NL East: What to expect in 2016

NL East: What to expect in 2016

With just a few days to go before Opening Day, we're going division by division to give you the nitty gritty on what to expect in 2016. Today's edition is the NL East.

THE OVERVIEW
This is a sharply divided division. After last season's surprising World Series run, the Mets and their flamethrowing rotation come into 2016 as favorites, while the Nationals and reigning NL Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper will try to rebound under new skipper Dusty Baker. On the other end of the spectrum, the Braves and Phillies are firmly in rebuilding mode and don't figure to contend for a postseason berth just yet. The biggest question is whether the Marlins will be able to push their way into challenging New York and Washington.

WHAT THE STAT PROJECTIONS SAY
Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA have the Mets repeating as division champions, but by only a small margin over the Nationals. FanGraphs pegs New York as an 89-win club, one victory off its 2015 total and one ahead of Washington, which slid back to 83 last year, following a '14 NL East title. PECOTA sees the Mets finishing with 90 wins, three ahead their D.C. rivals. Of the two projection systems, FanGraphs is a bit more optimistic about Miami (79 wins vs. 75), but they agree that neither Atlanta nor Philly will crack the 70-win mark.

THE SLEEPER TEAM
The Marlins have not reached the postseason since winning the 2003 World Series, and they haven't finished above .500 since '09, coming in at 71-91 last season. Yet there is reason for hope. If any manager can navigate the often choppy waters surrounding the franchise, former Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly might be the guy. Meanwhile, a team that can build a lineup around Giancarlo Stanton and a rotation around Jose Fernandez has as good of a foundation as anyone. What the Marlins need is for their slugging right fielder to play 150-plus games and their 23-year-old ace to make 30-plus starts. Add that to another strong season for Dee Gordon, bounce-back years for young outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and a strong Miami debut from left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, and you have the makings of a postseason-caliber club.

Stanton on preparing for 2016

ROOKIES TO WATCH
An injury is the only reason Mets left-hander Steven Matz still has rookie eligibility, after the organization's top prospect posted a 2.68 ERA over nine big league starts last season, including the playoffs. The 24-year-old will be part of a talented New York rotation this year, health permitting. In Washington, speedy shortstop Trea Turner could play a significant role in the absence of Ian Desmond, while big right-hander Lucas Giolito -- the top pitching prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline -- will be waiting in the wings for an opportunity. Cuba native Hector Olivera, who will turn 31 on April 5, will get a chance to be the Braves' left fielder, while righty Aaron Blair should come up at some point.

THE BREAKOUT BUNCH
Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco didn't debut until May 15 last year, and he later missed almost two months with a fractured wrist. But over 80 games, Franco notched 14 homers, 50 RBIs and an .840 OPS, and the 23-year-old has enjoyed a big spring. Left fielder Michael Conforto and catcher Travis d'Arnaud both were highly productive for the Mets in 2015, but the former stayed in the Minors until the second half, while the latter has battled a variety of injuries in his young career. It appears that 22-year-old righty Joe Ross has a spot in the Nats' rotation, after Tyson's younger brother gave the club a 3.79 ERA over his 13 starts last year.

Franco's bat hot as Florida sun

IT'S A TEAM SPORT, BUT THE SEASON WILL HINGE ON…
Braves: Freddie Freeman. In a rebuilding season for Atlanta, Freeman is easily the biggest bat remaining in the lineup. He'll have to carry a lot of weight.

Marlins: Stanton. There isn't a more fearsome hitter in the world -- as long as he is on the field. The big guy has averaged only 114 games over the past four years, and Miami desperately needs him in the batter's box on a daily basis.

Mets: Yoenis Cespedes. New York re-signing him was a pleasant surprise for the club, but is he closer to being the hitter who produced a .942 OPS in New York down the stretch last year or a .744 mark from 2013-14? His defense when he plays center field also will be worth watching.

Cespedes makes it look easy

Nationals: Stephen Strasburg. When he finally got healthy last season, he put up a 1.90 ERA and 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 10 starts. Can he have a huge contract year and give the Nats a second ace next to Max Scherzer?

Phillies: Franco. For Philly, 2016 is all about developing young talent. Full, healthy seasons from the third baseman -- and some of the organization's other youngsters -- will stoke hopes for the next winning club arriving sooner rather than later.

IN 16 WORDS OR LESS
Does the 2016 race run through D.C., or is a New York repeat in the works?

Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.