Ladies and gentlemen, our tour of the National League is reaching the last stop. Please check to make sure you have all your belongings and have your transfers ready...
To the National League East we go, the land of brand new sparkling ballparks! Seriously, Turner Field is the oldest park in this division. Yep. On to the teams!
1. So... 2017?
Jason Heyward. Aaron Harang. Justin Upton. Ervin Santana. Evan Gattis. All significant parts of the 2014 Braves, all now playing for a different team. That is a drastic blowing up of a roster right there. But why? This is an organization that still grows quality young pitching from a magic peachtree. Are the Nationals really so much better that the Atlanta braintrust just said "Screw this. Lets throw this team into the crapper until our new better ballpark with our new better fans are ready." Because, well they might be on to something. Nothing bugged me more as a Braves fan in the mid-2000s than seeing empty seats in Turner Field during playoff games. "NLDS? We've played in like twenty-straight of those. Call me when they're about to clinch the pennant or something." Blech.
2. The Team Of Long Names
Which of these names did I make up? Braeden Schlehuber. Christian Bethancourt. Barrett Kleinknecht. Joey Terdoslavich. Mike Foltynewicz. The answer? Trick question: none of them! These are all players who have appeared this spring for the Braves. This obviously has nothing to do with the potential 2015 fortunes of the team, but it certainly amused me a heck of a lot more than actually trying to examine this squad any closer.
3. Worst Offense In Baseball?
Okay okay, some genuine analysis here. Atlanta only scored 573 runs in 2014, which really ain't good. That was second worst in all of baseball, beating only the San Diego Padres team that for all we know was calling the Blue Jays all summer about Steve Tolleson. "We need a cleanup hitter!" Well, what did the Braves do when faced with such a weakness? Why, trade away three of their four only good hitters of course! So Gattis, Upton The Better and Heyward are gone, leaving poor Freddie Freeman all alone as the only thing resembling an above average hitter. Did I mention these guys had given up? To be fair, they did add Nick Markakis (why????) to replace some of what was lost, though he is now doubtful for opening day. Jonny Gomes, Alberto Callaspo, Kelly Johnson and A.J. Pierzynski are also on board, which would be great if this was 2009 of course.
Overview: It might seem like I'm ragging on this team a lot (it's because I am) but there are a few things to like here. Swiping Shelby Miller from the Cardinals is a nice piece of business, and there are enough other interesting names in the rotation (Teheran, Alex Wood, Minor once he's healthy). But this offense has a chance to be, well, offensive. They should be the worst scoring team in baseball, and just might be a Freeman injury away from being one of the worst scoring teams of the past few decades. I'd look it up but I don't really want to. If everything breaks right they'll be a slightly below .500 team, and that ain't happening.
1. Wildcard Darkhorse
There's a lot of talk about the Marlins being a potential playoff team this year. Bah, flimshaw I say! I, wait, this actually is a pretty deep team, thanks to a host of off-season acquisitions. Martin Prado, Michael Morse, David Phelps, Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Dan Haren and Ichiro! are all on board, adding considerable quality to a squad that won 77 games in 2014. Huh. They could be in the mix, but it all comes down to...
2. The Rotation Is The Skeleton Key
...for the postseason. Adding Latos and Haren is definitely flashy as far as name recognition goes. However, these are two pitchers who may not be quite as good as their reputation suggests. Haren for instance, hasn't had a good season since 2011, mainly due to his homer problems. Latos was very good for the Reds through 2012-13, pitched well in limited action in 2014 but, uh, damn. Latos is pretty darn good. But, he is infuriating to watch. He'll seemingly surpass 100 pitches every start before the end of the fifth inning, as you watch him nibble and nibble before getting another weak grounder on a full-count pitch. He's like Kyle Drabek with command. In three seasons with Cincinnati, 81 starts, Latos only completed three of them, and none were shutouts. Also in the Marlins rotation will be everyone's favourite anti-strikeout man, Henderson Alvarez, former Yankee David Phelps, some dude I've never heard of named Tom Koehler, and possibly Jarred Cosart. Oh, and some guy named Fernandez might reappear later in the summer, he might help.
3. Bigfoot Versus The Big Hurts
Giancarlo Stanton is a pretty darn special player. He was the rare player that could come up at age 20 and clearly belong immediately, and since then he has only improved. There is only one thing that has held him back: health. Stanton has never played a full season, in fact he's only played at least 140 games twice in his five year career. Leg and eye injuries, along with a terrifying pitch to the face, have limited Stanton's opportunities at the plate. A fully healthy season from him could. you know, really help the Marlins in their quest for the playoffs. Duh.
Overview: Like the Pirates, I didn't quite realize how deep these guys were until I took a closer look. There doesn't seem to be a critical weakness on this squad, but for whatever reason I'm just not feeling it. They're gonna be the Brewers of 2014 (minus the grotesque collapse): an exciting group that contends until the end, but just misses a wildcard spot by a few games. I'm gonna blame it on the youth: this is a very young team. Next year might be a completely different story.
NEW YORK METS
1. Them Kids
What is it with these NL East teams that always seem to be sneezing out young starting pitchers? (I'm giving Kevin Pillar a partial inspirational credit for that joke). The Mets might be the primary culprit of this runny perception. Naturally, of all their exciting eye-candy arms like Harvey, Syndergaard and Wheeler, so far it's a long haired skinny 9th round pick named Jacob deGrom who has a Rookie of the Year award. This kind of factory for young, terrific and cheap starting pitching is the main reason a few folks have the Mets in place as a 2015 sleeper team. Losing Wheeler for the season is going to hurt that dream, but the real obstacle here is something different.
2. Waiting For The Wright Answer
2014 was not a fine season for David Wright. He set career lows in home runs (8), OBP (.324), slugging percentage (.374), while also grounding into 22 double plays. He's also owed twenty million a season through 2018, and an additional twenty-seven million the next two years after that. Those kind of dollars make Jose Reyes' contract look like a spring training invitee. Okay, maybe not, but still! The Mets, very very obviously, hope that Wright's 2014 numbers were a result of some shoulder issues that lingered throughout the year, instead of a permanent new level of performance. Which would make Wright an extremely expensive slightly-above average player. Hmmmm, could be worse I suppose. He could be an injury prone, slightly-above average corner outfielder owed ninety(!) million for the next three years. That team must be in big trouble! Er, probably.
3. Lagares Legend
Seriously, go to MLB.com or YouTube, type in Juan Lagares, mute the volume if it's YouTube (trust me) and watch some of the catches this guy has made. It's wild.
Overview: Another one of those teams that had a much better record than you thought. They scored more runs than they allowed in 2014, and with an improved Wright and the Michael Cuddyer Rejuvenation Tour, there's a good chance they do that again. I'm not terribly convinced the rotation is going to be this 'enormous strength" however. Even without Wheeler, the projected five of Harvey, Colon, deGrom, Gee and Niese is, well nice, but beyond that are just the kids: Syndergaard and a young lefty named Steven Matz. When it comes down to it, relying on some unproven rookies with little AAA experience is risky business and... hey wait... uh by risky business I mean worthwhile gamble! I'm sure it'll be fine... Anyhow, this team is a lot like the Marlins: very young and good enough to linger in a wildcard race. Give these young arms another year and add another bat or two, you might have something.
1. We're Having A Fire! Sale.
OH THE BURNING! IT BURNS ME! Obvious to all of us except for Mr. Funke, is that the Phillies are eagerly putting up most of their remaining players on the trade block. Cole Hamels is still owed a ton of money for many more seasons, but as a top quality left-hander the Phillies should be able to get young value back and not have to eat too much remaining salary. Likewise with second baseman Chase Utley, who really doesn't seem keen on going anywhere, despite Philadelphia's present rebuilding. Then you've got Ryan Howard, who's owed...sixty million (including 2017 buyout) the next two seasons? Good luck not paying most of that. Jonathan Papelbon is in a similar spot as Howard: owed far too money for what they provide a ballclub, lessening their trade value drastically. Unlike Hamels, neither Howard or Papelbon are useful enough to give up a top prospect for, even if the Phillies eat all of the money (which ain't happening, because paying over twenty million bucks for a prospect or two is completely insane, and that's just Papelbon's deal). This is why I can't see a Papelbon to Toronto trade happening. The Blue Jays ain't giving up Castro or Osuna for Papelbon, and they sure don't want to pay him thirteen million this year and next just to save maybe 70 games.
2. Okay, Who's Left?
Aaron Harang? Now there's a man destined to be traded this summer. I can imagine when the Phillies signed him:
"We're really excited about bringing you aboard, Aaron. We think your veteran presence and reliability will do wonders for our young staff this upcoming season."
"Of course, of course. I'm glad to be here and I'm excited to help the team anyway I can. You guys are gonna end up trading me to St. Louis in July, aren't you."
"Gotcha. Hey is the cheesesteak here really as good as everyone says?"
Folks, I'm sad to say there just isn't much here to be excited about. Do you like speedy little outfielders with no power who don't walk or strikeout? Have some Ben Revere! Maybe you're a fan of tall left-handed hitters with long swings and fluky pop? One order of Dom Brown for you, hold the glove. Old catchers who can hit for contact? Carlos Ruiz is our dessert special for the evening. Still hungry? Uh... um... sorry, the restaurant is out of food. Terribly sorry! There is a Cody Asche down the street though, they're open until midnight.
143-91, 3.52 ERA (118+), four all-star appearances in thirteen seasons. Cliff Lee is currently on the 60 day Disabled List with a torn tendon in his pitching elbow and will likely need season ending surgery to repair it, though Lee wants to try rehabbing it despite the opinion of doctors. If he does eventually opt for surgery, it likely will be the end for Lee. And why not: the man has made over 100 million dollars playing baseball. But it would be an absolute shame for the game if it came to that, since few pitchers are as fun to watch on a mound. The pinpoint control, the big curve, watching strike after strike hit the zone. I hope he finds a way to make it back, and I'm not just saying that because he's the only active player whose jersey I own. Fun Cliff Lee fact: in 103.2 innings with the Mariners, Lee walked only six batters. The entire season (with Seattle and Texas) he walked three batters exactly once, and two three other times. That's twenty-four starts where he walked one or less.
Overview: The window is closed. The lights are out. It was a good run though. Those were some really fun teams, but it's time to look to the future and hope for Nola and J.P Crawford. Maybe they can beat Atlanta to avoid the basement. Maybe.
1. All Your Pitchers Are Belong To Us
It's well known around baseball that Washington signing Max Scherzer has bumped fifteen game winner in 2014 Tanner Roark to the bullpen. Lets play a game: how many teams would Roark be the opening day starter for? Answer: at least four. Texas, Philadelphia, Arizona and Colorado would've announced it in March, while Tampa Bay and Kansas City might've debated it for a while. But I can't imagine a team in all of baseball that couldn't make room for a guy with almost 200 innings and an ERA under three in their rotation. Well, except one. Now, there's a perfectly good, non I'm-not-a-hoarder-I-just-like-old-TV-Guides-and-lottery-tickets reason to have six star starting pitchers on your team: you're thinking about 2016 because two of your star starters are free agents (Zimmermann and Fister). They're not going to be able to bring both of them back. So it makes sense to put the least experienced (cheapest!) one in the bullpen for now while your rotation of atomic supermen go win you 105 games. This one shoots baseballs from a cannon in his chest!
2. A Question Of Finishing
If this team has a flaw, it's the bullpen. Yeah, it looks pretty good on paper. Yeah, it probably will be pretty good. But finishing big games has been a problem for the Nationals in the past. Big games like, winner-take-all playoff games. Remember Game Five of the 2012 ALDS, where the Nats had a 6-0 lead after three innings and looked all set to cruise into the League Championship Series. The Cardinals gradually inched back, and were only down two when the top of the ninth began. Enter the Nats closer that season, Drew Storen, who after a lead-off double got a ground out and a strikeout. The Nationals were one out away, still up two. Then it went: walk, walk, single (scoring two), steal, single (scoring two more) and suddenly it was the Cardinals who were advancing.
Again, Game Two of last years NLDS against the Giants. The Nationals have a 1-0 lead into the top of the ninth, Zimmermann is pitching a gem. He gets the first two outs easily, but walks Panik. Manager Matt Williams "paniks", bringing in Storen. Posey singles, Sandoval doubles and the game is tied. The Giants win it in eighteen innings. Think about it, that's a completely different series if Washington holds on to win that game. Maybe even a completely different ending to their season.
3. Bam-Bam Bryce
I frequently forget that Bryce Harper is still only 22. I remember a few years ago a few guys I play baseball with were all talking about Bryce Harper, who was still in the minors then. We were all super excited, figuring he was gonna come up and hit home runs so far they'd need a passport. There was one guy out of us who insisted that Mike Trout (who'd I never heard of then) was going to be the better player. I wish that man still played in the league because, well it's always good to have a clairvoyant around.
Everyone has been saying that this is the year Bryce is gonna break out. Here are my problems with this: first, the guy is only 22. Checking his Baseball Reference Similarity Scores for that age (because that's the most work I'm willing to put into this), you get a top six of Justin Upton, Ruben Sierra, Andruw Jones, Tony Conigliaro, Mickey Mantle and Miguel Cabrera. Upton didn't really explode until his age 23 season, which is still his best four years later. Sierra also took a jump at age 23, thanks to an improved batting average, while Andruw was already the hitter he was forever going to be at 22. Conigliaro's age 22 season was tragically his last as a star, so lets hope Harper avoids that fate. Mantle was great from the moment he stepped on a diamond but his leap was also at 23, while Miguel Cabrera took a slight step forward at 22 but his real leap into Frank Robinson territory was at age 27. This brings me to my second point: like all of those guys, Harper is already pretty good. In 1300 big league at-bats he's established himself as a well above average hitter. It will be interesting to see if his career takes a direction like Jones (where this is what you get) or like Mantle's where he's just picking at the surface of his talents. But my third point is health: Bryce has a Brett Lawrie thing going on where he keeps missing chunks of seasons because he gets hurt playing the game so damned hard. If that's going to continue, we might never see that full potential realized.
Overview: The health of their outfield worries me (Span is already going to miss the start of the season) and I just talked about Harper. Their offense should be good enough anyway, especially if playing first base helps keep Ryan Zimmerman healthier. That pitching staff reminds me of when you're playing a sports video game and you've turned the "Fair Trade" setting off so you can acquire all your favourite players. It would take something really, really disastrous for this team not to win the division. As for playoffs, they've gotta overcome that whole "blowing leads in crucial games" thing.
Division Overview: This one is Washington's to lose, but there are some intriguing young ball clubs right below them. The Mets are certainly more interesting than I'd thought, and the Marlins look like one of those classic "everything goes right down the stretch to win a wildcard" teams. With the presumptive best team in baseball and two young exciting squads below, this should be a fun division to follow this season. Unless you're a Phillies or Braves fan, that is.
WSH - 101-61
MIA - 86-76
NYM - 84-78
PHI - 67-95
ATL - 66-96
Coming up: the American League, where things get really hard.