card slots. A win total in excess of 85 shouldn’t be out of the realm of consideration. Of course, based on the recent past — and the distant past, for that matter — general misery by July wouldn’t be too surprising, either.

Merritt Rohlfing

Atlanta Braves

2017 record: 72-90, third in NL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 76-86, fourth in NL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 72-90, fourth in NL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fourth in NL East (15/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Named Alex Anthopoulos Executive Vice President and GM.
  • Traded RHP Jim Johnson to the Angels for LHP Justin Kelly.
  • Traded outfielder Matt Kemp to the Los Angeles Dodgers for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Brandon McCarthy, and IF Charlie Culberson.
  • Traded a PTBNL to the Astros in exchange for OF Preston Tucker.
  • Signed C Chris Stewart and RHP Peter Moylan to miminum contracts.

The Braves are entering year No. 4 of their rebuild and looking to take a step forward in 2018. In many ways, this season could prove to be a transitional one for Atlanta. After getting a new GM, the team took a quiet and patient approach to the offseason. With a wave of prospects on the way and money to spend next offseason, the Braves are hoping to spend this season identifying their long term needs.

The Braves tabbed Anthopoulos as the team’s new GM in November while moving on from an embarrassing international market scandal and subsequent MLB investigation. Despite the loss of 13 prospects as a result of the investigation, Anthopoulos inherited a strong farm system with many of its top prospects moving close to the major leagues. Anthopoulos resisted the urge to accelerate things by dealing prospects and instead chose to focus on clearing up the team’s long-term salary picture.

The biggest move was dumping Kemp — and the $43 million owed to him — on the Dodgers. As part of the deal, Atlanta agreed to designate Gonzalez for assignment upon arrival, swallowing the $22 million owed to him for 2018. The deal added approximately $50 million in salary to the Braves’ payroll this season but cleared them of their future commitment to Kemp and opened up significant salary room for next season, which was the goal.

McCarthy is slated to open the season in Atlanta’s rotation, while Culberson will fill a utility player role. The team elected to give Kazmir his unconditional release at the end of spring training, despite the $16+ million remaining on his deal for this season.

From there, the Braves made just minor additions. They picked up Tucker in a trade with the Astros, mostly as a wild card, while signing Moylan and Stewart to big-league deals. Moylan is coming off a good season in Kansas City and will slot into the Braves’ bullpen. The hope with Stewart is that he will provide insurance in Triple-A for Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki while working with some of the team’s top pitching prospects.

Player to watch: Ronald Acuña Jr.

Acuña began the 2017 season at High-A, and he didn’t just advance through three levels — he dominated at each stop. Acuña performed better with each promotion, slashing a combined .325/.374/.525 to go along with 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases.

The 20-year-old outfielder followed that up with a dominant stint in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit seven more home runs and became the youngest player ever to be named MVP. He picked up where he left off in spring training, hitting .432/.519/.727 with four home runs while displaying impressive plate discipline and speed on the basepaths.

Even though he answered all of the challenges placed before him, Atlanta sent Acuña back to minor league camp at the end of spring, and he will open the season at Triple-A. That decision had nothing to do with his performance; it was made to manipulate his service time and pick up an additional year of team control down the road.

As disappointing as that is, the Braves have a lot to be excited about with Acuña, and we shouldn’t have to wait long for his arrival. When he does, expect him to become a fixture in the outfield and a middle-of-the-order presence.

2018 Outlook

The 2018 season will have more of a youthful feel for the Braves and should be much more exciting to watch. Ozzie Albies will be looking to build on a solid rookie campaign, while Dansby Swanson will be looking to bounce back from a tough first full season. Acuña is on the way, as is a wave of starting pitchers. Guys like Luiz Gohara and Max Fried will see opportunities in the rotation at some point. Prospects Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Kyle Wright showed during the spring that they aren’t that far away, either.

Anthopoulos chose the correct path in taking a patient approach this offseason. The Braves will let their young players show what they can do in 2018 in an effort to identify who will make up the team’s future core. With a ton of money coming off the books and a plethora of prospects, Atlanta should have the ability to fill those holes with an idea of returning to contention in 2019.

Kris Willis

Miami Marlins

2017 record: 77-85, second in NL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 65-97, fifth in NL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 64-98, fifth in NL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fifth in NL East (18/18)

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays
TFW everyone except you gets traded.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded RF Giancarlo Stanton and cash to the Yankees in exchange for IF Jose Devers, RHP Jorge Guzman, and IF Starlin Castro.
  • Traded CF Dee Gordon to the Mariners in exchange for RHP Robert Dugger, RHP Nick Neidert, and IF Chris Torres.
  • Traded LF Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals in exchange for LHP Daniel Castano, RF Magneuris Sierra, RHP Sandy Alcantara and RHP Zac Gallen.
  • Traded CF Christian Yelich to the Brewers in exchange for CF Lewis Brinson, IF Isan Diaz, CF Monte Harrison, and RHP Jordan Yamamoto.
  • Signed LF Cameron Maybin to a one-year, $3.25 million contract.
  • Released RHP Edinson Volquez.

Coming off a 77-win season, the Marlins’ new ownership group decided to follow in the footsteps of previous owners and conducted a fire sale. After placing second in a mediocre NL East, Miami dumped salary and fans’ expectation all in a matter of a few trades.

Stanton, Yelich, and Ozuna combined for 16.2 fWAR in 2017. With all three of them gone, the outfield projects as some combination of Maybin, Brinson, Derek Dietrich and possibly Sierra and Braxton Lee — both of whom were recently optioned but might feature later during the season.

In their rush to to dump salary, the Marlins failed to acquire any MLB top 100 prospects in the Stanton, Ozuna, and Gordon trades. Their best return seemingly came from the Yelich deal, where they acquired two top prospects from Milwaukee in Brinson and Harrison.

With Marlins in full tank mode, don’t be surprised if they continue to sell assets throughout the year, with Castro — who reportedly wants out — as well as catcher J.T. Realmuto and reliever Brad Ziegler possibly in play.

Person to watch: First-year owner Derek Jeter

The captain has an an inauspicious start to his tenure as CEO of the Miami Marlins. In addition to dumping salary and initiate a full on tank mode, Jeter has rubbed almost all stakeholders in Miami the wrong way — first by firing Mr. Marlin and other long-tenured staff members, then trying to bring some of them back at reduced pay, and attempting to generate profits by slashing payroll.

How long do the trades continue into 2018? Surely the Marlins have enough pieces they can continue to sell throughout the year. One player to watch out for is Realmuto, who is now the face of the franchise. The Miami backstop has continued to improve since his call up four years ago, posting 1.9, 3.5, and 3.6 fWAR, respectively, over the past three seasons. The 27-year-old is under team control for three more years, and he’d be an attractive commodity to a lot of contending teams.

Whether Jeter succeeds by restocking the farm system to put together a championship team in the long run remains to be seen. However, in the short term, he needs to make an attempt at improving relations with fans and season ticket holders. The question is, does he succeed in changing the perception of him, or does he continue along the path that would put him right alongside Jeffrey Loria as one of the most loathed people in the Miami area?

2018 Outlook

Depending on which projection you choose, the Marlins are going to win anywhere between 64 and 68 games. Personally, I believe they could very well be a low-60s teams. I say this because I doubt several of the core players left on their roster will be in Miami after the July trade deadline.

The best Marlins fans can home for is for some of their prospects to start making it to the big league club. The Opening Day roster will include Brinson, while Lee and Sierra can be expected to feature sometime later this season. At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, 2018 looks to be another painful year for long-suffering Marlins fans.

Azam Farooqui