MLB season preview: The best reason to watch every NL East team
- As the new season approaches, every club has something to offer its fans that will keep them turning in throughout the six-month season. Here's what to keep an eye out for with the Braves, Marlins, Mets, Phillies and Nationals
As Opening Day approaches, the one thing every team can count on for the long season ahead is hope, whether to make the postseason this year or to build toward a brighter future in days ahead. Yet no matter how competitive they are, all 30 teams will have at least one reason for their fans to stay interested for the next six months. Before the season kicks off, SI.com will explore the best reason to watch each team in 2017, starting with the AL East clubs on Thursday, March 23 and continuing with the AL Central (March 24), AL West (March 27), NL West (March 28), NL Central (March 29) and NL East (March 30).
Atlanta Braves: The Fabulous Freddie Freeman
The 2017 Braves may not be good, exactly, but they should improve upon last year’s 68 wins and offer several reasons to watch, including migratory cult hero Bartolo Colon, aging knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, staff ace Julio Teheran, defensively dazzling centerfielder Ender Inciarte and potential franchise cornerstone/Rookie of the Year candidate Dansby Swanson. But the most consistent reason to tune in is the one lineup regular who was part of the last two Braves squads to make the postseason (in 2012 and '13): Freeman. The 27-year-old first baseman is coming off a career year in which he set highs for home runs (34, fifth in the NL), WAR (6.5, third), on-base percentage (.400, fourth), slugging percentage (.569, third) and OPS+ (157, second). While there's an argument to be made that the team should have furthered its rebuilding effort by trading him, with production like that, one can certainly understand general manager John Coppolella's resistance to doing so.
Miami Marlins: The Dinger Machine comes to life
The Jeffrey Loria-owned Marlins have shown themselves to be capable of all kinds of nonsense, including a wavering commitment to competitiveness, but one thing the nefarious owner got right—possibly the only one during his tenure—was the $2.5 million spent on artist Red Grooms's sculpture in Marlins Park's centerfield. Informally known as the Dinger Machine (or the Marlinator), the colorful animatronic fountain comes to life every time a member of the home team homers—which, alas, was less often than any other NL team except the Giants in 2016. Still, there are few things more satisfying in all of baseball than a towering Giancarlo Stanton drive that's punctuated by this carnival of flashing lights, rotating marlins and water. Bonus: Marlins Park will host the 2017 All-Star Game, which means hosting the Home Run Derby, too.
New York Mets: The Yoenis Cesepdes Show
Cespedes was a talented player before he came to New York, but since the July 31, 2015 deadline deal that brought him to the Big Apple, he's taken his game to a new level both quantitatively—a 122 OPS+ and a homer every 24.6 plate appearances before the deal, a 140 OPS+ and a homer every 16.5 PA since—and qualitatively. Whether it's showing off his unique collection of cars, punctuating his home runs with epic bat flips, or signing the winter’s biggest free-agent deal, the 31-year-old Cuban slugger carries himself with a swagger not seen in New York baseball since Reggie Jackson. Now that he won't be playing out of position in centerfield (where he’s 24 Defensive Runs Saved below average in 178 career games), he should be more valuable and more available, since leftfield will take less toll on him physically.
Philadelphia Phillies: Odubel Herrera, the unlikely cornerstone
It's a rare day that a Rule 5 pick turns into a foundational piece, but Hererra has been one of the most pleasant surprises amid the Phillies' long-overdue rebuilding effort, going from being buried in the Rangers' organization to becoming an All-Star centerfielder inside of two years. In 2016, Herrera hit .291/.353/.419 and showed off significantly more power (15 homers, up from eight in '15), speed (25 steals, up from 16) and patience (an 8.6% walk rate, up from 5.2%); including his above-average defense in centerfield, he was worth 4.2 WAR. He'll be an important part of the next contending Phillies squad; in December, the 25-year-old Venezuelan signed a five-year, $30.5 million extension that includes a pair of club options covering 2022 and '23.
Washington Nationals: Trea Turner the burner
Bryce Harper has the talent to add another NL MVP award to his collection if his health cooperates, but he's not the only must-watch player in town. After being called up for good last July, Turner quickly established himself as one of the game's most exciting players, hitting .342/.370/.567 with 13 homers, a 144 OPS+ and 3.5 WAR in just 73 games. What's more, he made a case for himself as the majors’ fastest player by averaging 3.4 seconds to first base (righties average 4.3), stealing 33 bases in 39 attempts and hitting eight triples; not only did both rank fifth in the league in both categories, but within 10 days of returning from the minors, he also owned two of the three fastest triples to that point in the season and capped one by stealing home. More of this, please.