New York Mets
The Phillies need Chase Utley, who is coming off hip surgery, to return quickly in order to remain on top.
Location: Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 Record: 89-73 (2nd, NL East)
Winter grade: A-
The bullpen was the worm in the Mets' apple the last two seasons, and they immediately set out to fix that weakness. The Mets added not only single-season saves record-holder Francisco Rodriguez to be their closer, but also former All-Star closer J.J. Putz as their new primary setup man. They also dumped seven members of the bullpen that may well have cost them the last two NL East titles, including Joe Smith, Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis, who in a combined 173 games had an 11-17 record and 4.17 ERA in '08. In addition, they kept Oliver Perez to bolster their rotation and signed Freddy Garcia and Tim Redding to compete for the fifth spot.
Key question: Is Johan Santana healthy?
Lost in all the hand-wringing over the bullpen's implosion and the team's second-straight collapse was the news that ace Johan Santana had surgery shortly after the season ended to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee that he pitched with late in the season. Santana just resumed throwing last week, and in an effort to lessen his workload, he will not pitch in the World Baseball Classic. He should be ready for Opening Day, but his workload and repaired knee will be carefully monitored throughout camp. Santana is a notoriously slow starter anyway, but he generally uses the first half to prep himself for an otherworldly second half; if he's not ready, or not effective, in the first half, the Mets may be out of contention by the time he's healthy again.
Prospect to watch: Fernando Martinez, OF
The Mets did not get Bobby Abreu and have said they are not in the running for Manny Ramirez. That could just mean they're content with the unremarkable corner outfielders they have now (Fernando Tatis, Nick Evans, Daniel Murphy) or it could mean they're just biding time until Martinez is ready. Keeping him out of the Santana trade last winter was seen as a coup, and Martinez played well at Double A in '08, but he left the Caribbean Series because of a sore right elbow this month and has since been shut down. If he's healthy, his development will be worth keeping an eye on.
Position battle to follow: Second base
Incumbent Luis Castillo provided almost no offense (.245 average, .305 slugging, 11 extra-base hits in 298 at-bats) in an injury-riddled 2008 campaign, yet now there are rumblings that he could be the leadoff hitter. The Mets signed veteran Alex Cora, who has about as much punch at the plate as Castillo but less speed and defense. Orlando Hudson remains available on the free-agent market, but GM Omar Minaya has given no indication lately that he is on the Mets' radar.
Scout's take: "The bullpen is fixed now, and they have an ace closer. One of the best moves they made was trading for J.J. Putz. K-Rod's arm is going to fall off at some point, the question is when. Putz, if he's healthy, can be as good as K-Rod. The real question is starting pitching. John Maine is coming back from arm problems, Mike Pelfrey's got to prove himself again. Maine, Perez and Pelfrey will have to go out there and win 45 games. The outfield is a big question, especially left field. Is Daniel Murphy the real deal? Nobody knows. There's a gaping hole out there production wise in left field and right field. [Carlos] Delgado for half a year was ready to get released, second half he's dynamite. Which one is he? If he puts up a 25 [HRs] and 75 [RBIs], the Phillies win the division. He's got to be a 30-plus guy."
Location: Clearwater, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 92-70 (1st, NL East); Won World Series
Winter grade: B+
The biggest move for Philly this winter didn't come on the field but in the executive suite, where general manager Pat Gillick, the prime architect behind the Phillies' first world title since 1980 retired. Ruben Amaro Jr., formerly an assistant GM, took over and set about fixing the few trouble spots. His most notable moves were allowing Pat Burrell to go to Tampa Bay and importing 36-year-old Raul Ibanez, baseball's Benjamin Button, with a three-year contract to take over in left. Ageless Jamie Moyer was retained for two more seasons to stabilize the rotation, and Chan Ho Park was added to provide rotation depth and middle relief help. Not to mention the Phils locked up Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard at very reasonable rates.
Key question: How long will Chase Utley be out?
Utley had hip surgery on Nov. 24 but has not given up being back by Opening Day, a slightly ambitious date given his original 4-6 month timetable for recovery. Putting aside the question of how productive he'll be once he returns, the Phillies instead will have to come up with a suitable understudy to keep the position warm for their All-Star. Utilityman Eric Bruntlett has played just five games at second the past two seasons, and Jason Donald is a prospect at short, so the club signed 30-year-old Marcus Giles, a former All-Star who didn't play at all in 2008, to a minor league deal in hopes of stemming the tide until Utley's return.
Prospect to watch: Lou Marson, C
Carlos Ruiz was the surprise of the World Series (.300/.500/.688), Chris Coste is a serviceable backup and the Phillies brought in ex-Pirate Ronny Paulino, but none of those players is doing anything but holding the job until Marson is ready for it. Marson, 22, batted .314 at Class AA Reading, then hit .308 for Team USA at the Olympics. He got a sip of his cup of coffee in the majors, going 2-for-4 with a home run in his only game.
Position battle to follow: No. 5 starter
Not surprisingly, the world champs don't have many unset spots this spring, but the last spot in the rotation is one of them. J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick, Chan Ho Park and Carlos Carrasco will all be in the running to join Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton in the rotation. Kendrick, who had the spot last year but bombed out and finished 11-9 with a 5.49 ERA, is in the lead right now, but must add another pitch to his sinker-slider repertoire to lock it down for good.
Scout's take: "Their grit is the reason they won the World Series last year. They have a lot of players who play hard and they're very solid lineup wise. Their big problem this year is that everything broke right for them last year and it's hard to do that two years in a row. For instance, J.C. Romero's [50-game] suspension will hurt them, because now they have to replace that left-hander in the bullpen, and I don't think anybody can expect closer Brad Lidge to be perfect again. They'll have a tough time replacing Pat Burrell. Raul Ibanez may do that, but it's a very left-handed club as it is and Burrell was a key player in the first half for them last year. Cole Hamels may not be at a Johan Santana level, but he is ace material now. They're the favorites in the division."
Location: Viera, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 59-102 (5th, NL East)
Winter grade: C+
To a young and mostly anonymous team, the Nationals signed a productive veteran who instantly becomes the best hitter in their lineup. Adam Dunn, who has had five straight 40-homer seasons, inked a reasonable two-year, $20 million contract to boost an offense that didn't have anyone top 14 home runs or 61 RBIs last year. Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen are talented, if unproven, pitchers who came at little cost and will both have a shot at being the ace of a rotation that only had one pitcher with 10 wins last season (the since-departed Tim Redding).
Key question: How good will Adam Dunn be in the middle of their lineup?
There is little to no protection for Dunn in the Nationals lineup, and therefore little to no reason for anyone to pitch to him. Additionally, he'll be trying to adjust to a new position -- first base, which he's never played full-time and had just 19 games at last year -- and a new stadium. Nationals Park is an improvement over RFK Stadium, where the Nats played from 2005-07 (from dead-last in HRs by Park Factor in '07 to 16th in '08), but it's still far from Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, where Dunn thrived for most of his career. The Nationals need Dunn to be consistent, because there's no guarantee that anyone else in that lineup will be.
Prospect to watch: Jordan Zimmerman, SP
Zimmerman, a 22-year-old righty, was a second-round pick in 2007. He had a stellar 2008 campaign, split between high A ball and Class AA, topping the organization's minor leaguers in both ERA (2.88) and strikeouts (134). He is likely to spend most of his time at Triple A, but could reach the majors this season.
Position Battle to Watch: Outfield
The Nationals have a glut of outfielders, none of them remarkable, but all of good enough to play every day: Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge, Josh Willingham and Willie Harris. Harris (140 games), Milledge (138) and Kearns (86) received the bulk of the playing time a year ago, but Dukes posted equal or better numbers than all of them, and did so in just 81 games and 276 at-bats. Milledge seems a lock for center, and when the newly-acquired Willingham is fully healthy (he had back problems last year) he'll compete for time in left. Harris is the most versatile, having played second, shortstop and third, so he could see time at middle infield to help alleviate the logjam, leaving Kearns as potentially the odd man out.
Scout's take: "They'll be more interesting to watch than they were last year, but they have to have a lot of their young guys keep maturing. Their pitching staff is a bunch of [fifth starters]. Olsen is an innings guy, fourth starter, fifth starter. Cabrera has ability, but he's been going backward. Nobody's been able to figure him out yet. He's an Oliver Perez-y type because you never know what you'll get from start to start. At least Oliver's had some success. Dunn will put up the same numbers he usually does offensively but I want to see where they'll play him. They're talking about first base but there's nothing there with the glove. You can pencil them in for fifth. They should just try and avoid 100 losses."
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