Baseball season is close. This writer is headed to Phoenix for Spring training this weekend to check out a few teams that are optimistic in thinking that they will be World Series champions this season. A few of those teams are in the National League East , with the Nationals and even the Mets having a real shot at making it to the Fall Classic. Meanwhile the Phillies and the Marlins are simply trying to remain in somewhat relevance by chasing a Wild Card spot. And the Braves are trying their best to climb their way out of the division’s cellar. Of course all of this, from the Nationals’ title dreams to Atlanta’s march to relevance depends on certain players, and here is each NL East team’s X-Factors.
Atlanta Braves: Jaime Garcia
This offseason the Braves tried to fix a pitching staff that last year ranked 24th in baseball. Atlanta went out and signed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and soon-to-be 44-year old Bartolo Colon to bolster a starting rotation that really only features Julio Teheran. Luckily the Braves didn’t stop there.
The Braves knew these moves weren’t good enough to keep them from finding themselves in last place in the NL East again, so they acquired the 30-year old Jaime Garcia from the St. Louis Cardinals in December. The left-hander is coming off a disappointing 2016 season overall, with a 4.67 ERA, but the season before he posted a 2.43 ERA, and last season was his first year with a losing record in his eight-year career.
Teheran, Colon and Dickey are expected to be at the front of the Atlanta rotation this season, and that will help Atlanta to a small degree. What they are hoping from Garcia is to get a rotation that can at least be in the same ballpark as that of division rivals Washington and New York. The Braves are hoping he gives them an advantage toward the back half of the starting rotation. Why do they believe this?
Because, although Garcia is not an ace by any means, it is not out of his reach to start 30 games and post an ERA south of 4.00 this season. If he can be better than that somehow, and be a solid 2nd pitcher to Teheran, the Braves could challenge for the NL East title, or at least move out of the division’s basement.
Miami Marlins: Dee Gordon
I bet you can’t name four teams who scored less runs than the Marlins did last season, or four teams with a lower OPS. And that’s because the Marlins ranked 27th in both of those major statistical offensive categories last season. And the main reason the Marlins were so bad on offense last season, other than the fact that their hitting coach is Barry Bonds, was the suspension of star second baseman Dee Gordon.
Gordon was out of the lineup for 80 games last season for using steroids, but should be with Miami for all of 2017. What does that mean for the Marlins? It means that the 2015 National League batting champ should be back to anchoring a lineup that most people see as Giancarlo Stanton and nobody else. And rightfully so.
The Marlins were bad last year on offense, but most of that was due to the team’s inability to hit for power, and although Gordon won’t be able to help much with that, especially now that he’s not juicing, his presence in the lineup will help immensely with the Marlins’ run totals.
Last season Miami ranked 27th in runs scored, which may make it seem like the group can’t hit, but in fact the Marlins ranked 4th in batting average and 5th in hits in 2016. So with the ability to get hits just not big ones, the Marlins will have to depend on small-ball, which is Gordon’s specialty. Even though he missed 80 games last season, Gordon still led the team with 30 stolen bases, and if he can hit the way we are accustomed to seeing him hit and take the extra base like Gordon has proven himself capable of doing, then the Marlins are going to score more runs and win more games.
New York Mets: Matt Harvey
The Mets went from a World Series team in 2015 to a non-playoff team in 2016, and the main reason is quite obvious. You have to look for no further than former ace of the Mets staff Matt Harvey. In 2015, he had a 2.71 ERA over 29 regular season starts. In 2016, Harvey struggled to a 4.86 ERA over 17 starts before missing the rest of the season with an injury to his pitching shoulder.
Harvey also missed the entire 2014 season after Tommy John surgery, and after falling off his Cy Young level of production with yet another injury it seems more and more like Matt Harvey is becoming Mark Prior 2.0.
Still there is no doubting Harvey’s true talent which when healthy makes him arguably the best right-handed pitcher outside of Jake Arrieta. If the Mets can keep Harvey healthy they have the most talented rotation in the National League. Adding Harvey to Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom at the top of their starting rotation and at least a Wild Card spot is all but assured for the Mets who are looking to return to the World Series, which begins and ends with Harvey’s right arm.
Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola
Last season Aaron Nola started off in phenomenal fashion, with a 2.65 ERA, a 9.8 K/9 and a 1.7 BB/9 over his first 12 starts. But from start #13 on there was a dramatic drop-off, with a 9.82 ERA over his next eight starts. In late-July, Nola was placed on the disabled list with a right elbow issue and mercifully missed the rest of the season.
Now Nola is fully healed, and hoping that he returns to his early season form rather than how he ended the 2016 season. If so, the Phillies will definitely improve from last season where their pitching staff ranked 26th in baseball in ERA (4.63).
Aaron Nola in this writer’s mind is the ace of a sub-par Philadelphia rotation, and that is based on his strikeout rate (9.8 K/9 last season), excellent control (2.4 BB/9) and great ground ball rate (55%), which all point to his ace potential.
So although the Phillies made some notable offseason additions, with the trade for Clay Buchholz and Howie Kendrick while signing outfielder Michael Saunders, there biggest addition may be getting back a healthy Nola who can be the head of a rotation that desperately needs a #1. And if he plays well, like he’s shown that he can, then the Phillies can make a real run at a Wild Card spot in the National League.
Washington Nationals: Trea Turner
Trea Turner would have been the National League Rookie of the Year last season had it not been for an incredible year by the Dodgers’ Corey Seager. Turner hit .342 and had an OPS of .937 which would have been good for 9th in all of baseball, one spot behind National League MVP Kris Bryant. Throw in Turner’s .988 fielding percentage and ability to play just about anywhere on the field and the former Padres 1st round pick and it’s obvious that Turner is a star in the making.
So why is Turner the X-Factor for Washington heading into 2017? Because the Nationals already have the league’s best starting rotation (sorry Cubs), and for a team that finished last season 17th in batting average (.256), a full season with Turner in the lineup could be the difference between last season’s first round exit of the postseason and ending this season lifting the World Series trophy.
And of course I’m sure the Padres are kicking themselves over selling off yet another MVP candidate to a better team. Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Fred Mcgriff, and more recently Anthony Rizzo show that Trea Turner is in good company among former Padres leaving San Diego and winning a championship elsewhere. And Turner might just be the key to the Nationals being the latest team to reach the pinnacle thanks to a costly Padres’ blunder.