2010 NL East Preview

Thursday, March 25 2010 @ 07:39 AM EDT

Contributed by: Dave Rutt

There are 5 teams in the NL East. I asked 2 questions about each team. That's 10 questions! Did I ever mention I'm a math teacher?

We start, of course, with the Phillies. The Phillies have won the division the last two years, going to the World Series both times and winning it in 2008. The core group of Utley, Rollins, Howard and Hamels remains intact, but there's a new face at the front of the rotation...

Why did the Phillies trade for one ace, and then trade off another?

Well, the basic answer is that Halladay was open to signing an extension while Cliff Lee wasn't. But then there was all that stuff about payroll, which didn't make sense when they could have just cut Joe Blanton and not given 18 million dollars to Placido Polanco. (They could even have signed Felipe Lopez to play 3rd for a mere million, but y'know, hindsight, yadda yadda.) Also, the prospects Philly got back from Seattle are no great shakes (Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and Juan Ramirez). Imagine a rotation with Halladay, Lee and Hamels! And they would have gotten compensation picks for Lee after the season, as well. What's the risk, that he accepts arbitration? Heaven forbid! The Phillies could have been a 100-win team on paper, but instead they may not be noticeably better than the Braves.

I guess I shouldn't move on before touching on that one ace the Phillies traded for, 'specially 'round these parts. I think we're all hoping for the best for Roy, and even though I usually root for the Braves in this division, Halladay has thrown a wrench in that policy. Furthermore, I'm excited to see how the change in division/league affects Roy. He'll be pitching in a bandbox, but as a groundballer, that won't make a huge difference, and he's got a great infield defense behind him. I could see a great season.

Can the Phillies defend their way to another division title?

Defense might be the biggest difference between the Phillies and Braves. The Phillies are very strong up the middle with Utley, Rollins and Victorino, and Werth and Polanco should be good as well. Even Ibanez and Howard aren't bad. The Phillies really have things figured out on the defensive side of things: well-above average defenders at the positions where it can make the most difference, and solid defenders everywhere else.

The Braves, meanwhile, have these players projected by ZiPS to be above-average defenders: Melky Cabrera and Jason Heyward. Melky is a 4th or 5th outfielder, and Heyward, while almost Jesus, is still a guy with half a season above A ball, meaning we don't know how much time he'll spend in the bigs this year.

Will the "4H Club" (Hanson, Heyward, Hudson and... uh, Hinske) lead the Braves into their next era of dominance?

Okay, this question is really just about the first two, but who's ever heard of a 2H club?

Anyway, teams that want to contend on an annual basis generally build around a few star players, and Hanson and Heyward are among the best young assets in the game. In 127 Major League innings last year, Hanson put up a 3.50 FIP, with good rate stats across the board save for a low ground ball percentage (40.2), and he was just 22 years old. It won't be long before he's the ace of the staff and a perennial Cy Young contender; it could even start this year. Heyward, as you know, is the best position-player prospect in the game (and possibly best overall, depending on what you think of Strasburg), and is the subject of much Spring Training Buzz this year. He could win a spot out of S.T. this year, despite only having half a season above A ball under his belt. If those two guys get early starts on what look to be very promising careers, the Braves could be hard to beat.

Seriously though, Hinske has gone to the playoffs 3 years in a row with 3 different teams.The man is doing something right.

Will the Braves' hitters take a cue from Chipper's awesome reverse-patience strategy?

If you missed the whole Chipper Jones-Jon Sciambi thing, allow me to sum up: Sciambi, a Braves broadcaster with a bit of stats knowledge, pointed out to Chipper that he swings at a lot of first pitches. Chipper explained that he uses this strategy against tough pitchers so he doesn't get behind in the count. Well, Dave Allen at Fangraphs looked into this claim, and discovered that Chipper knows exactly what he's talking about. His aggresiveness increases with the quality of the pitcher, which is a trend that does not manifest itself in hitters as a group. Really fascinating stuff - give the whole thing a read.

Really, though, I don't expect Chipper's strategy to rub off on his teammates. But let's talk about the offense anyway. It looks like an above average offense to me, with no big holes and above average hitters at C (McCann), 3B (Jones) and CF (McClouth). Prado, Escobar and DiMelkSke are solid, and Glaus should hit while he's healthy and miss a bunch of games to make the first base production just average. I'm kind of surprised, actually - all the talk earlier in the off-season focused on the strength of the rotation, but now that the Braves' best starter from 2009 (Javier Vazquez) is gone, the offense might be the biggest strength of the team.

Were the baseball gods just playing a joke on the Mets last year?

In 2008, David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran played 480 games between them, and after coming over in a trade with the Twins Johan Santana continued to dominate baseball. That incredible core led the Mets to 89 wins despite some flaws.

Last year, Reyes only played 36 games, Beltran played 81, Santana missed a handful of starts, and was less effective than in the preceding seasons (124 OPS+), and Wright lost a bunch of power. Even though the Mets' front office is a bit of a mess, resulting in some questionable moves, that core is good enough to compete in any given year, so by the end of 2009, Mets fans must have been wondering what else could possibly go wrong. So, will those 4 return to form?

Well, here's the status report, courtesy of Dave Rutt courtesy of Yahoo Fantasy Baseball: Reyes is questionable for opening day after suffering through a thyroid problem, but still you've gotta think he's good for more than 36 games this year. Beltran is still rehabbing and hopes to return in May. Wright and Santana are fine, but the questions with them were more about performance than injury. I bet that both will bounce back somewhat this year. My guess is the glory days of the Mets' Quadrifecta (I'm sure there's a real word for that) are over, but they'll get significantly more production from those 4 guys than last year. Whether that's enough to win the division is another question.

Is that enough to win the division?

Well, what did you expect? I told you it was, and I quote, "another question". The short answer (well, okay, my short answer anyway) is no. The Mets' rotation is an absolute mess; none of Pelfrey, Perez and Maine had an ERA+ in the triple digits last year. Perez' was THIRTY-FIVE. David Murphy is the every-day first baseman, and Jeff Francoeur and Luis Castillo are also set to be pencilled in every game. Also, they have like 13 catchers? I actually don't think there will be room for any utility players or about half a bullpen with that many catchers.

To succeed in baseball, once you've established a core of very good/star players, you need to surround those players with good, cheap role players to fill out the roster. Some NL East GMs have succeeded in this regard (Frank Wren). Others have not.

Will the Nationals get another #1 pick in 2011?

At some point, teams stop getting high draft picks, because those picks turn out to be really good players, so the team isn't that bad, so they don't get high draft picks anymore! That's the theory, anyway. The Rays executed this strategy effectively; the Pirates and Royals have not, yet.

With Zimmerman and Strasburg, the Nats have 2 star-level players to build around, with Bryce Harper on his way. But is the team getting too good already for a 3rd consecutive #1 pick? Heck, simply getting Adam Dunn's glove out of the outfield might be enough for the Nats to climb out of the basement. Seriously, the team isn't terrible - they're bad, but there are a few good hitters, the defense isn't terrible (Zimmerman and Desmond help to balance out some of the statues in the corners), and it may not be long before Strasburg is up.

So how good is Strasburg?

I have no idea. But I can't wait to find out. He's down in the minors already, but here's hoping he's up by mid-season, if not earlier. I haven't had any incentive to watch the Nationals since they started existing (and kind of liked it that way, secretly hoping Selig would eventually just give up and say "okay, this is dumb, let's go back to Montreal and pretend this never happened"), but it's amazing what one player who's never even played in the majors has done for my, and I can only assume many other people's, interest in the Nationals. I'm eagerly awaiting the MLB debut-induced Strasburg Mania that will inevitably lead to Chuck Norris-style superlatives:

Are the Marlins now the most boring team in the division?

Well, let's go by process of elimination here. The Phillies have gone to two consecutive World Series', so they're not boring. Many people are picking the Braves as a dark-horse (or not so dark?) candidate to win the division or wild card, and the Heyward Hoopla doesn't hurt. For the last few years the Boring Badge has gone to the Nats, but as mentioned, Strasburg has changed that, for me at least. I guess it's between the Mets and Marlins - but New York always creates excitement somehow, even if the Mets suck again (especially if the Mets suck again?).

I always think of Florida as a fun team, because they always seem to exceed expectations with a bunch of no-names. Even if they don't win the division, you have to admire their ability to play respectable baseball every year despite the limitations of their payroll. But I dunno, this year is different. Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez are great, but we already know what they can do, y'know? The come-out-of-nowhere-ness is what makes Florida fun, and MLB's forced payroll increase has unfortunately given the Marlins the ability to retain their recognizable players. Why can't David Samson ever catch a break? You gotta feel for that guy.

Can you even think of another question to ask about the Marlins?

Man, like I'm sitting here trying to think of something relevant and I'm just sooo booooooooorrrred. This team, man. Um, Mike Stanton is a great prospect, but he won't be ready this year. Logan Morrison is a pretty good prospect as well, I guess, I barely know who that guy is. Ricky Nolasco is quite good, Anibal Sanchez threw a no-hitter once... oh, I just remembered Cameron Maybin! He might be an interesting player to follow on the Marlins, but then again, this just proves my point about how boring the Marlins are - Maybin may be exciting and may finally establish himself in the big leagues this year, but there are a whole bunch of young center fielders I'm more interested in - Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Colby Rasmus...

Final Thoughts

The Phillies are the best team in the division, but only barely - their defense gives them a bit of an edge over the Braves. The Mets won't get enough from their stars to make up for the gaping holes on other parts of their roster. The Marlins will tread water. The Nats won't climb out of the divisional basement, but they'll win some more games and won't be the worst team in baseball for the first time in a few years.

Philadelphia: 93-69
Atlanta: 91-71
Florida: 82-80
New York: 76-86
Washington: 68-94