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NL East preview: Is this finally the year for the Washington Nationals?

The Washington Nationals are the favorite to win the National League East once again, but this year feels different. The team can no longer be satisfied with another NL East championship.

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The club now has a sense of urgency. Following the 2018 season, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Madson will all hit the free-agent market. If they don’t win it all this year, things will get harder going forward.

It doesn’t help that both the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are on the upswing. The Phillies made some key moves this winter to let their competitors know their time is coming. The Braves aren’t as far in their rebuild just yet, but the world should get a taste of Ronald Acuña Jr. this season.

Then there’s the New York Mets, who could be formidable if only they could stay healthy. You would think their luck would turn eventually, but this is the Mets we’re talking about.

No matter how poorly things go for each of those clubs, at least they won’t finish in last. That spot is reserved for the Miami Marlins, who tore it all down in the offseason. Winning 65 games would be a victory for Miami in 2018.

We’ll dissect the NL East with a look at its new faces, its biggest questions and what each team would have to do to win.

Jake Arrieta makes the Phillies a lot better in 2018. (AP Photo)

NEW FACES
In case you need you a reminder of who plays where now

Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta, Philadelphia Phillies
The 2017-2018 offseason will be known as an offseason of labor strife, but it will also be remembered for the Phillies getting seriously serious about competing. After five years of sub-.500 finishes (sometimes way, way sub) they saw some growth and decided to go for it. They signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year contract, and they solved their rotation issue by signing Jake Arrieta to a three-year deal. The team spent real money to make themselves better, and they’re hoping it’s a gamble that pays off sooner rather than later. But despite all that hope and optimism, the Phillies actually being ready to compete for a wild-card spot is far from fact. No one knows how the rookies are going to fare. And there are serious concerns about the young guys getting significant playing time. But one thing is for sure: the Phillies will be a much tougher opponent than they’ve been in years, and Arrieta and Santana are two major reasons why. The NL East is no longer a two-team race.

Jay Bruce, New York Mets
Even though Jay Bruce was on the Mets for most of 2017, he still counts as a new face. The Mets traded him to Cleveland in August, so he was gone, and now he’s back with a three-year deal. That means he’s technically new. And for the Mets, Bruce is a guy they’re comfortable with because they know exactly what he can do. He hits between .250 and .260, and smacks between 25 and 35 home runs per year. He’s not an electric talent, but he’s dependable and consistent. On a Mets team that somehow always feels like it’s barely fending off complete and utter disaster, that’s valuable.

Derek Jeter, Miami Marlins
He’s not on the field anymore, but there’s little doubt that anybody generated more headlines this offseason than the new Miami Marlins CEO. While the team won’t be anything special this season, that won’t stop people around baseball from watching how Jeter guides the Fish through a high-profile rebuild that began with trading away all their best players. Keeping Giancarlo Stanton around would have kept some of the attention elsewhere, but now it’s all eyes on Jeter.

Bryce Harper wants to walk away from the Nationals as a champion. (AP Photo)

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NL EAST
Good news: We’ve got 162 games to figure out the answers

How do the Nationals avoid another disappointment?
For one more year at least, the NL East should belong to the Nationals. That should put them in a prime spot to finally achieve the ultimate goal, and that’s winning a World Series. A lot of shoulds, but for a team that’s been in this position for six years and still never even won a playoff series, shoulds aren‘t enough. They have to achieve something. There‘s no magic formula that exists to help them. Good health would obviously be a plus, but some soul-searching needs to take place too. The Dodgers and Cubs aren’t going away. It’s up to Washington to figure out how to make them go away.

Will the Mets get the most from their starting rotation?
The Mets revamped their medical staff over the offseason, in addition to hiring a pitching-minded manager in Mickey Callaway and respected pitching coach in Dave Eiland. The obvious hope is to finally put together a healthy season where the starting rotation performs at the highest possible level. The last time that happened was 2015, when they reached the World Series. Since then, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler have all faced setbacks. Just having three or four of them healthy and pitching well would be a game-changer for New York.

Is a winning record realistic for Phillies or Braves?
There’s enough excitement and optimism surrounding the Phillies that it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they emerged as a wild card contender. With many of their top prospects poised to make a mark this season, and with Jake Arrieta added to the rotation, they could definitely flirt with a winning record. The Braves are a little more tricky to figure out because they still don’t have a real identity. They have youth, they have experience, perhaps most importantly, they’ll eventually have Ronald Acuña Jr., and he’s a real difference maker. How realistic is it that one or both teams could contend is a question we’re all looking forward to having answered.

Will the Marlins lose 100 games?
The teardown under new CEO Derek Jeter is another case of history repeating itself for Marlins fans. The only question, at least in 2018, is how bad will it get. With the entire outfield trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich traded, and with Dee Gordon traded too, they’re pretty close to square one. What’s encouraging is that the Marlins have brought back some solid prospects who could help form a decent foundation. For now though, they‘ll be featuring mostly stopgaps and unproven guys. If the NL East proves to be a hungry division, the Marlins could struggle getting to 65-70 wins.

The Mets hope a healthy Noah Syndergaard will lead them to the postseason. (AP Photo)

HOW THEY COULD WIN
Every team can’t win. Most won’t. But here’s how each could *could* win the NL East:

Washington Nationals: The Nationals don’t have to do much. Keep everyone relatively healthy, basically, and they have a good shot. It would be nice if Michael A. Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman turned in strong years yet again, but the team could still win the division if both struggle. A better fifth starter would be nice, but it’s not like you use those in the postseason. We’re picking nits here. The Nationals are the clear favorites in the NL East.

• Philadelphia Phillies: The team’s youngsters arrive early. J.P. Crawford puts it all together at the plate, hitting for average and taking a ridiculous amount of walks. Nick Williams proves last season’s success wasn’t small-sample nonsense. Rhys Hoskins is actually one of the best players in baseball and last year was just a taste of what’s to come. Jake Arrieta puts off some of his worrisome trends for another year. Aaron Nola becomes a Cy Young candidate. After thinking more about it, Gabe Kapler cancels his team speech on proper tanning methods.

New York Mets: Everybody stays healthy. OK, stop laughing … it could happen. And if it does, the Mets become pretty tough. Yoenis Cespedes challenges for the NL home run crown, with Todd Frazier not too far behind. Amed Rosario takes to the majors immediately. Adrian Gonzalez proves there’s still something left in the tank. Noah Syndergaard is Noah Syndergaard. Mickey Callaway finds a way to return Matt Harvey to form.

 Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuña Jr. has a Mike Trout-level impact on the team once he’s called up. Dansby Swanson rebounds after a tough 2017 to show why he was the No. 1 overall draft pick. Ozzie Albies sprays the ball all over the field while Freddie Freeman challenges for MVP. The team’s young pitchers finally come together to form a strong rotation. Sean Newcomb stops walking people. Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair figure out how to pitch in the majors. Max Fried continues to develop.

Miami Marlins: Derek Jeter finds a way to re-acquire Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. He then finds a way to get Lance Lynn and Jake Arrieta out of their contracts and signs both of them. At the midway point, Jeter continues to invest in the team’s solid young core. The offense carries the club while the pitching is stabilized by just a few vets. Stanton breaks the single-season home run record, ensuring the dinger machine will be replaced with a Paul Bunyan-type statue of him in 30 years.

Other division previews
AL East | AL Central | AL West | NL West | NL East | NL Central
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Mike Oz is a writer at Yahoo Sports . Contact him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @MikeOz

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