2015 NL East Standings Prediction:
1 - Washington Nationals
X-Factors: Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Drew Storen
This was probably my easiest pick of all 30 teams. The Nationals have become one of those yearly great regular season teams (similarly to the Angels), but I have a strong feeling that will change in 2015. Their pitching rotation ranks among the best on paper in the modern baseball era: newly acquired Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. Tanner Roark won 15 games with a sub 3.00 ERA and they won't even have room for him on Opening Day! Zimmermann and Fister are in contract years which will give them even more to play for, and the team knows that 2015 could be their only shot with this particular roster. Shortstop Ian Desmond will be a free agent as well next offseason and, considering he already turned down $107 million from the Nats in 2013, I don't see how they would be able to afford him. The biggest concern for Washington is their bullpen, led by closer Drew Storen, who pitched well last season but will have a much bigger role potentially closing out key playoff games. A rebound season from Ryan Zimmerman and the possibility of a major Bryce Harper breakout year could give them an extra boost and push them deep into the pennant race. The sky is the limit for this team.
2 - Miami Marlins
X-Factors: Jose Fernandez, Dee Gordon, Mike Morse
I really like the Marlins this year, I'm not going to lie. Their core young outfield consisting of Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton is one of the best in the business, and they made some other key improvements this offseason too. Martin Prado, Dee Gordon, and Mike Morse should help increase offensive production, although I have a hard time seeing Gordon replicate his 2014 statistics. Henderson Alvarez and trade acquisition Mat Latos should be able to shoulder the load until 22 year old phenom Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John Surgery around early June. On a personal note, I hope to see David Phelps make the rotation or have a key bullpen role at some point; he will be one of my most missed ex-Yankees next year. But, the main focus of this offense is Mr. Moneybags, Giancarlo Stanton. Six foot six and 240 lbs.; this guy can care less about what happened to his face last year. I think he has the best year of his career, and he helps lead Miami to the postseason as one of the biggest wild card contenders.
3 - New York Mets
X-Factors: Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Wilmer Flores
The unofficial "Good Guy" team starring David Wright, Curtis Granderson, and now Michael Cuddyer should continue to improve from their second place finish in 2015. Unfortunately, I believe the Marlins improved even more and will be the division runner ups by the end of September. This is a team I see getting a little bit better every year, with almost an annual tradition of adding a top pitching prospect to the rotation. "The Dark Knight", Matt Harvey is the cream of the crop, and while his Tommy John comeback will be monitored, I can see him returning to form quickly and easily. Just watch his first Spring Training performance; the guy can seriously pitch. Their offense may be prone to injury and slumps throughout the course of the season, but their fantastic young rotation may be able to lead them into the Wild Card hunt as well.
4 - Atlanta Braves
X-Factors: Nick Markakis, Alex Wood
New Atlanta GM John Hart was awfully busy this past winter, and it became clear that his direction was to throw away last year's team and focus on the future. Poor Freddie Freeman lost the protection of Justin Upton and Jason Heyward in the lineup; who were traded to San Diego and St. Louis, respectively. In addition, power hitting catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis was moved to Houston. Their rotation seems to have improved, led by a solid young trio of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Shelby Miller, and the bullpen is again anchored by star closer Craig Kimbrel. This team may have improved in the long run through all of the prospect acquisitions. Their success in 2015, however, may be partially determined by the health of free agent signing Nick Markakis. Markakis was released by the Orioles after they learned of the herniated disk in his neck that required offseason surgery. This Braves team today doesn't appear likely to make the postseason, but their future should be intriguing thanks to Hart's moves.
5 - Philadelphia Phillies
X-Factors: Cliff Lee, Domonic Brown
It's truly sad seeing how much this team has fallen off ever since their 2008 and 2009 World Series appearances. Their supposed star Ryan Howard has not aged gracefully, batting .223 last season in the first year since 2011 that he managed to play almost a full season (although he did manage to drive in an impressive 95 runs given the team's weak offensive season). Chase Utley is still reliable but injury prone for his age, and Cliff Lee was recently given sad news about his elbow that may end his career a bit prematurely. If I were Ruben Amaro Jr., I would be doing anything in my power to move their terrible contracts and start over. Cole Hamels may be worth his team-friendly contract, but he would fetch the most value in return and therefore should be moved as well, because let's face it: the Phillies don't stand much of a chance next year.
Division MVP: Giancarlo Stanton
Division Cy Young: Max Scherzer
Playoff Teams: Washington, Miami (Wild Card)
The NL East seems to be the youngest division in the game, and there will be so many fun players to watch this season. The Cy Young could've honestly went to any of the Nationals starters, but I picked Scherzer to dominate hitters better than anyone. The adjustment should be fine for "Mad Max", and I'm sure he'll be glad to not have to face DH's such as Victor Martinez, David Ortiz, and Chris Carter as often. I also heard that he's been working on adding a cutter to his arsenal, so we will have to wait and see if that elevates his game further. The Marlins may be a debatable playoff team, but I would personally like to see them make a run with all of their young talent. Plus, how cool would it be seeing Stanton up with a tie game in the 9th inning; bases loaded? The youth movement probably makes this division the weakest in the National League, but it could be one of the best throughout baseball a couple of years from now.
Any thoughts or predictions of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments below! For now, I'm signing off.