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Early NL East preview: Mets rise continues while Phillies build for future

(Dennis Wierzbicki - USA TODAY Sports)

(Dennis Wierzbicki – USA TODAY Sports)

 

Can you smell it in the air?  With just three weeks until pitchers and catchers report, it’s time to put MLB back on the radar.

Although the Hot Stove will still be sizzling between now and Opening Day, all 30 teams have a rough idea – some clearer than others – of their competitive outlook in 2016.  The disparity between contenders and pretenders is arguably most extreme in the National League East, where the Phillies, Marlins and Braves have already been penciled in as cellar-dwellers behind the stacked Mets and Nationals.

Despite the grim outlook in Philly, fans have plenty of motivation to get excited about the future.  After this season, the cumbersome contracts of Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz and Cliff Lee will finally come off the books, freeing over $40 million dollars of payroll.  With the rebuilding process in full swing, young players like Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, Aaron Nola and Maikel Franco will have plenty of opportunities to prove their worth in 2016.

Nola and Franco will be particularly fun to watch.  Nola, a first-round pick in 2014, impressed in 13 starts last season, posting a 3.59 ERA over 77.2 innings.  Franco, meanwhile, belted 14 homers in 80 games, while showing impressive plate discipline for a 22-year-old.

Lost in the myriad of trades and free agency signings this offseason was the Phillies’ acquisition of Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick of the 2013 draft.  Once projected to be a future Cy Young award winner, Appel struggled to find consistency in the Astros’ minor league system, posting a 4.37 ERA between Double and Triple-A last season.  Despite the rocky start to his professional career, a change of scenery could be exactly what the doctor ordered.  With the Phillies in retooling mode, it’s hard to find a better fit for the former phenom to harness his full potential.

2016 projects to be a long season for the Philly faithful, and 100 losses will not be out of reach.  However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and if things pan out with the rejuvenated farm system, Philadelphia could be back on the grid in 2017.

On the other end of the competitive spectrum, we find the Mets, who will be seeking a second straight World Series appearance.  Perpetually shrouded in the Yankees’ glory, the Mets suddenly find themselves neck-and-neck in terms of vying for New Yorkers’ loyalty.

And can you blame fans for switching allegiance?  As the Yankees continue to pinch pennies, the Mets coughed up big money to re-sign fan favorite Yoenis Cespedes, who slugged a ridiculous .604 after joining the club at the Trade Deadline.  Re-signing Cespedes proved that the front office is committed to winning, and with a rotation consisting of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler, it’s hard to see the Mets do anything but win.

The only obstacle in the Mets’ path is the Nationals, who are as equally dysfunctional as they are talented.  With the seasoned Dusty Baker taking the managerial reins in DC, it’s reasonable to expect less clubhouse turbulence in 2016, but will it be enough to reclaim the division?  The Mets have the edge, and barring a catastrophic injury in the starting rotation, a second straight NL East title is in order.

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