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.
First impression: John Schuerholz is still wandering the halls at 755 Hank Aaron Drive, but Frank Wren is sitting in the GM chair, meaning he (along with Bobby Cox) leads the club into more transition years. John Smoltz, Mark Teixeira, Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton could all be free agents at the end of the season, as could be newcomer Mark Kotsay, and Tim Hudson’s last guaranteed season is 2009. Jones will be 36 in April, Smoltz 41 in May and Glavine 42 in March. Also, Cox is coming up on 67 and working year to year. Kotsay is holding center field for as long as it takes Gorkys Hernandez or Jordan Schaefer to arrive, Hampton hasn’t taken the ball since Aug. 19, 2005, and Wren only hopes Glavine (4.45 ERA in 2007) has 30 starts left in that left arm. The Braves get a full season out of Teixeira, but it would be a colossal break in standard operating procedure if agent Scott Boras were to seriously consider a contract extension. Andruw Jones, who was dreadful in 2007, and Edgar Renteria (who combined to score 170 runs and drive in 151) are out, Kotsay and Yunel Escobar are in. A handful of scenarios – Jair Jurrjens sturdy in the rotation, health from Kotsay, Jones and Hampton, Rafael Soriano thriving in the ninth– will have to fall the Braves’ way to stay with the Phillies and the Mets. But, it’s possible, perhaps even likely.
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.
First impression: In another offseason of pained martyrdom, the Marlins traded their offensive anchor (Miguel Cabrera) and their clubhouse anchor (Dontrelle Willis), plugged in a couple more service-time pretties (Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller) and started the clock on Hanley Ramirez’s free agency (four years and counting). It’s OK though, as they’re not scheduled to rise up and win another World Series for at least a couple years. Meantime, they’re still beating the new-ballpark drum, raising individual-game ticket prices and actually outspent one other franchise last season (OK, it was Tampa Bay). There is no debating the talent here, starting with Ramirez, who, given a payroll and a pennant race, would have given J-Roll a run at MVP. As it was, he finished 10th, five places ahead of the departed and well-paid Cabrera. Injuries, learning curves and the unexplainable (Willis) conspired to turn a once-and-briefly promising rotation into the worst in the NL last season, backed up by the worst defense in the league. The big questions, if the Marlins are to hang again with the Washington Nationals, is how they’ll pitch the first five or six innings every night, and who picks up the offense for Cabrera.
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.
First impression: Quite the fall dynamic the Mets have going. Two Octobers ago, it was the NLCS and the average St. Louis Cardinals. And last September, well, you remember. Suffice to say they were still paper-toweling oil off the seagulls in Flushing before Santana hit Tuesday. So, one wonders about Randolph and his ability to lead these men, in this city, under these circumstances. One wonders about Reyes, what exactly happened there, and if it could again. One wonders about Carlos Delgado, and where plate discipline goes to die, and whether Pedro Martinez can run it out there 30 times a season, and if Santana can save the rotation, and if that would even be enough. Even as the Santana drama neared a conclusion, the Mets were still believed to be dabbling in ways to strengthen their starting pitching. Livan Hernandez was a possibility, along with Kyle Lohse, Bartolo Colon, Kris Benson and, perhaps, Joe Blanton. By dealing Lastings Milledge, they became more consistent in right field (Ryan Church) and more discerning at catcher (Brian Schneider), which alone should aid the staff. The Mets have extreme talent in David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Reyes and Delgado, and a still-productive bat in Moises Alou, so they will score runs again. The Santana element could be enough to convince the Mets they’re the beasts again.
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.
First impression: An interesting game, baseball. The Phillies won one more regular-season game than the Mets did, were swept in the division series, and yet open camp with all kinds of buoyancy. See what a few September wins can do for a franchise? Actually, the Phillies had one losing month last season (April, again). In fact, since September 2004, the Phillies have had four losing months, three of them Aprils. So, maybe it’s time to crank up the intensity in those February intra-squads? There’s something really special about a guy who not only runs his mouth, but runs it about team and not self, and then goes out and takes the MVP award. Rollins helps the Phillies do what they can at Citizens Bank Park, the prototypical hitter's park, which is to score runs and catch the ball and let the pitching fall where it may. A hundred wins is a reach, but there are plenty of wins to be had in the NL. The Phillies led the league in runs and OPS and were third in fielding percentage, lost heart-guy Aaron Rowand, but regained some offense by signing Pedro Feliz for third base. Shane Victorino picks up for Rowand in center and Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth look headed for a platoon in right. The first five spots in the order – Rollins, Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell – will produce a lot of runs, and the Brad Lidge trade allowed Manuel to return Brett Myers to the rotation. If Lidge can handle the ninth inning again, and in a ballpark that allows for few mistakes, the Phillies should be better for it. The bad news: Lidge’s ERA in August and September was more than 5, which suggests he isn’t completely back to where he was. The good news: In 10 appearances at Citizens Bank Park, he’s allowed one earned run.
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.
First impression: As they enter their fourth season in Washington, the Nats are making noise about becoming a large-market entity, but most of that is beneath the big-league level. They’ve vastly improved the farm system under Jim Bowden, and by all accounts had a strong 2007 draft. That’s all fine, and the honeymoon in D.C. will extend through the inaugural season in the new ballpark, but the matter of NL East contention remains. The Nats were last in the league in runs and home runs last season, next-to-last in starting pitchers ERA and in the bottom third in fielding percentage, and somehow turned that into something other than last place. The plan is to go to camp with a smaller, more talented core of pitchers, trimming from the 37 who knocked around big-league camp a year ago. That still leaves a lot of decisions and few sure things, meaning more inconsistency in a division that has some top-end pitching. Off-season acquisitions of Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes were signature Bowden moves, coming only months after the trade for Wily Mo Pena, whose addition followed Dmitri Young’s. That, of course, leads to a whole different problem: Nick Johnson, a developing .300 hitter with decent power and better on-base tendencies, appears to have healed from the broken leg that washed out 2007. He only plays first base, however, as does Young. One of them – Johnson, probably – will have to be traded, unless the Nats suddenly have the urge to platoon two $5 million players or use one for late-inning at-bats. Contributing to the decision, Young has signed up to mentor Dukes, a troubled and talented soul who is Bowden’s latest project.
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.