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2014 NL East Preview: Who will finish on top?

Take a look at the possible candidates to win 2014 NL East crown and their respective strengths and weaknesses. Will the Braves repeat as champions, or will someone knock them from the top spot?

Well, now that Andrew and Demetrius have finished their excellent previews of the Miami Marlins, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Washington Nationals, it's time to decide who's going to walk away with the 2014 NL East crown.

As you can probably ascertain from the image accompanying this post, I ultimately believe that the two teams who'll fight it out for the division title this year will be the reigning champion Atlanta Braves (man, isn't that nice to say?) and the Washington Nationals. While the two teams that figure to fight for spots one and two in the division project to be two of the NL's strongest, this is a division that's severely lacking in depth. I would be surprised to see any of the other three division teams in the NL East compete for a playoff spot, or even finish with a winning record, despite bright spots such as the delightful José Fernández, David Wright, and Chase Utley on all of those clubs. Let's break down the contenders (and non-contenders) and try to figure out which team will win this thing.


The Non-Contenders

  • Miami Marlins

I actually think it's quite possible that the Marlins won't be completely inept in 2014, as they were in most of 2013. Although there probably won't be much of a manifestation of the team's young talent in the upcoming season in terms of wins, Miami has a solid core of young talent, including 2013 NL Rookie of the Year José Fernández, Nathan Eovaldi, Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, and Jake Marisnick. Much of this talent isn't necessarily of the "2014 impact" variety, however, and there are other huge question marks on their roster. Although Jarrod Saltalamacchia, signed as a free agent in the offseason, will likely represent an upgrade over last year's grotesquely bad cornucopia of Jeff Mathis and Rob Brantly (with some Miguel Olivo added in for fun!), the Marlins still have massive question marks spread throughout the entirety of their infield. Adeiny Hechavarria was one of the league's worst regulars in 2013, and Casey McGehee, Garret Jones, and Rafael Furcal don't figure to be much better. Furthermore, there isn't much pitching depth, and the Marlins' rotation behind Fernández is a bit of a question mark. Eovaldi, Álvarez, and Jacob Turner are all talented, but inexperienced and young, and the Marlins' fifth starter options are not exactly awe-inspiring.

I expect the Marlins to once again finish in the cellar of the NL East in 2014, albeit with marked improvement over their ugly 100-loss campaign in 2013. With improvements from the catching position, a rebound year from Giancarlo Stanton, and maturation and development of their young talent, I think it's reasonable to expect the Marlins to be a candidate to win more games in 2014 than they did in 2013. They still won't be much fun to watch (other than when Fernàndez takes the mound every fifth day), but Marlins fans will be happy to see a team that's not quite as inept as 2013's incarnation of the team. This team will struggle mightily to score runs, but relatively strong pitching will allow them to avoid being blown out with frequency. It will be interesting to see how GM Dan Jennings and the Marlins' ownership work in the trade market this season, as there are pieces that would likely be of interest to contenders in need, such as closer Steve Cishek. I don't foresee Giancarlo Stanton being traded at this point, but hey, the Marlins haven't shown much restraint in dealing their franchise players in the past.

Projected Record: 69-93

  • Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies have fallen on hard times lately. Philadelphia's reign of dominance over the NL East (and the Braves) from 2007-2011 seems far away, as the Phillies have finished with a sub-.500 record the past two seasons and have made some, uh, curious personnel moves in the process. General Manager Rubén Amaro Jr. has assembled a collection of expensive, veteran players in an attempt to compete in 2014, and added to the team's veteran core by signing free agents Marlon Byrd and AJ Burnett in the offseason. Burnett will join Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation, making for a solid tandem to anchor Philadelphia's pitching staff in 2014. Hamels is expected to miss at least a month at the beginning of the season due to arm fatigue. There's simply not much to be excited about behind those three in the rotation, as Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernández (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) look to be the most likely candidates to fill out the back of the rotation. Newly-signed Cuban import Miguel Alfredo González (currently sidelined with shoulder soreness), Ethan Martin, and Jonathan Pettibone are potential candidates for rotation spots during Hamels' time on the disabled list. The Phillies project to be a bad defensive club, and that isn't going to do the pitching staff any favors. The Phillies' lineup shouldn't be a complete disaster, as Chase Utley, Domonic Brown, Carlos Ruiz, and Marlon Byrd are all decent hitters that should form the nucleus of the Phillies' order. Jimmy Rollins (if Ryne Sandberg even lets him play) and Ryan Howard will likely continue to be expensive, old, and unproductive, and the Phillies will look to find some production from the third base spot in the form of Cody Asche (or potentially Maikel Franco, down the road) and from Ben Revere, who struggled mightily during his first season in Philadelphia last year.

All in all, I think the Phillies will have a 2014 that ends up being almost a mirror image of 2013: they'll struggle with injuries, their GM will be on the hot seat, and they won't sniff a .500 record or the playoffs. I really don't like the back end of that rotation, and I'm not sold on the fact that AJ Burnett will be able to replicate his 2013 campaign (especially considering the massive drop-off in defense behind him from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia). With a set of players as old as the Phillies', injuries are almost certain to become an issue. Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, AJ Burnett, and Cliff Lee are all 34 or older, and it's just tough to envision a scenario in which all of those players stay on the field and produce consistently. Amaro's offseason seemed to be a last-ditch attempt to salvage his job as general manager, and it would not surprise me to see him ousted from his position in the event that the Phillies and new manager Ryne Sandberg struggle through yet another season with an old, expensive core and a complete dearth of young talent. I see them finishing fourth in the division, although it wouldn't shock me to see the Marlins finish with a better record than them if the injury problems are worse than expected.

Projected Record: 72-90

  • New York Mets

The Mets will look to improve in 2014 after yet another losing season, 2013 being their being their 5thconsecutive, despite the loss of Matt Harvey and a relatively inexperienced roster. The Mets will look for an offensive shot in the arm from newly-signed outfielder Curtis Granderson, Rookie of the Year candidate Travis d'Arnaud, and their consistently fantastic third baseman, David Wright. The Mets are also hoping for a bounce back season from first baseman Ike Davis, who put up an offensive season that rivaled BJ Upton's in terms of its lack of production. The Mets' pitching staff looks to be anchored by starters Bartolo Colón and Dillon Gee. Highly-touted prospect and Georgia native Zack Wheeler will look to make his mark on the rotation in 2014, and it's possible that we'll see another impressive arm come up from the Mets' minor league system in the form of right-handed starter Noah Syndergaard. The bullpen is a bit of a question mark, although closer Bobby Parnell had an effective 2013 campaign and figures to be a decent bet to provide stability to the back end of New York's bullpen. They did sign combustible former Tigers' closer José Valverde in the offseason, so, there's that. The Mets still have a few question marks, such as whether defensive wizard Juan Lagares (the almost certainly better option) or speedster Eric Young Jr. will earn the starting center field job, and whether or not Rubén Tejada will be able to handle the shortstop position on a daily basis.

There are certainly signs of optimism for a Mets club that has been plagued by mediocrity for years, but I don't expect 2014 to be the season in which the Mets break out and compete for a playoff spot. The Mets do have the strongest crop of Minor League talent in the National League East, and there are quite a few intriguing young players that figure to be a part of their Major League roster in 2014. I would be tempted to say that the Mets could reach the 81-win mark with a healthy Matt Harvey and Jonathan Niese at the top of the rotation, but Harvey almost certainly won't be back until 2015 and Niese's health is in limbo. Make no mistake about it-in 2015 and years beyond that, the Mets will have a formidable rotation and could emerge as a contending team. However, the combination of inexperience, a thin rotation, and a middling offense should preclude them from competing in 2014. The Mets seem to be on the right path, but their fans will likely have to wait a bit longer to be competitive. There should be brighter days in Queens ahead, but I'm not sold on the fact that the sun will emerge in 2014.

Projected Record: 75-87


The Contenders

I'm going to break the format for the "contenders" section of the post and do more of a direct comparison between the two likely NL East contenders, the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves. These two teams are the only two in the division that seem to have a shot of finishing above .500 and competing for a playoff spot. Although the Braves got off to fast start and never looked back in 2013, finishing the year 10 games ahead of the Nationals in the NL East standings, the race between the two clubs in 2014 figures to be much tighter. The Nationals will employ arguably the strongest rotation in the National League in hopes of re-capturing the division from Atlanta, and the Braves will look for big seasons from their exceedingly young core of players, such as Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teherán, and Mike Minor, in order to repeat as divison champions for the first time since the final two seasons of their 14-season streak of division titles that ended in 2005. Although the NL East projects to be a shallow division, and quite frankly one of the weakest divisions in all of Major League Baseball, the fight for the two top spots in the division will likely feature two of the most talented and exciting teams in all of baseball. Let's break down how the Braves and the Nationals stack up.


Atlanta Projected Rotation:

1. Julio Teherán

2. Mike Minor

3. Ervin Santana

4. Alex Wood

5. Aaron Harang/David Hale/Gavin Floyd

The Braves' rotation, while young and talented, suffered two large blows in Spring Training with the losses of both Kris Medlen, a revelation for Atlanta who began an excellent season-and-a-half long run for the Braves with a stellar 2012 second half, and Brandon Beachy. Both Medlen and Beachy figured to be members of Atlanta's rotation prior to their respective UCL tears, so there's no question that their absences will be difficult to overcome for Atlanta's rotation. However, Julio Teherán, Mike Minor, Alex Wood, and Ervin Santana should comprise a solid, if unspectacular, top four of the rotation for the Braves in 2014 in their absence. Teherán, the 23-year-old who will take the mound as Atlanta's opening day starter next Monday afternoon in Milwaukee, put together a strong rookie campaign for the Braves in 2013 with a 3.20 ERA (3.76 xFIP) and 170 strikeouts with only 49 walks in 185.2 innings of work. Many are prognosticating a step forward for the young Colombian righty in 2014, although prediction systems such as ZiPS and Steamer are not as bullish on him in 2014. Wood, a 2012 second-round selection out of the University of Georgia, dominated every level of the Minor Leagues that he reached before graduating to Atlanta last June. He made his mark as both a starter and reliever for the Braves in 2013, although he ended up being more effective as a reliever. It will be interesting to monitor how the Braves handle Wood's usage, as he may be limited in his innings by management in an attempt to preserve and protect his left arm for the long run. Minor put together a consistent and solid season for Atlanta in 2013, as he stayed healthy throughout the campaign and boosted his strikeout rate while limiting home runs, which plagued him at times during his rookie season in 2012. It's important to note that Minor is currently behind in his preparations for the season as a result of a sore shoulder, so he will be unable to join the rotation until likely late April. Santana's 2013 season for the Kansas City Royals was one of the most unexpected stories of the season, as he put his -1.0 fWAR season in 2012 as a Los Angeles Angel behind him and put together an impressive season in his only year as a Royal. The Braves signed him after Medlen and Beachy's injuries as a means of adding another viable starter to their rotation, and they will be banking on him to induce ground balls, limit his walks, and avoid the home run plague that has destroyed his effectiveness in prior years. The fifth starter is a bit of a question mark for the Braves, as they will look to three names who could possibly fulfill this role down the stretch for Atlanta in 2014. Newly-signed righty Aaron Harang is a veteran righty whose better days are clearly behind him, David Hale is a rookie who made a strong debut in two starts for Atlanta in 2013, and offseason addition Gavin Floyd is a veteran starter who has been solid, if unspectacular, for Philadelphia and the White Sox during most of the previous decade. The Braves will likely employ either García or Hale until Floyd is ready to pitch following Tommy John recovery (he's anticipated to make his return in May or June), and will probably have to use both pitchers until Mike Minor is ready to pitch following his shoulder ailment. If Floyd is able to regain his pre-injury form (reports have been positive thus far), I believe he'll ultimately serve as Atlanta's fifth starter down the stretch in 2014. Of course, things do not always go as planned for pitching rotations, and injuries are always a concern. So, it's possible that all three of these pitchers could see a significant number of starts in 2014. In case of disaster, the Braves could turn to minor leaguers such as Aaron Northcraft, Cody Martin, or Gus Schlosser, who would likely provide around replacement player-level production.

Washington Projected Rotation

1. Stephen Strasburg

2. Gio González

3. Jordan Zimmermann

4. Doug Fister

5. Taylor Jordan/Tanner Roark

Washington's rotation looks to be the unrivaled strength of its team in 2014. The Nats will trot out a top four of former first overall pick Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio González, and the newly-acquired Doug Fister, a formidable quartet. Strasburg has struggled with control and injuries at times in the past, but his upside and talent is undeniable. He has some of the best pure stuff in the game, and is coming off of a strong 3.2 win season in 2014. Zimmermann is a prototypical #2 starter, and although he is unspectacular, the 2013 All-Star is a good bet to eat up a lot of innings and post quality numbers for the Nationals. González had a breakout season for the Nationals in 2012, finishing second in Cy Young voting, but regressed a bit in 2013, struggling with control and the home run ball. I would bet on a bit of a bounce-back from Gio in 2014, and he would likely be one of the best third starters in the game in such a scenario. The Nationals stole Doug Fister from the Tigers during the offseason, only giving up reliever Ian Krol, utility player Steve Lombardozzi, and left-handed pitching prospect Robbie Ray in exchange for an excellent pitcher. Fister has elite control and does a good job of keeping the ball on the ground; it would shock me if he weren't the National League's best fourth starter. The Nats still haven't quite decided who will assume the role as the team's fifth starter, but it looks as of now that they have two possible options: Jordan and Roark. To me, it seems as if Roark is the favorite, as he posted an impressive 1.4 fWAR season with a 2.41 FIP in 53.2 innings (5 starts thrown in there) for Washington in 2013, and he's continued to pitch well in the spring. He's a pretty safe bet to be an okay back-of-the rotation pitcher, as he uses his sinker to generate ground balls and doesn't walk many batters. Jordan isn't too dissimilar from Roark, but he generally strikes out fewer batters while relying on the ground ball and good control for effectiveness. Other potential options for the Nationals in case of injury are former Met and Padre Chris Young (although he may opt out of his minor league deal if the Nats send him down to the Minors, which appears likely at this point), lefty Ross Detweiler, who will begin the season as a left-handed option in the Nats' pen, and Ross Ohlendorf, who will likely begin their 2014 seasons at triple-A Syracuse.

Advantage: Washington


Atlanta Projected Bullpen:

Craig Kimbrel, RHP

Jordan Walden, RHP

Luís Ávilan, LHP

David Carpenter, RHP

Ian Thomas, LHP

Cory Gearrin, RHP

Anthony Varvaro, RHP

Other Options: David Hale, RHP, Gus Schlosser, RHP, Atahualpa Severino, LHP, Jonny Venters, LHP

Atlanta's bullpen was the best in baseball in 2013, leading the Majors in ERA. Leading the way for Atlanta's strong bullpen was Craig Kimbrel, probably the best closer in baseball. Although Kimbrel suffered a bit of regression after his unparalleled 2012 season, he was one of the top three closers in the game along with Greg Holland and Kenley Jansen. Barring an injury, it's hard to imagine Kimbrel doing anything but continuing to excel in his role as the Braves' closer. The only real way that he could be better is if his manager would better utilize him in more multi-inning appearances and high-leverage situations, but that's another topic for another day. Kimbrel's control will be something to watch, as his walk rate rose a bit in 2013 (while his strikeout rate dropped). Still, Kimbrel's stellar bullpen work should be an important asset to the Braves in the upcoming season. David Carpenter and Jordan Walden (if he can stay healthy) will serve as the Braves' two primary right-handed late inning relievers. Carpenter was a revelation for the Braves in 2013 as one of Frank Wren's many cheap, but valuable, waiver acquisitions. Roger McDowell and the rest of the Braves' staff worked their magic with Carpenter, allowing him to continue to strike out a high percentage of hitters while experiencing a drastic drop in walks. Walden, acquired from the Angels last offseason, was effective when healthy for the Braves in 2013, but he struggled with injuries as he has for much of his career. He's similar to Carpenter in that he is a right-handed power pitcher who relies heavily on the strikeout to succeed. The primary left-handed reliever out of the bullpen will be Luís Ávilan, who posted an excellent 1.52 ERA in 2013, albeit with less-than-stellar peripherals that suggested that his success was largely influenced by good fortune. It wouldn't surprise me for Ávilan to experience a bounce back in his strikeout rate, but to post a poorer ERA. The other components of the Braves' bullpen aren't as clear-cut. Cory Gearrin will likely open the season in the Braves' ‘pen due to being out of Minor League options. He should be used strictly as a ROOGY, as his platoon splits are fairly drastic. Other right-handed bullpen candidates are swingman Anthony Varvaro and Minor Leaguer Gus Schlosser, both of whom would be used primarily in low-leverage situations. The final spot in the Braves' bullpen will almost certainly go to a left-handed reliever, but it's still unclear who will win the spot. At this point, the favorites figure to be Atahualpa Severino and Ian Thomas, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Frank Wren make another sly move for a lefty with the ability to get left-handed hitters out before the beginning of the season.

Washington Projected Bullpen:

Rafael Soriano, RHP

Tyler Clippard, RHP

Drew Storen, RHP

Craig Stammen, RHP

Ryan Mattheus, RHP

Jerry Blevins, LHP

Ross Detweiler, LHP

Other options: Xavier Cedeño, LHP, Chris Young, RHP, Michael González, LHP

Washington's bullpen was a sore spot in 2013, as they finished 17th in baseball with a 3.56 ERA. The poster boy for the Nationals' bullpens struggles in 2013 was high-leverage righty Drew Storen, who posted an unsightly 4.52 ERA. He looks to bounce back and return to his previous form as a great righty out of the ‘pen for Washington. Closer Rafael Soriano was nothing special in 2013, and it looks as if he's slowly but surely trending downward as he closes in on his age 34 season. He's probably a good bet to register a strikeout rate of ~20% with decent control, but as a fly ball pitcher, he does sometimes fall prone to the home run bug. Setup man Tyler Clippard is another extreme fly ball pitcher, but with better strikeout stuff than Soriano. He posted a 2.41 ERA for Washington in 2013 and looks to be a solid setup guy for the back of the Nats' pen. The biggest surprise in the Nats' bullpen in 2013, righty Craig Stammen, is a capable high-leverage reliever who the Nats can use to generate ground balls in warranted situations. The final righty in the Nationals' bullpen will likely be Ryan Mattheus, although he may not be ready for the beginning of the season due to chest inflammation. The two left-handed members of Washington's bullpen figure to be former Oakland Athletic Jerry Blevins and converted starter Ross Detwiler. Neither Detweiler nor Blevins are particularly spectacular, but they should both be used as medium-leverage options and in high-leverage situations against left-handed hitters.

Advantage: Atlanta

Starting Lineups

Atlanta Projected Lineup:

1. Jason Heyward, RF

2. BJ Upton, CF

3. Freddie Freeman, 1B

4. Justin Upton, LF

5. Chris Johnson, 3B

6. Evan Gattis, C

7. Dan Uggla, 2B

8. Andrelton Simmons, SS

Atlanta will look to improve its offensive output in 2014, after posting an exactly league-average wRC+ as a whole in 2013. The top of the lineup will be anchored by Jason Heyward, who is a candidate for a breakout 2014 campaign after posting a 120 wRC+ (equal to his 2012 figure) despite posting an abnormally low BABIP in 2013. I believe that we're likely to see an excellent offensive season in 2014 due to normalization of BABIP luck, as well promising peripheral skill improvements that he displayed in 2013, including improved contact and walk rates, as well as a lower strikeout rate. Of course, this is without even discussing Heyward's elite defense in the outfield, which is an underrated asset of his game. BJ Upton had an absolutely putrid 2013 and quite frankly looked embarrassingly lost as a hitter throughout much of the season, but Fredi González looks to be comfortable placing him high in the lineup after a somewhat promising spring. I'd be content with a return to somewhere around league-average for BJ in 2014. Freeman, who put together a fantastic offensive season in 2013 with a 150 wRC+, good for 10th of 140 qualified hitters in the majors, will man the 3-hole for Atlanta and look to up his power numbers to compensate for a likely drop in BABIP. Justin Upton's 2014 would ideally be a bit more consistent than his extremely streaky 2013, but he figures to be a good bet to produce good power numbers and on-base skills in the cleanup spot. His defense was unexpectedly putrid in 2013, so it will be interesting to see if he makes any improvements after his first season in Atlanta as a full-time left fielder. Chris Johnson overcame his defensive shortcomings in 2013 for Atlanta, putting together a fairly unexpected 3-win season on the strength of a strong batting average. His BABIP was astronomically high, and I would be surprised if he didn't regress back towards being just slightly above league average in terms of offensive production. Gattis is expected to see the majority of the club's starts behind the plate in 2014, but his ability to stay healthy and play defense behind the plate worries me. His power is elite, but he struggled during much of the second half of 2013 after pitchers seemed to begin to make some adjustments. He'll need to do a better job of making contact and working the count in order to succeed offensively for the Braves. It wasn't certain that Uggla would even be the Braves' second baseman in 2014 after he was dropped in favor of Elliot Johnson on the Braves' playoff roster after a horrific second half. His strong performance this spring (and his contract) have won him the job, however, and he'll look to bounce back in 2014. Uggla is almost certain to have a horrendous batting average, but a decent OBP due to his patience and ability to draw walks, and produce in the power department. If he struggles initially, the Braves could look to Tommy La Stella in order to provide a shot in the arm offensively for the club. Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive talent on planet Earth, and it's almost a given that he'll be at least a 4 or 5-win player for Atlanta due to his consistently spectacular defensive play at shortstop. He'll likely be a player whose offensive production fluctuates around league-average (if not slightly below) in most years, but his power was an unexpected surprise for Atlanta in 2014.

Washington Projected Lineup:

1. Denard Span, CF

2. Ian Desmond, SS

3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B

4. Jayson Werth, RF

5. Bryce Harper, LF

6. Wilson Ramos, C

7. Adam LaRoche, 1B

8. Anthony Rendón, 2B

At the top of Washington's lineup will be Denard Span, who had a sneakily good season for Washington last year. He was average offensively, but strong defense numbers propelled him to a 3.5 fWAR campaign. I'd be surprised to see much deviance from this for Span in 2014; he should be a solid player. Ian Desmond is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in baseball, as he is an above-average defender and offensive shortstop with power (he's hit more than 20 home runs in both of the previous two seasons), and should be approaching the peak of his career at age 29. He's been a 5-win player in each of the previous two seasons, and he's a good bet to be one of the Nats' best players in 2014. Ryan Zimmerman, the longest tenured National, produced a 125 wRC+ in 2013, but his value was hurt by poor defense related to a shoulder ailment that reduced his ability to make accurate throws from the hot corner. Zimmerman will almost surely be valuable offensively, but defensive improvement (and a healthy season) is necessary if Zim is to return to being close to his value in past years. The soon-to-be 35-year old Jayson Werth will man right field for Washington in 2014, provided that he can stay healthy, and is a good bet to be an offensive player around 25% better than league average (according to ZiPS and Steamer), but has become a bit of a liability defensively. Bryce Harper has yet to fully realize his immense potential, but at age 21(!), this should not be surprising. It would not be a shock to see him in the midst of the MVP competition if he can begin to solve some of his difficulty in hitting left-handed pitching (his slash against lefties in 2013 was an ugly .214/.327/.321) and avoid injury. Harper has prodigious power potential, is one of the most athletic players in baseball, and could very well develop into the league's premiere players in the upcoming season. It's curious that Matt Williams is penciling him into the fifth hole in the lineup, as he has the most offensive upside on the club, but as someone partial to the Braves, I'm not complaining. Behind Harper is catcher Wilson Ramos, who has never played a full season in the Majors since his debut in 2011, but possesses strong defensive skills and is an above-average offensive performer. Steamer and ZiPS both project a wRC+ in the neighborhood of 110 (with an ISO around .175) for Ramos. He isn't frequently discussed when one talks about the strengths of Washington's club, but I think he's a breakout candidate in 2014. Former Brave Adam LaRoche figures to be the weakest starter for Washington, as he's a first baseman who's probably an average defender for his position at this point in his career as well as a poor hitter for his position. Rounding out Washington's projected starters is second baseman Anthony Rendón. Regarded as a strong offensive player since his days as a Rice Owl, Rendón made his debut in the big leagues after Danny Espinosa's anemic start to the 2013 season. Despite his track record of fragility, he's an offensively-productive second baseman when healthy and handled the transition from playing third base in the minors to second in the bigs smoothly.

Advantage: slight Washington

Bench Players

Atlanta Projected Bench

Gerald Laird, C

Ryan Doumit, C/OF

Ramiro Peña, IF

Tyler Pastornicky, IF

Jordan Schafer, OF

Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit give Atlanta two catching options during Evan Gattis' days off, as he is likely to only catch approximately 110 games in the upcoming season. Doumit, acquired from Minnesota in exchange for Sean Gilmartin in the offseason, will be the Braves' primary left-handed bench bat. He had a bit of a down season offensively in 2013, posting a below-average wRC+ (98) for the first time since his debut season with Pittsburgh in 2006, as his ISO dipped nearly 40 points from his 2012 season. I'm not banking on Doumit to be anything special off of the bench for Atlanta in 2013, but hopefully picking his spots against righties and a more favorable offensive environment at Turner Field will help give a boost for his numbers. The Braves' utility infielders will be Ramiro Peña and Tyler Pastornicky. Peña had a fantastic season for the Braves as a utility guy in 2013 until shoulder surgery prematurely ended his season, posting a .278/.330/.443 line while providing defensive versatility. Quite frankly, it would be shocking to see Peña perform anywhere near his 2013 offensively in 2014, but his defensive value and versatility should make him a quality bench option regardless. Pastornicky is what he is: an unexciting player who's average defensively when playing second base (but a bit of a disaster at shortstop) and uninspiring offensively. Rounding out the Braves' bench is speedy outfielder Jordan Schafer, who experienced a bit of a renaissance in Atlanta in 2013. He provided excellent value for Atlanta on the basepaths, stealing 22 bases in 28 attempts, as well as playing solid outfield defense and getting on base at an acceptable clip.

Washington Projected Bench

José Lobatón, C

Danny Espinosa, IF

Jamey Carroll, IF

Scott Hairston, OF

Nate McLouth, OF

The Nats' bench looks to have three new faces in 2014, as three of the five members I project to make up their bench were added in the offseason via trade or free agency. The most expensive member of Washington's bench, left-handed hitting outfielder Nate McLouth, was signed to a two-year deal worth upwards of $10 million after he posted 2.5 fWAR as a full-time outfielder for Baltimore. He's best used as a corner outfielder, as defense is not his calling card, and should be a capable hitter from the left side. Lobatón will serve as Washington's backup catcher in 2014, after being acquired from the Rays in the offseason. He's a switch-hitter who's pretty much your prototypical backup catcher in that he's capable defensively behind the plate but middling offensively. Jamey Carroll isn't a certainty to make Washington's 25-man roster (this spot could go to outfielder Tyler Moore), but I think he'll make the roster as a veteran player with the ability to play both second and third base capably (and shortstop in a pinch) despite his offensive shortcomings and advanced age. The other projected backup infielder for the Nationals, Danny Espinosa, lost his starting role after struggling with injury and poor play in 2013, but he'll function as a nice switch-hitting power option and could easily regain a starting role with an Anthony Rendón injury. Finally, Scott Hairston rounds out the bench as a fifth outfielder. His offensive production dropped precipitously in 2013 after two surprisingly good campaigns in 2011 and 2012, but this was largely due to an almost unbelievably low BABIP of .185. Hairston should serve as a nice right-handed bat with decent power for Washington in 2014 and should improve his overall production with better luck.

Advantage: slight Washington

Overall Forecast

This probably won't go over well with the community here at Talking Chop, but I'm picking the Washington Nationals as the 2014 NL East champions. I foresee them riding strong starting pitching from one of the best rotations in the game to a division crown in 2014, provided that they aren't hamstrung by injury and that they experience better luck than they did in their surprising 2013 season. It would be tough for me to pick the Braves considering lingering injury question marks in the starting rotation and the fact that the only unit in which they have a clear leg up on Washington is in the bullpen. This goes without saying, but while we can certainly attempt to prognosticate what exactly will happen in a baseball season, there are thousands of variables not limited to, but including, luck and injuries that can drastically change the landscape of a division race. The difference in talent between the two clubs is small enough that it would not surprise me to see either team win the division, but I grade out Washington as being just slightly better than Atlanta at this point in time. There are so many intriguing players to watch between these two teams. Atlanta has Jason Heyward, while Washington has Bryce Harper. Atlanta has Julio Teherán, while Washington has Stephen Strasburg. Atlanta has Andrelton Simmons, while Washington has Ian Desmond. No matter who walks away with the division title at the end of this September, I anticipate a tight race full of hotly-contested games between the two clubs and not much separation in the standings throughout the duration of the season. No matter who wins the division, I expect both teams to make the playoffs (one team as a Wild Card game participant), so all will not be lost for the 2ndplace team.

Atlanta Projected Record: 93-69

Washington Projected Record: 95-67

With the beginning of the season just around the corner, including a series between the Nationals and the Braves during the first weekend of the season at Nationals Park, I'm ready to stop wondering what will happen and actually watch what plays out. I'm hoping for a fun race between the two clubs, and I can't wait to see what 2014 will have in store.

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