Home > Uncategorized > National League East Preview: Phillies Still King, But Beware Of The Braves

National League East Preview: Phillies Still King, But Beware Of The Braves

I’m not sure why, but the spring training season has gotten out of the way pretty quickly. Last year, it seemed to linger forever. But today is MLB’s real opening day and we’re just two days away from the first 30-team schedule date. In anticipation of this new dawn for the greatest sport around — no arguments — I’ll be touching on each division with a not-so-thorough preview.

1. Philadelphia Phillies

Some people don’t like that Phillies didn’t hang onto Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee for one full season, but the team should be at least as good with Halladay for a full season as they were with Cliff Lee for half a season. And Phillies fans would probably be happy if their team duplicated last season’s result — except for one little change in that final series.

But the Phillies should be able to make a run for another title. The lineup is top-notch. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins are near or at the top at their position, and Jayson Werth will prove his 2009 was no fluke.

There has been some griping about Shane Victorino being moved from second to seventh because of Placido Polanco. We’ve just grown used to Victorino between Rollins and Utley, but Polanco does have a higher contact rate and I don’t think that change will make much of a difference. Catcher Carlos Ruiz is the only thing close to an easy out in the starting eight. It is the most potent lineup in baseball. Of course, Raul Ibanez needs to play well all season and Rollins needs to pay less attention to home runs and more attention to just getting on base.

Conversely, the pitching staff isn’t the best in the league. It’s barely the best in the division, but Halladay and Cole Hamels can be a deadly 1-2 punch (Not literally fatal though. That would seem illegal). All that needs to happen there is Hamels regaining his 2008 form, and I think he will. He was a little unlucky last year. The rest of the rotation is currently made up of J.A. Happ, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick. Joe Blanton should be back within a month and will slide into the No. 4 spot. Happ and Blanton at three and four is pretty damn good.

The Phillies’ bullpen has experienced a lot of change in personnel and it’s definitely not as deep as last year’s group. Danys Baez and Chad Durbin will open the season as the team’s main setup pitchers. Their numbers last season weren’t great, but the opponent hit about .220 against both of them. Ryan Madson is solid and J.C. Romero will be back soon from surgery.

But the major key is still Brad Lidge. He blew 11 saves last year but still has the closer’s job when he gets back to full health. He starts this year on the disabled list after a slow recovery from elbow surgery and he recently needed a cortisone shot in that elbow, but he could return in a few weeks. He’ll be put under a microscope, but there’s nothing that says he will be just as bad in 2010. Of course, he probably won’t be as good as 2008.

Philadelphia’s pitching does have some problems, but not enough that their offense can’t cover up.

2. Atlanta Braves

Throughout these division previews, I’ve been pretty safe with my predictions. The Phillies and Yankees will win their divisions? The Pirates aren’t very good? Surprising stuff, I know.

But here is the smallest limb that I’ll climb on to this season: The Atlanta Braves will finish second in the NL East and win the wild card.

Jason Heyward's quick maturation into a feared major league hitter is one reason why the Braves will be in the playoffs

Part of that prediction relies on the emotion the team will (or should) play with for Bobby Cox during his final year as a manager. But there are more important reasons on the field. While people know of Brian McCann and Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar is a very underrated offensive shortstop. I’m also betting that some risks will work out for the Braves. I’m betting that Nate McLouth’s horrid spring is just a fluke and he will hit higher than his .257 average from last year. I think Chipper and Troy Glaus will both play in about 140 games. And of course, I expect Jayson Heyward to somehow live up to all of this ridiculous hype. It looks like he’ll bat seventh at the start, but he should move up to fifth before season’s end, leading to more RBI chances. Car windshields across the nation, you have been warned.

The pitching staff has at least four talented starters who can eat up a lot of innings. Derek Lowe will start on opening day, if only because he has enough of a blend of experience and health. But he was a little more wild than usual last season. He still threw almost 200 innings — he has lasted at least 180 innings every season since he was turned into a full-time starter in 2002 — and can be a steady force.

The real talent exists past him with Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, who posted a 2.60 ERA last year. With how Hanson pitched during his four months in the bigs last year, it’s obvious that he’ll be in the Cy Young conversation soon enough. Also, Tim Hudson is back to full strength after 2008 Tommy John surgery and could very well come close to his last fully healthy season of 2007. And he’s probably the No. 4 starter in Atlanta! Kenshin Kawakami is certainly the best No. 5 starter in the division.

Billy Wagner, 38, and Takashi Saito, 40, lead the Braves’ bullpen. It could either be a disaster with age and previous wear causing both guys to break down. Or they could both stay healthy, strikeout more than one batter per inning on average and post ERAs between 2.20-2.50. I’ll split them and say that at least one will be available for nearly five-and-a-half months of the season.

3. Florida Marlins

As it seems with every year, the Marlins are a young, exciting team. They have the reigning NL Rookie of the Year in Chris Coghlan. They have one of the game’s best power pitchers, who many probably confuse with former Bucs starting QB Josh Johnson. They have the second-best commodity in fantasy baseball in Hanley Ramirez and his awesome necklace. Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantu, while both may be traded, can knock in some runs. John Baker had a very unheralded but solid season for a catcher. But this offense is clearly one step (or maybe two or three) behind the Phillies.

Hanley Ramirez is gaining on that inevitable MVP season

Cameron Maybin was acquired in the Miguel Cabrera trade a couple of years ago. He has the ability to bat in any spot in the top third of the lineup, but he needs to cut down on the strikeouts or else he’ll go back to batting seventh or eighth. Gaby Sanchez is a late bloomer who won the starting job at first base after a strong spring, but he has just 29 at bats worth of experience in the majors.

Ricky Nolasco can be a suitable second starter. He finished with an ERA above five last year, but he was outstanding after serving some time in the minors to fix the problems that caused his horrible ‘o9 start. However, I do worry about the rest of the staff. Anibal Sanchez has a no-hitter on his resume, but he still has never pitched more than 115 innings in any of his four major league seasons. Lefty Nate Robertson was acquired in a trade last week and will be the team’s third starter this opening week. Other than a solid spring and some decent appearances late last year, he has been a below-average starter since 2006. Chris Volstad, who was very up and down last year, is penciled in as the fifth starter.

The bullpen didn’t add anyone, but it certainly lost people, including former closer Matt Lindstrom. It’s not a very impressive bullpen, led by closer Leo Nunez, who blew seven of 33 save opportunities and finished with a 4-plus ERA. Dan Meyer and Renyel Pinto are the team’s main setup pitchers right now. There really isn’t one dependable option for the Marlins in relief.

The Marlins have a good offense and a couple of  nice pitchers, but it’s not the best in its division at either facet. The lack of competent pitching in the bullpen and at the back of the rotation especially is going to present a large number of long, forgettable games for the Fish.

4. New York Mets

I find myself saying “if healthy” a lot during these previews. It sounds overused, but it can never be because injuries are a part of sports and no one is truly immune to a devastating injury. But with the Mets, it’s a whole new level. There are so many injury concerns with so many good players, you just don’t know what to think about them.

Don't worry -- David Wright will put up more-familiar power numbers in 2010

Carlos Beltran will be out until at least early May after that whole debacle with his knee surgery. Jose Reyes missed most of last year due t0 a torn hamstring, but a thyroid abnormality sidetracked him this spring. He is on the DL now but should return soon. But even when he does return, we’re not sure if his legs will ever be 100 percent, which would subtract a big part of his game. Daniel Murphy will miss the first month due to a sprained knee. That means Mike Jacobs, who has recorded sub-.300 OBPs, in the past two years will bat cleanup. David Wright and Jason Bay will be fine. In fact, forget about David Wright’s 2009 season. He’ll hit at least 25 homers this year. But until Beltran, Reyes and Murphy comes back, the team will have to put up with Jacobs, Angel Pagan and Alex Cora. Um, that’s not a good thing.

And let’s give the Mets a best-case scenario. All of the stars — Reyes, Wright, Beltran, Bay, etc. — all either return or stay healthy and produce big numbers. There is reason to believe that the team’s pitching staff could give up even bigger numbers. I’m not talking about Johan Santana. He should be fine again. It’s just everyone else.

In no particular order, here are the four pitchers slated to follow Johan this season: Oliver Perez still has no clue where the ball is going. Mike Pelfrey can be fairly decent, but he gives up a ton of hits, including 213 in 184.1 innings last year. John Maine is the No. 2 starter, but he has been held back with injuries over the past two seasons and it seems to have limited his K potential. His ERA has increased in each of the past three years. Lastly, Jon Niese has fewer than 40 innings of major league experience and the league is hitting .297 against him. Kelvim Escobar could help out this sad group at some point, but yeah, he’s on the disabled list. Shoulder weakness.

Francisco Rodriguez is a solid closer, but probably a bit overrated. He still walks too many batters. The top of the bullpen will include Pedro Feliciano and the team’s top prospect, 20-year-old Jenrry Mejia.

The Mets can be potentially great again, but it has the most health concerns already of any team in the majors. The pitching, other than Johan and K-Rod, isn’t blessed with such talent and will be kicked around by many teams all year.

5. Washington Nationals

It’s all about playing the waiting game for the Nationals. Waiting for Stephen Strasburg. It’ll probably be early June before he gets the call, so until then, the team will have to do its best with (shiver) John Lannan, Jason Marquis, Garrett Mock and Craig Stammen. It’s going to be a battering, especially since only Stammen possesses any strikeout ability. The bullpen is fairly awful behind Matt Capps and Brian Bruney, and even they aren’t exactly acid-reducing relievers.

The offense has some exciting parts. I’m a big Nyjer Morgan fan. He was spectacular in the second half of last season. Adam Dunn delivers 40 homers with ease. Ryan Zimmerman is a fantastic five-tool player, Josh Willingham can mash and new starting shortstop, Ian Desmond, could hit 20 homers.

Then, just imagine Strasburg added to this bunch. And, projecting further into the future, don’t forget about Jordan Zimmerman. He was the team’s best pitching prospect before Strasburg. He will miss all of this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he and Strasburg in 2011 as the makings of pure nastiness. Then, maybe the Nats will add Bryce Harper down the road? The Nationals will probably finish fifth in the NL East, but they are no longer the absolute worst team in the game and happier days are certainly ahead.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. ...

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