March 07, 2005

Frinklin’s Second Annual Baseball Preview: The NL East

This should be a daily occurrence, but I make no promises.

1. Florida Marlins
The Good
The acquisition of 1B Carlos Delgado strengthens an already potent lineup. The lefty Delgado will slot in-between righties Miguel Cabrera and Mike Lowell in a 3-4-5 that compares favorably with any in the National League. This lineup also features speedy slap hitters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo at the top. Both should come close to the 200-hit mark. The rotation, led by Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett, has the potential to be one of the best in baseball.

The Bad
The key word there is potential. For all his talent, Beckett is a .500 pitcher in regular season action, and Burnett is never healthy. Former Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis struggled most of 2004. In addition, Guillermo Mota will be handling the closer role with the departure of Armando Benitez. Mota has never held the closer role in the majors. Offensively, while Pierre and Castillo may hit singles, they never walk and seldom -if ever- hit for extra bases. Add in SS Alex Gonzales and his league worst .271 OBP, and the Fish have on-base issues.

The Bottom Line
There are a lot of "ifs" for this team. IF Pierre and Castillo can keep hitting singles and keep their stolen base success rate high; IF Delgado can adjust to the NL; IF his defense doesn't drive the pitching staff and his fellow infielders crazy; IF Beckett, Willis and Burnett can pitch an effective entire year; IF Mota can handle closing...The Marlins hit on half of those they win the division. All of them break right; this team is a serious World Series challenger.

2. Atlanta Braves
The Good
Hudson-Smoltz-Hampton isn't exactly Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz, but it is closer than the Braves have been the last couple of years. Hudson, having signed a long-term deal with his hometown team, should serve as Ace. The rotation is rounded out by John Thomson and,- exciting youngster Horacio Ramirez. Dan Kolb comes over from Milwaukee, off an All-Star year to replace Smoltz as closer. The offense, with Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and the Joneses, Chipper and Andruw, will be potent. Catcher Johnny Estrada hit better than anyone could have anticipated in 2004.

The Bad
Smoltz hasn't pitched 200 innings any season this century. Hudson is the type of small-build right-handers that scouts have coronaries over and he did have some injury trouble last year. Hampton will never be his pre-Colorado self again. Kolb has exactly 3/4 of one good year as a closer. The offense will be fine, but the defense, with Chipper returning to third, Giles being nothing more than average at second, and Furcal continuing to be maddeningly inconsistent, is bordering terrible. The Braves actually expect Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi to play alongside Andruw Jones in the outfield until heralded prospects Andy Marte and Jeff Francoeur are ready. Estrada hit well, but his defense was below expectations.

The Bottom Line
The Braves are either the easiest or the hardest team to predict. You have to think that eventually they won't win the NL East. They shouldn't have the last three years, but they did anyway. This team has noticeable flaws, but they always do. I could see them finishing first again, but they're just as likely to finish fourth.

3. Philadelphia Phillies
The Good
This team will certainly be less combative than recent years, as the low key Charlie Manuel takes over for the totally insane Larry Bowa. This clubhouse has been toxic, and Manuel, while not the best tactician in the game, should help repair that. On the field the Phils are a mixed bag. In Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome, they have a quality middle of the lineup, though Pat Burrell needs to shake his 2-year slump. Chase Utley, an offensive second baseman will start, and Jimmy Rollins is now the best 55 in the NL. The new ace is Jon Lieber, a groundball pitcher who should fare well in Citizen's Bank Park, assuming (and you know what assuming does) he stays healthy. This team has a very effective, albeit old, bullpen

The Bad
This team has to rely on a two rapidly fading veterans up the middle. Kenny Lofton, acquired from the Yankees, will play center and bat second, despite his fading skills. Catcher Mike Leiberthal has been slipping for two years now, and at 33, should continue to do so. Thome finished with solid power and OBP numbers, but hit a dismal .203 with runners in scoring position. After Leiber, no sure thing himself, the rotation is filled with question marks. Will Randy Wolf and Vincente Padilla rebound after mediocre, injury-plagued years? Is this the season that Bret Myers turns it on? How soon will we see superprospect Gavin Floyd? As previously mentioned, the bullpen is effective, but old.

The Bottom Line
The Phillies are a mystery team. How well they adapt to life without Bowa is the key. If the players were correct, and Bowa was the problem, then this team should contend. These do seem to be some holes though, and they don't have enough to catch the Marlins or Braves.

4. New York Mets
The Good
Well, they're a damned sight better than last year. How much better is the question. Carlos Beltran is the real deal; a franchise player just entering his prime. If he can handle the New York spotlight after stints in Kansas City and Houston, he'll deliver with a .300 30/30 season with just below Gold Glove caliber defense. The man he pushes to RF, Mike Cameron, is better. The other big pickup, Pedro Martinez is less important on the field, but perhaps more important off it. Pedro is, obviously, not just any pitcher, but instead a legendary figure near the end of his career. He's also enough of a character to pull the spotlight to him, and allow the teams younger players to mature out of the spotlight. On the field he's a dynamic pitcher won’t clear the 6-inning mark with any regularity. More important in the long run are 3B David Wright and SS Jose Reyes. Both are dynamic young players. Wright is a slugger who evokes Scott Rolen, and Reyes is an Anfonso Soriano-type electric bat. The Mets also vastly improved their defense by moving Kaz Matsui to second and Reyes back to short.

The Bad
Matsui, last season’s big pickup, struggled with his first season in America. This year he has the added stress of playing second, an unfamiliar position for him. The move makes sense though, as Reyes has significantly more arm and range. Matsui will stay in the number 2 hole in the lineup. He is an excellent situational hitter and fits there. Mike Piazza will stay behind the plate, as the firstbase experiment has ended. His defense has further slipped, and is now well below average. His bat is still dangerous, though not as it was a few years ago. Behind Pedro, Tom Glavine continues to wind down his career. The big questions are 2004’s midseason pickups. Kris Benson, he of the tabloid ready wife and quality stuff, has to prove he’s worth his off-season contract extension. Victor Zambrano, for whom the Mets inexplicably sent stud prospect Scott Kazmir, was injured in his short New York tenure.

The Bottom Line
Every year the Mets make one or two big free agent pickups. Every year the team's fans think they're catching up with the Braves and Yankees. Every year they're wrong. Will this year be any different? Maybe... The development of Wright and Reyes are more exciting than any FA pickup. The Yankees did this in the early-90’s. Players like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, coupled with smart FA moves and trades, sparked the Yankees renaissance. The Mets have a chance to build something similar. Manager Willie Randolph has already started the Yankee-ization of the team. He and GM Omar Minaya just might pull this off.

5. Washington Nationals
The Good
You mean, beyond the fact they have a home and actual fans? That, of course, is the biggest difference between last year's Expos and this year's Nationals. The move to DC from Montreal,
San Juan and all points in-between has to be worth a win or two in 2005. On the field the Nats will be marginally better. Livan Hernandez is the one sure thing on the mound. He may never be spectacular, but he's a 200-inning, 15-win workhorse. Behind him is a mix of Esteban Loaiza, Zach Day, Tomo Ohka, Jon Rauch and about a half-dozen others. The one to watch out for is Armas. He’s blessed with a spectacular arm and is about to enter his walk year. If he manages to stay healthy, he could have a big year. The Nationals feature three quality hitters and several question marks. Jose Guillen comes over from the Angels. He’s a power-hitting RF who left Anaheim under a cloud. Despite his year being cut short by suspension, he managed a .849 OPS and 27 HR. Jose Vidro, a longtime Expo and a perennial all-underrated pick, is a switch-hitting 2B who should benefit greatly by leaving Olympic Stadium’s awful turf behind. Brad Wilkerson, who can play anywhere in the OF and 1B, rounds out this troika. He’s far more athletic than he looks, and can hit anywhere from first to sixth in the lineup. While not more than a mediocre hitter, Catcher Brian Schneider deserves mention. He’s considered one of the best defensive Cs in the game.

The Bad
Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman and Esteban Loaiza would make a terrific NRI list, but to give these guys big-money contracts is a, to put it charitably, lousy idea. Castilla, while still and excellent defensive third baseman, is a product of Coors Field. His OPS was nearly .200 points higher in Denver. Guzman is an overrated defensive SS who defines the slap-hitting middle infielder. The Nationals also have questions up and down the line-up. Will Nick Johnson stay healthy enough to play 1B every day? If so, does Wilkerson end up in CF with Termel Sledge in LF or in left with Endy Chavez in center? Sledge is a legitimate hitter with some defensive liabilities, while Chavez is bad at both. The rotation is a mess too. Beyond Hernandez, Armas and possibly Loaiza, the rest are a tossup. The bullpen is better, led by young closer Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala, who managed to lose 12 games despite an ERA under 2.70.

The Bottom Line
The Expos were a team nobody wants to play the last couple years. Despite some trying circumstances and middling talent, manager Frank Robinson has them ready to play every day. They play hard too, and while they usually lose, they do make it difficult for opponents. The trick is to keep that attitude while improving the talent.

Posted by Frinklin at March 7, 2005 10:12 PM

Your review of the Mets is interesting. A few things I disagree with you on

Cameron is better defensively than Beltran? We'll see about that. Cameron makes some spectacular plays, but he was often found wanting in the windy cavern that is Shea's outfield. He misplayed far too many routine plays for my liking. I know he was a defensive stud in the AL, but last year he often looked lost defensively.

I expect Benson will put up very good numbers. And, I think Pedro will go deeper in the game pitching at Shea than he was able to do in Fenway. He will have a roomier outfield and he gets to face the pitcher every 9th batter.

The Mets will finish 3rd.

Posted by: John at March 8, 2005 02:14 AM

well, I'll have to respectfully disagree with your assesment of Mike Cameron. After an entire childhood of watching Ken Griffey Jr. in center, I'd say that Cameron was even better then Jr. in his prime. Maybe it takes him a year to adjust to the winds.

As for the Mets, I would have no difficulty seeing them finish third. Any of the top four in the NL east could finish anywhere 1-4.

Posted by: frinklin at March 8, 2005 07:55 PM

I think Cameron is better than Beltran defensively, but not by such a great stretch that I wouldn't move him to keep Beltran happy.

Posted by: Brian Cronin at March 13, 2005 01:15 AM
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