The Atlanta Braves will enter 2014 as the defending National League East champions. Exiting with the same title won’t come without a dogfight.
The Braves won the NL East by a landslide in 2013, besting the second-place Washington Nationals by 10 games. Atlanta and Washington were the only two NL East teams to finish with records above .500, as the third-place New York Mets went 74-88, 22 games behind the Braves.
The NL East only sent one representative to the Major League Baseball playoffs last season. Will this year be different? Let’s have a look.
Strengths: The Nationals were a sexy pick last season. And while they proved to be nothing more than a tease, they’re even sexier in 2014.
The Nationals’ rotation is stacked. Doug Fister, who was very underrated in Detroit, joins a unit that includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez. You could make the case that Washington has the best top four in baseball, provided everyone stays healthy.
The Nats’ offense is full of talent — looking at you, Bryce Harper — and improved depth could be the biggest key.
Weaknesses: The Nationals don’t have many holes.
The bullpen wasn’t as strong as anticipated last season, but there’s talent at the back end, with Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard holding things down.
The major barriers for the Nats include staying healthy and adapting to new manager Matt Williams’ style.
Projected finish: 97-65, first place
Strengths: The Braves’ 2013 success was all about pitching. Atlanta has been dealt a couple of blows in that department, but the Braves still could receive solid mound work in 2014.
Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy won’t be around because of Tommy John surgeries, so that stings. The Braves added Ervin Santana, though, and Julio Teheran and Mike Minor are looking to build on good years. Alex Wood could be a breakout star.
The bullpen — anchored by the game’s best closer, Craig Kimbrel — remains dangerous.
Weaknesses: Losing starting catcher and team leader Brian McCann in free agency hurts, especially with the Braves dealing with some pitching turnover.
Freddie Freeman is a stud, Jason Heyward could finally reach his max potential and Justin Upton has five-tool talent, but strikeout kings Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton often do more harm than good.
Projected finish: 89-73, second place
New York Mets
Strengths: Zack Wheeler isn’t quite Matt Harvey, but he’ll bring promise to the Mets’ rotation. The same can be said for Noah Syndergaard if he makes his way to Citi Field in 2014.
A full season of David Wright and the addition of Curtis Granderson should boost the offense.
Weaknesses: Harvey’s injury puts a damper on New York’s 2014 hopes, especially since the Mets are pinning those hopes on some younger players such as Wheeler and catcher Travis d’Arnaud.
Projected finish: 79-83, third place
Strengths: The Marlins have an intriguing young pitching staff anchored by Jose Fernandez. Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi — in addition to Fernandez — each had an ERA under 4.00 last season.
Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich add explosiveness to the offense.
Weaknesses: The Marlins are inexperienced, and there’s no guarantee their surplus of young talent will pan out. There’s also the ongoing drama surrounding Stanton’s future, although the slugger’s recent health issues should be the bigger concern.
Projected finish: 75-87, fourth place
Strengths: A rotation headlined by Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett should prevent this season from being a total disaster. (Actually, maybe not.)
Weaknesses: If this was 2008, the Phillies would be in great shape. The calendar says 2014, though, and the Phillies are stocked with aging stars on the decline.
Projected finish: 69-93, fifth place
The Braves should be in the thick of things despite losing Medlen and Beachy for the season. The Nationals already were primed to make a run, though, and Atlanta’s wounds soon could be doused in salt.
Editor’s note: NESN.com will preview each MLB division leading up to Opening Day. Below are the scheduled run dates for each preview.
Wednesday, March 26: AL East, NL East
Thursday, March 27: AL Central, NL Central
Friday, March 28: AL West, NL West