NL East Preview 08

Since we’ve had the time to fully dissect the Nationals and what their team will look like, it’s probably not a bad idea to take a look around them. The NL East should once again prove to be a tough division with some high quality teams, but thanks to the biggest trade of the offseason there is a clear frontrunner. So let’s take a look at the four non-DC teams and where they stack up.

Atlanta Braves

Two years in a row without a postseason berth, is it possible for the Braves to go three? Well, their bats are surprisingly potent when you look at this lineup. Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Jeff Francouer, aChippernd, oh yeah, Mark Teixiera all provide serious power to a team that isn’t really synonymous with HRs. Matt Diaz can rake too, and the question will be whether middle infield tablesetters Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar can get on so the other guys can drive them in. Also there’s the perennial question, can Chipper stay healthy enough to keep this team hitting all year long? Even with that, the real question about this team is about the pitching staff. What can the 42-year-old Glavine, the 40-year-old Smoltz, and the 36-year-old-hasn’t-pitched-since-2005 Mike Hampton do collectively? Tim Hudson should continue to be very good, other than the blip that was 2006, he’s been that or better every year since 2000. One other potential issue for this team is their bullpen, Rafael Soriano is their closer and their best reliever, and while I’m not big on saves as a stat, he only has 13 in 187 appearances.

Florida Marlins

I have a special place in my heart for the team that allowed the Nats to finish out of last place for the first time last season. This is a team that may have a strong future – Hanley Ramirez is a superstar but as long as he’s playing SS and making those errors he’s much more valuable as a fantasy player than as a real player. The Marlins should take a clue from the Brewers and their moving of Ryan Braun and put Ramirez anywhere but SS. Why haven’t they? Because they just acquired another future star, Cameron Maybin, to play CF for them. Jeremy Hermida at RF is a guy with big potential who started living up to the hype at the end of last year. They got Luis Gonzalez to split time with Josh Willingham in LF, and Mike Jacobs may yet turn into a 1B with enough power to warrant playing every day. Their lineup, other than Gonzalez, can hit but are very young, and probably can’t produce enough to make up for their pitching staff. The pitching staff while showing some promise, is probably worse than the Nats. Young stars Anibel Sanchez (no-hitter) and Josh Johnson are hurt until at least early summer, and while they acquired a potential stud in Andrew Miller from the Tigers, he has yet to show any consistency and at 23 may not be ready to carry a team. Their bullpen is pretty good, but closer Kevin Gregg walked too many people last year, he needs to bring those down if he wants to be the anchor.

NY Mets

The Mets, in case you forgot, didn’t even make the postseason last year. Thanks to a monumental collapse at the end of 2007, they missed the playoffs by 1 game. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that one game doesn’t matter in this league. Last year’s Mets team was evidence of the folly of thinking that playing one guy over another doesn’t make a difference. Mets fans may want to blame Tom Glavine due to his last start, but Glavine pitched adequate albeit not great all year. Much worse were Jose Valentin’s 18 RC (according to Baseball Reference) in 188 PAs (that’s 1 less RC than Jesus Flores and 1 more than Robert Fick, for comparison) and a number of other pitchers or position players. Anyway, that was all last year. This year they have a little thing called Johan Santfreakintana. Also Pedro is going to pitch alot more innings this year. So they are getting two great pitchers over last years squad that had to blow a 7 game lead with 17 games left in order to not win their division. They will outhit most teams as well – Reyes, Wright, and Beltran are all near the top of their position lists. Ryan Church should provide some offense for this team, as he did inconstantly for the Nats last year. Brian Schneider, who also came over, will provide little offense, but Ramon Castro can hit, so who knows how much each will play. Their bullpen is pretty good, too, and Billy Wagner is still an elite closer. About the only questions this team has outside of the catching situation, is age and durability. Between Moises Alou in LF and Carlos Delgado at 1B, they have 2 positions which should be producing lots of runs that instead may see lots of time on the DL. Just because you have a better hitting SS than everyone doesn’t mean you can punt 1B – if they can’t find solutions or health there, they will be giving up their advantages of having great hitters at CF and SS. Regardless, even if their hitting is only top 10 in the league, having Johan, Pedro, John Maine and Oliver Perez (even if the latter regress a bit, they are still above average #3 & 4 pitchers) will ensure they won’t have problems in this division.

Philadelphia Phillies

NL MVP shortstop Jimmy Rollins and his hit-happy Phillies will likely lead the NL in runs scored for the third year in a row, and only in part because they play in a minature version of a baseball stadium. They still have the right side of the infield to complement the Mets left side, with Ryan Howard hitting close to 50 HRs and Chase Utley being the best 2B in Burrellbaseball. Besides their solid infield, they have a solid CF in Shane Victorino, a strong RF platoon of Geoff Jenkins, who can still hit righties well, and Jayson Werth, who spells his name funny and demolishes lefties. They also have an interesting sabermetric dichotomy at 3B and LF. Pat Burrell in LF looks like only a decent power hitter to those who pay attention to old school stats like batting average, but if you look at how often he gets on base, you realize he’s a really valuable player. On the other end of the spectrum is new 3B Pedro Feliz, acquired from the Giants, apparently to not get on base. His career average of .252 may not be nauseating, but his career OBP is .288 is. At least he’s got some range. It will also be interesting for me to see what kind of time former Nat Chris Snelling gets, but more interesting for most will be whether Carlos Ruiz can handle full time catching duties. In terms of pitching, the Phillies have a solid staff, with strikeout pitcher Brett Myers returning to the starting rotation and my fantasy team. Cole Hamels will get to build on an exceptional sophomore season, he now has 322 Ks in 315 2/3 career IP, and he also doesn’t throw a changeup or a curve; he simply throws his fastball and alters spacetime accordingly (#286). Kyle Kendrick also pitched well last year, his rookie year, and Adam Eaton should show improvement from his 2007 nightmare. It’s yet to be seen what septuagenarian Jamie Moyer has left in the tank (actually he’s only 45). Closer Brad Lidge should be healthy enough to pitch all but the first few weeks of the season, but relying on a guy who forgot how to pitch for an entire season 2 years ago is a little scary. The rest of the bullpen is decent enough, if not spectacular, with the likes of JC Romero, Tom Gordon, and Ryan Madson.

So the final standings will look like…

1. Mets
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Marlins

Boring that there is no change from the 2007 finish, yes. But it’s closer than you may think, I actually believe the Braves will be a much better team this year and could easily contend for second place, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see them end up there. I envision a tight wild card race this year with the Phillies and the Braves both in it until the end, along with some other teams that look strong in the Central and the West. I can’t see the Mets blowing this one,the addition of Johan makes them too good. Last year I predicted the top of the division correctly but I underestimated our own Washington Nationals, a mistake I won’t repeat.

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