Monday, March 30, 2009

NL East Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Utley

My Prediction:
1 – New York Mets
2 – Philadelphia Phillies
3 – Atlanta Braves
4 – Florida Marlins
5 – Washington Nationals

New York Mets
I'd like to put away any discussion of "choking," first of all, mainly because I don't really believe in it. Choking is a way for fans of other teams to make fun of their rivals, and it's a way for lazy commentators to turn a complex baseball season into a narrative. Yes, the Mets did a terrible job in September, both last year and in 2007. But it was due to normal, everyday baseball reasons. It's possible that there's some personality flaw that plagues the Mets and prevents them from performing well in tight situations, but that's a little far-fetched to me.

No, the main problem for the Mets was that their bullpen was ruining what good work the rest of the roster was doing. So it's no surprise that overhauling it was the team's top priority going into 2009. GM Omar Minaya responded to the challenge quite well. First, he signed ex-Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year deal worth $37 million. This is a far cry from the 5 years and $60 million that K-Rod was supposed to get a year after setting a new single-season saves record. But the market correctly saw K-Rod's saves as largely irrelevant and was more concerned with his loss in velocity. Therefore, Minaya was able to sign him to a much more reasonable deal.
But Minaya went on to add yet another closer to the team when he traded for Seattle's J.J. Putz. Putz, 32, is older than K-Rod and has a troubling health record. But, on a game-by-game basis, he's actually the better pitcher. The trade was a three-team affair; the Mets sent Endy Chavez, troubled reliever Aaron Heilman and three prospects to Seattle and threw reliever Joe Smith in to go to Cleveland. In return, the Mets got not only Putz, but reliever Sean Green and spare outfielder Jeremy Reed. The addition of Putz, Green and Rodriguez will turn what was once an unreliable bullpen into one of the league's best.
Minaya's other offseason quest was to improve the starting rotation, and here he didn't fare so well. He was able to re-sign free agent Oliver Perez, but that still left the team with an unreliable back of the rotation. Behind Santana and the inconsistent Perez are Mike Pelfrey, who pitched well last year but will have trouble repeating those numbers, and John Maine, who is constantly beset by injury problems. The Mets have several guys competing for the #5 spot, but none of them inspire a lot of confidence.
Minaya did put a lot of effort into pursuing other free agent pitchers, particularly Derek Lowe. But he fell short when the Braves added another year onto their contract offer to the former Dodger. Lowe would have been great for New York, but Met fans should understand Minaya's hesitance to go that extra year. He added a year onto Pedro Martinez's free agent contract to win the bidding, and that resulted in $12 million and a 5.61 ERA in 2008.
But there was one other area of improvement that Minaya really failed to address in the offseason: depth in the lineup. The Mets do have some legitimate studs: the combo of David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes is better than any other NL team's top three players. First baseman Carlos Delgado was a stud last year, but it's a lot to ask for him to repeat t that in 2009 at age 37.
The problem is that there's a big drop-off in quality between the studs and the rest of the Met lineup. The team is stuck with Luis Castillo at second, who offense and defense have both been sapped by injuries, making him a very expensive liability for the next three years. Catcher Brian Schneider is adequate at best, but then he's really the team's best option for the moment.
In the outfield corners, however, there's no good excuse for Minaya's inaction. The Mets are lacking in left and right field, and the free agent market was flooded with high-offense corner outfielders available for a relative pittance. Couldn't the Mets have spared $4 million to bring in Bobby Abreu? What about Pat Burrell, who got a two-year contract in Tampa? Or what about Adam Dunn, who fits the Mets' needs so perfectly it's hard to see why they didn't pursue him.
Here's how Dunn would fit so well, but first let me explain what the Mets' plan is as is. They've got Carlos Beltran in center (fabulous). They've got Ryan Church in right, which is okay except that there are still some questions about Church's post-concussion recovery. In left field, the Mets are planning to platoon Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy. Asking Tatis to take on a full-time role is a big risk, but at least he is the short half of the platoon, batting right-handed. Murphy was a fine hitter for a second baseman, but the bar is set much higher for a left fielder.
Here's how adding Dunn helps: He takes the place of the platoon split in left field. Tatis goes to the bunch as your top righty pinch hitter who can play all four corners, and Murphy either spends time spotting the recovering Church or adjusting to left field in Triple-A. Even better, Dunn provides a built-in backup in case Delgado's career goes off the tracks. And he can step right in at first base after the season when Delgado leaves as a free agent.
That's just one theory, sure. There are several creative ways the team could have improved their outfield. But they didn't. And since the Mets have been kept out of the playoffs by just one game these past two years, they should be looking for any edge to add to their competitive advantage. Because if they blow it in September again, there will be war in Queens, choke or no choke.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are defending champs, and as such, all eyes are on them to hold up under the pressure and carry on. As World Series Champions, the Phillies had a lot of things go right for them. But they won't get as many breaks this year, and more importantly, they didn't improve their team over the off-season. That's why I think the Mets can – and will – pass them by.
The thing that should scare the Phillies more than anything is injuries. They're already dealing with an injury to Chase Utley, and nobody's sure just how much it will affect his production. And despite the prevailing wisdom, Utley is the best and most valuable Phillie. Fans should also be concerned about Cole Hamels. His performance last year did a lot to remove the doubts surrounding his health and durability, but it will still take a lot for him just to match the great work he put forth in 2008.
Speaking of a tough act to follow, how about Brad Lidge? Lidge posted a 1.95 ERA and went 41/41 in saves, striking out 92 batters in 69.1 innings. We know that this is the real Lidge, because we've seen him before in Houston. But a 1.95 ERA? Zero blown saves? These aren't things Lidge can reasonably be expected to do on a yearly basis.
The rest of the offense is solid, but they're troubled by gaping holes at third base and at catcher. So in the off-season, the team decided to address these problems . . . OK, they didn't do anything. As if that weren't enough, they actually took a small step back in left field. They let Pat Burrell go without offering him arbitration, so that when he signed a reasonable deal (2 yrs./$16 MM) with Tampa Bay, it meant to free draft pick for Philly. So they targeted a player five years older than Burrell who only marginally better defensively and offensively. Worst of all, he's more expensive, coming in at 3 years and $31.5 million. And, because the Mariners are smart, they did offer him arbitration, so the Phillies will be losing their draft pick. The generous way to look at this, I guess, is to give GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. a mulligan on his first off-season running the team.
The Phillies still have a good chance to win the division, and we've seen what happens when we give the Mets the benefit of the doubt. And even if they don't win it, I'd peg them as the best bet to win the Wild Card.

Atlanta Braves
The Braves have a solid bunch of young ballplayers supplemented by a couple of key veterans and a great deal of young talent in the farm system. Usually, that means that the team will be contenders in 2010 or 2011. But the Braves suddenly got impatient for some reason. After a couple of years of playing with the hand they'd been dealt and resigning themselves to a finish in the middle of the division, in 2009, the team decided not to wait for the rookies; they were going for it in 2009. And while that's a bold policy, there's some debate as to whether it's the right one.
The team's offense begins and ends with Chipper Jones. The future Hall-of-Famer is hitting as well as he ever has, taking home a batting championship last year with a .364 mark to go with 22 homers and an other-worldly .470 OBP. If only he'd played more than 128 games. But that's Chipper's m.o. these days; he hits like crazy while some minor ailment keeps him out of the lineup just long enough for it to really matter. I've been screaming for years that the club should move him to first base, if only to ease the physical burden. Instead, the club has decided to go with Casey Kotchman (if only to salvage something from the Mark Teixeira Experiment). Kotchman is a good defender and, at his best, is a doubles-and-walks sort of hitter in the vein of Lyle Overbay. Problem is, Kotchman has only been at his best once in the majors, in 2007. He's not a bad guy, but he also shouldn't be blocking a good replacement if it comes along.
The rest of the infield is remarkably good. Brian McCann might be the most underrated player in baseball, a catcher who really hits, plays good defense and makes a modest salary. Keystone combo Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson have their problems, but if you can bring along a tandem this good from your own system on the cheap, you've done well.
If only the Braves had an outfield. According to this year's Athlon
baseball annual, all Braves outfielders combined for 27 home runs. That's all Braves outfielders. And while I admit that they've got some good ones down on the farm, I just can't see this team contending without getting an injection of offense into the outfield – and signing Garret Anderson doesn't count.
The team successfully filled one hole this off-season by nabbing free agent Derek Lowe. They assumed a lot of risk by adding that fourth year to his contract, but with ace Tim Hudson out until the All-Star break at least, they needed someone to prop up their makeshift rotation. The Braves did succeed in getting an innings-eater in Javier Vazquez (but at what cost?) and rolled the dice on Kenshin Kawakami. This gives the team added depth, which will hopefully keep Buddy Carlyle in the bullpen.
If Chipper Jones can stay healthy and Tim Hudson can return, then this team will be a winner. But with a terrible outfield and a makeshift bullpen, I can't see them making that magical return to October. When Tommy Hanson, Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward make it to the bigs, then we'll talk.

Florida Marlins
The Marlins spent the off-season shedding salary. Furthermore, the Pope is Catholic.
Seriously, though, the team was willing and able to trade anyone outside of the middle infield who was making more than the league minimum. And the good news is that they came out on top in most deals. They took advantage of the Royals' delusions about Mike Jacobs and got nifty reliever Leo Nunez. They also sent an average, 31-year-old closer (Kevin Gregg) to the Cubs for a very promising 22-year-old closer prospect (Jose Ceda). It's still uncertain what the hell the Cubs were thinking.
On the negative side, the team traded a decent starter (Scott Olsen) and a decent outfielder (Josh Willingham) to the Washington Nationals for Emilio Bonifacio, a utility infielder who's really stretched in an everyday job. This was a naked salary dump like the ones above, except that the Marlins didn't get much return for it.
So although the team is cost-cutting, they're not doing too poorly. They finished at 84-77 last year and have the potential to do nearly as well this year. Projecting them beyond the 80-85 win range, however, is a real stretch. And if the injury dominoes start falling again, look out below.
The aforementioned dominoes hit the starting staff hardest. Apart from new ace Ricky Nolasco, the team has its fingers crossed about the rest of the starting rotation. Josh Johnson has shown flashes of strong pitching, but they've just been flashes. He's young, yes, but he's also made just 18 starts over the past two seasons. Anibal Sanchez had one intense flash of brilliance when he hurled a no-hitter back in 2006. Then his arm went ker-plunk, and he's made just 16 starts since. Injuries may not be the problem with Andrew Miller, one of the "prizes" taken in the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis trade, it's just that he was rushed to the majors and the team is now trying to undo the damage and recapture the star he had as a Detroit prospect.
If the pitching staff starts crowding the trainer's room, the pressure will fall on the offense, which actually did a fine job last year. The Marlins were 5th in the NL in runs scored, despite the lack of any star power beyond Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. They were fueled almost completely by the home run; they finished 2008 with 208, just six behind the Phillies for tops in the NL. By contrast, their batting average was a pedestrian .254, and their .326 OBP ranked them 9th in the league.
The lineup should be pretty similar this year, but with fewer homers. And yes, that's as ominous as it sounds. Gone are Mike Jacobs' 32 bombs and Josh Willingham's 15 taters. Jorge Cantu, despite the delusions of some, is not actually this good. Expect him to revert to his form, where he hit just 14 HRs with a dreadful .295 OBP.
With all that offense going away, what will make up the difference? Not much, but there is some hope. Toolsy center field prospect Cameron Maybin has a ton of potential, but he could easily suffer some growing pains in his rookie year, as he continues the transition from athlete to baseball player. Other than that, there's not a lot of room for improvement. Young John Baker should be able to top the modest offense provided by Matt Treanor last year. And you can always hope for the long-awaited breakout by Jeremy Hermida.
Realistically speaking, though, that's just not likely. The Marlins are clever enough to scrape together a .500 team on the barest of resources. But you can't win like that unless you've got an overstocked farm system, which the Marlins do not. Their only hope is that their new ballpark convinces ownership to loosen its vice-like grip on the purse strings.

Washington Nationals
As you may have heard, I'm not sanguine about the chances of the Nationals. Their front office is in transition. Stan Kasten has stepped in as interim General Manager, although he's so interim that he won't even call himself interim. We don't know when the team will hire a new GM or how things will function with Kasten at the helm. This is sad, because if any team needs bold leadership, it's this one.
In my series on the Nationals, I chronicled their startling inability to draft and develop good pitching and their apparent unwillingness to pay for it on the open market. 2009 will be no different. John Lannan will be the de facto ace. Lannan's not a bad pitcher, but if he's the best you've got, you're in trouble. Scott Olsen, acquired from Florida, has strong potential, but also carries some other baggage
. The Nats are finally seeing some prospects creep up from the minors. Colin Balester and Ross Detwiler would provide a great boost to the staff, and Jordan Zimmermann may even make it to the majors in 2009. But talking about these guys and their effect on the rotation is best reserved for 2010; there's little they can do to stop the bleeding this year.
Offensively, the Nationals stand to see great improvement with the addition of Adam Dunn. Dunn is the first legitimate slugger the team has had since . . . wow, Vladimir Guerrero. He's working on a two-year deal for a reasonable salary and will be a huge help. The only question is why the Nats want to invest $20 million in a player who will most likely make no difference in any postseason race. Don't rule out former GM Jim Bowden's obsession with former Cincinnati Reds.
Another place where the lineup could take a step forward is with the continued development of Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. That optimism has to be tempered, especially in the case of Dukes, but it's also pretty exciting to think about what an outfield of Dunn-Milledge-Dukes could do offensively.
As for the infield, things aren't so pretty. First baseman Nick Johnson is back, but he's baseball's version of Brigadoon; you know in advance that he's not going to be there all the time, so just enjoy him while you can. Ryan Zimmerman is hoping for a comeback year, because if he doesn't get one, people will start wondering if he'll ever break out. And, sad to say, the Nats have just punted the second base position; it looks like Anderson Hernandez will get it in what was the least exciting Spring Training position battle.
Things aren't all bad, though; this is a team on the way up. But that's because they started off so far down.

The Mets and Phillies will battle it out once again, with the loser likely bringing home the Wild Card. The Mets get the edge, though, because they did a much better job of improving their team in the off-season. I don't see the Braves really making a run at the division title, but they should be good enough to stay in the race into September. But then I picked the Mets to win the past two seasons. Take that for what it's worth.

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