Thursday, November 18, 2010

2010 NL East in Review

Note:  This article was completed before I learned of the trade sending Dan Uggla from the Marlins to the Braves.  Instead of starting this entry over, I’ll just say that the deal really helps the Braves while providing little other than money saved for Florida.

Atlanta Braves

W-L:  91-71 (2nd in NL East; NL Wild Card)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  93-69

Payroll:  $90.3 million (7th in NL)

R/G:  4.56 (5th in NL)

ERA:  3.57 (4th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .687 (T-8th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Martin Prado

Team LVPs:  Melky Cabrera, Nate McLouth, Kenshin Kawakami

Defensive Stars:  Jason Heyward, Yunel Escobar

What Went Right:  The Braves’ pitching staff, a combination of budding youngsters and seasoned veterans, came together quite nicely.  34-year-old Tim Hudson put together a shiny 2.83 ERA to lead the staff, despite a mediocre strikeout rate.  Derek Lowe bounced back from a forgettable debut year in Atlanta to post an ERA of an even 4.00, returning to form as a durable, if unspectacular, groundball artist.  And in the bullpen, 38-year-old Billy Wagner spun what a fine farewell season, notching 37 saves with a brilliant 104 K’s in just 69.1 innings.

The Braves also started debuting some of their illustrious young pitching talent.  23-year-old Tommy Hanson was super in his first full season, finishing with an ERA of 3.33 and 173 K’s in 202.2 IP.  In the bullpen, rookie Jonny Venters managed a 1.95 ERA with more than one K per inning, and 24-year-old (future closer?) Kris Medlen made a strong showing as well.  The Braves pitching staff is well positioned for the future, with even more exciting young talent in the lower minors.  The only concern is that help arrives before the guys in their mid 30’s start to break down (Hudson, Lowe, Kawakami even more so).

The Braves got just what they needed from budding 20-year-old megastar Jason Heyward, who showed a great approach at the plate (91 BB, .393 OBP) to go with 18 HR, a number that should spike in the coming years.  26-year-old Martin Prado stepped forward as a franchise cornerstone, hitting 307/350/459 to go along with solid defense at second.  Prado missed the postseason due to injury, a loss the Braves keenly felt as career minor-leaguer Brooks Conrad fumbled his way through the NLDS.

What Went Wrong:

There’s not much fault to find with the 2010 Braves, who have rebuilt themselves quickly to challenge the Phillies in the NL hierarchy.  But the Braves’ offense sputtered in the postseason, and this is where there isn’t much help coming from the minors.

No team functions well when half their starting infield is lost to injury, and we shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Braves looking lost without Martin Prado and Chipper Jones.  But while Prado will be back, there’s some question as to whether Chipper Jones will ever return to his Hall-of-Fame form, and if he does how temporary such a return to form could be for the oft-injured team icon.  What was exposed in the playoffs was an underlying weakness in the team’s offense, manifested mainly in the team’s struggles to fill out the outfield.

The arrival of Jason Heyward couldn’t have come too soon for a team that’s wasted a great deal of time on the likes of Garret Anderson, Rick Ankiel, Jeff Francoeur and others.  Heyward was supported in the outfield mainly by the likes of Melky Cabrera (255/317/354), Ankiel (210/324/328), Matt Diaz (250/302/438) and Nate McLouth (190/298/322).  While McLouth almost has to bounce back from his wretched 2010 campaign (he’s a career 252/337/438 hitter), that still leaves one corner outfield spot glaringly open.  The Braves have been linked to some big bats in trade talks and on the free agent rumor mill, but they need to get serious about finding a new outfielder, either in left or in center (with McLouth shifting to left).

The other hole for Atlanta is at first base.  The team started 2010 with Troy Glaus, who looked older than his years (240/344/400). They got some solid work from utility man Eric Hinske (256/338/456) before acquiring Derrek Lee from the Cubs (287/384/465 with the team).  The long-term solution here may be top prospect Freddie Freeman, who hit 319/378/521 in Triple-A before a September call-up.  Still, the Braves may want another experienced hand to solidify the position.  The good news is that the market for first baseman is deep and cheap this offseason, so long as you’re not looking for superstars.

Notes:  The Braves need another starter to step up in the #4 or #5 slot.  One of those slots will be filled by Jair Jurrjens, hoping to prove that his fantastic 2009 was the real deal … I wrote in this space two years ago that Brian McCann might be the most underrated player in the league.  Getting the game-winning hit in the All-Star Game has raised his status, though … Consider how good Jason Heyward is at age 20.  It’s a short list of superstars that are that good that young … The Braves are transitioning nicely from a team of last-shot veterans to a young, pitching-heavy team.  The Phillies, on the other hand, have pretty much given up any transition, meaning they’re stuck with their stars for the long haul.  This isn’t good news for the Braves now, but once those expensive Phillies start to get older, this Braves team will be ready to surpass them.

Florida Marlins

W-L:  80-82 (3rd in NL East)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  81-81

Payroll:  $48.8 million (14th in NL)

R/G:  4.44 (7th in NL)

ERA:  4.09 (10th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .678 (13th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla

Team LVPs:  Chris Coghlan, Cameron Maybin

Defensive Stars:  Mike Stanton, Cody Ross

What Went Right:  The Marlins’ interpretation of team loyalty may be a ruthless one, but it does show the value of not getting too attached to name players for their own sake.  Mid-level players like Cody Ross and Jorge Cantu got traded away this year, and while both of them ended up playing in the World Series, it will be someone else who overpays them as free agents, not Florida.  Meanwhile, the team’s player development marches on, this year spitting out talented, free-swinging Mike Stanton.  Stanton is a 20-year-old potential stud, whose huge power potential (22 HR in 100 games) is only rivaled by his propensity to strike out (123 times).  It is a concern whether Stanton can keep swatting homers with such holes in his swing, but if he can reach his potential, nobody will care if it comes with 175 K’s per year.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan sought to prove that his performance last year wasn’t a fluke, but was not successful (268/335/383).  He was replaced by 22-year-old Logan Morrison (283/390/447) who shows much more potential than the elder Coghlan (25).

The Marlins returned their All-Star middle-infield tandem of Dan Uggla (287/369/508) and Hanley Ramirez (300/378/475; an “off” year by his standards).  The only drawback (not to get ahead of myself) is their defense; they’re not helping that woeful team DER.

The long-term marriage between the Marlins and ace Josh Johnson was finally achieved with a new contract (with Michael Weiner, head of the players’ union, providing the shotgun).  Johnson responded with a Cy Young-caliber season, finishing with a 2.30 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 183.2 innings.  Johnson was supported by a healthy Anibal Sanchez (3.55 ERA, 157 K’s in 195 IP), although the rest of the staff disappointed.

The Marlins traded incumbent closer Kevin Gregg to Toronto and seamlessly replaced him with Leo Nunez (acquired from the Royals for Mike Jacobs, if you can believe that).  Nunez notched 30 saves, finishing with a 3.46 ERA and 71 K’s in 65 IP.

What Went Wrong:  It’s hard to say that anything really went wrong, since the Marlins aren’t really aspiring to win so much as develop a winning team for their next ballpark.  In this, at least, they succeeded in 2010.  Lineup stalwarts Uggla and Ramirez were given new support by rookies Stanton, Morrison and first baseman Gaby Sanchez (273/341/448).  Sure, there are some holes here yet, but what’s the hurry?

Notes:  The Marlins have a solid offensive foundation with more to come from the farm.  But if they want to be contenders (and they really don’t, yet) they need to develop more arms to back up their ace, Johnson … If you still don’t believe that cheap relief help is available, look at what the Marlins did with unknowns like Leo Nunez (3.46 ERA), Clay Hensley (2.16), Burke Badenhop (3.99), Brian Sanches (2.26) and Jose Veras (3.75) … The Marlins have so burned out their fanbase (such as it is) that when they finally do try and draw crowds in their new ballpark, they will be sorely disappointed.  Even if the on-field talent is there, fans have long memories when it comes to fire sales and a team culture of mediocrity.  Just ask the Rays.

New York Mets

W-L:  79-83 (4th in NL East)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  81-81

Payroll:  $118 million (4th in NL)

R/G:  4.05 (13th in NL)

ERA:  3.73 (6th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .690 (7th in NL)

Team MVPs:  David Wright, Angel Pagan, R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana

Team LVPs:  Oliver Perez, Jeff Francoeur, Luis Castillo

Defensive Stars:  Angel Pagan, Ike Davis

What Went Right:  The Mets’ pitching staff actually ended up much better than expected.  The Mets have mostly neglected their pitching staff over the past 8-10 years, developing very few young hurlers and then occasionally signing a big-name free agent (Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Oliver Perez).  It’s not a strategy that’s generally served them well.

But in 2010, the Mets did quite well with some of their own stars.  Homegrown Mike Pelfrey led the team with 15 wins, although his 3.66 ERA and a dismal strikeout rate (113 in 204 IP) indicate that this was more luck than skill.  Homegrown starter Jonathon Niese did a decent job as well, finishing with a 4.20 ERA and 148 K’s in 173.2 IP.

The best pitcher on the team was free agent signee Johan Santana, who posted a 2.98 ERA in 199 innings before being shut down due to injury.  It should be noted, though, that Santana no longer looks like the elite hurler from his Minnesota days.  Age and injury seems to have left him as simply “very good.”

The biggest surprise of the staff was knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who finally got his floater floating in all the right places, finishing with an ERA of 2.84 in 26 starts.  Another pleasant surprise was Japanese free agent Hisanori Takahashi, who moved smoothly into the rotation in mid-season, shoring up the staff for the Mets.

The only real good news on offense came from David Wright’s return to form (283/354/503).  The team was also satisfied with the debut of Ike Davis, the rookie first baseman who impressed both with his bat (264/351/440) and his glove, as well as the surprisingly good work put up by defensive whiz Angel Pagan, who managed to hit a valuable 290/340/425 with 37 steals.

What Went Wrong:

Oliver Perez, the $12 MM man, made 17 appearances with the big club, lighting fires to the tune of a 6.80 ERA and more walks (42) than strikeouts (37).  This was admittedly a slight improvement over his 2009 season, when his ERA was 6.82.  There’s some doubt as to whether the ultimate problem is in Oliver’s head or his arm.  There’s little doubt, though, that the team can just write off the $12 MM he’'ll make in 2011.

Francisco Rodriguez’s rocky season highlighted the Met bullpen, (which actually performed very well, likely beyond their actual skill set – viz, Elmer Dessens’s 2.30 ERA).  On the pitcher’s mound, Rodriguez did quite well, saving 25 games with a 2.20 ERA and more strikeouts (67) than innings pitched (57.1).  K-Rod’s season ended early, though, when he was arrested in connection with a brawl that resulted in a restraining order keeping him away from his girlfriend.  The situation gave the Mets a cover story to pursue voiding his contract, which pays the closer $11.5 MM in 2011 and would require a $3.5 MM buyout of his 2012 option.  This could never pass the laugh test in front of the player’s union, but if nothing else it will warn teams about the wisdom of signing any non-elite closer to a big-money deal.

Offensively, the Mets are still the train wreck they’ve been since their big-name free agents (Delgado, Castillo, Beltran) started getting old and/or injured.  While David Wright was able to return to form (for the most part), the team was again disappointed with the numbers managed by Jose Reyes (282/321/428) who was still battling injuries.

A return to form by Jason Bay or Beltran (at least somewhat) would be a big help, but the team is still pretty top-heavy, relying on a handful of big stars while still playing with some holes in the lineup at catcher, second base and right field.

Notes:  The front office may look like the Oakland A’s Alumni Club, but the presence of Sandy Alderson in particular should give the team a firm base of operations.  There are still questions about meddling from ownership, but I doubt Alderson would have taken the job unless he’d been assured to his satisfaction that it was his team to run … The Mets do have money to spend, but in the future perhaps they can be more choosy on where to spend it, looking for the next R.A. Dickey out there and not rolling the dice on another Oliver Perez … What the team really needs is offense.  While the addition of Bay, Davis and Pagan is encouraging, it still left the team near the back of the pack in offense (although the ballpark, of course, plays a part in that).

Philadelphia Phillies

W-L:  97-65 (1st in NL East)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  94-68

Payroll:  $142.9 million (1st in NL)

R/G:  4.77 (2nd in NL)

ERA:  3.68 (5th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .697 (4th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Roy Halladay, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels

Team LVPs:  No one stands out; maybe Moyer and Blanton

Defensive Stars:  Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins

What Went Right:  Once the team traded for Roy Oswalt, they had the best 1-2-3 in the league.  Oswalt posted a 1.74 ERA in 13 games in Philly, joining Cole Hamels and Cy Young favorite Roy Halladay atop the rotation.

The bullpen was again solid, and this is soon becoming a regular part of the team’s success.  Brad Lidge may not have been quite his old self, but he was at least a good closer again, saving 27 games with a 2.96 ERA and a 24:52 BB:K ratio.  The only full-time reliever who really struggled was Danys Baez (5.48 ERA), a free agent pick-up the Phils must have regretted.

The offense was right there with the best, as usual.  Injuries may have cut down on Chase Utley’s playing time, but he still managed to hit quite well (275/387/445).  Ryan Howard hit well at first base (276/353/505), but not up to the standard of “franchise player,” which is unfortunately how he’ll be paid for quite a while yet.  The MVP of the bunch was actually free agent Jayson Werth, who hit 296/388/532 while playing solid defense and even nabbing 13 bases.  Werth was essentially pushed out when the team committed three years to the fading Raul Ibanez, and then offered an extension to good-but-not-great Shane Victorino (259/327/429).  With the arrival of top prospect Domonic Brown, there’s now no room for Werth, which is absurd when you consider the players Philly chose to take his place.

What Went Wrong:

The offense was pretty golden, although it did suffer from the regression of Raul Ibanez (275/349/444), the injuries to the Utley-Rollins dynamic duo and the mediocre bat of (the admittedly good-glove) Placido Polanco (298/339/386).

The back of the rotation is still a blur, although things were stabilized by the arrival of Oswalt.  Joe Blanton may not be what the Phillies were hoping for in a #4 starter (4.82 ERA), and he’s certainly not what they’re paying for, having signed him when they went bananas for contract extensions (3 yrs/24 MM, with 2 years left now).

The only real downside to these Phillies is that they’ve got almost all of their resources tied up in players in their 30’s.  Now, most of these players are still very good, but the Phillies are committed to paying them for a long time, i.e. quite likely after they’re not good anymore.  Once Howard, Utley, Rollins, Oswalt, and Halladay get old, there’s no safety net for this franchise.  But as we saw in 2010, they’re still one of the league’s best teams yet.

Notes:  How long before the Phils recognize the sunk cost of playing Ibanez?  Because the mistake has been made, now they just have to admit it.  A straight platoon with Ben Francisco wouldn’t hurt … Cole Hamels will be 27 next year.  Every other core member of the team will be over 30.  Halladay turns 34, Polanco turns 35, Ibanez turns 39, and Ryan Howard is 31 … but a very old 31.

Washington Nationals

W-L:  69-93 (5th in NL East)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  71-91

Payroll:  $54.7 million (13th in NL)

R/G:  4.04 (14th in NL)

ERA:  4.13 (11th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .682 (10th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham

Team LVPs:  Cristian Guzman, Jason Marquis, Nyjer Morgan

Defensive Stars:  Ryan Zimmerman, Alberto Gonzalez, Nyjer Morgan

What Went Right:  Not a lot went really right for the Nats in 2010.  But then, not a whole lot went really wrong.  69-93 isn’t great, but when you’re rebuilding it’s really the little things that count.

And there were some good signs among the “little things” in 2010.  Ryan Zimmerman took another step forward as the face of the franchise, hitting 307/388/510 with sterling defense at the hot corner.  Stephen Strasburg’s injury casts a big cloud over his performance, but it’s worth noting just how good he was:  92 K’s (and just 17 BB) in 68 IP, with a 2.91 ERA.

There were some decent performances among the supporting players, but guys like Adam Dunn, Nyjer Morgan and Josh Willingham aren’t going to be around when Washington is ready to contend.

The rest of the good news was mostly confined to the minor leagues.  One exception was Drew Storen, Washington’s top pick in the 2009 draft, who made it swiftly to the majors and pitched well in 55.1 big-league innings.  The Nats also picked up Wilson Ramos, a top catching prospect, from Minnesota in the deal for Closer© Matt Capps.

What Went Wrong:

The Nats’ young pitchers failed, by and large, to make a big difference.  The non-star prospects (John Lannan, et al) have youth on their side, but little else.

Help for the starting lineup is not forthcoming from the minors.  The Nats have done a pretty decent job of papering together a decent lineup with cheap pick-ups like Morgan, Willingham and Adam Kennedy, but eventually someone younger will have to take over for the stopgap veterans.  The Nats gave 24-year-old Ian Desmond the starting job at shortstop and while he wasn’t exactly a “star'” prospect, he still fell well below expectations (269/308/392).

The farm system is leaps and bounds better than the scorched earth the owners left behind in Montreal, but that’s not saying much.  The Nats need quantity and quality if they want to compete in the league’s best division.

Notes:  The silver lining in regards to Strasburg’s injury is that pitchers can often return from Tommy John surgery with most of their previous “stuff.”  In other words, there is less risk of a continuing problem.  The Nats will still, no doubt, be uber-vigilant … Here’s to one more year of the Ivan Rodriguez retirement tour.  How many tickets is that selling again? … For a brief time under the Bush administration, middle infielder Alberto Gonzalez bore the nickname “Attorney General.”

No comments: