Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the National League East.
It wasn’t all that long ago when the slickest shortstop in the neighborhood was Jose Reyes, the manager least likely to make it to Independence Day was Charlie Manuel, and the path to the division title was lined by peach trees and Jones boys.
A few September weeks changed all that. Most of it, anyway.
Jimmy Rollins, a couple months after out-pointing Matt Holliday for NL MVP, is promoting the Philadelphia Phillies as capable of 100 wins, a slight but significant promotion from mere team-to-beat stature. Reyes reports to camp still having to explain 10 oh-fers in the final four weeks of 2007, one stolen-base attempt in the final two weeks, and the glove (and disposition) that turned to granite. Manuel earned himself a contract extension that runs through 2009 (with an option for 2010) and pulled seven first-place votes for Manager of the Year, meaning Phillies fans now view Ol’ Cholly not as clueless, but as folksy again. Meanwhile, Willie Randolph had it all come down around him in September, and it appears he’s used up his entire benefit-of-the-doubt reserve in New York.
And, after 14 consecutive division titles (all but three in the East), the Atlanta Braves are two games over .500 the past two seasons, so they're building a row of third-place finishes.
In a typically flawed NL division, maybe Johan Santana is the difference.
Competition: The Braves are pretty sure Jurrjens is capable of taking the fifth spot, behind Smoltz, Hudson, Glavine and Chuck James. If not, Jo-Jo Reyes is a possibility. And the whole thing could change if Hampton were to surprise everyone and show up ready to pitch on opening day.
Healing: Since we last saw him, Hampton has undergone a couple elbow surgeries and a rehab-stunting hamstring injury. Omar Infante, a nice utility player, had hand surgery and probably will start the season on the DL.
Next: Escobar, the 25-year-old Cuban, takes over at shortstop and probably will bat leadoff, where he had a .351 batting average and .400 on-base percentage in 166 plate appearances as a rookie. After arriving in June, the energetic Escobar batted at least .305 in each of the final four months. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he should become a decent power threat as well.
Competition: Former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Jose Castillo, former Devil Rays and Cincinnati Reds infielder Jorge Cantu and journeyman Jason Wood are expected to vie for Cabrera’s old job at third base. The starting rotation, of course, is wide open. Mark Hendrickson, Miller, Rick VandenHurk and a couple guys from the Detroit trade, among others, will get shots at regular work.
Healing: Right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who at 23 still carries the promise of a rookie season that saw 10 wins, a 2.83 ERA and a no-hitter, is recovering from shoulder surgery, but not quickly enough to be ready for spring training. Presumably, his control problems early last season were due in part to the shoulder. Right-hander Josh Johnson (12 wins in ’06) likely will miss the entire season after Tommy John surgery and right-handed reliever Henry Owens, who was terrific last season before shoulder surgery, is expected to miss about half the season.
Next: Well, there’s a lot to choose from here. The Marlins surely hope it’s Maybin or Miller, the jewels of the Tigers trade. Maybin won’t be 21 until April 4, but is a big, strong man and won’t be rushed along by pennant-race demands. He batted .143 in 24 late-season games with the Tigers and hit one home run; to dead center field at Yankee Stadium off Roger Clemens. Miller, the 6-foot-6 lefty, had his moments in 13 starts for the Tigers last season, but 39 walks in 64 innings won’t cut it and right-handed hitters crushed him.
Competition: Like most contending teams with large payrolls, the Mets’ only battles are on the periphery. Where it once appeared there would be a two- or three-way contest for the fifth place in the rotation, the Santana addition (assuming terms are reached) eliminated that.
Healing: Second baseman Luis Castillo, who played well after being traded from the Minnesota Twins last summer, is expected to be at full strength following post-season arthroscopic knee surgery. The Mets clearly believed the injury wasn’t serious, signing him to a four-year, $25-million contract. Delgado’s miserable season ended a few innings before his teammates’ when Dontrelle Willis broke his hand with a pitch. He has recovered, but with age has come injuries for Delgado, who has had knee, shoulder and wrist issues in recent seasons. Next: A year ago, Lastings Milledge was in this spot. A day ago, Carlos Gomez was here. Now, with Alou aging in left, the Mets are waiting on another outfielder, Fernando Martinez, the 19-year-old left-handed hitter who was untouchable in the Santana negotiations. He batted .271 in 60 Double-A games last season.
Competition: Either Jenkins or Werth could certainly take the platoon out of right field. While he has had trouble staying on the field, Werth batted .298 in 94 games last season and is a better-than-average outfielder. But, he was not good against right-handed pitching, batting .257 (.375 against lefties) with 58 strikeouts in 167 at-bats. Similarly, Jenkins is a greater power threat against righties and last season (in limited at-bats) hit .215 against lefties.
Healing: Lidge is coming off surgery on his right knee, his push-off leg, and could be somewhat limited early in spring training. Right-hander Ryan Madson had shoulder issues last season and didn’t pitch after July. He is expected to be OK for spring and share setup innings with Tom Gordon.
Next: You already know about Kyle Kendrick, the right-hander who rolled out of Double-A last season, took the ball in mid-June and finish fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting. In a rotation that includes Cole Hamels and Myers at the top and Jamie Moyer in the middle, Kendrick’s continued development could mean the difference.
Competition: Thirteen different pitchers made starts, and John Patterson made only seven of them. If Patterson (elbow) is healthy, and Shawn Hill (elbow) is also healthy, then the rotation could be filled with any three from the likes of Jason Bergmann, Matt Chico, Tyler Clippard, Tim Redding, Garrett Mock and John Lannan, to name a few. The key is Patterson, who had a 3.13 ERA in 31 starts for the Nats in 2005 and has made 15 starts since. It looks like camp will start with Cristian Guzman at shortstop and Ronnie Belliard at second base, but the Nats would love to see Felipe Lopez bury a brutal 2007 season and retake the game and attitude that led to his 2005 All-Star season in Cincinnati.
Healing: Johnson (leg) is presumed to be at full strength and Patterson and Hill should be ready to go, as well. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has recovered from left wrist surgery and has been swinging a bat regularly. He played 162 games last season, a good portion of them bothered by the wrist. New catcher Paul Lo Duca’s knee surgery probably will cost him the first three weeks of spring training, one of the reasons the Nats are close to signing Johnny Estrada.
Next: Ross Detwiler, the 6-foot-5 lefty out of Missouri State, was the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft and pitched one big-league inning, in September. He’ll be a long shot to make the rotation out of camp, but could come quickly over the summer.