The NL East looks a lot different than it did a day ago, now that Yoenis Cespedes has agreed to sign with the New York Mets instead of the Washington Nationals. One player doesn't swing the balance of power, but the Mets have to be happy they got Cespedes instead of the Nats, even if it is for just one season if he opts out after 2016 and hits free agency again. My 10 most intriguing players in the division for 2016:
1. Bryce Harper, RF, Washington Nationals
Don’t blame Harper for what happened to the Nationals in 2015. He led the majors with a .460 OBP and .649 slugging percentage. His wRC+ -- that’s weighted runs created, which adjusts for home park and run-scoring environment -- was 197, the highest since Barry Bonds in 2004 and the 16th-best mark since 1950, on par with George Brett’s near-.400 season in 1980. And he did all of that at age 22, capped by a unanimous MVP selection. He was so good that the voters couldn’t hold the fact that the Nationals missed the playoffs against him.
Now for the encore. How can you not find that intriguing? Or this: Harper destroyed a lot of bad and mediocre pitching in the NL East last season. Against the Marlins, Braves and Phillies he hit .344 with 21 home runs in 54 games; against the Mets he hit .254 with four home runs in 18 games (and two of those home runs came during the final weekend, after the Mets already had clinched). Those Harper-Mets showdowns are going to be among the most entertaining of the 2016 season.
The circus surrounding Harvey's innings limit is, mercifully, in the past. He and Mets manager Terry Collins will have to move on from the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. Those controversies aside, Harvey returned from his Tommy John surgery and re-established himself in 2015 as one of the premier pitchers in the majors. One big difference from 2013, when he posted a 2.27 ERA compared with his 2.71 mark in 2015: He allowed 18 home runs last season, up from just seven in a similar number of innings before the surgery. One reason was the ineffectiveness of his changeup. In 2013, Harvey allowed just a .438 OPS against it; in 2015, he allowed a .702 OPS. I’m nitpicking, but that’s the point: Harvey can get better.
Just stay healthy, big guy.
4. Yoenis Cespedes, CF, New York Mets
This isn't a signing that's guaranteed to end up earning rave reviews. In 2013, Cespedes posted a .294 OBP and in 2014 his OBP was .301. Since the Mets already have Michael Conforto in left field and Curtis Granderson in right, Cespedes will have to play the majority of his games in center field, where he'll be a below-average defender. But if he can come close to the 35 home runs and .542 slugging he produced in 2015 with the Tigers and Mets, you have to like this New York lineup: RF Granderson, 3B David Wright, LF Conforto, CF Cespedes, 1B Lucas Duda, 2B Neil Walker, C Travis d'Arnaud, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, plus solid bench options in Wilmer Flores, Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza. That's a lineup that can lead the NL in runs scored.
5. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets
By striking out 26 batters in 19 postseason innings, Syndergaard made a statement that he -- and not Harvey or Jacob deGrom -- may be the Mets’ ace in 2016. Does it matter? Sit back and enjoy all three. Unless your favorite team is playing the Mets.
6. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Miami Marlins
Yes, this division has some pitching. I couldn’t even fit deGrom or Max Scherzer into my top 10, which has nothing to do with their ability or excitement level. Fernandez returned from his Tommy John surgery and flashed the same dominant stuff as before. He did miss a month with a right biceps strain and got hit around a little in a couple of starts in September, but he’s expected to be fine heading into 2016. The Marlins signed free-agent starter Wei-Yin Chen, which is sort of their way of saying that they think they can compete this season, but that’s certainly predicated on a healthy Fernandez producing a monster season.
7. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals
It’s hard to believe, but Strasburg will be ready for free agency after the 2016 season. Where did the time go? He remains a bit of an enigma, which is little unfair because he’s had some very nice seasons, but there’s still hope that he can put everything together and put up Cy Young numbers. Strasburg battled some nagging injuries last year and made just 23 starts but fanned 155 in 127.1 innings. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, he trailed only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Scherzer in strikeout rate. Strasburg had a big reverse-platoon split last year, but that hasn’t been his career norm, and he allowed a .316 average with runners in scoring position. That HAS been a career norm: .258 in his career compared with an overall average allowed of .228. The strikeouts are terrific, but he needs to get more of them when runners are on base.
Franco is obviously a big part of the Phillies’ future after a promising rookie season in which he hit .280/.343/.497. Does he have star potential? I’m not completely sold on that, but if he can tighten up the defense and improve the walk rate, he’ll become one.
9. David Wright, 3B, New York Mets
The Mets seem to have finally come to the conclusion that they can’t expect Wright to be the player he once was. While they lost Daniel Murphy to the Nats via free agency, they traded for Neil Walker to take over at second and signed Asdrubal Cabrera to play shortstop. Wilmer Flores is still around and second baseman Dilson Herrera is ready as well, although he’ll head back to Triple-A for another season. The point is the Mets have infield options, with Cabrera or Flores able to play third base if needed. Still, the hope is for Wright to remain that middle-of-the-order bat. He has been such a good player, I'd hate to see the entire second half of his career go the Ken Griffey Jr. route.
10. Christian Yelich, LF, Miami Marlins
The power will probably never come -- Yelich doesn’t really have enough loft in his swing to turn into a 20-homer guy -- but he hit .300/.366/.416 at age 23, including .342 in the second half as he cut way down on his strikeout rate. Dee Gordon won the batting title last year for the Marlins, but don’t be surprised if Yelich contends for it this year.