WTNYFebruary 10, 2004
NL East Questions
By Bryan Smith

Not much going on in the baseball world...hell, I mean a Ron Villone signing is the biggest news. Bill Bavasi is such a terrible GM, one million dollars? Bavasi, have you ever heard of peripheral numbers? No, ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. Yikes.

Anyway, as I did last week with a few articles, today’s piece is based off a ESPN article that I read over the weekend. Peter Gammons has started his divisional breakdowns, already accomplishing the Easts. Gammons is my favorite baseball writer in the world, and I wanted to further develop the questions he asked in each team’s preview.

Below you will find the five most pressing questions for an NL East team, as well as a quick synopsis of the team going into Spring Training. I’ll write much more in-depth previews next month, but a Spring Training preview ain’t bad either. Granted, some of the questions might overlap with Gammons, so Peter, please don’t sue me.

Atlanta Braves

Five Pressing Questions
1. Can J.D. Drew ever top the 425AB mark in a season?
2. Will the horrendous bullpen surrounding Smoltz ever get the ball to him?
3. Does John Thomson have the stuff the team hopes?
4. Are rookies Johnny Estrada and Adam LaRoche ready for the Big Show?
5. Who pitches in the fifth slot?

Much ado will be made on the Braves not being able to continue their divisional streak, but they are used to it. But this is top to bottom the worst team Bobby Cox has been handed in the last ten seasons. While I am not going to start questioning Cox and Mazzone, they are going to need to work magic this season. Filling holes left by Javy, Sheff, and Maddux look daunting, and the bullpen is pitiful. But this team has a will to win, and Bobby Cox knows how to manage...during the regular season.

Florida Marlins

Five Pressing Questions
1. How will Sophomore year treat Hee Seop Choi and Miguel Cabrera?
2. Can A.J. Burnett be effective in 20-25 starts?
3. Does Armando Benitez have the stuff to close outside of the spotlights of New York?
4. Will Beckett, Penny, and Pavano ride the success they had in the playoffs?
5. Can the team replace it’s heart and soul, Ivan Rodriguez, with an accused felon like Ramon Castro?

Going back to back is damn hard, just ask the Angels, the Diamondbacks, and well, the 1997 Marlins. While Florida had a great playoff run, Jack McKeon likely will not be able to build the motivation that made Florida the best team from mid-May on. They don’t promise to be as strong up the middle as they were a year ago, but have a ton of players that could breakout at once. If Choi, Cabrera, Castro, Beckett, Penny and Pavano all have big years, they should win the division.

Philadelphia Phillies

Five Pressing Questions
1. Can Pat the Bat bounce back from an ugly 2003?
2. Will Marlon Byrd build off the success he had in the leadoff role?
3. Will Rheal Cormier stay that good, and will Roberto Hernandez stay that bad?
4. Should Brett Myers and Eric Milton be counted at the back end of the rotation?
5. Can star and leader Jim Thome stay healthy again?

Everyone, including myself, is calling the Phillies the 2000s version of the Cleveland Indians of a decade ago. The Phils are moving into a new stadium with a lot of pressure, and Larry Bowa is under a lot of stress. The spotlight will be shined brightly on the manager the first two months, who needs to be in first place by the end of April to keep his job. If not, Joe Kerrigan may receive another shot at managing, and the Phillie chemistry would be much improved. Billy Wagner was a sensational addition, plus Burrell and Bell can’t be THAT bad again...can they?

Montreal Expos

Five Pressing Questions
1. First and foremost, will Nick Johnson and Brad Wilkerson breakout like some, including myself, are predicting?
2. Surely Frank Robinson doesn’t let Rocky Biddle close games again, does he?
3. Will Wilkerson or Everett hold up in center, or does Endy Chavez need to play out of necessity?
4. If Zach Day stays healthy, can he be a stud?
5. Will Livan Hernandez continue pitching masterfully, as he did a year ago?

I hate to say it, but there are actually things to like about this team. Vidro, Cabrera, Johnson, Wilkerson, Everett...oh, they have the offense. And with Hernandez plus a barrage of young, high-ceiling pitchers, this team could make some noise. Eventually they’ll finish fourth, again, but don’t be surprised if they are in first place in mid-May. Chad Cordero is the right choice for closer, not Rocky Biddle. And here’s to hoping that the Day for Milton Bradley trade ends up working for both teams.

New York Mets
1. How does Kaz Matsui do in year one, and can Jose Reyes really play short?
2. Will the Mike Piazza position dilemma become a distraction?
3. Can Braden Looper hope to fare any better than Armando Benitez did as Mets closer?
4. How do the host of veteran starters pitch this year?
5. Can the team avoid the health problems that plagued them in 2004?

From the beginning, I said that Art Howe moving to the National League was a bad idea. Throwing someone with a learned school of thought into that environment will not work. I think getting Rick Peterson back will help this organization that appears headed in the right direction. Mixing David Wright, Scott Kazmir, Justin Huber, and other prospects will be key in determining if this team will smell the playoffs during Jim Duquette’s tenure. They might not have the right man for the job, but they sure do have the system.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at Gammons’ favorite division...the AL East.