2011 NL East Preview

Wednesday, March 23 2011 @ 10:10 AM EDT

Contributed by: Dave Rutt

While the Jays principle opponents in interleague play this year will come from the NL Central (Reds, Cards, Astros), the team will square off against two NL East foes this year – the Phillies and the Braves. It seems apropos to take a look at the whole division now, not the least because we are doing divisional previews.

We (Dave and Anders) are in agreement about the following order of finish, and PECOTA agrees, so therefore it must happen.

5. Washington Nationals.

Anders: Well, there are probably worse ways to spend $126 million than on Jayson Werth (Waterworld anyone?) Still, I don't think anyone expects the Nationals to be good in the next couple of years, by which point Werth will be a dried out husk.

The proposed Nationals lineup looks something like this:

CF Nyjer Morgan: An either good or great defender, and an either poor or mediocre hitter. On the plus side, he steals bases. Also, he played for the Regina Pats in the WHL.
SS Ian Desmond: Basically Alex Gonzalez (the current one) with the bat – no walks but some juice. Not a plus defender, and probably not even an average one.
3B Ryan Zimmerman: This guy is really good, if you didn’t know that. Evan Longoria good.
RF Jayson Werth: Well, he’s hit like a machine the last 3 years. It’s just, he’s 32.
1B Adam LaRoche: Reminds me of a reverse Lyle Overbay – more power, fewer walks, a nice player, helps with the glove, but not a difference maker.
LF Mike Morse: Some power, plus he walks about as much as any non-Werth/Zimmerman National.
2B Danny Espinosa: Very likely a better defender at short than Desmond, but they’ll stick him at second. He whiffs an awful lot, and goes for the fences when he does connect.
C Ivan Rodriguez: Still kicking, despite a preponderance of evidence suggesting he isn’t any good anymore.

Roger Bernadinha, Wilson Ramos, Rick Ankiel, Jerry Hairston

There are some good players in there, but this team just isn’t going to get on base at all. I suppose they could go all Blue Jays on people and just bludgeon teams to death with the long ball, but that isn’t exactly an effective strategy. Plus, is their pitching any good?

Dave: No. Here's how it shakes down:

Livan Hernandez: it's never good news when your rotation starts with Livan Hernandez.
Jason Marquis: it's never good when your rotation starts with Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis.
Jordan Zimmermann: Zimmermann missed half of 2009 and most of 2010 after Tommy John surgery, but he'll open 2011 in the rotation. He put up an excellent 3.17 K/BB as a rookie in 2009, and he'll look to build on that success this year. Zimmermann is pretty much the future of this rotation. Except for one other guy.
Tom Gorzelanny: Gorzelanny once seemed like a promising young pitcher, but I guess all those 2007 Pirates did. The truth is that he has a 1.491 WHIP for his career.
John Lannan: a groundballer who doesn't have particularly good control and doesn't strike anyone out. Sounds like a Nats starter to me.
Bullpen: Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Doug Slaten, Collin Balester, Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler. Storen is a former first-round draft pick and is getting the closer's job after just 55 innings in the big leagues. There are some other former highly-regarded prospects in here, but Storen is the one to watch. The pen should be okay.

Dave: The Nats will score some runs, and their defense will be pretty good behind Morgan, Zimmerman, and maybe Espinosa, but the starting pitching is so atrocious that Washington will be in the cellar for another year. There's light at the end of the tunnel, though, Nats fans. Just keep repeating: Harper and Strasburg, Harper and Strasburg...
4. New York Mets

Anders: The Mets are a mess, both on the field, where they continue to struggle, and off, as their owners, the Wilpons, have fallen victim to Bernie Madoff. They’ve taken a $25 million loan from MLB, and are looking to sell a stake in the team. Whoops.

Dave: The offense is non-horrible, but like the Phillies, each member of the former-superstar-core has some questions. And a Box favourite makes an appearance!

SS Jose Reyes: Jose Reyes is only 27. Seriously. The guy played half-seasons at ages 20 and 21 and was full-time by 22, so it's easy to think he's over the hill at this point. If he gets healthy for the first time since 2008, he could be an excellent player again, and possibly maintain it for several years.
CF Angel Pagan: Pagan is kind of representative of why the Mets couldn't win a few years ago with their great core of Reyes, Wright and Beltran - the team kept surrounding that core with useless spare parts, sometimes when there were above-average players (like Pagan) under their nose the whole time. He finally has a full-time job, but it's a little late for the team as a whole.
3B David Wright: Same story as Reyes. Wright is only 28, but his best season came at 24 and he just hasn't been the same player the last two years. But given his age, he could get back there.
1B Ike Davis: Davis was taken one pick after David Cooper, and it looks like the Mets got the better end of that deal. Ike had a very successful rookie season, putting up a 115 OPS+ in 601 PAs.
LF Jason Bay: When was the last time you heard anything about Jason Bay? OK, maybe Jason Bay is more representative of the Mets' recent lack of success. The front office lucked into a few superstars, but generally made bad decisions. This is one (and it was widely panned at the time, though Bay's injury-plagued, ineffective 2010 makes hindsight a little 20/20er).
RF Carlos Beltran (DL to start the year): Formerly one of the game's best players, injuries have taken their toll. Unfortunately for Beltran, the nature of his injury (knee) is one that will limit two of the most productive facets of his game - defense and base-running. He won't miss much time, but he'll likely never again be the star he once was.
2B Brad Emaus: We all love Brad Emaus, right? Good luck, Brad!
C Josh Thole: Pretty good minor league numbers, could be an effective player.

Bench: Daniel Murphy, Chin-lung Hu, Willie Harris, Scott Hairston, Ronny Paulino

Anders: While the Mets lineup has a chance to be good, I don’t think the same can be said for the rotation. The Mets pitching was actually middle of the pack last year, though if you adjust for league it looks less good. Johan Santana is expected back midway through the year.

Mike Pelfrey: He’s had an ERA under 4 two of the last three years – how, I have no idea, as he walks too many and strikes out too few. Still, he eats innings, and seems to have some sort of gift for not giving up home runs.
Jon Niese: A breakout sleeper last year (is that a real thing?), he is left-handed and strikes out at least 7 guys per 9 innings. I like it.  
R.A. Dickey: Remade himself into a knuckler a few years ago, and remade himself into a good pitcher last year. I’m sceptical it lasts, but if he can keep his walk rate at 2/9 instead of 4/9 he has a chance.
Chris Young: He’s thrown less than 200 innings over the last three years, and his already slow fastball tops out at 85 now. Fork, meet location to be in.  
Chris Capuano: Similar to both Niese and Young – Niese because of the strikeouts and left-handedness, Young in that he’s barely pitched the last three years due to injuries. Was good in a third of a season last year. I’m rooting for him.

Bullpen: Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Parnell, Jason Isringhausen, D.J. Carrasco, Taylor Buchholz, Tim Byrdak, Pedro Beato

Anders: Ultimately, it seems more likely that the Mets would surprise by being bad than by being good. It’s an old core, the pitching isn’t good, and there are several other competitive teams in the division. With that being said, they have a bunch of guys capable of playing like stars, so youneverknow.

3. Florida Marlins

Anders: Though the cast regularly changes, the modus operandi for the Marlins remains the same – play your good, young, cheap players until they become good, old, expensive players - trade, lather, rinse, repeat. They sort of did that this past year, flipping Dan Uggla for not much it seems, but they also locked up uber-ace Josh Johnson to a 4 year extension, though that might have been because of flak about their low payroll. Still, they have plenty of intriguing young players, and a staff that has a chance to be pretty good.

CF Chris Coghlan: Well, he basically played the infield throughout his minor league career, and after two years of mediocre play in left is being asked to play CF. I’m skeptical. His offense is also entirely BABIP dependent.
2B Omar Infante: Well, he can basically play every position and hit a pretty empty .290. So there’s that.
SS Hanley Ramirez: He hit 300/380/475 as a shortstop last year and it was his worst in the last four. I wonder if they will move him to CF ever – Cameron Maybin hasn’t worked out and they traded him, and Hanley isn’t much of a defender at short. 
RF Mike Stanton: He’s gonna hit 30 home runs and be really good. Book it.
1B Gaby Sanchez: On the verge of 4A status. Had a nice year last year, but not for a first baseman.
LF Logan Morrison: He walks a lot and has a bit of pop, and he’s 24 (Stanton is 22, did I mention that?)
C John Buck: We all know what he can do, and it ain’t worth what they’re paying him.
3B Matt Dominguez: Light hitting, slick fielding top prospect (for the Marlins, not in general.) At least it’s not Emilio Bonifacio.

Bench: John Baker, Wes Helms, Emilio Bonifacio

Dave: Though the rotation is young, it's more experienced than the line-up, since all of its members have pitched full seasons in the big leagues. This could be a strength of the team.

Josh Johnson: One of the best pitchers in baseball. Nearly matched his innings total (183.2) with his ERA+ (182) last year.
Ricky Nolasco: K/BB the last 3 years: 4.43, 4.43, 4.45. But he gives up too many homers. Solid.
Anibal Sanchez: Finally stayed healthy for a full year and was pretty good, though not as good as his 3.55 ERA suggests.
Javier Vazquez: The AL/NL difference isn't as pronounced as one would assume based on Vazquez's last two years. Expect something in the middle from the 34-year-old.
Chris Volstad: Peripheral stats are thoroughly unimpressive, though he is just 24.

Bullpen: Leo Nunez, Clay Hensley, Ryan Webb, Mike Dunn, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate, Brian Sanches. This looks like a slightly above-average bullpen to me.

Anders: There is definitely some talent here, both in the lineup and in the rotation. I don’t know if this team can catch the Phillies, but they are young, and if they can hold it together for a couple of years they could be more than just good.

Dave: I think that's what we say about the Marlins every year. However, this time they may actually have enough time to grow into a competitor with Ramirez and Johnson both locked up for at least three more years. The new stadium should help too, and I know this from personal experience - I tried, on two consecutive days, to go to a Marlins game, and was foiled both times by Miami public transit. The new park is much more accessible.
2. Atlanta Braves
Dave: The Braves had been a trendy pick to snag the wild-card for several years before they finally broke through in 2010. This year I think they've achieved full wild-card favourite status, and for good reason - a solid team across the board with plenty of upside in its young players.

Anders: Then there were all those years they were a trendy pick to win the division before that… Never mind. Tell us about the hitters, Dave.


LF Martin Prado: A good bet for an .800 OPS entering his peak years.
RF Jason Heyward: A good bet for a 1.000 OPS, still decades away from his peak.
3B Chipper Jones: In a down year, put up a 120 OPS+. Of course, that was in only 381 PAs. Expect some Hinske Time.
C Brian McCann: Did you know Brian McCann is only three years older than Buster Posey? I still can't believe I didn't get any good offers for him in the BBFL. Grumble grumble.
2B Dan Uggla: Lacking a big power threat (McCann led the team with 21 last year), the Braves went out and got themselves one. Uggla is a perfect fit with a bunch of on-base machines in front of him.
1B Freddie Freeman: It's a big risk handing a starting job to a 21-year-old with 20 major league at bats when you have playoff aspirations. Then again, Freeman manhandled the International League last year. Still, I could see a mid-season trade for a veteran 1B if Freddie struggles.
SS Alex Gonzalez: also known as Not Yunel Escobar. Thanks, Frank Wren!
CF Nate McLouth: Was an all-star a few years ago, was horrible last year. Jordan Schafer is waiting in the wings.
The Braves pitching is similar to their hitting – a good mix of youngsters and proven veterans™

Tommy Hanson: A star in the making, he cut his walk rate this past year, boosting his K/BB above 3. He has a 3.16 era in 330.1 career innings, and he’s only 25 in August.
Tim Hudson: Fun fact: he has the same career record as Sandy Koufax, 165-87. (h/t Bill James.) They, uh, differ in several other regards though.
Jair Jurrjens: The best pitcher ever eligible to pitch for the Dutch national team, bar none. He had a monster 2009, aided by some unrealistic rate numbers, and fell back to earth in 2010 despite not doing anything appreciably different. 2011? Who knows.
Derek Lowe: A model of consistency, Lowe has had an xFIP below 3.65 for five of his six years in the NL. He strikes out enough, walks but a few and gets a ton of ground balls. What’s not to like?
Mike Minor: The Braves #2 pitching prospect, Minor looks likely to open in the bigs. He struck out 43 and walked 11 in his 40 inning debut last year, although he gave up a ton of hits. He posted huge K numbers in the minors, and looks like a pretty big sleeper in ‘11.

Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters, Peter Moylan, Brandon Beachy, Eric O’Flaherty, ???
Anders: I like this Braves team. They’re young and have a boatload of talent. I think that the Phillies rotation is good enough that they’re fine for this year, but if things go wrong, watch out for the Braves, even Coxless.

Dave: The Braves are just such a good franchise. They always have a solid veteran core, but constantly replenish the team through the farm system - last year it was Heyward, this year Freeman and Minor keep the line moving, and the farm system is still one of the best.

1. Philadelphia Phillies

Anders: I don’t think we need to introduce the Phillies to you – they’ve gone deep in the playoffs the past few years, and you know the names of the stars – Chase, Ryan, Roy, Roy, Cliff, Cole, etc. They are a trendy pick to win 100 games, though I’m skeptical of that – there’s enough talent in the division, and there are enough question marks with their hitters to make their anointment as division winners slightly premature.
SS Jimmy Rollins: Hard as it may be to remember now, Jimmy Rollins was a legitimately fantastic shortstop back in the day, putting up consistently good offensive numbers to match his stellar defense. The he got hurt and got old(er), and has had an OBP in the low 300s for the last two years and ~1100 plate appearances, to match a drop in stolen bases and power. I don’t think he’s coming back
3B Placido Polanco: Another strong defender who doesn’t really hit like he used to. He still doesn’t walk, strike out or hit home runs, and when you do that you have to hit well north of .300 to be very valuable, and he doesn’t.
2B ???/Chase Utley: Chase Utley is going to be out an indeterminate amount of time, which is unfortunate given he is their best position player. The Phils just signed Luis Castillo, who may get the bulk of the playing time, unless he doesn’t, or they trade for Michael Young.
1B Ryan Howard: Howard turns 32 this year and it looks like the wheels might already be coming off. He walked less than he had in the past, and hit some 15 fewer home runs (31) than he had in any previous full season. Throw in mediocre at best defense, and the fact that he’s really only ever had one superstar calibre season, and that that was five years ago, and I wouldn’t be overly optimistic if I were a Phillies phan. Plus, his 5/$125 extension doesn’t kick in til next year. Whoops.
LF Raul Ibanez: Old Man Ibanez is just going to keep hanging in there, hitting 280/350/4??, until one year he doesn’t.
CF Shane Victorino: A nice player with some speed, some D, and some O. Not an all-star.
C Carlos Ruiz: Very underrated, Carlos put up a good line two years ago and a great one last year. Getting old, like every other Philly, but not much on the catching odometer.
RF Domonic Brown: It’s his age 24 year, which makes him practically a grandchild compared to the other Phillies. They need to let him figure out if he can hit this year.

Bench: Ben Francisco, Brian Schneider, Luis Castillo, John Mayberry
Dave: Of course, everybody knows how the Phillies assembled one of the best rotations in history, but I'll tell you anyway - Cole Hamels, the elder statesman of the quartet in a sense, was joined first by Roy Halladay who came over in a trade from, well, you know. Another Roy, Oswalt, was acquired last year before the July deadline. And Cliff Lee, who'd been shipped out of town when Halladay was shipped in, returned to his former team by signing a $100M contract.

Roy Halladay: I used to argue that Halladay wasn't the best pitcher in baseball. I think it was my gut reaction to over-the-top homerism. (Also Johan Santana was really good.) No longer. Roy Halladay - Best Pitcher in Baseball.
Cliff Lee: I have a bet with a friend that Lee will out-WAR Sabathia this year. What side of the bet would you have been on?
Roy Oswalt: The 33-year-old was lights out after being traded to the Phillies last year, rediscovering his mid-aughts form.
Cole Hamels: Remember when Cole Hamels the 23-year-old was clearly the best pitcher on the Phillies?
Who Cares? But actually, Joe Blanton - a mediocre pitcher can look good if he has a fully-rested bullpen every time he pitches.

Bullpen: Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras, Ryan Madson, Danys Baez, J.C. Romero, David Herndon, Scott Mathieson. I saw the point made earlier in the off-season that the Phillies should go with a 6-man bullpen, and even though I hadn't considered the idea myself, my brain just said "well, yeah, definitely". It seems so obvious, and if they don't I think it's a huge mistake. They could use that roster spot to form an effective platoon or carry a bat-only pinch-hitter, a glove-only defensive replacement, whatever, and it will be a better use of a roster spot than a 7th reliever behind that rotation.

Anders: The more I think about it, the more I would be worried about the Phillies. All of their position players are on the wrong side of 30, and their pitchers aren’t exactly spring chickens either. On the other hand, if they can make it to the playoffs in some form of health, watch out.

Dave: Yeah, if a couple things go wrong on offense it could turn ugly fast. Domonic Brown can't mature fast enough. I'm less worried about the pitchers, despite their age; they're all consistent innings-eaters who are at worst above-average and at best The Best Pitcher in the Game (Blanton excluded). The Phillies' downside is fantastic pitching with a mediocre offense, which would still make for a contender.
Bold Prediction:

Anders: The Braves almost shock the Phillies and win the East, while the Marlins are quietly much better than anyone would have thought.

Dave: Bobby Cox sets a new record for most ejections by a former manager.

Anders: Also, next year, I'm definitely previewing a DH-less division again. Its, like, 12% less work!