NL East preview: Braves will be a real threat to Phillies' reign
The Phillies have won four straight division titles and might be better this year
Fredi Gonzalez's Braves have enough starting pitching to challenge the Phillies
The Mets are headed backward while the improving Nationals could pass them
No division in baseball has as overwhelming a favorite as the National League East, where the Phillies are expected to romp to a fifth straight division title. Such expectations should not overshadow the fact that the Phils aren't the only team with legitimate playoff aspirations. Both the Braves, last year's wild-card winner, and the Marlins have the pitching to keep them in contention for a postseason berth. The Mets and Nationals, meanwhile, will be battling to stay out of the basement, which would be cause for joy in Washington and despair in New York.
WINTER GRADE: B
New manager Fredi Gonzalez is the biggest change, but as far as the 25-man roster is concerned, Dan Uggla is the biggest import. The Braves added him in a trade with the Marlins that cost them the versatile Omar Infante, but if the rest of their lineup -- specifically Martin Prado and Chipper Jones -- stays healthy, they should be able to compensate just fine. Derrek Lee left as a free agent and closer Billy Wagner retired, but the Braves were able to replace them with their deep well of young talent.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Is Fredi Gonzalez ready to replace a legend?
After guiding the Braves to 16 postseason appearances in his 21 seasons, manager Bobby Cox finally retired. He was replaced by one of his former coaches, Gonzalez, who was basically a .500 manager in Florida but inherits a playoff-ready team in Atlanta. Officially, Gonzalez wasn't hired until two days after Atlanta's Division Series loss to the Giants. Unofficially, he had the job as far back as mid-summer, when Braves GM Frank Wren picked up Gonzalez at a park-and-ride outside I-20 in Atlanta and drove to his cabin on Lake Wedowee, Ala., so the two could discuss organizational philosophies. Wren left impressed, saying now, "We think we've hired the next great manager."
2. Will Jason Heyward be healthy?
Heyward got off to a torrid start last year, highlighted by a laser of a three-run homer in his first major league at-bat, but slowed down when he hurt his thumb in May. It hampered him the rest of the season, but Heyward says he's at full strength now, which would give the Braves an MVP-quality bat in the middle of the lineup. The more pressing question, then, is how pitchers will adjust to him and how he will counter those adjustments.
3. Does Craig Kimbrel + Jonny Venters = Billy Wagner?
Wagner retired after one last stellar season -- 37 saves and a 1.43 ERA -- but the Braves didn't have to search far and wide for his replacement. Instead, they've handed the job to 22-year-old righty Kimbrel (0 career saves) and 26-year-old lefty Venters (one save). The two had already impressed with their fastballs. Now they'll have to impress with their performance to ensure that the Braves don't have any drop-off in the all-important closer's role.
Chipper Jones, 3B
Jones will be 39 in April and is coming off a season in which he played just 95 games. His knees are an almost constant source of pain, but if he can still play, it's big for a couple reasons: First, it would give the Braves a power and high on-base threat in the No. 3 hole, and second, it keeps their best lineup on the field. When Jones can't play, Prado will move from left field to third base, which in turn means that Atlanta will be using a non-regular that day in the outfield.
"Their pitching depth and quality is scary good. One through 12, Atlanta has the best pitching in the National League. Freddie Freeman, a Rookie of the Year candidate, has had a great spring. He'll follow the track of Jason Heyward last year and he's a very good defender. That Fredi Gonzalez has a lot of Atlanta experience and that Bobby Cox engineered him coming in makes this a very seamless transition. Atlanta has made progress, but has it been enough to catch what everyone has penciled in as the best team in the NL?"
WINTER GRADE: C
They traded Dan Uggla to the Braves for All-Star utilityman Omar Infante and reliever Michael Dunn, who should be an important part of an overhauled bullpen. He'll be joined in that 'pen by Edward Mujica, who comes over from the Padres in a trade that sent disappointing Cameron Maybin to San Diego. More significantly, the Marlins signed All-Star catcher John Buck and starting pitcher Javier Vazquez, who struggled with the Yankees last year but finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting with the Braves two years ago.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Is Hanley Ramirez ready to lead?
There's never been any question that Ramirez is one of the game's elite talents, but his benching last season for not hustling called into question whether the 27-year-old will be the kind of leader the young Marlins are looking for. Manager Edwin Rodriguez said he and Ramirez spoke first thing this spring and Ramirez promised he would be. "He said we're all on the same page," Rodriguez said. "The message was that we know [we're] young but we're not going to accept excuses."
2. Will the defense improve?
Last year, the Marlins had the fifth-most errors and the fourth-worst fielding percentage in the majors. To rectify that, the team went back to basics this spring, emphasizing fundamentals. Coach Perry Hill even had a back field at the team's spring complex all to himself, which was nicknamed the Bone Yard, where he spent hours schooling his pupils on defense. Players bought in, too, at least if their wardrobe is any indication. The most prominent clothing item in camp was a T-shirt reading "DEFENSE" on the front and "27 Outs...No More" on the back.
3. Can they count on their young hitters?
The Marlins' starting pitchers -- led by Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson -- should be as close as this team has to a sure thing, but their offense remains a question mark. Many of those question marks will be answered if Logan Morrison, 23; Gaby Sanchez; 27; and Mike Stanton, 21, become reliable middle-of-the-order threats. Stanton seems most likely to take the next step. His power exploits are already legendary. Sanchez said he and Morrison are constantly ragging on Stanton but "that's mostly because we're jealous of him." Last year, Stanton hit 22 home runs in 100 games. With a full season this year, 35 isn't out of the question. "This year is very important to us," Rodriguez said. "The players we'll be counting on for the next decade are here."
Johnson should be the most reliable pitcher in the rotation, and Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad will have time to grow at the back of the rotation, but the difference-maker is the veteran Vazquez. At 34, Vazquez is on to his sixth team in his 14th season but he'll be expected to be the No. 3 starter. His velocity is down from years past but he says he feels more comfortable now that he's back in the NL East, where he had his best years with the Expos and Braves. If he's the same pitcher who posted a 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 2009 for Atlanta, he lengthens Florida's rotation to the point that it can stack up more favorably with the Phillies and Braves.
"Josh Johnson worked on a changeup this spring. He needs to find ways of having lower pitch counts. Ricky Nolasco has an average to above-average fastball and a tremendous breaking pitch -- it's a slider but it's more like a curve because the bottom falls out of it and he gets a lot of rotation out of the front of the ball. Leo Nunez, the closer, worked on a different grip on his slider during Winter Ball and it looks like it's working. John Buck will be an important pickup. He's a good game caller and he's a dominant figure behind the plate, which is nice to throw to. He's also got power at the plate."
WINTER GRADE: C
As far as the roster goes, the Mets did nothing of significance, unless you consider Chris Young and Ronny Paulino to be game-changing free-agent acquisitions. The Mets grade this highly because of their revamped front office. Sandy Alderson takes over as general manager and he added former big league GMs Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, both well-respected talent evaluators, to his staff. There is a lot to rebuild here but those three know how to do it. Their goal, as Alderson put it, is to "create scouting and player development that has the continuity to and consistency to build excellence that we can sustain over many years."
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Can they withstand the loss of Johan Santana?
Probably not. Santana won't be back from shoulder surgery until June at the earliest, and it's likely that by that time the Mets will already be playing out the string. The rest of the rotation is littered with question marks -- Mike Pelfrey has been too inconsistent to be a true ace, Young is coming back from injury problems of his own and Jonathon Niese (who was born the same day as Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, the Mets' most recent championship) still has only 38 games of big league experience. If Santana proves he's healthy and back to being an ace, that will at least alleviate one of their concerns heading into 2012.
2. Is Jason Bay back?
Long before Bay suffered a season-ending concussion at Dodger Stadium in July, his first season in New York after signing a four-year, $66 million deal was a disaster. He had struggled to adapt to Citi Field's spacious dimensions and had just six home runs in well over 300 at-bats. Bay says he's free of the after-effects from the concussion, and after some offseason adjustments he expects to return close to the All-Star form he showed with the Pirates and Red Sox. "Is it fair to think I'll hit 50 home runs? Probably not," he said. "But I'm looking forward to being the guy I was before I got here."
3. Will Jose Reyes be traded?
When healthy, Reyes remains as electrifying a player as there is in baseball. He missed 29 games last year and stole just 30 bases; his lowest previous full-season total was 56. Though still popular with Mets fans, Reyes is coming to the end of his contract and if the team thinks he's not worth the dollars he's likely to command on the open market -- he made $9 million a year ago -- or that the club's financial troubles will make re-signing him difficult, New York may just elect to deal him and try to get some value in return at the trade deadline.
One way or another, this is Beltran's last season in New York. His controversial, injury-filled and at times successful tenure -- he did make four All-Star teams with the Mets -- will end when his seven-year, $119 million contract does after the season. But despite his knee problems, scouts from other teams have continued tracking Beltran's progress, feeling that if he's healthy enough to play for a rebuilding club like the Mets, he might be healthy enough to help a contender down the stretch. The Mets would undoubtedly love to trade him, both to save the money they still owe him and to try to replenish a farm system that is in dire need of a talent injection.
"Johan Santana may be more of a No. 3 starter now and they're loaded down with them. Playing in that division, where your No. 1 and No. 2 are basically a three and a four, God help them. Their system is really thin and there's not a lot there. I don't see an impact player coming from within and they have to change the climate. If they're smart, they'll blow the club up and start over."