Monday, April 8, 2013

2013 MLB Season Preview Part 6: NL East

The expected ascent of Harper into the Trout-ian stratosphere at age 20 figures to be one of the game's biggest stories this year. (Getty Images.)

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Over

This 87-win projection is one of the oddest numbers spit out by PECOTA as the consensus among fans and experts is that this is the best all-around team in baseball this year. I'm inclined to agree with the latter as no other team is so well-stocked with talent in every area of the roster (manager included) as this year's Nationals. They won 98 games last year with a good Pythagorean record to back it up (in other words, they weren't especially lucky) and look to have greatly improved in the offseason.
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, back-to-back #1 picks and two of the planet's true phenoms in any sport, are only now just starting to hit their stride. Harper is an early (and seemingly easy) MVP candidate as he enters just his second season at age 20. Those two are surrounded by an infield of power-hitters who are notably great defensive players, the rotation behind Strasburg is stacked, the bullpen's deep enough to withstand inevitable injuries and/or regression, and oh yeah Bryce Harper could go all Mike Trout on us this year. 90 wins easily, possibly somewhere closer to a 100.

2. Braves
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Over

Forget about the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen and whoever else... 26-year-old rookie journeyman catcher and barehanded bat-gripping behemoth Evan Gattis, nicknamed "El Oso Blanco" (Spanish for "the White Bear") in the Venezuelan autumn league, is by far the most fascinating guy on this team.

Gattis was a high school star but barely played in college, quickly burned out on baseball and quit to do some soul-searching. He spent years traveling around the country, working odd jobs like a pizza guy, ski lift operator, janitor and eventually traversing the length of California in search of spiritual guides. He met with one in Santa Cruz who eventually led him to the epiphany that he should get back into baseball after a 4-year absence. He caught on with a small college baseball team in Odessa, TX and got picked up in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft by the Braves. The mature and monstrous Gattis blasted his way through the minors and began this year in the major leagues. In the second at-bat of his big league career, at the exact moment when his father was being interviewed in the stands, he crushed his first ever home run, off Roy Halladay. As a Mets fan, I'm supposed to despise the Braves but can't help rooting for guys like Gattis.

Easy Wild Card pick here. They'll get another chance at what Joe Sheehan calls the "Coin Flip" game, which went completely awry for them last year on a botched infield fly call that lost them the game and brought streams of angry litter hurled onto the field by Atlanta faithful.
3. Mets
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Under

Increasingly pathetic but always somehow charming in their franchise's continuing motif of ineptitude, the Mets come into the season with generally low expectations and pretty bad vibes. Still, some of the cold, stat-based systems like PECOTA think they could be a winning team. The outfield's been dissed all winter long, the rotation lost its two best starters, and the bullpen has been a never-ending source of Metsian tragicomedy.

Truly a Moneyball-style penny-pinching, scrap-heap scraping and young player-developing kind of team at this point, they're still in the process of being rebuilt from the ground up by some of the greatest architectural minds in baseball (Sandy Alderson was, after all, the Obi Wan Kenobi to Billy Beane's Luke Skywalker). My view is certainly skewed by the bias of this being my favorite ballclub but they look like a much more adequate team than the prevailing collective baseball consciousness would have you believe. The rotation is full of youth and upside, the lineup has a pretty good core with David Wright, Ike Davis, and Daniel Murphy, and shortstop Ruben Tejada remains an intriguing player at age 23. PECOTA has them finishing shockingly close to the division's other contenders so with some luck and a bullpen that doesn't implode (the true weakness of the Alderson Mets thus far), you might see this tragicomic Mets team fight for a Wild Card spot.

4. Phillies
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Under

A messy roster with lots of over-the-hill hitters, bloated contracts, and very little potential for improvement anywhere except in 25-year-old outfielder Domonic Brown. Formerly a top prospect, Brown's been fumbled around by the organization for a while but now finally seems to be getting a real chance at a regular gig. The team badly needs him to inject some life into its gimpy lineup.

Could this be the end for Roy Halladay? If so, they've still got two of the NL's elite hurlers left in lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. That'll keep them within sneezing distance of the .500 mark.  

5. Marlins
PECOTA: 66 wins
My pick: Under

Very likely the worst team in the National League this year, possibly the worst in all of baseball. One of the game's greatest power hitters, Giancarlo Stanton, is surrounded by unfamiliar names, unknown rookies and scrubs, while he himself could be traded away this summer and converted into a batch of embryonic talents.

Among the new baby Marlins, 23-year-old Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (Ah-DAY-nee Heck-ah-var-EE-yah) is a slick-fielding shortstop with no pop but carries one of the most unique and euphonious appellations in baseball. At the very least, it'll be fun to hear his name enunciated on broadcasts. They have some other interesting players in a massive crop of rookies, but aside from the majestic abilities of Stanton, this team is built to be crushed by real major league teams. Likely to lose 100 games.

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