2014 NL East preview

Christina De Nicola takes a look at the National League East in 2014. The Nationals have assembled a top-flight starting rotation, and that could be a huge challenge for the injury-depleted Braves and still-maturing Marlins.

From left to right: Altanta's Freddie Freeman, Miami's Jose Fernandez, New York's David Wright, Philadelphia's Ryan Howard and Washington's Stephen Strasburg figure to be key to their team's success or failure in the NL East this season.
 

USA TODAY Sports

The National League East has become quite the arms race over the past year.

Jose Fernandez rewrote history with the Marlins as NL Rookie of the Year, while the Nationals present arguably the top 1-2 duo with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Before his injury, Mets right-hander Matt Harvey battled for the lowest ERA in baseball. Phillies starters Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels still match up with the best.

Season-ending injuries to top pitching in the Braves organization have opened the door for a sleeper team to take over second in the division.

Each year offers plenty of storylines, and this season shouldn't be any different.

Here's how the NL East breaks down (in alphabetical order, with last year's finish in parentheses).

ATLANTA BRAVES (96-66, 1st)

Additions: RHP Ervin Santana, RHP Aaron Harang, RHP Gavin Floyd.

Strengths: An imposing middle of the lineup -- Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis -- combined for 71 home runs and 244 RBI in 2013. If Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton can rebound from down years, watch out.

Weaknesses: Once considered a strength, starting pitching has become a question mark after losing Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery. Mike Minor and Floyd will not return until the end of April. The four-man rotation of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, David Hale and Gus Schlosser have just 47 career starts (34 via Teheran).

Best-case scenario: Both Uptons have career years and Santana becomes a workhorse in the rotation as the Braves once again surprise the Nationals as division champions.

Worst-case scenario: Closer Craig Kimbrel gets injured and Gattis can't handle full-time duty behind the plate as Atlanta drops behind the Marlins or Phillies for third in the division.

MIAMI MARLINS (62-100, 5th)

Additions: C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Rafael Furcal, 3B Casey McGehee, INF Jeff Baker, OF Reed Johnson, OF Brian Bogusevic, RHP Carlos Marmol.

Strengths: By season's end, the Marlins could boast one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. Last year, they set a franchise record for lowest ERA (3.71). Throughout much of spring training, Miami had the lowest ERA and even tossed a combined no-hitter.

Weaknesses: The infield has been patched together with veteran free agents with something to prove, but can they help last year's worst offense? Furcal has been slowed by a hamstring injury, Jones needs to hit lefties and McGehee will face MLB pitchers for the first time since 2012.

Best-case scenario: Fernandez wins NL Cy Young, while the blend of veteran and youth offers enough run support en route to the second Wild Card spot.

Worst-case scenario: A key arm from the rotation goes down with an injury and the offseason additions don't make a difference as the Marlins finish last again.

NEW YORK METS (74-88, 3rd)

Additions: OF Curtis Granderson, RHP Bartolo Colon, LHP John Lannan, RHP Jose Valverde, OF Chris Young.

Strengths: Dillon Gee will be the Opening Day starter by default, but he did lead the team in wins (12) last season. Once Jon Niese returns from the disabled list, he will join Zack Wheeler and Colon in the rotation. All four could pitch 200 innings this year.

Weaknesses: Shortstop Ruben Tejada hasn't had a good spring, hitting .205 with three doubles, five runs and an RBI. He has also committed four errors. Rumors have circulated about New York's interest in signing free agent Stephen Drew. The Mets signed Granderson (7 HR/15 RBI) and Young (12 HR/40 RBI), and both who will try to bounce back from 2013. But the trade of Marlon Byrd (21 HR/71 RBI) hurts.

Best-case scenario: Harvey's rehab from Tommy John surgery goes without a hiccup and former All-Stars Granderson and Young regain their form as the Mets avoid the cellar.

Worst-case scenario: Neither Ike Davis nor Lucas Duda stay healthy to support David Wright as the Mets recreate Miami's 100-loss season of 2013.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (73-89, 4th)

Additions: OF Marlon Byrd, OF Bobby Abreu, RHP A.J. Burnett, RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Brad Lincoln, C Wil Nieves.

Strengths: Few teams can keep up with Philadelphia's offense at Citizens Bank Park if Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are healthy and at the top of their game. Burnett and Hernandez round out a strong rotation (Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick) of veterans.

Weaknesses: The third-oldest contingent added Byrd and Abreu over the offseason. That's a lot of wear and tear masked by experience for a team competing with young division rivals. The Phillies scored just 610 runs in 2013 -- their second-lowest output since 1972 -- and return the same lineup.

Best-case scenario: Howard stays healthy and Hamels returns from the DL in ace form as Philadelphia sneaks into second.

Worst-case scenario: The Phillies show their age and Rollins continues asking for a trade as the team finishes in last to further the embarrassment of last season.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS (86-76, 2nd)

Additions: RHP Doug Fister, OF Nate McLouth, LHP Jerry Blevins, C Jose Lobaton.

Strengths: Name a starting rotation better than the one located in the Beltway with Strasburg, Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister. The first three combined for a 3.20 ERA in Washington last season.

Weaknesses: Washington didn't have much depth to support its starting lineup in 2013, so it added veterans McLouth and Carroll. The former knocked 12 home runs and 36 RBI in a comeback year with the Orioles. Reliever Drew Storen still hasn't recovered from his 2012 postseason meltdown by posting a 4.52 ERA last year and 9.53 ERA this spring.

Best-case scenario: Strasburg emerges as the Cy Young frontrunner and Bryce Harper lives up to his phenom billing as the Nationals revisit October baseball and make a deep run.

Worst-case scenario: For the second straight year Washington turns out to be the winner of winter -- and not the season -- as lofty expectations are not met.

MOST DANGERIOUS PLAYER

Giancarlo Stanton -- Kanye West may have spoken of the Marlins slugger when he rapped, ''no one man should have all that power.''

Stanton, whose down year marred by injury still meant 24 home runs, has 117 dingers over parts of four big-league seasons. If he stays healthy and receives protection in the lineup, the 24-year-old could finally hit the 40-homer mark. According to ESPN Home Run Tracker, the average distance of his blasts (413.8 feet) ranked third in baseball.

BEST MANAGER

Fredi Gonzalez -- The NL East has a rather inexperienced group of managers. Miami's Mike Redmond will enter just his second big-league season, while Matt Williams begins his first year in charge of the Nationals. Ryne Sandberg went 20-22 as the interim skipper of the Phillies at the end of last season.

Gonzalez has twice finished third in NL Manager of the Year voting. In 2008, he led a rookie-laden Marlins team over .500. Last year, the Braves were 30 games over and earned the second seed but lost in the first round to the Dodgers.

SLEEPER

Miami Marlins -- If the pitching staff continues on the upward trend it began last season and into this spring, all Miami will need is a little bit more offense to reverse its fortune.

The Marlins went 24-35 in one-run games in 2013 and finished last in almost all offensive categories. Should they avoid being shut out 18 times, the team could wind up with anywhere from 85-90 wins.

TEAM WITH ISSUES

Philadelphia Phillies -- Even with the retirement of Roy Halladay, the Phillies aren't getting any younger. Burnett, 37, joined Lee and Hamels this offseason in the rotation. Both Howard and Utley are in their mid-30s and have missed substantial time in the past with injuries.

Rollins, 35, isn't a happy camper with Sandberg as manager, plus he's coming off career lows for runs (65), homers (6) and on-base percentage (.348).

FINAL THOUGHT

Washington should cruise in an otherwise average division, especially with the recent injuries to Atlanta's starting rotation.

Can the Nationals finally put it together on offense to complement their pitching and make a deep run into the postseason? How much will Philadelphia's age show? Can the young Marlins and Mets surprise?

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.