Two on Two: NL East Preview
The Two on Two previews of the 2005 Major League Baseball season conclude with today's outlook for the NL East. With us to discuss the Land of the Free and the Home of the Braves are Brad Dowdy of No Pepper and Jason Mastaitis of Always Amazin' and MetsGeek, a new site formed through the collaborative efforts of eight members of the Mets blogging community.
Rich Lederer: Excluding the strike-aborted season in 1994, the Braves have finished in first place in the NL East every year since 1991. Which team is most likely to dominate the division over the next decade?
Bryan Smith: Wow, that's a loaded question. To touch on each team quickly, I first think it is hard to bet against any team run by Scheurholz, Cox and Mazzone. But eventually the streak will end. New York and Washington are very big markets, and a new stadium should further enhance the market of Miami. Philadelphia and Atlanta spend too, so I think once the Atlanta run ends, we should see some equality in this division. I would say that no division in baseball has five equal markets like the NL East.
Brad Dowdy: Atlanta's streak could end at any time, but with the way the organization is run from top to bottom, I think their success in the NL East will continue. New York is going to be right there, especially with the revenues coming in from the new television network next season. Philadelphia spends money, but it is unclear to me where this organization really has a plan for the future. Florida and Washington each have their own issues -- ownership (or lack thereof), stadium deals, and payroll -- and should have more fourth and fifth place finishes than the other clubs over this time period.
Jason Mastaitis: I agree. This is going to be a very competitive division over the next decade and the dominance of any one team is going to simply depend on all lot of things falling the right way for them (especially health, since every team has some significant issues to key players). But you can never bet against the Braves, the Patriots of baseball. They have the best front office, the best coaching staff, they make smart personnel decisions and they know how to extract the maximum amount of talent from what they have. And until Schuerholz, Cox, and Mazzone are broken up, they're going to be the team to beat. Darn it.
Rich: I concur, Jason. The Braves have a competitive advantage as long as those three are on board. However, I'm not sure if I would compare them to the Patriots. New England has won the Super Bowl three times in four years. The Braves, while a dominant team in the division, have only won it all once. It seems to me they are more like the Buffalo Bills of the early-1990s or perhaps the Denver Broncos or Minnesota Vikings from an even earlier period. You know, a team that wins a lot -- and is always right there -- but just unable to win the big one.
Bryan: Yes, while the Braves are constantly lauded (and deservingly so) for their dominance, it almost goes unnoticed that the Marlins have won more World Championships than the Braves during this period. I mean, in the last six years the Mets and Braves are tied in World Series appearances. Is this a case of, as Billy Beane would say, the well-run Braves not having their **** work in the playoffs? Or, is there some flaw in their construction?
Brad: This is always a difficult question for me to answer as a Braves fan. We've done it with pitching, we've done it with hitting, but the overwhelming majority of the time, we fail to get it done in the playoffs, and there is no one specific reason why. There is some talk that since the Braves usually win the division by a comfortable margin they aren't as "up" for the playoffs as some of the other teams who fought down to the wire, but you can't exactly quantify that. When the Braves won the World Series in 1995, they won the East by 21 games - the largest margin of any season during the run.
Jason: Sometimes bad things happen to good teams. Sometimes bad things happen to good teams again and again. And sometimes you just can't explain it. The Braves are unlucky in that the playoff structure changed in the middle of their run, giving them an added opponent and added opportunity for an upset.
Brad: So, who is going to take the title from them this season? I think the Marlins have a great shot, especially after signing Carlos Delgado.
Rich: Brad, I like the Marlins a lot this year. Is there a better one-two punch in the division than Delgado and Miguel Cabrera? If Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett can stay healthy all year, this is the team to beat. I think they have the right blend of hitting, pitching, and defense, as well as proven veterans and players on the verge of blowing up.
Bryan: Leiter was definitely an odd sign, I mean, are the Marlins just trying to ensure him as a color commentator when he retires? It seems like my Cubs, there are some health concerns up and down this rotation. If Beckett, Burnett and Leiter make 90 starts, this is a good team.
Rich: Yes, and it will be even better if Beckett and Burnett can make 65 of those 90 starts. Leiter's DIPS ERA was 50% higher than his actual ERA last year. He averaged one more pitch per inning than everbody else in the majors last year. The guy will be 40 on his next birthday. Did I mention he was responsible for trading Scott Kazmir?
Brad: Florida does have some lingering health questions. Even Juan Pierre may miss a little time early on.
Bryan: What seems odd to me is the exposure some of these teams have received this offseason, except that it was all quiet on the Phillie front. The projection systems love this team, and Ed Wade needs to put a winner out there soon or he'll get the axe.
Jason: Honestly, I think the Phillies have a decent shot, and I really think their signing of Jon Lieber was one of the steals of the offseason.
Brad: The Phillies lineup is very impressive, especially if Pat Burrell carries his big spring into the season. But as good as the Lieber signing was, there is no stopper in that rotation. That worries me a bit in a ballpark like Citizens Bank.
Jason: The Mets still need another year to grow...and a bullpen.
Brad: I like what the Mets did this offseason, but I do agree with Jason that they need one more season to fine-tune.
Rich: To me, New York is the biggest wild card in the division. If everything goes their way, I don't think it is out of the realm of possibilities for the Mets to win more games than the Yankees this year. I wouldn't want to bet on it, but I think they could just well be the toast of the town come October.
Jason: You're absolutely right, Rich. I'm being very cautious in my predictions for the Mets this year, but I haven't been this excited about a team since the late '80s. Jose Reyes is finally healthy, looks absolutely fabulous and, even though he still doesn't walk, he's been taking more pitches this spring and has greatly reduced his strikeouts. And he's still only 21. He's my sleeper breakout candidate for the division...anyone else?
Bryan: Reyes is definitely a good one. I saw him in the second half of 2003 and fell in love with him.
Rich: How about David Wright? Does he count or did he break out in just a half season last year?
Bryan: Gavin Floyd is someone I think could make a huge difference and should get more Rookie of the Year hype than he does.
Brad: I'm not really sold on Gavin Floyd as a difference maker in Philly. I know he has been around a while, but I think people have forgotten just how good A.J. Burnett was when healthy. Comeback player of the year?
Jason: Comeback player? How about Raul Mondesi under Bobby Cox?
Brad: It's a strange fit, but signing Mondesi to a 1 yr/$1 million contract is really a no lose situation. He either toes the company line in the clubhose and on the field, or Bobby will jettison him at the first opportunity. I think he will be a pleasant surprise from a production standpoint.
Bryan: This organizations seems really untrusting of Ryan Langerhans, who I think could be better than both Brian Jordan and Mondesi out there. Mondesi and Jordan could just be fighting for one spot when one of the two big blue chippers is ready.
Brad: As much as I am fine with the Mondesi signing, I really don't understand the fascination with Jordan. Langerhans is a good bet to outproduce Jordan over the course of the season, but Jordan looks to be the opening day starter. Maybe Schuerholz is making up for trading him to the Dodgers?
Jason: I was pretty surprised to see Jeff Francoeur cut so early. Is he not ready yet?
Bryan: Prior to Spring Training, Scheurholz had lots of quotes boasting Francoeur and how he might be more ready than Marte. He's not at all ready in my mind and would need a big change in plate discipline to make me think otherwise. Marte is ready, and Chipper should go back to left, in my opinion.
Brad: Francoeur's definitely not ready yet. I think a full season at Double-A will do him wonders. As far as Marte goes, I agree with Bryan.
Bryan: And while we are talking about breakout players, let me mention Adam LaRoche. Few had higher slugging percentages in the second half last year.
Brad: I was a big LaRoche supporter prior to last season - I'm glad he made me look good!
Jason: LaRoche could have a monster year -- he and having a healthy full year of Marcus Giles, who absolutely slaughtered the Mets last year, is a big reason why I'm not too down on the Braves' offense. They still won't quite make up for the loss of Drew's production, though.
Bryan: Well, I think the offense will be good, albeit a step down from last season. What should take a step up, however, is the starting rotation.
Rich: I'm sure Braves fans are hoping that Tim Hudson will be another Greg Maddux in Atlanta. The drop in his strikeout rate is a bit worrisome but, otherwise, he and Maddux are about as similar as two pitchers could be. John Smoltz adds intrigue, if not innings.
Jason: The question is how many innings can Smoltz give you? 150? 170? 200?
Brad: Smoltz is the key to the season in my opinion. If he misses any significant time, I think the trickle down effect could be costly. I'm hoping for at least 170.
Bryan: Or then you could say Kyle Davies will become very, very important. He could be one of those midseason call-ups that helps propel a team. Atlanta loves him.
Jason: BP was kind of down on him this year, especially his mechanics.
Bryan: I think there already is a trickle down effect from Smoltz leaving: the bullpen. The team loses more than 150 innings of 2.75 ERA with the exit of Smoltz and Juan Cruz. That's tough to replace.
Jason: Danny Kolb has some big shoes to fill. While I think he'll be a servicable closer, he's definitely a downgrade from Smoltz.
Rich: If Kolb comes through this year, then Leo Mazzone should go straight to Cooperstown.
Brad: The bullpen has been a patchwork job over the past few seasons anyway, but the one constant had been Smoltz. The Braves could be in for some interesting late-inning situations on the mound.
Bryan: So Kolb, Smoltz and Mondesi/Jordan are the keys for the Braves?
Brad: That's it in a nutshell. For me, it's mostly Kolb and Smoltz. I think the offense will be OK.
Jason: Sounds good to me --I'm a little warier of the offense but then I really didn't expect much out of Johnny Estrada last year, either.
Rich: Put me in the skeptical camp overall. While I expect Mazzone to continue rocking on the bench this year, I don't see Jordan or Mondesi doing any rocking at all.
Bryan: While they have downgraded in offense, I agree they will be fine there.
Rich: They will be fine if the Joneses don't regress any further and if LaRoche hits like he did in the second half last year rather than the first.
Bryan: The Mets are a team that improved their offense a ton. Who will score more runs, the Braves or the Mets?
Brad: Good question, and I'm going to have to go with the Mets. They look better than the Braves 1 thru 8.
Jason: Whoof, that's a toughie. The Mets have so many issues and so many health problems, it's really hard to say. To be better than the Braves, Reyes and Wright need to improve; Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, and Cliff Floyd all have to be healthy; and Matsui needs to adjust. That's a lot to go right.
Bryan: Yikes, that is a lot. Wright was their best hitter in the second half last year and -- barring a sophomore slump -- he'll be dynamite.
Jason: I think Wright could be one of the best position players the Mets have ever had. And I think he'll be this team's leader in three years, even with Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. He has no pressure on him this year either with those two around.
Bryan: Well, I'm not sure that's true. There is pressure on the 25th man in New York, no matter how many stars fill up 1-24. But less pressure is true, I think.
Jason: I guess what I'm trying to say is that Reyes was looked upon as a savior two years ago and then became really frustrated when he got injured. No one is really talking that way about Wright this year, thanks to the offseason signings.
Brad: From what I have seen of Wright in interviews, he seems to have an air of calmness around him. I think he is going to thrive for the Mets, pressure or not.
Bryan: How about Beltran? This is a guy that thrived in the spotlight last October, and got to pick the big market this offseason. Is he going to take the step he took in the playoffs full-time?
Rich: Nobody can do what Beltran did last October on a full-time basis. He is a great player -- a complete player -- but, other than his batting average, I don't look for him to improve upon his numbers from last year one iota. Remember, he's going from a hitter's park in Houston to a pitcher's park in New York.
Jason: Shea will hurt his power numbers but he's going to steal a lot of bases under Willie Randolph.
Brad: That playoff performance was unbelievable, but to ask for that much would be unfair to Beltran. He is a star, no doubt, but savior may be a little more than he can handle.
Bryan: I think he'll stay the player he was in KC, not turn into the super-superstar he was depicted to be in Houston.
Jason: He's been surprising -- a lot more media friendly than everyone expected and the NY media has had nothing but good things to say about him.
Bryan: And then there is savior #2, my third-round pick in fantasy baseball this year, Pedro Martinez. Peter Gammons has beaten into our heads that Pedro is more of a horse than people make him out to be, and I think he could be a better signing than Carlos. With Shea, an ERA of 3.00 would shock me.
Brad: Pedro really should thrive in Shea, but how deep will he go into games, and will the bullpen be able to pick up the slack? I need to see more before I buy into the "horse" argument.
Rich: I'd call Pedro a horse, of course. A talking horse. Get this, at 106 pitches per start, Pedro was among the leaders last year. In fact, he had the third-highest pitch count of his career and the most since 1998.
Jason: No DH. No Fenway. No Yankees (well, fewer Yankees). Pedro's been lights out so far this spring and I wouldn't be surprised to see him vie for the NL Cy Young this year. He's been great with the media so far as well.
Bryan: OK, with a Braves and a Mets guy both on board, who is better this season, Hudson or Pedro. I'm going to cop out and say they finish with the exact same ERA, around 2.60. Hudson will have more innings, Pedro more strikeouts, and the bogus win stat total determines the Cy Young.
Brad: Brutal question. Hudson will have more wins, but Pedro will have better numbers overall. How's that for a hedge?
Jason: Woof. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Pedro -- better all round.
Brad: I'm taking Pedro in a Cy Young race though.
Rich: Hmmm. Not only did I convince Brad that Pedro was a horse, he's now talking in terms of Martinez being a thoroughbred.
Bryan: Good, that softens my fantasy concerns. The problem Pedro might have, as Brad mentioned, is whether the bullpen can pick up the slack. That ain't Keith Foulke saving games for him.
Jason: The bullpen could be better than people think and Heath Bell has been looking downright filthy this year. He could end up being the set up man we've been looking for.
Bryan: Ah Bell, the official pitcher of MetsGeek. I agree he's good, but will Willie trust him?
Jason: I do think Willie will trust him. He seems like he's going to play around with the bullpen until he finds the right mix. Willie's really impressed me so far this year. He's run a great camp.
Brad: Bell seems to have earned whatever trust he needed this spring, and I imagine Willie will get more comfortable with his role as the season progresses, as Jason suggests.
Bryan: Well we've been pretty positive on the Mets across the board, but Jason and Brad both mentioned earlier they need another year. Why is that?
Jason: Too many things have to go right for them to take the division. Youngsters need experience, health issues need to be addressed, and we need another year to let the farm system recover from last year's purging. By next year, we should also know what we have in Petit and Humber.
Brad: I think the back end of the rotation needs a little work, as does the bullpen. Plus, with two new star players and a new manager in the Big Apple, there are liable to be a few growing pains. Look out in 2006 though.
Rich: I don't disagree with the prevailing logic at all, but I'm still of the mindset that if the stars and planets are aligned, this is a team that could take this division and maybe go deep into the playoffs.
Bryan: OK, we've talked about the two new New York stars. But Miami, as they soon will be called, landed their largest sports star since Shaq this winter. Another tough question, who has more VORP, Beltran or Delgado?
Rich: I have no doubt that Carlos will win out here.
Jason: Whoa! We must be at IHOP, 'cause those waffles sure smell delicious! Seriously, I think it depends on how much their home parks hurt them; Pro Player is brutal on lefties. I expect them to be about the same. Delgado's in the better lineup, though.
Bryan: The difference was 2.4 in favor of Beltran last season, which isn't much at all. But Delgado has struggled all spring, has to play first every day, and goes to a tough park. Beltran is my pick.
Brad: I think Beltran as well. He is a safer bet to not suffer a dropoff after switching leagues in my opinion.
Rich: Delgado could out-VORP Beltran, but the latter is likely to out-WARP the former. Translation: Delgado may outhit Beltran, but Beltran will be the more valuable player when viewed in the context of their positions and defensive contributions.
Jason: Well, it looks like it's going to be Beltran-Piazza-Floyd-Cameron if Willie has his way (he's spoken openly about batting Wright eighth). Wright may force him to change his mind though. The key is having a bounce back year from Piazza -- we really need him to play 130+ games for the lineup to click.
Bryan: At full strength, he is definitely the best catcher in the division.
Rich: I don't know if he's the best catcher, but he certainly can be the best hitter among these backstops.
Bryan:...he doesn't beat out Lo Duca in terms of the public's favorite, that's for sure. When oh when will Lo Duca start to let them down? I've been predicting it for years.
Rich: Piazza and LoDuca were both favorites in Los Angeles and fans are still muttering under their breath about losing both of them.
Jason: I'm certainly crossing my fingers for failure this year.
Brad: I don't think quite yet...
Bryan: Another player on this team with a lot of good publicity is Miguel Cabrera. What I find interesting is that Cabrera comps well with Andruw Jones, and David Wright does with Cabrera. Is this, offensively speaking, a like group?
Jason: I think it's too soon to tell -- Cabrera and Wright are still so young. And Wright hasn't even had a full season yet.
Brad: Somewhat. Wright may hit for a higher average than the other two in the long run, but Jones and Cabrera may hit for more power. I think it is still to early to tell on Wright.
Jason: I still can't believe that Jones is only 27. He's had a monster spring, too.
Bryan: I think Cabrera is actually the most talented hitter of the group, and his comparisons are scary-good. Like Rich said, Delgado-Cabrera is a sweet, sweet 1-2 punch. Beckett and Burnett could be, too. The flaw is the depth of this team, for sure. Can a team with so little on the bench, a fringe back-end of the rotation and decent bullpen win a division crown?
Jason: I think so -- they may just end up pounding everyone into submission. I do think the bullpen is a big question. As down as Mets fans are on Armando Benitez, he had a dominant season for the Fish last year. I don't know how consistent Mota will be in that role.
Brad: I think they have a shot - health permitting of course.
Rich: I think they have more than a shot. I'd go out on a limb and say they are the big shots in the division this year.
Jason: I think the Phillies will be very good. Their lineup is super scary (especially with the Met killer Pat Burrell back on track), Billy Wagner is healthy to head up the pen, and their rotation is solid, unspectacular but solid. Would anyone take Abreu-Thome-Burrell over Cabrera-Delgado-Lowell? I think I would.
Rich: Well, if you want another 1970s reference, Rollins reminds me of Garry Templeton and Templeton went into the toilet at about the stage where Rollins is now. Of course, Garry may have brought it on himself, if you know what I mean?
Jason: Yeah, would the real Jimmy Rollins please stand up, please stand up, please stand up? And then there's the whole Polanco-Utley question to address. Regardless of who starts, the Phillies were wise to keep the unhappy Polanco since he anchors what could be a very deep bench with Todd Pratt, Ryan Howard, and Jason Michaels.
Brad: I expect Rollins to continue more along the lines of last season, as opposed to the 02 /03 version. He and Abreu are the catalysts to a strong lineup which shouldn't have any problems scoring runs. But it's not the Phillies offense I am concerned with -it's their starting rotation that gives me pause. 2004 ERA+ for this years projected rotation: Lieber 104, Randy Wolf 102, Vicente Padilla 96, Cory Lidle 84, Brett Myers 79. I really don't see much room for improvement in 2005.
Bryan: Well, Randy Wolf was truly on the verge of stardom before an injury has turned him into average. Padilla and Myers just have not progressed since reaching the Majors. Lieber and Lidle are innings-eaters that best serve as third or fourth starters. Ed Wade's "safe" 2004-2005 offseason -- one where Randy Johnson, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder all were traded -- should eventually lead to his firing.
Rich: I would take issue with how you categorized some of the Phillie pitchers and the Big Unit certainly wasn't going to approve a trade to Philadelphia. As far as Hudson goes, the Phillies apparently didn't want to give Oakland any of their young arms. Mulder? He was a good pitcher prior to the second half of last year, but I would not have paid up for him at this point in his career and contract.
Jason: Well, let's not forget Gavin Floyd who seems to be slated to be the #5 starter given Myers' struggles. Also, the player on the Phillies who impressed me the most last year was Ryan Madson. He held batters to a .631 OPS in that ballpark and had nasty stuff against the Mets. If he sets up for Wagner, that's a pretty good 1-2 punch picking up where the rotation left off.
Brad: As down as I have been on the Phillies rotation, the Nationals are in much worse shape in that department. Livan Hernandez is as solid as they come, but there is not much substance after that. Loaiza looks like a fluke, Tony Armas is already back on the DL, Tomo Ohka could be decent, and Zach Day is your standard issue #5. Are they going to end up anywhere but the basement with this starting five?
Bryan: Well, I'm going to say that the rotation is improved. What they are losing are the near 40 starts made by Scott Downs, Claudio Vargas, Shawn Hill, Rocky Biddle and T.J. Tucker. That's 180 innings of a 6.35 ERA. Besides that group, the starters had a 4.07 ERA last year. I think Day and John Patterson could both surprise, and this rotation won't be awful.
Rich: Addition by subtraction, huh? That's fine as long as Washington's starters are blessed with good health this year. Otherwise, Frank Robinson's hair is going to turn totally gray by the end of the summer. I mean, this is a team that has a few good players here and there but absolutely no depth. Realistically, I just don't see how they can compete in this division.
Jason: Rich is absolutely right and, it's sad to say, but Omar Minaya is largely responsible for the lack of depth since he traded most of the farm system away while he was in charge. Granted he was operating under some severe constraints but right now Mike Hinkley is really one of the only quality prospects left. They need some major rebuilding, and I don't mean Cristian Guzman or Vinny Castilla.
Rich: You mean, Nick the Walking Stick? I don't know. Tom McCraw sounds like a bigger head case than Johnson. According to the batting coach who never could hit a lick, you've got three changes -- psychological, physical, and mental. Stay with me now, he then goes on to say that "you've got to get him mechanically to where you want him, then you got to get him comfortable in that slot, and then you go to work on the head -- knowing what you want to do." Got that?
Jason: Atlanta, Phillies, Mets, Marlins, Nats (with the Phils, Fish, and Mets all lumped together).
Brad: 1. Braves 2. Marlins 3. Mets 4. Phillies 5. Nationals. I think the top three teams could finish within 5 games of each other.
Bryan: I'll say Braves, Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Nats, though I think Washington might look good early.
Rich: All right, guys. I guess I'm the contrarian in the group. I say Marlins, Braves, Mets, Phillies, and Nationals. However, I wouldn't be surprised if any of my top four teams took the division. The Nats may win at the box office but that may be short-lived if they don't wind up putting a better product on the field sooner rather than later.
The Braves are the consensus choice to win yet another divisional title. There is no agreement on which team will finish second. Three out of four see the Mets ending up in third place although Jason and Rich both think they could be the sleeping giant in the NL East. There is unanimity among the panelists that the Nationals will wind up in the cellar -- a familiar home for Washington ballclubs.
Please join us next week when we ask all twelve of our Two on Two guests for their World Series, MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year selections. Don't be surprised if we deliver a few more "fun" categories as well.