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NL East Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Utley

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My Prediction
1 – New York Mets
2 – Philadelphia Phillies
3 – Atlanta Braves
4 – Florida Marlins
5 – Washington Nationals

New York Mets
I'd like to put away any discussion of "choking," first of all, mainly because I don't really believe in it. Choking is mainly a way for fans of other teams to make fun of their rivals. It's also a way for lazy commentators to turn a complex baseball season into a simple narrative. Yes, the Mets did a terrible job in September, both last year and in 2007. But it was due to normal, everyday baseball reasons. I guess it's possible that there's some personality flaw that plagues the Mets and prevents them from performing well in tight situations, but that's a little far-fetched to me.

No, the main problem for the Mets was that their bullpen was ruining what good work the rest of the roster was doing. So it's no surprise that overhauling it was the team's top priority going into 2009. GM Omar Minaya responded to the challenge quite well. First, he signed ex-Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year deal worth $37 million. This is a far cry from the 5 years and $60 million that K-Rod was supposed to get a year after setting a new single-season saves record. But the market correctly saw K-Rod's saves as largely irrelevant and was more concerned with his loss of velocity. Therefore, Minaya was able to sign him to a much more reasonable deal.

But Minaya went on to add yet another closer to the team when he traded for Seattle's J.J. Putz. Putz, 32, is older than K-Rod and has a troubling health record. But, on a game-by-game basis, he's actually the better pitcher. The addition of Putz, Rodriguez and Sean Green (who also came over in the Putz deal) will turn what was once an unreliable bullpen into one of the league's best.

Minaya's other offseason quest was to improve the starting rotation, and here he didn't fare so well. He was able to re-sign free agent Oliver Perez, but that still left the team with an unreliable back of the rotation. Behind ace Johan Santana and the inconsistent Perez are Mike Pelfrey, who pitched well last year but will have trouble repeating those numbers, and John Maine, who is constantly beset by injury problems.  Minaya did put a lot of effort into pursuing other free agent pitchers, particularly Derek Lowe. But he fell short when the Braves added another year onto their contract offer to the former Dodger.

But there was one other area of improvement that Minaya really failed to address in the offseason: depth in the lineup. The Mets do have some legitimate studs: the combo of David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes is better than any other NL team's top three players. First baseman Carlos Delgado was a stud last year, but it's a lot to ask for him to repeat that in 2009 at age 37.

The problem is that there's a big drop-off in quality between the studs and the rest of the Met lineup. The team is stuck with Luis Castillo at second, whose offense and defense have both been sapped by injuries, making him a very expensive liability for the next three years. Catcher Brian Schneider is adequate at best, but he's really the team's best option for the moment.

In the outfield corners, however, there's no good excuse for Minaya's inaction. The Mets are lacking in left and right field, and the free agent market was flooded with high-offense corner outfielders available for a relative pittance. Couldn't the Mets have spared $4 million to bring in Bobby Abreu? What about Pat Burrell, who got a two-year contract in Tampa? Or what about Adam Dunn, who fits the Mets' needs so perfectly it's hard to see why they didn't pursue him?

There are several creative ways the team could have improved their outfield. But they didn't. And since the Mets have been kept out of the playoffs by just one game these past two years, they should be looking for any edge to add to their competitive advantage. Because if they blow it in September again, there will be war in Queens, choke or no choke.

Philadelphia Phillies

As World Series Champions, the Phillies had a lot of things go right for them. But they won't get as many breaks this year, and more importantly, they didn't improve their team over the offseason. That's why I think the Mets can – and will – pass them by.

Phillies should be worried about injuries. They're already dealing with an injury to Chase Utley, and nobody's sure just how much it will affect his production. And despite the prevailing wisdom, Utley is the best and most valuable Phillie. Fans should also be concerned about Cole Hamels. His performance last year did a lot to remove the doubts surrounding his health and durability, but it will still take a lot for him just to match the great work he put forth in 2008.

Speaking of a tough act to follow, how about Brad Lidge? Lidge posted a 1.95 ERA and went 41/41 in saves, striking out 92 batters in 69.1 innings. We know that this is the real Lidge, because we've seen him before in Houston. But a 1.95 ERA? Zero blown saves? These aren't things Lidge can reasonably be expected to do on a yearly basis.

The rest of the offense is solid, but they're troubled by gaping holes at third base and at catcher. So in the offseason, the team decided to address these problems . . . OK, they didn't do anything. As if that weren't enough, they actually took a small step back in left field. They let Pat Burrell go without offering him arbitration, so that when he signed a reasonable deal (2 yrs./$16 MM) with Tampa Bay, it meant no free draft pick for Philly. So they targeted Raul Ibanez, a player five years older than Burrell and only marginally better defensively. Worst of all, he's more expensive, coming in at 3 years and $31.5 million. And, because the Mariners are smart, they offered Ibanez arbitration, so the Phillies will be losing a draft pick. The generous way to look at this, I guess, is to give GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. a mulligan on his first off-season running the team.

The Phillies still have a good chance to win the division, as we've seen what happens when we give the Mets the benefit of the doubt. And even if they don't win it, I'd peg them as the best bet to win the Wild Card.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves lost 90 games last season, despite the valiant efforts of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann.  But they've got a great farm system, and most people projected them to be contenders in 2010 or 2011. But the Braves got impatient. After a couple of years of playing with the hand they'd been dealt and resigning themselves to a finish in the middle of the division, in 2009, the team decided not to wait for the rookies; they were going for it. And while that's a bold policy, there's some debate as to whether it's the right one.

The team's offense begins and ends with Chipper Jones. The future Hall-of-Famer is hitting as well as he ever has, taking home a batting championship last year with a .364 mark to go with 22 homers and an other-worldly .470 OBP. If only he'd played more than 128 games. But that's Chipper's m.o. these days; he hits like crazy while some minor ailment keeps him out of the lineup just long enough for it to really matter. I've been screaming for years that the club should move him to first base, if only to ease the physical burden. Instead, the club has decided to go with Casey Kotchman (if only to salvage something from the Mark Teixeira Experiment). He's not a bad guy, but he also shouldn't be blocking a good replacement if it comes along.

The rest of the infield is remarkably good. Brian McCann might be the most underrated player in baseball, a catcher who really hits, plays good defense and makes a modest salary. Keystone combo Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson have their problems, but if you can bring along a tandem this good from your own system on the cheap, you've done well.

If only the Braves had an outfield. In 2008 — according to this year's Athlon baseball annual — all Braves outfielders combined for 27 home runs. That's all Braves outfielders. I'm sorry, but I can't see this team contending without injecting some offense into the outfield – and signing Garret Anderson doesn't count. The rookies can't arrive fast enough.

The team successfully filled one hole this offseason by nabbing free agent Derek Lowe. They assumed a lot of risk by adding that fourth year to his contract, but with ace Tim Hudson out until the All-Star break at least, they needed someone to prop up their makeshift rotation. The Braves did succeed in getting an innings-eater in Javier Vazquez (but at what cost?) and rolled the dice on Kenshin Kawakami.

If Chipper Jones can stay healthy and Tim Hudson can return, then this team will be a winner. But with a terrible outfield and a makeshift bullpen, I can't see them making that magical return to October. When Tommy Hanson, Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward make it to the big club, then we'll talk.

Florida Marlins

The Marlins spent the offseason shedding salary. Furthermore, the Pope is Catholic.

Seriously, though, the team was willing and able to trade anyone outside of the middle infield who was making more than the league minimum. And the good news is that they came out on top in most deals. They took advantage of the Royals' delusions about Mike Jacobs and got nifty reliever Leo Nunez. They also sent an average, 31-year-old closer (Kevin Gregg) to the Cubs for a very promising 22-year-old closer prospect (Jose Ceda). It's still uncertain what the hell the Cubs were thinking.

So although the team is cost-cutting, they're not bad off. They finished at 84-77 last year and have the potential to do nearly as well this year. Projecting them beyond the 80-82 win range, however, is a real stretch. And if the injury dominos start falling again, look out below.

The aforementioned dominos hit the starting staff hardest in 2008. Apart from new ace Ricky Nolasco, the team has its fingers crossed about the rest of the starting rotation. Josh Johnson has shown flashes of strong pitching, but they've just been flashes. He's young, yes, but he's also made just 18 starts over the past two seasons. Anibal Sanchez had one intense flash of brilliance when he hurled a no-hitter back in 2006. Then his arm went ker-plunk, and he's made just 16 starts since. Injuries may not be the problem with Andrew Miller, one of the "prizes" taken in the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis trade, it's just that he was rushed to the majors and the team is now trying to undo that damage and recapture the star he had as a Detroit prospect.

If the pitching staff starts crowding the trainer's room, the pressure will fall on the offense, which actually did a fine job last year. The Marlins were 5th in the NL in runs scored, despite the lack of any star power beyond Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. They were fueled almost completely by the home run; they finished the year with 208, just six behind the Phillies for tops in the NL. By contrast, their batting average was a pedestrian .254, and their .326 OBP ranked them 9th in the league.

The lineup should be pretty similar this year, but with fewer homers. And yes, that's as ominous as it sounds. Gone are Mike Jacobs' 32 bombs and Josh Willingham's 15 taters. Jorge Cantu, despite the delusions of some, is not actually this good. Expect him to revert to his 2006 form, where he hit just 14 HRs with a dreadful .295 OBP.

With all that offense going away, who will pick up the slack? Well, there is some hope. Toolsy center field prospect Cameron Maybin has a ton of potential, but he is raw, still transitioning from athlete to baseball player. Other than that, there's not a lot of room for improvement. Young John Baker should be able to top the modest offense provided by Matt Treanor last year. And you can always hope for the long-awaited breakout by Jeremy Hermida.

Realistically speaking, though, that's just not likely. The Marlins are clever enough to scrape together a .500 team on the barest of resources. But you can't win like that unless you've got an overstocked farm system, which the Marlins do not. Their only hope is that their new ballpark convinces ownership to loosen its vice-like grip on the purse strings.

Washington Nationals

As you may have heard, I'm not too sanguine about the chances of the Nationals. Their front office is in transition. Stan Kasten has stepped in as interim General Manager, although he's so interim that he won't even call himself interim. We don't know when the team will hire a new GM or how things will function with Kasten at the helm. This is sad, because if any team needs bold leadership, it's this one.

In my series on the Nationals, I chronicled their inability to draft and develop good pitching as well as their unwillingness to pay for it on the open market. 2009 will be no different. John Lannan will be the de facto ace. Lannan's not a bad pitcher, but if he's the best you've got, you're in trouble. Scott Olsen, acquired from Florida, has strong potential, but also carries some extra baggage. On the plus side, the Nats are finally seeing some prospects creep up from the minors. Colin Balester and Ross Detwiler would provide a great boost to the staff, and Jordan Zimmerman may even make it to the majors in 2009.

Offensively, the Nationals got a lot better with the addition of Adam Dunn. Dunn is the first legitimate slugger the team has had since . . . wow, Vladimir Guerrero. He's working on a two-year deal for a reasonable salary and will be a huge help. The only question is why the Nats want to invest $20 million in a player who will most likely make no difference in any postseason race. Don't rule out former GM Jim Bowden's obsession with former Cincinnati Reds.

Another place where the lineup could take a step forward is with the continued development of Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. This optimism should be somewhat tempered, especially in the case of Dukes, but it's also pretty exciting to think about what an outfield of Dunn-Milledge-Dukes could do offensively (if not defensively).

As for the infield, things aren't so pretty. First baseman Nick Johnson is back, but he's baseball's version of Brigadoon; you know in advance that he's not going to be there all the time, so just enjoy him while you can. Ryan Zimmerman is hoping for a breakout season, and if he doesn't get one, people will start wondering if he'll ever break out. And, sad to say, the Nats have just punted the second base position; it looks like Anderson Hernandez will get it in what was the least exciting Spring Training position battle.

Things aren't all bad, though; this is a team on the way up. But of course that's because they started off so far down.

Conclusion

The Mets and Phillies will battle it out once again, with the loser likely bringing home the Wild Card. The Mets get the edge, though, because they did a much better job of improving their team in the offseason. I don't see the Braves really making a run at the division title, but they should be good enough to stay in the race into September. But then I picked the Mets to win the past two seasons. Take that for what it's worth.

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About Aaron Whitehead

  • Sam

    Are you kidding me???? “the combo of David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes is better than any other NL team’s top three” ???? Howard, Utley and Rollins account for two of the three past MVPs and are a much much much better combo

  • http://whizball.blogspot.com Aaron Whitehead

    That’s an arguable point. I’ll give you the first two, but the third one doesn’t match:
    Wright = Utley
    Reyes = Rollins (roughly)
    Beltran > Howard
    Not only is Beltran better than Howard, it’s not even really close. Beltran doesn’t have as much power as Howard, but he’s a much better overall hitter, and a very good defender at a key position. Howard is a bad defender at first base.
    As for MVPs, the voters aren’t perfect. It could just as easily be Wright and Beltran with MVP honors.
    Plus, the Met threesome is much younger and a better bet for the future.

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