MLB Preview: Taking a Closer Look at the NL East
The Philadelphia Phillies finally relinquished the crown to the emerging Washington Nationals squad in the surprising NL East division last season. The headline-grabbing Miami Marlins finished last in the division after having such high hopes and the New York Mets? Well, they were the same Mets we’ve come to know over the years: lack of production that leads to lack of effort. The Atlanta Braves had another solid year, but have still yet to make that breakthrough to become a true contender. So what does the 2013 season hold for these teams?
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The Braves may have lost the speedy outfielder Michael Bourn this offseason, who lead the National League with 42 stolen bases last year, but they certainly found someone to replace him in B.J. Upton. The former Tampa Bay Ray signed a 5-year deal worth over $72 million and the Braves are really hoping that money pays for the production they’ll be losing from Bourn and the retired Chipper Jones (even though there have been rumors of him wanting to come out of retirement).
The Braves need more offense this year as they were in the bottom half of the league in most batting statistics, but their pitching is what got them to their 94-68 record. Atlanta was fifth in ERA and fourth in opposing batting average in 2012. Starting pitcher Tim Hudson will yet again lead a rotation of promising young arms that includes Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm, their likely second and third starters.
If the Braves can get their bats going this year and continue to produce a dominant rotation and bullpen, then the only thing that needs fixing is performing under pressure. The last few seasons Atlanta has been so close, but could never seem to get it done. Braves’ fans are hoping 2013 will finally be the year they persevere.
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After moving to Miami, the Marlins went on a shopping spree by landing shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Mark Buehlre and Heath Bell. Add that to outstanding players in Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Johnson and the Marlins looked like an instant contender. Instead, inconsistent play mixed with the controversial coach Ozzie Guillen caused the team to implode and of all of those players mentioned, only Stanton returns this season.
As for their starting rotation, a 4.48 ERA pitcher from a year ago, Ricky Nolasco will be the number one starter. And the rest of the bunch is not much better. For offense, the Marlins went back to a rebuilding period, but it is not as promising as it may seem, for Juan Pierre (age 35) and Placido Polanco (age 37) will be in the starting lineup. There really is not too much positive to say about the club, so I’ll just say this: at least you play in the city of Miami.
New York Mets
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Ever since the 2007 season when the Mets lost six out of their last seven games to lose the division to the Phillies, they just haven’t been the same. Each following year has been a combination of injuries, clubhouse turmoil and just overall bad performances. This year seems like it will be more of the same.
When you scroll through this year’s roster, you’ll recognize David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Johan Santana… and that’s about it. A lot of this is due to the fact that they have the fifth youngest team in the league right now, but still none of them have proven themselves yet. Some might say there’s promise in first baseman Ike Davis with his 32 homeruns last year, but once you add that to his .227 batting average then it’s not nearly as impressive.
Like the Braves, New York was in the middle of the pack in batting, but lacked Atlanta’s high caliber pitching staff. And now with pitcher R.A. Dickey off to the Blue Jays, they have to rely on the aging Johan Santana to lead this lackluster starting rotation. The key to the Mets’ season completely relies on the no-name athletes on offense and especially on the pitching staff with the loss of All-Star Dickey.
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It seems that the Phillies are no longer the pitching powerhouse of the past and the once-reliable bats have been injury plagued or just not what they used to be. The injuries to first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley dramatically affected the lineup. And take former MVP Jimmy Rollins for example, for the first time in a long time he had an injury-free season, but still only hit .250 when his team needed him to carry the load.
In years past, when Philadelphia was hit with the injury bug, they could always fall back on the talents of pitchers Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. In 2012, this wasn’t the case. Hamels had a good year with 17 wins and 6 losses and posted a modest ERA just above 3. Lee posted a slightly higher ERA, but had a terrible record of 6-9 (most of it due to lack of run support).
But the most surprising part of the pitching staff was Roy Halladay, the CY Young runner-up in 2011 and the 2010 winner. Halladay had an awful (for his standards) 4.49 ERA and a record of 11-8. Although he missed starts due to injuries, anyone could tell that he just wasn’t himself.
Another huge area that needs improvement is the Phillies bullpen. Outside of closer Jonathan Papelbon, not many of their middle relievers could be relied upon. Although he had a down year last season, reliever Anthony Bastardo has proven himself as a dependable middle reliever/ setup man for the squad in the past. Fortunately (if he returns to his former self), the Phillies signed him to a one-year deal this offseason.
Last year, age and injuries defined the Phillies season, but with a healthy season and if the three headed pitching monster that is Hamels, Lee and Halladay pitch to their potential, then Philly is likely to contend with Nationals for the title in 2013.
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All season, the Nationals were thought to be one of the best teams in baseball, and although they did not make it far in the playoffs, I think that opinion will still stand. With up-and-coming superstars in pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, they have two solid players to build around and they have already started.
Along with Harper, the Nationals have veterans that can also hit the ball in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfielder Jayson Werth. And on top of all that, there is their young shortstop Ian Desmond who batted .292 last season. It appears that the Nationals are going to keep getting better… and that’s just their batting.
With all of the Strasburg buzz last season, pitcher Gio Gonzalez flew under the radar even though he posted an ERA of 2.89 and an opposing batting average of .206. Oh, and he also lead the NL with 21 wins. Their third pitcher is no slouch either; the 26 year old Jordan Zimmerman recorded a 2.94 ERA through 32 starts. With none of the other teams dramatically improving in the NL East, it seems that the Nationals should feel very confident about defending their title.