The New York Mets and Washington Nationals have been the class of the NL East for a few years now, but the division’s other three teams are on the rise.
However, if the Mets and Nats get better production from a key position player in 2017, they should be able to hold off their challengers for at least one more year.
On the other hand, if the Braves, Phillies or Marlins get a few big-time performances this year, there could be a changing of the guard in the division by the end of the season.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at one player on each team who could make a big impact on the race for the NL East division title in 2017:
New York Mets: Travis d’Arnaud, C
The Mets desperately need a healthy season from their starting catcher in 2017. After playing only 67 games in 2015, d’Arnaud appeared in only 75 last season.
When he does play, he’s a decent hitter and helps make the bottom of the Mets’ batting order dangerous. If d’Arnaud can’t stay in the lineup, the Mets will once again have to turn to Kevin Plawecki, who, while a good defensive catcher, is a black hole at the plate.
If New York is going to compete for a division title in 2017, it can’t afford half a season of Plawecki as the starter behind the plate.
Washington Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
Time is running out for Zimmerman if he wants to continue his career with the Nationals. In 427 at-bats last year, the first baseman hit a career-low .218 with only 15 home runs and 46 RBI.
If he wants to hold on to his starting job, he’ll need to get off to a strong start in 2017. Once an asset defensively, he only plays an average first base, so the Nats could make a switch if it looks like Zimmerman has lost his edge.
Philadelphia Phillies: Tommy Joseph, 1B
Now that Ryan Howard is retired, Joseph is the Phillies’ full-time first baseman. While seeing the bulk of the action at the position last year, the slugger didn’t disappoint.
In 315 at-bats, Joseph hit .257 with 21 home runs and 47 RBI, but he’ll need to drive in more runs and maintain at least that level of power if the Phillies are going to improve in 2017.
It’s his gig now, so if he struggles, there’s no veteran backup like Howard there to take over in case of a prolonged slump.
Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton, OF
Last year, Stanton did what he always does — mash baseballs. However, for the third-straight season, he also saw his batting average decline.
After hitting .288 in 2014, Stanton’s average declined to .265 in 2015 and .240 last year. Stanton only hit .290 on balls in play, though, which is lower than his career average, so he could be a candidate for a bounce-back 2017 season.
However, he’ll need to keep mashing baseballs while staying healthy if the Marlins are going to be serious playoff contenders this year.
Atlanta Braves: Arodys Vizcaino, RP
Vizcaino was nearly unhittable for the Braves in 2015, but that all changed last season. After posting a 1.60 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 33.2 innings two years ago, he saw his ERA inflate to 4.42 in 38.2 innings in 2016.
If he can’t get the job done in his setup role for closer Jim Johnson in 2017, the Braves will probably be forced to move one of their other young arms into that role.