What Went Wrong in the NL East
In the last edition of "What Went Wrong," we looked at four organizations that fell apart in September's first two weeks. Still, even when the article ran on September 16, many other teams were still in the race. Over the next two days, we will look at the six clubs that teased their fan bases up to the season's last week.
We begin today with the most interesting division in baseball. No, not the NL West, the loathsome group that sent the 82-80 Padres into the playoffs. Instead, we look at three clubs that missed in the NL East, a division in which San Diego would have finished just one game from last place. While the Braves had all-but-assured themselves of a playoff spot in August, we may forget that this division was up for grabs well into July.
Last time, we looked at the New York Mets, the first team that really fell apart in the division. Metsgeek.com's Ricardo Gonzalez told us about the club's numerous issues, including, "The back-end of the bullpen gave us some problems, Willie Randolph had a rough rookie year, and Jose Reyes was seemingly unable to take ball four [and] ... the production of the right side of the infield." However, he also relived the season highlight with us, the club's first win of the season under Pedro Martinez and over John Smoltz.
The Mets ended up finishing tied for third in the division thanks to a solid finish, bringing their record up to 83-79. Behind the Amazins in the standings were the Washington Nationals, in their first season in the District of Columbia. The Nats, formerly the Expos, started off the season like has become a ritual: extremely well. They were leading the division well into June, and appeared to be a contender for the Wild Card well into September.
To profile the Nats many ups and downs, we asked the Ball Wonk, proprietor of the fantastic ball-wonk.com. The Wonk gives us a look at MLB's team, who we can expect to have some semblance of stability in 2006, when the organization should gain an owner.
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
Ah, but we only remember Achiles's heel because it was his one vulnerability. A team that just barely misses the playoffs because it couldn't win that 101st game to pass the Cardinals, that team has an Achilles heel. The Nats? Not so much. Imagine, if you will, that Achilles was dipped into the Olympian water of invulnerability by a god who dangled him from not from his heel but from his elbow and knee, which had been hog-tied together for the purpose. In that version of the story, Achilles would have been about two-thirds invulnerable. "Nigh-invulnerable," and the Tick would say. But one whole arm and shoulder, one whole leg and hip, a hand, a foot, and a couple of his abs would have remained the mortalest of flesh. That would be the Nationals this year.
Actually, "knee" is probably the right answer here. The Nats had like ten guys go down with knee injuries, or play hobbled through excruciating knee ailments. Jose Vidro and Vinny Castilla stand out among knee injuries that hurt the Nationals, but only because Livan Hernandez was so good at faking his way through the pain. Knee problems were so endemic you'd have thought we had stolen money from the Irish Republican Army or something.
More generally, having the least productive offense in the big leagues probably wasn't as helpful as GM "Trader Jim" Bowden thought it might be. Nor was unreliable middle relief. And manager Frank Robinson driving every Asian pitcher off the team in fits of petty rage? Again, not as helpful as Frank probably thought at the time.
How do you hope Jim Bowden attacks this problem in the winter?
The first priority must be convincing George Steinbrenner that he is only one fat, underachieving, surly Dominican shortstop away from the 2006 pennant. Short of that, the Nationals are in a "do no harm" mode until the team gets permanent owners who can assess long-term revenue and the like. We need more prospects in the minors a lot more than we need pennant races in 2006 or 2007. But we have two whole outfields worth of league-average or better outfielders. Any two of them could bring us real value, perhaps an infield bat and some minor-league talent, that would have a fast impact. So could the right free-agent signing, even in this anemic free-agent year, but that depends on an owner's decision to raise payroll from the current $50 mil to the $80 mil or so that a team in this market can easily afford.
Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?
MVP is a tough call. The one player who would probably have cost us the most wins if he had performed at any level less than what he gave us is Chad Cordero, but it's just unseemly to rate a closer as a team's MVP. Esteban Loaiza is really the unsung hero of the 2005 Nationals season; he pitched better and more consistently over the season than anyone else on a generally excellent staff, but wound up with nothing to show for it but a whole lot of 1-0 losses and 1-1 no-decisions.
You kidding? Opening day at home, first big-league game in DC since before a lot of fans were born. Seeing baseball-starved fans at a bar, none of whom were keeping score or could hear the broadcasters because the jukebox was on instead of the game audio, realize on their own, with no prompting, that Vinny Castilla needed only a single to hit for the cycle and then get hushed and start cheering for a single in his last at-bat. That was a pretty special moment.
Or maybe the highlight was Frank's confrontation with Mike Scioscia over the gunk on that cheating pitcher's glove, and how it took seven guys -- no exaggeration; you can check the Tivo -- to stop Guillen the Barbarian from rushing the field to defend his manager, and then the Nats went on to tear through the next few weeks like Sherman marching through Georgia. Or the final game, where the Nationals got blown out by the Phillies but the fans kept right in it the whole way and finally managed to shut up the 10,000 or so Phillies fans who'd been making RFK feel more like the Vet.
Every time the Phillies came to town and their lowlife fans turned up in massive numbers to make DC feel like a home game for the Phils. Are all Philles fans vulgar boors who behave more like European soccer hooligans than American sports fans? Surely not, but a shocking number of the ones who show up at RFK when the Phillies are in town would fit right in at a French soccer stadium. I started the season expecting to regard the Phillies the same way I do the Indians: the other team in my favorite team's division I wouldn't mind getting the pennant if my team can't win it themselves. Now, after a season of getting to know the Phillies fans who come to RFK? I wouldn't mind so much if the Nationals went 3-159 next year, just so long as those three wins were a sweep at Philadelphia that cost the Phillies the Wild Card.
Two games ahead of the Nationals, and tied with the Mets, were the Florida Marlins. Probably the NL East's most top-heavy team, the club packed quite a bit of punch for the whole season. Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado at the plate, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett in the rotation, and a suddenly-for-no-reason-dynamite Todd Jones in the bullpen all fueled this team for 162 games. However, the team that Bryan chose to make the Wild Card weeks into September proved to not have enough depth to overtake the Houston Astros.
In to provide the answers to the Marlins' woes is Mike Hunssinger, one of the co-writers at Fish Stripes, SportsBlogs' Marlins affiliate. His answers...
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
This has to be either one of two things. The conventional answer is the bullpen, which--other than Todd Jones--was disappointing all around. The Marlins tried to plug holes throughout the year with minor leaguers and re-treads, but it just didn't work. The biggest disappointment of all has to be Guillermo Mota, who was counted on in the spring to be the closer. He proved incapable of that and luckily Todd Jones stepped up.
Other than that, Jack McKeon's curious managerial style and grating personality in the clubhouse may have made the difference. There was talk around the All-Star break that the Marlins might shake things up. They didn't and the dirty laundry started to come out at the end of the year. It almost seems that clubhouse dissension played as large of a role in the team's struggles as the poor bullpen and the struggles of Lowell and Pierre.
How do you hope Larry Beinfest attacks this problem in the winter?
Unfortunately, the Marlins offseason problems will be much larger than just repairing the bullpen. If that was all they were faced with, I'm confident that Beinfest could patch things up. But there are long term deals to be made for Willis and Cabrera. Beinfest may also be tasked with trading Carlos Delgado and trimming payroll. He'll have to either resign or replace a total of thirteen free agents. There are a lot of holes to fill on the Marlins' roster and there's talk that it might have to be done for less money than it was this year.
Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?
Carlos Delgado and Miguel Cabrera had strong campaigns at the plate and deserve team MVP consideration. But realistically, this team wouldn't have been anywhere near wild card contention without the heroics of Dontrelle Willis. Willis won a major league leading 22-games and posted an ERA well below 3.00. He's among the ML leaders in VORP for pitchers and Win Shares. Willis also set a franchise record for hits by a pitcher and was used fairly frequently as a pinch-hitter. All of this from a guy who started out the year 4th in the rotation.
The LVP could easily be one of the guys (Al Leiter) who started out ahead of Willis in the rotation. But the Fish sent Leiter to New York in July. While Leiter's $7 million salary was a tremendous waste, Mike Lowell's lack of production hurt the team more than anything. It's hard to get down on Lowell because he's such a great guy, has overcome cancer, and has been huge for the Marlins over the years. But the reality of it is that he didn't produce and was relegated to the bench late in the year for the Marlins. This came from a guy who was supposed to hit somewhere between third and fifth in the lineup, providing punch and protection for Delgado/Cabrera. There were some flashes of brilliance, but they were few and far between. Fortunately his defense stayed Gold Glove-caliber. The Marlins just needed a lot more than that this year (especially for a financially limited team, which had invested over $8 million in Lowell this season).
Two moments immediately come to mind: Dontrelle Willis' 20th win and Jeremy Hermida's debut grand slam. While the Marlins are still a relatively young franchise, Willis' 20th win marked the first time in franchise history that any Marlin had won 20 games. Willis notched the win in an important September 7th matchup against the then wild card contending Nationals.
Hermida debuted on 8/31 and hit a pinch-hit grand slam in the 7th inning. Realistically the shot was meaningless (the Marlins lost 10-5), but to see Hermida deliver in his debut was exciting. Hermida is probably the mostly highly anticipated prospect the Marlins have had in a long time - bigger than even Cabrera and Willis, who spent such a short amount of time in the minors that folks didn't have a chance to get anxious about their arrivals. Hermida's debut grand slam is even more impressive when you consider that he was only the second major leaguer to hit a grand slam in his first at bat. The other was William "Frosty Bill" Duggleby (a pitcher) who accomplished the feat in April of 1898.
The lowlight is unquestionably the 10-2 loss to the Phillies on September 17th. Going into that game, hopes were still high for the wild card. The Marlins had a 2-0 lead going into the 9th. Willis was on the hill and Todd Jones was ready in the pen. It seemed like a sure win. Then the unthinkable happened. Then the unthinkable happened again. And again. They ended up losing 10-2 and never really recovered after that.
However, both of those two teams fell short to the Philadelphia Phillies, who brought hope to the city of Brotherly Love until the regular season's final Sunday. The team eventually fell as the Cubs could not play spoiler in Houston, and the Phillies late season surge fell just a little short. We asked Mike Carminati, from Mike's Baseball Rants of Baseball Toaster, to give insight on his favorite club.
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
For the Phils, I think it was their reliance on aging players and their bloated contracts. Lieberthal, Bell, Thome, and Worrell hurt this team. It wasn't until some of the younger players got a shot that the team was buoyed. Certainly, not installing Utley as the second baseman out of spring training was a mistake though Polanco was no slouch either--it was just a bad situation, porrly conceived by team brass. Oh, and of course, Charlie Manuel is a big dummy.
How do you hope Ed Wade attacks the problem in the winter?
I hope he attacks the problems by committing sepuku this winter. Ed Wade, or more to the point the lollygagging brass, are the Phils' biggest problem.
Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?
LVP is hard. I guess Bell since he played the entire year, but Thome was horrible in his brief stint. Lieberthal was dreadful in the first half.
MVP would go to Utley. Howard would get it if you prorated by plate appearances. Burrell was very good. Abreu was excellent in the first half and slumped badly in the second. I got the sense that a day off here or there--he played all 162 games--would have helped. And Rollins was great in the second half.
I'll mention two: First, taking five of six from the Braves in mid-September, often in exciting fashion, to revive their dwidling playoff hopes.
For me though, the season finale in which they fought to sweep the Nationals to stay alive in the wild card hunt with their backs against the wall only to find out as the crowd was breaking up and the National players were coming on to the field to thank the fans that the Astros had won, thereby eliminating the Phils. I was at the game--very bittersweet.
Oh, and I'll name a third: Rollins' hitting streak. It was nice that it had something to do with their success very late in the season.
It had to be getting swept by the Astros in early September, twice by one run and once by two. Closer Billy Wagner lost the last two games, giving up ninth-inning homers both times. As a fan, one had the sense that these were perhaps the two teams that the wild card would come down to and the Phils were blowing it. It took most of the month for the fans to be distracted enough from the Eagles to notice that the Phils were in a playoff drive, just in time to be let down again. Welcome to Philadelphia.
Thanks to our guests for providing the answers and insights to the losers of the NL East. We can only hope the division provides the same depth and drama in 2006. Check back tomorrow, as we will bring in guest analysts to provide answers to the same questions about the Bay Area teams, and the season's largest choke-artists: the Cleveland Indians.