Two on Two: 2006 NL East Preview
The Two on Two series stay on the right coast and concludes with the NL East. Here with us today to preview the division that the Atlanta Braves have owned for the past decade are Mac Thomason of Braves Journal and Jeremy Heit of Metsgeek.
Is this the year that the Tomahawk chops or drops? For the answers to this question and a whole lot more, read on...
Bryan: Mac, to start off this chat, I have to ask you: did Bobby Cox sell his soul to the devil? That's the only answer I have for the Braves winning the division again in 2005, given their injuries and lackluster (preseason) outfield.
Mac: It's been speculated. Part of it is that Bobby (even before he met up with Leo Mazzone) always has gotten better than expected efforts from his pitchers, and kept them healthy. Another is that he keeps a stable clubhouse, more than any contemporary manager, and so players are kept in a state of "relaxed readiness."
Bryan: Whatever it is, the Braves certainly got the most out of their talent again last year. Things didn't turn out the same way in New York, did they Jeremy?
Jeremy: No, not quite. It was a promising year in some respects though. David Wright's continued rise to super-stardom, Pedro Martinez's great year and both Cliff Floyd and Jose Reyes staying healthy.
Bryan: Definitely. And while the Mets didn't spend a lot of time in contention, the Braves did have to fight off runs by the Marlins and Phillies. Could two organizations possibly have gone in more different directions in one winter?
Rich: Are you talking about the Mets and Braves? Or the Marlins and Phillies? The Mets appear to be making a push for it now, while the Braves seem content on going with their youth. The Marlins are restocking--something I don't necessarily disagree with--and the Phillies might be betwixt and between.
Mac: Well, the Braves can't spend like the Mets, but they don't have to, because of the depth the farm system has recently developed. Still, the Braves were actually as stable as they've been in several years, the only major move in the ML roster being Edgar Renteria in for Rafael Furcal. Other than SBs, they're actually very similar offensive players.
Jeremy: On the other hand, the Mets can spend, and as Omar Minaya has shown the last two offseasons, he loves to do that. They were essential moves though. The Carlos Delgado trade gives the Mets their first bona fide hitter at the 1B position since John Olerud. And Billy Wagner gives them the shut-down closer they lacked last year late in games with Braden Looper. Omar also liked to stay active throughout the off-season with smaller trades, some of which were better than others.
Bryan: The most interesting tactic I saw from the Mets this winter was the Johnny Damon-type acquisitions. Hurt your rivals while making yourself stronger.
Jeremy: Yes they did. The acquisition of Billy Wagner from the Phillies forced them to have to downgrade to Tom Gordon, while the Mets were also able to take advantage of the Marlins and use their money to get Carlos Delgado and Paul LoDuca while giving up solid prospects, but not top-tier ones, namely Lastings Milledge.
Mac: Well, I should point out that this strategy dates back to Tom Glavine, though that didn't work out so well for the Mets. Though they certainly need a good effort from Tommy this year.
Jeremy: Well, last year's second half revival from Tommy gives the Mets hope that he can provide that kind of performance for a full year. For the first time as a Met, he consistently at least attempted to throw some inside pitches while mixing in a curveball. I'm fairly confident he will give the Mets what they need from him this year, though for the first part of the contract, you are correct, it did not work out that well.
Bryan: That is not true, however, for Pedro Martinez, who was dazzling in his Mets debut. Pedro is really the only (current) star on this staff, so I have to ask: is his toe the most important body part in baseball?
Jeremy: It definitely is to me, though that is quite biased. If it isn't the most important, it is definitely one of the tops. The Mets need a top-notch performance from Pedro to anchor the staff to have a chance to contend for the NL East title
Mac: I agree, though Tim Hudson's oblique muscle is a strong second, even though I'm not quite sure where it is. As an aside, I felt that the Mets were a little too blase about the bottom of their rotation considering all the other moves they made.
Bryan: Let's talk about the rest of the Met pitching staff. The decision to move Aaron Heilman to the bullpen is one, I think, that won't make it to June. He's too good for that.
Mac: I think there may be a bit of a reverse-Fenway (or now, reverse-Coors) effect there, where they're overrating some of their pitchers and underrating their hitters -- though their bad hitters were still pretty bad. For the life of me, I don't know what Peterson sees in Victor Zambrano.
Jeremy: Neither does any Met fan. I also disagree completely with the Bannister/Heilman move, though I'm not sure he will make it back to the rotation by June. If Steve Trachsel doesn't pitch well, Victor Zambrano bombs out or Bannister fails, I could see the Mets going after a pitcher at the deadline instead of moving Heilman back. Omar seems fixated on a strong bullpen, moving Heilman back there even after he traded away two starting pitchers just to get relief help.
Mac: You really need another lefty, you want Horacio Ramirez?
Rich: Hey, Mac...you mean the guy you like to call HomeRam?
Bryan: Problem is, Minaya simply doesn't have a lot of chips from which to deal.
Jeremy: It's a huge problem. Lastings Milledge is the chip, and he is, by all accounts, an untouchable.
Bryan: Moving to the offense, there is another player with whom his contract's start looks to be a disappointment: Carlos Beltran. Is he simply an example of being intimidated by New York?
Jeremy: It is quite tough to say. On one hand, he definitely seems liked he was pressing at the plate. But, you must remember, he played with a quad injury for a great deal of the year. I think he'll be OK this year, but that may be the optimist in me. His numbers will never look as good as they did in KC and Houston, just because of the Shea park effects. I also think if Willie Randolph bats him second, that will be a huge help to him.
Mac: I thought at the time that the Beltran signing was a mistake and that the Mets should have gone after Delgado then, because they had Mike Cameron, who's what, 95 percent of Beltran at his best? And was far better last year. At the same time, Beltran wasn't that bad -- not good, but for a CF with his defense he was a positive contributor even with a below-average OPS.
Bryan: Well, they sort of made up for that mistake by signing Delgado, who should have a big year. Say what you will, but not many teams can match a four hitter combination (including Beltran) like the Mets have.
Jeremy: Unfortunately, it's the other four hitters and their production that worries me with the Mets.
Mac: I loved Willie Randolph as a player, Yankee or no, but I can't believe that a guy with his playing skills thinks Jose Reyes should be leading off.
Bryan: Yeah, no matter how Willie wants to twist and contort Reyes, he's a different player than Jimmy Rollins.
Jeremy: Unfortunately, who else would they have lead off? Beltran? LoDuca? The other options don't seem that appealing. If Reyes ever learns some pitch selection, which is a big IF, he would be a fine lead-off man because of what he can do with his speed on the bases. Unfortunately, for now, while he is still working on that, it is on-the-job training in the 1 spot.
Bryan: Alright guys, let's move onto Rollins and the Phillies. After a long tenure hanging mostly in the middle of the division, Philadelphia enters the year with a new GM and a few new pieces. What do you make of the Phillies this year?
Mac: I take the Phillies very seriously; I picked them to win the wild card over the Mets by a game or two. Everyone's writing them off because they lost Billy Wagner, but the difference between him and Gordon can't be more than a game or two. And they get Ryan Howard in the lineup for a full season, and they don't have any real lineup holes -- not everyone's a star, but nobody will kill them.
Jeremy: I have the Mets barely edging out the Phillies for the wild card, but I agree with Mac. I really like their lineup and feel that if they put both Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd in the rotation over Ryan Franklin, they could have a very solid starting staff. It just seems to me this team always tends to underachieve, and I can't shake that notion in having them not make the playoffs this year.
Bryan: Madson seems to be in a similar spot to Aaron Heilman. He's totally not being utilized to his full potential.
Mac: They also have a really serious park effect there, and I don't think they have a handle on the quality of their starters, who aren't great but aren't bad either.
Bryan: Personally, I think their downfall might be that bullpen, because outside of Madson, I don't see a lot to like. Gordon and Arthur Rhodes are risky people to depend upon.
Jeremy: Arthur Rhodes usually seems to be OK as long as he isn't facing the mythical aura behind the 9th inning and closing. I think it will be interesting to see how Gordon performs as a closer after years of setting up Mariano Rivera.
Mac: He has 116 career saves, which is more than the entire Braves' bullpen. I'd be more worried about the plunge he had in his strikeout numbers last year.
Bryan: As far as the offense goes, all the early season hype will be aimed at Rollins and his streak. But I think the other players up the middle are the key to the Philly offense.
Mac: Chase Utley terrifies me. He's the scariest player in the division to a Braves fan, not Delgado or Miguel Cabrera. By the end of the season, certain Braves pitchers just walked Utley if there was anyone on base. And I believe one of those pitchers was John Smoltz, which gives you some idea.
Jeremy: As for Aaron Rowand, I think he'll give them a solid bat, but his defensive contribution will be enormous.
Bryan: They need it with Pat Burrell in left covering about 20 feet, and Abreu's range is decreasing a bit in right.
Rich: Which Bobby Abreu is going to show up this year? The one before he won the HR derby at the All-Star game or the guy who hit .260 with six dingers in the second half?
Bryan: Sooner or later the game's most underrated player is going to head for decline, but I do believe he will be solid this year. This is much like the Phillies this year, a team that is well balanced all around, but special in no particular area.
Jeremy: I agree, which is why even though a lot of the talk in the division focuses on the Mets and Braves, the Phillies could definitely be dangerous.
Mac: About right. They've won 86 games three times in the last five seasons and 88 last year. I expect about the same.
Bryan: Alright, let's move onto the Marlins, who are special in one area: the youth. Florida's firesale will certainly hurt their W-L record and attendance, but what do you guys see it doing in the long term?
Mac: I think that there's a comment in Baseball Prospectus about all the Marlins' moves being defensible individually, it's just that all at once they're a disaster. Still, they have the best player in the division (Cabrera), maybe the best pitcher (Dontrelle Willis) and probably the best short-term prospect (Jeremy Hermida), which is a nice base.
Bryan: And the sight of Joe Girardi managing from a Major League bench is enough to keep me entertained.
Mac: Until Torre re-signs him for the stretch run.
Jeremy: There is definitely a nice young base, but what happens when they have to start paying these guys? It just seems like the Marlins will forever be in this type of cycle.
Bryan: Yeah, it seems like the Marlins need a new city and another new ownership group. If they trade Miguel Cabrera at year's end, as some have rumored, the ship will have officially sunk.
Mac: Well, one World Series win every few years looks pretty good to me at this point, and I expect to you, too.
Bryan: One thing I want to focus on is the fact that the Marlins used their trades to stockpile pitchers, viewing it as a depleted market. Though their outfield looks even worse than the Braves did in March last year, is this the type of methodology that will pay off?
Mac: It's probably easier to find outfielders than pitchers, though young pitching is such a risky market I can't really approve of gutting the team in exchange for it.
Jeremy: I think it is one of those wait and see things. As Mac says, young pitching is a risky market. I'm a big fan of Yusmeiro Petit and think he'll end up as a solid middle of the rotation starter, but a guy like Gabby Hernandez is so far away that who knows at this point.
Bryan: Well, let's talk about what they have this year. Are the likes of Jason Vargas and Sergio Mitre enough to give Joe Girardi a respectable club?
Mac: Their starting rotation might be okay. Willis is great, of course, Brian Moehler's not really a #2, but he's not bad in the middle of the rotation, Vargas and Mitre are adequate. The bullpen looks pretty thin, though, and they can't really afford to rush the kids to fill that hole.
Jeremy: I don't think there is much of a chance. This team just doesn't have enough pitching behind Dontrelle Willis, who looked quite shaky in the WBC himself. They have some interesting young hitters beyond Cabrera like Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez and Hermida, but I just don't see it happening. Too many holes.
Mac: And they have probably the worst infield in baseball. Jacobs is the only one who looks half-competent. They have Wes Helms at third base, whom I've seen enough of, thank you.
Rich: I don't expect fans will see much of Helms at the hot corner this year, not with Cabrera around.
Bryan: While I agree with Jeremy about the holes, there is something about young managers/former catchers that seem to maximize effort from their players. That, I say, belongs to the Nationals.
Jeremy: I happen to disagree and think the Nationals will finish higher than the Marlins, but I don't think it will be by that much. I just don't understand what Jim Bowden has been thinking all off-season, which was culminated by the Ryan Church decision a couple of days ago.
Mac: I thought that the environment in Washington, which basically makes any pitcher look okay, would be one where Bowden could thrive. He always could find good hitters in Cincy, it was just that he couldn't tell a pitcher from a hole in the ground. But he seems to have lost the eye for hitters as well.
Bryan: Yeah, he's versatile. I agree with Rob Neyer that the Alfonso Soriano trade could end up as one of the worst of all-time, and the Church move is a head scratcher. This was a Rookie of the Year candidate last June.
Mac: Nobody looks good in that situation but the Rangers. Soriano is not a good enough hitter for an outfield corner anyway, and he'll probably hit about five homers at home this year.
Jeremy: The whole entire Soriano thing has been a debacle from the actual trade to the whole spring training spat.
Bryan: Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen are all solid on the corners, but you have to really squint to see a successful offense here.
Mac: And the good hitters they have (Johnson and Guillen) are fragile. I mean, Guillen actually caught a wrist injury from Johnson.
Jeremy: I really like Zimmerman and I think he'll have quite a nice year, so much so that he'll end up as the rookie of the year. But, the offense is suspect outside of him, Guillen and Johnson. Because, what can they expect out of Jose Vidro this year?
Bryan: An injury to Vidro and then the Soriano thing is really going to blow up.
Jeremy: The pitching will be interesting. I'm a fan of John Patterson, but behind him and Livan... Ramon Ortiz? Tony Armas? When does he ever stay healthy?
Mac: I know I've said this before, but it's certain that Bowden doesn't understand park effects, and that his pitching (other than Patterson) wasn't very good last year. Livan was the definition of "league average innings eater".
Rich: Well, he ate...scratch that...he pitched a lot of innings last year. A MLB-leading 246 1/3, to be exact.
Bryan: Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, John Patterson and Chad Cordero are the types you build around, but they simply have the wrong man to execute any rebuilding process.
Rich: I'm not defending Bowden by any means here. But it's tough to run a franchise when you don't have a real owner. I mean, no matter what you do in life, you need a time horizon. The Nationals don't know if they are coming or going.
Bryan: This is, of course, the opposite situation as to what we see in Atlanta, with one of the game's best GMs. This winter, however, Schuerholz was probably able to take some time off thanks to his great farm system.
Mac: Well, he did make the Marte-for-Renteria trade, which I didn't really like but won't hurt the team in the short term. He traded Johnny Estrada, who he didn't need anymore, for a couple of pitchers who might help. Other than that, he stood pat. I think that the hope is that some of the rookies from last year will improve and give the Joneses some help. And that Chipper stays relatively healthy.
Bryan: Yeah, the ability that the Braves could stand pat was that fantastic group of youth. Francoeur is the first name that comes to mind but there is a good chance he is outperformed by Kelly Johnson and Brian McCann, who I think is on the cusp of a monster season.
Mac: McCann was actually my favorite of the group, though I like Johnson a lot too, and Francoeur should be great down the road.
Jeremy: I am afraid of Francoeur. As a Met fan, I get this feeling he is the next Chipper Jones. I know he has issues in his game, but he just seems so natural sometimes.
Mac: The player Francoeur gets compared to is Dale Murphy, but he reminds me more of Juan Gonzalez. Same holes in his game, same just freaky power. Remember, Juan Gone was a CF in his youth. He doesn't even really need to walk, just lay off the really bad pitches.
Jeremy: He has such great power and such a strong arm in rightfield. I think the Braves will be fine when it comes to finding hitters, especially now that Matt Diaz can see out of both eyes.
Bryan: The rookies also will be balanced with a solid crop of veterans. Andruw and Chipper Jones are about the two easiest players to depend on ever, and Edgar Renteria should be solid in his return to the NL.
Mac: What worries me is that if Adam LaRoche struggles again they'll wait too long to pull the trigger without Julio Franco in reserve.
Rich: Well, Julio has hung in there for at least five more years than anyone could have reasonably expected ten years ago. He's kind of like the Energizer Bunny or, heck, the Braves. He just keeps going and going and going. But, like the Braves, you have to wonder how long either will last.
Bryan: The question really isn't the offense, it's the pitching. Mac, I wonder what type of impact you think Mazzone's loss will bring to the club?
Mac: A lot of the pitchers were relieved to see him go, it seems, because he was hard on them. What I hope is that they'll respond well for a time with the pressure off. What I fear is that they'll fall into bad habits. Not Smoltz and Hudson, but the kids.
Jeremy: It will be quite interesting to me to see what happens. I hope, as a Met fan, that Leo leaving means a regression in the Braves pitching performance, but Roger McDowell seems like a solid pitching coach and the young kids still have Smoltz and Hudson to look up to.
Bryan: I actually like this pitching staff better than most, because I see quite a bit of depth. If Thomson or Ramirez don't perform well, in steps Davies or James; if Chris Reitsma struggles, how about Joey Devine or Blaine Boyer?
Mac: I figure Reitsma will be Reitsma. He will be good for a few weeks, then he will struggle, and Devine will take the job. Hopefully, he can hold it and the revolving door will stop.
Rich: The Braves need Smoltz to be Smoltz because Hudson is no longer Hudson. And Thomson, Sosa, and Ramirez are no better than league average as far as #3-5 go.
Mac: What really worries me is that we're in a division with Delgado, Floyd, Howard, Utley, and Abreu and we have one southpaw starter, who isn't very good and gives up lots of homers.
Jeremy: I really wouldn't be shocked to see Ramirez displaced at some point this season. I just don't see him pitching well at all this year. But, as you note Bryan, the Braves have young starters ready to step in.
Mac: I like Davies a lot, as does Cox, and the Braves are going to do something (a trade, or a move of Sosa or Thomson to the pen) to get him in the rotation.
Bryan: It's just that, on contrast to last year, this Atlanta team seems to have some nice depth. Has to be comforting, eh Mac?
Mac: Depth is great. I really like the bench they've assembled, which for the first time in forever doesn't have any useless players. Wilson Betemit is probably one of the best bench players in baseball, one who really should be starting somewhere. But the Braves need him to insure against an injury to Chipper or Renteria. If Francouer struggles, Diaz or Johnson can step in. If McCann flops or gets hurt, they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia in wait.
Jeremy: The depth the Braves have scares me a lot because their injury concerns can be more easily taken care of then someone, say, like the Mets, who have pretty much depleted their starting pitching depth.
Mac: The only really irreplaceable player is Andruw Jones, but he never leaves the lineup.
Bryan: So much has to be said about the Braves ability to develop players. Their starting lineup is almost entirely made of homegrown players, which speaks volumes.
Mac: In an interleague game last year, the Braves had ten homegrown players in the lineup, seven of them rookies.
Bryan: Alright guys, let's finish it off with some division predictions. How do you guys see it finishing, 1-5?
Mac: Braves, Phillies (WC), Mets, Marlins, Natspos. The first three teams will be within five or six games. The last two will be about 30 games back.
Jeremy: Braves, Mets (WC), Phillies, Nationals, Marlins. Like Mac, I think the first three are tight and the last two are way behind.
Bryan: I must admit that I came into the chat ready to pick the Mets, but I'm going to go with the Braves first. Mets (WC), Phillies, Marlins and Nats for me.
Rich: I thought I was going to like the Mets a couple of months ago. But they still have too many holes in my mind. I think this division is much weaker than most. That said, I'm going with the Braves, Phillies, Mets, Nationals, and Marlins.
Mac: I wouldn't really be surprised by any order for the first three, only if one of them was way off.