Two on Two: NL East Preview
It's time to move on to the National League now and we kick things off in the East. Kind enough to have joined us for the chat are Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times and Chris Needham, who writes the Washington Nationals blog, aptly named for 2007 at least, Capitol Punishment. Dave had some personal matters to tend to during our chat so he did not finish up with us. Listed below are our American League Two on Two chats.
Sully: The National League East, like the American League Central, will be competitive and deep. The division features some of the best individual talent in baseball. What excites you guys most about the NL East in 2007?
Dave: The great young players in the division. You've got three third basemen (Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and Miguel Cabrera) who could have careers that rank among the ten or twenty best all-time at their position; three great young shortstops (Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez - the three R's) who have all the tools. Plus the best young slugger in the game (Ryan Howard), the best all-around young second baseman (Chase Utley) and the best all-around player, period (Carlos Beltran). Brian McCann could have a tremendous catching career. I've probably missed a few (don't the Marlins have some good young kids?). So it will be fun to watch each one of these guys in 2007, seeing which ones step forward, which ones continue apace and/or which ones lose some career momentum.
Rich: I agree. There is a lot of star power in the division. As Dave pointed out, many of the best players in all of baseball are congregated in the NL East. The Phillies, Braves, and Mets can flat out hit. These teams finished 1-2-3 in the league in runs scored last year. All three clubs slugged at least 200 home runs. Even though four of the five ballparks favor pitchers, this division seems like it is right up the alley for those who like offense.
Sully: Remarkably, according to their park-adjusted OPS+ figures, every team in the division was above average offensively. The Nats pulled up the rear with a 101 figure while Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia and Florida ranked 1 through 4 in the NL.
Chris:And although most every team has some questions marks in their staffs, some of these guys can throw the ball. The frontline starters of the five teams really excite me -- John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Dontrelle Willis, John Patterson and Freddy Garcia eating innings for Philly to go along with Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. These guys can hold their own with any other division's combo. It's a division with some strong closers too, and a few teams look like they could have lights-out pens.
Rich: Another side story, in my opinion, is that the worst team in the majors just so happens to reside in the division. This is a three-team race with a fourth heading in the right direction but possibly due for some consolidation after last year's huge strides and a fifth that has almost no chance of losing fewer than 100 games.
Dave: Oof. As we used to say in Chemistry class: Viscous, Rich. Viscous. Seems to me that the Nats' (relative) success, like every team in this division, will hinge on its pitching. Doesn't it seem as though every team has MAJOR question marks in its pitching staff?
Sully: Washington's going to be awful this season. The starting rotation they are planning to go with is the worst I can remember heading into a season. Rich wrote about it a few weeks back so I won't delve any further but it's bad. Tim Redding didn't pitch in the Big Leagues last season and in limited time in 2004 and 2005 he sported a 75 and 37 ERA+ respectively in each season. As for the rest of the division, the Mets and Braves look like they have strong bullpens and questionable starting. Vice versa for the Phils. Florida looks mediocre in both departments.
Chris: The Nats are just taking stathead orthodoxy to its illogical extreme. Why spend $55 million on Gil Meche when you can get Joel Hanrahan for $2.99? At least they'll have a solid pen (at least until they trade Chad Cordero to Boston).
Rich: Speaking of money, the Mets have been known to thrown some coin in the direction of free agents. However, this year's additions don't measure up to the past couple of years. Moises Alou seems like a good fit to me but did Omar Minaya do enough in the off-season to enable New York to defend its NL East title?
Dave: I think Omar did the same thing Kenny Williams did this offseason: he refused to pay the going market price for good pitching (either in money or talent). I can't say I blame him at all. Regarding Alou, I thought that was a terrific move: get someone who can conceivably contribute well for a year or two (at a decent price) while waiting
for their young outfielders to mature. Omar got very lucky last year with many of his lesser signings (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez, Pedro Feliciano, etc.). He's hoping to strike similar gold again in the pitching department.
Sully: We know New York's offensive core will be fantastic. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Moises Alou are all known quantities. I do have some concerns after these five, however. I question whether Jose Valentin can replicate his 2006. Valentin is very good when things are going well for him but being a low-obp type, he can also be just terribly debilitating for an offense when he is off. Paul Lo Duca is another player that appears to be in for some regression. He is 35 now and coming off one of his best seasons. Also, the sooner Lastings Millesge supplants Shawn Green, the better for the Mets and their faithful.
Chris:That's assuming that the Milledge the Mets faithful get is the one they've managed to put on a pedestal over the last year or so. He held his own for being such a young kid last year, but he would still need to take a step or two forward to be much of an improvement over Green. Offensively, I love the Alou signing. He murdered the ball last year in a pretty tough pitcher's park. But the calendar flips over to 40 for him. He's missed a bunch of games with injuries ever since the millennium rolled over. And I worry about his defense, especially with Green flopping around in right. Those guys are going to burn out Carlos Beltran's hammies by mid-May.
Rich: Every team has a few weaknesses. But I'm not overly concerned about the sixth, seventh, and eighth best hitters or their corner outfield defense. Those seem rather minor compared to the starting pitching. Unlike Chris, I don't think of Glavine as an ace. At 41, he remains a solid pitcher but more like Jamie Moyer than not. Unless Oliver Perez finds his 2004 form and Mike Pelfrey pitches like the ace he was at Wichita State, I'm at a loss for how the starters are even going to give the team league average results.
Chris: 200 Innings of 115 ERA+ is pretty close to an ace these days. This might finally be the year he falls off the cliff as almost everyone has predicted him to do for the last 10 years. But your overall point is right. It's the other four starters who are going to make or break the season. El Duque is one of my favorite pitchers to watch, but as Mets fans saw in the playoffs, he comes with huge durability concerns. It's pretty scary that they're even screwing around with the idea of Chan Ho Park, a pitcher who hasn't had a good year since 2001. But with as strong as that pen is, maybe Willie Randolph is taking a page out of the 1996 Yankees playbook: nurse the starter through five, and let the bullpen shut down the other team.
Sully: I will be honest, I think the Mets are in for a real step back this season. Like Rich, I just don't think a chamionship aspirant club can come with a rotation as thin as this one. The offense is formidable, and will be called upon to carry this team on its shoulders but I don't see it being enough to repeat as division champs. What am I missing with this club, Dave?
Dave: Hope! Seriously, the Mets' rotation ERA was 4.67 last year, league average. I think it won't be much worse than that this year. Glavine, El Duque and Maine are all capable of ERA's under 4.67; Oliver Perez is looking great, and Mike Pelfrey should be an established major league starter by the end of the year with Philip Humber perhaps contributing by the end of the year, too.
The real difference for the Mets is in the bullpen, where they had a 3.25 ERA last year thanks to great efforts by a lot of relievers. They won't do nearly that well in the pen this year, especially if Sanchez keeps showing up late. Also, some of the spare parts, like Valentin and Chavez, won't contribute as much. For those two reasons, I think Jimmy Rollins is right: the Phillies are the team to beat in the East.
Chris: I think that Dave is right when it comes to how well the front three starters will pitch. It's just a matter of how often. As strange as it sounds, Oliver Perez really does seem to be the linchpin of that staff. He had a 4.40 ERA after September, which looks good only in comparison to the 7.29 he had prior to that. If Rick Peterson really has fixed him (and his 13/3 K/BB ratio in spring is a sign that he might've), they'll have a solid innings-eating 3 or 4 in the middle of the rotation, which is more valuable than it seems.
Rich: Who'da thunk that the Phillies would be the team with the superior starting rotation? Philadelphia goes six deep. The bullpen isn't nearly as strong but perhaps Pat Gillick can flip Jon Lieber and/or a youngster like Scott Mathieson for another arm to bridge the gap between those starters and Tom Gordon. This is a team that could have the best balance in the division. But is this club good enough to close last year's 12-game gap with the Mets?
Sully: For starters, it is more like a 5-game gap than 12 according to New York's and Philly's 2006 Pythagorean records. And yes, as I wrote about a month ago, I do think it is enough. Philadelphia got some astoundingly horrendous starting pitching from the likes of Gavin Floyd, Randy Wolf and Ryan Madson last season. Freddy Garcia basically takes all of these innings. Further, this was the best team in the division after the All-Star Break last year. The team posted a 2nd-half .831 OPS (tops in the NL, 2nd in the Bigs) and 4.36 ERA, a very respectable figure given their offense-friendly digs. With the addition of Garcia, and to a lesser extent Wes Helms, I see the momentum carrying over.
Dave: There are lots of parallels between the teams. Rolllins/Reyes, Utley/Wright, Howard and Burrell vs. Beltran and Delgado. On offense they're virtually equal, and their fielding skills are relatively similar. The big difference is the starting
rotation, which should be one of the best in the league this year (and the best in the division). Of course, I thought the Philly starting rotation would be strong last year too, but it was almost the worst in the league.
Chris: The depth of that rotation is scary. They should be able to weather any inevitable injuries that pop up without taking a beating at the back of the rotation.
It has the potential, too, to be a dominant rotation. The few times I saw Cole Hamels last year, I came away impressed. Brett Myers is probably underrated because of how much a hitter's park that is -- an ERA under 4 there isn't half bad. If those two emerge and Garcia does what he does every year, it's likely one of the two or three best rotations in the league, even if the park will disguise much of that.
Rich: One of the things I really like about the Phillies is that the team's three best players are all right at their peak. During the off-season, Howard turned 27 and Rollins and Utley both turned 28. Although all three are coming off outstanding years, I wouldn't look for any of them to regress much, if at all, in 2007. The oldest starter is Rod Barajas and he is only 31. This team is primed to win right now.
Sully: Indeed they are, Rich, and you did not even mention the pitching staff. Hamels is just 23, Myers 25 and Garcia, the prototype innings eating horse, is 32. I am a big believer in these Phillies. While Shane Victorino might not be an adequate fill-in for David Dellucci's production, some of that could be made up for at third base. Phils 3rd Basemen hit for a .684 OPS in 2006, worse than everyone in baseball except for San Diego. They bring in Wes Helms, a career .268/.331/.447 hitter who is coming off a .329/.390/.575 season. No matter where he slots in on the production spectrum between those two endpoints, he will represent a major uptick for Philly over and above what they got out of the hot corner in 2006.
Dave: The biggest question mark for the Phillies is their bullpen, particularly with Tom Gordon showing some injury concerns. I also don't see Geoff Geary having the same kind of year. Maybe Ryan Madson is a partial answer, but who knows? How do you guys think the Philly pen will fall out?
Chris: That's the million dollar question. It's a shame they dumped Ed Wade. I'm sure he'd throw a few million dollars at a few supposed answers. Geary has been a pretty underrated pitcher the last two years or so, but that 91 IP from last year scares me. He's not really an overpowering pitcher, but he had great control last year (1.97 BB/9) and he kept the ball in the park. That's two thirds of the battle.
I think the more interesting case is Madson. He's been disastrous as a starter, but a pretty valuable arm in the pen, even last year. It looks like the shorter outings, as you'd suspect, give him just a little more juice on his pitches, upping his effectiveness.
They've got a lot of arms at the back of the rotation. It's going to be up to Charlie Manuel to sort through them to round out the staff - something I don't think he's particularly known for.
Sully: Atlanta has been thought of as a pitching-first ballclub during the last 16 years or so but they led the National League with a 110 OPS+ last season. Will the lineup continue to mash, and what do you guys think of Atlanta's strategy to prioritize bullpen quality this off-season?
Rich: As you noted, Sully, the Braves had the best OPS+ but also the second-lowest ERA+ in the NL last year. The offense looks good once again. However, there are a few question marks. Chipper Jones turns 35 next month and hasn't played more than 110 games since 2004. First base and left field are OK but nothing special. Kelly Johnson should provide decent offense as a second baseman, provided he can handle the job defensively. Andruw Jones is Andruw Jones. Brian McCann is the real deal. Jeff Francoeur could be a superstar if . . .
Chris: ... I guess the answer I'm supposed to say is "he walks more," but if he hits .300 like he did in his first crack at the league (a huge if), it won't much matter. At the very least, he needs to improve his pitch recognition. Even Vlad Guerrero walks 50 times a year.
Rich: As far as the bullpen goes, yes, I like the moves John Schuerholz made this winter. Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez will lend plenty of support to Bob Wickman, who was lights out with Atlanta last year. It looks like Detroit's bullpen with two power pitchers setting up a veteran closer. The fact the Braves also wrangled Brent Lillibridge out of the Pirates in that deal for Adam LaRoche was pure genius on the part of one of the game's best GMs.
Sully: I am looking forward to watching Brian McCann this season. It's not so much that he figures to be a superstar someday, he is one already. Have a look at the following OPS+ figures for a smattering of catchers that played full-time in their 22-year old season. He's got a way to go, but for now it sure looks like McCann has the potential to be a player of historic significance.
OPS+ in their 22-year old season
Brian McCann 146
Johnny Bench 145
Bill Dickey 118
Ivan Rodriguez 117
Yogi Berra 115
Mickey Cochrane 108
Joe Mauer 108
Gabby Hartnett 107
Rich: While on the subject of young players, let's turn our attention to the Florida Marlins. The team was still in the hunt for the playoffs as late as early September last year, winning 78 games or five to ten more than most pundits predicted before the season began. This franchise has been known to get good, really good, in a hurry then trading players off and rebuilding. What does the future have in store for the Marlins?
Sully: The Marlins are an interesting club. They feature some real star power in Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and Dontrelle Willis but I see them as a little too top-heavy to threaten in the ultra-competitive NL East. Pretending Alex Sanchez is an everyday Major League center fielder is criminal, and the back end of the rotation, though talented, is not quite there yet. The rest of the roster is filled with serviceable types that won't make or break anything. Guys like Josh Willingham, Dan Uggla and Mike Jacobs are solid but not difference makers. Jeremy Hermida is another one. He will have a fantastic MLB career, but he is not the stud the Marlins need him to be yet. These are the types of guys you fill out a championship caliber roster with. The Marlins are depending too heavily on them.
Chris: It's amazing how many of those filler guys had great years last year. Willingham slugged .500. Wes Helms (Wes Helms!?) slugged .575. They picked Joe Borchard off the waiver wire and he put up an OPS over .800 against righties. They're going to need to get a bit lucky again with the fringes of their roster to duplicate the success they've had. And that's even before we consider the arm problems cropping up on their pitching staff.
Dave: The Marlins have some great young players, and they do have some holes, as Chris says. To me, the biggest hole is in their bullpen. Of course, some of their young arms could help fill in that hole, but their weaknesses are serious enough to keep them listed behind the Braves, in my eyes.
Sully: What about the Nats? To me, this team looks just awful. With Nick Johnson looking like he is out for a while and the pitching staff being just brutal, I don't see much hope for these guys.
Chris: Earlier, someone said that the Nats pitching could be historically bad. I guess that that's possible, but it's also ignoring how pitiful last year's rotation was. Ramon Ortiz (he of the 5.57 ERA in a pitcher's park) was the team's "ace". Only one regular starter (Mike O'Connor) had an ERA under 5. So as bad as things could be this year, they probably can't get much worse, especially if John Patterson stays healthy and if Shawn Hill and his sinker live up to their modest PECOTA projections. The bullpen, with Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch anchoring, should be solid. Some pitching improvement should come from the defense. The decision to start Nook Logan in center is a mistake, but it's one that should help the pitchers' bottom lines. When surrounded by Ryan Church, Austin Kearns and Chris Snelling at the corners, lots of flyballs will die in the gaps. Felipe Lopez should be a big improvement over Jose Vidro at second base, as long as the shorter throw keeps some of the yips away.
Rich: With apologies to John Patterson, this pitching staff might be worse than the Tigers in 2003, the Reds in 2004, or the Devil Rays and Royals in 2005 - four of the worst in the post-expansion era on a park-adjusted basis. The Nats are a lock to give up more than 900 runs and could conceivably allow 1,000 or more. Let's not kid ourselves here. Aside from Patterson and closer Chad Cordero, this is, at best, a bunch of "AAAA" quality arms. Opposing hitters will be chomping at the bit to face these pitchers.
Sully: Yeah I am with Rich on this one. And it's never a good thing when you are depending on Nook Logan to rescue your team's hopes. But you make some good points, Chris. Maybe the defense can save some runs here and there on the margins. Offensively, I like some of the parts, like Zimmerman, Kearns, Lopez, Church and if he comes back, Johnson. But it still just doesn't quite fit together.
Chris: With Alfonso Soriano gone and Nick Johnson out, it's going to be a long summer. How many runs they score is going to depend on how long they tolerate automatic outs like Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman when alternatives are in place (Ron Belliard and Ryan Church). It's going to be a terrible team, but I'm not sold that it will be historically awful. Then again, come talk to me in October...if I make it that long.
Rich: By default, offense is the team's strength. Nick Johnson is a superb hitter but is recovering from a broken right leg and may miss the first two months of the season. As such, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Zimmerman will be forced to carry the load. The bottom three hitters (Cristian Guzman, Nook Logan, and the pitcher) will be the worst in all of baseball. I'm sorry, there isn't much to like here.
What do you guys see as the biggest surprise coming out of the NL East this season?
Sully: I'll take Atlanta to finish ahead of the Mets (but behind the Phillies). The bullpen will be lights out and these guys are going to mash again. And as I mentioned earlier, I think the Mets took some steps back this off-season.
Rich: No way, Sully. Pedro Martinez returns in August and is the difference maker down the stretch, lifting the Mets to a division title over the Phillies.
Chris: Does the Nats not being "historically awful" count? And isn't it always a surprise, regardless of how many have them as the division favorite, to pick Philly to win their division?
Sully: What about awards candidates? I would count Beltran, Wright, Reyes, Utley, Howard, McCann and Cabrera amongst the MVP hopefuls. I think Myers and Hamels could contend for a Cy, and I wouldn't count Smoltz out. As for Rookie of the Year, I don't see a real candidate in the East.
Rich: With respect to MVP, there are so many players in this division who could win the award. But given the voters preference for players with high RBI totals on winning teams, I would give the nod to Ryan Howard once again. If the Cy Young comes from the NL East, I would go with John Smoltz or maybe Brett Myers if he benefits from strong run support and wins 20 games. As to the Rookie of the Year, a long, long shot would be Michael Bourn. The reality is that there is little chance the #1 rookie comes out of this division. But I could see a scenario in which Aaron Rowand gets hurt or traded and Bourn steps up and hits .280-.300 with a decent number of walks and a bunch of triples and stolen bases while giving his club a plus defender in center field.
Chris: With the number of individual stars in the division, lots of players could contend for MVP, but the safe money is on Carlos Beltran and Ryan Howard. Jose Reyes and Chase Utley should certainly be in the conversation. I'm not sure if I really see any Cy Young contenders in the division, even if there are some quality pitchers. The Phillies guys are good, but the park hides much of that. If I had to pick, I'd take Old Man Smoltz. Maybe with some better bullpen support, he'd be closer to that "magical" 20-win mark. The tough thing about picking rookies is that the pre-season favorite (see: Hermida, Jeremy) rarely is the post-season one. Scott Thorman will likely have enough ABs to make some noise, but I'm not sure there are any other rookies who've won starting jobs yet. On the other side of the ball, Mike Pelfry has a chance if he cracks the Mets' rotation. And for the Nats, Matt Chico, who came over in the Livan Hernandez deal, looks like he's going to be given every chance to head north.
Sully: OK, prediction time. I have Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Florida, Washington.
Rich: I see the Phillies winning their first division crown since 1993, followed by the Mets, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals. I would be shocked if Florida and Washington don't finish fourth and fifth, respectively.
Sully: I like the hedge after your "surprise" call, Rich.
Chris: Phillies, Mets, Braves, BIG GAP, Marlins, Nats. But dumb luck might have a say in the order of those first three.
Sully: Thanks for participating, everyone.