Sizing Up the National League East

Depending on who you ask, the National League East features some of baseball’s best talents, and as is the case in any division, an abundance of veterans mixed with the youth of tomorrow is apparent in this division.  Today’s topic is the National League East in what will be a weekly series recapping teams’ respective off-seasons as well as some predictions.

The gloves are off for Stephen Strasburg, who is expected to surpass the 200-inning plateau this season.  Photo Credit: sportsillustrated.cnn.com

The gloves are off for Stephen Strasburg, who is expected to surpass the 200-inning plateau this season. Photo Credit: sportsillustrated.cnn.com

  Washington Nationals (98-64 in 2012): For many pundits, the expectation for the baseball team in  nation’s capital was a matter of when, not if, the Nationals would become a legitimate powerhouse.  Perhaps a little too soon by experts standards, the Nationals made it to Game 5 on the NLDS against St. Louis where an epic bullpen meltdown was their demise.     To address the issue, the Nationals signed former Yankees closer Rafael Soriano to a 2-year $14mm deal.  Also acquired was Twins’ center fielder Denard Span, owner of a .357 career OBP, averaging 25 steals a year.  For speed came the cost of power, as following a 2-year $24mm pact (mutual option for 2015) with gold-glove winner first baseman Adam LaRoache, popular outfielder Michael Morse was deemed expendable and sent to Seattle in return for Oakland’s pitching prospect A.J. Cole, the center-piece of the deal that brought pitcher Gio Gonzalez to Washington a year prior.  Seattle also sent catcher John Jaso to Oakland.  Featuring a rotation of stability, the Nationals figure to have Stephen Strasburg for more than the 159.1 IP in 2012, where his K/9 was an amazing 11.13.  Washington’s rotation lost Edwin Jackson (4.03 ERA; 3.85 FIP) but gained former Angels RHP Dan Haren on a one-year $13mm deal (Career 3.66 ERA; 3.64 FIP).

Breakout (And Disappointing) Performer: Tied into this team’s bold prediction, outfielder Tyler Moore has an ISO of .250 last year; 19 XBHs in 75 games.  Stretched into a full season, that’s over 28 homers.  A baseball season wouldn’t be complete without someone under performing and a season-ending injury, and my belief is that Bryce Harper could see some time in AAA this year. In July of 2012, Harper slowed down, featuring a .222/.306/.313 line.  This team will probably win anywhere between 97-101 games.

Atlanta Braves (94-68 in 2012):  For the first time since 1990, the Atlanta Braves will be without the name Chipper Jones gracing some aspect of their organization.  For the first ballot ., he managed a .287/.377/.455 line at 40-years old.  However, it won’t be fan favorite and contact hitter Martin Prado manning the position, as the Braves acquired outfielder Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks a few weeks ago, as well as third baseman Chris Johnson, expected to platoon with Juan Francisco (.477 against RHP).  Signing Justin’s speed-oriented brother B.J. back in November to a 5-year, $75mm deal, the Atlanta Braves outfield has historic potential.  It’s all a matter of whether or not there is an element of potential and “pushing each other” as the Uptons put it, or whether or not the Uptons’ lackadaisical approach takes shape in Atlanta.  For both BJ and Justin, rumors of such dormancy have plagued them for some time.  Also lost was back-up catcher David Ross, replaced by Gerald Laird.  The 35-year-old Ross, considered the best back-up in the game by many, signed a 2-year $6.2mm deal with the Boston Red Sox in November.  In 2010, Ross had his best season as a Bravo, hitting .289/.392/.479 in 59 games.  His loss becomes magnified by the fact that catcher Gerald Laird (signed by Atlanta to a 2-year, $3mm deal) has a meager .359 slugging percentage, and catcher Brian McCann (a free agent-to-be in 2014) saying he “isn’t sure” when he will start hitting following shoulder surgery.

The Braves outfield in 2013 and beyond. Justin Upton, left; Jason Heyward center; B.J. Upton, right. Photo Credit: David O'Brien (@ajcbraves)

The Braves outfield in 2013 and beyond. Justin Upton, left; Jason Heyward center; B.J. Upton, right. Photo Credit: David O’Brien (@ajcbraves)

Starting pitching has also been a strength for Atlanta since the days of Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine, and this off-season they traded away Tommy Hanson’s ticking time-bomb of a shoulder to the Los Angeles Angels for hard- throwing reliever Jordan Walden.  Slotting into the back-end of that bullpen with closer Craig Kimbrel leading the way will allow Atlanta’s starting pitchers (Medlen, Hudson, Maholm, Minor, Teheran with Beachy coming back) some ease of mind. Earlier this week, speedy outfielder Michael Bourn agreed to a 4-year, $48mm deal with the Cleveland Indians.  Obviously, Bourn was expendable with the two Upton brothers manning the outfield together, but between Bourn, B.J. Upton and Heyward, the Braves could have seen a drastic uptick of stolen bases, as their 2012 team was just under the league average (108) at 101 stolen bases.  The potential of Justin Upton, however, is a must.

Breakout Performer: While I’m not picking one of the sexy names in Justin or B.J. Upton, Mike Minor seems poised for more success following his second half rejuvenation.  In 14 starts (87.1 IP) following the All-Star Break, Minor posted a 2.16 ERA, a 4.19 SO/BB ratio and a .87 WHIP.  Kris Medlen’s 120 strikeouts to 23 walks is also absurdly good, but for Minor, the numbers posted in the second half could quietly make him one of the game’s best no. 3 starters for 2013.

Disappointing Player: Brian McCann saw his OPS drop to a career-low .698 last year, and following shoulder surgery, McCann’s production could be unknown.  His OBP was unspectacular (.318 vs RHP; .265 vs LHP).  For McCann, it all comes down to his shoulder.

Bold Prediction: The Braves play the Cardinals again in the wildcard format in St. Louis, only for the infield-fly rule to come back at Busch Stadium.  Atlanta will probably win around 93-95 games.

Philadelphia Phillies (81-81 in 2012): Following a 21-win drop-off from 2011, the Phillies perhaps face the most questions out of anyone in this division.  Is Roy Halladay healthy? What’s their defense like? How’s the bullpen with the addition of set-up man Mike Adams  to a  3-year $18mm deal (52.1 IP and a WHIP of 1.395)?  Losing outfielder Hunter Pence in a trade with the San Francisco Giants, center fielder Shane Victorino to the Dodgers (then Red Sox on a 3-year $39mm deal), and replacing Joe Blanton with Nationals cast-off LHP John Lannan on a one-year $2.5mm deal, the Phillies only have three regulars in their lineup from last year (Keep in mind Carlos Ruiz faces a 25-game suspension for Adderall use): Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins.  Ironic.  Lannan owns a 53% ground-ball and was stashed in Triple-A last year, posting a 4.30 ERA in 148 2/3 IP.  Former third baseman Placido Polanco and speedy outfielder Juan Pierre left for the Miami Marlins (more on that later).  Replacing Victorino, and to a lesser extent, Juan Pierre as well, the Phillies acquired Minnesota Twins’ outfielder Ben Revere for Vance Worley and top prospect Trevor May to be the everyday center fielder.  There’s no doubt Revere can swipe bases–40 in 2012–but had a meager .333 OBP with literally no pop; 19 XBHs with 0 major league home runs.  For Revere, Charlie Manuel’s preference for Jimmy Rollins in the lead-off spot will probably have Revere batting lower in the order to start the season at leaast.  However, his 2.4 WAR will probably offset the addition Michael Young’s -2.4 WAR, who was, statistically speaking, the worst full-time player in the majors last year.  Posting a .277/.312/.370 line last year with a dWAR of -2.2, Young was acquired by Philadelphia to be their everyday third baseman in early December for reliever Josh Lindblom (acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Victorino trade) and minor league pitcher Lisalverto Bonilla.  At 36, Young’s career-low .682 OPS begs the question of whether or not Young’s best days are behind him, and according to GM Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies feel position stability will help Young’s production, but it’s worth noting he hasn’t played third base regularly since 2010.  On the subject of defensive liabilities, the Phillies also signed another Young, Delmon, to be the everyday right fielder on a one-year, $750,000 contract.  The former first-round pick, suspended last year for an anti-semantic rant in New York, will have weigh-in clauses, subject to the team’s choosing  in his contract.  Worth -0.9 WAR last year, Delmon Young, who hasn’t played right field regularly since 2007 with the Tampa Bay Rays, had a .296 OBP, and struck out 112 times.  Left field figures to be a competition between apparent Phillies cast-off Domonic Brown and power phenom Darin Ruf, a converted first baseman.  Realistically, this team could total anywhere between mid-70s and to mid-80 wins.  It all comes down to pitching, again.  Cliff Lee, despite the pathetic six wins, had nice peripherals, and Cole Hamels had a career year.  If Halladay’s fastball slows to the 87-89 range, look out.  If he pulls a Mike Mussina and learns to locate more often, then a wildcard isn’t out of the question.

Breakout Player: Darin Ruf had three homers in 12 games last year, and while it’s unrealistic to expect the .394 ISO carrying through a full season, it’s possible he could hit 20-25 homers, especially considering most teams still have not seen the player.  At the league minimum, this would certainly be a bargain.  Again, the issue here is defense, but if he hits, the critics will quiet.

Since the 2010 NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, Howard's career has seemingly started the downward bell curve.  Photo credit:

Since the 2010 NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, Howard’s career has seemingly started the downward bell curve. Photo credit:

Disappointing Player: Recently named to the third-worst contract in all of baseball, Ryan Howard’s decline has been swift, and at this point, one can start to wonder if a platoon would almost be more effective.  Coming off an Achillies injury, Howard posted a weak .219/.295/.423 line in 2012 in 71 games, good for 14 home runs.  The main issue with Howard has been his effectiveness, or lack thereof, against left-handed pitching.  Owner of a career .739 OPS against LHP, Howard hit .173/.226/.378 against southpaws in 2012.  For a player making $25mm annually, improvements must be made.

Bold Prediction: Darin Ruf out-homers Chase Utley this season, and Carlos Ruiz is traded at the deadline.

New York Mets (74-88): For the Mets, another season of irrelevance in perhaps baseball’s biggest market took place.  The biggest acquisition this offseason wasn’t a signing, but rather a trade, unpopular by many, yet necessary for the future.  Trading National League Cy Young Award Winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays along with catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas, the Mets received a cornerstone piece in Travis D’Arnaud, the highly-regarded catching prospect originally sent to Toronto for Roy Halladay; as well as a stop-gap option catcher in John Buck, RHP Noah Syndergaard and minor league outfielder Wuilmer Becerra.  For the Mets, D’Arnaud’s addition might not serve importance for the upcoming 2013 season, but a core of D’Arnaud, pitching prospect Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey (Who earned his cup of coffee in 2012) could potentially be right up there with the youth of the Washington Nationals sooner rather than later.  To fill the void left by Dickey, the Mets signed RHP Shaun Marcum to a one-year $4mm deal with another $4mm in incentives.  Marcum posted a 3.70 ERA with a 35.4% groundball rate, which given Citi Field’s spacious dimensions, could still benefit Marcum, who pitched to 124 innings last year before being shut down with elbow tightness.  For Marcum, plenty of balls will need to be caught in the outfield, and though they were in on Michael Bourn, the Mets outfield is a little uncertain from an everyday playing perspective.  With names like Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Collin Cowgill and Mike Baxter, platoons would be ideal:  Duda struggled mightily last year leading to time in Triple-A; Cowgill had a .510 OPS against RHP; Nieuwhenhuis had a .315 OBP and Baxter hit .048/.200/.095 against LHP last year.  The lack of production has led the Mets to sign former Red Sox outfielder Marlon Byrd to a minor league deal as well as Corey Patterson and Mike Wilson.  Andres Torres was non-tendered, while Jason Bay and the Mets mutually parted ways much-maligned outfielder Jason Bay.  Yes, they still owe him the remaining $21mm on his contract.  Relievers have been hunted in the bargain bin as well.  40-year old LaTroy Hawkins and his 4.9 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9. was signed to a minor league deal while Brandon Lyon earned an incentive-heavy one-year major league contract for the Metropolitans.  Recently, manager Terry Collins said Bobby Parnell, he of the 100-mph fastball, is his favorite for the closer’s job with Frank Francisco’s injury history.   The best news for Mets fans, however came when third baseman and face of the franchise, David Wright agreed to an 8-year $138mm deal in mid-December, keeping Wright a Met for life.  The franchise leader in WAR, runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, walks, strikeouts, and extra base hits, the deal is front-loaded with the six-time All-Star receiving $12mm in 2020.  Wright has seen his OPS drop since moving to Citi Field for half the season, but 2012 he posted his highest OPS–.883–since his 2007 age-24 season.  While this team’s outfield could be historically bad, this team has a lot of right pieces for the future, and will probably finish in the 72-78 win range again.

Ike Davis needs to rebound from his .246 BABIP campaign in 2012.  Photo Credit: Getty Images/Huffington Post

Ike Davis needs to rebound from his .246 BABIP campaign in 2012. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Huffington Post

Breakout Player: Prior to breaking his ankle in 2011 and missing the rest of the season, first baseman Ike Davis had a BABIP of .344 in 36 games.  Despite last year’s .246 BABIP, Davis had a nice half; .255/.346/.542 in 75 games, still eclipsing the 30-homer mark with 32 home runs in a full season.  Would 40 home runs be out of the equation? Perhaps not.  It’s possible the low BABIP was fueled by Davis’ Valley Fever.

Disappointing Player: A defensive liability in right field, Lucas Duda was sent down to Triple-A in late July after posting a .493 OPS that month.  With the previous outfield names already mentioned, Duda is going to have to out-hit his defense issues, and fast.  A return to his rookie campaign in which he hit 10 homers and had a .852 OPS in 100 games would be pretty spectacular, but at 27, time really isn’t on his side, either.

Bold Prediction: The Mets will be 10 games behind at the All-Star Break, and manager Terry Collins, a lame duck manager, will be fired and replaced by Mets fan favorite Wally Backman.  The 2013 All-Star Game will be Citi Field’s Saving Grace.

Miami Marlins (69-93): What a mess of a year for the Marlins. Just when things were looking up for the South Florida franchise, owner Jeffrey Loria decided to break up his team. Prior to the 2012 season, the Marlins changed their identity from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins, opened a state of the art $600 million stadium complete with aquarium backstops, changed their colors to reflect Miamian culture, and signed great players. The Fish landed Mets SS Jose Reyes off of the free agent market in a 6 year, $106 million contract, acquired pitchers Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and Carlos Zambrano, and hired former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen to lead the team. A year later, none of these players remain. The Marlins traded franchise player Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers in July for two pitching prospects. The Marlins also shipped Reyes, Buehrle, ace Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, and infielder Emilio Bonifacio to Toronto for Yunel Escobar and prospect players. The only player remaining from last season’s starting lineup is outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Filling Heath Bell’s closer shoes is RHP Steve Cishek, who had 15 saves last season with a 2.69 ERA.  The side-armer Cishek struck out 68 in 63.2 IP and held RHBs to a .185/.266/.282 line in 2012.  Former Phillies Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco also joined the club this offseason as free agents. Loria also fired Guillen, and has received much criticism for poor ownership and management of the club.

 

Really, is there anyone else to pick? Photo credit: sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Really, is there anyone else to pick? Photo credit: sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Breakout Player: There’s not a better player on this Marlins squad than Giancarlo Stanton. The 23-year-old outfielder broke out last season with a .290 batting average, 37 home runs, and 86 RBIs. On a team with few star players, Stanton has the opportunity to prove that he is one of the best sluggers in baseball. Look for Stanton and his career .282 ISO to put up better numbers this year if he can stay healthy.

Disappointing Player: Placido Polanco didn’t play in Miami in 2012, but his season was still disappointing. Hampered by injuries, Polanco played just 90 games for Philadelphia, worth 0.3 WAR, his worst mark since his 1998 rookie season. Polanco is 37 years old, and nearing the end of his career. He will only continue to get older and more susceptible to injury, so look for Polanco’s numbers to match those of 2012.

Bold Prediction: The Marlins will not sell out a single game this season, and will finish with the worst record in the National League. Maybe it would be even bolder to predict a sellout or two?  This team could maybe– a big maybe–win 65.

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