Thursday, March 13, 2008

NL East Preview

The National League East is a very stratified division in 2008. There are two teams capable of winning the World Series in New York and Philadelphia. Atlanta sits in the middle with plenty of talent, but too many question marks. And Washington and Florida are mired in the bottom with too many holes to win more than 75 games. However, that doesn't mean the race between NY and Philly won't be exciting. Johan Santana pitching against the Phillies' trio of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins is enough for me. If the NL West beats itself up too much, the Wild Card will almost certainly come down to the runner-up of this division.

Predicted Order of Finish:
New York

Best Positional Player: David Wright, New York
Best Pitcher: Johan Santana, New York
Best Rookie: Cameron Maybin, Florida

Divisional All-Star Team:
C- Brian McCann, Atlanta
1B- Ryan Howard, Philadelphia
2B- Chase Utley, Philadelphia
SS- Hanley Ramirez, Florida
3B- David Wright, New York
LF- Pat Burrell, Philadelphia
CF- Carlos Beltran, New York
RF- Jeff Francouer, Atlanta
SP- Johan Santana, New York
SP- John Smoltz, Atlanta
SP- Cole Hamels, Philadelphia
SP- Tim Hudson, Atlanta
SP- John Maine, New York
RP- Jon Rauch, Washington
RP- Taylor Tankersley, Florida
CP- Billy Wagner, New York
CP- Rafael Soriano, Atlanta

1. New York Mets

C- Brian Schneider
1B- Carlos Delgado
2B- Luis Castillo
SS- Jose Reyes
3B- David Wright
LF- Moises Alou
CF- Carlos Beltran
RF- Ryan Church
Bench- C- Ramon Castro; INF- Damion Easley, Ruben Gotay; OF- Marlon Anderson, Endy Chavez

SP- Johan Santana
SP- John Maine
SP- Pedro Martinez
SP- Oliver Perez
SP- Orlando Hernandez
CP- Billy Wagner
RP- Aaron Heilman
RP- Duaner Sanchez
RP- Joe Smith
RP- Scott Schoeneweis
RP- Matt Wise
RP- Jorge Sosa

The Mets collapsed down the stretch in 2007, losing a 7-game division lead in 17 games. They return largely the same core in 2008, except for one major addition: Johan Santana. Adding the best pitcher in baseball without giving up any major league talent was a major coup. Since the core of this squad is built to win now, it was not a big deal to part with multiple prospects. They badly needed starting pitching and they got the prize of the offseason in Santana. He will now anchor a rotation along with John Maine. Maine will have to rebound from a poor second half in which his ERA jumped three runs. When healthy, Pedro Martinez is probably the team's second-best pitcher still, but he can't be counted on for more than six innings a start or more than 25 starts a season. The back end of the rotation is, like most major league rotations, inconsistent. Perez can be flat-out dominating when he's on, but, far too often, he is wild and homer-prone. El Duque is still around, even he once played with David Cone and Darryl Strawberry. Suffice to say, he isn't quite the weapon he used to be.

A major question on offense will be the Mets' corner outfielders. Ryan Church doesn't have the power to hold down a corner position, but he will be the starting right fielder. Alou will start in left, and while he still has the ability (he hit .341 in '07), he's only played 140 games twice this decade. New York needs a decent backup to guard against Church struggling or Alou getting hurt. Unfortunately, they traded Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez this off-season. The rest of the offense will produce enough to contend for a title, but an injury in the OF will severely test their depth.

2. Philadelphia Phillies

C- Carlos Ruiz
1B- Ryan Howard
2B- Chase Utley
SS- Jimmy Rollins
3B- Pedro Feliz
LF- Pat Burrell
CF- Shane Victorino
RF- Geoff Jenkins
Bench- C- Chris Coste, INF- Wes Helms, Eric Bruntlett; OF- Jayson Werth, So Taguchi

SP- Cole Hamels
SP- Brett Myers
SP- Jamie Moyer
SP- Adam Eaton
SP- Kyle Kendrick
CP- Brad Lidge
RP- Ryan Madson
RP- Tom Gordon
RP- J.C. Romero
RP- Clay Condrey
RP- Chad Durbin
RP- Fabio Castro

The Phillies feature the last two MVPs in Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley probably deserved higher consideration (he finished 8th in '07), but he missed a month to injury. Those three form a potent nucleus that utilizes the small dimensions at Citizens Bank Park to their advantage. Along with slugger Pat Burrell, the Phillies can outpower any team in baseball. They also have an incredibly versatile bench that allows manager Charlie Manuel to play matchups and substitute freely late in games. Werth and Taguchi can play all three OF positions, and Coste can probably play anywhere but pitcher.

Their pitching is loaded at the top with Myers and Hamels. The two young studs should combine for 30-35 wins behind that offense. Even though he's now pushing 46, Jamie Moyer continues to pile up league-average innings. The key for Philadelphia on the mound will be Kyle Kendrick. He went 10-4 with a 3.87 ERA at age 22 last season. Kendrick must avoid the sophomore slump to give the Phillies another starter.

The battle between New York and Philadelphia will likely come down to back ends of their rotations. We have old veterans trying to stave off age in Moyer, Martinez, and Hernandez. There's also a couple young arms like Kendrick and Perez trying to provide consistent innings. We know the top starters will get the job done. But whoever has the better 4-5 starters will win this division.

3. Atlanta Braves

C- Brian McCann
1B- Mark Teixeira
2B- Kelly Johnson
SS- Yunel Escobar
3B- Chipper Jones
LF- Matt Diaz
CF- Mark Kotsay
RF- Jeff Francouer
Bench- C- Brayan Pena, INF- Scott Thorman, Omar Infante; OF- Josh Anderson, Brandon Jones

SP- John Smoltz
SP- Tim Hudson
SP- Tom Glavine
SP- Chuck James
SP- Mike Hampton
CP- Rafael Soriano
RP- Mike Gonzalez
RP- Peter Moylan
RP- Tyler Yates
RP- Manny Acosta
RP- Will Ohman
RP- Royce Ring

Seems like ages ago that Atlanta last won the NL East, doesn't it? In fact, it's only been two years and they may get back there in 2008. Their offense has never disappeared, finishing 2nd and 3rd the past two seasons. Surprisingly, it's been their once-vaunted pitching that has failed them. In 2006, they finished 10th in R/G in the NL. The Braves were actually 2nd in 2007, but that was largely skewed by the performances from Smoltz, Hudson, and the bullpen. The back of their rotation was absolutely horrendous, as Jo-Jo Reyes, Mark Redman, Buddy Carlyle, Lance Cormier, Anthony Lerew, and Kyle Davies all cycled through at one time or another. None of the six posted an ERA under 5.00. They have since signed Tom Glavine to man the #4 spot behind Chuck James. In the five hole, Atlanta will look to Mike Hampton. The former 20-game winner has missed two straight seasons and is unlikely to pitch like he once did. Waiting in the wings will be former Tiger Jair Jurrjens. Acquired for Edgar Renteria, Jurrjens fills the Braves' Curacaoan quota with Andruw Jones gone. He had a 4.70 ERA in Detroit last season, but needs to work on his control if he is to succeed in Atlanta in 2008. More than anything else, the health of the Braves' pitchers will determine Atlanta's fate. Smoltz and Glavine are over 40 and Hampton hasn't played in two years. Hudson has no injury history, so he may have to shoulder a big load if/when injury strikes.

Atlanta's offense stacks up quite well with those of the Mets and Phillies. In fact, those were 3 of the top 4 NL offenses in 2007. The only hole in the lineup will be CF. Kotsay is only here as a stopgap for future starter Jordan Schafer. But, if he is to be of value, he needs to right the decline he's been in the past three years. Back problems have been the issue and he claims to be healthier, but how he holds up over the summer will be a big test. Remember, he is replacing an all-time great in Andruw Jones and fans may not wait long to boo. Keep your eye on youngsters Brandon Jones, Josh Anderson, Gregor Blanco, or Schafer. Any one of them could step in should Kotsay fail to produce.

4. Washington Nationals

C- Paul LoDuca
1B- Dmitri Young
2B- Ronnie Belliard
SS- Cristian Guzman
3B- Ryan Zimmerman
LF- Wily Mo Pena
CF- Lastings Milledge
RF- Austin Kearns
Bench- C- Jesus Flores; INF- Nick Johnson, Felipe Lopez, Aaron Boone; OF- Elijah Dukes, Rob Mackowiak

SP- Shawn Hill
SP- John Patterson
SP- Jason Bergmann
SP- John Lannan
SP- Matt Chico
CP- Chad Cordero
RP- Jon Rauch
RP- Saul Rivera
RP- Luis Ayala
RP- Jesus Colome
RP- Chris Schroder
RP- Joel Hanrahan

The Nationals finally find a permanent home in 2008 after years of nomadic travel. The former Expos played in front of empty seats in Montreal, called Puerto Rico home for half a season, and than moved to Washington where they played in a football stadium. Now in their own baseball-only park, the Nationals can finally create an identity for themselves. GM Jim Bowden has done a good job so far, hiring manager Manny Acta and acquiring good young talent in Pena, Milledge, and Dukes. Acta has proven to be an excellent manager after just one year. Dealt a rotation full of cast-offs and minor league veterans, Acta knew when to pull the hook, using his bullpen more than any other team in baseball. His pen rewarded him with quality outings time and again, especially Rauch and Rivera.

Washington surprised many in 2007 by winning 73 games. They could get to 80 this year if their bullpen continues to pitch well. With no real stars or pricey free agents in the mix, they still were successful, allowing Acta to pull his struggling starters before it was too late. After a year of development, pitchers like Hill and Chico should be able to go longer into games. Improved pitching will help offset what looks to be a shaky offense.

Beyond Ryan Zimmerman, there are no proven stars on this Nationals offense. LoDuca is a couple years past his prime, as is Guzman. Also, what can Da Meat Hook do after last year's All-Star comeback season? I doubt he can repeat it, but if he comes anywhere close, Washington will gladly take it. The key will be the young outfielders Pena, Milledge, and Dukes. All three have had attitude problems in the past, but Washington, with nothing to lose, gladly took a chance. Given the at-bats and a good bill of health, they could all hit 30 HRs. However, they could also struggle in a larger exposure or run into more trouble. If the former happens, the Nationals could be scary. At the very least, expect one of the three to pan out.

5. Florida Marlins

C- Mike Rabelo
1B- Mike Jacobs
2B- Dan Uggla
SS- Hanley Ramirez
3B- Jorge Cantu
LF- Josh Willingham
CF- Cameron Maybin
RF- Jeremy Hermida
Bench- C- Matt Treanor, INF- Dallas McPherson, Jose Castillo; OF- Luis Gonzalez, Alfredo Amezaga

SP- Scott Olsen
SP- Sergio Mitre
SP- Andrew Miller
SP- Mark Hendrickson
SP- Rick Vanden Hurk
CP- Kevin Gregg
RP- Justin Miller
RP- Taylor Tankersley
RP- Matt Lindstrom
RP- Henry Owens
RP- Logan Kensing
RP- Renyel Pinto

There isn't a much sadder sight in baseball than the Florida Marlins. When a team wants to rebuild and have a fire sale, it usually involves getting rid of expensive veterans. Young players are then acquired to build the next great team around. Instead, Florida trades Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, both of whom are 26 and under. Granted, they received two great prospects in return (Miller and Maybin). But, it is simply asinine to give away one of the top 5 players in baseball at such a young age. Cabrera is someone to build a dynasty around. Yes, the Florida management had a problem with Cabrera's weight gain and work ethic. But, guess what, he could flat-out hit. There's no substitute for that.

As hard as Florida may try, they still have some quality hitters on this roster. Ramirez and Uggla form an incredibly potent middle infield. Uggla has 30 HR-power at the keystone, while Ramirez does everything but play defense at SS. In terms of offense alone, Ramirez was the best player in the NL in 2007. But, his defense was enough to drag him down to maybe #10 overall. Nevertheless, MVP voters blatantly ignored him because of his team's record, something I'll never understand. Also, keep your eye on Jeremy Hermida in 2008. He struggled mightily in his rookie year in 2006, but he bounced back big in 2007 with a .369 OBP/.501 SLG. Still only 24, he can spray the ball to all fields, racking up doubles and homers by the bushel.

Florida's offense can probably be above-average if eveything breaks right, but its starting pitching will bring the team into the cellar. Manager Joe Girardi killed Florida's young pitchers in 2006, hurting the arms of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Scott Olsen all for a chance at .500. Now in the hands of Fredi Gonzalez, Marlins' starters are still trying to recover. Sanchez and Johnson may never be the same, or healthy, again. They're now using veterans like Mark Hendrickson as well as lower-tier prospects like Vanden Hurk and Mitre instead. Olsen, who has had his fair share of attitude problems and suspensions, will try to corral his emotions into his pitching. He and Miller have a chance at a solid 1-2 combo, but it may take until 2010 for that.

The bullpen will have to shoulder the load, but it's more than up to the task. A solid pen full of young hardthrowers, the Marlins may resort to starting a reliever just to skip the rotation altogether. Gregg, Lindstrom and Tankersley lead the way. Gregg is the nominal closer, but plenty of guys should get save chances here. The problem is that they will come few and far between.

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