NL East preview (cont.)
X-FACTOR: Citi Field's fences
Two of the Mets' weaknesses last year were home run power and outfield defense, both of which may be alleviated by the club's decision to move in the outfield walls. Most visibly to fans, the new dimensions should create a power boost for Wright, Bay, et al.; New York has hit 162 homers in its three seasons at Citi Field, the fewest by any major league club in its home ballpark during that time span.
But the outfield defense will benefit from more than the addition of Torres. G.M. Sandy Alderson explained this spring that the Mets studied the change in outfield area. Every ballpark is uniform in its infield size and outfield size out to 300 feet. "Now you take the remaining area and look at what the reduction represents," Alderson said. "As a percentage, it's pretty significant."
"Johan Santana is the good news. He looks like he's bounced back. He got up to 90 mph in camp and his fastball and change had some finish. . . . Jason Bay has not looked great. It almost looks like he's guessing [at the plate]. . . . Through the minors Lucas Duda's swing was long with a hole inside. He's learned to protect himself and drive that pitch."
WINTER GRADE: B-
The Phillies have made so many moves the past few seasons -- trading for and/or signing Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hunter Pence, to name three -- that being mostly quiet this winter made sense. They re-upped one core player, extending shortstop Jimmy Rollins for three years (with an option for a fourth), and made one splurge, signing Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer; the latter came after the club nearly retained Ryan Madson (who later signed with the Reds and now needs Tommy John surgery). Philadelphia also added Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton to be a stopgap platoon at first base to tide the club over until Ryan Howard returns from an Achilles injury.
The grade isn't higher because of the looming uncertainty surrounding starter Cole Hamels and centerfielder Shane Victorino -- both of whom are entering their final seasons before becoming free agents -- and because the club received bad news about second baseman Chase Utley, whose chronic knee soreness is putting the early part of the season in doubt. After Michael Martinez broke a bone in his foot last week, the club now has little depth and will start unproven 22-year-old Freddy Galvis (.292 career OBP in five minor-league seasons) at second base.
KEY QUESTION: When will Howard and Utley return?
The right side of the Phillies' infield has long been their strength, but the club could be without both of their stars for a month, maybe two. As it is, Philadelphia has seen its run output decline by more than 100 in two seasons, to just 713 last year, its fewest since 2002. In the meantime, the Phillies will need continued All-Star production from Victorino, Placido Polanco and especially Pence; one scout told SI that he pegged Pence for at least 35 home runs this year.
Of course, Philadelphia will only need to score so many runs, given its stellar starting pitching and underappreciated defense -- last year the club allowed 529 runs, the fewest of any major league team in a 162-game schedule since 1969.
X-FACTOR: John Mayberry Jr.
Finally exceeding 60 big-league plate appearances in a season for the first time at age 27, the former first-round pick proved he belonged. Beginning with a two-hit game on Memorial Day, Mayberry batted .299 with a .356 OBP and impressive .609 slugging percentage over his final 62 games while belting 13 home runs in 174 at bats. He'll play a lot of first base in Howard's absence and should become the everyday leftfielder after that. Hunter Pence, Galvis and Mayberry are the only position-player regulars under the age of 30.
"They may look different in the way they score runs, but they have the lineup pieces [to win]. . . Cliff Lee looks like himself. Same with Roy Halladay. They are both throwing the ball really well. . . I think Jonathan Papelbon will thrive in Philly. His velocity this spring is 94 to 96 and his slider and split look like quality pitches."
WINTER GRADE: A-
In five years the Nationals turned around their farm system from dead last, according to Baseball America, to best in baseball. That No. 1 ranking was actually released after the club used that asset by trading four prospects to Oakland in exchange for young lefthanded All-Star starter Gio Gonzalez. The club later signed righthanded starter Edwin Jackson and reliever Brad Lidge to one-year deals in hopes of further improving a club that allowed a middle-of-the-pack 643 runs last year (seventh in the NL) and had a 3.58 staff ERA (sixth). The offense remains relatively unchanged after the Nationals failed to sign free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, though the addition -- at some point -- of power-hitting prodigy Bryce Harper should help immensely.
KEY QUESTION: Is Davey Johnson right about the Nationals' rotation?
Johnson, Washington's manager, raised a few eyebrows when earlier this month he compared his best three pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann) to the Phillies' best three pitchers (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels). "Their top three versus our top three, stuff-wise, we match up as good," Johnson said, according to the Washington Post.
That's definitely a bit of a hyperbole given that Philadelphia's trio finished 2-3-5 in last year's NL Cy Young voting, but Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez are only 23, 25 and 26 years old and thus, presumably, still going to get a good bit better. The greater point is, Washington's top three starters are very talented -- but can they translate that stuff into Cy Young-caliber results in 2012?
X-FACTOR: The Outfielders
In Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and Bryce Harper the 2012 Nationals could join the 1941 Yankees and 1963 Twins as only the third club with three outfielders who all hit 30 or more home runs. Each does, however, have at least one small question mark next to his name.
Werth, though he's crushing the ball this spring, had an uncharacteristic down year in 2011; Morse, who ranked eighth in the NL with a .910 OPS last season, hadn't previously enjoyed a comparable full season like that one and now may start the year on the disabled list; and Harper will begin the year in the minor leagues before making his major league debut later in the season.
There's also the matter that, despite GM Mike Rizzo saying the club will fill centerfield internally, various reports have linked the club to every potentially available centerfielder under the sun. Such a trade would, presumably, improve the team's outfield defense though potentially at the cost of offense.
"I circle [first baseman] Adam LaRoche as an important guy to be healthy and productive -- and not just in the second half of the season. You don't want to get buried in that division. His at bats weren't great early this spring, but I've watched him in B.P. and he looks healthy. . . Jordan Zimmermann has got a swing-and-miss curve, above-average fastball and shows a feel for the change . . . Bryce Harper can hit but it may come slowly against good, consistent pitching."
Swim Daily, Elsa Benitez in Montauk
Bears and Cowboys fighting to gain ground in their divisions