Braves > NL East Forecast

| March 27, 2015

Peraza

ORLANDO — Winning your division in MLB is never a gimme, but the closest thing this year is the NL East, where the Washington Nationals improved an already good team by adding top free agent Max Scherzer. The Nats won the division by 17 games last year, the biggest gap in baseball. Their talented lineup and stellar pitching staff has at least Bryce Harper thinking this is the year the Nats get a World Series ring.

The Nats don’t figure to be chased by their usual foes, the Atlanta Braves, who appear to be in rebuilding mode. But both the Miami Marlins and New York Mets are better and looking to surge toward second place and maybe even the postseason. The Marlins, in particular, had a strong offseason. The Mets are getting ace Matt Harvey back to go with rookie of the year Jacob deGrom. The pitching looks good, but they’ll need some help scoring runs.

As for the Phillies, well, even they know they’re going to be bad. Let’s delve deeper into the division with Big League Stew’s Chris Cwik, Mike Oz and Mark Townsend.

WILL THE NATIONALS LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS?

The Nationals are no strangers to big expectations. They’re also no strangers to falling short after not advancing beyond the NLDS each of the past three seasons. To combat that troubling trend, general manager Mike Rizzo went out and added Scherzer, the top free agent available, to an already stacked starting rotation. He also avoided contract drama with Harper, while maintaining depth at every level of the roster. Everything is in place for a deep postseason run, but October has little regard for expectations. It only rewards execution.

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE BRAVES’ PLAN?

The Braves are in a weird position. Despite notching 90 wins each of the past two seasons, they elected to fire general manager Frank Wren and hire John Hart as president of baseball operations. What followed was an offseason that resembled the beginning of a rebuilding effort — they traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis while allowing Ervin Santana to walk in free agency — but included the addition of several win-now veterans, such as Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes, A.J. Pierzynski and Jason Grilli. It’s difficult to tell what the plan is, but the short-term outlook seems grim in a quickly improving division.

IS THERE ANYTHING FOR PHILLIES FANS TO LOOK FORWARD TO?

The NL East passed the Phillies by three years ago. Now that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has come to grips with that reality, he can slowly shift into a rebuilding project that could really take off during the regular season. That makes the Phillies more interesting to other fan bases because they could easily shift the balance of power based on when and where they trade certain pieces. As for life at Citizens Bank Park, infield prospect Maikel Franco should arrive this summer to provide some excitement, but it might be wise to keep Eagles jerseys close by.

ARE THE MIAMI MARLINS A PLAYOFF TEAM?

The Marlins became a popular postseason pick after handing Giancarlo Stanton the biggest contract in American sports history, a 13-year, $325 million deal, and later adding Dee Gordon, Michael Morse, Martin Prado and Mat Latos to the mix. If there’s hesitance, it almost certainly stems from Miami’s history of committing and quickly bailing on long-term plans. However, a big difference with this team is that it already looked built to contend in the short term with an impressive core of young talent led by Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Jose Fernandez. If Fernandez can return from Tommy John surgery by July and look like himself in the second half, the Marlins should make several teams uncomfortable.

WILL MANAGER TERRY COLLINS SURVIVE THE SEASON?

Collins survived the 2014 season while firmly planted on the hot seat. Now he’ll have to do it again with New York’s expectations on the rise. Collins’ fate will largely depend on things beyond his control, such as how well David Wright and Matt Harvey bounce back from injuries, but he’ll need to be sharp and the Mets will have to stay competitive. The visit he received from owner Fred Wilpon following a blowout spring training loss on March 9 was indicative of the short leash he’s likely to be on. But Collins understands his position better than anyone.

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