MLB Preseason Capsule: NL East Edition
Welcome to the second installment of seven in this preseason breakdown of each MLB division. The first six articles will cover the divisions, and the seventh will predict the playoffs and major award winners. Each team will have its offseason moves broken down, one major strength and weakness identified, one X-factor selected and then their projected record for the 2011 season. The order of the slideshows will be from last to first in the division.
Day two brings us to the NL East.
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Acquired: Randy Choate, Javier Vasquez, John Buck, Omar Infante, Edward Mujica
Lost: Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, Cameron Maybin, Ronny Paulino
Hanley Ramirez has been the best player on the Marlins for a few years now, and that designation won't change for 2011. Although he had a down year in 2010 (.300/21/76), he should almost certainly bounce back. He provides everything and more for the Marlins at shortstop, with speed, contact, power and fielding among his many great talents. Unfortunately for Hanley, the Marlins traded Dan Uggla to division rival Atlanta during the offseason, so unless Mike Stanton blossoms faster than expected, he'll have little to no protection in the Florida lineup. Either way, Ramirez is clearly the best asset that the Marlins have, and 2011 will simply reinforce that.
The Marlins' starting outfield of Logan Morrison, Chris Coghlan and Mike Stanton have a combined 381 major league games played, translating to about two and a third seasons in the bigs. The relative inexperience of these players could hurt the Marlins in 2011. Although Coghlan's expected to be the leadoff hitter and Stanton's supposed to be one of the faces of the franchise moving forward, expectations don't always line up with what actually happens (see: Bullington, Bryan). The NL East is loaded with pitchers that can take advantage of young players, and the Marlins' outfield trio still has some years to put under their collective belts before they can be viewed as a legitimate threat to the opposition.
However, of those three outfielders, Mike Stanton is the one that can make the biggest impact in the least amount of time. He had key stats of .259/22/59 in 100 games last year and showed off his deadly arm (10 assists, 2nd in the NL), giving Marlins fans a glimpse of what could come from their future right fielder. As I mentioned before, Mike Stanton is the lone hope for Hanley Ramirez to have protection in the Florida lineup this year, and he'll have to bump up his average to make that happen. He definitely has a greater power potential than Ramirez, and if he can put up 30 home runs and somewhere around 90 RBI in 2011, the Marlins might have a good reason to extend both Ramirez and Stanton during the offseason.
This is the final year for the Marlins in Sun Life Stadium. In 2012, they'll move into an as-of-yet unnamed new stadium in a desirable downtown Miami location on NW 3rd St and leave Sun Life Stadium and NW 199th St. This is also the last year of the Florida Marlins, as the team will change its moniker to the Miami Marlins once the move is complete. Hopefully, the upcoming changes will bring new life to this franchise, as the positive vibes from World Series titles in 1997 and 2003 have all but dissipated. That won't change this year.
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Acquired: Jayson Werth, Todd Coffey, Adam LaRoche, Rick Ankiel
Lost: Adam Dunn, Adam Kennedy, Justin Maxwell, Josh Willingham
The Nationals, just like the Marlins, have their defined star. Manning the hot corner is Ryan Zimmerman, who has been a stalwart for Washington over the last five years. Despite the injured Stephen Strasburg, the youthful Bryce Harper, and the expensive Jayson Werth, Zimmerman is clearly the most important player to this franchise. If Zimmerman succeeds, then the team can at least look like they're doing something positive. If he falters, however, like in 2008 where he only played 106 games and the Nationals finished 59-102, the team can look downright awful. Luckily, Zimmerman typically avoids injury and can help the Nationals start working their way towards NL East relevance along with Strasburg (in 2012), Harper (in...eventually) and Werth.
Washington's defense tied with Pittsburgh for the most errors in the major leagues last year with 127. 73 of those came from their primary starting infield (Zimmerman, Desmond, Adam Kennedy, Adam Dunn). Incumbent second baseman Danny Espinosa had no errors in 25 games at second base and new first baseman Adam LaRoche has only had 13 errors over the past two years, but there's no guarantee that the stone glove of Desmond (34 errors in 2010, led MLB) will turn golden anytime soon. Until Desmond and, to an extent, Zimmerman, get their fielding act together, Washington will be allowing a lot of unwanted baserunners and unearned runs.
The 7-year, $126 million contract that GM Mike Rizzo handed out to Jayson Werth to pry him from Philadelphia during the offseason was widely criticized. People said that Rizzo essentially outbid himself and could have had the outfielder for possibly $20 million less. For that contract to look good in any way, shape or form, Werth is going to need to have a stellar 2011 campaign. If he struggles at all, the contract will look like a massive failure for the Nationals. The first 100 RBI season of his career would be a great launching point for Werth's time with the Nationals.
With Stephen Strasburg out for the year and Bryce Harper not expected to make his major league debut until 2012, the Nationals are at least one year away from contention, if not two or more. Make no mistake, however, Mike Rizzo has a plan for the future. However, the future is not the present, and the Nationals will have another tough year in 2011.
New York Mets
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Acquired: Terry Collins (Manager), Sandy Alderson (GM), Ronny Paulino, Chris Capuano, Chris Young, D.J. Carrasco, Taylor Buchholz
Lost: Jerry Manuel (Manager), Omar Minaya (GM), Alex Cora, Chris Carter, Pedro Feliciano, John Maine, Hisanori Takahashi
The left side of the Mets infield has been a key part of the team's success over the past five years or so. David Wright and Jose Reyes have been the faces of this franchise, and their stats have been tied to the team's success as of late. Despite injury and other issues that have plagued these two players as of late, they're still the heart and soul of the New York Mets. Reyes seems to be back from the injuries that he had to deal with in 2010 and Wright bounced back from a wretched 2009 to return to form last year. These two players can make or break the season, but I feel that they'll both have good seasons.
With Johan Santana out until about July, the Mets rotation is in a bit of a shambles. Mike Pelfrey is a decent replacement at the front of the rotation, but after him follows young arm Jon Niese, reborn knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, and castoffs Chris Capuano and Chris Young. Capuano and Young are potentially low-risk, high-reward starters, but them being ineffective is much more likely. The Mets don't expect to contend in 2011, and the weak state of their sans-Santana rotation is a good indicator of why.
Jose Reyes has long been considered the true catalyst of the Mets offense. The 2009 Mets had only 36 games of Reyes playing poorly, and finished 70-92 that year. In 2010, he started bouncing back from multiple injuries and put up .282/11/54 with 30 steals. For the Mets to challenge the Braves for second place in the division and a potential wild-card berth in the National League, Reyes is going to have to have a year like 2006 (.300/19/81, 64 steals) and make the players around him better. For the Mets to get back to being 'El Reyes' (the kings) of the NL East, Jose Reyes will have to return to form.
In a new regime led by Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins facing the fallout from Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme and needing to take loans from Major League Baseball to fulfill operating costs, the Mets seem to be a franchise in peril. Some Mets fans are fearing the present and the future, hoping that the team can be somewhat competitive in 2011 so Alderson doesn't get the inclination to trade David Wright or Jose Reyes. Trading Carlos Beltran might be acceptable, but only if Lucas Duda or Fernando Martinez show signs of being ready in Buffalo. This team will show flashes of brilliance at times, but still end up around .500.
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Acquired: Dan Uggla, George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink
Lost: Omar Infante, Derrek Lee, Billy Wagner, Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, Bobby Cox (Manager)
Brian McCann is one of the best catchers in the major leagues, pairing potent offense with the ability to call a game that his pitchers can win. A five-time All-Star and a four-time Silver Slugger, McCann can be counted on for 20 home runs and 80 RBI as a baseline, great numbers for an offensive catcher. McCann caught 30% of his base stealers in 2010, a career high. His arm from behind the plate is only getting stronger as he reaches his physical peak. With the other stars in Atlanta either being very young (Jason Heyward) or very old (Chipper Jones), McCann meets them in the middle and provides the Braves with one of the best catchers in the bigs.
Freddie Freeman has been assigned the starting first baseman job despite a .167 average and a solo home run in 24 at-bats last year. Freeman is clearly the weak link in the Braves offense despite his prospect pedigree. Although Martin Prado and Nate McLouth aren't incredible offensive forces, Freeman needs to prove his worth at first base before he can be considered among the average regulars. Right now, he's 5th out of 5 in the NL East, even ranking behind Florida's Gaby Sanchez. However, he can easily surpass him with a solid 2011 season.
Now that the Braves are without Billy Wagner, new manager Fredi Gonzalez has chosen to hand the ball to little-tested reliever Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel had an incredible strikeout rate of 17.4 per 9 innings, but that's only in a 20.2 inning audition. The Braves want to at least try to contend with the Phillies in 2011, and the success of Kimbrel is going to be key if Atlanta wants to give the Phils a run for their money. At the back of the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel is going to be the X-factor for the Atlanta Braves this season.
The Braves are a team in a transition of sorts. They added Dan Uggla and have young players in Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman starting while Chipper Jones is getting ready to play his swan song. They look like a team that wants to win the division, but don't have the pieces to do so just yet.
Acquired: Cliff Lee
Lost: Jayson Werth
Unless living under a rock has become the hot, new thing this winter, it's obvious that the Phillies' greatest strength is their rotation. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton make up one of the best five-man rotations in recent memory. These five pitchers are undeniably the most dangerous set of starters in the majors, and people are starting to wonder if there could be multiple 20-game winners in the rotation. The Phillies' rotation has the potential to be the best rotation in the live-ball era; the only question is whether or not they will live up to expectations.
Raul Ibanez is almost 40 years old now, and he's coming off a huge decline in 2010. Domonic Brown is expected to replace Ibanez in left field over time, but he recently suffered an injury that will set him back until at least Opening Day and maybe further. As long as Ibanez is in the starting lineup, though, the Phillies are probably going to feel the hurt on the offensive side of things. He hit .275/16/83 last year and most likely won't have a career resurgence at age 39. The faster the Phillies can find a replacement for him in left field, the better.
As strong as the Phillies' rotation is, their health is key to success. If any of the starters get injured, the Phillies will have to find a substitute and still have three of their four aces dealing. If two of them happen to be injured at the same time, that is when the Phillies might have issues. They probably won't have to deal with simultaneous injuries to their star rotation, but if it comes to pass, then the Phillies will need to find a way to replace them. For their sake, all four of them will stay in good health from April through October.
The Phillies are the clear favorite in the NL East, and they should win the division with ease. What they do after they clinch the division title lies in the arms of their rotation stars.