2018 NL East Preview

Last season, the Washington Nationals won the NL East by 20 games. If not for the Phillies and Mets making some improvements, the Nationals would probably be looking at a 25-30 game victory for the division title. However, the Nationals will still probably win the division by close to 20 games, regardless of the moves that the Phillies and Mets made.

1st Place: Washington Nationals 2017 record: 97-65, first in NL East, lost in NLDS to Chicago My 2018 prediction: 98-64 Key acquisitions: Matt Adams (1B) Key departures: Matt Albers (RHP), Adam Lind (1B)

The Washington Nationals had the fourth most wins in the league last season, but they failed to make it to the Championship Series once again. Luckily for the Nationals, they should be entering the season at close to full health. But, over the years, this is the team that continuously loses their star players to injury during the season. If that can change this year, they should be the best team in the NL. Matt Wieters is returning as the starting catcher and will look to improve on what was a below average first year as a National. Wieters had a career-worst .225 average, and had the fewest home runs of his career in a season where he played 100+ games. Ryan Zimmerman may have been the biggest surprise in the league last season. He hit over .300 for the first time since 2010, and he hit over 30 home runs and over 100 RBI for the first time since 2009. Considering the numbers that Zimmerman put up in 2016, 15 home runs, 46 RBI and a .218 average, it’s safe to question whether Zimmerman’s career resurrection was a one year thing, or something we can expect again this season. Over the past two seasons, since Daniel Murphy joined the Nationals, he has been one of the best hitters in the league. In 2016, among all qualifiers, Murphy finished second in the league in both doubles and batting average, he also finished third in OPS, behind only Mike Trout and David Ortiz. This past season, Murphy saw some regression, but was still top ten in doubles and fourth in batting average. For the upcoming season, Murphy is working his way back from knee surgery and is questionable to play on Opening Day. If Murphy isn’t ready for Opening Day, it sounds like he wouldn’t be out for very long, maybe a week or two, which is great news for the Nationals, considering how important he is to the team. Trea Turner is an incredible talent. If it wasn’t for him suffering a broken wrist on a hit-by-pitch that forced him to miss two months of the season, he would’ve been a runaway winner for the league stolen base crown. Dee Gordon led the league in stolen bases, with 60 in 158 games. Turner only played in 98 games, yet he had 46 stolen bases. Since 1990, the most stolen bases in a single season has been 78, accomplished in 1992 by Marquis Grissom and 2007 by Jose Reyes, as long as Turner can avoid getting injured, there’s a possibility that he’ll record the most stolen bases we’ve seen in close to 30 years. In 2017, here’s a full list of third basemen who hit 25 HR, 100 RBI with a .300 average: Nolan Arenado Anthony Rendon That’s it. Rendon also had one of the all-time great games in MLB history on April 30th when he went 6-6 with 3 HR and 10 RBI. Although 2017 was the best season of his career, it wasn’t much better than a few of his previous seasons, which shows that it wasn’t an out-of-nowhere surprise season, like Zimmerman’s was. Rendon should be seeing the majority of his at-bats from the middle of the order, which will present him with the opportunity to produce even better numbers this year. Adam Eaton had an incredible amount of expectations going into the 2017 season. The Nationals acquired Eaton from the Chicago White Sox after the 2016 season for a prospect package that included Lucas Giolito, who was only a year removed from being considered the best prospect in all of baseball, so he didn’t come cheap. Unfortunately for Eaton and the Nationals, neither of them ever had a proper chance to see if the trade worked out. After playing in 23 games, Eaton tore his ACL, which ended his season. As of right now, there seems to be a chance that Eaton could be ready for Opening Day, however, he still hasn’t played in a single Spring Training game, so it seems more likely than not that he misses the start of the season. When he does return, he might get a chance to bat near the top of the order, but due to how stacked this lineup is, he may be forced to hit near the bottom. Michael Taylor is a very good defender in center field, and had a career best year at the plate last season. Taylor also possesses the speed to steal 20 bases this season. Now, onto the man himself. The man who was referred to as the baseball version of LeBron James back in 2009, when he was only 16 years old. The man who will be signing the biggest contract in sports history after this upcoming season. The man known as Bryce Harper. This season is going to be Harper’s seventh in the MLB, yet he’s only 25 years old. One of the best hitters in the game, Harper is looking to put up career numbers in the final year of his contract. As dangerous as Harper is as a hitter, he’s surprisingly only hit more than 30 home runs in one season, and has never eclipsed the 100 RBI mark. Part of the reason why he’s never had a 30-100 season is his health. Over his six years as a pro, he’s only averaged 128 games per season. It’s interesting to look at Harper’s stats because he seems have great success every other year. These are his stat lines from the past four years: 2014: 100 games, 13 HR, 32 RBI, .273/.344/.423, 111 OPS+, 115 wRC+ 2015: 153 games, 42 HR, 99 RBI, .330/.460/.649, 198 OPS+, 197 wRC+ 2016: 147 games, 24 HR, 86 RBI, .243/.373/.441, 114 OPS+, 112 wRC+ 2017: 111 games, 29 HR, 87 RBI, .319/.413/.595, 157 OPS+. 156 wRC+ As you can see, 2014 and 2016 weren’t very good as a whole. Meanwhile, Harper won the NL MVP in 2015 and was one of the better all-around hitters in the league in 2017. If this pattern continues, 2018 isn’t going to be great for Harper. But, considering that this is a contract year for Harper, I’m guessing that he’ll finally register a 30-100 season. If this lineup can manage to stay healthy, they have the potential to be the best and most dynamic in the league. Unfortunately for them, they have given us no reason to expect them to avoid major injuries, which as a fan who wants to see the best lineups possible, sucks. Max Scherzer might be the best starting pitcher in the league. It’s hard to put anybody above Clayton Kershaw, but here’s something to consider; since Scherzer came over to the NL three seasons ago, he’s won two Cy Young awards, Kershaw has won zero. Those two Cy Youngs bring Scherzer up to three in his career, which ties him with Kershaw for the most among active pitchers. Gun to my head, I still think Kershaw is actually the best in the game today. But, over the past couple of seasons, he’s had trouble with injuries and has only started a total of 48 games. Scherzer, on the other hand, has started 65 games and won back-to-back Cy Youngs. Granted, the argument can be made that Scherzer only won the past two Cy Youngs because Kershaw has missed a chunk of starts. Either way you look at it, they are both exceptional talents, but it’s definitely a discussion worth having. Now, onto the rotation, which saw it’s 1-2-3 pitchers finish first, third and sixth in Cy Young voting last season. As I stated above, Scherzer might be the best in the game. In his three years as a National he’s averaged 33 games started, a 17-8 record, with 276 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.76. He’s as consistent as they come, and will look to become just the third pitcher in MLB history to win three consecutive Cy Young awards, joining Greg Maddux, who won four straight from 1992-1995, and Randy Johnson, who won four straight from 1999-2002. Right behind Scherzer is Stephen Strasburg. It’s weird to say that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t lived up to expectations, but Stephen Strasburg hasn’t lived up to expectations. Since 2012, which was his first full year in the majors, he’s averaged 28 starts a year, a 13-7 record, with 168 innings, 196 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.12. Those are phenomenal numbers. But when he was drafted first overall in 2009, he was billed as a guy who would win multiple Cy Youngs. Despite finishing third in voting this past season, it was only the second year of his career that he received Cy Young recognition. Luckily for the Nationals, Strasburg is their number two starter, so those numbers I mentioned are about as good as you can expect from your number two guy. Much like the majority of this team, Strasburg has to avoid injuries, which have plagued him for his entire career. Gio Gonzalez had the second best season of his career. In the previous five seasons, Gonzalez was an incredibly inconsistent pitcher. 2017 was a completely different story, as he put up top of the rotation numbers from the third spot. It’s hard to trust him to repeat that performance, but if he can, this rotation will be deadly. Much like Bryce Harper is as a hitter, Tanner Roark seems to be an every other year pitcher. Considering how great he was in 2016, and how awful he was in 2017, the Nationals are going to hope that this pattern continues so that he can be the best fourth pitcher in the league. In the bullpen, the Nationals have Sean Doolittle returning as closer, with Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler as the 7th-8th inning guys. All three of them were acquired in the middle of last season, so having them all on the team from the beginning of the year should allow them to become one of the more reliable bullpens in the league. “This team needs to stay healthy” can be said about any team in any sport, but it may apply to the Nationals more than anybody else. Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton and Stephen Strasburg have all missed a significant amount of games over the past few seasons, and Daniel Murphy is still trying to recover from knee surgery. If they can all stay relatively healthy, this team has the chance to have the best lineup and rotation in the Majors. Player to watch: Ryan Zimmerman After four bad seasons, Zimmerman broke out and had the best year of his career in 2017. The Nationals are good enough to not need Zimmerman to repeat his performance, but if he can, it will allow them to have as good of an overall lineup as there is in the game today.

2nd Place: New York Mets 2017 record: 70-92, fourth in NL East My 2018 prediction: 78-84 Key acquisitions: Jay Bruce (OF), Jason Vargas (LHP), Todd Frazier (3B), Anthony Swarzak (RHP), Adrian Gonzalez (1B) Key departures: N/A

If this was 2011 or 2012, the Mets would have one of the best lineups in the league. Unfortunately for them, it’s 2018. Back in 2012, Travis d’Arnaud was one of the main pieces that the Mets acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in the R.A. Dickey trade, which is still one of the most hilarious trades of all time. d’Arnaud seems like he gets injured every year. This will be his sixth season in the MLB, and he has yet to play in more than 112 games in a single year. In the games that d’Arnaud has played in, he hasn’t played up to expectations. He’s shown a decent amount of power, especially for a catcher, but other than that, he’s been a below average hitter as a whole. The way that people talk about Adrian Gonzalez, you would think that he’s been terrible for the past five years. But, in reality, he was very productive in every season up until 2017, which was an injury riddled season for Gonzalez. In the five seasons prior to 2017, Gonzalez averaged 23 home runs, 101 RBI and a .286/.344/.464 slash line. After averaging 159 games from 2006-2016, Gonzalez only played in 71 last season. In fairness to the Gonzalez criticizers, those 71 games were ugly for him, but the injury was to his lower back, which I don’t care how good or bad you are, good luck trying to hit a baseball consistently when you have lower back issues. Coming into this season, it looks like he’s as healthy as can be, considering his back problems, but he also turns 36 in May. There wasn’t much risk in the Mets signing Gonzalez in the off-season, either he’s healthy and he returns to being a productive hitter, or 2017 wasn’t a one-time thing, and his back issues are more serious than we thought. Asdrubal Cabrera is expected to be the starting second baseman and will look to continue what have been a decent couple of seasons as a Met. A lot of people criticized the Mets for re-signing Jose Reyes this off-season. Some because of his on-field performance, and some because of some off-field controversies that he’s been involved in over the years. As a whole, 2017 wasn’t very good for Reyes on the field. The good news for Reyes and the Mets is that he was great in the last month of the season. In 26 September games, Reyes hit 6 home runs, 18 RBI, stole 8 bases and slashed .300/.375/.530. I wouldn’t expect Reyes to carry over that performance to this season, but at the very least, he displayed that he still possesses some real talent. Todd Frazier was a great signing for the Mets. They had a clear need for a third baseman, and the New Jersey born Frazier showed in his brief stint with the Yankees last season, how much he loved playing in New York and how he can be the heart and soul of a team. If you remember, Frazier was the leading force in the Yankees’ thumbs down ‘celebration’ last year, which turned out to essentially be a rallying cry for the team on their way to the ALCS. The problem with Frazier is his inconsistency at the plate. The guy can definitely hit home runs, an average of 33 over the past four seasons, but the problem is that when he’s not hitting a home run, he has a tough time getting hits. Over that same four year stretch he’s averaged 141 strikeouts a season and his batting average has gone down each year, going from .273 in 2014 to .213 this past year. He’s still a solid defender over at the hot corner, but will need to clean up his plate approach to become an effective hitter once again. Yoenis Cespedes has all the talent to be one of the better hitters in the league. Unfortunately for him he’s just never been in the right situation. He’s had to move around a lot, four teams since 2014, but he’s now locked with the Mets for the next few years. This past year was the worst of his career, however, that was solely based on the fact that he missed half the season due to injury. Cespedes will be hitting either third or fourth, and with a much improved lineup, he should be able to hit 30-100 in a season for the second time in his career. Michael Conforto was exceptional for the Mets last season. In his breakout campaign, he hit 27 home runs, 68 RBI and had an OPS+ of 145. He was easily the team’s best hitter until late August when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Conforto’s current target for his season debut is May 1st, but that is obviously the best case scenario. In right field. Jay Bruce returns to the Mets after being traded to the Cleveland Indians during last season. Since 2011, Bruce has averaged 30 home runs and 94 RBI a season, which is some much needed power in the middle of this lineup. Bruce and Cespedes are going to find a lot of success hitting back-to-back in the order. This lineup may have the widest range of possible outcomes in the league. With the likes of Gonzalez, Cabrera, Reyes and Frazier, this lineup may turn out to be a complete disaster. But if the four of them can prove the doubters wrong and provide a decent amount of production, this lineup can actually have some success. The top two starters of New York’s rotation are the only reason I think this team can finish second in the division. Jacob deGrom has been one of the best pitchers in the league since he made his debut in 2014. Over those four years, he’s averaged an 11-8 record with a 2.98 ERA and 183 strikeouts. This past season may have been his most impressive yet. On a bad team, he managed to have a 15-10 record and struck out a career-high 239 batters in 201.1 innings. On the negative side of things, he had a 3.53 ERA, which is actually very good, but for deGrom it was the worst of his career. He’s shown that he can be a reliable number one starter, and there seems to be nothing to worry about with him going into this season. In each of the past couple of seasons I’ve chosen Noah Syndergaard as my NL Cy Young pick. In 2016, he was great, but finished eighth in voting. This past season he only started in seven games, so he had no shot at the award. The main piece of the aforementioned R.A. Dickey trade, it’s more hilarious each time I think about it, has the potential to be in the discussion for the best pitcher in baseball. Syndergaard routinely hits triple digits with his fastball and has been incredible in his Spring Training starts thus far. It seems redundant, but as long as Syndergaard can stay healthy, he’s going to show the world what an exceptional talent he is. Matt Harvey has been an absolute disaster the last couple of seasons. In 2013, he was fourth in Cy Young voting, he then missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery, upon his return in 2015, he went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA. That’s where everything went off the rails. In 2016 he went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA, not to be outdone, he followed that up with a 5-7 record and 6.70 ERA last season. It’s one of the more severe falls from grace that we’ve seen over the past few years, as he has gone from being on his way to becoming a King of New York to being somebody that Mets fans want no part of. At this point, even a 4.50 ERA would be welcomed by the Mets organization and its fans. The Mets did make a sneaky good move this off-season when they signed Jason Vargas. Last season, Vargas was tied for the league lead in wins, with 18. Vargas’ 2017 was an above average year for the southpaw, and he will look to continue this solid stretch of seasons that he’s put together over the last four years. The Mets have actually put together a decent backend of the bullpen. They acquired AJ Ramos, who has had success as a closer over the past few seasons, from the Miami Marlins in July of last year. Then they signed Anthony Swarzak, who had a career best season in 2017, this off-season. To close things out, Jeurys Familia, who had 94 total saves in 2015 and 2016 for the Mets, is expected to be healthy after missing most of last season due to suspension and a blood clot in his throwing shoulder. The three of them should be able to shorten a lot of games for the starting rotation. Player to watch: Noah Syndergaard He needs to stay healthy. That’s all it really comes down to. The Mets could have one of the best, if not the best, 1-2 combinations in the league, between deGrom and Syndergaard. But they need Syndergaard to start over 25 games to do so.

3rd Place: Philadelphia Phillies 2017 record: 66-96, fifth in NL East My 2018 prediction: 77-85 Key acquisitions: Jake Arrieta (RHP), Carlos Santana (1B), Pat Neshek (RHP), Tommy Hunter (RHP) Key departures: Freddy Galvis (SS)

This team wasn’t very good last season, but they made some big moves in free agency, and their best player is going to be starting the year with the team, as opposed to being called up in August. Jorge Alfaro is currently the number 7 prospect for the Phillies, according to MLB Pipeline, and last season he got his first real taste of the majors. In 114 plate appearances with the Phillies, Alfaro hit 5 home runs, 14 RBI and slashed .318/.360/.514. Those are great numbers from your catcher, but it’s tough to see him keeping up anything close to that level of production over his first full season with the team. Alfaro’s problem is the amount of times that he strikes out. In this 114 plate appearances, he struck out 33 times, 28% of the time. In Triple-A last season, he struck out in 113 of his 350 plate appearances, or 32% of the time. Alfaro has a good amount of power and a great arm, but he’ll have to cut down on the strikeouts if he wants to be a successful big leaguer. At first base is one of the two big moves that the Phillies made this off-season. Carlos Santana spent the first eight seasons of his career with the Cleveland Indians, until the Phillies offered him a three year contract worth $60 million. Aside from his very first year in the MLB, when he only played 49 games, Santana has averaged 24 home runs and 81 RBI a season. Santana isn’t the best hitter, but he’s been above-average in every year he’s been a pro, and will provide the Phillies with a consistent power bat in the middle of the lineup. Cesar Hernandez is a good leadoff hitter. He gets on base at a very good clip, .373 OBP the past two seasons, and he provides some base stealing capability, although he needs to steal bases at a higher success rate than he has thus far in his career. Over his career he’s been thrown out 34% of the time when trying to steal a base. For comparisons sake, the top ten base stealers from last season altogether were caught stealing at an 18% rate. To be fair to Hernandez, he’s not expected to be one of the top base stealers in the league, but if you’re looking for 15-20 stolen bases a season, like Hernandez is, you can’t be getting thrown out a third of the time. J.P. Crawford is the 3rd best prospect in the Phillies’ system and the 37th best prospect in the league, according to MLB Pipeline. Drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft, Crawford is expected to be the starting short stop on Opening Day. Crawford is an interesting prospect, he’s only 23 years old, and his numbers from the minors don’t necessarily jump off the page. He has a decent amount of power, has had a very good OBP throughout his short career, and has stolen some bases, but much like Hernandez, he gets caught stealing far too often. It doesn’t look like Crawford will have any competition at short stop, so he’ll have a chance to show why he was a first round pick and one of the highest ranking prospects on the team, and in the league. Maikel Franco is only 25 years old and has already shown lots of power at the plate. In 2016, he hit 25 home runs, and followed that up with 24 in 2017, which were both team highs in those years. He still has to get on base much more, as he sported an abysmal OBP of .281 this past season. The power is obviously there, but some refinement is needed to make him a better overall hitter. Rhys Hoskins was one of the best stories of the 2017 season. After being called up in early August, Hoskins went on a tear that the league has never seen before. Here are some records that Hoskins broke, or came close to, in the 50 games he played:

- Hoskins became the fastest player in MLB history to hit his 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th home runs. - Hoskins was the second fastest player in MLB history to record 25 RBI - Hoskins became the fastest player in MLB history to record 45 RBI - Hoskins tied a Phillies franchise record by hitting a home run in five consecutive games - Hoskins broke the record for most home runs (18) by a player who made their season debut after August 1st, the previous record was held by Ted Williams who had 13 home runs

All of that was done by a 24 year old who had never played a game in the MLB until August 10, 2017. What might be the craziest part of his season was that he didn’t hit a single home run in his last 16 games of the year. If not for him failing to hit a home run in any of those games, he would’ve easily broken the record for fewest games to reach 20 home runs, which is currently at 51. Hoskins actually has a chance to tie that one on Opening Day, but he would have to hit two home runs to do so. The one downside of Hoskins’ year is that he exceeded his rookie eligibility, so his official rookie year only consisted of 50 games played. Hoskins has already proven to be one of the most entertaining young hitters in the game, and he should hit at least 30-100 fairly often for years to come. Odubel Herrera is a year removed from being an All-Star, and will look to bounce back to his All-Star form after seeing some regression in 2017. Nick Williams had a good rookie season, and should have a bump in production in his second year in the majors. This lineup isn’t anything special, but with a full year of Hoskins, and the addition of Santana, they have a chance to get out of the bottom 5 in terms of total team home runs and runs scored. This rotation had no reason to get people excited, until they signed Jake Arrieta on March 12th. The Phillies are getting a great pitcher in Arrieta, which is a rarity for a signing that occurs less than three weeks before Opening Day. Arrieta was a late bloomer as a major leaguer. He’s been pitching in the MLB since 2010, but didn’t have much success until he was traded to the Cubs during the 2013 season. In his four full seasons as a Cub, from 2014-2017, Arrieta has averaged 30 starts, a 16-7 record, a 2.67 ERA and 189 strikeouts per season. In those seasons, his ERA- have been 69, 45, 74 and 81. He also won an NL Cy Young in that stretch. In 2015 he went 22-6, with a 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings, to win the first Cy Young of his career. He’s not going to put up numbers like those again, because frankly, maybe one pitcher a year comes close to that level of production, but he should be a great top of the rotation starter for this Phillies team. Due to the fact that Arrieta didn’t sign until March 12th, it’s doubtful that he’ll be pitching in one of the first few games for the Phillies. He’s obviously been throwing while trying to find a new team, but there’s a big difference between throwing and pitching in an actual game. He should make his Phillies debut a week or two into the season though, so it shouldn’t be an issue for them. With Arrieta coming in, it pushes Aaron Nola out as the team’s Ace. Nola is going to be the Opening Day starter, but he’ll probably be viewed as the team’s second starter after that. Nola has been stuck on some pretty bad teams in his first three seasons, so his career win-loss record is barely above .500, but he has a career 3.94 ERA and has had an ERA- of sub-100 twice in his three years. The Arrieta signing may be looked at as a demotion for Nola, but if anything, pitching behind, and learning from Arrieta, may do wonders for Nola’s game. Jerad Eickhoff has had an up-and-down first three years in the majors. He’s been more good than bad, and should benefit greatly from having an improved team around him. He’s locked in as the team’s number three starter, and is in line to have a pretty good season. Vince Velasquez has been on fire so far in Spring Training, but his career regular season performances have left much to be desired. The Phillies will hope that he can carry this Spring Training success to the regular season, but they shouldn’t hold their breath. In the off-season the Phillies made some smart moves to bolster their bullpen. They signed Pat Neshek, who they actually traded to the Rockies during last season. Neshek is coming off the best season of his career, where he put up a 1.59 ERA and struck out 69 batters in 62.1 innings over a total of 71 games pitched. Much like Neshek, Tommy Hunter is coming off of a career best year. Hunter, with the Rays last season, appeared in 61 games, had an ERA of 2.61 and had 64 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. Hector Neris will be the team’s closer for the second straight season. Neris converted 26-of-30 save opportunities last season and had a K/9 over 10 for the second year in a row.

This team isn’t going to be in the postseason discussion, but they are going to be a much better team than they were in 2016. A few big signings, and a full year of Rhys Hoskins, will give this team a good chance of having their best season since they won 81 games in 2012.

Player to watch: Rhys Hoskins This team will go as far as Rhys Hoskins’ bat takes them. After a historic first 50 games of his career, expectations will be high for the left fielder. There will be a lot of doubters who say that it was just a lucky few months for Hoskins, but the former fifth round pick seems like he’s the real deal. He’ll be batting fourth in this lineup, and has a chance to absolutely mash.

4th Place: Atlanta Braves 2017 record: 72-90, third in NL East My 2018 prediction: 72-90 Key acquisitions: Brandon McCarthy (RHP), Scott Kazmir (LHP) Key departures: Matt Kemp (OF) RA Dickey (RHP)*, Matt Adams (1B)

The only thing that the Braves really did this off-season was getting rid of Matt Kemp and his terrible contract. In late December, the Braves traded Kemp to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Adrian Gonzalez. The Braves immediately released Gonzalez, and he went on to sign with the Mets. Tyler Flowers has been steadily improving over the past five seasons. In 2017, Flowers registered the second most home runs and RBI of his career, but his slash line was by far the best of his career. Prior to 2017, his best slash line was .270/.357/.420 and he exceeded all three of those numbers in 2017. He hit .281/.378/.445 and will look to grow on that this season. It’s going to be tough for him to do though, since he’s going to once again split games with Kurt Suzuki, who had 19 home runs and slashed .283/.351/.536 as the backup catcher last season. Freddie Freeman is one of the best all-around hitters in the MLB, and looked like he was on his way to winning his first career MVP last season, until he was hit by a pitch that fractured his wrist and cost him one and a half months’ worth of games. In the 37 games prior to his injury, Freeman had a league leading 14 home runs, to go along with 25 RBI and an incredible .341/.461/.748 slash line. After his return in early May, Freeman had 14 home runs in 80 games, and ‘only’ managed to slash .292/.375/.515 for the remainder of the season. Now that he’s fully healthy, Freeman should put himself back in the MVP conversation this year, and will be the main producer for this Braves lineup. The remainder of the team’s projected infield are all 24 years old or younger and all have some major league experience. In 2016, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies were the team’s top two prospects, and they will now be the starting middle infield for the Braves. Albies is coming off a successful partial season with the Braves in 2017. In 57 games, Albies had 6 home runs, 28 RBI and 8 stolen bases to go along with hitting .286/.354/.456. In his four seasons in the minors, Albies totaled 102 stolen bases in 130 attempts. So, along with his 8-for-9 showing in the majors, he’s displayed that he can be a threat on the base paths. Dansby Swanson was considered one of the game’s best prospects not long ago. He’s still only 24 years old, but has struggled quite a bit in his 182 career MLB games. Swanson clearly has loads of talent, but he’s going to have to figure it out quickly if he expects to be an everyday MLB short stop. Johan Camargo slashed .299/.331/.452 in his rookie year, and will be the team’s starting third baseman on Opening Day. He’s probably the least talented of the three young infielders, but he still projects to be a solid MLB player. Ender Inciarte has been a great top of the order hitter over the past three seasons. Over that span, he’s averaging 171 hits, including a career high 201 last season, and hitting .300/.347/.400. I don’t think most people know who he is, but he’s only 26 years old, and will look to contend for the league lead in hits this upcoming season, after being tied for third in 2017. Nick Markakis isn’t the player he used to be when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, but he’s still pretty good. His fielding took a hit this past season, he had -4 Defensive Runs Saved, as opposed to 10 DRS in 2016, although 2016 seemed to be an outlier season for him on the defensive side of things. But as a hitter, he’s still going to get you over 160 hits, and have an OBP somewhere around .350.

Now, onto the main attraction of the 2017 Atlanta Braves. According to MLB Pipeline, Ronald Acuna is the second best prospect in all of baseball. I’ve made it known that I don’t consider Shohei Ohtani to be a prospect, so in my eyes, Acuna is number one. In 2017, at three levels of the minors league, Single-A+, Double-A and Triple-A, Acuna had 181 hits, 21 home runs, 82 RBI, 44 SB and a .325/.374/.522 slash line. Acuna struck out quite a bit and was caught stealing 31% of the time, but he showed why he’s the best prospect in the game. Acuna is actually pretty small, only 6’0” and 180 pounds, but he has some serious pop in his bat. On the 20-80 scale that is used to project a player in baseball’s five tools, a score of 50 in any category is considered average. Acuna had a rating of 60 or higher in all five categories, which is considered a ‘plus’ rating. In order, his hitting for contact, hitting for power, running, arm and fielding scores are 60, 65, 70, 60, 60. As an overall prospect, he was rated a 70 out of 80, which is a ‘plus plus’ prospect. For comparisons sake, here’s Acuna’s grades compared to a few current day MLB superstars from when they were considered top prospects: 2017 #2 prospect, Ronald Acuna - Hit: 60, Power: 65, Run: 70, Arm: 60, Field: 60, Overall: 70 2014 #2 prospect, Carlos Correa - Hit: 60, Power: 70, Run: 50, Arm: 70, Field: 50, Overall: 70 2014 #3 prospect, Kris Bryant - Hit: 55, Power: 75, Run: 40, Arm: 60, Field: 50, Overall: 70 2015 #2 prospect, Corey Seager - Hit: 60, Power: 60, Run: 40, Arm: 60, Field: 50, Overall: 70 As you can see, he’s rated as highly as Correa, who won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015, and Kris Bryant and Corey Seager, who won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In the name of transparency, Byron Buxton has probably been the highest graded prospect over the past five or so seasons. Buxton’s grades in 2015 were as follows, Hit: 70, Power: 60, Run: 80, Arm: 70, Field: 70, Overall: 70. Although Buxton had a great second half of the 2017 season, and showed why he was once the top prospect in baseball, so far in his career, he’s been nowhere near as good as Correa, Bryant or Seager. It’s not to say that he won’t be, but it’s just to show that these grades are purely projections of what a player can be and not absolutes. As a whole, MLB Pipeline’s projections have been very accurate year in and year out. It’s not often that a top prospect turns into a complete bust, which is why people should be as excited about Acuna as I am. Acuna has the talent to hit ~30 homeruns a season with 40+ stolen bases. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with once he makes his debut this season.

Speaking of his debut, it’s all but guaranteed that the Braves are going to start him in Triple-A for the first two weeks of the season, in order to gain an extra year of control. So, we should be seeing him in an MLB game sometime around mid-late April.

In 2017, the Braves pitching finished 24th in the league in ERA, 20th in strikeouts and 20th in opponent’s batting average. This year, I don’t expect those numbers to improve. Julio Teheran is about as hot and cold as a young pitcher can be. 2014 and 2016 were All-Star seasons with ERAs of 2.89 and 3.21, and ERA- of 79 and 77. In 2015 and 2017, ERAs of 4.04 and 4.49 and ERA- of 104 and 104. Due to his history, it would seem that 2018 is going to be an All-Star season for Teheran. He’s this team’s Ace, and they desperately need the 2014 or 2016 version of him if they want to be a somewhat competitive team. Mike Foltynewicz had a solid stretch of games from June 18th to July 25th. In his seven starts in that time period, he went 5-0 with 46 strikeouts in 42.2 inning pitched and had an ERA of 2.95. Other than that stretch of games, his season wasn’t very good. Brandon McCarthy wasn’t terrible in 2017, but he’s missed a lot of time over the past few seasons due to injury, and Scott Kazmir is well beyond his glory years. These two were acquired in the Matt Kemp trade basically to offset as much salary as possible, but they should serve as decent 4th/5th starters for this team. Player to watch: Ronald Acuna Acuna is the only reason that I will watch any Braves games this season. Being as special of a talent as he is, as long as he’s called up early in the season, which I expect him to be, he should win the NL Rookie of the Year. Remember his name, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot throughout the next decade.

5th Place: Miami Marlins 2017 record: 77-85, second in NL East My 2018 prediction: 58-104 Key acquisitions: Starlin Castro (2B), Lewis Brinson (OF), Cameron Maybin (OF) Key departures: Giancarlo Stanton (OF), Dee Gordon (2B), Marcell Ozuna (OF), Christian Yelich (OF), Ichiro Suzuki (OF)

I mean, do I really have to do this? The Marlins weren’t a bad team last season. They lacked pitching, but their lineup was very good. They had the NL MVP, the stolen base leader, and two young stud outfielders. They had all of that, but then the franchise was sold. In August, the team was sold to a group led by Bruce Sherman and Yankees legend, Derek Jeter, for $1.2 billion. After purchasing the team, the new owners were in the hole quite a bit financially and decided that they needed to have an ol’ fashioned fire sale to help them. They traded Giancarlo Stanton, the 2017 NL MVP, to the New York Yankees. Marcell Ozuna was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Christian Yelich was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers. Dee Gordon was shipped off to the Seattle Mariners. The ownership set out to cut payroll, and boy, did they ever. Just to recap, here are 2017 stats for the players they traded away:

Stanton: 59 HR (most in MLB), 132 RBI (most in MLB), .281/.376/.631, 156 wRC+, NL MVP Ozuna: 191 hits (T-6th in MLB), 37 HR, 124 RBI (3rd in MLB), .312/.376/.548, 142 wRC+, Gordon: 201 hits (T-3rd in MLB), 60 SB (most in MLB), .308/.341/.375 Yelich: 170 hits, 18 HR, 81 RBI, .282/.369/.439, 115 wRC+ In addition to those trades, the owners wanted to get rid of the home run sculpture inside of Marlins Park, which they’ve had some trouble doing, and in what may be the most cruel move of their tenure, they fired the guy inside of the mascot costume, who had been doing to job for over a decade.

Despite the gutting of this team’s roster, they actually do have some talent left over. JT Realmuto has been one of the better offensive catchers over the past few seasons. By the way, he was almost traded in the off-season, and might be traded mid-season. Justin Bour dealt with injuries last season, but he still hit 25 home runs, 83 RBI, and pushed Aaron Judge to the limits in the first round of the Home Run Derby. Starlin Castro was part of the return for Giancarlo Stanton, and is still one of the better second basemen in the league. It seemed like he was going to be traded right after arriving in Miami, but a trade never came to fruition. Lewis Brinson was the main piece of the Christian Yelich trade and is looking to be the team’s starting center fielder in his first full season as a big leaguer. Brinson is considered the team’s best prospect, and is ranked as the 27th best in the league, by MLB Pipeline. Brinson has been on an absolute tear in Spring Training, and it looks like the center field job is his. Cameron Maybin isn’t that great of a player, but he steals a lot of bases, so he’ll probably become a valuable trade chip near the deadline.

The only two pitchers worth talking about are Jose Urena and Dan Straily. Urena was by far the team’s best pitcher last season, as he went 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA and an ERA- of 91. He’s only 26, so he’s entering the prime of his career after a career best season. Over the past two seasons, one with Cincinnati and one with Miami, Dan Straily has gone 24-17 with an ERA of 4.01. He’s more of a third starter than a second, but this team can’t be picky. Straily is another player who may be traded during the season, depending on his performance. Player to watch: Lewis Brinson There’s really nothing else on this team to look forward to, other than their top prospect. Brinson has the potential to be a 20 home run, 30 stolen bases player. So, he has a chance to be the lone bright spot on a team that is destined for darkness for years to come.

* - Player is currently a free agent

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