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NL East preview: Even a healthy rotation won’t push the Mets past Nationals

2017 MLB Preview: NL East

The Nationals won 95 games and the division, even with a subpar year from 2015 MVP Bryce Harper. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Projected to finish first: Washington Nationals
2016: 95-67, lost in first round to Dodgers
Significant additions: CF Adam Eaton, C Matt Wieters, RP Joe Blanton, 1B Adam Lind
Significant losses: RP Mark Melancon, C Wilson Ramos, SS Danny Espinosa, SP Lucas Giolito
Clubhouse catalyst: RF Bryce Harper
The season is a success if: Harper bounces back from an off year (by his standards) in 2016, starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg makes 30 or more starts for the first time since 2014, Eaton provides the same stellar defense and high on-base percentage that he did for the 2016 White Sox, starting pitcher Max Scherzer’s stress-fractured knuckle does not present a long-term problem, shortstop Trea Turner comes close to matching his half-season production as a 2016 rookie, the curious lack of an established closer doesn’t torpedo the season in April and May, second baseman Daniel Murphy’s inaction in the WBC doesn’t lead to a slow start, and veteran left fielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman manage to be productive hitters to deepen the lineup.

More coverage of the Nats, and our season preview

2. New York Mets
2016: 87-75, lost wild-card game to Giants
Significant additions: None
Significant losses: SP Bartolo Colon
Clubhouse catalyst: LF Yoenis Cespedes
The season is a success if: their starting pitching stays healthy. While this can generally be said of any team, the Mets rely on rotation health more than most, if only because at its best, their projected rotation of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler is arguably the best in the game – and perhaps enough to push them past the Nationals in the East. But DeGrom, Matz and Harvey are all coming off various surgeries (with Harvey’s the most serious), and Wheeler is being brought along slowly after missing most of the past two seasons following his own surgery.

By standing pat, Mets gambling that 2016 team will win big in 2017

3. Atlanta Braves
2016: 68-93
Significant additions: SP Bartolo Colon, SP R.A. Dickey, SP Jaime Garcia, 2B Brandon Phillips, IF Sean Rodriguez
Significant losses: SP/RP John Gant, SP/RP Tyrell Jenkins, RP Eric O’Flaherty, OF Mallex Smith, RP Chris Withrow, C A.J. Pierzynski
Clubhouse catalyst: 1B Freddie Freeman
The season is a success if: they manage to field a solid team in their first season in a new suburban stadium while still seeing progress from their young core. The Braves went 40-36 from July 6 through the end of the 2016 season, carried largely by youngsters such as Freeman, shorstop Dansby Swanson, centerfielder Ender Inciarte and starting pitchers Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz, which led the front office to add some veteran pieces this winter in hopes of making an out-of-nowhere charge in 2017. But in the big picture, this season is about giving the top-rated farm system in baseball (via Baseball America) another year of maturation and assembling the pieces around Swanson – a consensus top-five prospect who looks like a franchise player – for a title run in 2018 and beyond.

Throwback: How Barry Svrluga projected the NL East in 2016

4. Miami Marlins
2016: 79-82
Significant additions: SP Edinson Volquez, RP Brad Ziegler, SP Dan Straily, C A.J. Ellis, SP Jeff Locke
Significant losses: SP Andrew Cashner, RP Mike Dunn, RP Fernando Rodney
Clubhouse catalyst: RF Giancarlo Stanton
The season is a success if: they don’t collapse under the weight of losing ace Jose Fernandez. The charismatic Cuban right-hander died last September in a boating accident off Miami Beach, a loss the Marlins barely had time to process before the season ended. The tragedy has both a profound emotional component, and a practical one: The Marlins have to replace the unreplaceable, an ace who won 16 games with a 2.86 ERA last year. The additions of Volquez, Straily and Locke, the last of whom will start the year on the disabled list, should help with depth. But even taken together, they don’t equal Fernandez.

5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016: 71-91
Significant additions: OF Howie Kendrick, OF Michael Saunders, SP Clay Buchholz, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Pat Neshek
Significant losses: 1B Ryan Howard, OF Peter Bourjos, RP David Henderson, LF Cody Asche
Clubhouse catalyst: C Cameron Rupp
The season is a success if: their lengthy rebuild turns a corner. The buyout of Howard’s contract symbolized a clean break from the successes (and excesses) of the last great Phillies era, and there is the outline of a solid core here, with five members of the starting lineup and three members of the starting rotation ages 27 or younger. There’s plenty more on the way, too, starting with top shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford, who could be in Philly by midseason.

After tearing down old dynasty, Phillies hope to start new one

But clearly, the front office had enough concerns to feel the need to hedge this winter, in the form of a slew of veteran acquisitions to plug gaps. The Phillies have few long-term financial commitments, and could be huge players in the vaunted free agent class of 2018. But it would help the long-term vision if they could see real progress on the field in 2017.

Coming soon: AL East (later Monday), AL and NL Central (Tuesday), AL and West (Weds.)

More baseball:

AL East preview: It’s World Series or bust for the Red Sox

Projections are down on Buck Showalter’s Orioles again

Fancy Stats: The Cubs’ youth puts a dynasty within reach

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