Home > MLB > LBS 2011 MLB Preview: NL East

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: NL East

Toronto Blue Jays catcher John Buck waits on a pitch against the Colorado Rockies during an interleague game at Coors Field on June 13, 2010 in Denver.  The Rockies swept the three game series with the Blue Jays with a 10-3 win in the series finale.    UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

The NL East is the most improved division in baseball from last year.  The Phillies have risen from the level of top level NL team to one of baseball’s super powers.  The Braves are better.  The Marlins are better.  The Mets probably aren’t better, but they have better team leadership.  And the Nationals- well, did you see how far Bryce Harper just hit that pitch?

1) Philadelphia Phillies (projected finish: 98-64)

The Phillies can only be so much better than they were last year.  After all, they had the NL’s best record.  And while this year’s version of the fightin’ Phils is not quite as good as the Red Sox, they certainly have the inside track as baseball’s second best team, at least in March.

We’ll start with the criminally underrated second baseman Chase Utley, who has a case of patellar tendonitis that has the team worried about possible DL time.  It’s a big deal, as the quickest way to de-rail the Phillies could be through injury.  Also, Utley is such a good player that he deserves mention at the top of an article about the Phillies.

With that out of the way, it’s time to compare the Phillies rotation to all the all-time bests.  There is no rotation in history that has four aces in it.  Before we accuse the Phils of treading in uncharted waters, they really only have a pair of aces in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.  That’s still really good.  It’s also not like we’ve never seen two of the best pitchers in baseball on the same roster before.  Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson won a world series with the Diamondbacks.  Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez managed to pitch on a losing Mariners team last year.  Heck, the Brewers have a pair of aces THIS year in Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo.

What makes the Phillies special is the perception that Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels would be at the top of other rotations elsewhere.  And that’s where I think observers are grading the Phillies too high on the Heat Index.  Having two number twos to go with your dueling aces seems nice, but while theres a long history of teams with two aces going deep into the playoffs, typically rotations like the Phillies end up underachieving expectations.  The worst case scenario for the Phillies is that Cliff Lee goes from two years as perhaps the most dominant pitcher in baseball to an erratic, inconsistent pitcher heading into his mid-thirties.  If that were to occur, Roy Halladay would not, by himself, be able to lead an aging lineup deep into the playoffs.

Still, this is a low risk team, at least in 2011 (perhaps not beyond).  The Phillies will be back in the playoffs this year, then we’ll see.

2) Atlanta Braves (projected finish: 88-74)

The Braves will look to replicate the success they started last year, but its key to remember that the was no team comparable to the Phillies of the present back when the Braves were winning 15 consecutive division titles in the 90’s and 2000’s.

For the Braves, the key is having lineup production consistent to last year to give plenty of run support to their young, developing pitching staff.  Last year, the Braves produced the runs, but what they did not do was play defense.  Had the Padres edged out the Braves for the NL wild card, the top four teams in defensive efficiency would have represented the NL in the playoffs.  In reality, the Padres shouldn’t have been competitive with the Braves for nearly ass long as they were.  Atlanta finished a league average .687 in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play that become outs).  They’ll look to improve that figure in 2011.  Unfortunately, they’ll try to do so with a 40 year old Chipper Jones, Martin Prado in left field, and Dan Uggla playing second base.  It’s not going to be easy, mind you.

In a bunch of ways, this will be a transitional year for the Braves, hence a couple of wins off the overall record from last year.  But the overall direction of the franchise is pointing upward, and most of the team’s contributors are rather young, and the farm system, per usual, is quite strong.  The Braves are transitioning for a day where the Phillies are old and can be had.  And right now, either they or the Cardinals or Reds look like the best bet for the NL Wild Card again, which is a good place to be in a transitional year.

3) Florida Marlins (projected finish: 85-77)

The Marlins are likely to come up just short of the playoffs, and perhaps holding onto Dan Uggla for another year might have been the difference.  But I’ve recently bought into the idea that this team is quite good, led by Mike Stanton in the outfield, John Buck at catcher, Gaby Sanchez at first base, and Hanley Ramirez at shortstop

The pitching staff is young as well, and perhaps just not as far along as the Braves, but this team is going to be able to score runs with the best teams in the NL.  I like the Marlins lineup more than, for example, the Brewers lineup, and the Brewers find their way to the top of the AL in run scoring each season.

What’s hurting the Marlins at this point is that the Miguel Cabrera trade with the Tigers simply hasn’t yielded very much in return, while Cabrera looks like the most dangerous hitter in the AL.  Andrew Miller looks like a washout.  Cameron Maybin is yet to hit at a major league level.  Burke Badenhop is a non-descript middle reliever with 53 appearances in 2010 (good by the standards of this trade).  That’s everything that’s still with the Marlins organization.  The trade looked even at the time, so we shouldn’t crush the Marlins for it, but that’s a weak outcome to the trade of a star player.

If the pitching takes great strides the Marlins can possibly jump the Braves into second place this year.  But likely, they’ll finish in a close third, and come up short of the playoffs.

4) New York Mets (projected finish: 80-82)

While the Mets still offer plenty of star potential for the 2011 season, I don’t really believe in their stars anymore.  David Wright is better than you think he is, which is to say, you should look at his numbers.  He’s the best player on this Mets team.  Carlos Beltran will probably never play a full season again, and I don’t see him enjoying a Jim Edmonds-type end of career.  Jose Reyes is done, in my estimation as an elite player, but he can last as an all-star level player because he plays shortstop.  He’s a .700-.750 OPS guy from here on out.  Jason Bay is going to end up being a dreadful signing because the home ballpark (Citi Field) is going to keep him in the yard often.

But Angel Pagan was a shrewed pickup by former GM Omar Minaya, and while Ike Davis may be due for a regression, he repesents the hope of the future for Mets fans.

The Mets have a pretty good rotation led, still, by Johan Santana and featuring knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, but the home ballpark makes Dickey and fellow starter Mike Pelfrey look better than they are.  The Mets are still a year away, but they can look to build around this pitching/fielding strength, and have already made the right decision to switch Carlos Beltran to RF and put Pagan in CF.  Though I question how exactly playing RF is going to “protect” Beltran’s knees, its still a wise move.  We’ll see if the Mets can get back into contention in the next couple of seasons.

5) Washington Nationals (projected finish: 72-90)

The Nats picked a really good time to be dreadful, we’ll put it that way, and I’ll also say they are my early pick to surprise next season (2012).  Stephen Strasburg looks like the best pitcher in baseball, when healthy.  He will stay sidelined thanks to Tommy John surgery for at least the first four months of the season, and should be all over the headlines next year, when Washington matters.  And if OF Bryce Harper really is the chosen one, he might end up breaking camp with the Nationals at the age of 20.

The Nationals have both of those guys because they were horrible in 2008 and 2009.  They were much better last year, only a little because of Strasburg.  Those two lead a farm system that’s getting stronger by the month.

The Nationals also are closer to a .500 team at the ML level than to a disaster.  They are the worst team in the NL East, for sure, but they would be competitive in the other two NL divisions.  Without Strasburg at the front of their rotation, pitching is a concern.  So is the lineup, which lost it’s second and third best hitters; Adam Dunn to free agency (ChiSox), and Josh Willingham to a trade (A’s).  The Willingham trade bolsters the front of the bullpen with the addition of Henry Rodriguez.  The Nats are, however, strong up the middle and have excellent depth at catcher.  They’ll need more power out of the corner outfield spots and first base before they can compete, but that’s Harper’s role and as long as they can acquire that power to coincide with Strasburg’s return, the Nats could get pretty good at the end of this season.  Once they are already out of it.

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