Monday, March 28, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: NL East

We move on to the league that require a higher baseball mind - the NL. Pitching showed itself to be king in the 2010 season and the general manager's took note.  Quite a few of the game's best left the AL to go pitch for the National League, turning a few teams into serious contenders.  We will start with the NL East.

Reacquiring SP Cliff Lee will give the Phillies a
historically good rotation
The Philadelphia Phillies have been the class of the NL for the past 3 seasons. They rode home grown talent to the 2008 World Series, won the pennant in 2009, and took home the NL's best record in 2010.  To make matters worse for the rest of the league, they surprised everyone by coming in at the last minute and signing top free agent Cliff Lee, who apparently loves the organization.  The signing gave the Phils a rotation with four (FOUR!) pitchers that could be the aces of any staff in baseball.  There's defending Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, new signee Lee, home grown World Series MVP Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, acquired by Philadelphia last year in a trade with the Astros.  The staff is rounded out by Joe Blanton, who most teams would welcome as a middle of the rotation starter.  This staff alone could propel the Phillies to the World Series and shutdown the more powerful AL lineups.  However, a spring that started so promising for the Phils has gone south quickly.  Starting 2B Chase Utley revealed that his knee issues are still lingering, preventing the Phillies best all-around hitter from starting the season with the team and may cause problems through the whole season.  The Phillies also have a big hole in right field, which has been vacant since Jayson Werth signed a big contract with the Nationals.  They hoped the spot would be filled by top prospect Dominic Brown, but he broke his hand in spring training and may not come up to the majors until June.  Either way, it is very unlikely that he can match Werth's performance and value to the team.  Ryan Howard is not a consistent enough hitter to carry this offense, nor is Shane Victorino.  They will have to work together with SS Jimmy Rollins to drive the offense until Utley can return.  The real issue with this team, in my opinion, is a verk weak bullpen.  Brad Lidge is no longer a quality closer/pitcher, leaving setup man Ryan Madson as the only consistent option in the pen.  In the end, the Phillies rotation is just too good to let an aging lineup and poor bullpen to keep them out of the playoffs.  On a side not, for such a hated sports city, the Phillies have a very likeable team.

The Atlanta Braves are just one of those organizations that do it right.  They grow great talent through their system and pick up key veterans to help out year to year.  After a short hiatus from the postseason, the Braves returned to the playoffs last year in Bobby Cox's final season.  The 2010 team set the table for the 2011 season, the Braves first for new skipper Fredi Gonzalez.  Their rotation is not as heralded as the division rival Phillies, but it will still be one of the stronger staffs in the NL.  They are led by youngster Tommy Hanson, who I expect will take a huge step forward this season.  The middle is very solid with Timmy Hudson and Derek Lowe.  Jair Jurrjens struggled with injuries last year, but has the potential to shut down opposing lineups.  Atlanta did lose closer Billy Wagner, so young relievers Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters will have to be up to the task of finishing games.  The Braves lineup should be strong this year, with rookie of the year candidate Jason Hayward looking to improve on a nice first year.  They signed 2B Dan Uggla to add some more pop to the order, but that does add quite a few more errors to an already shaky defense.  Add in Brian McCann and rookie 1B Freddie Freeman, and the Braves offense should be able to complement their pitching.  They aren't one of the flashier teams in the league, but they will use solid baseball fundamentals to be a solid contender in the NL.

OF Mike Stanton will have to build on a good rookie
campaign for the Marlins to contend in the NL East
The Florida Marlins have scouts that most team dream about.  Twice the team has won the World Series since 1997 and twice they have totally gutted their team to save cash.  The Fish have still managed to build a good team that could be a surprise contender if they pitching can come through and stay healthy in 2011.  The ace of the staff is Josh Johnson, who sported a 2.30 and finished 5th in the NL Cy Young voting. However, he has had some trouble with injury in the past and has battled soreness all the way through spring training.  The rotation is rounded out by Ricky Nolasco, who lives and dies by the strikeout, Anibal Sanchez, and newcomer Javier Vazquez, who should improve now that he is back in the NL.  Offensively, the Marlins are led by Hanley Ramirez, a rare player with both power and speed (and like any star player, not a great attitude).  Florida also has a nice pair of young outfielders in Mike Stanton and Chris Coghlan, while many are predicting 1B Gaby to be a fantasy sleeper.  The bullpen will be shaky, with Leo Nunez closing out games for the Fish.  The Marlins have a lot of young potential and if everything comes together, they can be a serious threat in the NL East.  I just think that injuries, defense, and inconsistent pitching will keep the Marlins from contending in the East.

The Washington Nationals have been the bottom feeders of the NL East since moving down from Montreal.  It seemed like they would never move past expansion-type players.  The bottom feeding has allowed the Nats to build their farm system, which now contains 2 of the most exciting prospects in baseball, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.  Unfortunately, Strasburg was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery after a very promising start to his MLB career. The injury was a real shame because it seemed Washington was handling him perfectly, slowing building up his pitch count with plans to shut him down after a certain number of innings.      Harper was the #1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and though the young catcher has incredible potential, Nats fans won't be seeing him until 2012.  The Nationals were very big spenders in the offseason, acquiring Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to replace Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham.  Werth will probably see a drop in numbers since he is moving to a weaker lineup who's only other top-tier hitter is 3B Ryan Zimmerman. The Nats rotation is young and unproven, but has the potential to make up for a weak offense.  The staff "ace" is Livan Hernandez, who continues to pitch late into his career.  Young pitcher Jordan Zimmerman could be a surprise bright spot for the Nationals this year, while John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny both have potential to put together nice seasons.  In 2011, the Nationals just don't have the offense and consistent pitching to keep up with the top teams in the NL East, but they can look forward to 2 stars carrying them into the future.

The New York Mets are a truly hapless franchise.  They are a big market team, but are always overshadowed by the Yankees and seem to be in a constant state of mismanagement.  They found a way to get caught up in the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, throwing their ownership status into disarray.  They also suffer a number of killer injuries every season and have dropped off quickly from the top of the East.  Offensively, the Mets do actually sport a nice lineup, though have to battle a ridiculously huge ballpark.  David Wright has been one of the league's top third baseman since the mid 2000's, Jason Bay can thrive in a good offense, Jose Reyes can steal lots of bases, and Ike Davis has the potential to build on a solid debut season.  However, the injuries that have haunted the Mets continue.  Carlos Beltran has yet to play a full season in New York and this season will be no different.  Ace pitcher Johan Santana will be shelved until at least July with shoulder issues, leaving the Mets with a young and turbulent rotation.  The Mets will rely on Jonathon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, and R.A. Dickey to pitch the Mets through their off-field troubles, which include closer Francisco Rodriguez's legal troubles.  The Mets have some offensive talent, but they situation surrounding the team will be too much for the forgotten New York team.

The NL East should be a two team race this season.  The Marlins, Nationals, and Mets just have too many holes and questions to contend with the highly skilled Phillies and all around solid Braves.  Choosing a winner for the division comes down to pitching.  Philadelphia just has way too much talent in their rotation to not take this division and move on to the World Series.  I do think the Braves have a players and the consistency to take the wildcard spot over teams like the Brewers, Rockies, Padres, and Cardinals.  My pick for the 2011 NL East: the Philadelphia Phillies, with the Atlanta Braves taking the NL Wildcard

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