Somewhat Less Than 10 Questions About the NL East

Thursday, March 26 2009 @ 06:29 AM EDT

Contributed by: braden

In exchanging a few emails with my co-author regarding our task, both Alex and I realized that the NL East isn't all that interesting this year.  Sure, it features the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies and a revamped Mets bullpen, but aside from that, there just isn't much excitement going around.  Or maybe we're just lazy.  Whichever, here's a bunch of questions we've asked and answered ourselves. 

1- Is Cameron Maybin ready to be a star?

As if witnessing Troy Tulowitzkiís Cal Ripken impression in 2007 wasnít painful enough for Jays fans, Marlins outfielder Cameron Maybin may be ready to twist the 2005 MLB draft knife a little bit deeper into their respective backs.  Maybin, as youíre no doubt aware, was drafted 10th overall by the Detroit Tigers, four spots after the immortal Ricky Romero.  Dubbed a future star almost immediately, Maybin impressed in the Tigersí minor league system before being the centrepiece to the Marlins in the Miguel Cabrera (and, yikes, Dontrelle Willis) deal. 

Since his arrival, Maybin has made two brief cameos in the vast Florida outfield.  The first, in 2007, started well enough with a homerun off Roger Clemens in just his second career at-bat.  He should have quit there, however, as he struggled through the rest of his stint to the tune of .143/.208/.265 with 21 strikeouts in 49 at bats.

Maybinís 2008 audition is another story.  In 32 at-bats, Cameron picked up 16 hits which was good for a .500/.543/.563 line.  Extrapolated for a full season, Maybin looks to be on pace for 324 hits in 2009 which would best Ichiroís single season mark by 62.  Anything less should be viewed as a disappointment, really.

But really, what can we expect from Maybin this year?  Heís already essentially been handed the everyday centerfield job and the leadoff spot in the Marlinsí order.  So unless he really struggles, the 22 year-old should be around for the full season.   That said, itís quite possible he will have a rough go of it, at least initially as Maybinís greatest flaw is his ability to swing and miss a whole hell of a lot.  In 1,110 minor league at-bats, Cam has struck out 331 times, good for a 30% K-rate.  But the talent is certainly there.  My statistical forecaster (wild guesses with virtually nothing behind them) puts Maybin with a line of .262/.338/.455 with 13 homers, 19 stolen bases, and 173 strikeouts.  Bang on, right?

2- Does Jeff Francoeur suck?

If you followed baseball in 2005, you couldnít have missed  the meteoric rise of Braves rightfielder Jeff Francoeur.  Playing in just 70 games, the Atlanta native smacked 35 extra-base hits, including 14 homers, drove in 45 runs, slugged .549 and threw out approximately 600 baserunners with his Barfield-esque arm.  At just 21 years of age, Francoeur was being touted as some Super Genetic Georgia Peach or something.

However, soon after things started to go kind of wonky.  Francoeur scuffled through the 2006 and 2007 seasons putting up fairly sexy RBI and HR numbers but getting on base at alarming levels (.293 and .338 respectively).  Things came to a head in 2008 when Francoeur was actually demoted to AAA for a week while he struggled through a career-worst season of just 11 HRs, a .294 OBP, and a .359 Slugging Percentage.

So what does 2009 have in store for Francoeur?  Well, much of the same, youíd expect.  He seems to be good for four strikeouts for every walk, a bunch of doubles, and maybe around 20 homers.  But wait!   Jeffís a changed man, you say?  I should look at his Spring Training stats?  None of you actually said that?  Well, I looked anyway.  Through 40 at-bats, Francoeur has a remarkable 6:1 BB:K rate and is on-basing his way to a ridiculous .417 clip.  Couple that with the fact that Jeff is still only 25, could he be in for a career-reversing campaign?  Iím not so sure.  Maybe itís a step in the right direction, but Iím still putting him down for a .277/.318/.447 line with 23 HRs, 49 walks, and 133 strikeouts.  And Iím at least 5% confident in those predictions.

3-  Will the Mets bullpen be at least ok?

Two years running now, Iím happy Iím a fan of the Jays instead of those glorious losers from Queens.  Personally, I think itís better to scuffle along at around .500 for six months rather than light the world on fire for 130 games and then choke away a division title over the final dozen or so contests.  I just couldnít take it.

Anyway, now that the Mets arenít prohibitive favourites in the NL East (the World Champion Phillies get that distinction for now), have they done enough to overhaul their atrocious bullpen to wrestle their way back to the top of the division?  Maybe.

So how bad was the bullpen last year?  Well, pretty awful, actually.  In terms of ERA (I know, not the best measure for relievers), the Mets ranked 7th in the Majors for starting pitching and 23rd in relief.  From the 10th of September on, the bullpen ERA eclipsed 6.00 and blew five saves.  Had they been even slightly better, Matt Stairs may not be a Philadelphia folk hero today.

So what did the Mets do to patch things up?  Well, like only a New York based team can, they went out and picked up two of the best closers in baseball including the newly crowned all-time single season saves leader, Francisco Rodriguez.  That should do nicely.

Despite being wildly overrated, Rodriguez is still a damn impressive pitcher, even if he is clearly unable to go more than three outs.  Last year saw K-Rod save 62 games with an ERA of 2.24 and 77 strikeouts in 68.3 innings.  While the Saves total will almost certainly drop, thereís little reason to suggest that Rodriguez canít be as good or even better statistically in New York.

To help bridge the gap to K-Rod, the Mets dealt a ton of filler in something like a twelve-player trade to acquire Mariners closer J.J. Putz (side note:  thereís absolutely no way his name is pronounced ĎPootzí.  Youíll never convince me of that).  Despite battling some injury problems in 2008, Putz is still one of the most dominant relievers in the game today.  Just a year removed from a 40 Save, 1.38 ERA campaign, Putz will be tasked with pitching parts of the 7th and almost assuredly all of the 8th innings in games the Mets are leading.  While his elbow could blow at any time, a healthy Putz will certainly help keep the Mets staff from looking like a bunch of putzes (putzi?)

So do you want a prediction?  Well, I guess Iíll put the Mets bullpen down as significantly improved.  Rodriguez will be excellent, Putz will relish the set-up role despite missing some time to injury, and Johan Santana will enjoy four extra wins. 

4-  Why should I bet the over on the Nationals?

Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman, Lastings Milledge. Count on it: the Nats are going to have baseballís most menacing 15-day DL in June. When all of those guys are active, though, the Nats are going to have a marginally menacing offense. On paper, they are very strong at the corners and in the outfield.

Milledge seems particularly well positioned for a breakout season, coming off a competent first full season in the majors in which he hit .268/.330/.402 and lowered his strikeout rate considerably. The power Milledge appeared to gain in 2007 disappeared while his pop-up issues persisted, though. Manny Acta has made a pretty sensible decision in response to these developments: heís anointed Milledge as the Natsí leadoff guy. I would not be surprised at all to see Milledge have a fluke batting average year fueled by a BABIP spike, becoming the face of the resurgent franchise which heroically finds a way to win 75 games.

The Nationals are less strong up the middle. Cristian Guzmanís hacking produced a .316 average last year. That could happen again, or it could not. Late-blooming catcher Jesus Flores still hasnít mastered the strike zone, but he hit with enough authority last year to become the Natsí full-time catcher. Heíll have to do any such mastery at the big-league level. Anderson Hernandez is the Natsí starting second baseman according to their depth chart on their official website. He switch-hits and had a very successful 91 PA last year, but second is the most obvious place the Nationals could stand to improve themselves in the short term. They should try to trade a bag of peanuts for the underappreciated Joe Inglett, whose speed, versatility and line-drive hitting style would complement the rest of their injury-prone offense nicely.

Looking back over the last three paragraphs, I have decided that they were a pretty boring answer to the question, just listing Washingtonís projected starters. The point is kind of implied: You should take this team seriously. If their pitching somehow turns out to be anywhere near league average (Daniel Cabrera? Jordan Zimmermann?), theyíve got a shot at .500. And if (not when) they take Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in June, their outlook will be yet another little bit brighter. Until then, .500 is a reasonable goal, and maybe even an attainable one.

5-  The BBFL draft is today. Should I stack my team with Mets hitters or Mets pitchers?

Because theyíre moving into a new stadium. And nobody knows for sure how itís going to play. Thereís a potential market inefficiency in fantasyland.

Iíve found two theories about the new park, and they will blow you away. The first is that itís going to be a hittersí park. The second is that itís going to be even more of a pitchersí park than Shea was. The new park is even bigger, but itís closed in center field, unlike Shea.

SIís Jon Heyman cites a secret batting practice the Mets held at their new park last summer as evidence that itís going to be hitter-friendly: ďA secret batting practice session with David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans last September at [the place where the Mets play] convinced all the players that the Mets' new home won't be the pitching park Mets people expected, but rather a launching pad for home runs.Ē

Amazin Avenue
has a diagram and an interview with batted-ball expert Greg Rybarczyk: ď[The new place where the Mets play] is not even close to Shea dimension-wise, and home runs will be drastically reduced. I predict this because over the last three years, my analysis of every home run hit in MLB revealed that approximately 29% of all home runs have cleared the fence by 10 feet or less. At least half of the [new place where the Mets play] outfield fence is either 10 or more feet deeper, or effectively 10 or more feet deeper due to a combination of longer distance and higher fence height. Now, there could be some change in the wind patterns that makes [new place where the Mets play] more favorable than Shea, as Shea was open in center field and frequently had wind coming in, while CF is more sheltered. We'll have to see how that turns out, but I haven't seen any convincing evidence that the wind will be more or less favorable in CF than it was in Shea.Ē

So we have a giant pile of ambiguity. Do you trust one isolated batting practice session, or an analysis based solely on dimensions that (acknowledges but) doesnít factor in wind patterns at all?

6-  Philly signed Raul Ibanez to a bigger contract than the one Pat Burrell ended up getting. Bad move, right?

I donít think so. At the very least, I donít think thereís much chance Ibanez looks like a downgrade after this season, unless he gets hurt. Signing (1) an AL player who (2) plays in Safeco Field and bringing him (3) into Phillyís bandbox (4) to replace a guy moving from Philly to Tampa seems like a pretty foolproof strategy, even if the guy in question is 37 in June and giving him three years seems like an unnecessarily big investment. Burrell is moving into a pitchersí park in what should be an absurdly difficult division to hit in. Itís possible that the Trop is actually a homer-friendly park that suppresses other kinds of hits, making it less unfavorable to Burrell than it would to other kinds of hitters, but that seems kind of unlikely. (A more reasonable objection is that the Phillies brought in Ibanez instead of, say, Adam Dunn.)

Ibanezís strikeout rate is league average, low for a power hitter. And heís put up slightly-above-average HR/fly rates in the AL in Seattle. Those should go up. The adverse impact of aging is going to have to be pretty big to offset the change in environment. 

Itís going to be harder to say how Ibanezís performance compares to what Burrell would have done had he stayed in Philly, or what Dunn (say) would have produced in Philly. Burrell is an extreme three-true-outcomes guy who is moving into a division with a very high proportion of power pitchers. I have a lingering suspicion that Burrell will be hurt more by the transition than a more contact-happy hitter moving from Philly to Tampa would be (say Jimmy Rollins.) Burrell isnít exactly a kid himself - this is his age-32 season, and thereís nothing stopping him from collapsing altogther.

At the very least, I think there are sane arguments one can make to defend the Philsí handling of their left field situation here. Iím definitely not going anywhere near Burrell in fantasyland this year.

7-  Who Wins?

Alex:  I like the Mets to get over the hump this year, with a 91-71 record. Their starting pitching is suspect, but having a real bullpen helps compensate. And they have too many excellent hitters to keep missing the playoffs forever.

Braden:  I'm going with the Mets, too.  I'll say 92-70, that way, as Price is Right rules state, I win as long as we're not over.