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 will look at a division each day this week and hold a conversation about the issues therein. Up next is the NL East, featuring a race you may have seen before. (To read more on this race, check out the division debate 'Duk moderated over on SB Nation.)

'Duk: Three previews down, Dave and three to go. I'm glancing at our cribs sheets, though, and it doesn't look like we're going to have as spirited debate as we did over in the AL East and NL West. Since we're both picking the Phillies to win this division for a third season in a row, can we safely say that we're employing a "fool me once ..." stance toward those Mets?

David Brown: The Mets just ain't that good, 'Duk! Daniel Murphy might be OK in left field. Ryan Church is OK in right. Luis Castillo is barely OK at second. Brian Schneider is OK behind the plate. The starting pitching is OK after Johan Santana. The bullpen will light you on fire just as soon as they pitch, and that includes Francisco Rodriguez. Just start the count 2-1, because K-Rod usually gets there anyway. The Mets have great players at third, at short, in center and on the mound every fifth day. The rest of them make me shrug my shoulders. Heck, can I put the Marlins second?

'Duk: Hey pal, it's your funeral. But if you hate the Mets' team that much, I'm not sure I want to hear what you have to say about the Phillies. We're both picking them to win the division again, but I'd need a lifetime's bribe of Tony Luke's to say this is a repeat World Series winner. The health of Chase Utley and Cole Hamels makes me nervous, the biggest offseason acquisition was 188-year-old Raul Ibanez and J.C. Romero's been rewarded with a nice 50-game vacation to start the season. Plus, can you please explain to me how they're going to get over allowing So Taguchi to get away?

Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood here. I love that Ryan Madson-Brad Lidge 1-2 punch to close games, but I still don't understand how the four starters behind Cole Hamels put themselves in a position to earn rings last fall. It'll take a little more than a good spring from Brett Myers to convince me he's back. As much as I hate to ask this, heck, can I just join Sports Illustrated and pick  the Mets to win the World Series?

DB: Align yourself with Sports Illustrated if you want. It's the same organization that picked the Tigers to win the World Series last year. Perhaps their worst prediction since tabbing those '87 Indians. And then, after the Tigers went 0-for-April, SI changed its mind to the Cubs. We're still waiting for Lou to win a playoff game, aren't we?

Anyway, we were talking about the NL East. Just as it's foolish to cast your lot with the Mets until they win something, it's silly to resist the Phillies. You pointed out some question marks, but the fury with which Utley is returning from his injury makes me expect an MVP-caliber season. Utley, J-Roll and Ryan Howard all played poorly during huge chunks of 2008 and the Phils were still greater than the sum of their parts. Ibanez, no matter how old he is, is an improvement most ways over Pat the Bat. And don't tell me about elderly players. Jamie Moyer, your great grandfather, gets outs just as well as any of the whippersnappers in the Mets rotation. And if any Met ever displays half the enthusiasm of Shane Victorino, knock me over with a feather.

'Duk: You're not going to get all David Eckstein on us while talking about Mr. No Questions Asked, are you? Anyway, I do like the Phillies to win this division because that Utley-Ryan Howard-Jimmy Rollins infield is the stuff dreams are made of. I dunno, maybe it's just all that time I spent in Philly last October that's rubbing off and making me look for the cliff ahead. Still don't think they're repeating as WFCs, though.

Let's move onto another question: Will the Mets finally lock down the NL wild card bid that  should've belonged to them (at least) the past two seasons? I say they do, only because I probably like Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez more than you do and I think you're downplaying the additions of K-Rod and J.J. Putz. Throw in a possibly productive Carlos Delgado and you're looking at a team that could be dangerous once the postseason rolls around. Santana could well pull off a 2009 impersonation of Cole Hamels, you know.

DB: I actually like the NL West runner-up to make it an interesting horse race for the wild card spot but, yes, I have a mild confidence that the Mets will make the playoffs. Putz and K-Rod have to be better than Luis Ayala and Skip Lockwood, or whomever that was holding/burning the fort in ninth innings last year. The rest of the NL East probably won't threaten for the playoffs, but those Fish are tricky. Despite yet another off-season fire sale of sorts, I'm thinking they're going to celebrate the new stadium deal by playing like a contender. Ricky Nolasco is going to be an All-Star, Josh Johnson is ready to fulfill his potential and Chris Volstad is real tall. And and I love "Ponch and" John Baker behind the plate. Their lineup is really pretty good if Maybin sticks and plays well and Emilio Bonifacio can hack it at third base. I'm not real sure why Emilio is on his third organization already, but anyone traded by Jim Bowden is a friend of mine.

'Duk: The Marlins are one of those teams that I annually underestimate, but since Dan Uggla gave me the business on my anti-hip bump campaign last summer, I'm picking the Braves ahead of the Marlins for third.

OK, maybe that's not the sole reason why. Atlanta was dumped more times than old coffee grounds this offseason but they still came out of it with a few nice prizes. Say what you will about Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez (and we'll both say plenty about the latter), but they're the exact type of innings eaters that the Braves have been missing the past few seasons. Jair Jurrjens is a great fit for that third spot and that Kenshin Kawakami/Tom Glavine duo might surprise some people down at the bottom of the rotation. I'm pretty non-plussed with the Braves lineup, but I still think Bobby Cox can outduel his protege Fredi Gonzalez down the stretch, especially if this Jordan Schafer stud comes through in the outfield.

DB: I dunno about the Braves. I thought they've been doing it with mirrors for years and now they're finally just putting a big pane of glass out there in left field. OK, that's really Garret Anderson, which gives them him, your guy Schafer and Jeff Francoeur in the outfield. Just doesn't do much for me. Sure, they have the Canada-hating Chipper Jones at third, one of the best hitting catchers in Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson is the bargain second baseman everyone at work can agree on. But Casey Kotchman, like the outfield, bores the snot out of me. It just doesn't sound like a lot of runs. And Chipper, it's been about five years since he played a full season. On his way to the Hall of Fame, no matter if he lost that country's vote. Bobby Cox, isn't there a gold-plated golf cart out there with your name on it?

'Duk: Which brings us to the Washington Nationals. I talked with our boss Jamie Mottram earlier tonight and he told me he had drafted five Nats players onto his fantasy team. Sadly, I had to inform him that he had just completed  a team poised to shock the world  a draft that had robbed him of his entry fee. I'd like to be positive about the Nats, as I think it'd be pretty cool if Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes had breakout seasons, but I don't see it happening. Realistically, what we're looking at is a team that's going to provide us plenty of drama in the Stephen Strasburg Derby and give the Padres a bit of company in the National League cellar. Maybe we'll even see a moonshot or five off Adam Dunn's bat to Sheffield Avenue when they come calling to play the Cubs this season. Seems like we always do. 

DB: "Which brings us to the Washington Nationals?" That's really the worst transition ever, 'Duk. Saved for the worst organization ever? I think a case could be made.

'Duk: Gimme a break, Deebo. It's late and I want to rejoin my razor-sharp wit, which is already in bed. So, hurry, what do you think of the Nats?

DB: I used to have a personal French-Canadian love affair with the Montreal Expos, but then they moved to our nation's capital and became corrupted by aliens, or whatever has passed for Nats management. The only thing they have gotten right is the "W" on the cap — which they stole from the Senators.

Fortunately, the dickie-clad Jim Bowden is out and maybe Warshington can make some more changes we can believe in. Our Dead Dawg himself, the Felonious and Very Dishonorable Elijah Dukes, has paid his bills and is primed for a breakout season. If he just stays away from The Law, he'll go 30-30 for the Nats. If he's one of Mr. Irrelevant's roto picks, I like it. Same thing if Ryan Zimmerman is playing third for him. Already 1,753 at-bats before age 24. Bitten by the injury bug last year. I also like the catcher, Jesus Flores (you don't mess with the Jesus) and I've been a big John Lannan fan ever since the White Album. Adam Dunn will help them score runs. The over-under on Nick Johnson's major injury is June 15. I've seen more impressive pitching staffs in places like Toledo and Indianapolis. That is as nice as I can possibly be about the club that soiled the legacy of Tim Wallach. 

* * *

NL East predicted order of finish

'Duk: 1. Phillies, 2. Mets, 3. Braves, 4. Marlins, 5. Nationals

DB: 1. Phillies, 2. Mets, 3. Marlins, 4. Braves, 5. Expos

NL East MVP

'Duk: David Wright, Mets

DB: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

NL East Cy Young

'Duk: Johan Santana, Mets

DB: Johan Santana, Mets

NL East Rookie of the Year

'Duk: Jordan Schafer, Braves

DB:  Cameron Maybin, Marlins

* * *

Coming Saturday — The AL Central

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