MLB Preview: National League East

The American League East deservedly has the reputation of being the best division in all of baseball, but the NL East might be a close second.  Other than the Washington Nationals, every team in the NL East should finish at .500 or better, and two teams have legitimate World Series aspirations.  Of course one team received most of the national attention when it signed a prized free agent pitcher and thus assembled one of the best starting rotations that the game has ever seen.  With such a loaded staff, there’s really not going to be much of a contest, right?  We might as well crown the division champions before the season even starts.  I mean is there any doubt as to who will come out on top in the National League East?

1. Atlanta Braves: At a glance this appears to be a loaded young roster filled with talent at every starting position.  A closer examination of the Braves’ roster shows some potential cracks and weaknesses.  An even closer look at the roster confirms the first impression.  Long story short, this is the most balanced team in the division, if not the National League.

Jason Heyward is clearly the star of the team.  Often when a player is as hyped as he was before taking even one Major League swing there is a big chance for a letdown.  Instead Heyward largely lived up to the hype.  Perhaps the most startling thing about his 2010 season is his patience.  Heyward posted a .393 on-base percentage and walked in nearly 15 percent of his plate appearances. You can’t really chalk that up entirely to the lineup, not when the Braves sported one of the most productive offenses in the baseball.

One big addition to the lineup is Dan Uggla, signed from the Marlins and coming off his best season yet.  Uggla is one of the elite second basemen in the game offensively.  Sadly the same cannot be said for his defense (though there is some question about just how bad he is defensively).  Even if his offensive production takes a slight hit, he’s still a 4-win or so player at a minimum.  With Uggla taking over at second, Martin Prado will slide on over to left field.  Though the net effect will likely be a reduction in overall defensive quality, the offense should benefit significantly. The other elite position-player is catcher Brian McCann, who along with Joe Mauer, is clearly a cut above every other player at the position.  These four form the base of a fairly potent offensive attack.

The rest of the lineup should be adequate, though there are question marks.  Rookie Freddie Freeman will take over at first base, and will certainly experience some growing pains. Alex Gonzalez, whom the Braves acquired for Yunel Escobar, will get the call again at short.  Gonzo enjoyed his most productive season in quite a while, but the swap may come back to bite the Braves (and already did to some extent when Escobar’s production increased after the trade while Gonzalez’s decreased).  The biggest concerns are at third base and centerfield.  At this point two things are guaranteed with Chipper Jones: he will miss time due to injury, and he will be productive when he does play.  Even though he only played in 95 games, Jones posted close to a 3-win season in 2010.  Jones turns 39 this season, so the combination of age and injury may very well further erode his value, but the Braves hope that Larry can give them one more season of at least above average production.  The greater concern is centerfielder Nate McClouth, who had just a miserable season a year ago.  If McClouth rebounds at all – and he is enjoying a good Spring training – then that will only make the offense that more dangerous.

Meanwhile, the Braves’ rotation will also be formidable.  They don’t quite stack up against the Phillies, but they can hold their own.  Technically the rotation is fronted by veterans Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson.  Lowe’s peripherals suggest that he has pitched better than his raw numbers show, while Hudson’s suggest the opposite.  If both regress towards the mean they’ll balance each other out and provide steady, middle of the rotation value.  The real ace of the staff is almost certainly Tommy Hanson. Even though he only finished 10-11 a year ago, he was the best pitcher on the staff, and I’d expect him to take another step forward.  Jair Jurrgens regressed from his fine 2009 season (which may have been a bit flukish), though he was in part hampered by injuries.  If he’s healthy, then the Braves rotation should be very good.

The Braves’ closer situation is a bit uncertain, though for now it looks like Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters will share the closer’s role.  Overall it’s a good, young bullpen that exemplifies the overall quality of the team.  The Phillies might be getting all the attention, but in the end the Braves should have just enough to edge them out for the division title.

2. Philadelphia Phillies: Here’s a way to think about the Phillies.  In 2008 Cole Hamels headed the staff and the Phillies won the World Series.  Next year they added Cliff Lee and lost the World Series.  In 2010 they swapped Lee for Halladay and added Roy Oswalt and lost the NLCS.  Now they’ve brought in Lee once again, so I guess we can pencil them in for a first round loss.  Next year they can add Zach Greinke and miss the playoffs altogether.

I only partially jest.  There is no doubt that the Phillies rotation will be very, very good.  Halladay and Lee are two of the top five pitchers in the game, and perhaps even the two best.  Hamels and Oswalt aren’t too shabby themselves, and even fifth starter Joe Blanton would be welcome on just about any other starting rotation in baseball.  Yes there are always injury concerns, and everyone except Hamels is on the wrong side of 30.  But I don’t really see anyone, if healthy, being less than superb with the possible exception of Oswalt, who has been a little more up and down over the past few seasons.

So the Phils will keep runs off the board.  But will the offense support this fine staff?  That’s where things get a bit cloudy in Philadelphia.  The two best everyday players in Philadelphia over the past few seasons have been Chase Utley and Jayson Werth.  Werth is in DC now, and Utley will start the season on the DL and may miss a significant chunk of time.  That leaves Ryan Howard with very little protection, and his production has already been declining.  The man whose $25 million/year contract doesn’t even kick in until next year is coming off the least productive season of his career.  I think that he should rebound now that he’s healthy, but the reality is that he has never come close to being as consistently productive as in his 2006 MVP season (which wasn’t really an MVP season, but let’s not go there for now).

The spotlight will be on Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rolllins as both will absolutely have to step up if this offense is to be even mediocre.  Rollins is coming off of two seasons that can be charitably categorized as “meh,” as both his on-base and slugging percentage have fallen off career norms, and he wasn’t exactly a big OBP guy before.  He still provides better than average defense, but at age 32 one wonders if his best seasons are behind him.  As for Victorino, he is certainly an asset in center, but as the anchor of what is an otherwise pedestrian outfield, he leaves a lot to be desired.

Another player the Phils will be counting on is catcher Carlos Ruiz.  Ruiz had a breakout 2010 season, putting up an impressive 302/400/447 slash line.  But he also had a .335 BABIP, and it would be shocking if he could duplicate his performance.  Placido Polanco also had a stellar 2010 season, but again, he’s 35 and unlikely to put up close to a 4 WAR season.  Meanwhile Raul Ibanez continues to age before our eyes in left, and the rightfield situation is completely up in the air.  There had been hope that top prospect Dominic Brown would win the job, but injury has hampered him, leaving Ben Francisco as the leading contender.

As if to make matters worse for the Phillies, closer Brad Lidge will also start the season on the DL.  Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson will take over closing duties until Lidge gets back.   There is also uncertainty as to who will replace Utley while he lingers on the DL.  The Phillies signed Luis Castillo, but now it’s questionable as to whether he’ll even make the team.  Wilson Valdez, another option, is having problems of his own.

This team is clearly constructed to win now.  There are very few players on the south side of 30, and the farm system has been depleted through the various maneuverings.  It’s quite possible that the starting pitching will be enough to overcome any offensive limitations.  We’ll see.

3. New York Mets: It’s easy to understand why many people are picking the Mets to lose more than they will win.  They’re coming off two rocky seasons, which in turn came off of two seasons that ended in bitter disappointment.  To make matters worse the ownership group is in financial peril, embroiled in the Bernie Madoff scandal and drawing back page headlines nearly every day for all the wrong reasons.  From an outsider’s perspective, there is no joy in Metsville.

But things aren’t as dark as they seem.  Omar Minaya is out as GM, replaced by the real Godfather of “Moneyball,” Sandy Alderson.  Even as the owners draw negative attention, those in charge of daily operations have shown that adults are now at the helm.  They have demonstrated that performance is going to matter more than dollars and cents, jettisoning high-priced but non-performing players like Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez.  Instead of filling up the roster with low-priced, negative value scrubs like Gary Matthews Jr, Jeff Francouer, and Alex Cora, they have filled the roster with low-priced, medium-value role players that provide the sort of roster depth that was sorely lacking in the Minaya years.

What’s more, as bad as things appeared this was a team that won 79 years games last year (with a positive run differential to boot).  As indicated Alderson and company have engaged in addition by subtraction.  For years the Mets had the best or one of the best players at three different positions in the persons of David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.  Unfortunately the group surrounding these stars got progressively worse.  Now they are surrounded by arguably the deepest roster the Mets have fielded since 2006.  Ike Davis showed both a good glove and a good bat in his rookie season, and I think the Mets can expect Ike to take a step forward.  Jason Bay had an incredibly frustrating first season in Flushing.  While I wouldn’t project him to ever return to his peak performance days in Pittsburgh and Boston, I do think he should rebound to the 3-WAR range.  The one player who has broken out over the past two seasons is Angel Pagan.  Pagan will continue to patrol centerfield for the Mets, and provides All-Star quality out there.  The Mets should even expect marginal production at the offensive blackholes that have been second base and catcher.  Josh Thole is not going to remind anyone of Joe Mauer, but he and Ronny Paulino should be a big upgrade over the likes of Brian Schneider and Rod Barajas.  Rule five pick Brad Emaus looks to have the clear edge on the starting job at second, and though he is at best marginal defensively, he’ll be something other than an automatic out.

The bad news for the Mets is that that core of players has not produced anywhere the value it did from 2006-2008.  Carlos Beltran has battled injuries, and again has only seen limited action this Spring.  Even if “healthy,” his shoddy knees mean that it’s unlikely he can return to his pre May 2009 levels of production.  Jose Reyes has also battled various ailments, and in 2010 put together his worst season since 2005.  Of course even a marginal Jose Reyes is better than most other shortstops in baseball, but the Mets will absolutely need him to be the sparkplug he was from 06-08.  David Wright rebounded from a sub-par first season at Citi Field, but still fell well short of where he had been three seasons ago when not only was he the best third baseman in the game, but arguably one of the best three players in all of baseball.  This lineup has the potential to be pretty good even if Reyes, Wright and Beltran only contribute about 3/5 of their former value.  However, if even just one or two of them returns to Shea Stadium form, then this team has a real shot at contending for at least a Wild Card.

The real unknown for the Mets is their pitching, both stating rotation and bullpen.  Johan Santana is out until at least July, and might not return at all.  That means that knuckleballer R.A. Dickey will have to take over the reigns as the stopper.  Dickey came from practically out of nowhere to become a cult hero among Mets fans.  Normally a 36-year old would be expected to regress, especially someone who never experienced Major League success before.  But Dickey’s knuckleball makes the age concern less valid, and he should still be a solid starter.  The rest of the rotation is a complete question mark.  Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese are good, not great, middle-of-the-rotation types, but can they really expect to carry the load for a contender?  Meanwhile two Chrises – Capuano and Young – are making their way back from injury.  If either one is successful in their comebacks, then the Mets should have a decent rotation, and if both do, they could be in good position if/when Johan Santana comes back.

Mets fans shouldn’t count on a deep September pennant chase, but despite the turmoil surrounding the financial situation, things are trending in the right direction for this organization.

4. Florida Marlins: The Marlins might be the toughest team in all of baseball to predict.  I can honestly see this team winning anywhere from 70 to 90 games.

The Marlins staff has the potential to be just about as good as the one in Philadelphia.  Then again, potential is one of the most dangerous words in all of sports.  There’s absolutely no one as important to the organization as Josh Johnson.  When he’s on the mound he’s as good as anyone else in the game.  The problem for the Marlins is getting Johnson to the mound.  He’s only made more than 28 starts once, though he has remained largely injury free for the past two seasons.  Behind him are two other young studs that could make this an incredibly formidable rotation.  Ricky Nolasco has battled both injuries and inconsistency, but if he can stay healthy he has a shot at being a solid number two type pitcher.  Anibel Sanchez had a breakout campaign in 2010, and all signs are looking up for him, giving the Marlins a very impressive trio.  A possible fourth young stud is Chris Volstad.  Volstad has had moments of greatness in each of his first three seasons, but he hasn’t put it all together.  Still, a team could do a lot worse at the back end of the rotation.  The elder stateman of the group is Javier Vazquez.  Historically, Vazquez’s peripherals suggest that his subpar numbers really weren’t that bad.  But last year he was just plain bad.  He has lost velocity, and it’s doubtful that he can regain it sufficiently to be a front-line starter.  Perhaps he could take advantage of the National League to provide decent value as a number five type pitcher, and if so then the Marlins will come closer to that 90-win mark.

Where it gets real iffy is the lineup.  The two stars are Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton.  Despite the occasional mental lapse, Ramirez is one of the elite stars in the game, and Stanton is projected to be just as big of a stud.  Unfortunately there’s not a lot there to surround those two, especially after the departure of Dan Uggla.  The Marlins added some pop with catcher John Buck, who homered 20 times last year and should provide some measure of protection for Ramirez and Stanton.  Gaby Sanchez is above-average at first, though he doesn’t have enormous power for a corner infielder.  After that it’s a bunch of rookies and youngsters who have not proven themselves the Majors.  If Chris Coghlan and Logan Morrison can show that they can hang with the big boys, then the Marlins as a whole will hang around with the big dogs in the division.

5. Washington Nationals: Every year it’s the same story in Washington: mild hopes for the season to come, and generous optimism for the future.  And every year it’s the same result: 90-100 losses, and a realization that the organization is still a couple of years away from contention.  I’m not sure that things will be much different this time around.

There is certainly some cause for hope.  Stephen Strasberg proved to be as good as advertised when he debuted last June to a packed house, providing Nats fans a glimpse of better days ahead.  And as Strasberg was making his debut, the Nats grabbed Bryce Harper with the first selection in the draft, and they will get to re-start the hype machine for another supposedly can’t miss prospect.

Unfortunately Strasberg then went down with an arm injury and had to have Tommy John surgery, and will miss almost all of the season.  And Harper will likely not get to the big leagues until late in 2012, if then.  But the Nats will get to see two other potential stars take the mound.  Jordan Zimmerman has returned from Tommy John surgery himself, and visions of the 1-2 punch of Strasberg and Zimmerman will be dancing in Beltway heads.  Closing games for the Nats will be Drew Storen, a fireballer that many hope will be the closer for years to come.

The other Zimmerman on this team, Ryan, has emerged as the franchise’s most reliable commodity.  Stuck on a team that provided very little offensive support for him, Zimmerman has shined with the help of Adam Dunn’s bat hitting behind him.  Dunn is gone, replaced by Jayson Werth.  Werth is probably a slight upgrade over Dunn, but might be hitting in front of Zimmerman, so we’ll see if that hurts  the Nats’ star.

After Werth and Zimmerman it’s pretty slim pickings.  Rick Ankiel looks to have won the starting centerfield job, but there’s a reason Ankiel was so readily available on the free agent market.  Nyjer Morgan made the highlight reels often last season, but usually it was for his misplays and not for anything that he did particularly well.  Now he’ll be battling for time with Ankiel and Roger Bernadina in center and left.  The infield, aside from Zimmerman, is less than inspiring.  Adam LaRoche is the definition of average at first, and neither Danny Espinosa or Ian Desmond will get anyone’s hart racing up the middle.  Espinoza and Desmond have some limited upside, but both will likely be slightly above average at best themselves.

The rotation is just a complete mess.  Each starter has the potential to be decent, but other than Zimmerman, there’s no real high upside, and several could be terrible.  Jason Marquis was signed to a relatively substantial (by Nationals standards) contract over a year ago, and was horrendous before being sidelined by injury.  He returned to pitch decently down the stretch and could be useful trade bait come July if he pitches well.  Otherwise the staff “ace” is the ageless Livan Hernandez.  Somehow he always finds a way to be reasonably effective, though I wouldn’t have much confidence with him at the head of the rotation.  John Lannan has basically established himself as a passable but unspectacular starter, good for the back of the rotation, but not as a front-line starter.  The Nationals also took a gamble on Tom Gorzelanny and are looking to see if he has anything left in the back, presumably also as potential trade bait.

If the pitching holds up and everyone exceeds expectations then the Nats might sniff .500.  But they’re not escaping the basement quite yet.

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