Wednesday, April 8, 2009

NL East Preview

Atlanta Braves
This is where the cheesy part of me wants to say that Derek Lowe will probably have a great opening day start, but you come here for better than cheesy. After like a million straight years of winning the division, the Braves haven't been in the playoffs since 2005. They've fielded some solid teams and competed for the division title, but fans in Atlanta expect more out of their team. It's not impossible that this is the year they get back to the postseason.

The hitting, as it has for the past decade, starts with Chipper Jones. He's one of the best hitters in the league, and he's putting together a decent Hall of Fame resume despite his history of injury problems. Brian McCann has put together a couple of really solid campaigns, but after those two, the bats are suspect. Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, and Casey Kotchman are all 10-15 HR guys, but none of them scares you at the plate. The outfield boasts an over-the-hill guy (Garret Anderson), a rookie who hasn't played above AA (Jordan Schafer), and last year's most-hated fantasy player (Jeff Francoeur). To say the offense could go in any direction would be a gross understatement.

The pitching is similar, but with a little more talent. The aforementioned Lowe is a reliable, consistent starter. He's followed by Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez, both of whom are solid #2 pitchers. Kenshin Kawakami and Jorge Campillo round out the staff, and while neither is proven, both have upside above their 4th and 5th slots. The bullpen is less exciting, with Mike Gonzalez trying to recapture his success from 2006, but if he can stay healthy, he might be able to do just that. He's always walked too many batters for a closer, but as long as you can get out of jams, you can close. Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan are other closer possibilities, should things go poorly for Gonzo.

Projected record: 79-83

Florida Marlins
The Marlins feel like they're a year or two away from competing for a World Series again, which means they're two or three years from dismantling again. I don't love any part of their team, but I don't hate any part either, which means you can probably guess where I'm going to project their record to finish up.

Hanley Ramirez is one of the premier hitters in baseball. His double-play partner, Dan Uggla, has as much power as any second baseman around. Questions abound elsewhere, though. Can Jorge Cantu keep up his production this time, and avoid falling off the planet again? Is Cameron Maybin finally ready for the majors? Will Emilio Bonifacio be a shrewd acquisition or an overpriced speed guy? Can Jeremy Hermida stay healthy and put together a productive season? Lots of questions, but that means the potential for high-caliber production is there.

Somehow, the Marlins always seem to have an up-and-coming pitching staff. Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson are a promising young 1-2 punch that have the potential to be the best in the majors. Chris Volstad is 6'8" and if he can work on his control, he'll be another top tier starter. Anibal Sanchez isn't a stud, but he has thrown a no-hitter, so he's got the tools. Former Tigers prospect Andrew Miller will take the #5 spot for now; if he still needs seasoning, Rick VandenHurk will take over when he comes off the DL. Matt Lindstrom, he of the 100 mph fastball, is the new closer. I'm not crazy about him, but he should be sufficient. Kiko Calero and Leo Nunez are very good bullpen guys.

Projected record: 83-79

New York Mets

The Mets always spend a lot of money, but they'll remain in the Yankees' shadow until they start performing in October. And to perform in October, they'll have to play better in September. Back-to-back late season collapses have Mets fans wondering how much money it will take to right the ship.

The offense is a little top-heavy. David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran are elite players, and Carlos Delgado showed he's still got plenty of pop to make opposing pitchers fear him. After that, though, it's slim pickings. Ryan Church had a great start to last season, but wasn't the same after a concussion. Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy are on opposite ends of their careers, but figure to both be just decent this year. Brian Schneider calls a decent game but can't hit worth a lick, and Luis Castillo's best days are behind him.

The rotation has a couple of wild cards, but could be pretty good. Johan Santana is a multiple-time Cy Young award winner, and figures to consistently be among the best pitchers in the National League. Oliver Perez and John Maine are both strikeout pitchers with a propensity for bad games. They're the kind of pitchers you send out there and just hope for the best. Mike Pelfrey is still young, but performed adequately in his first full season, and the Mets have high hopes for him.

The Mets' bullpen gets its own section, because it's probably the most discussed bullpen in baseball. Billy Wagner is out for the season, so New York inked Francisco Rodriguez ("K-Rod") to a trillion dollar contract. Then they traded for J.J. Putz, hoping to avoid the utter collapse that happened last year when Wagner went down. The rest of the 'pen is unproven, but the two big acquisitions should give the Mets a boost, both talent-wise and psychologically.

Projected record: 90-72

Philadelphia Phillies

Last year's World Series champions field an eerily similar team this season. Pat Burrell leaves, but in comes Raul Ibanez. Jayson Werth goes from part-time to full-time. And the ageless Jamie Moyer comes back to help the Phillies defend their crown. There's no reason this team can't do it again.

The offense is keyed by three elite players: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. But unlike two years ago, they've got some complementary pieces in place now that help make this offense go. Shane Victorino scored over a hundred runs and became the bridge the Phillies needed between Rollins and the boppers. Werth became a 20-20 player, and could be even more productive with 150 more at-bats. This might be the best offense in the league.

The pitching doesn't look that great to me, but it also looks pretty similar to last year's pitching, which was good enough. Cole Hamels is a true ace, but Joe Blanton, Brett Myers, and Moyer aren't sure things at all. They've swapped Adam Eaton out and Chan Ho Park in as the #5 starter, but I have a hard time believing that a guy like Park, a fly ball pitcher with a history of trouble keeping the ball in the park, will finish the season in the rotation in Philadelphia. Luckily, they've got Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin in the bullpen, who've both been spot-starters at some point in the past three years. Brad Lidge is one of the best closers in the NL, but there's not a lot of depth behind him, so he can't really afford to slip up.

Projected record: 88-74

Washington Nationals

Ahh, the Nationals. My hometown team. I'm still trying to warm up to them, which has been more difficult than I had imagined, especially considering I was a big Expos fan. I'm a little more excited this year than in previous years, but I'm not expecting a whole lot. A lame duck manager and front office turmoil don't usually point to big gains.

The offense is at the very least intriguing. No less than five starters have 20 HR potential, as do Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes, both currently bench players. While the team does have a distinct lack of .300 hitters, if you get that slugging percentage high enough, you can generate enough runs with smaller rallies. The acquisition of Adam Dunn finally gives Washington a legitimate, dangerous bat in the middle of the order, and it gives everyone else in the lineup greater run-scoring potential. It's about time for Ryan Zimmerman to take that next step, though, if he's ever going to take it. He's a great defender, but you've got to score runs.

The pitching is utterly terrifying. John Lannan is a mediocre pitcher, a solid #3 in a decent pitchig staff. But in Washington, he's far and away the best pitcher. Scott Olsen is trying to harness his velocity and become a pitcher, as is Daniel Cabrera, though Cabrera might be attempting the impossible. Julian Tavarez will round out the rotation, though he or Cabrera will probably slide in a higher slot to separate the lefties Lannan and Olsen. Jordan Zimmermann is a big time pitching prospect that will probably join the team as soon as they need a fifth starter (notice the additional 'n' at the end of his last name; he's unrelated to Ryan).

Surprisingly, the bullpen isn't terrible. Though the team lost their last two closers in the past 12 months (Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch), they've found another guy who can fill the job in Joel Hanrahan. He's a strikeout pitcher who walks too many hitters, but on a bad team, you're willing to accept that. Steven Shell showed a lot of promise last year, and the righty-lefty combo of Saul Rivera and Mike Hinckley gives manager Manny Acta some options early this season. Prospect Shairon Martis figures to get some exposure in the starting rotation as well as the season goes on, but will probably be in the bullpen to start the season.

Projected record: 72-90

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