Last season, most pundits thought the National League East would be a one-team race. The Washington Nationals, fresh off a division title and with a newly-signed Max Scherzer in the passenger seat, were one of the most popular World Series picks in baseball. With a wet-behind-the-ears New York Mets club and three also-rans in their division, a return to the postseason was a foregone conclusion.
Yeah, about that.
The Nats jumped out to an early division lead, but the Mets hung around long enough to get hot after the trade deadline, then roared in front while Washington sputtered down the stretch. Meanwhile, the other three clubs in the division were all seven games back by the All-Star break and in a double-digit hole by early August. By the end of the year, the Marlins, Braves, and Phillies were all 19+ games behind.
Spoiler alert: not much has changed.
New York Mets (90-72 in 2015)
If you look up the word "ridiculous" in the dictionary, you may find a picture of the Mets' rotation. Already featuring three ace-caliber arms -- under club control for at least three more seasons, no less -- with top prospect Steven Matz and flamethrower Zack Wheeler on the mend, the Mets are a trendy pick to return to the World Series in 2016. There isn't an easy matchup to be found for an opposing team, and the offense should be good enough to let that rotation shine.
"Good enough" doesn't always cut it, though. Yoenis Cespedes probably won't repeat his ridiculous power surge from the second half of 2015, and David Wright still has a wonky back. There is some thump, but no real on-base threat in their order. If anyone regresses or gets hurt, runs could be hard to come by. They were the second-worst offense in the National League prior to last year's All-Star break.
But with that rotation and the stinkers in their division? It probably won't matter.
Washington Nationals (83-79 in 2015)
The Nationals were a trendy pick to win the World Series in 2015, and it's not hard to see why. Their roster was loaded with talent, and everyone thought the Mets were a year or two away from contending. Some even thought the Marlins -- the Marlins! -- were Washington's closest contender.
Unfortunately, things didn't work out in D.C. Injuries devastated their lineup -- Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Denard Span all played fewer than 100 games -- and their pitching staff wasn't the buzzsaw everyone expected. Oh, and then their closer attempted to choke-slam the league MVP.
Despite a rather uninspiring offseason, the Nationals are still considered NL East favorites by many. Their roster is still loaded, and Bryce Harper is now the demi-god many expected him to be the moment he was drafted. The bullpen will be a bit of a mystery behind Jonathan Papelbon, but like the 2011-2014 Tigers, this team is talented enough to overcome some shaky late-inning hi-jinx.
Miami Marlins (71-91 in 2015)
It's not even fun to write about the Marlins at this point. Giancarlo Stanton only played in 74 games after fracturing a bone in his left hand, and Jose Fernandez seems content with preserving his arm in any way possible until he hits free agency after the 2018 season (and I can't blame him). Young talents like Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna could be fun, but everything else is just so... uninspiring.
Take the Marlins' list of offseason additions, for instance. Wei-Yin Chen could thrive in a pitcher's park without facing a designated hitter everyday, but the next pitcher on their shopping list was Edwin Jackson.
At least we get this series over with early in the season.
Atlanta Braves (67-95 in 2015)
Much like the Houston Astros a few years ago, the Braves don't give a damn who knows they're rebuilding. They sold off everything not bolted down during the offseason, including supposed-face-of-the-franchise shortstop Andrelton Simmons. In return, the Braves received pitching, pitching, and more pitching (and a spare Dansby Swanson). Their farm system is now one of the very best in baseball -- Baseball Prospectus ranked them second, behind the Dodgers -- and their starting rotation consists of four interesting young arms and Bud Norris.
Make no mistake: this team is going to be bad. However, with all of the young players and reclamation projects on their roster, it's an interesting sort of bad. Can Ender Inciarte repeat his 2015 season outside of Chase Field? Is Jace Peterson a starting second baseman? What will Hector Olivera do with consistent playing time? If you can stomach National League baseball, this Braves club might be one of your more intriguing options. They feel like a young, energetic team that could shoot out of the gate before fading in June or July, or an overmatched outfit that will lose 100+ games.
Either way, it's going to be interesting, because the future in Atlanta is very bright.
Philadelphia Phillies (63-99 in 2015)
The Phillies have some of the same intrigue that the Braves do, but with a bit more sadness mixed in. Most of that melancholy feeling comes in the form of Ryan Howard, who is finally in the last year of his contract. Howard was a sub-replacement-level player for the third time in four seasons in 2015, hitting just .229/.277/.443, though he still posted an .802 OPS against righthanders.
Other than Howard -- and maybe the last remnants of catcher Carlos Ruiz -- there are some fun parts here. Maikel Franco is committing war crimes against baseballs on the regular, while Aaron Nola attempts to build on last season's impressive debut. Peter Bourjos is super fast. There's something called a Jerad Eickhoff. Freddy Galvis will be good for a defensive highlight or two while he warms the chair for uber-prospect J.P. Crawford, and Odubel Herrera could be a star in the making.
If only they still had Ken Giles...