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Can The Mets Repeat In The NL East?

In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which starts Sunday, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we turn our attention to the National League East with FiveThirtyEight baseball columnist Rob Arthur and senior political writer / baseball junkie Harry Enten. The transcript below has been edited.

  1. New York Mets
  2. Washington Nationals
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies

heynawl-enten: Guys — before we begin, I think we should make sure we don’t have to go to the bathroom.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Oof.

heynawl-enten: Turns out that “Liar Liar” was onto something here:

neil: OK, OK, enough about Matt Harvey’s bladder.



New York Mets

neil: We’re here to talk about the NL East, which seemed to be Washington’s for the taking a year ago but instead went to the upstart New York Mets. Do we think that order persists into 2016? Or was it a perfect storm of Washington underperforming — and New York’s young roster playing to the maximum of its abilities — both of which might signal a reversal this season?

heynawl-enten: Well, all the advanced statistical projection stuff I’ve seen (FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, etc.) have the Mets finishing in first place. I’m not so sure, but the Mets have many of the same parts returning from their pennant-winning 2015 roster. In fact, their starting rotation will be one of, if not the strongest in the major leagues.

rob: I agree with Harry. The Mets are legitimately good. The Nationals are as well, but a little older and a lot more dependent on getting production from their older players.

neil: Do the Mets have the rare staff with enough depth to survive an injury to an ace and still be a great rotation?

heynawl-enten: Anytime your fifth starter is the great Bartolo Colon, you got real depth.

rob: And entertainment potential.

neil: Yes, but that top four … Whoo, boy.

heynawl-enten: I think injuries, as it is with many teams, are the potential downfall. We’ll see if Matt Harvey can stay healthy. We know Steven Matz has had some trouble on that front, too. And Jacob DeGrom is older than many people realize; he turns 28 in June.

rob: Zack Wheeler should be coming back from Tommy John surgery sometime during the season, though, if one of the top five gets injured. So they are in a really enviable position in terms of their rotation depth, even though starters are never a sure thing.

heynawl-enten: Great point. Wheeler had a ridiculous 187 strikeouts (9.1 per nine innings) in 2014.

rob: Uber-rotations often seem to fall apart, though — just look at the Nats last year.

heynawl-enten: Or the Mets from the mid-1990s, Generation K.

neil: And if they need innings out of the bullpen, it seems merely … OK, right? Middle of the road?

rob: Jeurys Familia is great. After that, the bullpen is “meh.” The flipside of bullpen instability is that a “meh” bullpen can perform amazingly over a season or a handful of playoff games. But I also won’t be surprised if it turns into a critical weakness and causes them to play below their Pythagorean expectation.

heynawl-enten: They lost Tyler Clippard, which I think hurts. The bullpen outside Familia is so forgettable that Mr. Met has to carry around a freaking scorecard.

neil: And, defensively, they also have some issues, it seems.

rob: The Yoenis Cespedes Center Field Experiment is going to be fun.

neil: Once he figures out whether a ball is playable or not, the rest is easy!

heynawl-enten: Not to mix up my sports here, but you’d be forgiven if you thought the Mets’ defense was coached by Rob Ryan. Fielding whiz Juan Lagares is going to see only a few more starts on this team than 84-year-old Willie Mays will. David Wright looks like Roger Dorn playing third.

And they got rid of Ruben Tejada.

rob: At least Lagares should see the field as a late-inning replacement for Cespedes.

heynawl-enten: Just in time for him to help watch the go-ahead home runs allowed by that awful Mets middle relief.

rob: There we go. There’s some patented Mets Fan Pessimism™.

heynawl-enten: I want to be perfectly clear: I am a Yankee Hater. I root for no team. The Mets lost me when they built an homage to Ebbets Field. No matter how hard the Wilpons try, the Mets aren’t the Dodgers, and they aren’t in Brooklyn. They are in Queens, next to a loud airport and a bunch of auto-repair shops.

neil: OK, OK, ANYWAY

rob: Haha.

Yes, the defense is a mess! But, the Mets can afford it because of their amazing strikeout-heavy rotation. The end of games is going to be a problem, though.

neil: If you never let them put the ball in play, defense is less of an issue.

rob: Exactly. And the one defensive strength they have is at catcher. Travis d’Arnaud figures to be an excellent receiver, helping those starters rack up the Ks.

neil: So it sounds like the Mets won’t need to score a huge number of runs. But will they? The lineup seems better than people give it credit for, especially with Cespedes back.

heynawl-enten: Oh, the Mets should score runs. That lineup has a lot of potential. I really am looking forward to whether Michael Conforto can have a breakout season. Neil Walker will replace Daniel Murphy just fine. And their offense was really, really good in the second half of last season.

Let’s just put it this way: The statistics indicate the Mets will likely repeat in the division. The question is whether something unforeseen happens.

rob: Yep, they should have a good offense, and I can easily imagine Conforto, d’Arnaud or Lucas Duda having breakout offensive years. Cespedes should cool down from last year, but the rest of the lineup will make up for it.

heynawl-enten: If Cespedes doesn’t cool down, New York City will have five-alarm fires every night.



Washington Nationals

rob: It’s hard to ignore the way in which the Nationals flamed out last year. I, like most analytically inclined baseball observers, am not a big believer in team chemistry. But to whatever extent chemistry exists and affects outcomes on the field, the Nationals do not seem to have it (see, for example, their surly closer choking their best player).

heynawl-enten: This, to me, is an amazing fact: Bryce Harper was flat-out amazing last season — he put up a .460 on-base percentage, a .649 slugging average and 42 home runs — yet, it still wasn’t enough for Washington to make the playoffs.

rob: Right, Harper had not only an MVP-caliber season, but one of the best seasons in baseball history last year: 11.2 wins above replacement, per Baseball Prospectus. Amazing as Harper is, he’s unlikely to repeat that feat. So even if he’s great again this year — in near-MVP form, let’s say — they will still have to replace four to five WAR just because of his regression to the mean.

neil: And that number will be subtracted from a team-wide performance that, like Harry said, just wasn’t good enough.

heynawl-enten: Now, here’s a question. The 2015 Nationals also underperformed given their runs scored and allowed. In fact, their Pythagorean record was 89-73 — the same as the Mets. Do the Nationals do better by regressing to where their run differential suggested they should have been last year?

rob: Yes, and that’s around where both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have them projected: 87 wins from from BP, 90 from FG. But I don’t think that will be enough to beat out the Mets.

neil: Here’s something that I don’t think matters, but I’ll bring it up anyway: Outgoing manager Matt Williams was (probably rightly) criticized for the way he handled that team last season; any chance replacing him with Dusty Baker helps with some of those aforementioned chemistry issues?

heynawl-enten: I mean Baker has been a “winning” manager in the past. And he helped to invent the high-five.

rob: Maybe, yeah. If chemistry exists, it doesn’t seem to be very consistent year-to-year. So maybe getting Baker in there will reverse the bad juju.

On the other hand, Baker isn’t a great manager in most of the conventional tactical ways that we can measure, so that deficiency will likely undo whatever benefit they may get from his chemistry-enhancing abilities.

heynawl-enten: Well, that’s why so many National fans were worried about that signing, if I recall. Many people wanted Bud Black instead.

rob: Bud Black would have been a better choice.

neil: At least they don’t have any especially stellar young pitching for Baker to burn out and run into the ground. Even Stephen Strasburg is getting older now.

heynawl-enten: Remember when Baker basically put Mark Prior into the ground?

rob: I do {sobs}.

neil: Poor Rob.

neil: Speaking of Strasburg, he had a somewhat disappointing year in 2015. Will he ever reach the lofty heights everyone was predicting for him all these years?

heynawl-enten: It’s definitely possible. Who’s really to say? But there’s a long line of pitchers who never reach their full potential. (Heck, there are a whole bunch of humans outside of baseball who never reach their full potential.)

rob: One of these years, I think he’ll turn in an amazing season. This could be it, although PECOTA predicts only 2.7 WAR. At the same time, great pitching is more and more a young man’s game, and Strasburg is now 27 with clearly fading velocity and a lengthy injury history.

heynawl-enten: I will say, of course, that Strasburg’s fielding-independent pitching (FIP) the last two seasons was under 3.00. In fact, he’s only had one season (2013) where he was over 3.00. He’s still a very good pitcher. There’s been some bad luck. One real question is, can he stay healthy?

rob: He did have a solid FIP (and he’s a very good pitcher, no question). But he also had problems controlling exit velocity, a part of pitching that FIP doesn’t measure. Strasburg will be an interesting test of whether exit velocity control holds steady between years.

Also, losing Jordan Zimmermann hurts. Even though Zimmermann’s 2015 season wasn’t his finest, he was extremely reliable.

neil: So it sounds like Washington’s pitching isn’t quite at the great level we thought they’d be before last season. And we also mentioned Harper’s potential for regression after his historic performance a year ago. Any hope in the rest of that lineup?

heynawl-enten: I do admit I have a love for Ben Revere. Why? I have no clue.

neil: Maybe because you and I were on hand to witness a rare Ben Revere home run last season.

heynawl-enten: That lineup looks pretty “meh” to me. I mean Jayson Werth is getting close to earning his AARP card. Daniel Murphy is, despite what his playoff performance would have you believe, not the greatest hitter since sliced bread. It’s really just Harper carrying them.

rob: Murphy could be the Mets Playoff Savior version, in which case they’d have another MVP on the team. It’s more likely that he’s the Mets Playoff Scapegoat version, a bad defensive player with an OK bat.

heynawl-enten: I guess the Nationals can hope that Ryan Zimmerman stays healthy.

rob: I was also going to say that Trea Turner could be a bright spot for the team, but then I noticed he was optioned to Triple A.

heynawl-enten: Here’s to hoping their closer doesn’t choke their best hitter this year, at least.



Miami Marlins

neil: It seems somewhat safe to say either New York or Washington will probably win this division, but there are three other teams to talk about — of which the Marlins appear to clearly be the best.

rob: If only because the other two are so bad.

neil: Yes, we’ll get to the Phillies and Braves soon enough — and, egads, they are bad. But do the Marlins have some hope? They won only 71 games last season but there is talent there, if it can stay healthy.

heynawl-enten: I mean, Giancarlo Stanton is very nearly the best hitter in the NL East if he stays healthy.

rob: They have hope, but a big problem is that they happen to play in a division with two other good teams. That will deflate their win totals and prevent them from pilfering a Wild Card spot.

They are also the Marlins, who seem at best slightly interested in winning. That team doesn’t seem likely to go out of its way to buy a superstar at the trade deadline if it’s doing well.

heynawl-enten: The Marlins have shown that you, too, can trick a major U.S. city into building a stadium, and then fake-compete before showing that all you’re interested in is milking a profit. Truly an inspiration to us all.

The Marlins could have a decent top of the rotation, though, with Jose Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen.

neil: It feels like their best hope this year is to be that “young roster where everything magically comes together at once” team. But like you said, Rob, tough to do that in this division.

rob: Right, they have one amazing pitcher and one No. 3-caliber starter. And then … Jarred Cosart, Tom Koehler, and Justin Nicolino. If your initial reaction was “who?” you are probably not alone.

heynawl-enten:

rob: They are so uneven, which is partially a product of their apparent lack of interest in competing. They have two of the best players in the game, as well as sub-replacement Ichiro Suzuki playing right field and terrible framer J.T. Realmuto catching.

neil: How in the world did Ichiro get 438 plate appearances last year? He had a .250 wOBA — good lord.

heynawl-enten: Ichiro was an MLB star before my bar mitzvah.

neil: And you’re older than some of the other Marlins, Harry!

rob: Ichiro was great, one of my all-time favorite players. Sadly, Ichiro is not great anymore.

heynawl-enten: Watching Ichiro is like watching “The Simpsons.” They were great. One of the greatest. Now? I don’t even know what the heck is going on.

rob: The whole idea of a sub-replacement-level player is that a random non-prospect in AAA would outperform him. I think that’s true of Ichiro, and the fact that the Marlins are giving him playing time is confounding. It’s not like he’s a Marlins legend, ya know? Sometimes you see the swan song of a very popular player with the team he got famous playing for (ahem, Derek Jeter, cough, cough). But that’s not what’s happening here!

heynawl-enten: To me, it makes perfect sense. He’s still a name, and they will market the heck out of his chase for 3,000 hits.

(Let me also add that I wish Jeter would get stuck in the rain every day for eternity.)

neil: So is .500 a pretty good benchmark for the Marlins this season, then? Ever since they won that out-of-the-blue World Series in 2003, they’ve bumped up against .500 a few times, but then fell back into the abyss each time.

rob: Yep. As Harry said, that’s apparently the sweet spot for maximum profitability.



Atlanta Braves

neil: Now — are you ready for it? — Phillies or Braves? It hardly matters, but which is better?

rob: Braves, by a hair.

heynawl-enten: The Philadelphia A’s are better, and they haven’t existed for 60 years.

(Side note: I always thought Connie Mack’s full first name was “Conald” for some reason.)

rob: Hahaha — Conald.

Both teams have a few good rookies and second-year players that should make improvements this year. For example, Matt Wisler for the Braves, Aaron Nola for the Phillies. So they will still be worth watching, at least sometimes.

neil: Between those two teams, maybe it was a race for who could start the rebuild soonest.

rob: Neither is going to be anywhere near good. As I wrote in a recent piece, the Phillies are projected for the worst record since the 2013 Astros, which is an astounding feat of rebuilding.

heynawl-enten: I mean, this will be one of the last years you can take public transportation to a Braves game, so that’s worth something.

neil: Savor it while it lasts, citizens of Atlanta.

In their favor, I will say the Braves seem to be following the Astros model somewhat with their aggressive rebuild these past few years. They have bottomed out quickly and, seemingly, with a purpose.

rob: With an interesting twist being that they’re focusing more on pitching than hitting. I think both the Astros and (especially) the Cubs emphasized the latter more than the former when they rebuilt themselves.

neil: Is that the way to go, Rob? Whatever happened to TINSTAAPP? (Or have teams like the Mets helped debunk that?)

rob: I don’t think it is the way to go. We’ve seen the Cubs and Astros assemble very good rotations without having to make big investments in the draft. Hitters seem to be more predictable based on draft position, notwithstanding the Mets.

That said, assembling a bunch of high draft picks will probably work out one way or another. That’s the beauty of competitive balance. It may just take a little longer for the Braves to return to relevance.

heynawl-enten: You know, I’m old enough to remember when the Phillies and Braves faced each other in 1993 NLCS. Then I remember when they both won division crowns in the 2000s. I remember when the Mets stunk in the mid-1990s, were good in the late ‘90s, stunk in the early 2000s, were good in the mid-to-late 2000s, then stunk in the early 2010s — and are now good again. This stuff goes in cycles.

I’d be far more worried about the Marlins not being good again than the Braves and Phillies. The latter two are rebuilding and will spend money again. The Marlins, on the other hand, are too busy doing this as they receive money:

rob: That’s true. In a way, it should be encouraging to see the Braves and Phillies bottom out like this, because it means they have gotten off the treadmill of mediocrity. The Phillies rode that for too long.

heynawl-enten: There are no medals for finishing third. (I mean, unless you get the second Wild Card spot and roll from there.)

neil: As someone who followed the NBA’s Sixers for a while, there are plenty who would agree with you there, Rob. (And perhaps just as many observers on the outside who would disagree!)

rob: Yeah. It’s a little harder to discern a trajectory in the Braves’ moves, though. Sometimes internal politics play a bigger role in front-office strategy than we think, and the replacement of former GM Frank Wren may have been one of those times.

neil: It’ll be worth seeing what the Braves’ front office does these next few years, especially with them moving to the new park.

rob: Yeah — the external politics of the Braves’ stadium saga may also be affecting their strategy.



Philadelphia Phillies

neil: The Braves were a 90+ win team as recently as a couple years ago, so you’d think they’d have pressed “reset” more recently. But the Phillies under Ruben Amaro were infamous for their refusal to admit they were rebuilding.

heynawl-enten: I still cannot believe the Phillies are stuck under that awful Ryan Howard contract. Who could have possibly seen that the RBI machine known as Ryan Howard would possibly start sucking when he didn’t have the hitters in front of him in the lineup?

neil: When does that finally expire?

rob: Philly has a 2017 club option, so it looks like this is the last year.

neil: Yeah, I’m going to guess they will decline that.

rob: Unless the Phillies have a really strong episode of nostalgia.

heynawl-enten: If the Phillies accept that option, they should be arrested immediately. No one not on crack cocaine would accept that option.

rob: On the plus side, Maikel Franco might be good! He’s been tearing it up in spring training, with a 1.026 OPS.

neil: Yes, leading those Phils to the NL’s third-best record during spring training.

rob: Well, you’ve just devalued spring training statistics forever. Thanks, Neil.

heynawl-enten: The good news is that, if the prices of spring-training seats are any indication, then maybe — just maybe — spring training is indicative of the regular season.

neil: Franco should definitely be a bright spot. Unfortunately, the only other hitter FanGraphs projects for more than 1 WAR is Odubel Herrera, the former Rule 5 draftee.

rob: They have some good prospects — the yield from the Cole Hamels trade, in particular — and some of them may make their debuts this year.

neil: But the best Philly can realistically do sounds like fourth place, with fifth a real possibility.

heynawl-enten: I should say that we never know who will be the Houston Astros of this season. It’s probably not the Phillies, given that they haven’t been rebuilding for too long, but perhaps in a year or two? Maybe.

rob: Never discount #YouCantPredictBaseball. But I would say third place (if the Marlins implode) or fourth would be a great finish for them, with some good debuts and a brighter outlook for the future.


neil: For now, though, it sounds like we’re keeping our eye on the Mets and Nationals again, with a crossing glance at the Marlins. Hopefully this season’s battles won’t lead to any chokings.

rob: That’s something we can all agree on: fewer chokings would be better.

heynawl-enten: I think choking is generally a bad thing, and I prefer it not to happen.

neil: Well said, Harry. And now, unlike Matt Harvey, I am going to use the restroom.

heynawl-enten: YAY!


Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season.

A FiveThirtyEight Chat
 

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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