NL East Hot Stove preview: Phillies, Braves both need more offense
Philadelphia's pitching staff was outstanding but Ryan Howard's injury hurts
Atlanta can't afford to waste another strong season by its pitching staff
Washington must decide how aggressive it wants to be on the free-agent market
This week, SI.com will analyze the offseason plans for each team in a division-by-division format. Wednesday will preview the National League and Thursday the American League. Teams are listed in order of finish in 2011.
2011 Results: 102-60, first place in NL East, lost in NLDS
Pythagorean Record: 104-58
Pending Free Agents: 1B Ross Gload, LF, Raul Ibaņez, P Brad Lidge, P Ryan Madson, P Roy Oswalt, SS, Jimmy Rollins, C Brian Schneider
Prospects on the Verge: P Justin de Fratus, P Philippe Aumont.
Building For: A World Series championship, nothing less.
Strengths: Starting rotation, manager.
Biggest Holes: Leftfield, shortstop (pending Rollins), bullpen.
Targets: Own free agents, starting with Rollins.
The Plan: Whatever plan the Phillies had for 2012 was thrown into chaos on the final pitch of their 2011 season, when Ryan Howard blew out his left Achilles' tendon running to first base in Game 5 of their NLDS loss to the Cardinals. The Phillies, who owe Howard $25 million next year, won't know for a while how much they can get from their cleanup hitter -- both in terms of playing time and performance -- until well into next season. That increases the pressure to fill the other potential lineup hole -- shortstop, where stalwart Rollins is a free agent -- given that there were already questions about the Phillies' offense. Age took its toll last season, as Carlos Ruiz (who will be 33 next year), Placido Polanco (36) and Chase Utley (33) all showed signs of decline. Sophomore Domonic Brown has to replace Ibaņez in left and do better than his .245/.333/.391 line, and if the team can't re-sign Rollins, who has intimated that he wants a five-year deal, pickings are very slim at shortstop.
The offense has to be better next season, because it would be hard for the pitching to improve. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combined for 95 starts, 682 innings and a 2.51 ERA. Vance Worley stepped in for Joe Blanton and exceeded anything Blanton has ever done. A bullpen full of live-armed no-names was an asset all season long. The Phillies' pitching was the best single unit in baseball, and has almost nowhere to go but down. Oswalt may or may not be back -- the team declined his $16 million option but is open to re-signing him -- but it's hard to project a better collective performance from the top three, Worley and the bullpen.
So the Phillies may have to bite the bullet and re-sign Rollins, who hasn't been a star since 2008, to a deal that has a dangerous back end. They'll want to lay in some help on the corners to insure against Howard's return and Polanco's continued decline -- Wilson Betemit and Kelly Johnson might be interesting in this role. John Mayberry Jr. may be important to next year's team as a fourth outfielder who gets nearly-regular playing time platooning with Brown and spelling Shane Victorino at center and Howard at first. The Phillies' payroll is high enough, and the market thin enough once you get past the positions where the Phillies are strongest, that this may not be a year of big moves. The Phillies have committed to their current roster, so it's about putting players around the core who can do a better job of scoring than the '11 team did. Without Howard, this team is vulnerable.
2011 Results: 89-73
Pythagorean Record: 86-76
Pending Free Agents: SS Alex Gonzalez, P Scott Linebrink, OF Nate McLouth, P George Sherrill, SS Jack Wilson
Prospects on the Verge: P Randall Delgado, P Julio Teheran, P Arodys Vizcaino, SS Tyler Pastornicky
Building For: An imminent divisional dynasty
Strengths: Starting pitching, and lots of it. Young LH hitters.
Biggest Holes: Left field, third base pending Chipper Jones' future, shortstop. Offense in general.
Targets: Bats in trade, using pitching as bait.
The Plan: The Braves kicked off the offseason by trading Derek Lowe to the Indians for the right to not pay him his entire salary next year. Lowe, who looked like he might be done during his 9-17, 5.05 ERA season last year, was maybe the Braves' ninth-best starting pitcher heading into the Hot Stove League, and he will not be missed. The Braves save $5 million in the deal, an amount unlikely to have an impact on their 2012 plans, if past moves of a similar nature are any indication. What has killed the Braves in recent seasons is an offense not good enough to support a great pitching staff, and in particular, a failure to assemble major league outfields. The Braves have to commit, this winter, to adding a leftfielder who can bat in the top half of the order, to go with midseason pickup Michael Bourn and holdovers Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward as the core of a championship-caliber lineup.
They can do that by trade or by free agency, but it means the team's owners, Liberty Media, has to be willing to spend money. The best corner outfielders available on the market are Jason Kubel, Carlos Beltran and Michael Cuddyer. Beltran, who the Braves were in on at the trade deadline, would be an excellent fit, but likely to require a three-year commitment at upwards of $10 million per season. If they would prefer, the Braves could put some of that pitching depth -- the names above, plus Mike Minor or Brandon Beachy -- on the trade wire. That could make players like B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, Logan Morrison or Andre Ethier available -- three of whom are free agents after 2012. The goal, however pursued, is clear: Bolster the top of the lineup so that a third straight season of strong pitching isn't wasted.
2011 Results: 80-81
Pythagorean Record: 78-83
Pending Free Agents: OF Rick Ankiel, P Todd Coffey, IF Alex Cora, OF Jonny Gomes, P Livan Hernandez, OF Laynce Nix, C Ivan Rodriguez, P Chien-Ming Wang
Prospects on the Verge: 1B Chris Marrero, C Derek Norris, P Brad Peacock, OF Bryce Harper
Building For: An extended run built around Strasburg, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and 2011 #1 pick Anthony Rendon
Strengths: Starting pitching, young infielders, willingness to spend money.
Biggest Holes: Centerfield, rotation depth, bullpen.
Targets: 1B Prince Fielder, 1B Albert Pujols, SS Jose Reyes, OF David DeJesus
The Plan: Last offseason, the Nationals shocked the world by signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. The deal was widely ridiculed as an overpay, and Werth's poor season, at 32 years old (.232/.330/.389), did nothing to argue against it. Werth should bounce back somewhat, but the remaining six years at $18 million per year could be an albatross on the Nats' payroll. The Nationals remain a wild card this winter: Do they spend more money to add Fielder or Pujols in an effort to support what is a growing cadre of great young players, or do they heed the lessons of the Werth deal and grow more conservative? Either path is possible, but if they want to spend money, spending it on Jose Reyes may be a better idea; Ian Desmond isn't developing at all, and the Nats would get more bounce from a shortstop and leadoff hitter than from another power hitter -- especially when, in three seasons, they have Harper and Rendon filling out the lineup.
The Nats could also use a true centerfielder. There are none in the system, although Harper -- playing more corner outfield -- could be brought to the majors as a CF. A better idea is trading setup man Tyler Clippard, coming off two big years in the bullpen, for a long-term solution, a model employed by the Padres in acquiring Cameron Maybin last offseason. Could Clippard bring in a Dexter Fowler, a Denard Span, a Drew Stubbs...someone undervalued by his current team? That's a trade the Nationals should pursue, as an eighth-inning guy is much more replaceable than a true centerfielder.
2011 Record: 77-85
Pythagorean Results: 78-84
Pending Free Agents: P Miguel Batista, P Chris Capuano, UT Scott Hairston, UT Willie Harris, P Jason Isringhausen, SS Jose Reyes, P Chris Young
Prospects on the Verge: P Jennry Mejia (injured), 2B Reese Havens
Building For: Medium-term success, and regained credibility.
Strengths: OBP, innings eaters in the rotation.
Biggest Holes: Middle infield (if Reyes leaves), power, top of the rotation.
Targets: P Edwin Jackson, OF Grady Sizemore
The Plan: The Mets have already announced that they will be moving in the fences at Citi Field, a move that may change the shape of their 2012 performance, but have little effect on its quality. For all the focus on the batting lines of David Wright and Jason Bay, Citi's dimensions contributed to surprisingly low ERAs for R.A. Dickey, Chris Capuano and Dillon Gee. Moving in the fences is a cosmetic change that will merely make more obvious what should have been apparent last year: the Mets have a good offense and a poor pitching staff.
Forget making the park more attractive for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols. One of the Mets' best players last year -- before an ankle injury ended his year -- was first baseman Ike Davis. Davis may not hold his power gains in 2012, but signing a player who blocks him, when the team has holes at second base, rightfield and a total dearth of pitching, would be a misuse of limited resources. The Mets' hands are tied to some extent due to their failures the last couple of seasons, which have shown up in lowered revenues at the new park. They also are limited by the team-owning Wilpon family's losses off the field, as well as the ongoing legal battle over to what extent the family will have to pay for Bernie Madoff's crimes.
If there was a time for Sandy Alderson to invoke Moneyball principles, it's now. He has to find solutions at at least two positions -- three if Reyes, who should have been traded in July, can't be re-signed -- and make both the rotation and bullpen better, and he has a limited amount of money to spend. The one free agent who might make sense to buy is Jackson, a hard thrower who has been very durable and who is, at 28, young enough to project well over the course of a four-year deal. If the Mets are bringing in the fences, they'll need a better class of starters.
2011 Record: 72-90
Pythagorean Results: 72-90
Pending Free Agents: IF Greg Dobbs, IF Jose Lopez, SP Javier Vazquez
Prospects on the Verge: 3B Matt Dominguez
Building For: Their new stadium, so long in coming
Strengths: Power, youth, the new park
Biggest Holes: Centerfield, second base, ownership, health
Targets: SP C.J. Wilson, SP Hiroki Kuroda
The Plan: The Marlins' season was crushed by injuries, as their best players, starting pitcher Josh Johnson and shortstp[ Hanley Ramirez, combined to play less than a full season, and Ramirez was limited in the time that he did play. The hope is that both will return healthy and effective in '12, and combine with Mike Stanton, Anibal Sanchez and glove man Dominguez to form the core of a contender that will fill the new downtown ballpark. It's not a bad plan, but it is high risk -- Johnson has never been healthy for more than about 18 months at a clip, and Ramirez's left shoulder injury just adds to the questions about him. Did Ramirez peak at 25, or can new manager Ozzie Guillen get him back into the best-player-in-baseball conversation?
The team needs Ramirez, because without him, it's terrible up the middle. John Buck is a career backup stretched as a regular behind the plate; there is no second baseman or centerfielder at the moment, although Emilio Bonifacio will probably lay claim to one of the positions heading into next year. Bonifacio's .360 OBP was a mix of BABIP fluke and improved walk rate, but I have a hard time seeing a player with a 23 percent strikeout rate and Bonifacio's lack of power sustaining the .296 BA that drove the OBP. He, like Buck, is a good bench player stretched in an everyday role.
The real issue is whether the Marlins will use the projected bump in revenues to add a free agent. Gaby Sanchez is an asset at first base, but signing Fielder or Pujols would free him up for trade bait to add a centerfielder. A starting pitcher such as Wilson is a nice fit, as Wilson is more a mid-rotation guy and would slide in behind Johnson on this team, and there's an argument that Wilson's stuff would be better suited to a bigger park in the NL than anywhere else. What the Marlins have to avoid is the big mistake; last year's deal of Maybin to San Diego for two middle relievers was a complete waste of a valuable asset. Do that again, and no amount of new venues will help them get back to contention.
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