New faces, places
As if the Nationals didn’t have enough good young starting pitchers, they traded with Detroit to get gritty former Mariner Doug Fister (the thought of the M’s trading him for basically nothing in return still hurts). The Nats’ top rival, the Atlanta Braves, countered by signing free-agent starter Ervin Santana, who pitched last year in Kansas City and has seemed to revive his career. The Phillies added starter A.J. Burnett, who resurrected his career in Pittsburgh. Outfielder Curtis Granderson changed teams but not cities by going from the Yankees to the Mets, who also added starter Bartolo Colon, who I think is 90 years old. The Marlins added veterans like catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, second baseman Rafael Furcal and first baseman Garrett Jones, but it won’t matter. They’re still going to finish in last place.
The Nationals were favorites last year to win the division, but they finished 10 games behind Atlanta and missed out on the playoffs. With a rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister, they look like not only the best team in the division, but the best in baseball.
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It was just a couple of years ago the Phillies seemed so great with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of their rotation and an everyday lineup that included Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. But injuries and aging ruined lofty predictions, and they look like a team in serious need of a rebuild.
Freak injuries (appendicitis and getting hit in the face with a pitch) curtailed Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward’s production last year, but he is immensely talented and, at age 25, will probably continue to improve. He could become one of the game’s biggest stars.
Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson hit 40-plus homers in 2011 and 2012, but that was at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He now plays at a pitcher’s park and he didn’t seem the same last year in between injuries.
There are about 10 players you could pick, but how about Giancarlo Stanton, a guy who can still put up big numbers despite having little talent around him. The 24-year-old Marlins outfielder has been limited to 123 and 116 games the past two seasons. Look for him to lead the league in home runs if he can stay healthy.
The Phillies’ Cliff Lee. You could have made a good case for any of the Nationals’ top three, but former Mariner Lee keeps rolling along with some of the best numbers in baseball, like last year’s 222 strikeouts and 32 walks, a 2.87 ERA and a WHIP of 1.01.
The Phillies’ Cole Hamels. He started last year 1-9 en route to an 8-14 season. But he pitched much better than his record indicates and particularly so after he noticed a flaw in his delivery in May. He will start the season on the DL but is expected to return in April.
Manager on the hot seat
The Nationals’ Matt Williams. The first-year manager takes over for Davey Johnson, who retired. The pressure will be on from the start as anything less than an NL pennant will be a disappointment.
The Braves have been hit hard as top young starters Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA in 2013) and Brandon Beachy each had Tommy John surgery this past month, and fellow starter Mike Minor is starting the season on the disabled list.
Rookies to watch
Miami outfielder Christian Yelich, 22, who showed some ability after being called up in late July last year (.288 BA, 4 HRs) and Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who New York got in the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto.
By the numbers
2 Years the Marlins have won more than 87 games, and also their number of World Series titles (1997 and 2003)
5 Consecutive losing seasons for the Mets
How they’ll finish