Sunday, March 27, 2011

Party In Philly? KD's N.L. East Preview

Team: Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Charlie Manuel

Last year: 97-65

Offseason losses: Gregg Dobbs, 3B (FA); Chad Durbin, RHP (FA); Jamie Moyer, LHP (FA); Mike Sweeney, 1B (OF); Jayson Werth, OF (Washington); Pedro Feliz, 3B (FA); Chan Ho Park, RHP (Japan)

Offseason additions: Cliff Lee, LHP (Texas); Jeff Larish, 1B (Oakland)

Best Offseason Move: Signing Cliff Lee, hands down. The Phillies already had a fantastic pitching rotation with Roy Hallady, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Lee’s signing nullifies the loss of Jamie Moyer, and gives Philadelphia by far the best rotation not only in the National League, but in all of baseball.

Worst Offseason Move: Ryan Howard’s contract. Howard, 31, signed a 5-year, $125M extension with a club option for 2017 with a $10M buyout. Coupled with Lee’s deal, and Howard already battling age and being on the “downside” of his career, really makes you scratch your head. The Phillies will have success in the short-term, but contracts like this will sink the Phillies in the long-run.

Pitching: The Phillies have the best rotation in baseball, by far. Their projected starting rotation of Roy Hallady, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton sounds like an All-Star game lineup. Hamels would be a #1 starter on some teams, and the rotation provides a good balance with two lefties, Lee and Hamels, at the 2 and 4 spots of the rotation. Their bullpen is solid Brad Lidge (on 15 day DL), former White Sox ace Jose Contreras, Danys Baez, and Ryan Madison. With such a good starting rotation able to go deep in games, and a potent lineup, the Phillies are in great shape even if their bullpen struggles.

Lineup: Losing Jayson Werth will hurt some, but the Phillies still have plenty of firepower, albeit somewhat declining (meaning getting up their in age) firepower. Jimmy Rollins has really slowed over the past two years, and Chase Utley has had hip issues, but they combine with Ryan Howard, Shane Victorinio, Raul Ibanez, Placido Palanco, and Carlos Ruiz to form a pretty potent lineup. Dominic Brown, a poor man’s Jason Heyward, replaces Jayson Werth in right field.

Biggest question this season: How healthy will they be, and will some of their stars return to form? Palanco, Rollins, and Utley all missed time last year with injuries, and Rollins has really looked off the past two seasons. Some of their stars are older, and they’re starting to drop off. However, if the Phillies can stay healthy, they’re certainly a World Series contender.

Outlook: With baseball’s best pitching staff and a lineup full of solid bats, and some good base runners, the Phillies are one of baseball’s premiere teams and have a very, very god chance at representing the National League in the World Series again in 2011.

Predicted finish this year: 1st N.L. East

Team: Atlanta Braves

Coach: Fredi Gonzalez

Last year: 91-71

Offseason losses: Rick Ankiel, OF (Washington); Melky Cabrera, OF (Kansas City); Matt Diaz, OF (Pittsburgh); Michael Dunn, LHP (trade, Florida); Kyle Farnsworth, RHP (FA); Troy Glaus, 1B (FA); Omar Infante, 3B (trade, Florida); Derrek Lee, 1B (Baltimore); Takashi Saito, RHP (released); Billy Wagner, LHP (retired).

Offseason additions: Scott Linebrink, LHP (trade, Chicago White Sox); George Sherrill, LHP (Los Angeles Dodgers); Dan Uggla, 2B (trade, Florida).

Best Offseason Move: Trading for Marlins 2B Dan Uggla. While not the typical Braves type of player, the free-swinging, lead-gloved Uggla will step in at the right side of the keystone for Fredi Gonzalez’s Braves. Uggla provides some power later in the lineup with Jason Heyward, currently batting 5th and 6th, Uggla can provide you with 30-40 HRs and over 100 RBIs. While his glove isn’t the best, it’s improved over the past few seasons under Gonzalez’s tutelage in South Florida. It’d better to continue the upward climbs as the Braves totaled 126 errors, one off the Major League lead shared by the Pirates and Nationals at 127.

Worst Offseason Move: Tough to come up with a worst move, as the Braves are a club that looks like it’s more of a mash-up of players, but losing Bobby Cox to retirement definitely hurts. Fredi Gonzalez, a former 3rd base coach for Atlanta under Cox, comes back from the division rival Marlins to take over the reins. I think Atlanta will be hard-pressed to make a return trip to the postseason this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Marlins kept within striking distance of the Braves for second place in the division. Gonzalez has some awfully big shoes to fill.

Pitching: Losing Billy Wagner’s 422 career saves to retirement leaves them with a hole at the back of the bullpen. Craig Krimbel, a junior college ranks, is a hard-throwing, side-arm pitcher who will have the first crack at replacing Wagner. The Braves junior college scouting has also landed them talents Tommy Hanson, their current #2 starter, Kris Medlen, and fellow bullpen mate Jonny Venters. Krimbel could be a nice find for them. The starting rotation went 59-52 last season with a 3.80 unit ERA, and will be led by Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson. Keep an eye on lefty prospect Mike Minor. He’ll be their #5 and will look to improve off some middling results from late last season.

Lineup: The Braves certainly have some good, young talent in Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and All-Star Brian McCann. Martin Prado shifts out to left field, but could see some action at 3rd base on occasion to save Chipper Jones, who is having an excellent spring. The sure-handed Alex Gonzalez at shortstop helps take some of the pressure of Uggla up the middle. The Braves should have plenty of pop in the middle of the order with McCann, Jones, Uggla, and Heyward taking up spots 3 through 6 in the order.

Biggest question this season: How does Fredi Gonzalez do at the helm? Bobby Cox’s teams won 14 division titles and more than 2,500 games. Gonzalez’s Marlins…well not so much. Gonzalez does know Cox’s style, having been a 3rd base coach for Atlanta prior to his tenure with the Marlins. He’ll definitely preach defense and his unit must improve in that aspect of the game. The same can be said with the starting rotation as well.

Outlook: All in all, it will be tough for the Braves to match last season’s 91 wins, much less try and compete with the outstanding roster the Phillies have put together. That said, the Braves could definitely contend for the wild-card this year, but teams like St. Louis, Milwaukee, Colorado, and even the Marlins, might have something to say about that.

Predicted finish this year: 2nd N.L. East

Team: Florida Marlins

Manager: Edwin Rodriguez

Last Year: 80-82

Offseason losses: Cameron Maybin, OF (trade, San Diego); Andrw Miller, LHP (trade, Boston); Will Ohman, LHP (FA); Ronny Paulino, C (New York Mets); Jorge Sosa, RHP (FA); Chad Tracy, 3B (FA); Dan Uggla, 2B (trade, Atlanta), Jose Veras, RHP (FA).

Offseason additions: John Buck, C (Toronto); Randy Choate, LHP (Tampa Bay); Michael Dunn, LHP (trade, Atlanta); Omar Infante, 3B (trade, Atlanta); Edward Mujica, RHP (trade, San Diego); Javier Vazquez, RHP (New York Yankees); Ryan Webb, RHP (trade, San Diego); Dustin Richardson, LHP (trade, Boston).

Best Offseason Move: Signing C John Buck. The Marlins haven’t had a productive catcher since the days of Charles Johnson, and they toiled with Ronny Paulino, Miguel Olivo, John Baker, and Matt Treanor over the past 5 seasons. Buck, who enjoyed a breakout 20 HR campaign for the Blue Jays last year, should help stabilize a shaky rotation, and help the development of ace Josh Johnson. The Marlins signing Javier Vazquez to a one-year deal getting him away from the Yankees could be a very underrated offseason move, especially with coupling him with Johnson and the recently extended Ricky Nolasko.

Worst Offseason Move: It’s hard to really pinpoint a move really bad move from a team that underachieved in 2010, especially from a pitching standpoint, but I’ll say trading OF Cameron Maybin to San Diego hurts the Marlins defensively. 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, returning from knee surgery, will get first crack replacing Maybin in center. A lot of people question Coghlan’s athleticism, and he’s got to play center in the cavernous Sun Life Stadium outfield, at least for one more season, along with Logan Morrison and rookie phenom Mike Stanton.

Pitching: The Marlins should have an upgraded starting rotation this year with the addition of C Joe Buck; he’ll really help to stabilize the staff, especially working with NL ERA champion Josh Johnson and closer Leo Nunez. Extending Ricky Nolasko and adding Javier Vazquez should help the middle of the Marlins’ rotation and Anabel Sanchez and Chris Volstad round at the all right-handed rotation. Nunez will look to regain his closer role that he lost to setup man Clay Hensley late last season. Newcomers Randy Choate and Edwin Mujica should help the young arms of Ryan Webb, Michael Dunn, and Dustin Richardson.

Lineup: Trading Dan Uggla takes a bat out of the middle of the order, but Hanley Ramirez remains the main man in Miami. Rookie Mike Stanton blasted 22 homers after a June call-up and should help provide some punch. It’s risky counting on Buck to hit 20 HRs again this year, but he batted .281 last year. Gaby Sanchez is a solid producer and Omar Infante should help defensively as he takes over for Uggla at second base. This group will need big years from Ramirez, Sanchez, and Staton this year to make a serious run at the wild-card.

Biggest Question this season: Will Edwin Rodriguez survive 2011? After taking over for Fredi Sanchez last year, Rodriguez was awarded with a one-year deal. The Marlins certainly have some talented young arms on the pitching staff, and one of baseball’s brightest stars in Hanley Ramirez, if Rodriguez can get along with him better than Fredi Gonzalez did. Will Rodriguez be able to coax enough production out of his role players and young pitching to keep the Marlins in contention into the dog days of summer? We’ll see, but I think he’ll be around when the Marlins open their shiny new stadium in Little Havana in 2012.

Outlook: While it will be very tough to keep up with the Phillies, I think the Marlins could make some noise in the wild-card race. I think their pitching staff, their bullpen in particular, is still too young to make a serious run at the postseason, but I certainly view Florida as a team on the rise.

Predicted finish this year: 3rd N.L. East

Team: New York Mets

Manager: Terry Collins

Last Year: 79-83

Offseason losses: Joaquin Arias, 2B (Kansas City); Henry Blanco, C (Arizona); Chris Carter, OF (FA); Elmer Dessens, RHP (FA); Kelvim Escobar, RHP (FA); Pedro Feliciano, LHP (New York Yankees); Sean Green, RHP (Milwaukee); John Maine, RHP (FA); Hisanori Takahashi, LHP (LA Angels); Fernando Tatis, 1B (FA).

Offseason additions: D.J. Carrasco, RHP (Arizona); Ronny Paulino, C (Florida).

Best Offseason Move: Hiring new GM Sandy Alderson away from Oakland was a big time move for the Mets. In the wake of the financial scandal and year’s of wasted payroll from Omar Minaya’s teams, Alderson is a great hire. Just look at his resume. Alderson’s a former Marine with degreees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School; he gave Tony La Russa a second shot at managing, moved Dennis Eckersley to the closer role, built a mini-dynasty in Oakland with the “Bash Brothers” and launched the “Moneyball” revolution. He’s also served in the commissioner’s office where he helped to clean up scouting in the Dominican Republic.

Worst Offseason Move: The Mets cleaned house while only bringing in two new players in Carrasco and Paulino. They didn’t add another big bat (obviously they have financial issues - $134.2M is on the payroll in 2011) but they hit just .249 as a team in 2010 and only 3 teams in the NL – Houston, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh – hit fewer home runs than the Mets did. Injuries to Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran (who has only played in 145 games the past two years) were big contributions to the power outage.

Pitching: The Mets have a lot of questions here as former ace Johan Santana won’t return from shoulder surgery until midseason, and who knows how he’ll respond when he does. I don’t think he’s an ace any more. The starting rotation includes Mike Pelfrey, Jonathon Niese, knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey, and Dillon Gee. Francisco Rodriguez isn’t as once dominant as he once was, but D.J. Carrasco should help in the pen. The Mets did lose top left-hander Pedro Feliciano to the crosstown rival Yankees and Hisanori Takahashi left for the Angels. The Mets are in need of some serious pitching help both in the starting rotation and in the pen.

Lineup: The news gets a little better here as a Jason Bay should be healthy after suffering from post-concussion syndrome last year. Youngster Ruben Tejada will be entrenched at second along with a healthy Jose Reyes. David Wright is still an All-Star candidate at third having popped 29 HR and 103 RBI’s last year. Production from Beltran, Ike Davis, and Fernando Martinez will help the Mets out. Ronny Paulino, who came over from Florida, and Josh Thole will rotate behind the plate. The Mets do need an upgrade in RF to replace Jeff Francouer, as Fernando Martinez is slated to start there.

Biggest question this season: With so many failed investments ($56M will come off the books after this year from Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez, Oliver Perez, and Luis Castillo), will the Mets go “Moneyball” and try and trade 3B David Wright and SS Jose Reyes? GM Sandy Alderson said, “I, by no means, am looking beyond 2011. Our job here is to put the best possible team on the field…we should have every chance to be competitive.” It’s interesting as with such a lack of pitching and question marks throughout the team, moving Wright and Reyes would certainly spell doom for the Mets this year, but they’d garner a bevy of young talent for the future, with an already promising farm system. Terry Collins, the new manager, was the former minor league coordinator, so he’s got first-hand knowledge of what he’ll have to work with.

Outlook: The Mets have gone downhill since Carlos Beltran struck out to end the NLCS in 2006. From Omar Minaya giving bad contracts to so many players, to injuries, to altercations outside the dugouts, to the financial issues facing the Mets, there’s not much optimism in Queens this year, outside of Wright and a healthy Reyes. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare until Johan Santana returns, but the immediate future doesn’t look good.

Predicted finish this year: 4th N.L. East

Team: Washington Nationals

Manager: Jim Riggleman

Last Year: 69-93

Offseason losses: Miguel Batista, RHP (FA); Adam Dunn, 1B (Chicago White Sox); Willie Harris, OF (FA); Adam Kennedy, 2B (FA); Kevin Mench, OF (FA); Will Nieves, C (Milwaukee); Scott Olsen, LHP (Pittsburgh); Joel Peralta, RHP (Tampa Bay); Tyler Walker, RHP (released); Josh Willingham, OF (trade, Oakland).

Offseason additions: Rick Ankiel, OF (Atlanta); Chad Gaudin, RHP (New York Yankees); Matt Stairs, OF (trade, San Diego); Jayson Werth, OF (Philadelphia); Tim Wood, RHP (Florida).

Best Offseason move: Signing RF Jayson Werth. The Nats get a big bat to replace the departed Adam Dunn. Werth provided 28 HR and 85 RBIs for the Phillies last year, and gives the Nationals another “star” in the lineup to go with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman until Bryce Harper makes it up to the bigs.

Worst Offseason move: Signing RF Jayson Werth. The Nats gave Werth a monster contract, $126M over 7 years, but will he really provide that much of an immediate impact? He goes from a very friendly hitters’ park to one that’s pretty neutral. There’s not much else within the Nats batting order to help him, other than Zimmerman, as opposed to the murderer’s row that Philadelphia had. If the Nats don’t progress some, there will be a lot of questions aimed in Werth’s direction, so they had better hope they’re getting all that they paid for.

Pitching: Stephen Strasburg was phenomenal last year until his season was cut short by an injury that forced Tommy John surgery. He could be back late in the 2011 season, and many think he’ll be just fine with a careful recovery. Until then, the Nats rotation will consist of veteran Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, and J.D. Martin. The closer role is up for grabs and young arms like Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, and Sean Burnett all have a shot at it. Craig Stammen can provide long relief or pinch-start, and the Nats took a flier on Chin-Mieng Wang, a two-time 19 game winner for the Yankees, coming off injury.

Lineup: Werth and Zimmerman are the stars here, but the Nats lost some feisty-ness in trading Nyjer Morgan to the Brewers for cash considerations and prospect Cutter Dykstra – son of Lenny Dykstra. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is still somehow calling games in the majors, but he’s a shell of his former All-Star self at this point in his career. Ian Desmond is an intriguing player, but the Nats are still short a few bats. Bryce Harper, likely to start the year in A ball, could be a late season call up if he progresses the way many people think he will. There’s some things to build upon in the lineup, but it leaves a lot to be desired to contend in 2011.

Biggest question this season: How long will it take the Nats to be competitive? Jim Riggleman is a good manager to have for this bunch, and while they’ll likely steal some games and improve upon last year’s 69 wins, they’re still not ready. They have some pieces in Werth, Zimmerman, and Desmond, and Strasburg will certainly help when he returns, but that might not be until 2012. Phenom Bryce Harper is in the minors, but should have a meteoric rise to the bigs. All things considered, I’m not sure how long it will take, or if the Nats will be able to keep some of their premiere players, until they’re ready to make a serious run.

Outlook: I think the Nationals will certainly win more games than last year, but they’re a team for the future with Strasburg on the shelf and still needing more pieces to come together. They’ve got a talented farm system with the previously mentioned Bryce Harper, 2B Danny Espinosa, and C Wilson Ramos, but 2011 won’t be their year.

Predicted finish this year: 5th N.L. East

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