Washington Nationals: Can NL East pose threat in 2018?

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(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /
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The Washington Nationals play in arguably the weakest division in the league, the NL East. Can any divisional foe pose a threat in 2018?

After cruising to an NL East crown in 2016, the Washington Nationals nearly went wire-to-wire in 2017, cakewalking to the finish with a 20-game lead.

The Nats were a talented 97-win club, but the division title came so effortlessly because the other four East teams were so poor. The New York Mets collapsed upon themselves en route to a ghastly 70-win season.

Miami once again failed to complement their young core with any sort of pitching. Atlanta is just getting off the mat of a rebuild, while Philadelphia dropped further into the depths of the darkness.

Washington should return almost their entire team in 2018, and will undoubtedly enter the season as prohibitive favorites. Will anyone else in the division step up and at least push the Nationals?

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We can immediately rule out the Phillies and Braves. Rhys Hoskins and Aaron Nola posted very nice seasons for Philadelphia in 2017, but many of their other youngsters – in both the majors and minors – failed to perform up to expectations.

In Atlanta, prized pieces Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson spent 2017 in the bigs, and should form a solid infield core alongside Freddie Freeman in the future. The Braves pitching staff was awful, but reinforcements are on the way; six of the top 10 prospects in their elite farm system are pitchers.

Even with all that promise, 2018 will be another slog in Atlanta, but expect Freeman and Co. to be competitive in 2019 and beyond.

Elsewhere in the division, the Mets and Marlins are still looking to win now, despite disappointing 2017 campaigns.

Miami has the most top-end talent in the division outside of the nation’s capital. Giancarlo Stanton is a dream-wrecker in the prime of his career.

Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto, and Dee Gordon are all under 30 years old on bargain bin contracts. Toss in powerful first baseman Justin Bour, and you have an offense that should rival the Nationals’ powerful lineup.

But across the rest of the organization is where the issues arise. The much-traveled Dan Straily was the team’s best starter in 2017 as the Marlins’ staff finished 26th in baseball with a 4.82 ERA. The bullpen was not much better, posting a 4.40 ERA and 26 blown saves, good for last in the National League.

Unlike Atlanta, help is not on the way for the South Florida fish. The Marlins’ minor league system is one of the worst units in baseball, and free agents seem are out of the question too. The new Derek Jeter-helmed front office seems more likely to slash payroll than pay for reinforcements.

A massive Stanton season, along with a few surprises on the mound, could prop the Marlins up for a season, but if Jeter trades away a core piece, the entire house of cards will come crashing down.

The Mets are the real bounce-back team to watch in 2018 though. Yoenis Cespedes missed half of the 2017 season, but a clean bill of health will give New York a real middle of the order bat for 150-plus games.

New York moved on from veterans Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce, and Neil Walker midseason, which opens the door for budding star Michael Conforto, defensive whiz Juan Lagares, and top prospect Amed Rosario.

The real question for the Mets is on the mound. Jacob deGrom was steady last season, but the rest of the rotation blew up in spectacular fashion. Ace Noah Syndergaard made just seven starts due to an April lat injury, and supposed up-and-comers Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Rafael Montero, Seth Lugo, and Robert Gsellman were all injured and atrocious.

If even just three of those five pitchers stay healthy and productive (or maybe even the forgotten Matt Harvey), then the Mets should have an elite starting rotation topped by Syndergaard and deGrom.

A dark cloud seemingly follows the Mets from year-to-year, but they have a chance for a fresh start in the upcoming season. Mickey Callaway will be a welcome change in the clubhouse over Terry Collins, and the old guard has given way to younger, more talented players.

If Conforto keeps developing, Cespedes returns to pre-2017 form, and at least half of the pitching staff remains healthy, the Mets should push for a playoff spot in 2018.

Next: A.J. Cole's 2018 role a mystery

The Nationals may have a second-half challenger yet.

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