First base: Freddie Freeman, Braves; Lucas Duda, Mets
Freeman gets the start here, but it’s not by much, and it's partially due to his reputation. Duda had a breakout year this past season, belting 30 home runs, knocking in 92 base runners, and he had a .253/.349/.481 slash line. That’s pretty good for a guy who had to battle for the position last year. But he does not trump Freeman yet, who was named to the last two All-Star Games and has been consistent over the past four seasons. He hit 18 home runs and had 78 RBI last season. He had a slash line of .288/.386/.461. His power numbers were slightly down last year, but that was due his drawing a career-high 90 walks. Freeman is one of the better defensive first basemen in baseball, which goes unnoticed. Duda’s defensive efforts greatly improved when he made the move from the outfield.
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Second base: Chase Utley, Phillies; Daniel Murphy, Mets
With Dee Gordon signing in Miami, the NL East has three All-Stars at second. Unfortunately for Gordon, he’s the odd man out. He led the majors with 64 stolen bases and 12 triples last year, but baseball insiders question if he can reproduce his breakout year. Utley gets the start here, as he has been one of the best second basemen over the past decade, and he was one of the hottest hitters in the first half of last season. He cooled off in the second half of the year on the offensive side, finishing the year with a .270 batting average, but defensively he was a finalist for the Gold Glove award. Murphy finished the year with a .289 batting average, and he made his first All-Star Game appearance of his career. The Mets’ new hitting coach believes that Murphy can compete for the batting title this year.
Getty ImagesDrew Hallowell
Third base: Anthony Rendon, Nationals; David Wright, Mets
Rendon is arguably the best third baseman in baseball, and he received MVP consideration last year after finishing with 21 home runs, 83 RBI, and 111 runs scored. His slash line was .287/.351/.473, and he won the Silver Slugger award. He accomplished all of that in his first full season in the majors. He’s only 24 years old, so he should continue to get even better. He dethroned Wright, who used to be considered the best third baseman in baseball. Wright had a great run, as he is a seven-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove and two-time Silver Slugger winner. But an injury-riddled 2014 knocked him down a few notches. Even with his numbers taking a dive, he’s still the second best third baseman in the NL East, and he has focused on strengthening his body this offseason to stay healthy this coming season.
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Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves; Ian Desmond, Nationals
The NL East has three really good shortstops, but somebody had to be the odd man out. That’s the Marlins’ Adieny Hechavarria. He made a number of specular plays last season on his way to being a Gold Glove finalist, but Simmons and Desmond are simply better. Determining the starter out of these two is tough. Simmons is a defensive genius. But Desmond is a monster on offense. Simmons is a two-time Gold Glove and Fielding Bible winner, and he won the NL Platinum Glove award once. But his offense is nothing to write home about, while Desmond has won the Silver Slugger award three times. Shortstops are generally judged on their defensive abilities, and Simmons laps the field, so he gets the start over Desmond.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY SportsEric Hartline
Catcher: Wilson Ramos, Nationals; Travis d’Arnaud, Mets
Ramos holds this spot for now, but he may not be able to hold off d'Arnaud for long. Both players missed chunks of last year, as Ramos had an Opening Day injury, and d’Arnaud was sent back to the minors in June of his rookie season after starting the year with a .180 batting average. When he was called back up after a few weeks, it seemed like he figured out how to hit big-league pitching. He hit .272 the rest of the way, and he hit .313 in the month of September. He finished the year with a .242/.302/.416 slash line, and hit 13 home runs with 41 RBI in 108 games played. Ramos, in 88 games, had a slash line of .267/.299/.399, with 11 home runs and 47 RBI. Ramos gets the nod here simply because of experience, but d’Arnaud is one breakout season away from becoming the best catcher in the division.
Getty ImagesPatrick Smith
Left field: Christian Yelich, Marlins; Jayson Werth, Nationals
Yelich is only one full season into his big-league career, but that was enough to get him the start here. Part of the reason why he gets the nod is because the Nationals’ Bryce Harper has been moved from left field to right, but a big part is that Yelich won a Gold Glove last season, and he was pretty good at the plate. He had a .284/.362/.402 slash line, and he stole 21 bases. Even with Harper changing positions, Yelich still has to compete with Werth, who switched from right field to left. Werth put up better numbers than Yelich at the plate, as he had a .292/.394/.455 slash line, with 16 home runs and 82 RBI, compared to Yelich’s nine home runs and 54 RBI. Because of Yelich’s defensive skills, he gets the start here.
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Centerfield: Juan Lagares, Mets; Marcell Ozuna, Marlins
This is another position that’s log-jammed with talent. Lagares and Ozuna have been in the big leagues for only two years each, but they are already two of the best centerfielders in the game. The Nationals’ Denard Span had a very good season last year, as he was a Gold Glove finalist and he was pretty good at the plate, but the kids of this division make this list. Lagares won a Gold Glove last year, and he’s regarded as the best defensive center fielder in baseball. He makes difficult catches look routine. Ozuna was not recognized for his defensive efforts, but he has a cannon for an arm, and base runners did not have much success challenging him. His power numbers are what puts him on this list, as he had 23 home runs and 85 RBI.
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY SportsScott Rovak
Right field: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins; Bryce Harper, Nationals
Two of the most talented and popular players in baseball play right field in the NL East. The one thing that sets them apart is that Stanton has arrived as a superstar while Harper is still trying to reach his potential. This past season, Stanton finally played like a superstar, as he is now an MVP-caliber player. He can very well become the face of baseball if he continues to hit monster home runs, and if he can put his team on his back and carry them to postseason glory. Harper is certainly a polarizing figure, but there is no question that he could very soon be competing with Stanton for MVPs. Harper has had his struggles early in his career, just like Stanton, but he has shown glimpses of greatness. He just needs a season where he is healthy from start to finish, and he shows that he can live up to the hype.
Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Cole Hamels, Phillies
The Nationals are loaded with pitchers, and the division as a whole is, too. Picking two out of this bunch can be tough, but division newcomer Scherzer is the guy right now. It can be argued that he’s not even the best pitcher on his team, as teammate Jordan Zimmermann’s 2.66 ERA from last year was better than Scherzer’s 3.15. But there is a reason why the Nationals gave Scherzer a $210 million contract while Zimmermann may have to look elsewhere to get paid. While Hamels is still in the division, he’ll be on this list. Even though the Phillies were a last-place team, he still had a 2.46 ERA. This list can change, because this division also features Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Cliff Lee (Phillies), and aces Matt Harvey (Mets) and Jose Fernandez (Marlins) are returning from Tommy John surgery.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY SportsReinhold Matay
Middle relief: Ken Giles, Phillies; Jeurys Familia, Mets
Two young relievers are making names for themselves in the NL East. Giles is a fireballer whose fastball has reportedly hit 103 mph on the radar gun. He was called up from the minors last June, and he instantly lived up to the hype. He had a 1.18 ERA and he struck out 64 batters in 45.5 innings, for a 12.6 K/9. Those numbers earned him a fourth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. One of the Phillies’ few strengths is their bullpen, and Giles has a lot to do with that. Bullpen is also a strength for the Mets. That unit let the ball club down for years, but the emergence of Familia has helped the Mets late in games. He finished the season with a 2.21 ERA, he struck out 73 batters in 77 innings, and he received NL Rookie of the Year consideration.
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Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves; Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Kimbrel is simply the MLB's best closer. That’s not just based on this past season, when he had a 1.61 ERA and he struck out 95 batters in 61 innings. Over the past four years he has a 1.51 ERA and 436 strikeouts in 268.1 innings (14.6 K/9). He has led the NL in saves in each of those seasons, and he became the first pitcher in history to strike out at least half of the batters he faced in a full season when he struck out 116 of 231 in 2012. There is no reason to believe that he will not dominate the competition again, as he has now added a changeup to go along with his high-90s fastball and his curveball. Coming in a distant second in the NL East is Papelbon. He may be a headache to deal with, and the Phillies are trying to get rid of him, but there is no question that the five-time All-Star can still pitch.
Manager: Matt Williams, Nationals; Mike Redmond, Marlins
To some degree the jury is still out on Williams, even though he was named NL Manager of the Year after his debut season in that role. He inherited a great roster that he led to a league-high 96 wins. He landed in the perfect position, and he made the most out of it through the regular season. He made some highly questionable late-game pitching decisions that were costly against the Giants in the NLDS, which contributed to their series loss. This year it’s pretty much World Series or bust, so his reputation will be built in the playoffs. Redmond is in a different position. He took over a terrible team in 2013, and he has turned the young and talented ball club into a respectable team that may be one season away from being contenders. The playoffs is a possibility this year.