PhillyPhanatics.com’s Major League Baseball previews conclude with the National League East
Will the Phillies win their 6th straight NL East title? Will the Marlins, under a new manager and with three new big-dollar free agents, rise to the top? What about the Nationals and their young nucleus of talent? Let’s not forget the Braves and their excellent pitching – when healthy – and their mix of veterans and youngsters. Also, will the Mets embarrass themselves or make a better showing than most people expect?
Ron Opher tries to answer these questions about the deepest division in baseball, in PhillyPhanatics.com’s NL East preview.
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2011 record: 102-60, 1st place
SS Jimmy Rollins
3B Placido Polanco
CF Shane Victorino
RF Hunter Pence
1B Ty Wigginton (Ryan Howard begins the season on the DL)
LF John Mayberry
C Carlos Ruiz
2B Freddy Galvis (Chase Utley begins the season on the DL)
Season outlook: While you can check out our Phillies season preview to get a more in-depth look, the Phillies’ 2012 season will be governed by three key factors: return from injury, need for significant contributions from bench/role players and effectiveness of bullpen. It’s an open question when Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will return from their injuries. Figure the Phillies will have to play without both for 1/3 of the season and possibly without one of them for closer to 1/2 of the season. Then there’s the question of whether either of them will be as close to the players they once were right away – if at all. Next, there’s the question of whether their replacements will be able to contribute meaningfully. The spotlight is shining – maybe in order – on Freddy Galvis, John Mayberry, Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre, Jim Thome and Laynce Nix. None of them individually needs to be Utley or Howard. Not all of them have to have dramatic results. But at least three of them have to put up numbers consistent with everyday players league-wide at first and second base, as well as left field. The Phillies’ situation could have been a lot worse had they signed Ryan Madson to a 4-year, $40+million contract that was reported to be close to getting done before Ruben Amaro turned his attention to former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon (Madson signed a one-year deal with the Reds, tore an elbow ligament this spring, and will miss the season). The bullpen is never a one-man show, however, so other questions include whether Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes can be as effective as they were last season, whether Jose Contreras will return to his pre-injury 2010 form, and whether Chad Qualls will get hitters out or will remind people of Danys Baez. With the noticeable improvement of their NL East foes, the Phillies need to get the job done and compete in all 162 games in order to repeat as champions – even with the best top 3 rotation starters in all of baseball.
Projected finish: 1st place
2011 record: 89-73, 2nd place
Season outlook: The Atlanta Braves have to erase the memory of dropping an extra-inning contest at home to the Phillies in the last game of the season, where the Phils’ AAA bullpen shut them down and helped put the St. Louis Cardinals into the postseason, much to the dismay of both Braves and eventually Phillies fans as well. The Braves have an exceedingly good pitching staff – when they are healthy. Every September, it seems like they are scrounging around for starters from their minor league system to bail them out, while fragile pitchers like Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson are nowhere to be found. One silver lining is that one such minor leaguer from a 2010 emergency starter became a rotation mainstay in 2012 (Brandon Beachy) and another youngster will get a full-time call in 2012 (Mike Minor). The fifth starter job went to Randall Delgado, though Julio Teheran is in AAA waiting for his chance. The back end of the bullpen – Jonny Venters from the left to set up and Craig Kimbrel from the right to close – may be the best tandem in baseball. Both were all-stars in 2011, but looked overworked down the stretch. In the lineup, Chipper Jones returns for his final season, but will first have to recover from yet another meniscus tear in his knee. In the meantime, Juan Francisco, acquired from the Reds at the end of spring training, will see the bulk of starts at third base. Freddie Freeman looks to avoid a sophomore slump after a fine rookie campaign. CF Michael Bourn and LF Martin Prado set the table for the Braves, while Jason Heyward must finally live up to the hype if the Braves are to have a meaningful power presence beyond Freeman, Dan Uggla and Brian McCann. Tyler Pastornicky is a rookie shortstop who needs to make enough plays to put his pitchers’ minds at ease.
Projected finish: 3rd place
2011 record: 80-81, 3rd place
Season outlook: The Washington Nationals are still looking for their first winning season in DC (they came close in 2011, at 80-81). In fact, you’d have to go back to the 1969 Senators, managed by Ted Williams, to find the last winning season of baseball in the nation’s capital, and to 1945 before that (with the original Senators). The current team, under manager Davey Johnson (who took over last season when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned and who also won the 1986 World Series at the helm of the Mets), looks to change all that. The first order of business is to make sure that ace Stephen Strasburg is fully healthy after 2010 Tommy John surgery. Third starter Jordan Zimmermann was handled with kid gloves in 2010 after his return from 2009 Tommy John surgery, and he had great results in 2011. The Nats gambled on trading two emerging mound prospects in Tom Milone and Brad Peacock to the A’s to get a more proven young starter in former Phils farmhand Gio Gonzalez (whom the Phils traded away – along with Gavin Floyd – for Freddy Garcia…the White Sox traded him away TWICE – once for Jim Thome and another time for Nick Swisher). The top three aren’t as good as what the Phillies have, but are at least as good as the Braves’ group and better than the Marlins’ group. Add in the much-traveled but decent Edwin Jackson as the #4 and former #1 draft pick Ross Detwiler as the #5, and the Nationals clearly mean business on the mound in 2012. In the lineup, Ryan Zimmerman is the anchor at third base. He had an injury-shortened year and a down year overall by his standards (12-49-.289 in 101 games) and looks to get back to all-star form in 2012. Big-money right fielder Jayson Werth (who is 33 years old – he will be paid $21 million in each of the last 3 seasons of his contract, at ages 36-38) needs to make more contact at the plate. While he managed 20 home runs, he was down by 34 hits from his 2010 season with the Phillies, and astoundingly down by 28 extra base hits. Werth hit .238 – his lowest since his pre-Phillies days (he hit .234 for the Dodgers in 2005). The keystone combination of Danny Espinosa at second and Ian Desmond at short is also talented, but like Werth, both need to put the ball in play more often. The brightest spots in the lineup last season were all-star left fielder Mike Morse (31-95-.303) and rookie catcher Wilson Ramos (15-52-.267). Both will try to repeat career years. A wildcard is whether arguably the best player not in the major leagues – 19 year old outfielder Bryce Harper – will get the call soon from AAA. Phils fans are going to love to hate Harper for years to come, just as Flyers fans have grown accustomed to hating the equally immature Sidney Crosby. Another wildcard for the Nationals is whether closer Drew Storen‘s elbow injury is serious. In the meantime, our old friend Brad Lidge gets the ninth inning duties, while all-star Tyler Clippard – who bears an amazing resemblance to Charlie Sheen’s Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn from the Major League movies, sets up.
Projected finish: 2nd place
New York Mets
2011 record: 77-85, 4th place
Season outlook: The New York Mess – er Mets – are going to try to compete with 4 teams who are quite simply vastly superior to them in all facets of the game. The Mets (reportedly an acronym for My. Entire. Team. Sucks.) did get an infusion of cash several weeks ago from 12 minority ownership stakes, with each stake costing $20 million and being worth 4% of the team. On the field, Jose Reyes is gone, leaving David Wright as the only significant star, unless you count Jason Bay, who has been an abject failure as a Met (6-47-.259 in 95 games in 2010 and 12-57-.245 in 123 games in 2011). Bay is still owed a minimum of $35 million for the next 2 seasons, and if he gets to 500 plate appearances in 2012, his 2014 season will vest at an additional $14 million if he gets to 500 plate appearances again in 2013). Just as the players’ union was watching how the Mets used Francisco Rodriguez last season because of a very expensive vesting option, so too might they be watching how Bay is utilized this season. Back to Wright for a moment – he is still a .300 career hitter, despite his .254 season in 2011 and his .283 in 2012. That shows you just a glimpse of how far he has fallen. Wright did sandwich a 29 homer, 103 RBI 2010 around a 10-72 2009 and a 14-61 2011, though his OPS in 2010 was only .837 – after reaching .912 or better each of the prior four seasons. Whether that’s a factor of Citi Field being a tough hitters’ park (the fences are moved in a bit for 2012), the lack of lineup support, or Wright having peaked as a player is anyone’s guess. Johan Santana is back on the mound after missing all of 2011 with shoulder woes. He is still owed a minimum of $55 million over the next 2 seasons. Santana’s troubles began after pitching a career-high and league-high 234 1/3 innings in his inaugural season as a Met in 2008. Since then, he has managed 166, 199 and 0 innings. As to the rest of the team – there is not much worth noting. Ike Davis (7-25-.302) at first, RF Lucas Duda (10-50-.292) in right and Daniel Murphy (6-29-.320) at second are decent young players, but are no different than the Gaby Sanchezes and John Mayberrys of the world. The Mets are bad – but not as bad as the Houston Astros. Then again, once the Astros leave the NL in 2013, what will the Mets point to next year?
Projected finish: 5th place
2011 record: 72-90, 5th place
Key departures: Javier Vazquez
CL Heath Bell
Season outlook: The Florida Marlins are now the Miami Marlins, with a new logo, new manager (Ozzie Guillen), new third baseman (Hanley Ramirez, who looks to rebound from an ugly 10-45-.243 line in 92 games), new shortstop to replace Ramirez (Jose Reyes), new closer (Heath Bell) and two veteran starters (Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano) to go with Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco. The names look impressive, but Nolasco got hit hard last season (giving up a league-leading 244 hits en route to a 4.67 ERA and career-low 10 wins as a full-time starter) and Zambrano is a shell of the pitcher he once was – and a hothead on top of that. Reyes is incredibly talented, but often injured. He brings the Mets’ choking and losing tradition to the Marlins’ clubhouse. Bell has pitched in one meaningful pennant race in his 8-year career – and came out on the short end (in 2010). Among the newcomers, only Buehrle – along with the abrasive Guillen – has tasted the champagne in October, as World Champions with the White Sox in 2005. In fact, none of the 2003 World Champion Marlins are with the team anymore (interestingly, two of them were in the Phillies camp this spring: Juan Pierre and Dontrelle Willis, with Pierre heading north). One thing you have to say for the Marlins, who have a budding power threat in Giancarlo Stanton (formerly known as Mike Stanton), plus above-average hitters like Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison and John Buck is that when they do get into the postseason (twice in team history), they make the most of it (two World Series wins).
Projected finish: 4th place