Mets still have their work cut out in NL East
Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the National League East (in alphabetical order).
First impression: Give credit to Braves general manager Frank Wren for sticking with his plan. At the beginning of the offseason, he said he wanted to bring Atlanta back to its pitching-rich days of glory and, after whiffing on Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett, he still managed to do so. Derek Lowe, Javy Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami join a rotation with emerging star Jair Jurrjens, not to mention a bevy of No. 5 candidates. And that’s without Tim Hudson, who could be back next year after Tommy John surgery. The Braves’ lineup remains suspect and its bullpen is a crapshoot, but with a rotation that matches Philadelphia’s, New York’s and Florida’s, Atlanta isn’t likely to fade.
Competition: Jorge Campillo pitched very well last season. Jo-Jo Reyes is a left-handed candidate for a rotation full of righties. Scouts are high on Charlie Morton. And Tommy Hanson is one of the five best pitching prospects in baseball. So the Braves have choices, certainly, for the final spot in the rotation. Their outfield prospects aren’t nearly as enticing: Among Gregor Blanco, Josh Anderson, Matt Diaz and rookie Jordan Schafer, they must find a starting left fielder and center fielder.
Hot seat: At what point does it become too much? Chipper Jones turns 37 in April, and he remains the Braves’ greatest source of offense. Whether it’s too much for his brittle body to bear isn’t so much the question as: When will the Braves generate a position player who can replace him?
Next: Well, there are plenty of possibilities. Schafer, for one. Jason Heyward, the incredibly talented 19-year-old who will be in big-league camp this year, is a likelier run producer. The pitching, on the other hand, keeps coming: Hanson, Jeff Locke and a sleeper in Kris Medlen, whose slight size and 120-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A last year had some throwing out Hudson and Roy Oswalt comparisons.
First impression: The Marlins believe they can win. Not just exceed .500, as they did last season, but off the Braves, trump the Mets and dethrone the Phillies. Is this realistic with a 25-man roster that costs about as much as one year of Alex Rodriguez? With good fortune, sure. Florida needs Cameron Maybin to stop striking out so much, and its in-flux infield to stabilize into an everyday lineup around franchise shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Above all, the Marlins need their rotation – so replete with great young arms – to stay healthy. Even then, jumping to the top of the NL East won’t be easy – though far from impossible.
Competition: So, who plays where in the infield? Is Dallas McPherson the answer at first base? Or third? Jorge Cantu is better suited for first, though he’s a better third baseman than McPherson. Team elder Wes Helms could play third … if Dan Uggla doesn’t shift there, allowing Emilio Bonifacio and his speed to play second. And rookie Gaby Sanchez will get the best shot at first, complicating things even further.
Hot Seat: Maybe Jeffrey Loria is planning on the Marlins competing for the division next year, which is why he’s still pocketing all of those revenue-sharing dollars he gets. If the Marlins stop trading arbitration-eligible players – Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs and Scott Olsen this year – and start handing out smart long-term deals (to, say, Dan Uggla, Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson), we’ll know for sure. We’re not holding our breath.
Next: Isn’t that the Marlins’ ethos? Everything is next because nothing lasts too long. Thankfully, the pipeline is full. First baseman Logan Morrison is a year away, power-hitting Mike Stanton (who gets all sorts of Dave Winfield comparisons) is probably two years off and pitcher Sean West could be in Florida by September if Double-A goes as well as high Class A did last year (2.41 ERA in 100 2/3 innings).
First impression: Two years, two chokes. The Mets have gotten good at this. And, sure, the bullpen was a big issue, so seeing J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez in the eighth and ninth innings will help make Citi Field a far friendlier place in its freshman year. Still, this team gives off the feeling of one that needs to be blown up and started over instead of rejiggering things and hoping the memories of September collapses wane. Those linger. You don’t get rid of ugly artwork by painting over it. You discard the thing. And no one with the Mets seems to have gotten the message that there is trash in dire need of disposal.
Competition: The Mets do have the best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, and a nice complementary cast with Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine. Spring will determine their No. 5 among Tim Redding, Freddy Garcia and Jonathon Niese. It will also gauge whether Daniel Murphy is an everyday second baseman (ahead of Luis Castillo), an everyday left fielder (ahead of Fernando Tatis) or neither.
Hot seat: David Wright vowed improvement after going 0-for-4 in the season finale. Never mind that Wright had two-hit games in seven of the Mets’ final 10. That’s not good enough, because the expectations for him are simple: win a World Series.
Next: Outfielder Fernando Martinez looked great before straining his right elbow in the Caribbean Series. He’ll miss at least the first two weeks of spring training. Keep an eye on Brad Holt, a supplemental first-round pick last season and likely fast mover after striking out 96 in 72⅓ short-season innings.
First impression: The World (Bleeping) Champions – thank you, Chase Utley – return minus Pat Burrell, plus Raul Ibanez and with an additional $30 million on their payroll. Without a championship and its ancillary revenues, the Phillies would not have been able to bring the band back as they did – with Ryan Howard landing a three-year, $54 million contract, Ryan Madson signing a long-term deal and Jamie Moyer re-upping. Getting the 36-year-old Ibanez for three years was powdered sugar on the zeppole – though powdered sugar really isn’t that necessary, and it gets worse with age, and, well, you catch the drift.
Competition: The Phillies have plenty of options for the fifth-starter role (Kyle Kendrick, Chan Ho Park, Carlos Carrasco) and need to figure out who plays second before Utley’s return (Marcus Giles, Eric Bruntlett or shortstop prospect Jason Donald).
Hot seat: Brett Myers never was a great pitcher, even with some of the better stuff in the National League. He’s 28 now, right in his prime, and the Phillies can’t afford another subpar season from their supposed No. 2 starter. Neither, for that matter, can Myers: He’s a free agent next offseason.
Next: Carrasco is the Phillies’ best prospect, and Donald is right up there. One name to watch: Kyle Drabek, who is fully recovered following Tommy John surgery and has a curveball reminiscent of the one thrown by father Doug.
First impression: What’s that saying about lipstick on a pig? Well, this is Washington, so it’s probably not the best term to use, though it’s appropriate. The Nationals bolstered themselves with a player who had been released (Daniel Cabrera), another with a checkered past (Scott Olsen) and a third with back issues (Josh Willingham). There’s still time to salvage the offseason and bolster their future if they can convince Adam Dunn and/or Orlando Hudson to sign anything more than a one-year deal. Still, it won’t provide any sort of salvation. That’s a long way off for the worst team in baseball – likely two years’ running.
Competition: For a team that is quite dreadful, an awful lot of its positions are set. Anderson Hernandez will try to hold off Ronnie Belliard at second base and Joel Hanrahan takes over at closer with Saul Rivera and Steven Shell (.194 batting average against) ready to sub.
Hot seat: Bravo, Jim Bowden, for the ability to keep your job after a 102-loss season during which you were interviewed by the FBI about possible skimming of bonuses from Latin American players. Teflon Jim is in his fifth year as Nationals GM.
Next: All the talk of building a great farm system has been just that: a lot of talk. Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals’ top prospect, could join the rotation this season alongside Shairon Martis, who threw a seven-inning no-hitter against Panama in the first World Baseball Classic. Otherwise, the cupboard isn’t exactly overflowing.