MLB: A Complete Breakdown With Predictions for the NL East
Now that the previews for the American League is complete, it's time to start breaking down the National League. We'll start off with the NL East, which on paper, looks over before it even begins.
It may be a silly statement to make, as there are other teams that can play well in the division, but who really thinks the team with four aces won't run away with things?
It'll be an interesting season for this division as it appears the team that's always been on the bottom is making some nice improvements.
The biggest question has to be, will any team step up and surprise us by taking down the Phillies?
Philadelphia has won the last four NL East titles and if any of the four can do it, which team has the best shot? With all the moves made by every team, how will everything shape up?
Here's the answers to those questions and more in a complete NL East preview with some predictions.
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Times have been really rough for the Washington Nationals since relocating from Montreal in 2005. In fact, they've had one playoff appearance in their entire history and that was in a strike season (1981).
So, when are the Nationals ever going to compete or even make some noise? It may not be this season, but it'll be sooner than later. That's because their owner Ted Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo are trying to invest in their team rather than go with Triple-A players on the Major League level.
This offseason, the Nationals publicly put themselves in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. After not being able to land him, they signed right fielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract.
Now, that may be a little ridiculous considering Werth has never driven in 100 runs or been the main hitter on his team, but it shows the Nationals are finally willing to spend money.
Now, they must eventually do something to show for it. They made a 10-game improvement last season and this season, should show improvement as well.
The starting pitching is a mixed bag right now with Livan Hernandez leading the way. But, the offense looks to be a bit pesky and a bit powerful.
Werth had a drop off in production last season with the Phillies, hitting nine fewer home runs, and driving in 14 fewer runs. He was also absolutely atrocious in the clutch, but he brings plenty of power to the Nationals as he'll be Adam Dunn's replacement.
The Nationals also signed first baseman Adam LaRoche, who hit 25 home runs and drove in 100 in Arizona last season.
The other three infielders are who the Nationals hope will be the future for years to come. Ryan Zimmerman is the face of the team—despite Werth's huge contract—at third base, and then comes the young middle infield.
Although he didn't show too much last season, Ian Desmond will be the everyday shortstop. Danny Espinosa will play second base after he showed off his talents with a huge series against the Mets last season. Nationals' 2009 first-round pick Drew Storen will be the full-time closer for the first time.
It shouldn't be as terrible a season for Washington with a mixture of young and powerful hitters. If they can get anything out of a rotation that includes Jason Marquis and John Lannan, the Nationals could play spoiler.
Also, look for phenom Stephen Strasburg to perhaps return from Tommy John surgery at some point in the season to help out.
NL East team rankings
Starting rotation: 5th
2011 prediction: 75-87, 5th place
New York Mets
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What has happened to the New York Mets? If you're a fan of the team, doesn't 2006 feel like a century ago? That was the season that ended in Game 7 of the NLCS when Carlos Beltran struck out looking to the end the game.
Since then, nothing has gone right, and this offseason brought even more controversy and scandal. Without getting into it all, Mets ownership is dealing with a Ponzi scheme having to do with Bernie Madoff.
On the field, it doesn't look like the Mets are returning to the playoffs. Out of all 30 big league clubs, the Mets underwent the most front office change. They hired Sandy Alderson to be their new general manager and Terry Collins to be their new manager.
They didn't spend any money, as they apparently plan on making big splashes next offseason when a ton of money comes off the books. With the ownership issues, good luck with that plan.
Anyway, the Mets actually don't have a bad lineup. As bad as things seem, if all breaks right, they can compete for a Wild Card spot. There are a lot of "ifs" though.
You can make an argument that their top six in the lineup is one of the best in the NL. Jose Reyes did well last season when he played, but he's become injury-prone like in the early days of his career. Can he stay healthy and produce? You'd think so because it's his walk year.
Angel Pagan has been a great story, becoming an All-Star caliber outfielder, but can he repeat what he did last season? How about Carlos Beltran? He did well in September after returning from knee surgery, but how will he hold up? He's also in a walk year.
The biggest question mark in the lineup is Jason Bay. After being signed to a four-year, $66 million contract last season, he was terrible. He struggled at the plate all season before going down to a concussion. He has to return to his pre-2010 form this season or he'll be considered a bust.
At first base, Ike Davis will enter his second season. He hit 19 home runs last season and could hit 30 or more in 2011, but will he be more patient? These are all questions in a lineup that looks very good on paper.
The biggest spring training competition will be at second base. Rule 5 draft pick Brad Emaus has the best shot at winning the job being he hit .300 in Triple-A last season and must stay in the big leagues all season. But he'll have to fight off Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner and Luis Castillo.
The biggest problem for the Mets, though, is their starting rotation. Johan Santana will not return until around July after offseason shoulder surgery.
After Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, and R.A. Dickey, they'll hope to get something out of offseason signees Chris Young and Chris Capuano. The bullpen has some questions as well.
It'll be an up and down season for the Mets, unless everything breaks right.
NL East team rankings
Starting rotation: 4th
2011 prediction: 80-82, 4th place
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The Florida Marlins always seem to be floundering around the .500 mark. Other than their two championship seasons of 1997 and 2003—their only 90-win seasons—they seem to be not great but not awful.
Last season was another example of that as they went 80-82, and they should have the same type of 2011 campaign.
Their offense took a bit of a hit this offseason as second baseman Dan Uggla was traded to the division-rival Braves.
His replacement will be who they got in return, Omar Infante. Not to say that Infante is a bad hitter, after all he did contend for the batting title last season with a .321 average, but he only hit eight home runs and drove in 47 runs. That's nowhere near the 33 home runs and 105 runs batted in that Uggla provided.
Other than Wes Helms at third base, the Marlins infield can do some damage. It all starts off with shortstop Hanley Ramirez, whose production did take a dip in 2010. His runs batted in went down by 30 compared to 2009 (2009: 106; 2010: 76), and his attitude wasn't that of a winner either.
The Marlins have to hope he cleans up his childish act and does more with the bat so that the loss of Uggla won't be a total disaster.
At first base is Gaby Sanchez, who was one of the league's top rookies last season. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting and has 25 home run, 100 RBI potential.
The outfield is what really weakens the Marlins lineup. Left fielder Logan Morrison showed flashes last season in 62 games, but has never played a full season. His biggest attribute was extra-base power, as he hit 20 doubles. That's a pace for 52 doubles in a 162-game season.
Then in center field comes the mystery that is Chris Coghlan. After winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2009, Coghlan didn't show why in 2010.
He tore a meniscus in his knee after pieing a teammate following a game-winning hit in July, and sandwiched that in between a down season. His batting average fell from .321 to .268.
The very powerful but strikeout-prone Mike Stanton will enter his second season in right field at only 21 years old.
The Marlins biggest strength is probably their starting rotation. The very underrated Josh Johnson anchors the staff after winning the NL ERA title last season.
The Marlins signed veteran Javier Vazquez after a disappointing second tenure with the Yankees. Their rotation won't quite compete with the Phillies, but it should be strong with Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez being reliable second and third starters.
The Marlins do own one of baseball's worst bullpens which isn't a good thing when trying to close out games for those quality starters.
Looking at the roster and loss of Uggla, it looks like another average season for the Marlins.
NL East team rankings
Starting rotation: 3rd
2011 prediction: 83-79, 3rd place
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It's going to be hard for any team to compete with the Phillies in the NL East, but if any team could, it's the Atlanta Braves. For a while last season, the Braves were actually in first place and seemed poised to take back a division that they once owned.
After missing the playoffs from 2006-2009, they made a return in Bobby Cox's final season last year, entering as a Wild Card.
They did it primarily with their starting rotation. That rotation will be just as strong this season despite being led by two aging veterans.
After being in and out of the rotation in recent years due to injury, Hudson had his best season since 2007. He made every start and went 17-9 with an ERA of 2.83. He finished fourth in NL Cy Young award voting.
Listed as the second starter is Derek Lowe. He's been the most durable starter in baseball over the last decade, not missing a single start in nine seasons. His consistency, though, is a problem. For the second straight season, Lowe won 15 games despite pitching to a 4.00 ERA.
After those two, the younger Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson will try to bounce back from below average seasons. They're still solid, as Hanson had a losing record despite having an ERA of 3.33.
The lineup added some big-time power in the offseason as the Braves traded for the Marlins' Dan Uggla. He'll replace Omar Infante who although may be a better hitter for average, isn't anywhere near the type of power hitter Uggla is.
At third base, Chipper Jones will return for a 17th season, even though his manager retired. Jones' season ended a little early in 2010, after he tore his ACL. It was the first full season of his career that he didn't play 100 games.
The first baseman will be 21 year old rookie, Freddie Freeman.
Other than Nate McLouth in center field who has been a bust since coming over from the Pirates, the Braves outfield is in good shape.
Jason Heyward is coming off a good rookie season, and Martin Prado was very productive as the leadoff hitter, recording 184 hits and a .307 batting average.
In the bullpen, the new Braves closer will be Craig Kimbrel, who was lights-out last season. In his first 21 career games, he went 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA.
He only allowed nine hits in 20.2 innings pitched and struck out an eye-popping 40 hitters which is two per inning.
He'll replace the retired Billy Wagner, and Kimbrel's setup man, Jonny Venters, is also strong.
The Braves have one of the NL's best bullpens to go along with a strong rotation, and with a solid lineup, look for them to win a lot of games once again.
NL East team rankings
Starting rotation: 2nd
2011 prediction: 93-69, 2nd place
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Without even a single game having been played, it's time to crown the Philadelphia Phillies champions of the NL East.
In fact, if there aren't as many injuries as last season, not winning this division would be one of the biggest disappointments of all time for the Phillies.
How can a team with this much in a starting rotation not win at least four games per week? That would basically be winning every series of the season, and that's more than possible.
By breaking down this team, you must start off with their pitching because it's jaw-dropping. This rotation might just be—on paper—the greatest in Major League history.
The reason is thanks to Cliff Lee, who decided to return to the Phillies this offseason after turning down big money from the Yankees.
Here's a look at each starting pitchers' career and 2010 numbers:
Career: 169-86, 3.32 ERA, two Cy Young awards, three 20-win seasons
2010: 21-10, 2.44 ERA, nine complete games, four shutouts, two no-hitters, Cy Young award
Career: 102-61, 3.85 ERA, one Cy Young award, one 20-win season
2010: 12-9, 3.18 ERA, seven complete games
Career: 60-45, 3.53 ERA, 2009 World Series MVP
2010: 12-11, 3.06 ERA, 211 strikeouts
Career: 150-83, 3.18 ERA, two 20-win seasons
2010: 7-1, 1.74 ERA, 82.2 innings pitched, 53 hits (with Phillies)
That's all you need to know about the Phillies rotation, and by the way, Joe Blanton is the fifth starter.
The lineup is great too with your normal cast of characters including Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino.
The biggest change will be in right field, where Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals. Ben Francisco is listed as first on the depth chart, but don't count out Domonic Brown to win the starting job.
The Phillies bullpen will count on Brad Lidge putting together consecutive successful seasons as closer.
Other than some type of rotation meltdown or major injuries like last season, the Phillies are in for a monster season, where not winning the pennant would be a disappointment.
NL East team rankings
Starting rotation: 1st
2011 prediction: 104-58, 1st place