This Year in Baseball – NL East

Last year’s World Series champions reside in this tight division, along with the fabulous choke artists formerly known as the Mets, and two highly competitive teams in the Braves and Marlins, all of whom could contend in another division. Alas, only one team can emerge on top. After the jump, let’s separate the chaff from the stalk and see what happens.


New York Mets – Predicted record (94 – 68)

Yes, the last two seasons the Mets have EPICALLY collapsed, yes, Omar Minaya is still in charge, but also, the Mets feature the best pitcher in baseball, two of the top young stars in the game and a superstar poised for an absolutely stellar season. Johan Santana could well win the Cy Young this year without much problem, so long as he stays healthy, the Mets have a chance. Mike Pelfrey took a huge leap forward and needs to continue building on it, while Oliver Perez needs to pitch as well against the bad teams as he does against the top teams. If Perez can keep his walks down he might have success, but since that is a near-impossibility, don’t count on it. If the John Maine from two years ago Maine from last year comes back this team very well could falter down the stretch once more. Of course, there is Livan Hernandez as the 5th starter, which has disaster written all over it. The biggest cause of the downfall of the Mets last season was their awful bullpen, and so the Mets whipped out their checkbooks and shelled out big money for Francisco Rodriguez and also added JJ Putz. The two should stabilize the back of the bullpen and shorten games for the Mets. While K-Rod is unlikely to come close to the numbers he put up last season, and his declining velocity leads many to believe that the long-term deal is going to prove unsuccessful, he should be reasonably good this year. Putz is likely to get some saves too when multiple poor outings lead to K-Rod sitting for a few days. The rest of the bullpen is solid, Sean Green is going to be a godsend and help control the 6th inning for the Mets.

David Wright is a perennial MVP candidate, Jose Reyes is the best lead-off man in baseball and Carlos Beltran is going to absolutely MASH the ball this season, leading this offense and team to the top. While Carlos Delgado first half seemed to indicate he was D-U-N done but his resurgent second half was remarkable. Can he top 35 HRs again? If so, it would go a long ways to getting this team past the other contenders in the division. The signing of Gary Sheffield will do little to benefit the team over the course of the season, but may help them win a game or two early on before he gets too frustrated at sitting and acts out. The offense is clearly the strength of this team, and will do much of the heavy lifting. It remains to be seen how Citi Field will play for the hitters, but with their speed and hitting ability, even if it plays towards the pitchers the Mets will be fine. While the Mets still have problems, they are the class of the division at the outset, and so long as Johan is healthy, the favorites. Lose him for any serious length of time and everything changes.


Philadelphia Phillies – Predicted record (91 – 71)

Winning the World Series last year was impressive, but as a team the entire team clicked and that is simply not going to happen once more. Cole Hamels is starting the season injured and the toll of all the spectacular innings he threw last year are going to have an affect this year. Can Brett Myers return to form, or will we see another struggle-filled season? Can Jamie Moyer continue to pitch effectively with a fastball slower than his age? Are the Phillies really counting on Joe Blanton and Chan Ho Park for meaningful contributions? Brad Lidge was the best closer in baseball last year, going 41-41 in save opportunities and his set-up corp with Ryan Madson, JC Romero (after his suspension) Chad Durbin and Scott Eyre all proved remarkably effective last year. There’s no reason not to expect at least most of them to do the same. With Cole Hamels, healthy and hale, this rotation can be strong, without him, the Phillies don’t have much depth.

Having Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to set the pace of this offense, with Ryan Howard ready to drive everyone on base home with one swing is a pretty nice place to be. Shane Victorino is a pest at bat and on the bases and his excellent defensive abilities only add to the Flyin’ Hawaiian’s overall package. While he doesn’t receive much publicity or credit, Raul Ibanez is as consistent as they come, and while he is creeping towards 40, there’s no reason he won’t have his usual 20 HR 90 RBI season once more this year. Finally, last year’s campaign for Jayson Werth actualized the potential that had made him a first round pick in 1997 as, in limited time, he went 20-20. Given more playing time this year, look for those numbers to increase somewhat; he’ll never be a major offensive threat, but he doesn’t need to be on a team headlined by Howard, Rollins and Utley. Pedro Feliz is inconsistent and swings too much at everything but his defensive ability is excellent and platooning him helps offset his liabilities. This team is going to score loads of runs, but the rotation has simply too many issues, too many candidates for regression and not enough depth, last year was magical, but this is this year.


Florida Marlins – Predicted record (86 – 76)

While no one in Miami is paying attention to the Marlins, the rest of the baseball world is all too aware of these upstarts who could very easily change the whole makeup of the NL in one fell swoop. Flush with young, power arms, a nucleus of super-talented hitters and a farm system with plenty more on the way, the Marlins may just surprise everyone en route to a divisional or wild-card placing. In order for that to happen, each of the 5 talented but very young Marlins starters needs to make a leap forward, it seems unlikely that they all will. Ricky Nolasco is the ace on this staff, and he finished last season emerging as the undisputed ace for the Phish. Featuring excellent control, Nolasco had a 1.9 BB/9 ratio last season, and his K rates are rising and encouraging. The number of quality starts he was able to rack up last season shows that, with a little more run support he could be in the upper echelon of wins this season. Behind him is Josh Johnson, full of talent, full of potential, it’s time that he actually puts it all together; being not healthy for most of the year last year caused problems, but when he could go, Johnson was extremely effective. A full season would go a long ways. The rest of the rotation features nothing but upside, Chris Volstad looks like he should throw 97, but relies on off-speed offerings to baffle hitters, and it works, Anibal Sanchez has a no-hitter already on his resume and Andrew Miller DOES throw 97 and his command is coming around too. Have all three put together strong seasons and there is no telling how far they might go; if there is one thing the Marlins have proved, it’s that once in the playoffs, invariably, they are the team no one wants to face once. The bullpen is anchored by Matt Lindstrom who is relatively untested in the closers role, although he certainly has the stuff for it. It will be interesting to see how he takes to the role but Leo Nunez is backing him up and could see some closing opportunities himself so there’s depth there.

Is there a better young player in baseball than Hanley Ramirez? Is there anything he is not capable of on the baseball field (besides playing an adequate shortstop that is…)? Moving Hanley down the lineup to the 3-hole will mean loads more RBI opportunities for him, which is important because, despite hitting 33 HRs last year, Hanley only managed 68 RBIs. Now with more base runners in front of him, Hanley could easily DOUBLE that RBI total this season. His steals might go down as a result but look for his power numbers to increase, a trade-off the Marlins are more than happy to have. Last year, the Marlins entire infield managed 29 HRs or better, don’t expect that to happen again, Jorge Cantu is simply not as good a player as he was last season and so a slight regression there is likely and the Phish shipped off the OPS-challenged Mike Jacobs and are now installing Emilio Bonafacio at the hot corner. Since Bonafacio has zero power and marginal hitting ability, this move seems questionable, but with the offense generated out of shortstop and second base with Dan Uggla, this team shouldn’t stress it too much. In the outfield Jeremy Hermida needs to stop tantalizing people with his potential and finally pan out, otherwise the Marlins are going to need to move on. Fortunately in center is ROY-candidate Cameron Maybin whose first MLB hit was a home run off Roger Clemens and who could be a legitimate 15-30 man THIS year. The talent is there with Maybin, it’s just a matter of him learning to not swing at every breaking pitch that comes his way, and if he’s can cut down his strikeouts, the sky’s the limit.


Atlanta Braves – Predicted record (84 – 78)

Once the deans of this division, harder times have fallen on the Braves, their pitching staff is no longer the envy of everyone else in the game and the offense simply won’t be enough to help pace them to a contending position. The Braves will be competitive and may get the chance to play spoiler but this won’t be their year. Free agent signee Derek Lowe has never been on the DL and despite his age, was a great signing for the team. He should provide a steadying force in the rotation as they transition away from the glory years into a new era. Following him was the surprising Jair Jurrjens who pitched much better than anyone could have expected, hopefully he won’t see a sophomore slump come his way. Moving back into the NL should be a boon for Javier Vazquez, also, now that he’s not being counted on to be the ace of the staff, he should settle down and pitch much more efficiently. It may not look it start to start, but at the end of the season, Vazquez will have quietly recorded loads of strikeouts and a pretty darn good record. One never knows what you’ll get when a Japanese pitcher comes over, the guess here is that the first time through teams Kenshin Kawakami will see lots of success but by mid-season, he’ll be league average at best as hitters figure him out. Even better for the rotation, at some point this season phenom Tommy Hanson is likely to get called up, providing a shot of adrenaline to a otherwise stagnant team. Flush with ability and devastating stuff, Hanson is the real deal and once he’s up, expect to see him in the Braves uniform for the next 10-15 years. At the back of the pitching staff, Mike Gonzalez is expected to be the closer, so long as he can stay healthy longer than 20 minutes at a time, if he falters Rafael Soriano, another injury concern would likely pick up the slack. The rest of the bullpen features unexciting but serviceable arms and in the capable hands of Jack McDowell and the crafty Bobby Cox, should do fine.

Chipper Jones flirted with hitting .400 last season but once more, injuries took their toll on the future Hall of Famer and he only won the batting title with a .364 average instead. The Braves can’t and won’t count on a full season from Chipper, but if he can get in 100+ games those numbers alone should be better than many other starting third baseman. Other than Chipper and Brian McCann, catcher extraordinaire, where does the offense come from on this team? Casey Kotchman and Kelly Johnson are 6-7 hitters on a good team but here are being counted on for important contributions. Even worse, the outfield features Jeff Francouer whose 2008 season was simply miserable, an aging Garrett Anderson and rookie Jordan Schafer, not very encouraging. While on any given night Chipper alone might be enough, there will simply be too many evenings when he is unavailable and the team will falter because of it. Maybe next year the Braves can contend, but this year, it ain’t in the cards.


Washington Nationals – Predicted record (68 – 94)

In Washington this year they should take solace in the fact that they probably won’t lose 100 games this year, Jim Bowden is gone and Stephen Strasburg is coming in the June draft, otherwise, there is little to look forward to with this Nationals season. The rotation is pathetic, John Lannan is the staff ace, and on near any other team he’d probably be closer to a 4 or a 5. Scott Olsen was practically given away by the Marlins because, despite his talent he has attitude problems and has never been able to put it all together. Then there is Daniel Cabrera, the poster child for lots-of-talent-but-can’t-put-it-together, owning some of the best pure stuff in baseball, Cabrera has never been able to harness it and is unlikely to ever do so. The only bright spot in the rotation may be Jordan Zimmerman, a rookie who may be the best starter on that staff by the end of April. As for the bullpen, Joel Hanrahan was marginally successful in the closer’s job after Jon Rauch was traded but beyond him are plenty of questions and retreads. 1-12 this pitching staff is more likely to inspire fans to blind themselves with cutlery than to cheer.

And of course there is the “offense,” or at least what they call it in Washington. Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes may well take big steps forward, overcoming their own personal issues to put their talents to good use on the field, but with the glut of outfielders that Bowden accumulated, playing time becomes a major issue. Dukes won’t even begin the season in the starting lineup, sitting in favor of Austin Kearns and his $8 million salary. Ryan Zimmerman is supposed to be the face of the franchise and David Wright-lite, instead he is simply an excellent defender without power at a premier power position. His hitting ability is overrated and this is the year when everyone gets OFF the Ryan Zimmerman bandwagon. Mentioning the other miserable offensive players here is a waste of time, except to say, this team will struggle scoring and preventing runs and that’s pretty much the name of the game. At least they have a nice new stadium to enjoy and Obama hanging out in town, otherwise, there ain’t nothing to cheer about here.

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