It’s spring training, and the season’s almost here, so it’s time to once  again rank the NL East, position by position! A tradition like no other at the Nats Review, it also always gets a musical accompaniment. Each position gets a song that is pulled out of the description. Or jammed in, as the case may be.

The theme for this year’s ranking is blues rock. And yes, I know, every classic rock and hard rock band has blues influences. I’m talking about the stuff that really takes the blues influence to another level. Yeah, it’s totally an opinion thing here, and people will tell me I’ve missed some big ones or picked something that isn’t bluesy enough for them. Try not to get too fired up about, this isn’t Rolling Stone magazine.

The rules: If a team has the #1 player at a position, they get 5 points for it. If they have the worst, they get 1 point. At some point I have to make judgments about the depth chart, so I used the roster I expect to see for at least the early part of the season, on top of assessing their abilities.

On with the rankings:

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] CATCHER [/button] (Rory Gallagher)

1. Braves – Evan GattisGattis
2. Nationals – Wilson Ramos
3. Marlins – Jarrod Saltalamacchia
4. Phillies – Carlos Ruiz
5. Mets – Travis d’Arnaud

I want to put Ramos at the top of this list, and if he stays healthy, I have some faith he’ll be there. Between Gattis’ poor 2nd half and his lack of ability to get on base, especially against righties, I’m just not sure how good he’ll be. But when it hits the ball right, it travels a Country Mile. He gets to stay #1 right now, until Ramos shows he can play the whole year. Salty had a great 2013, but that followed 4 bad seasons. At 35, after a pretty poor 2013, I have trouble seeing Ruiz doing much better. d’Arnaud might be better than most of these guys some day, but he hasn’t demonstrated he will do that yet.

SCORE: ATL (5), DC (4), MIA (3), PHI (2), NY (1)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] FIRST BASE [/button] (Cream)

1. Braves – Freddie FreemanFreeman
2. Phillies – Ryan Howard
3. Nats – Adam LaRoche
4. Mets – Ike Davis
5. Marlins – Garret Jones

Considering that first base is a hitter’s position, it’s surprising to see Freeman is the only one we can assume will hit. Howard hasn’t been healthy, but is now, and still can put up some numbers. You can take predictions about his health with a whole Spoonful of salt, but if he plays, he’s a bit better than LaRoche against lefties. And he’s quite a bit better against righties. LaRoche benefits from poor competition here, I’m not thrilled ranking him this high. But Davis wasn’t good last year and isn’t healthy right now, and Garrett Jones is really a second division player. If the Nats do end up platooning LaRoche, they have a chance to move up this list.

SCORE: ATL (10), DC (7), PHI (6), MIA (4), NY (3)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] SECOND BASE [/button] (Steve Ray Vaughan)

1. Phillies – Chase Utleyutley
2. Nationals – Anthony Rendon
3. Mets – Daniel Murphy
4. Braves – Dan Uggla
5. Marlins – Rafael Furcal

It’s a bit of a Cold Shot to say Chase Utley isn’t quite what he used to be, considering he had the 2nd best offensive WAR among NL 2B last year. He can still rake and only health would keep him from the top of this list when we look back at the end of the year. There are some that might quibble with Rendon over over Murphy, but Rendon had a slightly better true average despite being 5 years his junior. I don’t expect Uggla to be as bad as last year, but if he’s topping out at 20 HRs with a low OBP at this point in his career, his value is diminished, especially with his glove. If Furcal stays healthy he might be higher, but he probably won’t.

SCORE: ATL (12), DC (11), PHI (11), NY (6), MIA (5)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] THIRD BASE [/button] (Derek Trucks Band)

David Wright1. Mets – David Wright
2. Nationals – Ryan Zimmerman
3. Braves – Chris Johnson
4. Phillies – Cody Asche
5. Marlins – Casey McGehee

Zim certainly has it in him to have a better season than Wright – and Zim at his best (2009) is about as good as Wright at his best. But Wright’s done that 3 or 4 seasons to Zim’s 1 or 2, and when you’ve done that well, you Get What You Deserve by sitting on top of the list. Chris Johnson takes third because while I hardly think he’ll repeat his 2013, that doesn’t make him a bad player (although BP only projects him to have a 0.8 WARP next year). Asche could become a good player, while McGehee might not even really be a starting caliber player.

SCORE: ATL (15), DC (15), PHI (13), NY (11), MIA (6)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] SHORTSTOP [/button] (Led Zeppelin)

1. Nationals- Ian DesmondDesmond
2. Braves – Andrelton Simmons
3. Phillies – Jimmy Rollins
4. Mets – Ruben Tejada
5. Marlins – Adeiny Hechavarria

Desi is a top 5 hitting SS and a decent fielder, Simmons is the best fielder in baseball and a less than decent hitter. If Simmons develops into a good  hitter, he’s top of the pops. But having that hole in the lineup right now is not easy to look at every day, so I’ll take Desi. He’s really developed since the rough years as recently as 2011, so if you talk to him about your fandom “Since I’ve Been Loving You“, the Nationals’ scouts and front office have loved him longer. So thanks to them for that, because it was hardly predictable he’d be this good. As for the rest of the league, Rollins is still a good player, just not at the level of the other two. Tejada’s a pretty bad hitter but Hechavarria has been incredibly bad in his very young career so far.

SCORE:  DC (20), ATL (19)PHI (16), NY (13), MIA (7)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] LEFT FIELD [/button] (Ten Years After)

1. Nationals – Bryce HarperBryceswing
2. Braves – Justin Upton
3. Mets – Curtis Granderson
4. Phillies – Dominic Brown
5. Marlins – Christian Yelich

Upton had a slightly better True Average than Harper last season, and he’s still only 26 so he can improve. But I think Harper’s improvement curve will be steeper, and Upton has shown diminished power the last few years. Upton may be great, but Harper is in his third season, I’m willing to bet he’ll be really Comin On, and it will be a true breakout. Granderson is still a very good player, and Brown started to show last season what he’s capable of doing. Yelich could be a good young player, but he’s outclassed here.

SCORE:  DC (25), ATL (23)PHI (18), NY (16), MIA (8)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] CENTER FIELD [/button] (Jimi Hendrix)

denard span1. Nats – Denard Span
2. Phillies – Ben Revere
3. Marlins – Marcell Ozuna
4. Mets – Juan Lagares
5. Braves – B.J. Upton

Span has the  highest predicted WARP of any CF in the NL East according to Baseball Prospectus. Considering Upton, who hasn’t hit in 2 years, is the only one with a theoretically better bat, that shouldn’t be shocking. Some of that is also from his defense, probably top 5 in the majors at his position – when he tracks down a fly ball it’s like he’s got a Little Wing or two on his back, because he is very impressive on defense. Revere had numbers pretty close to Span’s last year and has some real speed. He could have a better year than Span, but hasn’t been yet. Marcell Ozuna, who has some pop, and Juan Lagares might not have OBPs above .305. BJ Upton, who I put number one on this list last year, almost certainly won’t – he’s now had a .286 OBP over the last 2 years. 

SCORE:  DC (30), ATL (24)PHI (22), NY (18), MIA (11)

[button url=’#’ size=’small’ style=’red’] RIGHT FIELD [/button] (Allman Brothers Band)

stanton-1st1. Marlins – Giancarlo Stanton
2. Braves – Jason Heyward
3. Nationals – Jayson Werth
4. Mets – Chris Young
5. Phillies – Marlon Byrd

Stanton and Heyward are both only 24 years old and both could be All Stars. Stanton’s got such power that it’s hard to not list him first. Funny thing is, Werth had a better season than both of those guys in 2013. But to think that the 35 year old Werth will do better than them again, both having come off down seasons, is probably foolish. That being said, you can make the case that Werth is the soul of the Nats, and if the Soulshine comes through again and Werth does really well, they’re in great shape. I like the Chris Young pickup for the Mets, not so much with Marlon Byrd and the Phillies.

SCORE:  DC (33), ATL (28)PHI (23), NY (20), MIA (16)

The Nats have a few guys that sit at the top of the list, between Desmond, Span and Harper. But it’s being consistently in the top 2 or 3 with each that really gives them the edge. Even LaRoche, who is probably in the bottom third of all MLB first basemen, gets some seriously bad competition from a couple of teams to leave him with 3 points.

There is some argument that they aren’t quite this great, that a few guys are ranked first but they should be second… bit either way, it’s clear that they have a really balanced lineup. The Braves make it close, and a case could easily be made that with a few tweaks here and there Atlanta could have the best lineup (heck, if BJ Upton miraculously comes back and is better than Span, that’s almost enough). But this Nats lineup is formidable, and that’s before we even get to the pitching.

Next, on to the pitching

By Charlie