Big things were expected from the Nats last season, but they fell short. New manager Matt Williams will have to figure out how to get the most out of a pitching staff that has the potential to be the best in the majors. Jordan Zimmermann (19–9, 3.25 ERA), Stephen Strasburg (8–9, 3.00 ERA), and Gio Gonzalez (11–8, 3.36 ERA) all have the talent to be a Number 1 starter. OF Bryce Harper (20 HRs) leads a strong lineup. As long as 3B Ryan Zimmerman (26 HRs) and OF Jayson Werth (.318, 25 HRs), continue to produce enough runs to complement the team's elite pitching, the young Nats will blossom into division winners this season.
The Braves will be strong for years to come. Team leaders Freddie Freeman (.319, 109 RBIs) and Jason Heyward were both re-signed in the off-season. Young star SS Andrelton Simmons (17 HRs) also got a long-term deal. OF B.J. Upton needs to rebound from a horrible 2013 in which he hit .184.
The Braves have a steady trio of starting pitchers in Mike Minor (13–9), Kris Medlen (15–12), and Julio Teheran (14–8). Plus, Craig Kimbrel (50 saves) is a lights-out closer. Atlanta likely won't match last season's MLB-best 3.18 team ERA, but this well-rounded squad will challenge for the division crown.
The Mets haven't had a winning season since 2008, and they are in for another tough year. Star pitcher Matt Harvey won his first five starts in 2013 and was an All-Star, but he will miss most of 2014 with a right elbow injury. The Mets hope he can return in time to help a rotation that includes 23-year-old Zack Wheeler (7–5, 3.42 ERA) and Dillon Gee (12–11), the only Met who won more than 10 games. New York's lineup is aging.
Third baseman David Wright (.307, 18 HRs) is no longer an MVP-level player. They'll rely on a rebuilt outfield that includes Curtis Granderson (two career 40-HR seasons) and Chris Young.
Philly's aging roster may force new manager Ryne Sandberg to search for the fountain of youth. The days of 1B Ryan Howard (11 HRs, 43 RBIs) blasting 40 homers a year are gone, and 35-year-old SS Jimmy Rollins has lost a step. Second baseman Chase Utley (18 HRs, .284) has also seen his numbers fall.
The team will try to build around injury-prone OF Domonic Brown (27 HRs, 83 RBIs). The pitching staff, once one of the best in the game, has also lost its punch. Ace Roy Halladay retired and Cole Hamels (8–14, 3.60 ERA) is coming off a poor season. Cliff Lee (14–8, 2.87 ERA) is the rotation's lone bright spot.
Miami is still reeling from a 2012 trade in which it let go many of its star players. The consolation for Marlins fans is that the team has two young stars who will be fun to watch. Jose Fernandez (12–6, 2.19 ERA), the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, anchors the pitching staff. OF Giancarlo Stanton has the potential to be one of the best hitters in the game. He averaged 36 homers in 2011 and '12 but slumped to 24 last season.
The Marlins also signed C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (14 HRs with Boston) to give Stanton some protection. Still, the team is thin on talent and it's going to be another long season for this squad.
Photos: TOM DIPACE (HARPER), DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP PHOTO (FREEMAN), KATHY WILLENS/AP (WRIGHT), RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES (LEE), JUAN SALAS/ICON SMI (STANTON)