Tuesday, March 12, 2013

BASEBALL IS BACK!!! National League East Preview

We have made it over to the National League (not that it matters since this is the first year that we always have interleague play).  There are five teams in this league and they all seem to be in five different spots.  One team seems to be old and at the end of the line, looking for one more magical season before they have to blow it up.  Another team is on its way to greatness.  Many years of drafting high has given them a plethora of talent to mix with their offseason acquisitions.  One team made big splashes last year, then blew it up this year much to the chagrin of everyone in the baseball world.  Then the one playing in the biggest market in the world is trying to rebuild its team with a great young pitching staff and an overall young team.  Then the team that has owned this division for two decades has retooled its lineup.

The East is an interesting division.  The biggest trades of the offseason were almost exclusively part of the division.  The Marlins, Mets, Phillies and Braves were all part of trades that involved superstar players.  It was very busy in terms of where the teams in this division hope to go.  The unpredictability of this division over the years has made it a treat to watch.  There needs to play better in the postseason out of this division.  In the past twenty-five years, the winner of the division has only won the World Series on two occasions (although the Marlins have won it twice as the Wild Card).  In fact, in six of the past ten years they were outed in the first round.  That isn't what you want to see if you are a fan of an NL East.  The East is thought of as one of the better divisions every year, so they need to show their dominance once and for all.

Atlanta Braves
2012 Record: 94-68
For the first time since 1995, the Braves will start their season off without Chipper Jones in the lineup.  Not only will they miss his production at the plate, but they will miss his leadership and composure in the clubhouse.  A platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson isn't the worst thing to happen to the Braves, but it sure as heck isn't Chipper Jones.  It will be a transition for this entire team that manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to have to weather until the clubhouse gets comfortable.

It does help that there are a lot of new faces on the team.  The Upton brothers were brought in to bolster an offense that lost Michael Bourne, Martin Prado and Jones.  The outfield consisting of the Uptons and Jason Heyward will be one of the best offensively in the game today.  Add the pop you get from Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla and you have one of the scarier lineups in the National League.  Uggla needs to have a better season, however.  He cannot be productive if he keeps hitting in the 220's and with less than twenty home runs.  They have somewhat unknown Andrelton Simmons manning the shortstop position and possibly hitting leadoff.  His production will say a lot in how well the entire lineup fairs through the season.  The team has gone through a transition, but is still doing what it can to stay competitive in a tough division.  They are trying to win with offense as the rest of the league goes more towards pitching.

There in lies the problem with Atlanta.  The starting pitching in Atlanta can be assumed as questionable at best.  Tim Hudson is still a very good pitcher, but he is going to turn 38-years-old in the middle of the season.  Either way, Hudson can still be a very good pitcher in this league and he is good enough to anchor this rotation.  It is what is going on beyond him that the picture becomes more hazy.  Kris Medlen is the number two guy after bursting onto the scene after coming out of the bullpen for most of the year.  If he can recreate his success from last year then the Braves could have a legitimate ace on their hands for years to come.  What if he can't though?  There is no way he could go through a whole season with the 1.57 ERA he had last year.  What is this kid's ceiling?  Paul Maholm has been up and down for most of his career.  He seems to have one good season then one atrocious one right after.  The bottom two is Mike Minor and Julio Teheren who both are trying to become established major leaguers.  The former had a much better season than the latter as Teheren went from top prospect to work in progress.  The jury is still out on these two.

Projected Finish: 3rd Place

Reason for Projection: Way too many unanswered questions in the rotation.  Thankfully they have a lock down bullpen with Craig Kimbrell, Jordan Walden and Johnny Venters.  They need to get their starters through six innings a piece and it will theoretically be game over.  Those first six could become a problem however.  They are lucky they are in a relatively easy division because this rotation may make it worse than third in other divisions.  The offense is upgraded and they will score runs, but trying to outscore every one doesn't always work.  They need Medlen to be the pitcher he was last year and they need Hudson to stay healthy.  They are young in pitching so it is only up from here, but this year may be one to take a back seat in.

Miami Marlins
2012 Record: 69-93
Miami came with a new look, a new stadium, and a new way of thinking.  After showing the city that to repay them by putting forth a good team and spending money on players and coaches so the city could finally be proud of their team.  Well it is one year later, and we all know how that worked out.  They sent most of the players they acquired last year to different parts of the league (mostly to Toronto) and they are starting over.  There are very few names that you will know.  We know Giancarlo Stanton, but he may not be there for long because a superstar should not be making league minimum like he does.  Maybe you heard of Austin Kearns, the failed prospect of Cincinatti.  Ricky Nolasco is known for having most of the career records for the Marlins (even though they don't keep good players for more than three years so I guess it wasn't hard).  They have eighty-year-old Juan Pierre, too.  That's about it.

This team is just bad.  There is no other way to put it.  It is well known that owner Jeffrey Loria made all these promises and backed out as soon as it looked rough.  This team might actually break records as to how bad their offense is.  There is three people in the starting lineup that are over the age of 25, and none of them are in their prime.  Justin Ruggiano had a good sample size when he hit 13 home runs in 91 games last year while posting a .313 batting average.  Unfortunately, there is a reason he took until he was 29-years-old to finally get a shot at the majors.  There are rumors that the team may trade their star player in Stanton.  If that happens, can we officially call the Marlins a triple-a team?

The rotation behind Nolasco is not pretty.  With the losses of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Mark Buerhle in the past calendar year there wasn't much left to work with.  Henderson Alvarez is the centerpiece to the Blue Jays deal and they are hoping the 22-year-old can live up to his expectations.  Three of their slated starting pitchers are under the age of 24.  That is a lot to ask a kid who may not have even grown up yet.  There will be some serious bumps in the road for these guys.  Will they work out?  Maybe.  It isn't plausible to think that it will all happen this year, however.

Projected Finish: 5th Place

Reason for Projection: There is so much young talent on this team.  The future is bright in Miami.  I know people are up in arms because of all the deals that were made, but I have a feeling that in five years they won't be looked at in the same light.  With that in mind, they gave up on their present to try to build towards the future.  If they hold on to their stars then it will work out.  They don't have the development to contend any time soon.  Their pitching is too immature.  Their hitting looks like it will be non-existent.  They have a manager who never managed past single-A ball.  Plus, he has only been a manager for two years.  Was it that impossible to get a triple-A guy?  That shows where they are right now in Miami.  Right now they are all about the development.  That can go one of two ways, and we just have to wait and see how it works.

New York Mets
2012 Record:  74-88
The Mets are going to be one of those teams that can go one way or the other.  They have a certain amount of talent that makes you won't to go off the grain and pick the Mets to shock some people.  They have great pitching talent and a lineup that nobody has really seen.  They have a manager who seems to got to clubhouse behind him and they seem to finally have the ownership situation settled.  They have prospects that are set to come up this year and take the world by storm.  They have their flaws, but they may have enough to make the big names in this division sweat for a little bit.  Before the All-Star break, the Mets were six games over .500 and right in the thick of the playoff race, both division and wild card.  In the last seventy-six games after the All Star break, the Mets had six losing steaks of at least four games.  The second half saw the upstarts come back to Earth and the injuries starting to pile up.  If 2013 can have a few more breaks go their way then this team can really contend.

The starting pitching is going to have to carry this team for most of the season.  A lot is riding on how healthy Johan Santana can be.  You have to believe that he still has something left in the tank.  He was very good until he pitched that no-hitter.  In four of his five April starts, he allowed one run or less.  He had 134 pitches in the no hitter.  In the next ten games, he allowed six runs or more in six of those games.  Jon Niese is looking to make it three years in a row that he has improved.  He seems to be a legit number two and could be part of a really good Mets rotation for a long time.  Shaun Marcum is one of the better under the radar signings of 2013.  He was having a very good campaign before getting hurt, and if he can stay healthy he will have another good season.  Dillon Gee should bounce back from his blood clot that ended his season to continue to develop into a decent pitcher.  He posted a 2.99 ERA in the last ten starts of his season.  Then you have the two studs that will one day run this league with their skill.  Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey will one day become quite possibly the best one-two punch in baseball.  Harvey has a fastball averaging around 95 and a very good change-up.  His ten start stint in 2012 only made us want to see more.  He posted a 2.73 ERA and held hitters to a .200 batting average.  Wheeler is a five pitch guy who can hit 97 on the radar gun consistently.  He will rack up strikeouts but the dozen.  The future is bright for this staff.

The hitting is where there will be questions.  When Bobby Bonilla is making more than the rest of your outfield then there is an issue.  They still have David Wright, but who is there to protect him?  Ike Davis had the power, but his average was atrocious.  If he could bounce back that would be a major help.  Lucas Duda saw a similar drop in his average.  The grind of a full MLB season seemed to get to him towards the end of the year.  Mike Baxter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis looks to bring something to the table in the form of outfield production.  Travis d'Arnaud, the main piece in the RA Dickey trade, will join the major league club eventually and he will bring some pop to the lineup that they will sorely need.

Projected Finish: 4th Place

Reason for Projection:  This team has one year away written all over it.  They are very young and playing in a veteran laden division.  They will really start to contend in 2014, but that doesn't mean they can't play spoiler in 2013.  They have the talent to put a good fight up against the big money teams in the NL East.  They should not be looked over, that's for sure.  The pitching staff will carry them as far as they can.  Unfortunately, they may have an injury or two that could really hurt them.  Santana has had trouble staying healthy since coming to New York.  Others on the team have seen their fair share of time on the DL.  They need to stay as healthy as possible to make noise in the National League.

Philadelphia Phillies
2012 Record: 81-81
Last year did not go the way that Philly had hoped it would.  They brought back three of the four aces with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.  They were the defending division champs and they were hungry for another title.  Many were picking them not only to win the division, but to win the World Series.  They started 2012 with injuries as Ryan Howard was still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and Chase Utley was taken off the field for half the season with left knee issues.  The bullpen was a complete disaster.  You know it is all going bad when Lee has to wait until his fourteenth start to get his first win.  The fact is that the Phillies were an utter disappointment last year.  This caused GM Ruben Amaro to have a fire sale that many weren't expecting.  He traded Hunter Pence to the Giants and Shane Victorino to the Dodgers.  The Phillies did make a mini run at the playoffs towards the end and made up for an atrocious start.  They went into the All-Star break at 37-50 and went 44-31 to end the season.

This Phillies outfield will be 100 percent different than it was in the start of 2012.  They got Ben Revere and Delmon Young to bring a new kind of dimension to this offense.  With an aging roster, the Phillies made moves to get younger.  They also brought in Michael Young from Texas to provide offensive production and clubhouse leadership.  Utley, Howard and Jimmy Rollins are coming into the season all healthy for the first time in a long time.  The offense needs to step up if they want to improve.  The Phillies were average in every single way.  They ranked 17th in on base percentage, 11th in ERA and 15th in fielding percentage.  The risks they made in the offseason need to work as well as the team needing to stay healthy.  The offense should improve, but don't expect Howard and Utley to experience 2009 numbers again. 

The pitching is obviously where the Phillies are going to try to win games.  They need their top three to stay healthy, especially Halladay.  When their top three are on, they are basically untouchable.  Cole Hamels just signed a major contract to stay in Philadelphia.  He was always a good pitcher, but he is on superstar levels the past three years.  One could argue that he would be the guy to turn to in a big game situation.  The spring training numbers may scare some into thinking these big three will have down years.  Hamels got rocked for eight earned in 2.2 innings against the Dominican Republic.  Halladay just got rocked in his last start and had people questioning his motives when he threw behind Tyler Moore.  Point being is Halladay and Lee need to show they can bounce back from average at best years last year, while Hamels needs to show he can repeat his success now that he got paid.  John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick will round out the rotation as okay options.  Neither will light the world on fire, but if they can stay afloat then they can be an asset.

Projected Finish: 2nd Place

Reason for Projection: I had trouble pinpointing where the Phillies could land.  They have enough talent to win the division, but injuries could cause them to fall as far as fourth.  I put them in second because even with accounting for injuries the Phils will still have those three aces dealing three out of five nights.  They will bounce back and compete for a Wild Card spot up until the end.  Their pitching is too good that they can afford to have an above average lineup and still compete.  Revere will end up being a very good trade for them and they will love the bargain they got with Young.  This team will not disappoint like last year's team did.

Washington Nationals
2012 Record: 98-64
The Nationals were one of the best feel good stories in baseball.  They made calculated moves and good drafting to put together an extremely potent team from top to bottom.  This team is so stocked with young talent it is literally scary.  They make some controversial moves (signing Jason Werth to a huge contract and shutting down a healthy Stephen Strasburg), but most of their moves seem to work out.  They lost in the playoffs in the bottom of the ninth in the deciding game of the divisional series to the defending champion Cardinals.  They had a taste of success, but they learned that it won't always come easy.  This was a valuable lesson for a team of their age.  Now with Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Wilson Ramos, and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper among others this team looks like it could dominate for a long time to come.   

The Nats got Denard Span to lead off and play a good center.  He brings his .357 lifetime on base percentage to a team who can drive in runs by the bunch.  Jason Werth is looking to return from his awful 2012 in which he hit only five home runs on the season.  We know he is more than capable to get back to the 20-25 per year numbers if he could just stay healthy and stop worrying about living up to the contract.  Ian Desmond is quickly becoming one of the best offensive shortstops in the game.  He leads everyone in that position in home runs while still keeping his average near .300.  Ryan Zimmerman had a bounce back year where he saw his numbers go up and his injuries go down.  Then add Danny Espinosa and you could see why this is secretly one of the the best lineups in MLB.  

To say their pitching staff was amazing would not do it justice.  They have the kind of staff that could be all time great for a long time.  Like 1970's Orioles great.  To put it into perspective, their worst pitcher is a three time All-Star who is coming off a bad year.  Their top two pitchers would be aces on almost every other team in the majors.  Their top four pitchers are 27, 24, 26, and 27.  Dan Haren is 32-years-old and he is the old guy in the group.  This could soon become the best rotation in baseball for a decade to come if they are able to keep everyone in house.  Strasburg has been the future of baseball since he was drafted in 2009.  Gio Gonzalez led the league in wins and ended up in third in Cy Young voting.  Ross Detweiler finally broke out in 2012 and posted his first double digit win season.  He posted an ERA under 3.5 for the second year in a row.  This team is just unfair.  They look like the kind of team I used to build when I was twelve and didn't want to lose a game.

Projected Finish: 1st Place

Reason for Projection:  The Nationals are as good as the Marlins are bad.  They are so good it borderlines unfair.  They are so good that I didn't have time to talk about them resigning Adam Laroche who hit 33 home runs and 100 RBI's last year.  I had to skip the fact that they signed Rafael Soriano who replaced the greatest closer of all time and saved 42 games.  Their bullpen is stacked all the way through with Tyler Clippard (32 saves in 2012) and Drew Storren (2.37 ERA).  They are the best team in baseball barring, like, seven major injuries.  They will win the division, and it won't be close.

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