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The NL East’s Mets-Nats Battle May Come Down To Injuries

In honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 2, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about what’s ahead. Today, we focus on the National League East with MetsBlog.com writer Maggie Wiggin and FiveThirtyEight senior political writer Harry Enten. The transcript below has been edited.

EXPECTED NUMBER OF WINS
RANK TEAM PECOTA FANGRAPHS DAVENPORT WESTGATE AVERAGE
1 Washington Nationals 88 91 89 92 89.9
2 New York Mets 89 85 85 89 86.9
3 Miami Marlins 77 78 79 77 77.6
4 Atlanta Braves 76 73 74 76 74.6
5 Philadelphia Phillies 73 72 72 73 72.4
How forecasters view the NL East

Based on projected wins or over/under win totals. Data gathered on March 15, 2017.

Sources: Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport, Las Vegas Review-Journal

neil (Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight senior sportswriter): I will have everyone know that I am wearing a non-Mets hat today to maintain my impartiality during this chat. (The Orioles are my wife’s team, so I stole her hat today …)

Let’s get started. The top projected team in the East according to Fangraphs is the Washington Nationals. That’s been true for a number of years, including seasons in which the Nats both won the division and fell short spectacularly. Do we think they should be the favorites again this year? Or is it an every-other-year thing where they’ll disappoint again?

heynawl-enten: Last year, the Mets were actually favored in the preseason projections. That turned out great for them!

maggiewiggin: I think the Nationals have the edge, but it’s a close enough competition with the Mets that it should be a tight race down the stretch.

neil: Is it fair to say that Washington has been a tough team to get a read on during this stretch? They always seem to have one of the most talented rosters in the league, but it doesn’t always translate.

maggiewiggin: They always seem to have one piece of the team really underwhelm. In 2015, it was the bullpen. Last year, it was Bryce Harper (though Daniel Murphy’s transformation into Mecha Ted Williams offset that). I don’t know if that makes them any different from other teams, but they never have that unbeatable vibe.

neil: How many more chances do you think the Nationals will get with this Harper/Stephen Strasburg core? I remember when they shut Strasburg down in 2012 — the rationale was that they were playing the long game for many shots at a championship. Fast forward to now, and I wonder whether they’d feel the same way.

maggiewiggin: It’s tough to feel any certainty with Strasburg. He keeps approaching this true ace-level pitching without ever quite getting there. I thought we were finally seeing it last season before (another) injury did him in. Harper is also up and down, but in 2015, we actually did see him get there.

heynawl-enten: The crazy thing for me is that Strasburg has never really had that standout season. His highest wins above replacement in a season is 3.5. He’s never finished higher than ninth for Cy Young. Heck, he only garnered a vote in one season.

maggiewiggin: Whenever I look at Strasburg’s numbers, the only one that ever really blows me away is that he’s going into his eighth year in the bigs. We’re all getting old.

heynawl-enten: At least we’re all getting old together.

maggiewiggin: Except for Max Scherzer, it would seem.

heynawl-enten: He’s Dick Van Dyke for baseball.

neil: I bet he does a better British accent. Meanwhile, with all this talk of getting old, 23-year-old Trea Turner has no idea how we feel at all. With him improving and the additions of catcher Matt Wieters and outfielder Adam Eaton, could this be the most talent that Washington has had in this Harper/Strasburg era? (And will it be enough to pass the Cubs? Thinking big-picture here.)

maggiewiggin: They’re definitely stacked, but it’s hard not to imagine the loss of Wilson Ramos stinging.

heynawl-enten: Cubs? You’re talking Cubs? I’d like to see the Nats advance past the divisional round first.

neil: Come to think of it, Wieters might be a nice metaphor for the Nats. Supposed to be a future Hall of Famer, he ended up being just “pretty good” (though he’s been even less than that recently).

maggiewiggin: I do think the impact of picking up Eaton was overshadowed by the hefty price tag. There’s a ton of speed at the top of that lineup now and some killer defense up the middle. Pretty much the anti-Mets on those measures.

neil: Great transition! Let’s talk about those Mets.

heynawl-enten: Thank goodness they kept Bartolo Colon.

neil: We’ll get to Bart later.

heynawl-enten:

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neil: Anyway, the Mets! The big problem for them last year was health. (And the next-biggest problem. And the next-biggest.) That would seem to portend an improvement this year, right? They can’t possibly be that hurt again.

maggiewiggin: It’s pretty much their only glaring weakness at this point.

neil: But pitchers are weird creatures, too. Does relying too much on pitching set you up for that?

maggiewiggin: It’s a lot of eggs in a very rickety basket, but, oh man, those eggs taste good.

heynawl-enten: I’m hungry now.

maggiewiggin: So’s Bartolo — it’s why we love him.

heynawl-enten: Nice.

maggiewiggin: But what the Mets are making work for them is the rare combination of quality and quantity on the mound. Every guy who comes up seems to outperform expectations. Their injury-ravaged rotation was top in the game in FanGraphs’ WAR last year; that shouldn’t happen.

heynawl-enten: Their fifth starter at this point is Jacob deGrom clone Robert Gsellman. He didn’t do too horribly last year. The biggest question mark I have is Matt Harvey. And that wasn’t all about injuries last year.

neil: Yeah, do we think he’ll ever be the same? (And does he really need to be?)

maggiewiggin: No, on both counts. But it would be nice if he could claw his way back to something like a mid-3’s ERA and 175-ish innings. His baseline was just so incredibly high if you look at what he did for three seasons, even right after Tommy John surgery.

heynawl-enten: Most of the Mets staff is getting into their upper 20s in age. I do wonder about that a little bit. Especially given the heat at which some of these guys (like Harvey) could throw.

maggiewiggin: You’ve basically got a whole staff throwing 91 mph sliders — it’s not exactly ergonomic.

neil: And if that staff isn’t quite as lights-out, is there reason to think the offense will be able to offset any decline? The Mets were tied for the fourth-fewest runs scored in the National League last year.

maggiewiggin: Compared to last year, the offense boils down to two things for me: how much you buy into situational hitting as a repeatable skill and how quickly they can get Jay Bruce out of there.

neil: Right, because they were terrible with runners on/in scoring position.

maggiewiggin: Almost historically so.

heynawl-enten: Look, Jay Bruce is a quality … Oh who am I kidding. Why oh why did they make that trade?

neil: It was important for blocking Michael Conforto’s development.

heynawl-enten: He is perhaps the other big question mark to me. Conforto had the sophomore curse last year.

maggiewiggin: They traded for Bruce because they were chasing the Cespedes dragon.

neil: Speaking of, seems like they basically had to bring Cespedes back just to keep the lineup afloat and anywhere near on par with what they figure to get out of the pitching.

maggiewiggin: The team is barely a borderline contender without Cespedes, if that. But I agree that Conforto is the wild card here.

neil: “Wild card” might be the operative term. Again.

heynawl-enten: Nice.

neil: Either way, it seems like there’s kind of a gap between the top two teams and the rest of this division. That’s what we thought before last season as well, but Miami kept things competitive until the end. Then they suffered a tragic loss that can’t really be quantified, the death of Jose Fernandez. Is there any way that the Marlins can rally back to their form for most of last season and contend again, or was that chance lost forever with Fernandez’s passing?

maggiewiggin: The Marlins are definitely a team without a real identity now. They were built around this incredibly dynamic duo of Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, but it’s hard to see any real path to contention for them this year. Their starting pitching tops out at mediocre, though I expect the lineup to surprise a bit.

neil: Even without Barry Bonds as hitting coach?

maggiewiggin: The true Barry Bonds is inside all of us. I think their big spending on relievers had one express purpose — setting up a midseason fire sale to fill a barren farm system. They’re going to be treading water for a couple of years.

neil: Yeah, I think many fans might be surprised how poorly their farm system grades out. It’s in last place, according to Baseball America.

heynawl-enten: The best thing the Marlins have going for them is that Jeffrey Loria is probably going to sell the team, at long last.

neil: That is actually great news for them. Loria is the worst. Going back to Stanton, what do we expect of his 2017 season? His exit velocity was still on point, but big chunks of his 2016 were awful.

maggiewiggin: He’s another guy who just can’t stay healthy.

heynawl-enten: “Awful” is a bit of an overstatement. He did have 2.5 WAR last year. But, yeah, he’s only played in more than 120 games once in the last four seasons.

maggiewiggin: It actually says a lot about him that his .815 OPS was a career-low.

neil: So it seems like he might be due for better things this year, then, if he stays in the lineup.

maggiewiggin: If he’s on the field, the power is going to be there too. He’s a very, very strong man.

neil: Very true, and Christian Yelich is no slouch either. Maybe the thing for Miami is whether they have the depth around their stars to really make any noise.

maggiewiggin: And the pitching. Wei-Yin Chen is their number one starter — that’s never a good sign.

neil: Eek.

maggiewiggin: They do have a solid bullpen, but again, how much of that is still around on Aug. 1? Not a lot if everyone’s doing their jobs right.

neil: Well, that was one thing I wanted to ask about all three of the teams projected to finish 3-4-5 in this division: Which direction are they moving in the Success Cycle? If Miami is moving toward a rebuild, the Braves seem like they might be moving toward respectability with some of their offseason pickups.

heynawl-enten: They’re timing it well to move into their new stadium.

maggiewiggin: The Braves have such a rich talent pool in the minors, they’re getting very close to being a force again.

neil: Yeah, it can’t be long it seems, with Dansby Swanson assuming a full-time role and the best farm system in MLB coming up behind him.

heynawl-enten: One thing to keep an eye on with the Braves is how strong they finished last year. They were 18-10 in September and October.

neil: Positively Mets-like in that regard.

maggiewiggin: The Matt Kemp acquisition in left field surprisingly worked out very well for them, so far at least.

neil: And now apparently they’re trying the pitcher version of that with Bartolo, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia.

heynawl-enten: Granted, Dickey hasn’t been worth very much, but I like the idea. “Cheaper” veterans combined with youngsters.

maggiewiggin: The only question is: Who will they package with Kelly Johnson when they trade him to the Mets?

heynawl-enten: HAH!

neil: It’s an annual tradition.

So, any chance the Braves actually challenge the Nats and Mets? Or are they still a year or two away?

maggiewiggin: Like with the Marlins, the rotation seems to be the biggest weakness, but a hot first half combined with a big get at the deadline could have them nipping at some heels for sure. But realistically, 2018 seems to be when that window opens.

heynawl-enten: I wouldn’t be shocked if they stayed competitive for some of the year. Winning the division is another question entirely.

neil: I have to ask the same of the Phillies, who’ve shared the NL East’s basement apartment with the Braves these past few years …

heynawl-enten: Last season, the Phillies were quite awful in every month not named April.

neil: They were also the luckiest team in baseball not named “Texas Rangers.”

maggiewiggin: They have some serious depth issues. Anything other than exceptional health could get ugly fast.

neil: Then again, on the upside, they were the youngest team in baseball last year. And, similar to Atlanta, they have one of the best farm systems in baseball.

maggiewiggin: Both teams have managed their rebuilds very well in that way.

heynawl-enten: But I feel like they’re still a few years away.

maggiewiggin: I agree. They lack any clear top-level talent right now, though they have a few promising names.

heynawl-enten: I guess the good news is that the Phillies finally got rid of Ryan Howard. That signing didn’t make sense when it happened, and it certainly makes no sense now.

maggiewiggin: The fact that they kept him around as long as they did will remain one of life’s great unsolved mysteries.

neil: He was worth -1.0 WAR or worse in four of his final five seasons! 😱

heynawl-enten: Getting back to the larger point, I think the Phillies have the least to look forward to of any NL East team this season. Well, either them or the Marlins.

maggiewiggin: The lowest upside as currently constructed, definitely.

neil: But the parallel rebuilds in Philly and Atlanta might also underscore that the clocks are ticking in Washington and New York.

maggiewiggin: It’s going to be a very different landscape in two years — that’s for sure. Especially if Washington keeps deferring money like the world is ending.

heynawl-enten: Remember, the Braves were good for all those years, and then they weren’t. Dynasties have a way of ending, and the Nationals have not a single thing to show for it. The Mets may hold on a little longer, given the age of their pitching staff (getting older, but not close to old).

maggiewiggin: Hey, if Tim Tebow can get a real, live hit, anything’s possible.

heynawl-enten: He got a hit? The world might really be coming to an end.

maggiewiggin: Hmm, maybe the Nats’ financial strategy is sounder than I thought.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Wiggin is a contributor to MetsBlog.com and BP Mets.

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

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