Over the past week there has been a lot of discussion about the report that MLB is considering moving a National League team to the American League, doing away with divisions, and adding a fifth playoff team from each league. While most of the discussion has focused on how such a move would free the Jays, Rays, and Orioles from the Hurculean task of going head-to-head with the Yankees and Red Sox, realignment may be needed to avoid a similar situation in the National League East.
You only have to go back to 2005 to find a year in which every team in the NL East was .500 or better, and there are signs that in the next couple of years history may repeat itself. Only two divisions in baseball have a positive run differential this season- the AL and NL East. The AL East, as you can imagine, is way ahead of the field, at +145 runs. But the NL East has quietly had a very strong year, going +58 runs.
Not only is the NL East looking like the second strongest division in baseball this season, the division shows no signs of weakening in the near future. In the Franchise Draft last week, Fangraph’s writers selected 8 players from the NL East, more than any other division. With such an abundance of young talent, the future is bright for the NL East.
But more than that, the division is also strong top to bottom. With a couple breaks here and there, it’s not hard to imagine every team in the NL East being competitive in the near future:
Philadelphia Phillies- You don’t need me to explain why the Phillies look to be a strong team moving forward. The biggest obstacle in the way of a sustained run of success will be dealing with the challenges of an aging and expensive roster, as the lineup and rotation are filled with players on the wrong side of 30. Still, the veteran arms look like they have plenty left in the tank, and with farm system featuring solid, young arms like Trevor May, Jarred Cosart, Brody Colvin, and 2010 first rounder Jesse Biddle, there should be help on the way. Perhaps even more importantly, the Phillies have been in the top three in attendance in each of the past three seasons, which should give them the financial flexibility to address any holes that may arise.
Atlanta Braves- Despite trailing the Phillies in the standings, the Braves may be in a better position moving forward. Brian McCann and Jason Heyward give the Braves two legitimate star-level position players entering the primes of their careers. Throw in Freddie Freeman, Martin Prado, and, despite their respective struggles this season, Dan Uggla and Jordan Schafer and the lineup looks solid moving forward. But the Braves real strength is in their plethora of young arms. Jair Jurjens and Tommy Hanson have established themselves at the major league level, and Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado should ensure that the Braves rotation continues to be one of the best in the league.
New York Mets- The Mets may have the biggest challenge of any team in the NL East, as they seem to be caught in between being buyers and sellers. It’s hard to see a team from New York becoming outright sellers, but despite a new minority owner, their financial standing is cloudy and with their current roster, they don’t have the horses to duke it out with the Phillies and Braves. On top of that, their two most valuable players this season, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, will be free agents at the end of the year. On the other hand, the departure of those two and K-Rod should give them Mets some financial flexibility. And while the Mets are going to need some breaks to unseat the Phillies and Braves in the next couple of years, the presence of David Wright, Ike Davis, and a rotation that could be solid if Johan Santana comes back healthy to join Jonathon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, and Dillon Gee should keep the Mets around .500.
Washington Nationals- The Nationals are the sleeping giant of the NL East. With Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon, the Nationals have a chance to have four star-caliber players. Granted three of those players come with sizable question marks, but it’s hard not to get excited about the Nationals’ potential. Even beyond those four, there is plenty of talent in Washington. Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and Wilson Ramos make a solid, young up the middle group. Michael Morse is having a Jose-Bautista-like breakout season, and Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen should be mainstays in the pitching staff. Provided Strasburg comes back close to fully healthy next year, look for the Nationals to be above .500 next year. Then in 2013 with Harper and possibly Rendon in the big leagues, the Nationals could make a serious run at the postseason.
Florida Marlins- The Marlins have struggled of late, but the future is bright. Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison are two of the best young hitters in baseball. Despite a down year, Hanley Ramirez is still one of the best players in the game, and he’s under contract through 2014. Gabby Sanchez has turned himself into an above-average first baseman, and Matt Dominguez is poised to take over at third base next season. On the pitching side, the rotation is great one through three with Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez. Brad Hand is an intriguing young arm, and Chris Volstad has pitched much better than his ERA suggests. The Marlins have a very good core of young players. With a little luck, and a few free agents to augment their existing talent, the Marlins should be serious contenders in the coming seasons.
While the calls for realignment are currently coming from Toronto, Tampa, and Baltimore, it may not be too long before we here the same arguments from the teams of the NL East.