Saturday, May 17, 2008

How's it Going at the 1/4 Mark? NL East

We're about 25% of the way through the regular season, so it's about time to stop and take stock of what's going on, division by division. Let's take a look at the surprises and disappointments, and try to determine what's just a fluke and what's going to last.
Boy, there's a huge ruckus coming out of New York about the Mets, with silver-tongued Billy Wagner feeding the fire. Wagner recently called out and cursed out his teammates for not speaking to reporters. Wagner then backtracked, saying he was criticizing the media, not his teammates, which is about as transparent a lie as you'll come across. The Mets called a big team meeting today to discuss Wagner's comments and the state of the team. Manager Willie Randolph is now perceived to be on the "hot seat," with somebody trying to shake the team out of its malaise.
Oh, and by the way -- the Mets are 21-19. They're 1.5 games out in the division, in 3rd place behind Florida and Philadelphia. Now, to you and I, 21-19 and 1.5 out probably doesn't sound like a good reason to start pushing the panic button and burning people in effigy. But then, you and I don't live in New York (at least, I don't). The fans and the media are still smarting over last season's collapse, and I think we're seeing a delayed reaction of anger and resentment. After the Santana trade, the Mets were supposed to dominate the NL East, and since they haven't yet met that standard, they're already getting roasted.
Is there cause for concern in Queens? Of course. The Mets have been disappointing, even if it's only a relative disappointment judged as such just six weeks into the season.
What's been the problem with the Mets? They've scored just 193 runs in the season, which is 4th in their division and 10th in the NL. That's a big problem, even if it wasn't that hard to foresee. The Mets have either created or failed to solve several problems in their lineup. At catcher, the Mets made the colossal mistake of thinking that Brian Schneider (318/385/400) was the solution at catcher. Schneider's hitting well so far this year, but he's a 255/325/378 career hitter who's never hit anywhere near this well over a full season. The Mets can just hope this fluke lasts for the whole season.
At second base, the Mets failed to recognize the declining skills of Luis Castillo (259/370/306), while also committing a good deal of money to him. The outfield corners are less than you'd hope for, but they've done well enough. Ryan Church is having the best season of his career (310/378/538), but as with Schneider, it's doubtful that this will last. Church is a competent corner outfielder, but I'm highly suspicious of his ability to hit like this for very long. In left field, Moises Alou is doing pretty well (343/361/400), but he's managed just 36 plate appearances. That's not a fluke, as Alou can't be counted on for 500 plate appearances, and his potential replacements (Endy Chavez, Angel Pagan) are much worse. If Church comes back to earth, the Mets will have to deal with two merely decent corner outfielders, which is hard to live with when you've got so many other problem spots in the lineup.
The only problem the Mets couldn't really foresee was Carlos Delgado (222/302/368). Delgado did have a rough year in 2007, but he rebounded somewhat in the second half. Delgado is just 35, and before last season was one of the most consistently excellent hitters in baseball. While there's a possibility that Delgado's career is heading downhill quickly, I'm hesitant to say so because of his relatively young age and solid track record. That said, there were signs of this last year, and Delgado has always had the dreaded "old player's skills." It's unfortunate that this has to happen in New York, where slumps are taken as a sign of personal weakness and a serious character flaw.
Offensively, the Mets' core is Wright, Reyes, and Beltran. I knew that coming into this season, which is why it was tough to predict the Mets to hit as well as they did the past two seasons. But I didn't expect so many problems to materialize at once.
Pitching-wise, the problems have been more what we expected. The Mets have allowed 182 runs this season, which is the 4th-best mark in the NL. The Mets have gotten very good work from John Maine and Johan Santana, along with some solid work by Mike Pelfrey (4.17 ERA in 8 starts, although his 18:18 BB:K ratio is troubling). Yes, there are only three New York starters doing adequate work, but is that much worse than what we expected coming into the season? We knew the starting rotation would be a patchwork, and it's been impressive that Maine is succeeding and that Pelfrey is being given a chance to. Oliver Perez is maddeningly inconsistent, but then who knows where is ERA will finish? If it's less than 4.50, then I think that's a success. If Pedro Martinez comes back with his pitching arm intact, that gives the Mets a surprisingly good starting rotation. Other teams would be jealous.
The good news (listen, Queens fans) is that it's very early yet, and both the Marlins and Phillies have flaws of their own. As long as the Mets can stay close for the moment, they're always a good threat to get just one or two of these guys turned around and enable this team to take over first place.
As for the Marlins, they're by far the most unlikely success story of the year. Many people had them finishing last in the NL East, behind even the Nationals. Instead, they're tied for first in a competitive division.
So are they for real? They've scored 203 runs this year, which is 8th in the NL. But that's better than it sounds, when you consider that a lot of teams are bunched up around the 200 mark, and the Marlins play in a true pitcher's park. In that sense, their offense is above-average, and that's absolutely for real. They do miss Miguel Cabrera, but they've got a legitimately dangerous offense, even if it has its holes. The Uggla-Ramirez double-play combo is still ugly defensively, but it's perhaps the best such offensive tandem in the game (with apologies to Utley-Rollins). They've got Josh Willingham and Mike Jacobs, who aren't likely to keep hitting like MVPs, but are solid contributors none the less. They've also got Jeremy Hermida nearly on track (294/342/478), Luis Gonzalez hitting decently in left (267/339/416) and the flier they took on Jorge Cantu is paying off (266/327/429), who's doing a lot better than I feared he would do.
Pitching-wise, though, the Marlins are having trouble, and that's no illusion. It's also what, I believe, will bring them down. Florida has allowed 194 runs in 2008, which also ranks them 8th in the NL. And while there is some upside and hope with their young hurlers, there's even more skepticism, and justifiably so. When Mark Hendrickson is your second-best starting pitcher, you're not likely to make it to October. And while their bullpen has been impressive, it's not enough to save them.
So I'd be looking at a 4th-place finish for Florida. But considering that they just lost their best hitter in a trade and were preseason picks to finish dead last, that's not such a disappointment.
As for the Phillies, they're about where people thought they would be. They're scoring runs, though not as many as they'd like. Getting Jimmy Rollins back will help, but the Phils just have too many guys struggling offensively. Catcher Carlos Ruiz has been abysmal (234/308/309), although that's somewhat balanced out by the amazing work by backup Chris Coste (333/413/561). Shane Victorino is also struggling, at 239/295/327. I always thought it was a bit of a stretch for Victorino to play every day, but not like this. Surely, he'll bounce back somewhat. You also have to think that Geoff Jenkins will rebound, too, from a woeful 255/291/345 batting line. I think they both will, back toward their career numbers, but in this competitive division, it'll have to happen soon.
And that brings me to the biggest story coming out of Philadelphia: Ryan Howard. Howard is hitting 188/294/403. He has 9 HR and 24 walks, but also has 60 strikeouts in 43 games played. He's on pace to break his own record for single-season strikeouts, which is fine if you're hitting 40+ homers with a .260+ average, not when you're at bats look like a documentary entitled "The Worst of Dave Kingman."
I would expect Howard to bounce back, but I join my other sabermetric colleagues when I make this prediction cautiously. Ryan Howard is just 28 years old, but he's always had one of those expiration labels that reads "don't buy after age 30." It's really inexplicable that Howard would hit such a career slowdown at such a young age. But what's troubling is that the slowdown itself is entirely predictable; it's just about 4 years too soon. And we're at a point now where even if Howard does start to bounce back, he won't be able to save his season or, perhaps, his team.
The Braves' Pythagorean record of 25-16 is the best in the NL East. How are they doing it? Well, we all know that Chipper Jones is doing his Mike Schmidt impression (423/485/705). But the Braves are really winning thanks to a dominant pitching staff and good defense; their 156 runs allowed is the best mark in the NL by a good margin.
But how can the Braves pitch well with Mike Hampton out, John Smoltz out, and Tom Glavine struggling (4.41 ERA). Well, Tim Hudson is having another banner year and is joined by rookie Jair Jurrjens (2.82 ERA). The Braves got Jurrjens from the Tigers in the Edgar Renteria deal. At the time, I called it a good deal for both teams, since the Braves didn't need Renteria and the Tigers had plenty of pitching depth . . . or so I thought at the time. Not only is Jurrjens sorely missed in Detroit, he's pitching far better than anyone on the Tiger staff, rookie or not. Also, the Braves' bullpen has been turning things around, and appears to be one of the stronger staffs in the league. So can the Braves return to form and lead the league in ERA again?
I seriously doubt it. I doubt it because, while Jurrjens is good, I don't think he's this good. And behind him and Tim Hudson, the starting staff looks pretty rough. Tom Glavine has been about league-average (4.41 ERA), and if he goes anywhere, it will be downward. And behind him, there is little hope. When Smoltz returns, it will be to the bullpen, so the Braves will have to fill out the starting rotation with the likes of Jeff Bennett, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Chuck James.
On the bright side, there are signs that if the pitching does decline, the offense may get better. Other than Chipper and Brian McCann, nobody's having a banner year at the plate, so there's room for improvement there, especially from Mark Teixeira (240/333/400), Jeff Francoeur (274/315/417), and Matt Diaz (268/284/339).
So while I'm skeptical about the Braves' chances in the long run, I wouldn't count them out. As I said before, everybody in this division has problems, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Mets, Phillies, and Braves all contending into September.
The Nationals stink, but then we expected that. In fact, the Nationals have played closer to preseason predictions than any other team in the division thus far. I thought Washington would take a step forward this year, but I was wrong. Cristian Guzman is leading the team in VORP. I'm sorry, I'll say that again ... CRISTIAN FREAKIN' GUZMAN IS LEADING THE TEAM IN VORP. Surely his hitting won't last (293/314/431), but the Nats better hope it will. Because after Nick Johnson, the only really good hitters have been subs Jesus Flores and Aaron Boone. Flores is good, but will likely be back on the bench once Paul Lo Duca comes off the DL, and Boone just isn't as good as his batting line (328/391/552).
The Nats' pitchers are 13th in the league in runs allowed. I thought that last year's staff of no-names would have a tough time repeating their performance, and that has been the case thus far. Their best starter has been moody retread Odalis Perez (3.71 ERA), although rookie John Lannan has pitched well (3.74 ERA) and might actually be somewhat for real. But are we really surprised that Tim Redding and Shawn Hill have failed to set the world on fire?
The Nats are in trouble, and it's a long-term problem. Ronnie Belliard, signed to a silly contract extension by GM Jim Bowden, is hitting 193/316/343. Dmitri Young, who also got an inexplicable extension, has been limited to just 6 games this year and also has been played out of a job by Nick Johnson, an eventuality that Bowden should totally have seen coming. Supposed savior Ryan Zimmerman is hitting 244/277/409. "Veteran" anchor Austin Kearns is hitting 192/302/274. And Bowden's experimental pick-ups (for which I complimented him) have been all bust as of yet: that's Wily Mo Pena (200/261/225), Elijah Dukes (048/125/095) and Lastings Milledge (245/314/331).
The solution here is to trade everything you can and set up something for the future, because the Nats' thin farm system isn't enough to solve these problems. The snag is that Jim Bowden's flaw (perhaps his biggest) is his reluctance/inability to trade away parts. We've seen it before as he's hung onto Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch for no logical reason, and we saw it in 2006, when he failed to trade away Alfonso Soriano and had to settle for draft picks instead. There may not be a lot of players here that other teams want, but the ones who are attractive (Johnson, Milledge, Kearns, Cordero, Rauch, Boone, Odalis) should be traded away ASAP. Because I'd hate to see such a beautiful new park start collecting dust so soon.
Next up is the NL Central, or: "We Need to Think of a Name for the Brewers' Curse."

No comments: