Monday, March 31, 2008

Division by Division Preview - NL East

To be a shock jock…On ESPN Radio this morning Colin Cowherd reported a study conducted by CBS that reported those with a college education and who make more then fifty thousand dollars are more likely to believe that Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds should not be allowed into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Although there are a lot of questions regarding the survey performed, the conclusions are interesting.

The reason why I opened this Division Preview with this is because I want to remind readers that an opinion and conclusion can be formed on any basis. While the ‘wealthy’ and ‘educated’ believe that Clemens and Bonds cheated so much that they should not be eligible for the HOF is laughable. However, this does not mean that those who entered this survey are wrong, although I would argue they are misinformed.

NL East

1. Philadelphia Phillies
I am a big fan of what the Phil’s are bringing to the table offensively. This club had an impressive turnaround in 2007 and surprised a lot of people following what was thought to be a rebuilding year after giving up Bobby Abreu for salary relief the previous season. The Phillies are improved from the team that was on the field for Opening Day 2007 and that team won the division.

The rotation is much improved over the starters they had at the end of the year last season. Bret Myers is back in the rotation after starting only three games in 2007. Hamels is one of the most promising youngsters in baseball and if he can find a way to be healthy this season, should give the Phillies one of the best one-two punches in all of baseball. One has to wonder what is going on with the rest of the rotation, but it appears as though they have just enough to let the bullpen and hitters to win the division.

The bullpen should be a strength from start to finish this season. Tom Gordon will get the ball in the ninth while Brad Lidge. Obviously the Phillies are banking on Lidge being the closer he has shown he is capable of being. It will be interesting to see if JC “free pass” Romero can repeat one of the most fortunate seasons in the league last year.

Even with the loss of Rowand, I believe that this club will be better offensively in 2008 then they were in 2007. Consider not only the injury to Chase Utley but the slow start of Ryan Howard last season. Consider that the Phil’s may have the best RF in all of baseball if the platoon works out the way the splits suggest. This team will put up crooked numbers with regularity. Their home ballpark will again aide this team and its new hitters.

Major Addition: Pedro Feliz – After getting fewer then 20 home runs from their third basemen in 2007, the Phillies finally have a player that can be a threat in this deep lineup. Feliz should hit 5th or 6th instead of 3rd or 4th which alone should improve his chances at breaking out. Moving to Citizens Bank Ballpark will only further improve his numbers and 30 home runs are very likely from this new acquisition. This signing may go down as one of the top 3 or 4 moves from the off season.

Major Subtraction: Jon Lieber – While his addition to the Cubs is essentially a non-factor, leaving the Phillies takes away depth and will force the club to utilize some terrible pitchers in spot start situations.

Breakout Candidate: Shane Victorino – Missing 30 games and having to play hurt in others definitely stunted the season Victorino was having. In fantasy drafts Carl Crawford is taken with one of the first 20 picks yet Victorino is being taken some 80 picks later. I’m not quite willing to suggest Victorino is the equivalent to Crawford, but if Shane can stay healthy this season, WATCH OUT!

2. Atlanta Braves
How many teams can lose a type B free agent and not even feel the effects of it? I am not entirely certain why the Braves went after Mark Kotsay, but possibly the hype of many years ago will finally prove to be valid. Give this team a weekend series against the Mets and it is tough to imagine many New Yorkers tuning in on Sunday to watch their Mets being run over by the Braves pitching.

Atlanta has a capable, old and talented rotation. The top two starters will provide outstanding production and can go head to head with the starting two of any team in the league. Jair Jurrjens has the potential to be an outstanding pitching in the National League. If he can maintain his control and keep allowing his fielders to do the work, he should have a career close to that of teammate Tim Hudson. And fifth starter Mike Hampton may be as good as it gets, if not in the league, then at least the division. Consider that the worst NRA Hampton owned in the 2.5 seasons prior to his injury (4.37) would have put him at #26 in the National League during the 2007 season.

The bullpen could be excellent or terrible. If Soriano can throw all season without issue, he should be one of the top 3 or 4 closers in the NL. Mike Gonzalez will be back around mid-season and should provide a solid boost to the bullpen. Outside of that, the Braves will hope for further development from the youngsters they are going with. Not bringing in a veteran, although a good decision in the long run may be the reason this team lags behind in 2008.

Offensively, I look for the Braves to be better in 2008 then they were in 2007 despite the subtraction of both Andruw Jones and Edgar Renteria. The development of Francouer, McCann, Johnson and a full season of Teixeira will more then make up for whatever the club had last season. However, this team is not without fault offensively, as similar to their bullpen, the club lacks reliable depth. An injury to oft-injured Chipper Jones could completely derail the Braves hopes in 2008.

Major Addition: Jair Jurrjens – I wrote about him above and will stick with my comments. Jurrjens has solid stuff which enabled him to cruise through the minor leagues. I cannot see a way that the Tigers do not regret trading him away, no matter how good their 2008 rotation is and no matter how much Renteria brings to the table. Interestingly, the Braves essentially acquired Jurrjens for failed prospect Andy Marte.

Major Subtraction: Octavio Dotel – This is the veteran presence I was referring to when I discussed the bullpen earlier. While the ChiSox overpaid for Dotel’s services and gave him far too many years, Dotel is still extremely valuable and would have proven to be a season long stabilizer for the Braves.

Breakout Candidate: Jeff Francouer – Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus did an outstanding article on Frenchy in the middle of January. Since that point I have been sold on the kid yet unable to pull the trigger on him in any fantasy drafts. 35 home runs are likely.

3. New York Mets
I’ve already discussed my displeasure for old teams with the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox. The Mets are no different and if not for a devastatingly terrible bottom of the division, I would consider ranking the Mets lower. Offensively the club is going to struggle to remain healthy. Defensively the club is old and may end up being one of the worst in the league. Their pitching staff has a lot of talent, but pitching is never a sure thing and should rarely be counted on.

Adding Johan Santana gave the Mets a legitimate #1, truly legitimate; as in the best in baseball. Pitching at Shea in the National League should do for Santana what moving to Arizona did for Randy Johnson. Pedro Martinez looked great essentially rehabbing in 2007, but his velocity dropped for at least a third straight season and his reliance on a curveball all be disappeared (courtesy Fan Graphs). As much as I like the guy, he is the furthest thing from a guarantee this season. This leads to the Mets reliance on Perez and Maine, neither of whom should be relied on for much more then #5-type numbers in 2008. The loss of Glavine will be felt as well as the injury to 75 year old El Duqe. Expect the Mets to further weaken their minor league system in an attempt to buy the division in 2008.

The bullpen is one of my favorite in baseball. Wagner, Heilman, Feliciano and Schoeneweis make for an incredible deep top of the bullpen. Two of my favorites, Burgos and Sanchez will start their seasons on the disabled list. Although this is not a debilitating blow, although it is one that will need to be monitored throughout the system as the Mets will not be able to afford many other injuries. Joe Smith is a guy to watch out for this year as I believe the Mets will give him a larger and larger role as the season goes on.

Offensively the Mets have three of the best weapons in the Majors. Wright, Reyes and Beltran give the Mets and their opponents a very difficult top of the order. However that is essentially where it stops. Age, injuries and inefficiency will derail any substantial runs the team may go on in an inning. While Alou, Delgado and Church are all capable hitters, expecting any one of them to be at 100% for 120-130 games is irrational. Thus, Moises Alou for 110 games plus Angel Pagan for 52 is essentially as bad of a left field as the Giant have.

Major Addition: Johan Santana – I probably don’t even need to waste my time with this. And despite my belief that the Mets overpaid (both in dollars and prospects) for his services, but for the 2008 season, he should make Met fans forget about the cost.

Major Subtraction: Tom Glavine – Essentially a wash with Santana’s arrival, losing Glavine weakens the rotation. A close runner up could be the loss of Paul LoDuca, whom despite his attitude; LoDuca is still at least league average offensively. His replacement, Brian Schneider may be just as well served not swinging at all. If the Mets are worried about defensive production, they should have started elsewhere.

Breakout Candidate: Joe Smith – Having had an extremely successful rookie campaign, expect Smith to breakout with additional responsibilities placed upon him. Look for Smith to vulture some saves and even be a consistent reliever in the 7th and possibly even the 8th inning.

4. Washington Nationals
Unfortunately the Nationals are without much of a farm system and worse yet, haven’t any reliable arms with the big club. However, the club is stacked with high ceiling hitters and has an ample amount of potential trade chips. Felipe Lopez, Dmitri Young and Wily Mo Pena are three such players whom are going to have to put in a lot of work in order to earn full time roles with the club in 2008. Either that, or luck out with injuries to their teammates. Expect at least one of the three to be moved for minor league pitching.

If I sat down with Nats GM Jim Bowden, before I even introduced myself I would ask him why he released John Patterson. I can accept that he may not have fit into the teams plans for 2008, but how Bowden did not make a trade, just get something for Patterson is beyond me, especially for this ball club. Outside of that, the Nationals haven’t any pitchers that a Major League team would fear meeting in any game of a series-in fact, the Nationals currently have only 4 pitchers listed on their depth chart. The signing of Perez was a good one and he had a nice Opening Day start which could prove a sign for things to come.

There is not a whole lot of excitement in the bullpen, but when you have a rotation like the Nationals do, expecting to have many 7th, 8th or 9th inning leads is senseless. However, between Rivera, Rauch, Colume, Cordero and Ayala, the Nats have a decent bunch that should allow the club to squeak out wins on the rare occasion their starters have a quality start.

Offensively, the club has as much potential as anyone in the Majors. That is not to say that the club is going to go on to lead the league in runs, but the Nats are well on their way to building a winning club. Ryan Zimmerman, Lasting Milledge, and Elijah Dukes are some of the most talented youngsters in the league, watch for each of them to make considerable strides in 2008. Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson are de facto veterans who put up tough at bats and have some solid offensive potential. Watch out for Kearns as his home/road splits were ridiculous in 2007.

Major Addition: Elijah Dukes – While Milledge will probably be the better major leaguer in the short and long term, the Nats acquired Dukes for NOTHING. Agreed, the cost of Milledge was not a whole lot, Dukes was brought aboard for nothing. In 2007, Dukes, the then 23 year old, hit 10 home runs in 182 at bats, which prorates out to 33 home runs over the course of 600 at bats. In an easier league, no longer as a rookie, 30 home runs is definitely achievable for Dukes with full playing time. His strikeout to walk ratio was incredible for a 23 year old rookie, which is evidence enough for me that Dukes is capable of being an excellent everyday hitter.

Major Subtraction: John Patterson – When a team drops their best pitcher one has to wonder what is going on. Although Patterson did not add much in 2007, he is still young enough to offer up some solid potential.

Breakout Candidate: Austin Kearns – It feels as if Kearns has been around forever and put his potential on display year after year. This year, Kearns gets to leave RFK where he is a career .727 slugging outfielder or 100 points lower then he hit on the road in 2007. If the new ballpark is about an average hitter’s park, expect Kearns to return as a .300 hitter with 25-30 home runs as his ceiling.

5. Florida Marlins
The Marlins are going to be dreadful in 2008. However, even if they did not move Willis or Cabrera the Marlins would have been dreadful while profiting a lot less money this coming season. That said, the amount of players and potential they received from the Tigers is tremendous. The Marlins GM also did well to bring aboard youngsters whom other teams had given up on, namely Jorge Cantu.

The rotation has a lot of upside despite a heck of a lot of injuries. 2008 isn’t going to matter for the Marlins anyways, so there is no need to rush back Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, etc. Really, there isn’t much to write here. Mark Hendrickson is said to be the Opening Day starter and I would be wasting my time and yours by going into detail about that. Andrew Miller shouldn’t be with the big league club this year, but the Marlins don’t have many other healthy options and his service clock is already going.

I like this bullpen. Although, like the Nationals, how much value does a good bullpen do this club? Kevin Gregg is a nice, yet unspectacular closer. Miller, Tankersley, Lindstrom and Kensing are all nice, young and cheap relievers, but if there isn’t a lead to hold what is the difference between me and one of those three taking the hill?

Offensively the Marlins do not have much. Hanley Ramirez will not see a strike, even on a 3-0 count, Dan Uggla isn’t that good to begin with and Jeremy Hermida prefers the disabled list over stardom. Beyond that, the Marlins have a core of role players whom are receiving full time jobs. I like Jorge Cantu, but he hasn’t been good since launching a rocket in the World Baseball Classic.

Major Addition: Jorge Cantu – He is no Miguel Cabrera, but for a team that had no intentions of spending money or prospects to acquire a replacement, Cantu will provide close wins per dollars spent that Cabrera would have.

Major Subtraction: Miguel Cabrera – One of the top 4 or 5 players in the majors, any time you lose a player of this talent you are going to feel it. Despite the fact that the Marlins were not drawing any fans and had not much of a chance at competing in 2008, they will still miss Cabrera.

Breakout Candidate: Jeremy Hermida – The youngster was touted as a ‘can’t miss’ prospect coming through the ranks. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy for an entire season, but despite that, Hermida put up outstanding numbers in the second half of 2007. With relatively sustainable batted ball data, look for Hermida to surprise the league if healthy!

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