Matt Williams is entering his first season as manager of the Nationals. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The NL East title race will likely come down to the Nats and the Braves. The past two division champs are loaded with young, talented players with postseason experience. Washington is looking to regain its form from 2012, when it posted the best record in baseball. Atlanta is out to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year. Each opens the 2014 season Monday. So, who’s got the edge?

First base

Adam LaRoche, Nats: The 34-year-old hit just .237 with 20 homers and 62 RBIs in 152 games last year. The slugger might get benched when the Nats face a tough lefty starter; he hit .198 vs. southpaws in 2013.

Freddie Freeman, Braves: To get an idea of how important the 24-year-old is to Atlanta’s lineup, the Braves gave Freeman an eight-year, $135 million deal in the offseason. He’s one of the most patient hitters in the majors.

Who’s got the edge? Braves

Second base

Anthony Rendon, Nats: Washington has a couple options at second. Rendon is the more consistent hitter, but Danny Espinosa has altered his approach at the plate and could steal some time because of his defense.

Dan Uggla, Braves: The 34-year-old has never had a great batting average, but he hit a career-worst .179 last year. Another poor start and Uggla could lose his job to prospect Tommy La Stella.

Who’s got the edge? Nats

Third base

Ryan Zimmerman, Nats: He’s been able to play through shoulder problems, but it may limit his ceiling. Despite the injury, he hit .275 with 26 homers and 79 RBIs in 2013. He’ll also likely spend a little time at first base.

Chris Johnson, Braves: It’s still weird to not see Chipper Jones here. Johnson has filled in nicely, though. He was second in the NL in batting in 2013 and could be the Braves’ cleanup hitter this season.

Who’s got the edge? Nats


Ian Desmond, Nats: Among shortstops, he ranked in the top five in runs, home runs, RBIs and batting average in 2013. Defensively, though, he ranked 17th out of 20 in fielding percentage.

Andrelton Simmons, Braves: At 24, he still has room to develop as a hitter, but there’s not a better defensive shortstop. According to, Simmons’ defensive WAR (5.4) was higher than Desmond’s total WAR (3.6) in 2013.

Who’s got the edge? Braves

Left field

Bryce Harper, Nats: He’s just 21, but expectations will be high for Harper in his third big league season. Last year, he missed 44 games and had a modest 20 homers and 58 RBIs. The Nats need more from the slugger.

Justin Upton, Braves: Like Harper, Upton was a former No. 1 pick who came up to the big leagues as a teenager. Upton’s 26 now, and his ceiling has lowered — though he’s still a solid power hitter (27 homers, 70 RBIs in 2013).

Who’s got the edge? Nats

Center field

Denard Span, Nats: Span’s splits tell the story of his 2013 season; he hit .263 before the All-Star break and .302 after. He had 20 stolen bases and could run more with aggressive new manager Matt Williams.

B.J. Upton, Braves: There wasn’t much Upton did well at the plate last year in his first season in Atlanta. He had a career-worst .184 batting average and .289 slugging percentage. He also finished 10th in the majors with 161 strikeouts.

Who’s got the edge? Nats

Right field

Jayson Werth, Nats: The highly paid 34-year-old is coming off his best season in Washington. He ranked fifth in the NL in both batting average (.318) and on-base percentage (.398) and led the team in RBIs (82).

Jason Heyward, Braves: The 24-year-old missed 58 games in 2013 and his power numbers declined (14 home runs, 38 RBIs). He’ll also need to improve on his .254 average, but the 2012 Gold Glove winner always brings his defense.

Who’s got the edge? Nats


Wilson Ramos, Nats: Ramos has shown flashes, but he’s played in only 103 games the past two seasons. He averaged a home run per 17.9 at-bats in 2013, which would have ranked 14th in baseball if he qualified.

Evan Gattis, Braves: The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder played catcher and outfield in 2013, but he should see more time behind the plate this year with Brian McCann gone. He hit 21 homers in 105 games but went through long slumps at times.

Who’s got the edge? Nats


Nats: Stephen Strasburg leads a unit that had four pitchers finish in the top 40 in ERA last season, including offseason pickup Doug Fister. The right-handed Fister was 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA with the Tigers in 2013.

Braves: It’s been an injury-plagued spring for the Braves’ pitching staff — which lost ace Kris Medlen for the season after he underwent Tommy John surgery. Julio Teheran will be Atlanta’s opening-day starter.

Who’s got the edge? Nats


Nats: The Nats have three relievers with closer experience and will turn to Rafael Soriano again for this year’s ninth-inning duties. The 34-year-old converted 43 of 49 save opportunities in 2013.

Braves: There’s not a better closer in baseball than Craig Kimbrel, who recorded an NL-most 50 saves in 2013. In the past two years, he’s blown just seven saves and has allowed 16 earned runs in 129⅔ innings (1.11 ERA).

Who’s got the edge? Braves


Matt Williams, Nats: The first-year manager has talked about how he’ll take an aggressive approach to lead this group. Despite missing the postseason in 2013, the Nats still face high expectations.

Fredi Gonzalez, Braves: He took over for Hall of Famer Bobby Cox in 2011. Gonzalez has led the Braves to the playoffs in two of his three seasons and has finished top five in NL manager of the year voting all three years.

Who’s got the edge? Braves