NL East Preview

This is the fifth in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season by Asif Attarwala. Find his brilliant FJM of Geraldo Rivera’s inane hoodie column here:

For the last half-decade, the Philadelphia Phillies have been the undisputed class of the NL East. That may change this season. Philadelphia remains the favorite, but Atlanta has been catching up for the past couple years and Miami and Washington have had busy offseasons. I’m not sure if the Mets still play baseball. Here’s how I see things shaking out:

1. Philadelphia Phillies (Projected 2012 record: 93-69)

If this doesn’t seem like a terribly bold prediction, consider that it’s a 10-win drop-off from last season. That’s how good Philadelphia was in 2011. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels still form a formidable front three in the rotation and Vance Worley was surprisingly good last season. That said, don’t be surprised if Halladay and Lee take a step back this season as they turn 35 and 34, respectively. Hamels should be ready to pick up the slack, he’s coming off a 4.9 WAR season and will be a free agent next year. It’s hard to project Worley as he was more effective in 2011 than his minor league numbers suggested he would be, but there isn’t much in the peripherals to suggest a massive correction in his traditional stats. Expect his ERA to rise a little, but he should remain a solid number 4. Joe Blanton is penciled in as the number five starter, but the Phillies are trying to shop him. If they can find a trade, then Kyle Kendrick will move into the rotation, but to be honest there isn’t much difference between the two.

The Phillies may have a wealth of pitching, but their offense is a serious concern. They may have rid themselves of Raul Ibanez’s corpse, but their other players appear to be deteriorating at a disquieting rate. Ryan Howard (more on him later) will miss the first half of the season and the Phils plan to replace him with a Ty Wigginton/John Mayberry/Jim Thome platoon, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that Ty Wigginton sucks, Jim Thome hasn’t played first base in over five years, and John Mayberry was slated to be the team’s left fielder. Throughout Philadelphia’s run of success, Chase Utley has been the team’s best player (he should have won the MVP Awards that went to Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins), but he has degenerative knee and hip conditions and will liekly miss a large chunk of the season. His replacements would be Michael Martinez and Kyle Frandsen, who are just as unappealing as they sound. That leave Rollins — who has been in a visible decline since 2008 — and Placido Polanco on the infield.

Philly is better in the outfield with Shane Victorino (most underrated player in baseball?) in center, Mayberry in left, and Hunter Pence (most overrated?) in right.

Realistically, this may be Philadelphia’s last year to grab that elusive second ring, largely because GM Ruben Amaro has made some pretty high profile blunders. Amaro’s big move this offseason was signing Jonathan Papelbon for 4 years and $50MM, which is way too much money and way too many years for reliever. The  Red Sox were able acquire Papelbon’s replacement, Andrew Bailey, without giving up a single top prospect, and the Cincinnati Reds signed former Phillies closer Ryan Madson for 1 year and $8.5MM. Considering that there’s a decent chance that both Bailey and Madson will be better than Papelbon in 2012, the signing looks like a major, unnecessary misstep. It wouldn’t be the first time that Amaro hastily overpaid a free agent before letting the market develop. In April 2010, Amaro gave Ryan Howard a 5-year $125MM extension, while Howard had two years left on his deal. That new contract kicks in this season, with Howard at age 32, on the DL with a torn Achilles. Sure, Amaro couldn’t have foreseen the injury, but consider that the following April, Adrian Gonzalez signed a 7-year $154MM deal with Boston. Gonzalez is three years younger than Howard, and a much better player, yet Boston will be paying him less annually than Philly will be paying Howard. If Amaro had just waited another year he probably could have saved $15MM. That’s not insignificant when you consider that both Boston and New York will be hungry for pitching this offseason, when Hamels hits the market at age 29.

2. Atlanta Braves (91 – 71)

Last season’s disappointing collapse aside, the Braves look to be in good shape for 2012. As good as the Phillies’ pitching is, the Braves are probably deeper, both in the rotation and the ‘pen. There are some health questions as Tim Hudson is likely out until early May as he recovers from offseason back surgery and Tommy Hanson struggled with shoulder tendinitis last season, but the Braves go seven deep in the rotation. Jair Jurrjens pitched better than his peripherals in 2011, but he’s a very good number three. The Braves number four and five pitchers are Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor. Beachy doesn’t have great stuff, but he struck out nearly 11 per nine last season, which doesn’t happen by accident. Even with a slight regression in his K rate, Beachy should be solid. Minor’s traditional stats haven’t matched up with his peripherals, but he had a 3.39 FIP in 15 starts last season, which is damn good from a 24-year old lefty. Randall Delgado is set to open the season in the Braves rotation, he wasn’t as impressive as his ERA suggests in seven starts last season, but the Braves seem to think he’s more ready than Julio Teheran, who clearly has a higher ceiling.

The Braves’ bullpen is also a strength. Closer Craig Kimbrel stuck out an absurd 41.5% of batters in 2011, which isn’t a fluke considering he stuck out 45.5% in 2010. Set-up man Jonny Venters was excellent as well, although he only struck out 27% of the hitters he faced.

How the Braves fare on offense really depends on Jason Heyward. After a 5.1 WAR rookie season in 2010, Heyward really struggled in 2011. The word is that knee and shoulder injuries caused hi to change his swing, leading to more ground balls, but that’s not really borne out in the stats. Heyward’s line drive rate did drop in 2011, leading to a low .260 BABIP. These stats seem to indicate a fair amount of bad luck and it certainly didn’t help that manager Fredi Gonzalez showed little patience with Heyward, benching him in favor of quad-A player Jose Costanza when he struggled. Heyward is just 22 and given his pedigree, I expect a big bounce back this season. Michael Bourn will be Atlanta’s center fielder and provides a significant upgrade from last season’s Nate McLouth/Jordan Schaefer platoon. Martin Prado is a solid, if unspectacular player in left.

Chipper Jones is at the end of his Hall of Fame career, but he’s still the Braves’ anchor on the infield. Jones put up an .814 OPS in 2011. First baseman Freddy Freeman should continue to grow in his second season and it’s hard to imagine Dan Uggla struggling more than he did last season. Behind the plate, the Braves have the best catcher in the game in Brian McCann. St. Louis busted the market for catching by giving Yadier Molina five years and $75MM, so McCann — a superior player — is in line for a big payday, but it would be a real shame for the Braves to let him walk.

People seem to be sleeping on the Braves a little after last season’s September swoon, but this is a very good team. They have the deepest pitching staff in the baseball and writing off Jason Heyward this early is absurd. This is a playoff team.

3. Miami Marlins (86-76)

The Marlins were the offseason champs, involved with every high profile free agent save Papelbon and CJ Wilson. So why aren’t they ranked higher? Well, the baseline for this team to build on is pretty low (72 wins in 2011), and there remain some major holes on the roster. That said, the Marlins do have a lot of high ceiling, young, talent. Giancarlo Stanton is coming off a 34 home run season and he’ll be 22 and moving to a new, more hitter friendly environment. Stanton has dealt with some knee and wrist inflammation this spring, but provided  the injuries are no big deal he’ll mash this season. It’s easy to forget that Jose Reyes is just 28, since he’s been in the majors since he was 19, but he should provide an immediate boost to the left side of the infield. The acquisition of Reyes allows fellow 28-year old Hanley Ramirez to move to third base, a position that he’s probably better suited to defensively than shortstop. Ramirez is coming off his worst season in the majors and there are some makeup concerns, but he should benefit from the position switch, new park, and having some of the pressure taken off him by the Marlins’ acquisitions. First baseman Gaby Sanchez is an above average player when you factor in his glove, unfortunately at 28 there’s probably not much ceiling left. Left fielder Logan Morrison should take a step forward.

Now for the bad news. The Marlins outfield defense looks terrible. Emilio Bonifacio is about average as a center fielder (1.2 UZR/150 at the position), but Morrison is really a first baseman (-14.4 UZR/150 in the outfield) and neither Bonifacio nor Stanton are good enough to cover for him. The Marlins are probably better off trading Sanchez, moving Morrison to first, and playing someone like Chris Coghlan in left field. The improved defense would likely make up for whatever offensive drop-off they see.

The Marlins pitching looks decent on paper, but there’s a little to worry about. When healthy, Josh Johnson is one of the best pitchers in the game. The problem is that Josh Johnson is never healthy. Johnson made 9 starts last season after making 28 in 2010, and although he appears healthy this spring, shoulder issues like Johnson’s can be tricky. Mark Buerhle should plenty of innings which is exactly what Miami needs. Ricky Nolasco is kind of the anti-Matt Cain — his traditional stats always underperform his peripherals. Anibal Sanchez is a very good number four. Carlos Zambrano is a disaster waiting to happen.

The real red flag on the Marlins is their makeup. New manager Ozzie Guillen isn’t exactly the most stable influence and Ramirez and Zambrano are notoriously prickly. Logan Morrison has developed a bit of a reputation as a malcontent due to his tweeting, but it appears that he’s just more of an oddball. It doesn’t help that the Marlins are run by one of the most loathsome ownership groups in the sport. After spending the past decade running their franchise as a scheme designed to extract revenue sharing dollars from the Red Sox and Yankees, the Marlins somehow managed to convince the local government to build them a half billion dollar boondoggle of a stadium even though its common knowledge that publicly funded stadiums are terrible investments (the SEC is investigating), no one in Florida has any money, and even if they did, they don’t give a sh*t about the Marlins. At least they had the courtesy to spend some of the money they made on the stadium, but they’re more than happy to let Miami taxpayers how stupid they are. Wonderful guys, these.

4. Washington Nationals (78-84)

Rany Jazayerli lays out the case for the Nationals being a rising power in the NL East rather than the Marlins. It’s a nice argument, but I’m unconvinced and here’s why. The Nationals were surprisingly good in 2011 (80-81) and they should get better with the return of Stephen Strasburg and the additions of Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson. You can even be reasonably assured that Ryan Zimmerman will be better in 2012. Here’s the thing, everyone else — with the exceptions of Danny Espinoza and Jordan Zimmerman — kinda sucks. At age 32 and as a bit of a late bloomer its possible that Jayson Werth isn’t going to get significantly better than the 2.5 WAR he posted last season. He’s definitely not the 5-win player he was in Philadelphia. In left field, the Nats got 3.4 WAR from Michael Morse. Morse had never shown anything remotely resembling that sort of production in the past, so he’s a great candidate for regression. Forget Harper for the moment because the Nationals can save an extra year of service time and a bunch of money by waiting until June to call him up. On the infield, Zimmerman is a star and Espinoza is a very good player, but Adam LaRoche is the definition of mediocre at first base and shortstop Ian Desmond is barely above replacement level.

I’m pumped to see Stephen Strasburg pitch a full season and I think he’s a future Cy Young winner. I also think that Jordan Zimmerman should form a great 1-2 punch with Strasburg for years to come. Everything after that? Meh. I don’t know what convinced writers that Gio Gonzalez is an ace, but I don’t see it. Gonzalez racks up a a lot of strikeouts, but he also walks a ton of batters. His ERA has consistently outperformed his FIP, largely due to the park and defense he play in/in front of. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a good pitcher, he’s just not worth the massive package of prospects the Nationals gave Oakland for him. Edwin Jackson signed a one-year deal  with the Nats, which would make more sense for the team if they were on the cusp of a playoff spot, but is a bit puzzling since they’re pretty mediocre. John Lannan is pretty much the definition of a replacement level pitcher.

I could see the Nationals being better than the Marlins, but my gut says that it won’t happen. There’s a very bright future here, I just think it might be a year away and I hope that Washington didn’t jeopardize it by raiding the farm system to get Gonzalez.

5. NY Mets (65 – 97)

As recently as 2006, the Mets were the class of this division. Now, the present is bleak and the future doesn’t look much better. Seven years of Omar Minaya as GM will do that to a team. In all seriousness, the Mets have had some really bad luck to go along with their poor management. They looked to have two future MVPs in Jose Reyes and David Wright, but they both got injured, and although Reyes recovered to have an excellent 2011, Wright’s career has stagnated and he desperately needs to get out of Queens. When they acquired Johan Santana, he was the undisputed best pitcher in baseball and they gave up nothing to get him (seriously, go back and look at the deal it was a complete steal), then his shoulder promptly fell off. At the same time, top prospect Fernando Martinez was rushed, got hurt and never recovered. Then the Mets signed Jason Bay and he promptly got concussed. Oh and the Wilpons got ripped off by Bernie Madoff, then tried to hide some of the money that he had paid back to them from the bankruptcy court. Sure they settled, which was a big win, but they lost the entire fan base in the process.

I won’t spend much time on the Major League roster because, really, you don’t want to read about that. There are some bright spots on the farm. Zach Wheeler, acquired for Carlos Beltran, and Connecticut native Matt Harvey, could form a nice duo at the top of NYs rotation. The Mets had a good draft in 2011 under new GM Sandy Alderson, Billy Beane’s former mentor. Shortstop Wilmer Flores is also an intriguing player who has been on prospect lists for a while. There’s also the chance that David Wright starts the season well enough that the Mets can get some value for him. Still, despite some of the high ceiling players, this system is pretty shallow.

Realistically, it’s going to be at least three years before the Mets contend for anything. That may be accelerated if the Wilpons sell the team and the new owner is willing to spend more money.

Potential MVP: Brian McCann, C, ATL (ZiPS Projections (AVG/OBP/OPS) .302/.354/.812, 22 HR)

This pick depends on whether voters have caught on to positional values, but McCann puts up phenomenal numbers even for a non-catcher. What makes him even more valuable is that unlike the other top hitters at the position (Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli, Buster Posey) McCann is an everyday catcher.

Potential Cy Young: Cole Hamels, PHI (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 3.30, 8.46, 2.13, 3.39)

Halladay and Lee already have their Cys, now it’s Hamels’ turn. He’s headed into a contract year and a big payday (I personally think that Boston is going to pull out all the stops to get him) and he’s improved the last two years. He might be the best of the Phillies’ Big Three this season.

Potential Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, WAS

Ummm, can I punt this one? Harper won’t be up until June, but there aren’t any other high-upside rookies in this division. In any case, Harper should hit as soon as he gets to the big leagues. It’s not out of the question for him to win the award even if he’s only a big leaguer for half a season.

Conclusion

This could be the end of the road for Philadelphia. They’re still the favorites, but their core is aging and injury prone, the farm system is empty, and Cole Hamels could be AL East bound after the season. A lot of analysts seem to be writing off the Braves in favor of the Marlins and Nationals, but I still think Atlanta is better than the upstarts. The Mets are yucky.

Previous Previews

AL Central

NL Central

AL West

NL West

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