Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The NL East: That's Weird, This Division Only Has Three Teams: NL East Preview

Continuing our series of season previews is Dave, a Mets fan who pulled a me in reverse, growing up in New York and moving to Boston. He offers his take on the NL East, where it sounds like another hard fight to the finish is brewing.

I’m writing this being still bitter a die hard Mets fan, but I shall try to be as impartial as possible in my assessments. The top three teams in the NL East this year are a toss up, with the big ticket bout of the Mets and Phillies, and the under the radar Braves with a possibility of an upset. All the factors for each of those three teams rely on the usual factors, consistency and injuries. As for the other two teams in the division, they’ll not win the division, or even tease for the wild card, but instead battle it out for who finishes last, or perhaps provide a spoiler for a team trying to make the playoffs (Read: Marlins and Nationals take a combined 5 of 6 games from the Mets to end the season/break my heart).
5. The Marlins (Nationals)
Really you can put either team here, but the Nationals have more recognizable names on their team, and a potentially better offense, so they can have the number four spot. This is a roster of “Who are you?” names, and a few players who provide a good spot on your fantasy baseball team. They have some players who have performed well over the past two seasons, but with the loss of Miguel Cabrera – who gave the other teams someone to pitch around – those players’ numbers may likely go down. The Marlins also dumped off Dontrelle Willis to the juggernaut Tigers, which may have seemed really dumb two years ago, but may prove to be a good move if he continues to get shelled now in the more dominating offensive league. The players who provided momentary sparks for the Marlins are Dan Uggla, Cody Ross, Josh Willingham, and of course, Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez definitely proved to be the player he should be, and would get even more recognition if he played on a team that mattered.

The pitching staff is a slew of young names from ex-Tiger Andrew Miller to Rocky Nolasco. They had a seemingly good arm in Anibal Sanchez throwing a no hitter a couple years ago, but he’s been bitten by an injury bug and missed a ton of last season and out probably until the All Star break. Their closer, Kevin Gregg, who put up 32 saves last season, is the highest paid man on the roster with a salary of $2.5 million for this season.

4. The Nationals (Marlins)
The Nats’ biggest acquisitions in the offseason Mets castoffs: drug pusher Paul LoDuca and potential spark plug Lastings Milledge. With LoDuca you know what you’re getting: a guy who hits for little power but a consistent average until about July or August. I didn’t hate LoDuca for a majority of his time on the Mets, but always was perplexed why teams didn’t just stand on second base when he was at bat, as more than sixty percent of his hits just rolled up the middle. The “let’s stand on second base Paul LoDuca shift,” might drop his average by 100 points.

The outfield is Washington’s big question mark: they have Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. If Wily Mo continues into this year like he did in September, and Elijah Dukes and Milledge become the players people expected them to be, this could be a slightly dangerous little outfield platoon. This will not translate to winning games. Ronnie Belliard, Ryan Zimmerman and Felipe Lopez make up the projected infield, then the battle everyone is talking about at first base: Dmitri Young versus Nick Johnson. I like Dmitri Young better, but they’re probably going with Johnson.

As for the pitching staff, pick a name, there’s a good chance you don’t know a lot about any of them, or did, but forgot they still played baseball: Shawn Hill, Jason Bergman, John Patterson, Matt Chico, John Lannan, Tim Redding, and Ryan Wagner. Good luck, guys.

3. The Braves (The Sleeper)
Now on to the teams that will compete. With all of the hype landing on the Phillies and Mets, the Braves may just sweep in and pop one or both teams out of the division lead/wild card. This may be a stretch to say, but I feel you shouldn’t ever underestimate a team that managed to hold its division for the decade of the ‘90s. If the players, mainly the oft inured pitching staff, managed to stay healthy all year, this could be a nice year.

We’ll start with the pitching, the source of their bygone magic. The Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine era was a thorn in the sides of much of the National League ten years ago, so the Braves have brought back Mets scapegoat Tom Glavine for a bit of a reunion. Glavine has become a solid number three starter; he’s not going to dominate you, but he’ll make all his starts, win you at least 10 games and have an ERA around 4.00. Smoltz has proven to still be effective coming off a 14-8 season and an ERA of 3.11. He hasn’t really shown any reason why those numbers may not continue. The rest of the pitching staff is the question mark. Tim Hudson has been inconsistent when not injured, and Mike Hampton has been nonexistent for the past 2 seasons. Hampton was relatively effective over the last seven seasons when healthy, but health for him has suddenly become a sad rarity. I’d give him about three to five starts before he’s out for the season. The fifth starter spot is a toss up, but probably will land on Chuck James, who quietly put together a so-so year last year, wining 11 games (but losing 10) and posting an ERA just over 4.00. If he pitches the same and the offense is consistent, look for those numbers to go up a bit.

The offense has its mixed bright spots. The Braves replaced Andruw Jones with Mark Kotsay for an offensive and defensive wash, but Jeff Francouer and Brian McCann are real deal hitters, and with Mark Teixiera could create a dominant trio if all three click at the same time. If you add in the still consistent (when healthy) Chipper Jones, the Braves have a very effective lineup that is not getting a lot of press, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them in the thick of the race come September. Of course, because they’re the A-Rods of baseball, they won’t get it done in the post-season when it matters, and if they make the playoffs, they probably won’t add to the club’s World Series trophies.

2. The Phillies (The Team to Repeat)
Jimmy Rollins made his inane prediction last year and I was at opening day at Shea when he dropped a ball and his error opened the door to a rally and a seven run inning, embarrassing the Phillies and striking up a “Jimmy Rollins!” chant from 50,000 fans. Those were the days…and then by season’s end he’d made all New Yorkers look like idiots, swiping himself an NL East title, an MVP, and the ire of Mets fans for the remainder of his career. Well, Jimmy Rollins will be back, and will surely be the same effective player. Toss him in there with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, and the Phillies have quite an offense. They got the injury plagued Geoff Jenkins patrolling their outfield this season, and still have Pat Burrell out there as well, probably set for another season of 25+ home runs and an average slightly above .250.

The weakness of the Phillies lies in their pitching. Cole Hamels and Boston’s favorite Brett Myers are going to win you games. Kyle Kendrick showed signs of greatness last year, but is getting battered this spring, while Adam Eaton won a few games but sported an ERA over 6.00. Then there’s Jamie Moyer, who is still winning games despite being 75 years old. The biggest presence in the clubhouse this spring so far may be that of Anna Benson, whose husband Kris is battling for a fifth spot – and I’m sure she’s offered to sleep with someone else if he doesn’t pitch well (Remember when she said if he cheated on her while on the Mets she would sleep with every man in the organization, right down to bat boys and equipment managers? Isn’t it just amazing how many Mets were trying to get Kris Benson drunk and flirty with other women that year?). The inconsistency of their starters may hurt them and I actually may give the Braves the advantage on that one. The Phillies bullpen was already a question mark depending on what Brad Lidge came out to close games for them. He didn’t let us find out and instead got injured for a few weeks, but claims he’ll be ready for opening day. If Lidge can consistently save games, they can keep winning them, but with this potent offense he may not actually get as many opportunities to do so.

1. The Mets
The Mets were dominant last year and looked to make me happy and charge into the postseason. Then it happened: the worst month that I – and baseball – have ever seen. The worst collapse in baseball history has been hanging over the Mets since October. Before they fleeced the Twins to bring a guy named Santana into camp, they may not have hit this top spot. Yes they did give away some potentially great prospects, but still kept the outfield one they liked best (Fernando Martinez), and got arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

Santana will be the ace of an already capable staff of pitchers. John Maine is now even slotted to potentially be the number 2 starter, after having the best spring of any of the pitchers so far and his 15 win season last year. He and Oliver Perez had similar seasons in 2007, Perez also getting 15 wins and 10 losses, but having a lower ERA of 3.56. Then there’s Pedro Martinez. He made only five starts last season, won three of them and posted a 2.57 ERA. He asked for the ball on the last day, but Willie Randolph decided to not risk overworking and re-injuring him. This did not pan out as hoped.

The ageless El Duque is trying to be the 5th starter, and may or may not lose the job to young Mike Pelfrey, who has yet to prove himself in the majors. The Mets’ biggest pitching weakness comes in the bullpen. It was overworked and just looked tired at the end of the year last year, and coughed up runs and more runs like they were trying to give the games away, with September seeing the Mets blow two 4 run leads in 2 days. Aaron Heilman is an adequate reliever and Duaner Sanchez is returning after a year off from surgery. Billy Wagner is still closing games, but they have become a lot more nerve wracking then in his earlier days. He’s not yet John Franco’s “let’s put two or three guys on base and then close the game” status, but he’s moving towards there.

The Mets offense remains the same. The collapse perhaps cost David Wright the MVP, and there’s no reason to think he will not be a 30-30 guy again this season. Beltran has played well, and if Reyes doesn’t hit .197 in September again he is a spark plug at the start of the lineup. Luis Castillo is not the speedy guy he once was and worked last season, but is already plagued by injury to start this year. Carlos Delgado couldn’t do much last season in terms of getting on base, but they won regardless. Moises Alou is effective when he can play, Ryan Church is a good outfielder who might even eclipse expectations for Lastings Milledge, while Brian Schneider is an upgrade in defense and a downgrade in offense.

All in all, on paper the Mets are the team to beat in the division, but it all comes down to injuries. Each of the top three teams have guys that can easily make or break the entire team’s season with a ticket to the disabled list. We’ll see who is healthiest and who is first come September. Watch it be Washington.