NL East preview: Phillies still the class of talent-laden division
Philadelphia will be trying to win its sixth consecutive NL East championship
The Phillies will be led by their pitching but have questions on offense
The re-built Marlins and emerging Nationals will challenge for playoff spots
Might the NL East be ready to wrest the title of Toughest Division in Baseball away from its AL counterparts? Not quite, but it has become the game's most talented grouping one through five.
The major moves of the Marlins and Nationals have elevated their rosters to the level of the Braves, who opted for the status quo after missing the playoffs by one game. The Phillies, meanwhile, still have those three aces atop their rotation but an aging roster and injury depletions in their offense. As for the Mets? They have encouraging pieces in place, even if their win-loss record may not reflect that in 2012; put them in a weaker division and they'd be a .500 club.
The Phillies are still the favorites. The Mets are probably headed for their first last-place finish since 2003. But the other three -- Braves, Marlins and Nationals -- could easily finish in any order of 2-3-4.
Said new Marlins closer Heath Bell, "This is going to be the funnest division. That's not even a word, but you can try to write it."
Consider it done. Maybe the NL East's new slogan ought to be, "Funnest for Fans; Toughest for Teams."
WINTER GRADE: C
The Braves could have received an 'I' for incomplete, given their lack of offseason moves. They traded starter Derek Lowe to the Indians for salary relief, added backup shortstop Jack Wilson and, well, that's about it, after deciding to give prospect Tyler Pastornicky the first shot at winning the starting shortstop job after Alex Gonzalez departed via free agency. Atlanta is reliant on its young talent continuing to emerge at the major league level and may already look smart for not trading its seeming surplus of pitchers now that one of that group, Arodys Vizcaino, will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery.
Putting faith in that pitching staff -- from veteran Tim Hudson and the four 26-and-under starters (Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor), as well as three top-50 prospects, according to Baseball America -- may be the Braves' smartest play.
KEY QUESTION: Can the Braves score enough to win?
Atlanta has excellent pitching -- 605 runs allowed last year (third in the NL) and a 3.48 ERA (fourth) -- but only scored 641 runs (10th). Only one playoff entrant in the last six seasons has scored fewer than 700 runs. (The 2010 Giants, who won the World Series, plated 697.) By not adding to the lineup from outside the organization, the club is counting on bounceback years from Jason Heyward (see below), Dan Uggla (whose on-base skills didn't match his power production) and Martin Prado (whose .302 OBP was 54 points below his previous career rate), while hoping trade deadline acquisition Michael Bourn can be a lineup sparkplug at leadoff.
X-FACTOR: Jason Heyward
In 2010 Heyward was the runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year with a .277 average, 18 home runs, an impressive .393 on-base percentage (fourth in the league) and a 131 OPS+ (meaning his OPS, adjusted for league and ballpark, was 31 percent better than the average player), a surefire bet to be a middle-of-the-lineup mainstay in Braves' lineups for seasons to come. In 2011, however, he struggled -- through injuries and slumps -- and for a while lost his starting job while falling to .227, 14, .319 and a 95 (meaning his OPS+ was five percent worse than average).
Over the winter, however, he so thoroughly rebuilt his swing piece-by-piece that he estimated he went the first two and a half weeks of the offseason without actually hitting the ball while working on his stance and his hands. He also ran more, using Turner Field's warning track for offseason sprints, and ate healthier in order to lose 20 pounds. Whether results follow remains to be seen, but a return to form for Heyward could drive Atlanta's offense.
"I like Brandon Beachy a lot. He's got a good delivery. He throws downhill and hits 91 to 94. . . Jason Heyward looks a little rough to me. He has a long, upper-body swing that he needs to fix. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy will be at the top of that rotation for years to come."
WINTER GRADE: A
It was nothing if not eventful and, the Marlins hope, productive. After adding manager Ozzie Guillen as last season ended, this winter the Marlins signed closer Heath Bell, shortstop Jose Reyes and starter Mark Buehrle and traded for another starter, Carlos Zambrano. They also publicly pursued (but failed to sign) Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yoenis Cespedes. Miami in 2012 is clearly a better team than Florida was in 2011 -- oh yeah, they also changed names and are moving into a new ballpark next week.
KEY QUESTION: Can the Marlins' many new parts coalesce?
This isn't football or any other sport that requires intricate synchronization of plays, but certainly any major changes will require a period of adjustment, most notably Hanley Ramirez moving from shortstop to third base. And they've added some strong personalities in Guillen, whose opinions often grab headlines, and Zambrano, a talented but tempestuous former ace who was twice suspended by the Cubs.
Can all of that come together? The players believe Guillen is just the guy to manage them. "When you play hard for him, when you play smart, when you play right, he's going to have your back," Zambrano said. "Ozzie, for me, besides my friend, is one of the best managers in baseball."
Added Bell, "The team is going to be the face of the franchise. If you do want to call us somebody's team, we're Ozzie's team."
The other new part -- Marlins Park -- remains an unknown in how it will play and whether it'll play to the strengths of the club.
X-FACTOR: Josh Johnson
Reyes' troublesome hamstrings are also important, but the Marlins seem to have more proven offensive depth than they do in the rotation and Johnson has Cy Young-caliber stuff. The 6'7" righthander led the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010 and had a 1.64 ERA in 60 1/3 innings last year before shoulder inflammation shut him down after nine starts; in his six full big-league seasons Johnson has surpassed 30 starts only once and has averaged 19.
"I love Giancarlo Stanton's work ethic. He tries to learn everything he can and he really wants to be the best player in baseball. . . This team needs a righthanded bat off the bench. Chris Coughlin, a lefty, can play a lot of positions and he'll help. . . There's not a lot of competition for positions here, and on championship-level teams that's what you want."
WINTER GRADE: D+
The 'D' is for the Mets' offseason personnel moves: losing Jose Reyes while adding only centerfielder Andres Torres and relievers Frank Francisco, Ramon Ramirez and Jon Rauch as the club sheared a record $52 million from its payroll and watched several rivals get stronger.
The '+' is because the club -- hamstrung this offseason by financial constraints -- recently received what could be encouraging news: the Mets reportedly have sold 12 minority shares for a cash influx, repaid their loans and settled a Madoff-related lawsuit, all of which could relax the purse strings in the near future.
KEY QUESTION: Can everybody bounce back?
For the Mets to be competitive in the stacked NL East, they'll need ace Johan Santana, third baseman David Wright, leftfielder Jason Bay and first baseman Ike Davis all to rally after injuries and/or down seasons. And the club will need continued improvement from its 26-and-under crowd: rightfielder Lucas Duda, shortstop Ruben Tejada, second baseman Daniel Murphy, catcher Josh Thole and starters Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee. Also, the club features two talented starting pitcher prospects in Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler.
Said Wright, "I'll be the first one to tell you, There are a lot of 'ifs.' If this happens, if that happens. But there really is a lot of talent in these young players."
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