Dugout Central’s National League East Preview
The 2009 season for the teams in the National League East were newsworthy right from Opening Day, with Roy Halladay making his National League debut and Braves’ rookie Jason Heyward homering in a nationally televised game. Halladay would go on to win the Cy Young, throw a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter in the process. Heyward would fade down the stretch but still finished second in ROY voting, and was joined by a long list of solid rookies, including Ike Davis, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez and Mike Stanton. The Phillies won the division easily, with Atlanta making a late season push to overtake the San Diego Padres on the season’s final day. Unfortunately, neither the Phils or Braves could get the job done, with both failing to reach the World Series.
The headlines didn’t end when the season did, however, with Cliff Lee returning to Philadelphia, and the Marlins trading star second baseman to division rival Atlanta. As was the case heading into 2009, the Phillies once again are the pre-season favorites to represent the NL in the Fall Classic, but each of its division rivals took steps to make sure they weren’t eliminated by Memorial Day. Three of the five teams have new managers, Terry Collins in New York, Fredi Gonzalez in Atlanta, and Edwin Rodriguez had the interim tag removed from his title in Florida.
Looking at each team:
The Braves returned to the postseason in 2010 for the first time since their fourteen year run of consecutive appearances ended in 2005. Despite losing to the eventual World Series champion Giants in the Division Series, the Braves’ run to the Wild Card provided a fitting end to the managerial career of Bobby Cox, who had announced his retirement before the season.
The Braves managed to win 91 games despite a patchwork lineup caused by injury, most notably to third baseman Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward and Brooks Conrad, respectively. The Braves will once again rely on contributions from younger players, but with Jones due back in the lineup by May, the Braves should remain in the race for most of the season.
The key to the Braves’ season unquestionably lies in the health of Jones. Falling six or more games behind in the first month would be a big hill to climb. In Jones’ absence last fall, the Braves received solid play from both Martin Prado and Omar Infante, but with Prado now penciled into a starting OF role and Infante in Miami, an early return is paramount.
Atlanta acquired slugging second baseman Dan Uggla from Florida, and while his bat should play well between Jones and Jason Heyward in the lineup, he is a defensive liability. With a pitching staff loaded with ground ball pitchers, Uggla concievably have as many errors as homers. Rookie Freddie Freeman takes over for Troy Glaus at first, and while he is a definite upgrade defensively, Freeman doesn’t project to have the run producing bat Glaus did. The steady Alex Gonzalez, acquired mid-season from Toronto, returns as the everyday shortstop.
Rookie of the Year runner-up Jason Heyward will again handle rightfield, but the other to positions check in with question marks. Martin Prado takes over in left field from the departed Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera, with Nate McLouth, he of the .190 BA/.209 OBP is the centerfielder. McLouth is solid enough defensively, but if he doesn’t return to the offensive form he showed a few years ago as a Pirate, the Braves may look to former Cardinal Joe Mather or former top prospect Jordan Schafer to step in.
All-Star Game MVP Brian McCann remains in place to catch his usual 135 games or so, with David Ross competing with former Red Willkin Castillo for the backup role.
Undoubtedly the biggest surprise to come out of the Braves’ season was getting a combined sixty-seven starts from mid-thirties veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. Throw in the thirty-four posted by youngster Tommy Hanson, it gave Atlanta 101 starts from their top three in the rotation. Jair Jurrjens returned from injury to post twenty starts and Kenshin Kawakami made sixteen of his own before he got hurt. All four return in 2011, with rookies Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy battling free agent veteran Rodrigo Lopez for the fifth spot.
Rookie Craig Kimbrell showed promising signs last year when closer Billy Wagner went down with an injury, posting a 4-0 record and a 0.44 ERA in twenty-one games. The remainder of pen looks to be a nice mix of veterans and rookies, with George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink and Scott Proctor joining Kimbrell and Jonny Venters.
Asking the Braves to repeat their 91 wins from last season, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Jones and their weakened defense, although where the ultimately finish in September will be determined by their play in April. As the old saying goes, you can’t win a pennant during the first month, but you sure can lose it.
To say the Marlins’ 2009 season was weird would be considered an understatement. Despite having the National League’s third lowest payroll, expectations for a postseason run were high in South Beach, but things started to go “south” on their season almost from the get-go.
Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez got into scraps with manager Fredi Gonzalez and teammate Dan Uggla over his lack of hustle and insubordination, then three weeks later found themselves on the receiving end of Roy Halladay’s perfect game, shortly after which manager Fredi Gonzalez received a pink slip.
If those occurrences weren’t enough, Chris Coghlan suffered a torn knee cartiledge celebrating a walkoff win and pitcher Ricky Nolasco suffered a knee injury of his own taking off a shoe.
Despite the weirdness, the Marlins somehow managed to finish the season one game below .500 and almost immediately began working on the upcoming season. Uggla was traded to the Braves, and the two key pieces of the 2007 Miguel Cabrera, outfielder Cameron Maybin and pitcher Andrew Miller, where shipped out in seperate deals.
Gaby Sanchez and Ramirez return at first and short, respectively. Omar Infante, who nearly won the NL batting title before fading at the end of th e season, will play second. Third base is the question mark, with veteran utility player Wes Helms currently listed as the starter, although the Marlins hope rookie Scott Cousins can win the centerfield job in the spring which would allow Coghlan to play third, his natural position. Ozzie Martinez, Emilio Bonafacio and Donnie Murphy figure to be the primary infield reserves.
The Marlins led all major league teams by using 21 rookies last season, and that trend could continue this year, at least as far as their outfield is concerned. Even if Coghlan is the starter in center, Cousins almost assuredly will be the fourth OF, with Logan Morrison in left, joining last season’s rookie standout, Mike Stanton. Morrison, a first baseman by trade, played well during his intial outfield experiment, but his calling card is clearly his bat. Many believe, myself included, that Morrison will win a batting title or three before he’s done. With all the publicity thrown on fellow rookie rightfielder Jason Heyward early on, Stanton bided his time in AA, hitting 23 three homers in 57 games before being called up, and he responded with another 22, giving him a total of 45 for the season. Bonafacio, Cousins and non-roster invitee DeWayne Wise figure to see most of the reserve outfield time.
John Buck, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays, takes over as the starter, with John Baker and Brett Hayes the backups.
The starting rotation is all but set, headlined by Cy Young contender Josh Johnson. He will be followed by Nolasco, free agent signee Javier Vazquez, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad. Lefty Sean West could find himself in the mix depending on Nolasco’s health. There is no major league ready pitching in Florida’s system, so an injury to any of the starters, especially Johnson, will have the Marlins scrambling through the waiver wires for a fill-in.
Leo Nunez as the closer doesn’t excite anyone outside of Mrs. Nunez, but the Marlins have done a pretty good job of filling in the holes around him. Lefty Mike Dunn came over from Atlanta as part of the Uggla deal, sidearming lefty Randy Choate is available as are righthanders Clay Hensley and Eric Mujica.
Looking around the division it’s hard to see the Marlins improving on their 80 wins, everyone else, including Washington, seems to have gotten better. As long as Josh Johnson stays healthy it’s hard to envision Florida suffering a long losing streak, but with question marks at third and center, a thin bench and even thinner minor league system, it’s hard to see them putting together a long winning streak.
New York Mets
Cliff Lee to Philadelphia. Cliff Lee not going to New York. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Zack Greinke or Matt Garza.
No matter your own preferences, the most important off-season move made by any team may have not included a player; the Mets’ ending the Omar Minaya era in favor of future Hall of Famer Sandy Alderson has already paid dividends.
Despite the fire and brimstone which tarnished his final three seasons in New York, the Mets posted a .521 winning percentage during Minaya’s six year tenure. Blowing late season leads in both 2007 and 2008, at home no less, and losing 92 games in 2010 while having baseball’s second highest payroll sealed Minaya’s fate.
Alderson immediately went to work, hiring and firing his way through the front office, bringing in former GM’s J.P. Ricciardi (Toronto) and Paul DePodesta (Dodgers) as assistant GM and President of Player Development and Scouting respectively, and hiring Chad MacDonald as his Scouting Director.
On the field in 2009, there wasn’t much to get excited about. The Mets lost Carlos Delgado to hip surgery for the season, and got just 64 games played from star outfielder Carlos Beltran. Adding insult to injury, the Mets received six homers and 47 RBI from big free agent signing Jason Bay and lost ace Johan Santana halfway through the season to shoulder surgery.
Things can’t get any worse, right?
On paper, at least positionally, the Mets have few, if any, holes. First baseman Ike Davis is coming off a solid rookie season, Jose Reyes and David Wright form a solid left side. It’s no secret the Mets would like to upgrade over Luis Castillo at second base, and even went so far to pick up two potential second base prospects in the Rule V draft. Castillo, a pending free agent (as is Reyes) could conceivably be traded for pitching help or even released. Luis Hernandez is the primary INF backup, with Brad Emaus, Nick Evans, Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy in the mix for playing time.
The only concerns here are Jason Bay’s offense and Carlos Beltran’s defense. Bay, picked up from Boston following the 2009 season as a free agent, managed to play just 95 games and offered almost nothing at the plate. Beltran (my pick for 2011 Comeback Player of the Year) missed most of the season recovering from knee surgery and, like Reyes, is entering his walk year. Angel Pagan will play rightfield, but if Beltran experiences problems with his knee they will switch positions. The Mets really don’t have any rookies ready to step in and play everyday, but their three most advanced prospects are outfielders; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Lucas Duda and Fernando Martinez. Nieuwenhuis is a lefty hitter capable of playing all three OF spots and has passed Minaya fav Martinez on the depth chart. Duda saw time in the major last year and has the advantage of being able to spell Ike Davis at first, although as an outfielder he is limited to left. The Mets have brought in former Nationals’ super-sub Willie Harris as a non-roster player, he could land a prominent role if the Mets decide to go with twelve pitchers at the start of the season.
Rookie Josh Thole surprised everyone with his performance last year, especially defensively. He remains the starter, with Ronnie Paulino, Mike Nickeas and non roster veteran Raul Chavez looking for reserve time.
Johan Santana will be out until July..at the earliest. To replace him the Mets signed former Padre Chris Young and former Twin Boof Bonser. In Santana’s absence, the rotation figures to consist of Mike Pelfrey, RA Dickey, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Young. Former Brewer Chris Capuano could beat out Gee for the fifth starter spot, although new Mets’ manager Terry Collins likes his versatility out of the pen. The Mets’ top overall prospect, pitcher Jenrry Mejia is following in the career path of the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz and will spend all of, if not most of, the 2011 season in AAA Buffalo converting to a starter.
Former starter Oliver Perez is now a reliever, although after his disastrous Winter League performance it remains to be seen in exactly what capacity. Blaine Boyer, Capuano, Bonser, DJ Carrasco, Taylor Buchholz join closer Frankie Rodriguez in a veteran laden, but on paper still shaky, bullpen.
Despite all the negativity surrounding the Mets last season, on the field and off, they somehow managed to win 79 games. On paper, everyone else in the division seems to have taken steps forward, so for the Mets to stay competitive all season they’ll need to score alot of runs to compensate for their questionable pitching. Imperative to that is a healthy Carlos Beltran and a resurgence from Jason Bay. Without either of those factors, the Mets will be sellers instead of buyers at the trade deadline.
Last year at this time, after the acquisition of Roy Halladay, fans and media alike were saying it be best to just hand the Phillies the trophy and not bother playing the season.
We all know how that turned out.
People are saying the same thing now after Ciff Lee turned down blue pinstripes for red. Here’s the thing, Lee only plays 20% of the time, as did/does Halladay and Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
The Lee signing aside, the core components of the Phillies lineup remain unchanged except on their birth certificates. Sure, the loss of Jayson Werth will hurt somewhat, but everyone else is back. The Phils will use Ben Francisco to replace Werth, at least until top prospect Domonic Brown proves he can handle major league pitching and improves his defense. Some scouts aren’t so sure he can do either. There’s no one else on the farm capable of filling an everyday role, so if the Phils run into some injury problems, which seems almost unaviodable considering past history and age, they may have to go outside the organization for a replacement.
While all four starters return from last season, all four had injuries affect their seasons, Ryan Howard logged the most games played with 143, but he was hardly a factor and looked lost and overmatched during the postseason. Howard joined the departed Werth as the only Phillie position players to reach 20 homers for the season. Wilson Valdez remains the top infield reserve, with Brian Bocock battling non-roster invitees Delwyn Young and Jeff Larish for the 25th spot.
Only Werth played more games last year than did thirty-eight year old Raul Ibanez. Centerfielder Shane Victorino is coming off his career year but is entering his age 30 season also. Francisco, a former starter in Cleveland, will handle rightfield, with Ross Gload and the versatile Young possibly seeing some time there, depending on how Brown performs in spring training.
Carlos Ruiz remains the starter, with lefty swinging Brian Schneider his backup.
Nothing really needs to be said here. Halladay, Oswalt, Lee and Hamels form what is already considered the best rotation in Phillies history. Trade rumors continue to swirl around fifth starter Joe Blanton, if he is in fact dealt, then the role falls to either Vance Worley or Kyle Kendrick.
The bullpen, leading up to closer Brad Lidge, contains Ryan Madson, JC Romero, Jose Contreras, Danys Baez and Scott Mathieson. Lefty Antonio Bastardo and righty Drew Carpenter could also fit into the mix.
The Phillies were my favorite team as a kid, even before the Yankees. To this day I can’t root against them unless they’re playing New York, and I believe the overpaying of Cliff Lee to be monumentally stupid. Not only will Halladay have a better year, so will Oswalt and maybe even Hamels. If everybody pitches to their ability and remain healthy, the Phils are the NL East favorites. If they struggle through with injuries to their core, and if some guys start to show their age, it could be a long season because everyone else in the division made serious attempts to get better also.
For the second consecutive year, the Nationals set a record for bonus spending on the amateur draft, forking over almost twenty-four million dollars. While this possibly bodes well for the future, it doesn’t for the present, especially considering one of those big bonus recipients, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, will miss the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery. The draft amount spent by Washington comes more into light when you consider the $126 million they lavished on free agent Jayson Werth exceeds the total they had spent in the previous twenty years combined.
Werth is an upgrade defensively over the departed Adam Dunn but he won’t be the presence in the lineup Dunn was. A recent MLBNetwork poll listed Ryan Zimmerman as the second best third baseman in baseball and a top fifty overall player. Rookie shortstop Ian Desmond, despite spending most of the season in Manager Jim Riggleman’s doghouse, had a solid rookie season. Strasburg pitched well in his brief stint before his injury and while his presence had little effect on the standings, he more than made up for it in the box office, with Washington averaging about 14,000 more fans during his starts than in anyone else’s.
Despite being bit players in the Carlos Pena/Derrick Lee free agent sweepstakes, the Nationals’ wisely avoided overpaying for those two underperforming vets and instead “settled” on the steady if unspectacular Adam LaRoche. A solid defender, LaRoche handles lefties pretty well and is a consistent everyday player. Rookie Danny Espinosa takes over at second base, with Desmond at short and All-Star Zimmerman at third. Alberto Gonzalez, Jerry Hairston Jr and non roster invitee Alex Cora figure to be the primary infield reserves alongside Mike Morse, who should see playing time in the outfield as well.
Other than Werth, the outfield picture in Washington is cloudy, at best. As of now, the other starters are Roger Bernadina in left and Nyjer Morgan in center. Neither player has a standout skill and offer nothing of value in terms of playing everyday. Morgan spent most of the season rooming with Desmond in the doghouse and appears to have exhausted the patience of Riggleman and GM Mike Rizzo. The Nats signed veterans Rick Ankiel, Matt Stairs, Brandon Moss and Jonathan Van Avery and acquired Corey Brown in a trade with Oakland in part to light a fire under the holdovers but with the hope one wins an everyday role.
Ivan Rodriguez returns as the everyday catcher with Jesus Flores and rookie Wilson Ramos fighting for the backup role. The Nats’ have a surplus of top catching prospects in the minor leagues with Derek Norris their catcher of the future. Flores has battled injuries over the past two years but was once the prize of Washington’s system and is the likeliest candidate to be traded for help somewhere else, most likely pitching.
The loss of Strasburg decimates an already anorexic rotation, with guys like Luis Atilano and Yuniesky Maya figuring into the mix for a spot. The top three places will be filled by the ancient Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis and Jordan Zimmermann. Tom Gorzelanny and Chien Ming Wang are veterans brought in with the hope they can fill in the bottom two spots. Over the past two seasons, the Nationals top drafted pitcher has made his major league debut the following season, with Strasburg following Zimmermann. While it’s hard to say for sure whether their respective lack of innings played a part, both players ended up needing Tommy John surgery. Lefty Sammy Solis was Washington’s top drafted pitcher in 2010, and as a college player may see limited action in 2011.
The problem with Washington’s bullpen isn’t lack of talent, collectively they’re stronger than the rotation. The problem is they may be faced to throw alot more innings than Riggleman would like, thus reducing their effectiveness. Drew Storen, another 2009 draftee who made his debut less than a year after signing, pitched well enough early in the season in a middle innings role that Washington didn’t hesitate to trade closer Matt Capps at the deadline. Others in the pen with varying levels of experience include Ross Detwiler, Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard. Former Brewer closer Todd Coffey should land a role, with Garrett Mock, Chad Durbin and rookie Cole Kimball figuring to get good looks in the spring as well.
A good friend who writes for a well known Nationals’ blog insists they will win 75 games this season and are “one or two small moves away” from a .500 season. Over 162 games, winning an extra 6-10 games doesn’t seem like very much, one a month or so should do the trick. I asked him where he believes these other wins will come from; they only had one winning month all last year and went 30-42 against their own division. Washington finished 12th in the NL in runs allowed and 14th in runs scored, and I don’t see where they’ve done enough to improve.
The Phillies are clearly the best team in this division, although I don’t believe they will win 97 games this season, as a matter of fact, the second place Braves’ total of 91 wins will be enough. I don’t see a way the Braves’ elderly rotation can go two straight years without a significant injury, and even though I have high expectations for a return to greatness for Carlos Beltran, I’m not as optomistic that in itself will make up for not having Johan Santana for half the season, at least, and I believe Jason Bay will have a solid year. I almost wish I could live in Miami for the summer, just so I can go out and watch Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez rake and Mike Stanton hit moonshots. They’re going to struggle to reach .500, but watching those kids will be fun. I just hope Washington plays well enough so my buddy Jim Riggleman can get a new contract past this year.
I’m going to save my predictions for Thomas Wayne’s annual pre-season forecast series, but other than a possible Met’s/Marlins switch, I can’t see this division playing out much different than last year.
I will say the Braves total of 91 wins from last year will be enough to win the division this year, however.