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MLB Baseball Preview 2013: National League East

Opening Day is right around the corner with a 12-game slate on April 1st (technically it’s March 31st with Texas heading to Houston – likely a token from MLB to Houston for moving to the AL without incident) followed by another seven on April 2nd that will see the remaining four open up plus provide a buffer for those opening in potential inclement weather spots.

Our season preview will get your geared up for the upcoming season as we rundown each division covering the ins and outs of all 30 teams.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Washington Nationals Team
Getty Images

Last year’s big surprise led all of baseball with 98 wins, but many were left wondering if they would’ve ousted the St. Louis Cardinals in the Divisional Series had they made a controversial decision to sit superstar pitcher Stephen Strasburg after 159.3 brilliant innings. Now they’ve taken the reins off of Strasburg, restocked the rest of the team, and appear primed to make another run at the most wins in the game.

Strengths: How much time do you have? The rotation gets the bulk of the acclaim because Strasburg is joined by Gio Gonzalez – the third-place finisher in last year’s Cy Young vote – as well as Jordan Zimmerman and his sub-3.00 ERA in 196 innings of work. Oh, did I mention they replaced Edwin Jackson with Dan Haren. Haren struggled through a balky back last year, but closed out with a 2.81 ERA in his final eight starts of the season. Their fifth starter Ross Detwiler broke through last year, too. There is no respite for NL hitters when visiting the Nation’s Capital.

And I could’ve spent the above 100 words on their lineup, bullpen, or bench. Good luck, National League.

Weaknesses: You’re expecting a blank response here, aren’t you? They actually do have one, believe it or not. Things get barren behind their top five starters. A 34-year-old Chris Young is on deck should an injury befall one of their starters. He posted a passable 4.15 ERA in 115 innings last year, but he’s a home run machine and all of the advanced indicators say he was lucky to escape with such a low mark. He’s more of a 4.50 ERA-level talent. Behind him, they have a pair of career relievers trying to make the conversion into starters (Ryan Perry and Christian Garcia) with the latter likely starting the season on the disabled list.

Player on the Rise: It’s criminally negligent on my part to be this far into a preview of the Nats without Bryce Harper being mentioned, so while he is the obvious answer, I have to do it. Harper’s age-19 season last year was one of the best in baseball history. By OPS+, an adjusted OPS measure that accounts for park and league environment, Harper had the second-best teenaged season ever behind Mel Ott. Yes, Hall of Famer Mel Ott. Harper was at 119, 11 points above Ken Griffey Jr. and 20 points behind Ott’s outstanding 139.

Volume alone should see Harper improve as he didn’t debut until April 28th last year, but his brilliant in-season adjustments that saw him hit seven homers and post a 1043 in September suggest we could see a transcendent season from the remarkable wunderkind. Like Lebron James before him, we could be witnessing the rare 2000s-era athlete who actually lives up to the completely unfair hype and expectations heaped upon him.

Pitcher on the Rise: It is fun to come up with something that shocks and catches folks off guard, but why veer from the blatantly obvious when it’s also the best answer? A Strasburg without any hard innings cap could push toward the first 270+ strikeout season since 2004 (Justin Verlander had 269 in 2009). There is a strong chance that he is baseball’s best pitcher in 2013 en route to his first of multiple Cy Young Awards.

Player on the Decline: When your lineup is an average of 28 years old and your rotation just 27 years old, there aren’t many players on the decline, but Adam LaRoche had the second-best year of his career at age 32 last year with 33 HRs and 100 RBIs. It’s reasonable to suspect that he drops back down to his well-established 25 and 90 levels.

Pitcher on the Decline: If only because of age, it’d be Haren (32 years old), but after a down year due almost entirely to injury, he is actually poised for a bounce-back so it’s hard to really pinpoint anyone on the downswing. Newly acquired closer Rafael Soriano is 33, but he had an excellent season and like Haren he comes from the tougher American League so a bump in performance isn’t out of the question at all.

Prospect to Watch: Injuries are the only reason that Anthony Rendon fell to sixth in the stacked 2011 draft otherwise he might’ve gone second to the Seattle Mariners. Those injuries followed him to the pros limiting him to just 43 games in his debut with the organization, but he excelled when he was playing. If he can stay healthy, he will force the team’s hand sooner or later whether it’s trading an establishing big leaguer or garnering a haul of reinforcements for Rendon.

Prediction: 95-67, NL East Champions

ATLANTA BRAVES

Atlanta Braves Team
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

A pair of high-profile sibling additions mitigates the loss of an all-time great, but the attention surrounding the incoming outfielders obfuscates the fact that their six-time All-Star catcher is starting the season on the disabled list and their lineup is headed by a 23-year old with zero Triple-A experience and just 49 MLB games under his belt.

Strengths: The addition of the brothers Upton (Justin and B.J. for the uninitiated) to emerging superstar Jason Heyward gives Atlanta a real chance to field the National League’s All-Star outfield. Of course Harper, Ryan Braun, and Matt Kemp still exist so it won’t be easy. These three will be instrumental not only to the offense as they bat second, third, and fifth, but also the defense as they look to infuriate opposing batters by repeatedly snatching would-be doubles and triples out of the air.

Weaknesses: There are some really nice names in the rotation, but it’s the weakest entity on their 25-man roster. Tim Hudson is 37 years old, Mike Minor has just a half-season of excellence, Kris Medlen has even less than that (12 starts), Paul Maholm has even less with 11-start run of great work after being acquired from the Cubs, and one-time super prospect Julio Teheran is a complete unknown as the fifth starter. It’s not a huge stretch to see the rotation as above average, but we need to see the questions answered. On the plus side, Brandon Beachy should return sometime in the summer to add some depth.

Player on the Rise: The aforementioned 23-year old shortstop is something of an unknown, but he’s also a big time prospect whose defense alone should give him positive value. His bat was sharp in those 49 games last year, but can he hold for three times as long against major league pitching? As the penciled in leadoff hitter, he has a chance to make a huge impact.

Pitcher on the Rise: The team’s primary strength plays right into the style of Minor who is the team’s only flyball-heavy starter. With the terrain those three can cover behind him and the second half improvements he showed last year, he is really gunning for that sub-4.00 ERA season.

Player on the Decline: Dan Uggla has the odds stacked up against him. He is on the wrong side of 30 at 33 years old and he strikes out too much. His seventeen home run drop from 2011 to 2012 was particularly alarming because power is the one asset you’d expect to remain with Uggla even as his batting average craters. His HR/FB rate was five percent lower than his career rate and eight percent off of his 2011 mark, so perhaps it was some misfortune. Even still, I always worry about high strikeout guys.

Pitcher on the Decline: The decline guys won’t always be an older player whose career is on the decline. Sometimes it will simply be someone set to decline from a 2012 peak as with Kris Medlen for the Braves. On the fantasy landscape he is being wildly overrated based on a small (albeit brilliant) 12-start run from last year.

Prospect to Watch: Julio Teheran saw his prospect stock tumble a bit after an ugly year in Triple-A (5.08 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), but he was just 21 years old so he is far from washed up. Coming into the 2012 season, many saw him as a future ace. There is a tendency in to overreact with regards to prospects at both ends of the spectrum and I think some of the cooling on Teheran fits the overreacting at the negative end. We still have a 22-year old who is just now getting his first extended look in the majors (20 and six innings in MLB the last two years) and I think we will start to see someone who resembles the uber-prospect that ranked #5 overall on the top 100 prospect list at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America in both 2011 and 2012.

Prediction: 92-70, NL Wildcard

NEW YORK METS

New York Mets
Marc Serota/Getty Images

Things are still a bit bleak in Queens, but this team is on the rise and they are finally under the command of a front office that understands how to best a build team (from the ground up with internal talent). It had to be extremely difficult to trade away the reigning Cy Young winner, but they got a haul for R.A. Dickey that should help them skip a few spaces on the road back to relevance.

Strengths: With health, this rotation isn’t too bad. Ideally, they would have both Shaun Marcum and Johan Santana healthy, but even with just Marcum healthy joining Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey, Dillon Gee, and a placeholder in the fifth spot, this is a formidable rotation that will keep them in games on most nights.

Weaknesses: I’m patiently waiting for an email invite to play outfield for the Mets. It is that bad. Even if you consider yourself something of an “in-the-know” baseball fan, you probably aren’t too familiar with the penciled in starting outfield of the 2013 Mets. Here are a handful of names, see if you can pick out the Mets outfielders from the current US Senators: Mike Baxter, Jon Tester, Bob Corker, Jordany Valdespin, Dean Heller, Marlon Byrd, Lamar Alexander, Lucas Duda, Thad Cochran, Justin Turner, and Collin Cowgill.

How do you think you did? Two, three, five, seven and nine are US Senators.

Player on the Rise: Ruben Tejada is a 23-year old shortstop who has hit .287 in his last two seasons spanning 877 plate appearances along with a strong .345 on-base percentage, but absolutely zero power as evidenced by his .345 slugging percentage. The Mets could have a sneaky asset on their hands if he can just develop even a tinge of pop in his bat. He is still young enough that even if it doesn’t come in 2013 there is no reason to panic, but showing some signs this year would be great for his long-term outlook.

Pitcher on the Rise: The obvious answer is Harvey, but I think we’ll see more of a consolidation season from him this year so instead I’ll go with Gee. He showed some signs of progress last year, but his season was stunted by a right shoulder blood clot that required surgery and limited him to just 109 innings. Prior to the injury, he had a five percent rise in his strikeout rate and a four percent decline in his walk rate giving him some great component skills. He also improved his groundball rate a bit to a very strong 50 percent. All in all, he deserved better than his 4.10 ERA and if he can maintain those gains while keeping the ball in the yard a bit more often, he should be able to post his first sub-4.00 of consequence (he had a 2.18 ERA in 2010 cup of coffee debut, but it was just 33 innings).

Player on the Decline: Can you believe that Marlon Byrd and John Buck were once All-Stars? Not only that, but it was just three years ago! Since 2010, both have been on a pretty sharp decline and I’m not sure they will decline more in 2013, but I strongly doubt they surge forward, either. This team isn’t exactly littered with aged veterans who would be candidates for this section which is another indicator that they’re doing their rebuild the right way.

Pitcher on the Decline: Unfortunately, it’s Santana. Once the undisputed best pitcher in the game, Santana is now a medical mess who really hasn’t been the same since throwing the franchise’s first no-hitter ever last summer and now his balky shoulder could take another six weeks to be ready for anything resembling game action. At 34, I hope there is at least one more Santana-esque season in that left arm, but it seems more unlikely with each passing day.

Prospect to Watch: Zack Wheeler is about a half season behind Harvey developmentally, though some see his ceiling as even higher giving him ace potential to Harvey’s “strong #2” ceiling. Either way, the Mets appear to have two dynamic, frontend arms and that doesn’t even get to Noah Syndergaard, who came over in the Dickey deal. Plus, Niese is established and signed through 2016 with a pair of friendly options that will almost certainly be picked up if he continues on his current trajectory. As for Wheeler, I hope he gets more than the 59.3 innings Harvey got in his MLB debut last summer.

Prediction: 79-83

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Philadelphia Phillies Team
J. Meric/Getty Images

They are desperately holding onto some semblance of a contender with a handful of stars, but not much else. An aged team, they acquired a pair of Youngs (Delmon and Michael), but the latter only added to the problem as a 36-year old coming off of his worst season since 2002. They still have three aces, two former MVPs, and a second baseman who played like an MVP for several years during his prime. Will it be enough?

Strengths: The obvious answer is the right one. Even if you’re down on Roy Halladay after his injury-marred 2012 and awful Spring Training this year, they still have two unquestioned super-aces in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. They can cover some holes on their own, but they desperately need Halladay to be a reasonable facsimile of the stud we are used to seeing if they want to have any chance of competing.

Weaknesses: Again, the obvious wins out and it’s their age. They have the oldest team in the National League and yet there are still too many questions for them to be seen as a realistic competitor to the Nationals and Braves. There is a perfect world scenario where they contend, but it surely doesn’t involve Michael Young hitting third as he’s penciled in to do here.

Player on the Rise: How can 30-somethings be on the rise? Oh wait, they do have a young guy and not just by last name. It appears they are finally going to leave Domonic Brown alone and see if he sinks or swims. They’ve jerked him around for the last three years resulting in just 492 plate appearances with mixed results. I don’t usually put any stock in Spring Training numbers, so while I will mention that he is raking in the Grapefruit League (1059 OPS, tied for the most HRs at seven), it doesn’t overwhelmingly influence my outlook on him. I like him before Spring Training and I still do. I just hope the Phillies let him work his way out of any struggles he may incur this season.

Pitcher on the Rise: They have three established aces who are 29, 34, and 36 years old along with a pair of nondescript arms rounding out their rotation in the form of Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan. I guess some of their young relief arms could technically be on the rise, but they aren’t taking the closer’s role from Jonathan Papelbon, at least not yet.

Player on the Decline: Pick one. I’ll break my rule and mention Spring Training numbers again, but the Phillies have to be heartened by the fact that Ryan Howard is also raking in Florida and tied with Brown for that home run lead. I don’t think Utley is done, but you can choose any of the Youngs, Howard, Jimmy Rollins, or Carlos Ruiz.

Pitcher on the Decline: Unfortunately it looks like Halladay, and that’s not just based on Spring Training, but also his struggles last year. Like Santana, it’s sad to see Halladay fade at all because he has been the best or at least among the very best pitchers in the game for so long. He finished second in the Cy Young race just two years ago in 2011 and now we’re writing his eulogy as an elite arm. I refuse to believe he’s toast, but he is almost certainly at least a step below the amazing pitcher he was as recently as 2011.

Prospect to Watch: Jonathan Pettibone isn’t an elite prospect, but he looks like a strong innings-eating workhorse who can adequately fill in at the backend of a rotation for years to come. He could be ready by summer and one of two scenarios could earn him a call. If Kendrick or Lannan is faltering and the Phils unexpectedly find themselves contending – whether for a wildcard or somehow for the division – then Pettibone could replace them. Or, and more likely of the two, the team is languishing around or just below the .500 mark with little chance of contending for anything and Kendrick or Lannan have become appealing trade targets for a contender looking to shore up their rotation and then Pettibone takes the vacated spot.

Prediction: 76-86

MIAMI MARLINS

Miami Marlins Teams
J. Meric/Getty Images

The disaster that is the Marlins is less about the actual excavation of talent – mostly via the offseason mega-trade with Toronto – and more about how they bilked the city for a new stadium, pretended to spend as if they were a contender only to abandon ship after exactly three months, and then actually had the gall to act like their “attempt” at fielding a competitor was at all legitimate.

Strengths: Giancarlo Stanton. He could hit 50 home runs. Even if he “only” hits 30, he will unquestionably the most exciting thing about this team each and every night. Even the nights he doesn’t play, he will still be the most exciting part of the team just because everyone will be wondering if he is coming in for a pinch-hit home run.

Weaknesses: Look, this piece is already over 3000 words. But if you’re really wondering, then: the infield, the bench, most of the rotation, and most of the bullpen. But most of all: their ownership situation.

Player on the Rise: Stanton.

Pitcher on the Rise: Ostensibly just about all of the rotation outside of 30-year old Ricky Nolasco is on the rise, but Nathan Eovaldi is the particularly interesting arm to me. Eovaldi is one of the game’s hardest throwers from the right side averaging 94-95 MPH with his fastball while his secondary stuff is coming together, too. He was a prospect with the Dodgers and the Marlins though enough of him to give up Hanley Ramirez so he is definitely one to watch.

Player on the Decline: Justin Ruggiano might feel like a player on the rise after popping 13 bombs with 14 stolen bases and a .313 batting average in just 320 plate appearances last year, but this is a 30-year old journeyman who got hot for a couple of months and looks to be headed for a big regression if he’s given a full season of plate appearances, as is expected. He strikes out 26 percent of the time which just isn’t conducive to a .313 average at all. In fact, he is more of a .250 hitter and while the power could stick around, his 64 percent success rate on the base paths says he shouldn’t be running nearly as much as he was last year and while he may net another 14 stolen bases, it will take a full season this time. I would caution against extrapolating his numbers over a full season and expecting that kind of production.

Pitcher on the Decline: To their credit, they don’t have many veteran pitchers with Nolasco being the elder statesman at 30 years old. It’s hard to say he’s on the decline since he has already completed the decline and now he just kind of is a middling talent. He used to have some excellent skills, but he’s been fading since 2009 and he is unlikely to just reverse the trend out of nowhere at this point.

Prospect to Watch: Jose Fernandez spent 2012 announcing himself to the baseball world and 2013 will likely be spent making some of the more casual fans aware of who he is especially if he excels enough to force his way all the up to the big league club. He has peaked at High-A at this point, but brilliance on par with 2012 would allow him to burn through Double- and Triple-A with ease and get himself a reasonable amount of time in the majors (say, mid-August).

He had a 1.75 ERA across A-ball and High-A last year with 158 strikeouts and just 35 walks in 134 innings of work. The Marlins haven’t been shy of promoting arms directly from Double-A in the past, either, so Fernandez could take that route as well. He has #1 potential. He could join Eovaldi and 22-year old Jacob Turner to start the makings of a strong future rotation.

Prediction: 60-102

Paul Sporer has been writing about baseball for 12 years for Baseball Prospectus and other websites. Born and raised in Detroit, Paul now lives in Austin, TX where he adores the weather and spends the bulk of free time watching baseball games

NEXT: 10 Bold Predictions for NL East Players

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