MLB Divisional Previews: NL East

This is the first article in our series of MLB Divisional previews.  Teams are broken down into categories (“Contenders”, “Rebuilding” and “Stuck in the Middle”).  At the bottom is my predicted finish for the division.  See my “primer” article for any questions or clarification.

Contenders

Philadelphia Phillies

Why they could win the division: Rotation

On paper, this might be one of the best starting rotations in the history of Major League Baseball.  However, if championships were won on paper, you could probably add about 20 more to the Yankees’ total.  Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels form an excellent front four when they are healthy and firing on all cylinders.  However, Lee is again dealing with a nagging oblique injury, Oswalt is fighting the age curve and it was just one year ago that Hamels dealt with serious confidence issues.  Again, it looks good on paper, but that needs to translate into results on the field.

Why they might not: Injuries

This is a team that has become famous for handing out extension after extension.  The first wave came years ago with Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu.  You would have thought after finally dumping those horrid contracts, the Phillies would have learned their lesson.  Instead, they went ahead and signed veterans Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to long-term extensions.  Rollins and Utley have already had various injury problems and Howard has the kind of body type that could experience a fast downturn (see Cecil Fielder).  Because of their age, this is a team that could experience a quick falloff if affected by injuries.

Don’t believe the hype: RF Domonic Brown

Don’t get me wrong, Brown is an exceptional talent.  However, he’s also still very raw and needs at-bats every day.  Unfortunately for him, it looks like the Phillies are settling on a platoon situation involving Brown and Ben Francisco.  While this will probably help the Phillies in the short-term (Francisco murders left-handed pitching, while Brown struggles against it), it will hurt Brown’s development in the long-run.  Expect Brown to struggle with inconsistency if left on the major league roster all season.

Slipping: SS Jimmy Rollins

Take your pick here really.  Between Rollins, Utley, Howard, Raul Ibanez and a host of pitchers, the Phillies have a lot of parts that are on the downside of their careers.  Rollins however might be the most important piece of them all.  His OBP (which was never exceptional in the first place) has really nose-dived the past two seasons (.296 in ’09, .320 in ’10).  As the leadoff hitter, his main job is to get on base in front of the big guys and he’s not doing that.  Sure, the 20 homer power is nice, but how much does that help from the leadoff spot where guys are rarely on base?  His progression is eerily similar to that of Willy Mays Hayes in the movie Major League II, seeming much more intested in trying to be a slugger than getting on base.  The Phillies struggled to score runs at times last year; expect that to happen again if Rollins struggles or gets hurt again.

Could further regression from Jimmy Rollins cost the Phillies another World Series title?

Atlanta Braves

Why they could win the division: Young players

A team that contended yearly for so long with the same nucleus (Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, etc) has finally built a new young group to work with.  Starters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens (assumed healthy), bullpen arms Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, and young sluggers Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward give Atlanta a lot of hope for the future.  Add in veterans like catcher Brian McCann, newly acquired second baseman Dan Uggla, surprise star Martin Prado and starter Tim Hudson (not to mention a stacked farm system) and there’s a lot of reason for optimism in Atlanta.

Why they might not: Veteran drop-offs

While the young talent is phenomenal, it’s not enough to carry this team if the vets can’t pull their weight.  Chipper Jones needs a healthy (unlikely) and productive (more likely) season and Nate McLouth needs to figure out why the wheels have fallen off since he came to Atlanta.  Possible regression from starters Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe would also be a blow to their chances, but with so many good arms in the upper minors, they might be able to absorb that.

Don’t believe the hype: 1B Freddie Freeman

The Braves have shown very little interest in bringing back Troy Glaus and it appears they are willing to go with Freeman as their everyday first baseman.  Freeman is a great talent, but he’s also only 21 years old.  He hit very well for a 20 year old at Triple-A last season, but he only had 18 homers in 461 at-bats and his plate discipline, while good for his age and level, was not fantastic.  Expect him to struggle and possibly end up back at Triple-A at some point this season.

Quantum Leap: SP Tommy Hanson

The easy answer here would be RF Jason Heyward, but I think everyone knows about him.  Hanson, on the other hand, managed to fly under the radar a bit last season.  On the surface, the numbers look to have regressed a bit last season, but if you dig into the peripheral stats, you will see a different story.  He cut his walk rate, increased his GB% and cut both his HR/9 and HR/FB rates.  His K/BB ratio of 3.09 was truly elite.  Expect his strand rate (which dropped from 80% to 71%) to stabilize and the rest of his numbers to improve by a nice margin.  There’s a Cy Young season here if everything clicks and that’s not a stretch.

Slipping: SP Tim Hudson

The guy simply does not miss enough bats to duplicate last season’s numbers again.  I still think he can be a solid innings eater as his 64.1 GB% indicates.  He’s just not the frontline starter that his 2.83 ERA would seem to imply.  His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and strand rates were both career bests last season.  With the expected regression in each of those categories, I think you will see Hudson’s numbers come back to earth a bit in 2011.

Stuck in the Middle

Florida Marlins

What to like: Young bats

Florida’s opening day corner outfielders will be Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison.  Wow!  There are a lot of other teams who would love to have that duo.  These two should terrorize NL East pitching for the next decade.  Stanton easily registers an 80 for power on the 20-80 scale.  He’s shown exceptional power at every stop including the majors last season.  Morrison on the other hand is a pure hitter.  The converted first baseman has good, not great power, but combines that with excellent plate discipline.  Add in SS Hanley Ramirez, 1B Gaby Sanchez and 2B/OF Chris Coghlan and you have the makings of a very good young lineup.

Not so much: Back of the rotation

Josh Johnson is an ace in every sense of the word, but after him, there are a lot of question marks in this rotation.  Ricky Nolasco has put up excellent peripheral stats the last two years, but that hasn’t translated to preventing runs of winning games.  Javier Vazquez has always thrived when out of the spotlight, but will he be able to do it again at age 34 with decreasing velocity?  Anibal Sanchez had a very nice season last year, but he had struggled with injuries and inconsistency before that, so he’s no sure bet to repeat that in ’11.

Don’t believe the hype: RF Mike Stanton

Stanton will be an excellent player eventually, but not this year.  Expect the power to be present this season (30+ homers is a distinct possibility), but until he cuts his strikeout rate and improves his walk rate, the average and OBP will flounder.

Home runs and strikeouts: two things you know you are going to get from Mike Stanton.

Game on: LF Logan Morrison

These guys are equally talented, but guys like Morrison tend to adjust to major league pitching faster.  His eye at the plate is excellent and if his power comes along for the ride, watch out.  His big challenge will be adjusting to left field in the spacious Sun Life Stadium.

New York Mets

What to like: Payroll flexibility

It’s not here yet, but the Mets will have some large contracts coming off the books after ’11.  Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez are all in the last year of their contracts and Francisco Rodriguez will most certainly be bought out of his final year (assuming he doesn’t hit his vesting option with 55 saves).  That’s a ton of money coming off the books for a team that sorely needs the financial flexibility.

Not so much: Floundering Veterans

Johan Santana still has three guaranteed years left at an average salary of $24 million and he’s coming off a serious shoulder injury.  David Wright rebounded to some degree last year, but his plate discipline actually regressed and his defense was below average for the second straight year.  Jose Reyes managed to play 133 games, but his OBP was not good (.321).  Jason Bay appeared to wilt under the pressure of his huge new contract.

On the way: SP Jenrry Mejia

The Mets stubbornly tried to put him into a bullpen spot on the major league team last year and he predictably struggled.  They finally realized their mistake in June and sent him back to the minors to work as a starter and refine his stuff.  He pitched well and should start the year at Triple-A Buffalo.  However, he’s only 21 and could probably use a full year there.

Game on: RP Bobby Parnell

He’s had his struggles with control in the past, but he was much improved in that area in ’10 (2.06 BB/9).  He gave up a lot of hits, but assuming his BABIP regresses towards the mean (.374 in ’10, league average is around .300), he should have a big season.  The stuff has never been an issue (average fastball velocity last season was 96.5 mph).  I expect him to seize the closer role if…

Slipping: Francisco Rodriguez

… this guy continues to struggle.  We all know about K-Rod’s well documented off-the-field problems from last year, but he’s also been slipping on the field lately.  His average fastball velocity last season was at an all-time low (91.1 mph).  His control, which was awful in ’09, stabilized a bit last year.  But with his velocity now sitting in the low 90’s instead of the mid to upper 90’s, he can’t afford a backslide there and probably needs to improve just to maintain his current production.

Rebuilding

Washington Nationals

What to like: Opening up the checkbook

Ok, so maybe Jayson Werth isn’t worth the 7 years and $126 million they gave him.  But in case people haven’t been paying attention, free-agents aren’t exactly clamoring to come to DC and the Lerners are willing to pay.  Werth, while he isn’t going to carry a team, is still a very good player (5 WAR players don’t grow on trees).  He’s won’t provide the same pop as Adam Dunn, but he’ll be closer than people think and he won’t be the black hole in the field that Dunn was.  If nothing else, this will let future free-agents know that Washington is a viable landing spot.

Not so much: The Strasburg injury

This was possibly the most highly publicized Tommy John surgery in the history of the game.  It’s a huge blow to the Nationals on the field and in their marketing department.  However, all is not lost.  Doctors have made huge strides with this surgery and it’s not the career ender or velocity sapper it once was.  Many pitchers actually come back with increased velocity as their arms are in better condition after the surgery than they were before it (i.e. Josh Johnson).  The important thing here is that the Nats don’t rush him back.

Game on: SP Jordan Zimmermann

Lost in all the Strasburg euphoria is the story of the other Zimmerman(n).  He was having a great finish to the 2009 season before injuring himself late in the year.  He underwent Tommy John surgery and the majority of the 2010 season was lost.  However, he came back late last season and performed admirably.  His 3.17 K/BB rate in ’09 was elite and his stuff is that of a front of the rotation starter.  I expect him to blossom this season and form an excellent 1-2 punch with Strasburg starting in 2012.

Quantum Leap: 3B Ryan Zimmerman

This guy simply does not get enough attention.  He’s one of the best at the hot corner in the game and by the end of the season he could be standing a cut above the rest by a good margin.  He improved his plate discipline last season for the second straight year and his defense remains sterling.  If he can stay healthy, he could put up some staggering numbers.  It will be interesting to see if the loss of Adam Dunn hurts him at all as Dunn provided excellent protection for Zimmerman.

Ryan Zimmerman: best third baseman in baseball?

Predicted Finish

  1. Philadelphia Phillies
  2. Atlanta Braves (Wild Card)
  3. Florida Marlins
  4. New York Mets
  5. Washington Nationals

Next up: AL East

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