MLB Preview Bonanza: NL East

Much like its American League counterpart, the National League East hasn’t been home to too much flux. Since 1993, the Braves have won the division 11 times, the Phillies four times, and the Mets once. Of course, the Marlins still lead the division in World Series won in that time, with two. The NL East boasts the two-time defending and presumptive NL champion in Philadelphia, two teams that contended late in the season for the Wild Card in Atlanta and Florida, a big-budget team that can’t be any worse than last year in New York, and the Nationals. And even after a down year last season, it’s hard not to call the Phillies-Mets rivalry the best in the National League. Can the Mets rebound and contend in 2010? Can the Braves catch the Phillies? Or is Philadelphia still the team to beat in the division and the league?

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Last Season: 93-69, National League Champs

This Season: 97-65, NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPS

The two-time defending National League champs made arguably the off-season’s biggest move by swapping Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay. With a full season from the ace and an expected bounceback from 2008 hero Cole Hamels, the Phils have a top-two to best anyone in the NL again—St. Louis included. The addition of Placido Polanco in place of Pedro Feliz balances the lineup with a minor defensive sacrifice. The biggest question mark remains at the back end of the bullpen, but this team won the pennant last year despite the struggles of Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson; can they really be any worse in 2010?

How tough was that paragraph to write? It was unpleasant.

WHO DO YOU HATE MORE, PHILLIES OR BRAVES? Although I don’t hate the current Phillies as much as I hated the turn-of-the-century Braves, I don’t really hate the current Braves at all.

HOW FRIGHTENED ARE YOU OF ROY HALLADAY? It’s possible I’m being incredibly naïve, since I haven’t seen Hallday pitch a lot the last few seasons, but I’m actually happy the Phillies swapped Lee for him. Lee is younger and would have been a frontline ace for several more seasons. Halladay turns 33 this year and has thrown more innings than anyone in baseball over the last several seasons (I think). Plus, his ground ball to fly ball ratio has shrunk the last few years, and he’s going to a bandbox in Philly.

GROUND BALL TO FLY BALL RATIO, EH? GRASPING AT STRAWS A BIT? A lot of people make a big deal about moving to the NL, but I think for the best pitchers, your ERA can’t go down a whole lot more. Halladay’s might get to about 2.50 this season, but it’s not like he’s dropping a run off his 2.78 last year. Lee’s ERA was actually worse in Philly than it was in Cleveland. Halladay may not give up as many run-scoring singles, but my guess is he does allow more than the 22 home runs he surrendered last year, and that they will account for more than the 32 runs they did in 2009.

WHAT ELSE DID YOU DISCOVER WHILE SCOURING BASEBALL-REFERENCE’S ROY HALLADAY PAGE? His first name is Harry. How differently would we think of him if he went by Harry Halladay.

BARELY DIFFERENTLY? IS ROY THAT COOL? A LOT OF PEOPLE CALL HIM “DOC” ANYWAY: I’m sternly against the Doc Halladay nickname; it has nothing to do with Roy. We only call him that because his last name sounds like Holliday. Why isn’t Matt Holliday’s nickname “Doc” Holliday. That makes more sense. Nicknames should reveal something about the person and not just point out linguistic similarities to some mythic figure.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN PHILLIES HISTORY IS: New York Times op-ed columnist Doug Glanville! If you had told me a 1990s Phillies’ outfielder would become an NYT op-ed columnist, he would probably have been in my top three guesses, behind Lenny Dykstra and Jim Eisenreich.

WHAT ABOUT INCAVIGLIA? Sorry, in my top four guesses, behind Lenny Dykstra, Jim Eisenreich, and Pete Incaviglia.

DO YOU REALLY THINK THE PHILLIES CAN THREE-PEAT IN THE NL? I am a lot surer of the Phillies in the NL than I am of anyone in the AL. They have the best top of the rotation in the league and by far—BY FAR—the league’s best and deepest lineup. No one in the NL has come close to beating them the last two postseasons. If not them, then who?

ATLANTA BRAVES

Last Season: 86-76

This Season: 89-73, NL WILD CARD

With a lineup and rotation that could each be described as deep and balanced, this should be the year the Braves make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Atlanta’s offense should be strong if not spectacular, spearheaded by Brian McCann and Chipper Jones in the middle and the potential of Jason Heyward toward the bottom. The rotation, with Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson as the young guns and Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson as the crafty veterans, is one of the best in the league. And with Billy Wagner back in the fold closing games, the Braves’ bullpen has moved from a weakness to a strength. It’s not a great team, but it should be good enough for the Wild Card and a tight Division Series with Colorado.

HOW SCARED ARE YOU OF THE JASON HEYWARD ERA? It’s definitely a word that ends in –fied, although I’m not sure if it’s terri-, horri-, or morti- starting that word. All work.

HOW GOOD CAN HE BE THIS YEAR? It’s been awhile since a rookie came in and had a monster season, right? Pujols in 2001 is the last non-Japanese rookie to carry a team, and setting the bar at Pujols is a bit much for anyone. But Heyward is currently hitting seventh in that lineup, and I would take 20-year-old Jason Heyward over practically any other 7-hitter in the NL.

WHAT’S THE BIG ISSUE WITH THE ATLANTA LINEUP? Let’s just say that, as a Mets’ fan, I’m going to be real upset when Frank Wren and Bobby Cox realize that Troy Glaus shouldn’t be in an everyday lineup, let alone batting fifth. Glaus is the worst hitter in that lineup; I’m more scared of Nate McClouth and Melky Cabrera than I am of old Troy. Eric Hinske may take over at first base eventually, but even he’s not going to scare anyone.

YOU KNOW HE’S TOTALLY UNDERRATED? Yunel Escobar?

I WAS GONNA SAY JAIR JURRJENS: Well, kind of. But let’s start with Escobar. He’s an average defensive shortstop (UZR floats around 0) who hits .300 with 10-15 home runs and drives in 80+ runs despite hitting down in the order. I’d have Escobar hitting fifth. The guy has a .337 career average with runners in scoring position. He’s the anti-Cano.

AND JURRJENS? Jurrjens had a very good, under-the-radar 2009 with some bad signifiers for 2010. His ERA of 2.60 was over a run better than his FIP of 3.68. I’m not saying Jurrjens is bad—just that he’s not throwing 2.60 up there again this year.

DON’T YOU WISH THE METS SIGNED DEREK LOWE INSTEAD OF OLIVER PEREZ? In the sense that I wish the Mets signed anyone—Vernon Wells, Barry Zito—instead of Perez, sure. But Lowe was terrible last season in the first year of a four-year deal; that was supposed to be the best year of that contract since he isn’t getting any younger. So even while Perez’s $12M contract hangs over the Metropolitans like the dead albatross over the ancient mariner, it’s not like Lowe’s $15M a year for three more looks that much better.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN BRAVES HISTORY IS: Hank. He’s the only likable one.

FLORIDA MARLINS

Last Season: 87-75

This Season: 83-79

WE STILL HAVEN’T GOTTEN TO THE METS YET? I wish. But Florida is good. Has been for a few years now.

HOW? The Marlins are holding on to their young talent for longer now. Hanley Ramirez—who’s only the second-best player in baseball (take that John! The two best players reside in the NL)—signed a long-term extension, as did Josh Johnson. Florida didn’t trade Dan Uggla as expected, and it’s still holding on to guys like Ricky Nolasco while filling in holes with the Jorge Cantus and Nate Robertsons of the world.

SECOND-BEST PLAYER IN BASEBALL? I don’t know who besides Pujols you’d put ahead of Hanley. He hits for average (.342 led NL last year), power (86 HRs the last three years), has improved dramatically on defense (his UZR went from -20 in ’07 to practically 0 last year, meaning he can play SS for the foreseeable future), and he’s averaged 41 stolen bases the last four years. He can do everything.

DID FLORIDA WIN THAT TRADE WITH BOSTON THEN? It’s an interesting question: Do Red Sox fans wish they had Hanley instead of Beckett? I doubt it since Beckett was one of the main reasons Boston won the 2007 World Series, but that team would have been better in 2009 and again this season with Ramirez instead of Josh.

HOW GOOD IS JOSH JOHNSON? I’m still trying to pin that down. Before Opening Day this year, he had absolutely dominated the Mets, so I always saw Johnson at his best. Still, in his two full seasons as a starter, he’s 27-12 with an ERA just over 3.00. I’d have him behind only Halladay, Carpenter, Wainwright, Jimenez, and Lincecum in the NL.

CAN THE MARLINS CONTEND FOR THE WILD CARD? They came close last season, sticking in it until the final week or two when the Rockies proved to be too much. Johnson and Nolasco are a strong 1-2 in the rotation, and the lineup is going to score runs. Florida, however, is abysmal defensively, can’t count on its bullpen, and has a shaky back end to the rotation. It’s a good but very flawed team.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN MARLINS HISTORY IS: Mr. Marlin, Jeff Conine!

NEW YORK METS

Last Season: 70-92

This Season: 78-84

THAT’S A TEMPERED EXPECTATION: Yeah, I didn’t go all “John” on you and pick the Mets to win the most games of any team since 2001.

THAT’S A FAIR CRITICISM, TOO, SINCE THE METS ARE JUST AS GOOD AS THE YANKEES: Exactly.

SINCE YOUR OWN RULES STIPULATE YOU CAN’T WRITE AN OPENING PARAGRAPH ON THE METS, YOU WANT TO DO THAT ANYWAY IN THE GUISE OF A RESPONSE? How thoughtful of you.

I’m pretty comfortable with the Mets’ lineup; it will be better at virtually every spot this year. Jose Reyes is an improvement in the leadoff spot over Alex Cora/Angel Pagan, David Wright will be better than David Wright last year, Jason Bay is good hitting fourth or fifth, Rod Barajas is better than Omir Santos, etc. When Carlos Beltran comes back, a middle of the order of Wright, Beltran, and Bay should be one of the best in the league. Throw in Reyes at the top, and that’s a lineup that can produce a lot of runs.

The pitching staff—and particularly the starting rotation—is the issue. Behind Johan Santana, there are four question marks in John Maine (pretty good when healthy, but is he ever healthy?), Mike Pelfrey (can he limit the big inning?), Jonathon Niese (is he ready to be a big-league starter?), and Oliver Perez (how bad is he?). The bullpen is another question mark. So, there could be some long games at Citi Field.

LET ME PRESS YOU ON A FEW THINGS: FIRST, DO YOU REALLY EXPECT WRIGHT TO BE MUCH BETTER? AND WHY? It was funny to see how the perception of Wright’s season changed as it went along. For a little while, it was an “interesting” year for Wright, then an “odd” one, and finally a “bad” one and the worst of his career. But you know what? I’d take .307 as the worst year of my career. I’d take leading the NL in hitting at the Trade Deadline during the worst year of my career. Wright’s year wasn’t bad, but its flaws (lack of home runs, increase in strikeouts) were exacerbated by the paucity of hitters around him. If Beltran and Delgado hit 60 home runs around Wright, his 10 don’t look as bad.

Yet, the negative perception surrounding Wright’s season had to motivate him even more over the off-season. I of course expect him to fix whatever led to the increase in strikeouts last year, and I imagine he will at least double the number of home runs this year, if only due to the guys hitting around him in the improved lineup. He’s David Wright.

SECOND, IS ROD BARAJAS BETTER THAN OMIR SANTOS? Yeah, it’s not clear whether the power Barajas provides makes up for the average Santos did. But Barajas will be hitting eighth most of the year whereas Santos was seventh. Sounds small, but that’s a big difference.

THIRD, LONG GAMES AT CITI FIELD? NOBODY HITS HOMERS THERE! Citi Field’s reputation as a pitcher’s park was a little overstated, largely because the Mets had no power. Other players and teams had no problem hitting the ball out. Furthermore, the relatively large outfield opens up the gaps and allows for some extra-base hits. It is a pitcher’s park, but not a great one.

BUT THE PITCHING STAFF PREVENTS ALL HOPE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFFS? It’s like it was with the Reds: The number of pieces that have to come together to be competitive is one thing; the number to make the playoffs is too big. To get to 90 wins, the Mets need at least 70 wins from guys not named Johan Santana. Career seasons from Maine, Perez, and Pelfrey give them 45 of those wins. And that’s counting on two injury-prone guys to re-find their form and stay on the mound. And all this assumes the bullpen doesn’t start blowing games again.

BUT IT’S GOT HENRY MEJIA! First of all, it’s Jennry Mejia, even though it’s pronounced the same as “Henry.” You know, it’s a silent J in Spanish.

Second, I’m very wary of what the Mets are doing with Mejia. He’s a starting pitcher. He has more value as a starter. The Mets aren’t going anywhere this year. Why not let him work as a starter in Triple-A Buffalo? You don’t want to Joba him up.

HOW EXCITED ARE YOU FOR JOSE REYES’ RETURN? Wright may be the face of the franchise and the team’s best everyday player, but Reyes is the Mets’ most important guy. They’ve averaged a run less per game without him since the beginning of 2008, and nobody in the NL can spark an offense (or a crowd) quite like Reyes. He’s still the most exciting player to watch in baseball in my opinion.

SO, BEST-CASE SCENARIO FOR THE METS? Best case is Beltran returns in mid-to-late May and makes the lineup one of the best in the league (because Reyes, Wright, Bay, and Francouer are all hitting), Maine overcomes his shoulder issues and regains his 2007 form (15-10, 3.91), Pelfrey is closer to ’08 than ’09, and Oliver Perez doesn’t blow up. And if all that happens, they can challenge the Braves for a Wild Card. I can’t really envision them with more than 88 wins or so.

AND WORST CASE? I actually would prefer the Mets bomb this year and go like 66-96 than for them to hang around, do nothing spectacular, and finish 81-81 or so. If they do the latter, ownership will probably keep Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel around, and the Mets will be no better in 2011.

The biggest disappointment over the last three seasons for Mets fans has been the sense of squandered potential. Every year we don’t make the playoffs is a year off of the primes of Wright, Reyes, Beltran, and Santana. This is the last year of Beltran’s contract. That seems crazy to me.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN METS HISTORY IS: So many different options. I’ve loved Doc, Darryl, and David (Cone). Hundley, Gilkey, and Lance Johnson in ’96. The Greatest Infield Ever in ’99. Reed and Leiter as aces. Wright, Reyes, and Santana now. I have to go, however, with the greatest hitter in the team’s history, Mike Piazza, largely because Piazza had a great sense of the moment. I had an idea of it during his career with the Mets, but this idea was cemented in my mind when Mike came back to Shea as a Padre in 2006. He hit two home runs off Pedro Martinez before coming to bat as the tying run in the eighth inning. As a fan at the game, I thought, “I don’t want him to hit a home run, but I don’t want him to strike out, either. Maybe he’ll hit it to the warning track or something. Best of both worlds.” Carlos Beltran made the catch at the warning track.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Last Season: 59-103

This Season: 69-93

TEN-GAME IMPROVEMENT? THE BIGGEST OF ANY TEAM YOU’VE PICKED: Time to get pumped, Nats’ fans! Can you count to…70???

YOU ONLY HAVE THEM WINNING 69: Close enough.

WHY WILL THEY BE THAT MUCH BETTER? Although they were very bad last year, they weren’t really 103-loss bad. The Pythagorean was for 66-96, and the roster is much better in 2010. Ivan Rodirguez takes over for Josh Bard behind the plate, Adam Dunn will be at first full-time, and the outfield will see more at-bats from Josh Willingham and Nyjer Morgan than Austin Kearns and Elijah Dukes.

EHH, I’M SKEPTICAL: The pitching staff is headed by the underrated John Lannan with Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis eating innings and preserving the bullpen a little.

LIVAN HERNANDEZ AND JASON MARQUIS ARE SUPPOSED TO CONVINCE ME? Did you see their rotation last season?

I AM FAMILIAR WITH THE WORKS OF THE 2009 WASHINGTON NATIONALS’ STARTING ROTATION: Then you wouldn’t be making that case. If Lannan continues his improvement, he can finally get on the right side of .500 (as he’s deserved to in the past). You hope for two of Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, and Garret Mock to become reliable starters, you fill in with Marquis and Hernandez, and wait for Stephen Strasburg.

HOW GOOD CAN STRASBURG BE? Man, the NL East: Home of the Phenoms, am I right? With the way he’s been built up, I’m prepared for anything from Strasburg. If anyone’s going Steve Nebraska on us in 2010, it’s Strasburg.

YEAH, THAT SEEMS LIKELY: What a terrible movie.

ANYTHING TO ADD? I like Ian Desmond as a player; he looks good. I miss having Montreal in the NL East.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN NATIONALS HISTORY IS: Umm…Dmitri Young?

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on April 10, 2010 at 7:49 PM

    I find your Nationals preview extremely offensive…there’s no way we win less than 75 games

    Reply

  2. Posted by doc on April 10, 2010 at 10:29 PM

    Tim – you should have seen Keith Hernandez play. The guy was the best fielder I have ever seen at his position, always had great at bats, and almost singlehandedly made the Mets into a great team in the 80’s. The closest thing in the last 20 years was Mike Piazza, but he couldn’t field. Hernandez really should be in the Hall of Fame, but there is a bias against first basemen who don’t have great power. But comparable infielders like Brooks Robinson, who didn’t have great power, (3B, another power position), Ozzie Smith at SS, and Bill Mazeroski at 2b made the Hall. And Hernandez was a lifetime .300 hitter (actually .296, but his stats were dragged down his last 3 years with injuries). Maybe he will get in as an Old-Timer, but he was my favorite Met position player. As you can tell when he announces, he knew the game and was constantly directing traffic on the field. Check out an1986 highlight tape and you can see what he was all about. Don’t get me wrong – Gooden, Strawberry, Carter et al was terrific players, but Keith was the glue that held that team together.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Tim on April 10, 2010 at 11:31 PM

    Wey: After that beatdown today, you might be right.

    Doc: I don’t mean to impugn Hernandez. I love him as an announcer and admire the way he played. But I didn’t know his game growing up to the extent that I knew Doc, Darryl, and Cone’s. I had stuffed animals named after those guys….

    Reply

  4. Posted by John S on April 11, 2010 at 2:42 AM

    You Mets fans really need to lose these blinders w/r/t Jose Reyes. Look at his damn Baseball Reference page! He’s barely an above-average hitter! Yes, he steals bases, but he’s never done so at a rate higher than 80%, which is generally the cut-off for when that becomes valuable. And “nobody in the NL can spark an offense like” he, with a career OBP of .337, can? Really? Nobody? I’d take about 25 guys in the NL before I took him in my lineup. You guys just like him because you think he looks cool.

    Reply

    • Posted by Josh on April 11, 2010 at 7:19 PM

      Runs Created is probably the best statistical measure for leadoff hitter quality and Reyes places very highly there: http://ownersedge.fanball.com/article/2009/1/Runs-Created-2008-Review

      His coolness is just an added bonus.

      Reply

      • Posted by John S on April 11, 2010 at 8:34 PM

        It’s a little odd that you’d call Runs Created the most important stat for leadoff hitter quality: The link you show includes only one other leadoff hitter (Grady Sizemore) amongst the RC leaders. That’s by no means a knock on Reyes–if anything, it’s a plus–but it seems like you’re cherry-picking the stats that Reyes does well in. I don’t think Reyes is a bad player, just that you Mets fans say ridiculous things like “nobody in the NL can spark an offense like” Reyes. Someone needs to call you on your bullshit.

        Reply

        • Posted by Josh on April 12, 2010 at 9:30 AM

          First, the fact that leadoff hitters do not predominate among the overall RC leaders doesn’t mean that it’s not a good measure of leadoff hitter quality. That’s like saying we IQ isn’t a good comparative measure of say, truck drivers’ intelligence since not many of them place near the top. What’s key is that there’s variation and there is.

          Second, if you look at RC on the merits, it accounts for many of the things you critique. It includes the runs lost by being caught stealing and the runs generated by successful stolen basis, in addition to your normal OPS measure. Given the premium put on stolen bases for leadoff hitters, then, I do think RC is probably the best measure for them and Reyes does well in that stiastic.

          Reply

          • Posted by John S on April 12, 2010 at 11:57 AM

            I didn’t criticize RC; I just said that using it seems like you’re cherry-picking. The only reason I see to use RC as opposed to more straightforward statistics is if it is specifically tailored to show the value of a leadoff hitter. After all, you can use a stat like RC that supposedly accounts for getting on base and stealing bases, or you can just look at the rate at which Reyes gets on base (not good at all for a leadoff hitter) and steals bases (pretty good, but not stunning).

  5. […] JOHN: As a Mets fan, are you still happy the Phillies traded Lee for Halladay? […]

    Reply

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