The Baseball Savant

where sabermetrics & betting collide with our national pasttime

2012 NL East Preview and Predictions

Continuing on with my previews and predictions, I’m staying in the East after having completed the AL East. I’ll stick the same format by listing the teams in alphabetical order and then listing a few key questions I think are relevant for the upcoming season. Lastly I’ll note my predicted order of finish for the division. Good enough! I want to make a quick note about the NL East. The best division in baseball is certainly the AL East. You can argue that the 3 best teams in the East might very well be the 3 best teams in all of baseball which is astounding. I think the Blue Jays could even make a case for being a top-1o or top-12 team in all of baseball which gives the East 4 of the best dozen teams in the land. The NL East isn’t quite that competitive, but it’s getting that way. Atlanta has starting pitching upon starting pitching while the Marlins & Nationals have young players who are poised to take those teams to significant heights. It’s all potential now for those 3 teams, but the NL East should be a blood bath and won’t be an easy walk for early favorite Philadelphia. Even the Mets don’t look as bad as people might think. The most interesting & competitive division in baseball is the AL East in my opinion, but the NL East is a VERY close second. There are reasons to watch every team and it will be hard to sit down on any particular night and not see a very good game being played by a member of the NL East. It should be a truly amazing division in 2012.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Key Questions
1. Can Jason Heyward rebound from an absolutely dreadful sophomore campaign?
2. How will the final season of Chipper Jones’s career look & can he at least stay healthy enough for us to enjoy it?
3. Is this the year Tommy Hanson takes a big leap forward & becomes an unquestioned #1 starter for a playoff team?
4. Wow that rotation is ridiculously young! Can it really compete with the Marlins & Phillies in the East?
5. Can Atlanta’s trio of Latin starters (Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Randall Delgado take a step forward?
6. Will Atlanta’s offense get better to help support a pitching staff that is playoff worthy?

It has been interesting to watch the cycle the Braves have gone through recently. As a kid watching the Braves in the mid to late 80s, they were terrible. Then the 1990s hit and the Braves were dominant making the playoffs in 14 straight seasons (not counting 1994). They were in the World Series 5 times in 8 straight years although they won just one in 1995. Now the Braves have been to the playoffs once in the last 6 years and haven’t won a playoff series since 2001! A big part of the Braves recapturing that dominance is the emergence of Jason Heyward. Heyward bursted onto the scene in 2010 as a 20-year old phenom who posted a 131 OPS+ and was an All-Star. Word was out that Heyward was the next big thing in baseball and it was only a matter of time before he became one of the best if not the best player in the game. Then 2011 happened and things got a little muddy. The season started out promising for Heyward as he hit 263/354/525 in the month of April with 7HR, but it went downhill from there. From May onward Heyward hit 215/308/343 and was even benched at one point by manager Freddi Gonzalez! To make matters worse, Chipper Jones questioned Heyward’s toughness which certainly didn’t help matters. A couple of thoughts here. The first is that sophomore slumps happen. Heyward is only going to be 22-years old meaning he could be at least 5-years away from hitting his prime. Some growing pains are going to occur. The other thought is that Chipper Jones is THE MAN and isn’t giving up on that. If Jones was essentially the guy for the past 10-15 years win the Braves clubhouse then Heyward is going to fulfill that role when Jones is gone. That transfer of power can never be easy and I’m sure Jones believes Heyward has a lot to learn about that leadership position. I wonder if that plays on Heyward’s mind at all? Regardless, the Braves need Heyward to play like he did in 2010 rather than 2011 because things are getting crazy in the NL East!

We now know that this will be Chipper Jones’s last year in a major league uniform. He’s 40-years old this season and he’ll have been a professional baseball player from 1990-2012! That’s 23 years! I would love to see Chipper at full strength this season, but he’s already slated to begin the season on the DL which is unfortunate. To date, Chipper’s triple slash line for his career is 304/402/533 with an OPS+ of 141. I don’t know how many games Chipper is going to play and I know major league baseball players don’t think this way, but for me I really hope that Jones finishes his career with a 300/400/500 line and keeps his OPS+ at least at 140. It will be almost impossible for his batting average to fall below .300. If he gets 400AB this season he’d have to hit .198 to drop his career average to .299. Given Jones’s plate discipline, his OBP% isn’t going below .400 either. With a SLG% at .533 it also seems unlikely it’ll drop below that meaning the 141 OPS+ should be safe. I hope so. The other thing to be concerned about with Chipper is him going out a winner. It’s amazing to think Chipper won a World Series in his rookie year and now 17 years later hasn’t won a single thing. I’m not sure Atlanta has the ability to win a World Series although anything can happen in a short series, but it would be nice to see Chipper lace them up in the postseason one more time.

Along with Heyward, the development of Tommy Hanson is of the utmost importance. Hanson took a step back last season due to injury, but he actually increased his K/9 and decreased his BB/9. He gave up a few too many gopher balls, but some of that is attributable to luck as he gave up a larger than average HR/FB%. Even with Julio Teheran in the system, Hanson is the face of the Braves starting rotation for the future if he can stay healthy. Shoulder tendonitis limited his ability to play in 2011, but his secondary offerings have never been better. At age-25 he needs to take a step forward and regain the momentum he had going into the winter of 2010-2011. If that can happen then the Braves have a starter that can go toe to toe with anyone and puts the rest of the starting rotation in more manageable slots that create mismatches. Jurrjens becomes a #3. Beachy becomes a #4 and Minor becomes a #5. Top to bottom with Tim Hudson at #2, the Braves can match up even with the Phillies, but it all starts with Hanson and his ability to stay healthy & effective.

Speaking of the rotation, currently Tim Hudson (age-36) is expected to begin the year on the DL which means the rotation will be Tommy Hanson (age-25), Jair Jurrjens (age-26), Brandon Beachy (age-25), Mike Minor (age-24), and Randall Delgado (age-22) will comprise the rotation with an average age of 24.4 years of age. The total number of major league innings pitched for those 5 starters is 1477.7IP! Tim Hudson has a total of 2503.3 in his career. That’s over 1,000 more innings! Even with Tim Hudson in the mix, the Braves are throwing out an insanely young rotation that will be expected to compete arm for arm with a grizzled group of veterans in Philadelphia and a fairly experienced staff in Miami. You throw in an underrated staff in New York and a young and dynamic group of hurlers in Washington, and Braves fans definitely have cause for concern about their quintent of starters being able to withstand the assault that will be known as the NL East in 2012. Hanson & Jurrjens have to stay healthy. Can Beachy be as dominant as he was in 2011? Can Minor be as good as he was in the minors? Can Hudson turn in another year like he did in 2011? There is fantastic potential here, but can the Braves convert potential into production?

The Braves almost have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to starting pitching. While some believe (and rightly so) there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, the Braves have their fair share. As a 20-year old last season in AAA, Julio Teheran went 15-3 with a 2.33ERA. He’s slated to go back to Gwinett to start the 2012 season, but he showed there was nothing left for him to prove in the minor leagues. Teheran has #1 starter stuff and now it’s only a question of whether or not he can fulfill that potential at the major league level. As a 20-year old last season Arodys Vizcaino pitched 90 innings between A+/AA ball striking out 92 while walking just 28 and allowing just 6HR. He moved to the bullpen when promoted to AAA where he fanned 8 in 7IP before coming up to Atlanta where he struck out 17 in 17IP. Vizcaino is expected to be in Atlanta’s bullpen to start the season, but could be a mid-rotation starter. Randall Delgado is actually starting the season in the rotation due to Hudson’s injury. While Delgado didn’t have as successful of seasons as Teheran and Vizcaino, he was solid in his own right and found his way into Atlanta where he made 7 starts. It certainly is an incredible problem to have, but if these 3 guys make improvements, then the Braves could have Hudson, Hanson, Jurrjens, Beachy, Minor, Teheran, Vizcaino & Delgado all needing starts at the major league level. All 8 pitchers are at worse #3 starters while 3-4 of them are potential #1 starters.

The last question has to do with Atlanta’s offense. The Braves ranked 10th last year in the NL in runs scored and as much as we like the pitching, you have to score runs to win baseball games. The Braves should know and understand this model, but for whatever reason they’ve had a tough time figuring out how to get impact bats into the lineup. Heyward is supposed to spearhead that growth. So is Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. While the Braves have gotten fantastic returns on McCann and pretty solid results out of Freeman and Heyward, they had to go outside of the organization to grab Dan Uggla to give the offense a bit of punch. The problem is that the offensive output begins and ends with those 4 players. Chipper Jones is 40 and Martin Prado is no replacement. Michael Bourn is a one trick pony out in CF while the Braves have nothing in LF, a position which requires big offensive numbers. Tyler Pastornicky looks to be a fine defensive SS, but he’s not bringing anything to the offense. That’s essentially 5 holes in the lineup for Atlanta which simply won’t do offensively.

MIAMI MARLINS

Key Questions
1. Giving Jose Reyes a huge contract is risky. Can he stay healthy and manage to make the Marlins look good?
2. Hanley Ramirez moves over to 3B after a very disappointing 2011 season. Can he rebound & play the good guy despite the position change?
3. Does Giancarlo Stanton become the most feared power hitters in the major leagues?
4. Josh Johnson has Hall-of-Fame talent, but is the guy ever going to put together a string of healthy seasons to showcase his ability?
5. How will Ozzie Guillen do as the manager of the Marlins?
6. Will south Floridians show up in droves to watch the “new” Miami Marlins in their new ballpark?

Grabbing Jose Reyes as a free agent definitely signifies that the Marlins think they can win now. It makes sense really for them to try and be a competitive team in a new ballpark. Why open a new stadium with a terrible product? Reyes is a big part of that contention plan, but are the Marlins really getting a superstar player? It’s debatable at best. Reyes hasn’t played a full season since 2008 and he’s no longer the defensive player he used to be. While he’ll certainly be an upgrade defensively over Hanley Ramirez who is moving to the hot corner, Reyes must keep his bat in the lineup to give the Marlins the value they were hoping to get when they signed him. Reyes can hit as evidenced by the batting title he won last season with a .337 batting average, but in order to keep himself in the lineup he basically gave up stealing bases in the 2nd half which is also a major part of his game. The Marlins need a 100% healthy Reyes who can stay that way to be competitive. A non-running Jose Reyes is nothing more than a guy relying on BABIP to get his average to .330 without much power. EEK.

From 2007-2009, Hanley Ramirez was making a pretty good case for being potentially the best player in baseball. During those 3 seasons Ramirez averaged a batting line of 325/398/549 with 29HR, 38SB & 85RBI while maintaining an OPS+ of 145! Did I mention he did this while playing shortstop!? Unfortunately Han-Ram couldn’t keep the good times rolling in 2010 as the power went away to a certain degree. It wasn’t all bad though. Ramirez in a disappointing season still posted an OPS+ of “only” 126. Last year Ramirez was marred with injuries as he appeared in only 92 games and hit 243/333/379. Forget the idea that the Marlins are just a team in contention. This is a team who should seriously be challenging the Phillies for NL East supremacy. While Jose Reyes is the big free agent signing and Giancarlo Stanton is the young guy with immense power, Hanley Ramirez is still the most important player on this team that has the potential to hit .330-30-120 with 100R and 30SB! He’s only 28 so don’t be surprised if this guy hasn’t had his “career” year yet.

Stanton is a beast. Last year at the tender age of 21, Stanton hit 36HR on his way to a full season of OPS+ of 141! With Stanton emerging as a gigantic star and possibly the most prolific HR hitter in the NL now that Pujols & Fielder have departed to the American League. I think Stanton is going to be in for an interesting year because he’s not sneaking up on anyone any more. He’s Miami’s legitimate #4 hitter providing protection for Hanley Ramirez. There is no indication that Stanton isn’t the real deal. How many guys have 56HR before they turn 22 years of age? The only real knock on Stanton might be his strikeout rate, but does it really matter if he strikes out 170 times if his OPS+ is in the 140-150 range & he’s bombing 40HR a year? It hardly matters. He’s the face of the franchise for the next 15-years if the Marlins choose to keep him.

As important as Stanton, Ramirez & Reyes might be, the most important guy on the roster might very well be Josh  Johnson. Johnson’s fastball/slider combination is ridiculous and he easily has the stuff of a #1 starter. What he doesn’t have that a #1 starter does is the ability to take the ball every fifth day, make 33-34 starts and log 220IP. Johnson has been in the majors since 2005 and has only had one season where he has surpassed the 200IP mark. It’s interesting really how Johnson comes into the season. Obviously the Marlins would like to have him at 100% every season, but this year is unique for what the Marlins have done to get to where they currently are. They brought in Mark Buehrle & Carlos Zambrano via free agency. Those aren’t HUGE deals, but Buehrle gives the Fish a pitcher who is going to grab 200IP and make his 33 starts. The former White Sox hurler isn’t an ace, but he’s a solid #2/#3 starter. Anibal Sanchez has the stuff to be a top shelf #2 starter if it all comes together. I actually like Ricky Nolasco quite a bit and as a #3/#4 starter he becomes a decent mismatch for the opposition. Zambrano has pitched great this spring and slots in as the #5 starter which certainly takes a lot of pressure off the Big Z. This of course all hinges on Johnson, and his ability to stay healthy.

A huge question for the Marlins this year doesn’t even involve a player, but with the manager. Typically it wouldn’t make a huge difference who the manager is, but when Ozzie Guillen is the manager in question, it’s difficult not to notice. I think Guillen’s biggest challenges this season is keeping Carlos Zambrano on an even keel and also managing the Jose Reyes/Hanley Ramirez situation. So far this spring Zambrano is pitching fantastic and Reyes & Ramirez are saying all the right things. What more can you ask for at this point? We all know Ozzie well enough that there are going to be media gaffes where he starts talking off the cuff and going crazy, but that’s just Ozzie being Ozzie. If he manages Zambrano, Reyes & Ramirez right while making the most of his pitching staff and keeping pressure off Stanton, he’ll have done his job in spades and Miami should be in the playoffs.

The last question might the one with the most importance. The Marlins simply don’t draw well. Some of that is because ownership of the Marlins is a joke at best and downright insulting at worst. Now the Marlins have switched from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins and now have a new ballpark in Marlins Park. It’s not just the new ballpark either. The Marlins are built to win now, and the questions will start to manifest about whether or not baseball is viable in Miami should the locals fail to show up with a very nice product on the field. As a traditionalist I sort of like the idea of baseball in Florida only being there throughout spring training, but Miami is the 5th biggest urban area in the nation, being smaller than only New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. Each of those markets save Philly has not just one baseball team, but rather two! The Marlins are definitely one of the most intersting teams in all the majors this year. The everyday players are worth watching every day out. If Josh Johnson stays healthy then really there is a 5-man rotation that is worth watching every day as well. If Miamians choose to ignore this team, then I think it’s more damning for the ownership rather than the onfield product. Even with all the stuff going on at field level, the most interesting question might be the fans who actually fill up the new stadium.

NEW YORK METS

Key Questions
1. How will David Wright fare now that the fences have been moved in, and will he remain a Met at the trade deadline?
2. Will Lucas Duda & Ike Davis emerge as the new power hitting building blocks of a future competitive Mets squad?
3. What will Johan Santana look like? Can he remain healthy for an entire season & give the Mets 30+ starts?
4. Will Matt Harvey & Zack Wheeler take steps forward this year to give us a glimpse of a future 1-2 punch at the top of the Mets rotation?

The Mets are a mess and basically have no shot at winning what is becoming an absurdly competitive division rivaling that of their AL counterpart. GM Sandy Alderson knows this and is thus making moves to allow the Mets to be competitive down the road in 2014 and beyond which is why David Wright is the first key question. Wright is going to be 29 years old which certainly isn’t young, but it is his prime years. The Mets have a club option on him for 2013 that goes away if he is traded meaning trading Wright in 2012 doesn’t allow a potential trade partner the luxury of having Wright in 2013 for a full season should they trade for him. Already the best 3B in Mets history, Wright has been statistically damaged by the move to Citi Field. For his career, Wright hit 318/403/555 at Shea Stadium compared to his 279/377/449 line at Citi Field. His HR rate at Shea was a bomb every 21.3PA. At Citi Field it’s a homer every 38.2PA! His BABIP at Citi Field is actually better than it was at Shea so the only thing really differenct for him is the power outage over the last 3 seasons. What is a bit interesting is that Wright’s strike rate has dramatically increased. At Shea Stadium, Wright struck out in 14.5% of his plate appearances. At Citi Field that number increases to 21.3%. That’s a 50% increase which makes you wonder if Wright sees the ball worse in his new digs. Moving the fences in may help, but the real issue here is if they do help, what happens with Wright? It makes sense for the Mets to trade him if he does a great job with the fences in. He’ll become a very expensive proposition in 2014 or even 2013 when he becomes a free agent. Typically the Mets would be resourceful enough to dole out big bucks for their franchise player, but maybe that isn’t going to happen. Wright has certainly fallen on hard times, but if he bounces back to form because of the fences then don’t the Mets have to keep him?

Speaking of franchise players, Ike Davis is a sexy pick to become a 30+HR monster for the Mets this year due to the adjustment with the fences. Davis had a solid rookie campaign in 2010 when he hit 264/351/440 with 19HR and an OPS+ of 115. A stellar season for his first go around in a major league uniform. Last year Davis was absolutely mashing to the tune of 302/383/543 before injuries derailed his season and limited him to just 36 games. His OPS+ was 155 during this time period and projected over 150 games, Davis was on pace to hit 30HR with 104RBI. Given the struggles of David Wright, Ike Davis might have been the new “it” player for the Mets had he been able to keep pace without injury. That projection is what has people so excited about Davis’s potential in 2012. If Davis could hit 30HR in the Citi Field with the fences moved back, what is he going to do with the fences moved in? The same is being contemplated for Lucas Duda. Duda started the season down in AAA where he destroyed International League pitching to the tune of 302/414/597 before being called up to Queens and then hitting 292/370/482 in 100 games. A monster at 6’4/255lbs, Duda can hit for power, but has pretty good patience at the plate. His swing can get long at times which is typical for long guys like him, but he’s another 30HR guy waiting to happen for the Mets. Seeing how Duda & Davis do with the spotlight on them is potentially the most intriguing question the Mets face in 2012. These are guys that can certainly be building blocks on the next competitive Mets team. If Wright gets back to the form he had at Shea Stadium, then the Mets have a middle of the order that can compete with anyone.

We all know Johan Santana isn’t ever going to be what he once was, but according to FIP he hasn’t been that kind of pitcher since 2006 and he still put up Cy Young worthy numbers in 2007 and 2008. Santana doesn’t have to be what he was in his prime with the Twins, but if he can get back to the sort of pitcher who doesn’t walk hitters and is stingy with the gopher ball then the Mets will have found themselves a very good #2 starter which isn’t all that easy to find. The intriguing thing about Santana is much the same as it is with Wright, which is whether or not the Mets can flip him for anything? New York is on the hook for Santana for at least $54.5 million dollars for the next two seasons meaning it’s a contract that simply isn’t going away. Santana has a buyout for 2014 at $5.5 million which the Mets will almost certainly exercise, but you wonder if the Mets could get a couple of pieces in return in a trade if it agreed to eat a significant part of Santana’s deal? It all might be beside the point. The NL East is a funny division in that while it might be ultra competitive with the top-4 spots, the Mets aren’t completely out of it. The Phillies are an aging team and it’s not out of the realm of possibility for their hitting to implode. The Nationals are on the come, but still a bit too young in the rotation and potentially a few injuries away in the lineup to be competitive. The Braves rotation is filled by a bunch of guys not even 25 years of age yet and the hitting could be in the tank should Jason Heyward continue to crash. That leaves Miami who is led by manager Ozzie Guillen. Need I say more? That will be a high wire act all season long. A healthy Santana combined with Wright, Davis & Duda hitting like gangbusters along with a solid backend rotation and a stingy bullpen could make the Mets good enough to make noise this season. When you have that many “ifs” not all of them are going to go down, but while it’s fun to think of trading Wright & Santana for the future of the ballclub, there is much to be excited about right now.

As to that future, Zack Wheeler & Matt Harvey might be the two most important pieces. The Mets absolutely STOLE Wheeler from the Giants in the Carlos Beltran trade. The 21-year old averaged 10.1K/9 in high-A last season and was extremely stingy with the HR ball. At 6’4/190lbs, Wheeler can still fill out some and his fastball already sits in the mid-90s. He’s got a plus curve ball and fringy changeup. He still needs to refine his command/control, but even with average command he’s a #2 starter if he can navigate the injury gauntlet. Wheeler also introduced a cutter/slider in 2011 giving him a 4th option in his arsenal. Harvey, a University of North Carolina product, was a 1st round pick in 2010 but made his professional debut in 2011. It was worth the wait. Like Wheeler, Harvey is 6’4, but filled out at 225-230lbs. Harvey is practically the same pitcher as Wheeler except he throws a slider instead of a curve. He doesn’t really throw a change up at all, but the development of that pitch and better command is all that stands between him and top of the rotation material. With Wheeler & Harvey the Mets have the top of their rotation of the future if the picks work out. This is why baseball is such a cruel game. If these two guys pitch to their potential then the Mets become a dangerous team as early as 2014. If they don’t then it’s almost back to the drawing board with out elite starters at the top end of your rotation.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Key Questions
1. How much longer can this team hold it together despite a rapid aging process?
2. Are Vance Worley’s 2011 abilities sustainable?
3. Will the Phillies be able to get anything out of LF this season?
4. Will Cole Hamels be a Phillie for the foreseeable future?
5. Is it time to deal Chase Utley?

The Phillies questions are more vague than anything because they are a team contending for a World Series title and anything less than a ring is going to be a disappointment. This of course transitions well into key question #1 which is how much longer can this aging group of players hold it together? The only player in the starting lineup younger than 30 this season is Hunter Pence who will be 29-years old. The entire rotation is 30+ except for Vance Worley who will be just 24 and Cole Hamels who will be 28. Even the bench is old with guys like Jim Thome (41), Juan Pierre (34), Laynce Nix (31), Pete Orr (33) and Brian Schneider (35)! It certainly seems like Roy Halladay & Cliff Lee can pitch forever but Halladay is 35 this season while Lee is 33. Nothing truly lasts forever. It took Greg Maddux until he was 37 to start faltering, but it did happen. This isn’t to say that the Phillies are in danger of falling completely off the map, but Ryan Howard is already starting the year on the DL. Chase Utley hasn’t played a full season since 2009. Jimmy Rollins missed 20 games last season and half a year in 2010. The cracks are certainly starting to show and with injuries come decreases in output. The Phillies ranked 7th in the NL in runs scored last season. When they won the World Series in 2008 they ranked 2nd. In 2009 when they lost the World Series they ranked 1st. It’s premature to put Philly out to pasture, but the window is closing and if the offense continues its descent into the bottom tier of NL offenses, then all Philadelphia really becomes is San Francisco playing in a much less forgiving division.

With all the age questions swirling around the Phillies, Vance Worley’s breakout in 2011 was a welcomed youthful surprise. While he probably wasn’t as good as his 11-3 record might indicate, Worley certainly has a skill set that is very good and one that shows that this breakout in 2011 is sustainable. Worley isn’t an overpowering pitcher but he has always had good control/command with his fastball/slider combination. He’s somewhat of a junkball pitcher with a fastball sitting around 90mph which is below average for a right handed pitcher. Then again, he’s stingy where it counts. Pitching is simple and hard at the same time. It’s rare that a pitcher is truly elite in that he can simply overpower hitters on a continual basis. They aren’t major league hitters for nothing, BUT the simplicity in pitching is making sure you don’t issue walks and keep the ball in the yard. If you do those two things you’ll almost always be pretty darn successful. It’s simple in theory, but it’s extremely difficult in action. Worley was able to do this in 2011 for the Phillies. Did Worley get a little lucky with his BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB% last season? Absolutely, but those things need to happen in series for a pitcher to go 11-3. Keep in mind that Worley’s FIP was 3.32 and his xFIP was 3.66. Those are still pretty solid numbers for a guy expected to be Philadelphia’s #5 starter! Worley is a backend starter right now and although he doesn’t throw 95mph, let’s not forget his K/9 last year was 8+. As long as Halladay, Lee & Hamels are in Philly, he’ll never rise above his 4th starter status, but if he can make 32 starts and throw 200IP keeping his K/9 at 8+ then how is he not a #2 starter in the making pitching from the backend? It’ll be interesting to see if Worley can make the jump now that the NL is well aware of his prowess.

Key Question #3 is a trick question! Last season 40-year old Raul Ibanez actually posted a WAR of -1.3! That means the Phillies were paying a guy $12+ million to actually make them worse! The question isn’t whether or not the Phillies can get anything out of the LF position, it’s whether or not the Phillies can get ABSOLUTELY NOTHING out of LF! If they got a LF who posted nothing but replacement level numbers, they’d actually improve in 2012! As it stands right now the Phillies are probably going to go with some sort of odd platoon system in LF with John Mayberry, Juan Pierre and Laynce Nix. Oddly enough Pierre actually posted a negative WAR for the White Sox too in 2011! Pierre has a weird voo doo about him though that makes managers want to play him. Even Charlie Manuel has said Pierre might become more than just a 5th outfielder. There really is no justifiable reason to play Pierre. Sure he can steal bases, but he’s not very good at getting on base and he has an odd reverse split where he actually hits lefties better. Nix can actually hit with some power against righties, but he can’t get on base to save his life and he can’t hit lefties either. John Mayberry is the logical choice here. He hammered lefties last season and wasn’t too bad against RHP either. Plus he’s the youngest of the bunch and you can make a case he’ll get better against RHP the more he sees them. Mayberry is a former 1st round draft pick and used to be a pretty good prospect when he was with the Rangers organization. He could definitely be an under the radar type of player for the Phillies this season if Philadelphia gives him a chance to play everyday. As long as he’s better than Raul Ibanez was last season, the Phillies will come out ahead. It will be intersting to see if Mayberry really is given a chance to succeed or will Juan Pierre’s crazy Jedi-mind tricks work on Manuel to insert him into the starting lineup the first time Mayberry goes 0 for 4.

The subject of Cole Hamels contract status has already come up and it’s bound to keep resurfacing this season. Hamels is a free agent after the season meaning he’s hitting the market. The Phillies have no room to trade the guy if they are intent on trying to win a World Series so either they are going to try to get something done during the season or they are going to risk him going to the open market. If we are looking at this past winter’s free agent signings, then you can look at LA’s signing of CJ Wilson to a 5-year/$77.5MM deal as a barometer. Hamels will hit the free agent market at age-29 while Wilson was 31. Hamels is making $15MM now, and he’ll certainly want a raise. Note that Roy Halladay is making $20MM while Cliff Lee is making $21.5MM. Let’s assume Hamels wants $18MM over 7 years given his age. That’s a 7-year/$126MM deal. The years are crazy and Philadelphia wants to stay in the 4-years/$80-$85MM range which would put Hamels’s annual rate over $20MM/year, but as with any player Hamels would like to have more years on the deal. Clearly the Phillies are going do everything in their power to keep Hamels. Halladay & Lee are aging and there is no question that Hamels is a #1 starter. Keeping him away from potential rivals is another reason why Philly should be aiming to keep the lefty. The Yankees & Dodgers loom large as teams who could snag Hamels and I wouldn’t’ even count out teams like the Cubs, Mets, Cardinals and Red Sox as potential players. I don’t expect any drama here, but it’ll be interesting to watch unfold.

While the Phillies shouldn’t entertain thoughts of trading Cole Hamels, can the same be said of Chase Utley? Keystone players take a beating and once they get over a certain age their bodies begin to break down rapidly. This hasn’t been any different for Chase Utley. Utley had an incredible run from 2005-2009, but from 2010-2011 things have not gone the way Philly fans would have hoped. The Phillies are on the hook for Utley through 2013. He’s a great hitter and a superior defender so if he can play in 100-120 games he’s worth every penny the Phillie are paying him. What makes things difficult is knowing that Utley will be 35 when he becomes a free agent meaning the Phillies have to resign for significantly less money or Utley will take his injury laden talents to a team willing to risk sizable money on him. As Branch Rickey used to say you always want to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. If Utley is back to form the Phillies are probably no different without him in the lineup considering you have to figure he’ll miss a quarter of the season anyway. Do you maximize his trade value or keep him and let him play in 2013 before beginning to contemplate dealing him when his value will be decreased by being another year older? Of course the Phillies could ride the Utley Express until his contract expires. It’s always difficult to gauge how to maximize value with a player this good on a team he means so much to while trying to win a World Series championship. The Utley story lines are just beginning and should be fascinating.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Key Questions
1. Can the Nationals expect big time production from both Jayson Werth & Adam LaRoche after disappointing 2011 seasons?
2. Is Mike Morse for real?
3. How long before Bryce Harper is a fixture in the Washington outfield?
4. Ryan Zimmerman is an MVP caliber type of player. Isn’t it time for him to start playing like it?
5. Can anyone bat leadoff for this team?
6. Can Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman establish themselves as a 1-2 punch that can go toe-to-toe with any other duo in major league baseball?

The Nationals ranked 12th in the senior circuit in runs last year, but that certainly wasn’t the goal heading into the season. While Washington was going to have their problems heading into the season with the pitching staff, the additions of Adam LaRoche & Jayson Werth hoped to bolster an offense that should have been pretty good. While LaRoche’s injury did open the door for Mike Morse to a certain extent, the Nationals would love for LaRoche to get back to his 30HR ways in 2012. Ditto that for Jayson Werth who averaged about a 130 OPS+ in his previous 4 seasons before turning in a 97 OPS+ season in 2011. There is nothing to suggest LaRoche can’t bounce back. Before being derailed by injury, LaRoche was posting the best walk rate of his career although he was being abused by BABIP. LaRoche had also cut way down on his strikeouts. The BABIP would have eventually came around if a full season would have been played, and now LaRoche will get to continue what he started in 2011 while the Nationals hope those superficial gains early on the season were a sign of bigger things to come. Werth’s complete lack of power production is a little more perplexing. He hit a lot more groundballs than normal and his HR/FB% went down even with a big decrease in fly balls. That compounds disaster, but outside of that and getting screwed by BABIP, there isn’t much to see with Werth that could be seen as a trend demarcating future disappointment. Werth is 33-years old this season so he’s out of his prime years, but a decent sized bounce back could easily be expected. The Nationals have power all over the starting lineup, but it’ll be interesting to see if LaRoche & Werth bounce back seeing how big a part of the lineup both men are.

It’s been a long winding road for Morse who came into the White Sox organization as a SS, but simply outgrew the position. Morse came into his power potential later on, but sort of stalled in the minors because he didn’t do all that much in his call ups to the majors. Last season he got a taste of full time work and made the most of his opportunities by hitting 303/360/550 with 31HR & 95RBI! Morse doesn’t walk all that much so he needs to make contact and keep his BABIP up in order to maintain that .300 batting average. Because his ISO OBP% is only around 50, he can’t let his average slip into the .275-.280 range or else his SLG% will have to carry him entirely because his OBP% will be in the .320s. That’s not bad if he hits 30HR a year, but it’s not as valuable as his 2011 season. You could certainly argue that his BABIP or HR/FB% might come down a little bit in 2012 causing some regression, but for the most part there is nothing that stands out which would cause concern for Morse going forward. He’s a late starter and he’ll already be 30 this season. Scheduled to start the year on the DL, age & injuries could ruin his career before it even gets started, but if he can log in 140 games in 2012, I don’t see why his production would fall off that much. Washington might as well squeeze him for all he’s worth while he still has it!

Last year at the age of 18, Bryce Harper absolutely destroyed Low-A ball in the South Atlanta League. The average age of a hitter in the Sally League was 21.4 years. Harper was 3.4 years younger than average! The Nationals were pretty aggressive with his promotion, sending him to Harrisburg, Washington’s AA affiliate in the Eastern League. The average age of a hitter in the Eastern League was 24.3, which means Harper was over 6-years younger than the average player in AA! That’s RIDICULOUS. Harper struggled against advanced pitching though with a 256/329/395 line in 37 games for Harrisburg. Seeing that he’ll just be 19-years old in 2012, it would make some sense to put Harper back in AA or even High-A Potomac, but it appears that the Nationals will start the season with Harper down in Syracuse at AAA. If Harper dominates AAA pitching then it won’t be long before Harper is in the starting lineup in Nationals Park. With Morse & Werth in the OF, bringing in Harper could complete a dynamic outfield, but I’d tread carefully if I was Washington. The odds are pretty long you’ll win a division in 2012 so why start Harper’s service time when it’s completely justifiable to let him sit in the minors for an entire season? Maybe Harper is ready. Maybe he’s not, but watching how Washington handles him will be one of the if not the most important dramas in baseball this season.

Ryan Zimmerman struggled with injuries last season, but is supposedly 100% healthy going into 2012. With Stephen Strasburg & Bryce Harper on the way, Zimmerman was barely the face of the franchise before he wasn’t. Now, nobody thinks of Zimmerman when they think of the Nationals, although he’s a definite MVP candidate if he can consolidate all of his tools into a single season. It’s easy to forget that Zimmerman got to the majors at the age of 20 and he’ll only be 27 years old this season meaning by some metrics, he’s only just about to enter into his “prime.” When he’s working right, Zimmerman is a .300 hitter with 35HR capacity with the ability to score 100 runs and drive in 120. That’s before he entered his peak! There is still a career year out there for Zimmerman if he can avoid the DL and put it all together. He has the capacity to be Evan Longoria with the bat, but play much better defense which would make him hands down the best 3B in the major leagues. Lost in all the Strasburg/Harper talk is that Zimmerman is an 8-9 win guy in the making which would clearly make him an MVP candidate. The question remains is whether or not Zimmerman can have those career years as he grows into his prime baseball playing years? The Nationals are closer than people realize and it’ll be Zimmerman’s name on the MVP ballot that takes them to the top of the NL East. The fun is watching if/when he can make it happen.

Lineup construction we are told by sabrmetrics isn’t that important, but there has to be some benefit to constructing a lineup that maximizes value. Maybe it’s not as much value as we might think it merits, but value nonetheless. The Nationals are a good example of this. While they have oodles of power at C, 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF, they don’t have anyone to drive in. Does it make a lot of sense for Mike Morse to hit leadoff if you know he’s going to hit 30HR? That’s probably a lot of solo HR that don’t have maximized value. Don Mattingly had an incredible year in 1985 when he had 145RBI, but let’s not forget that Ricky Henderson and his .419 OBP% was leading off that year or that Willie Randolph and his .382 OBP% hit in the 2nd spot frequently while Donnie Baseball hit 3rd. With the power the Nationals have at 6 of the 8 positions, that only leaves Ian Desmond at SS and Roger Bernadina at CF to drive runs in. Last season Desmond’s OBP% was .298. Bernadina’s was .301. If you want to stick Bernadina & Desmond at the bottom of the lineup then you are looking at making a 3rd of your batting order automatic outs, but what choice does Davey Johnson really have? It’ll be interesting to see if he turns to Jayson Werth as a potential leadoff hitter. Werth is a great basestealer, albeit not in mass volumes, and has good plate discipline. Sure he’ll potentially hit 25HR from the leadoff spot, but the Nationals have to find a table setter from somewhere don’t they?

Like the Mets with Zack Wheeler & Matt Harvey, the Nationals are very dependent upon the development of Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg. We all know about Strasburg. The kid is a BEAST and if he’s 100% healthy and can make 33 starts and throw 230IP then he’s the best pitcher in the majors. End of story. But Strasburg is going to be 23-years old and has already had Tommy John surgery. Surgeries on elbows aren’t what they used to be and Strasburg picked up right where he left off last season when he made 5 starts at the end of the year. Who knows what lies ahead for the guy though? He’s absolutely filthy on the mound and there is nothing keeping him from Cooperstown except his health. It will be fascinating to watch how the Nationals handle him. You’d like to think powers that be would handle both Strasburg and Harper with kid gloves, but Strasburg is the type of pitcher that can put a team on his back and win a championship. Harper is the same way except he’s a hitter. It’s hard not to pull the trigger on THAT MUCH talent. What’s weird is that Jordan Zimmerman is worthy of Cy Young awards as well yet is sort of forgotten about amidst the Strasburg hype. Zimmerman has a low to mid-90s fastball with exquisite control who is absolutely stingy with the gopher ball. Zimmerman’s slider was a real outpitch in 2011 and the more he refines his approach the more striekouts the guy is going to rack up at the major league level. The National League has shown that you need a dynamite front rotation to compete. Zimmerman & Strasburg can make that happen for Washington, but they are both still very young and have to show they can do it over a full season. I know attendance has been down at Nationals Park recently, but when #37 and #27 are on the mound, that place should be sold out!

PREDICTIONS

1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Miami Marlins
3. Washington Nationals
4. Atlanta Braves
5. New York Mets

The Phillies have too much starting pitching to bet against, and even with the hitters starting to decline, I think the emergence of John Mayberry & Hunter Pence give them more than enough to hold off the up and coming teams such as Miami & Washington. The Marlins youthful offense really gets going and Hanley Ramirez gets back to MVP form which will combine with just enough pitching to make the Marlins wildly successful in their new ballpark and challenge Philadelphia. Washington will finish 3rd which is better than 2011, but 2012 will be more of a consolidation year for guys like Harper, Strasburg and Zimmerman before the Nationals make a big push to become the new big dogs of the NL East in 2013. It kills me to predict Atlanta finishing 4th, but that lineup is brutal and if Heyward doesn’t come back full circle then Atlanta’s best hitter might very well be Dan Uggla or Brian McCann which a contender does not make. The Mets could be better than people think if guys like David Wright & Jason Bay hit better while Lucas Duda & Ike Davis grow into power hitters, but the overall sum of the parts isn’t there yet and the NL East just gets tougher and tougher.

April 2, 2012 Posted by | Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, N.L. East, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Previews, Washington Nationals | Leave a comment