Football is over. Finally. Still, pitchers and catchers don’t report for, in most cases, at least another 10 days. Seems interminable, right?
So we offer a way to bridge the gap, to put behind the Super Bowl and move on to warmer feelings: Team previews, broken down by division. Yes, Opening Day is nearly two months off. Sure, there are still some free agents available (Ian Desmond, Yovani Gallardo, etc.) who could alter pennant races.
But you have to pick sometime. Our time is now. We start with the National League East.
New York Mets
2015 record and finish: 90-72, won the NL East, lost to Kansas City in World Series
2016 FanGraphs projection: 86-76, second
Significant additions: OF Yoenis Cespedes, 2B Neil Walker, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, RP Antonio Bastardo, OF Alejandro de Aza
Significant losses: 2B Daniel Murphy, OF Michael Cuddyer, IF Juan Uribe, IF Kelly Johnson, SP Jon Niese
Why they’ll win the division: Three words: Rotation, rotation, rotation.
The Mets have grown what may be baseball’s best three-headed monster at the front of their rotation, three absolute fire-ballers who fit the modern swing-and-miss game. Noah Syndergaard’s average 2015 fastball came in at 96.5 mph, second in baseball, and he was followed by Matt Harvey (95.2, seventh) and Jacob deGrom (94.9, ninth) to give New York a try-to-hit-this-cheese mentality at the top of its rotation. But more than that, they were effective and efficient. No National League rotation pitched more innings than the Mets’ last year. Now, they’ll have Syndergaard, who made 24 starts and struck out 10 men per nine innings as a rookie, for the full season. They’ll have no innings limit on lead dog Harvey, who overcame the notion that he didn’t want to pitch by demanding the ball in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. They’ll have a third year of maturity from deGrom, whose 2.61 ERA over his first two big-league seasons was bettered only by Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke during that time. They essentially replace longtime Met Jon Niese, traded to Pittsburgh, with lefty Steven Matz, who was good enough to start in the World Series as a rookie. And back again is ageless wonder/comedic relief of Bartolo Colon, who turns 43 in May but led the Mets in innings pitched last season.
Most significant question: How will they handle being frontrunners?
The Mets are the safest pick to defend the title they won last year not just because of the rotation, but because outfielder Yoenis Cespedes – the man who almost singlehandedly transformed New York’s offense when he arrived last August – re-signed as a free agent, because veteran third baseman David Wright could be healthy the whole season, and because Jeurys Familia (43 saves, 1.85 ERA) established himself as a front-line closer. But ask the Nationals about being the favorites. Heavy lies the crown. Last year’s Mets roared from behind late in the summer – somewhat unexpectedly. This summer, if they’re trailing in the division race as August arrives, it’ll be much more of a story, with more people there to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Spring training battle to watch: Michael Conforto vs. left-handed pitching
The Mets brought up the 2014 first-round pick last summer, but then brought him along slowly, sitting him against left-handed pitching. Just 15 of his 194 plate appearances in the regular season came against southpaws, and all of his 23 extra-base hits came against right-handers. Now, with the (convenient) retirement of Michael Cuddyer, left field appears to be Conforto’s job. But if he stumbles against lefties, watch for the Mets to use Cespedes in left and Juan Lagares in center as a platoon.
Did you realize?: Only one member of the Mets has thrown 200 innings in a regular season.
That would, of course, be Colon, who has done it eight times. But the triumvirate atop the rotation has highs of 191 (deGrom), 189-1/3 (Harvey) and 150 (Syndergaard). All are talented enough to do it, but each would be entering uncharted territory in a season in which they added 70-2/3 innings among them in the postseason.
2015 record and finish: 83-79, second
2016 FanGraphs projection: 88-74, first
Significant additions: 2B Daniel Murphy, CF Ben Revere, RP Trevor Gott, RP Shawn Kelley, RP Yusmeiro Petit, RP Oliver Perez, Manager Dusty Baker
Significant losses: SP Jordan Zimmermann, SS Ian Desmond, CF Denard Span, RP Drew Storen, P Doug Fister, IF Yunel Escobar, Manager Matt Williams
Most significant question: Can they stay healthy?
The following Nationals spent time on the disabled list in 2015: Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister – which represents half of the starting position players and 40 percent of the rotation. In all, the Nationals lost 1,278 man games to injury – which doesn’t include time lost to injury in September, when the rosters expand and the disabled list isn’t used. Still, they scored the third-most runs in the National League. The thinking inside Nationals Park is that better health brings more wins, and to that end the team overhauled its medical and training staff and procedures. It’s also worth noting: FanGraphs’ projection of 88 wins trails only the Cubs, Red Sox and Dodgers in all of baseball.
Spring training battle to watch: Danny Espinosa vs. Trea Turner
The Nationals’ easy solution in the middle infield is to go with the versatile veteran Espinosa, a natural shortstop, to replace Desmond, with Turner spending at least half a season in the minors. But Washington officials will give the former first-rounder, acquired last winter in a trade with the Padres, the chance to compete with Espinosa and veteran Stephen Drew, who projects as a backup. For Turner to win the job, he’d have to be far and away best shortstop in camp. Is that unlikely? After starting his big-league career 0-for-9 last summer, Turner hit .290 with a .371 on-base percentage in his final 20 games, and his speed could be a game-changer.
Did you realize?: Stephen Strasburg is one of the National League’s best pitchers. The stats say so.
In some corners, Strasburg is viewed as a disappointment – certainly because no one could have matched his otherworldly debut back in 2010. Yet “disappointment” and “disaster” are entirely different things. Since 2012, his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, the right-hander leads the NL in strikeouts per nine innings (10.32), trails only Clayton Kershaw in strikeout percentage (28.3), is 15th in ERA (3.17) but eighth in fielding independent pitching (2.96), ninth in walks-and-hits per inning pitched (1.107), 10th in average against (.227) and fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.54 Ks for every walk). All those numbers include his horrendous first three months of last year, when he pitched with a sprained ankle that led to other problems – and he posted a 5.16 ERA over 13 starts. Without that, his ERA drops to 2.97.
2015 record and finish: 71-91, third
2016 FanGraphs projection: 81-81, third
Significant additions: Manager Don Mattingly, SP Wei-Yin Chen, SP Edwin Jackson, IF Chris Johnson
Significant losses: SP Henderson Alvarez, 3B Casey McGehee, Manager/GM Dan Jennings
Most significant question: Can talented players overcome organizational and ownership mayhem?
A reasonable question bounced around spring training a year ago: Which National League East roster would you take if you wanted to build a winner going forward? The Marlins, somewhat surprisingly, popped up quite a bit, what with MVP-in-waiting Giancarlo Stanton, Gold Glove left fielder Christian Yelich, uber-talented right-hander Jose Fernandez, fleet second baseman Dee Gordon and center fielder Marcell Ozuna (seemingly on the verge of a breakout) all in the fold. Then that group got off to a slow start that got Manager Mike Redmond fired and replaced by Jennings, who had been the GM. The result: 20 games under .500, and questions about whether any talent can succeed under the ownership of Jeffrey Loria. Now, Jennings is gone (he ended up a special assistant in Washington) and he’s replaced by Mattingly, whose greatest sin as manager of the Dodgers was not advancing to the World Series even though he won three straight division titles. No National Leaguer has more home runs since 2011 than Stanton, even though he played just 74 games last season. Now, the fences at cavernous Marlins Park are being pulled in (from 418 to 407 feet in deep right-center, for instance). Will that lead to a Marlins’ advantage? And does it represent a coherent strategy for Loria and his leadership group?
Spring training battle to watch: Marcell Ozuna vs. himself
After a breakout 2014 in which he hit 23 homers and posted a .772 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, Ozuna’s 2015 struggle epitomized the Marlins’ season-long funk. Banished to the minors in July at the end of a 1-for-36 slide, Ozuna bickered with the organization, finishing with a .691 OPS. Now, he needs a solid spring to re-establish himself as the unquestioned center fielder and a piece of the core.
Did you realize?: The Marlins have won 90 games twice in their 23-year history. Neither time did they win the division. Both times they won the World Series.
2015 record and finish: 63-99, fifth
2016 FanGraphs projection: 66-96, fifth
Significant additions: SP Jeremy Hellickson, SP Mark Appel, OF Peter Bourjos, SP Charlie Morton
Significant losses: RP Ken Giles, OF Dominic Brown, OF Jeff Francoeur, SP Jerome Williams, SP Aaron Harang, SP Sean O’Sullivan
Most significant question: When will the rebuilding process bear fruit?
Unlike at this time last year, there is reason for a positive vibe in Philly. The core of the pennant-winning Phillies teams – Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels – have been turned into meaningful prospects. More importantly, in the minds of many fans, General Manager Ruben Amaro has been replaced by president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail and his choice for general manager, former Angels assistant Matt Klentak. That insures that the Phillies will move forward with a more modern, analytical approach. Now, Phillies fans can wonder if newly acquired Appel can reach the potential that once made him the top overall choice in the draft, or when 22-year-old right-hander Aaron Nola will be in the majors for good, or when shortstop J.P. Crawford will truly become Rollins’s heir at shortstop. They won’t be very good. But at least there’s hope.
Spring training battle to watch: Aaron Nola vs. left-handed hitters
The 2014 first-round pick from LSU made his first 13 major-league starts last summer, posting a 3.59 ERA, all but assuring himself of a spot near the top of this year’s rotation. But the 6-foot-1 right-hander, who has a bit of an unorthodox three-quarters delivery, must figure out a way to neutralize lefties. In 193 plate appearances against Nola, right-handed hitters managed just 10 extra-base hits, hitting .212 with a .618 OPS. In 125 plate appearances against him, lefties slugged 11 extra-base hits, hitting .310 with an .834 OPS.
Did you realize?: The Phillies’ 2015 rotation ERA of 5.23 was the worst the team has posted since 1930. This comes just five years after the rotation posted the franchise’s best ERA (2.86) since 1917.
2015 record and finish: 67-95, fourth
2016 FanGraphs projection: 68-94, fourth
Significant additions: SS Erick Aybar, SS Dansby Swanson, OF Ender Inciarte, IF Kelly Johnson, IF Emilio Bonifacio, RP Ian Krol, RP Jim Johnson
Significant losses: SS Andrelton Simmons, SP Shelby Miller, C Christian Bethancourt, CF Cameron Maybin
Most significant question: Will Freddie Freeman keep his sanity?
The homegrown first baseman is the last man standing in Atlanta’s – well, it’s more than a rebuild. It’s a complete do-over. Players who Atlanta has traded since last offseason: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis, Tommy La Stella, Alex Wood, Chris Johnson, Jonny Gomes, Luis Avilan, Jim Johnson (who they have since signed back), Simmons, Miller, Bethancourt, Maybin and a few others. They could have thrown in soon-to-be-abandoned Turner Field. The team they will field in that ballpark’s final season will be unrecognizable to even ardent Braves fans. The good part: Swanson, the top pick in the 2015 draft who came as the prize piece in the trade that sent Miller to Arizona, represents the direction the Braves are headed under John Hart and newly promoted general manager John Coppolella. He came with Inciarte, a skilled and speedy outfielder who could play center behind Swanson in the Braves’ lineup of the future. That lineup will include, too, Freeman, who is signed in Atlanta through 2021. By then, these sure-to-be-dark days might seem long gone.
Spring training battle to watch: Hector Olivera vs. the game of baseball
The Braves traded then-24-year-old lefty Alex Wood to the Dodgers in a complex three-team deal last summer in part to land Olivera, a Cuban third baseman signed by Los Angeles only that offseason to a six-year, $60.25-million deal. But even at age 30, Olivera spent much of 2015 in the minors and managed just a .253 average and .715 OPS in 24 major league games with the Braves. A third baseman in Cuba, Olivera may slot in left field for Atlanta – making him less valuable than if he capably manned an infield spot. Wherever he plays, he must produce offensively, or this trade could haunt the Braves.
You didn’t know this: The Braves scored exactly 573 runs in each of the past two seasons (an average of 3.54 per game). That total not only ranked last in baseball in 2015 (it was second-to-last in 2014), but it represented the Braves’ lowest output in any season not interrupted by a labor stoppage since 1988.
The Post’s Preseason Picks Series
Tuesday: National League Central
Wednesday: National League West
Feb. 15: American League East
Feb. 16: American League Central
Feb. 17: American League West