NL East Predictions: Will the Phillies' Aces Take Down the Pot?
When the Phillies added former Astros' ace Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline last season, many believed the deal would tilt the National League's balance of power in favor of Philadelphia.
Oswalt proceeded to pitch quite well; unfortunately for the Phillies and their faithful, the San Francisco Giants went on an improbable and impressive run to a World Series title behind their outstanding rotation and standout closer Brian Wilson.
This offseason GM Ruben Amaro has again attempted to shift the balance of power -- this time with the re-acquisition of left-handed ace Cliff Lee. With Oswalt, Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton, the Phillies boast one of the greatest on-paper rotations in the history of Major League Baseball.
Will Philadelphia's aces pitch to their collective, record-breaking potential, or will the Nationals, Marlins, Mets, and/or Braves find a way to stay stride-for-stride?
Please read on for my predictions.
5. Washington Nationals-Projected Record: 63-99
Infield ranking: 20th of 30; Outfield: 23rd; Starting pitching: 25th; Bullpen: 24th
Manager: 27th; Overall: 26th
This is a franchise that can never seem to catch a break. They finally land a legitimate franchise player in electric ace Stephen Strasburg, and he sustains an elbow injury that requires season-ending and career-threatening Tommy John surgery.
The Nats will be without their would-be savior for the entirety of the 2011 season, so GM Mike Rizzo has turned his attention to offense with the additions of high-priced RF Jayson Werth and 1B Adam LaRoche.
Rizzo found a nice value in the consistent LaRoche, but severely overpaid for Werth at seven years, $126 million. Werth is a quality all-around ballplayer but $126 million is certainly megastar money.
I have him as the fifth-ranked right fielder but cannot place Werth in the company of superstars Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton and others of the like.
Ultimately the 2011 Nationals will be a sub-par club. They are not spectacular in any aspect of the game and their pitching is particularly suspect with a heavy reliance on soft tossers like John Lannan and Livan Hernandez.
If Strasburg can come back healthy in 2012 the Nationals will fall in the "competitive" bracket of the league.
4. Florida Marlins-Projected Record: 78-84
Infield: 14th; Outfield: 22nd; Starting pitching: 14th; Bullpen: 29th
Manager: 26th; Overall: 23rd
The Florida Marlins have two studs on their roster, SS Hanley Ramirez and SP Josh Johnson, and one in the making in RF Mike Stanton.
Is that enough to create a contender?
I don't believe so. Edwin Rodriguez's club has a number of unsettling question marks including light-hitting rookie 3B Matt Dominguez, enigmatic CF Chris Coghlan, and reclamation project Javier Vazquez.
In order for the Marlins to be a legitimate contender they will need to find a way to get offensive production outside of Ramirez and Stanton, which means they'll be looking to guys like 1B Gaby Sanchez and C John Buck.
That's not a good thing. Both players are coming off solid years but can hardly be considered reliable run producers.
I've always liked utility man Omar Infante but he's a clear downgrade from Dan Uggla because, like his predecessor, he's a defensive deficiency at second base. Infante can hit but he's not crushing 30-plus homers a la Uggla.
No complaints about Johnson and Ricky Nolasco at the top of their rotation, but their bullpen scares me. I think Leo Nunez has developed into a decent closer but I do not see relievers Clay Hensley and Brian Sanches repeating their '10 success.
Live-armed Ryan Webb will have to emerge as a top-flight setup man if Florida wants to hang on to one-run leads.
All things considered I see an average team with some nice pieces.
3. New York Mets-Projected Record: 80-82
Infield: 17th; Outfield: 2nd; Starting pitching: 24th; Bullpen: 21st
Manager: 19th; Overall: 20th
The Mets and their understandably unhappy fans were finally able to shake the goofball combination of GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel, but now they're without steady ace Johan Santana.
One step forward. One step back.
I like the hires of GM Sandy Alderson, fiery manager Terry Collins, and baseball ops guys J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta, but this team cannot perform to its potential without a stopper on the hill every fifth day.
Big Mike Pelfrey will get the ball on opening day, and with his laughable strikeout-per-inning rate he relies on luck as much (or more) than any other starter in the game.
With that in mind I believe that knuckleballer R.A. Dickey will end up being the de facto ace of this staff. Lefty Jon Niese should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter but RHPs Chris Young and Dillon Gee, and LHP Chris Capuano are shaky options at the back.
The strengths of this club are the left side of the infield with franchise players 3B David Wright and SS Jose Reyes, and the outfield consisting of Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, and Jason Bay.
Bay was a laughingstock a year ago but Manuel's Opening Day lineup included rejects like Gary Matthews Jr., Mike Jacobs, and Alex Cora. This season Bay is clearly in better offensive company.
The Mets' best shot at a playoff run includes an early, healthy return from Santana and a lightning-in-a-bottle season from Young at the end of the rotation.
2. Atlanta Braves-Projected Record: 89-73
Infield: 7th; Outfield: 12th; Starting pitching: 9th; Bullpen: 16th
Manager: 16th; Overall: 11th
The Bobby Cox era is over in Atlanta. It seems weird to write.
Nonetheless, one of the greatest managers in the history of baseball is being succeeded by a former member of the Braves' organization, feisty Fredi Gonzalez.
Gonzalez has inherited a solid all-around ballclub. The Braves have no serious weaknesses which means they should again contend for a Wild Card berth in the National League. Their stiffest competition will come from the Brewers, Cardinals, and Dodgers.
Looking at the specifics, Atlanta has an excellent infield boasting newly-acquired 2B Dan Uggla and consistently-outstanding catcher Brian McCann.
The addition of Uggla takes some of the pressure off future Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones. The organization's hope is that better company will keep Jones from returning too soon from injuries.
Like SP Stephen Strasburg in Washington, RF Mike Stanton in Florida, and 1B Ike Davis in New York, Atlanta has a young star in the making in well-rounded RF Jason Heyward. I don't love Heyward's rigid offensive mechanics but he's an exceptional defensive right fielder.
Gonzalez should feel comfortable with his rotation led by veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, and prime-aged righties Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. Lefty Mike Minor has impressive stuff and could be an interesting fifth starter.
In the end I like this team but believe they will have a difficult time holding off the Dodgers and/or Brewers for the Wild Card. It will certainly be a battle.
1. Philadelphia Phillies-Projected Record: 95-67
Infield: 2nd; Outfield: 15th; Starting pitching: 1st; Bullpen: 17th
Manager: 3rd; Overall: 3rd
I can't imagine anyone being surprised by this result.
The Phillies have, far and away, the best starting rotation in Major League Baseball and an excellent offensive core with 1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utley, SS Jimmy Rollins, 3B Placido Polanco, and CF Shane Victorino.
They've clearly downgraded from Jayson Werth to youngster Domonic Brown in right field, but that's obviously sustainable considering the addition of another ace in lefty Cliff Lee.
I'm a big fan of manager Charlie Manuel. He's not an especially articulate speaker, but he's an astute baseball mind who looks to create consistency for his players.
For example, the trio of Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, and Brad Lidge have been handling the back end of Philly's games for quite some time now. Individually they struggle with inconsistency, but their roles are consistent.
Romero knows he's going to be called upon to neutralize top-tier left-handed hitters, Madson knows he's setting up for Lidge, and the latter knows he's getting the ball in the ninth inning as long as he's healthy and willing.
Manuel wants his players to be confident in their abilities and I think this club's style reflects its manager. The Phillies play with grit and swagger, and they always seem to come through in the clutch.
They have some injury question marks (Utley in particular) but I don't see any way Manuel's boys fall short of a division title. You can book this one.
(John Frascella is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land," the first and only book centered on popular GM Theo Epstein. Check out the book on Amazon and follow John on Twitter @RedSoxAuthor.)