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.
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: 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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.