Friday, February 24, 2012

NL East Preview

1st Place-Philadelphia Phillies
2011 Record: 102-60
2011 Pythagorean: 103-59
2012 Projected: 97-65
Expect more of the same from the best team in the majors.  Their once explosive lineup has not aged well with their three perennial MVP candidates all past their prime; Ryan Howard was already declining before injuring his achilles while making the last out of the 2011 NLDS and will miss at least a month (Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton will fill in), Jimmy Rollins hasn't been the same since his career year in 2007 and Chase Utley has suffered back-to-back injury plagued/disappointing seasons.  Philadelphia used to be in the conversation with New York, Boston, and Texas when it came to powerhouse offenses, but the Phillies have placed more of an emphasis on pitching while allowing their elite infielders to deteriorate.  But on the flip side, their outfield is looking pretty good.  Leftfielder John Mayberry could bust out, the multitalented Shane Victorino is probably the team's most indispensable player (he can hit anywhere in the lineup, plays a strong centerfield and does a little bit of everything), and rightfielder Hunter Pence is poised to be their most productive hitter with .300-30-100 potential in his first full season with the club.  Their extraordinary pitching staff returns mostly intact, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels teaming up to form the most devastating starting rotation in baseball.  2011 breakout Vance Worley will replace Roy Oswalt as the number four starter, and Joe Blanton looks to bounce back from a lost year that saw him make just eight starts.  The team's most significant addition is in the bullpen, where new closer Jonathan Papelbon should be a great fit given his track record of success in Boston.  He's shown he can thrive in high pressure situations (read--the postseason) against challenging opponents in a hitter's ballpark with intense fans filling the stands, and should continue to be one of baseball's top closers.  He has a great setup man in Antonio Bastardo, too, so don't expect Philly to blow more than a handful of late game leads.  I know their 2011 season ended in disappointing fashion, but they still have to be considered World Series frontrunners once again.

2nd Place-Miami Marlins
2011 Record: 72-90
2011 Pythagorean: 72-90
2012 Projected: 89-73
The organization made up for years of penny-pinching with a free agent splurge that brought the talents of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to South Beach (and they were talking to Albert Pujols, too).  The Fish underachieved last year because their two best players, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, missed extensive time with injuries.  If they had been their healthy, productive selves, Florida probably would have been a .500 team, so adding the aforementioned three agents gives them a legitimate shot at 90 wins.  Reyes is a perfect table setter for HanRam and Mike Stanton (who could launch 40 homers this year) and I have a feeling that  be able to stay off the DL this year.  I like their rotation (especially now that Chris Volstad, with his ugly 84 ERA+ over his last 88 starts--has been jettisoned) but it will miss Javier Vazquez, who's reportedly considering retirement after a torrid finish last year.  Buehrle should thrive in his new digs, though, especially since he no longer has to pitch half his games in the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.  This could be the year that Logan Morrison and Ricky Nolasco bust out, too, and a change of scenery is exactly what Carlos Zambrano needed.  This team is brimming with upside and youth, but that potential comes with a lot of risk, too.  Ramirez, Reyes, Johnson, and Zambrano all have some question marks, but the team is counting on them to help make the Marlins a relevant baseball team once again (you realize this club won as many World Series in a seven season span--two--as the Boston Red Sox have since 1919, right?).  If everything comes together and clicks, we're looking at two postseason contenders down in Florida.

3rd Place-Washington Nationals
2011 Record:80-81
2011 Pythagorean: 78-83
2012 Projected: 86-76
The Nats upgraded their starting rotation over the winter by trading for lefty Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson (moves that signaled the franchise is ready to compete now, not in a few years like the Royals), a pair of quality arms to complement Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman.  Adding Prince Fielder would have given a similar boost to the lineup, but Washington should hit better simply by getting a full season from Ryan Zimmerman, bouncebacks from Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, and continued growth from Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle (but they really shouldn't be hitting at the top of the lineup given their horrendous OBPs).  Hopefully Mike Morse isn't a fluke. Bryce Harper probably isn't ready to play a full season at the major league level, but if he tears up spring ball he deserves to start on Opening Day and will almost certainly get to see big league pitching this year.The bullpen, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, and Drew Storen, is absolutely filthy.  Like most, I'm bullish on the Nationals this year, but even if they fall short of expectations they have ample young talent to field competitve teams for years to come.  Their dark days as cellar-dwellers are history.

4th Place-Atlanta Braves
2011 Record:89-73
2011 Pythagorean: 85-77
2012 Projected: 84-78
Atlanta seemed to have the NL Wild Card sewn up all summer, only to let a postseason berth slip through their fingers during their September swoon.  The warning signs were there all along; mounting injuries, overachieving pitchers regressing to the mean, etc., so I was hardly surprised when they coughed up the wild card to the Cardinals down the stretch.  There's still plenty to like about the Braves heading into 2012, though.  They have a pretty deep lineup on paper that will look even better if Jason Heyward takes off, Martin Prado bounces back, Dan Uggla avoids a brutal first half and Freddie Freeman improves on a solid rookie season.  Their rotation is solid with Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, and Jair Jurrjens backing Tommy Hanson, who I expect to blossom into a bona fide ace this year.  And their bullpen, headed by NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, is the most untouchable in baseball.  But these Braves failed to improve themselves this offseason (aside from ditching Derek Lowe), deciding to stand pat while the Marlins and Nationals added multiple key pieces.  Chipper Jones, Prado, and Heyward enter the season with big question marks surrounding them, and Atlanta's offense was subpar in everything except for home runs last season, indicating they rely too much on the long ball to score runs.  The rotation lacks a strong southpaw starter--Mike Minor is not the answer--and I expect substantial regression from Hudson and Jurrjens.  Ownership seems too content to tread water even though they were only one piece away from making the playoffs last year.  If they had been aggressive this winter and added a C.J. Wilson or an impact bat, I think that would have been enough to get them over the hump.  You can always try to acquire such a player with a midseason trade, but by then it may be too late.

5th Place-New York Mets
2011 Record:77-85
2011 Pythagorean: 79-83
2012 Projected: 70-92
The Mets have completely fallen apart ever since they ditched Shea Stadium for Citi Field.  Injuries, age, poor investments and a lack of young talent has forced this once-proud franchise to rebuild from the bottom up.  There's just no hope for the near future.  The offense will have to adjust to life without Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.  David Wright needs to recover from a poor 2011 and provide a big bat in the middle of the order.  He's the centerpiece of this team now, and they desperately need him to play like it. It would be really nice if Jason Bay could at least be an average hitter given his hefty price tag.  Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, and Daniel Murphy have showed that they can be productive regulars, but I don't think they're guys you can build a lineup around.  The starting rotation consists of Johan Santana, who missed all of 2011 and hasn't been himself since 2008, and a bunch of mediocre hurlers.  New York's only strength is their bullpen featuring closer Frank Francisco, setup man Jon Rauch, and middle relievers Ramon Ramirez and Bobby Parnell.  They'll be fine without Francisco Rodriguez, but a good 'pen isn't much use when the starters can't hold their own.  GM Sandy Alderson has trimmed over $50 million from last year's payroll, signaling a transition from a big market club to a mid-market one.

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