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It will take even longer for the Nationals, who, if they aren't quite ready to move out of the division's basement, have at least completed the first segment of the four-step building plan installed by G.M. Mike Rizzo when he assumed control midway through the 2009 season. "Phase 1 was stripping away what we had and attacking scouting and player development," Rizzo says.
Phase 2 is enhancing the major league roster through free agency. Rizzo certainly made a splash there, too, nabbing outfielder Jayson Werth in perhaps the most surprising signing of the off-season. To persuade Werth, who hit 27 home runs and an NL-high 46 doubles in 2010, to head south on I-95 from Philadelphia, Rizzo revealed Washington's long-term strategy. "I mapped out our one-, three-, and five-year plans, how we're building the foundation, improving our payroll flexibility and the players we have in our pipeline."
The pitch worked, though the seven-year, $126 million offer didn't hurt. "I see the same things here that I saw in Philly when I signed there," says Werth. "A core group of players that are highly talented."
No two players fit that description better than Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the heavily hyped phenoms Washington drafted with the No. 1 overall picks in the past two drafts. Neither, however, is likely to play a game for the Nats before September, if at all. Strasburg is still recovering from Tommy John surgery after a scintillating big league debut last summer (he went 5--3 with a 2.91 ERA and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings), and Harper, 18, will begin his first professional season at Class A Hagerstown.
There may not have been a more apropos scene all spring: one March morning new Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson cheerfully bounded from his golf cart at the team's facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., to clean up a mess his rescue dog, Buddy, had made on one of the pitching complexes. ("I guess he didn't like that pitcher," Alderson joked.) The well-respected former Marine and ex-G.M. of the A's inherited a franchise that is awash in scandal. Owner Fred Wilpon and his family are facing a billion-dollar lawsuit related to the Bernard L. Madoff Ponzi scheme. The roster is scandalous too, though the Mets deserve credit for ridding themselves this spring of expensive duds Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, who had little chance of earning their sizable paychecks.
Alderson insists that the Wilpons' financial problems haven't impacted his baseball decisions, but the fact remains that the Mets' biggest signing of the winter was ... Chris Young. The 6' 10" former Padres starter signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal. Even if he's healthy after shoulder problems limited him to just one April start and three in September last season—he went 2--0 with an 0.90 ERA—he won't offset the absence of ace Johan Santana, who will be out until June after undergoing shoulder surgery last September.
Only three NL teams averaged fewer than the Mets' 4.1 runs last season. Since the lineup returns largely intact, an increase in offense will depend on two players who struggled with injuries in 2010. Shortstop Jose Reyes, entering the last year of a five-year, $34.3 million contract, missed 29 games last season with thyroid problems and an oblique injury; his .321 on-base percentage was his lowest since 2005, and his 30 steals were his fewest in a full season. Jason Bay, New York's $66 million signing of December 2009, played 95 games and hit only six home runs before being lost for the year with a concussion in late July. Bay got back to work in Seattle in December, focusing on "eliminating some moving parts" in his mechanics in an effort to create a bat path that will restore some of his lost power.
Aside from a lack of power from the right side of the plate—other than David Wright (29), no New York righthanded hitter had more than 12 home runs last season—the Mets and the Phillies have little in common. Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel had to think for a minute when asked this spring to list the things his club needs. He came up with: 1) more right-handed pop (the Phils hit five fewer homers from that side than the Mets in 2010), 2) a fifth outfielder ... and that's it.
The Phillies are loaded—but there are more question marks than Manuel lets on. Age could be a concern: Three starters (Halladay, Oswalt and Lee) are older than 30. Injuries too: highly touted rookie outfielder Domonic Brown needed surgery to repair a broken hand during spring training and could be out until May. That was a freak injury, and Brown's long-term prognosis is still good. The same might not be true for second baseman Chase Utley. After a sprained thumb limited him to 115 games last year, Utley showed up in camp with patellar tendinitis and cartilage and bone inflammation in his right knee. He was likely to begin the season on the disabled list.
Losing Utley for an extended period would be a harsh blow for the Phillies, who were second in the NL in runs last year but now are missing Werth's big bat. Still, being able to trot out a starter who has either been a Cy Young winner or the MVP of a postseason series four out of every five games makes them heavy favorites. Even the Braves' Lowe conceded that the Phillies' four aces should prevent any sustained losing streaks. "I tell our players all the time: expectations are good," says Manuel. "It's fine with me. It's up to us to prove how good we are."