Big League Stew - MLB

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issue some predictions on standings and award-winners. We start off the second half of our looks with a visit to the National League East.

'Duk: Welcome back, Mr. Brown! Hope you were able to put together a nice little weekend together — a little Home Depot, maybe some Bed, Bath and Beyond —  before the glorious madness of the baseball season sets upon us later this week.  But before we get into the opening days, however, we must finish our parade of previews. And speaking of parades, that's exactly what the city of Philadelphia was planning after Ruben Amaro pulled that fourth ace from his sleeve last December, luring Cliff Lee(notes) away from the seemingly more-focused glares of the Texas Rangers and  New York Yankees.

Yes, to hear a Phils fan speak from mid-December until the end of February was to hear a voice of supreme confidence. There was no limit on the hype, and the debate topic that dare not speak its name was whether or not this 2011 team could take a run at 116 victories. (Not whether Philly would be banking a fifth straight NL East title. No, that was just a foregone conclusion at that point.)

One month later, though, the headlines are a lot less optimistic as a long March in Clearwater has already tested the Phillies' most glaring weaknesses — age and health.

Will these Phillies — led by Lee, Roy Halladay(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) — eventually be able to look back at this spring training as a rocky road gauntlet that prepared them for a title season ahead? Or are these early losses of Chase Utley(notes), Brad Lidge(notes) and Domonic Brown(notes) hinting at a labyrinth that will be much tougher to topple than anyone initially imagined?

DB: Well, my good man, 'Duk, there are a lot of preparations I need to make to Casa de Brown before it's "baseball ready." One of those things is making sure my MLB.TV prescription is filled, just so I can keep a good eye on the Phillies. They are limping around, aren't they? But, here's something to keep in mind, and you already touched on it: Perceptions might change quickly, but it's a long, long season. What limps around in March is feeling pretty good by July. The Chase Utley injury is worrisome; I couldn't talk that one away so I won't bother. But I think Lidge will be OK with rest, and it's only a fracture with Brown. Nicks and bruises will heal.

But here's what needs to happen regardless of these spring setbacks: Jimmy Rollins(notes) needs to re-assert himself as a top shortstop after two injury plagued and under-performing seasons. Raul Ibañez can't disappear in the first half. Ryan Howard(notes) has to be a Big Piece from jump. And the starting pitchers must do what they're supposed to. If these things happen — and we're not talking about fanciful notions — the Phillies will be hanging around first place, if not in it, by the time they are 25 strong. It's a time of worry, not panic.

'Duk: Tell you what: If the Phillies ever come out 25 strong this season, the team's training staff should win some sort of award from the American Medical Association because the bumps and bruises have been the team's bane over the slog of the past few regular seasons. I'm a little worried about that outfield, too. Though the Phillies couldn't have possibly paid Jayson Werth(notes) the type of cheese he was commanding and still been considered sane, his steady presence at the plate and in the field is going to be missed, particularly if Brown comes back and performs as poorly as he did at the start of spring training.  But let's admit this much: That starting rotation is going to have a way of glossing over a lot of problems, especially when its example is being set by Halladay, a guy willing to go 16 innings every time out.

These Phillies will be just fine — make your playoff plans today! — but I think there are going to be plenty of times when Fightins' fans will look south with hesitation as the NL East version of the Death Star rebuilds itself for another extended run in Atlanta. The Braves are coming off a wild-card berth in 2010, added Dan Uggla(notes) for some much-needed offense, and have been seeing promising things from both Chipper Jones(notes) and Nate McLouth(notes) this spring. I don't think there's any question that they're looking at the chinks in Philly's armor and seeing an opportunity. Whether or not they overtake the Phillies may be a moot point, however, as I think the Phillies and Braves are moving toward an AL East-type point in which two playoff spots are almost guaranteed from the start. Are you OK with me marking the Braves down for another playoff spot?

DB: Mark it, dude. I'm more than willing to sign the authorization papers granting the NL East two playoff spots in 2011. It's not quite Yankees-Red Sox-Rays in terms of perpetuity, but there's a lock on the postseason door for this year. Why did Bobby Cox leave, man? The party's just gettin' started down in the A to the T to the L.

With sheepish nods to Werth and Buster Posey(notes), the Braves might have the league's best players at their respective positions in Jason Heyward(notes) and Brian McCann(notes). And offensively, especially with Chase Utley on the shelf, Dan Uggla is definitely the best hitter among second baseman. So they've got gravitas in the star area.

And the pitching, while not knock-you-out like Philly or San Francisco, will get the job done. Especially the starters: Tommy Hanson(notes) and Tim Hudson(notes) have been diagnosed with Cy Young Syndrome; Jair Jurrjens(notes) needs to get healthy; and Derek Lowe(notes) is ... a pitcher, too. If Brandon Beachy(notes) can't handle being a fifth starter, then Mike Minor(notes) will give it a whirl. And GM Frank Wren can always find a guy.

I like the back of the bullpen, too, with Peter Moylan(notes) setting up Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel(notes). It's not an impervious group, by any means. Kimbrel hasn't put a lot of time in yet, and his spring training started so awfully. Hey, now that I think of it, are they sure Billy Wagner's(notes) done?

I got questions about a few other guys: Is Freddie Freeman(notes) going to hit right out of the box at first base? Is Nate McLouth resurrecting his career this spring or just teasing us some more? And, of course, Chipper; can he play 120 games? 140? I think most of these questions will be answered with degrees of positivity. I'm really thinking renaissance season for Larry Wayne, too. Maybe an All-Star bid. Is this because I have him on my fantasy team? Posh! No fewer than 91 victories here.

'Duk: So it's settled! Someone call all the teams in the NL West and NL Central and tell 'em that it's division or bust if they want to make plans past their 162nd games. But what should we tell the other three teams in the NL East, particularly the Florida Marlins? For the umpteenth season in a row, the fightin' fish look like they're going to be just good enough to keep the player's union off Jeffrey Loria's back.

Or is that selling them a bit short? I do like the acquisition of Javier Vazquez(notes), now that he's back in his comfort zone of the National League. There's the young promise of players like Mike Stanton(notes), Gaby Sanchez(notes) and Logan Morrison(notes) because there probably isn't a team better at developing its own talent than the Marlins.

Oh, and there's Hanley Ramirez(notes) and Josh Johnson(notes), too! And the breakout season that Ricky Nolasco(notes) has been set to have for the past three seasons! Perhaps we should wait at least a little bit before deciding whether to engrave the Phillies' or Braves' name under NL East on the senior circuit's wild-card trophy?

DB: Nah, the Fish aren't quite postseason material. If certain conditions are met, they might finish ahead of the Braves, but it's only because things went horribly wrong in Atlanta. Chances are, the Dan Uggla trade will be one of many reasons why Atanta will be in and Florida will be window shopping come playoff time. There's a lot to like on the roster as you mentioned, but I can point out some problems, too.

If there was a statistical category for being called a "good guy," Wes Helms(notes) probably would lead it, especially now that Mike Sweeney(notes) has retired. But they're actually asking him to play a lot of third base, and he probably should be a minor league manager instead. It's head-shaking that Chris Coghlan(notes) is being forced to play center field, another new position for him, especially coming off a midseason knee injury. It's going to cost them runs. Logan Morrison is still learning left field. That's probably going to cost them runs, too.

Yeah, they brought in Vazquez, but they let go of Uggla. It's obvious they're just running in place until the new stadium is finished. It's not the sneakiest thing a Jeffrey Loria team has ever done, but it's pretty disingenuous. They could be contenders, but they're choosing not to be.

'Duk: Yeah, the Marlins kind of pulled a reverse move of what the Milwaukee Brewers are doing with Prince Fielder(notes) and decided that keeping Uggla for his last year of arbitration wasn't worth the risk of losing him after 2010 for nothing. And it's obvious cash was a concern as there's no reason the Marlins had to be in a rush to land Omar Infante(notes). Uggla would have still had plenty of trade value at the deadline if Florida had fallen out of the race, but it would've cost Loria a few million bucks to even get to that point.

Past this year, though, I can't blame Loria for again getting cheap. Keeping Uggla would have required a deal in the neighborhood of the five-year, $62 million extension he signed with the Braves, and if you need proof that big money deals don't buy happiness, all you have to do is look at the team that will be finishing directly below Florida.

Ladies and gentleman, it's the New York Mets!

DB: It's really too bad the Mets corporate leadership has gotten itself into this mess, because the decision to hire Sandy Alderson was terrific. Though, I'm kind of surprised that he took the job, based on what we know now about Madoff, etc. Well, assuming that somebody stable owns the Mets within the next year, and they haven't been liquidated, and Alderson is still running the show, the future should be bright. Look at all of the good things that are happening. Luis Castillo(notes) has been cut. Oliver Perez(notes), cut. Carlos Beltran(notes), moved to right field. R.A. Dickey(notes), locked up. Chris Capuano(notes), added.

I don't like the condition of Beltran's knees, though, and Johan Santana's(notes) not healthy and nobody can say when he'll be pitching like an ace again. If those guys are near 100 percent, I don't discount the Mets' chances of competing. But they're not healthy. I just think they're a team that's closer to the middle of the road — like the Marlins.

But that's not so bad, really: The Nationals would love to drive in the middle of the road.

'Duk: Ah yes, the nasty Nats! Is it 2012 yet?

No? Well, then ... While the 2010 version had Stephen Strasburg(notes) keeping the team relevant for half of the season, it's going to be a little tougher for the 2011 squad to grab the spotlight for reasons other than jersey misspellings, photoshopped baseball cards, etc. I am interested, however, to see how Jayson Werth handles the pressures of the forever-cursed terms of the seven-year, $126 million contract as well as the continued emergence of Ryan Zimmerman(notes). Youngsters like Danny Espinosa(notes) and Drew Storen(notes) will also be worth keeping an eye on.

But correct me if I'm wrong: The majority of our focus should or will be on Strasburg's rehab and the way Bryce Harper(notes) treats minor league pitchers, no?

DB: Do you know if MLB.TV subscriptions also cover Hagerstown Suns games? I don't know if it will happen, or if it's all that wise, but GM Mike Rizzo has said he's keeping an open mind about Harper being promoted to the majors before the end of the season. Remember how much fun the Strasburg debutant ball was his first time around the league before getting hurt? Games — Nats games — became events. They'd sell his shirsey in visiting ballparks, get big crowds. What's awesome about Harper is, he projects a personality that is going to make people even more interested in him than Strasburg. All Strasburg did was pitch; Harper might pop off in the media about how much he's dying to beat the Yankees, or whatnot.

Hey, have you noticed how little we're talking about the guys who are on the Nats team already? Maybe we're selling them short a bit. Maybe I'm bitter because Nyjer Morgan(notes) has been traded. That's no fun. Matt Stairs(notes) is around, though, on his 13th team to set a record. That's exciting to *me* but I don't know how the general public feels about a pinch hitter on a (probable) last-place club.

'Duk: Hey, the casual American fan loves him some superstars. Super-Stairs, a little less so. Like everything else in the nation's capital these days, we're just going to have to be patient and hope for the best.

* * *

NL East predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Phillies, 2. Braves, 3. Marlins, 4. Mets, 5. Nationals
DB: 1. Braves, 2. Phillies, 3. Marlins, 4. Mets, 5. Nationals

NL East MVP
'Duk: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
DB: Jason Heyward, Braves

NL East Cy Young
'Duk: Roy Halladay, Phillies
DB: Josh Johnson, Marlins

NL East ROY
'Duk: Freddie Freeman, Braves
DB: Freddie Freeman, Braves

PreviouslyNL WestAL West, AL East

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