Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 15, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the National League East.
They hit the ball just fine in most of the NL East, and the feeling for going on three months now is the first team to a fully formed pitching staff wins.
Leaving the Washington Nationals out of it for now, each of the top four finishers in 2006 was flawed in the starting rotation (New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves) or the bullpen (Braves again, Florida Marlins).
So, in a division where the Phillies, Braves and Mets were Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the league in runs, each hit at least 200 home runs and had a 40-plus homer guy, and where the Mets and Phillies each had two players score at least 122 runs, they're all now banking on new pitchers getting comfortable, old pitchers holding on or getting healthy, or young pitchers getting mature.
First impression: Run out of the top spot in one division or another for the first time since 1990 and up against re-energized franchises in New York, Philadelphia and Florida, GM John Schuerholz and the Braves went back to work on their bullpen, which they've made one of the best in the league. They re-signed Bob Wickman, traded for left-hander Mike Gonzalez (costing them power-hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche), stole right-hander Rafael Soriano (for Horacio Ramirez) and took a chance on right-hander Tanyon Sturtze, who had shoulder surgery last May and probably won't pitch again until this May. Even without LaRoche, scoring shouldn't be a problem for the Braves. And if they can get Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton to be close to dominant again, they will stay with the Mets and Phillies.
Competition: Kelly Johnson, who is being converted from a left fielder to a second baseman, has first shot at replacing Marcus Giles at second and in the lead-off spot. If he struggles, Willy Aybar, Pete Orr and Martin Prado won't be far. At first base, Scott Thorman, a left-handed hitter the Braves believe will develop consistent power (he's 6-foot-3, 235 pounds), steps in for LaRoche. Veteran Craig Wilson was signed as depth at first and in the outfield corners, but first base could become a platoon if Thorman doesn't hit lefties.
Healing: Mike Hampton, ladies and gentlemen. The former 22-game winner threw his last pitch Aug. 19, 2005, part way through the fourth inning of an 11-hit, seven-run debacle that led to Tommy John surgery and a year-and-a-half recovery. Meanwhile, pitching coach Leo Mazzone ran off to Baltimore and in 2006 Braves starters posted a 4.71 ERA, or one one-hundredth of a run better than the Colorado Rockies. Hampton will start spring with the rest of the pitchers.
Next: Right-hander Blaine Boyer, a hard thrower who was being considered in a set-up role last spring, pitched two games in the first week of April and then was gone because of a shoulder injury. There won't be any need for him in the late innings anymore, but he could lend another arm to the Braves' bullpen, an emerging strength.
First impression: The early drama of whether the torn-asunder Marlins would challenge the 1962 Mets was gone by early summer, replaced by the spectacle that was a no-name roster and an out-of-favor manager and a surge that had them three games over .500 and in the wild-card race in September. Remarkably, they did it without a monster year from Dontrelle Willis, whose pitches lacked bite coming out of the WBC, though he still pitched a lot of innings and posted a respectable ERA. Of the five pitchers who could follow Willis in the rotation – Scott Olsen and Anibal Sanchez are locks, Josh Johnson is recovering from biceps and forearm ailments, Ricky Nolasco could become the closer, and Sergio Mitre is waiting for it all to play out – only Olsen has as many as 30 starts or 200 innings in the big leagues.
Competition: If spring training is nothing else for the Marlins and new manager Fredi Gonzalez, it will be an all-hands tryout for closer. The Armando Benitez rumors still percolate. More likely, Gonzalez will choose from left-hander Taylor Tankersley and right-handers Henry Owens, Matt Lindstrom, Randy Messenger and Nolasco. In center field, Alex Sanchez, Eric Reed and Reggie Abercrombie vie for the starting spot, with Alfredo Amezaga returning to a backup middle-infield role.
Healing: Rookie of the Year shortstop Hanley Ramirez strained his throwing shoulder while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and first baseman Mike Jacobs is tending to a persistent ankle injury that limited his playing time. They are expected to be ready for spring training, making Johnson, one of six Marlins to receive Rookie of the Year votes, the focal point in the trainers' room.
Next: A lot was expected of right fielder Jeremy Hermida in his first full season and he was one of the few young Marlins who didn't immediately take to the big-league game. It appeared he never recovered from an April hip injury, and an ankle injury limited him to five at-bats after August, so his breakout probably comes a year later.
First impression: Just how the Mets lost a National League Championship Series in which they led in six of seven games, John Maine beat Chris Carpenter, and Oliver Perez won once and could have won twice remains a mystery to them and, also, a remarkable achievement for the St. Louis Cardinals. Since then, a lot of pitchers who might have helped the Mets have come and gone, leaving them with Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, a lot of eyes on Pedro Martinez and their own healthy trust in Maine, Oliver and rookie right-handers Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber. The Mets will score runs and defend adequately, so building the rotation is a priority. The depth there could be better than last season, when 13 different pitchers started at least three games, including Jose Lima and Geremi Gonzalez.
Competition: There is a place in the rotation for Pelfrey or Humber, and it's not out of the question they both win a spot. Pelfrey, the 6-foot-7 23-year-old, has a mid-90s fastball that sinks and a big-league changeup. Humber, who is 24, doesn't throw as hard, but he has a polished curveball. Left-hander Jason Vargas, acquired in a winter trade with the Florida Marlins, and veteran right-hander Chan Ho Park will make it a four-man contest for one or two places.
Healing: Martinez's right shoulder gave out near the end of last season, when an assortment of injuries limited him to 23 starts and pushed his ERA to a career-high 4.48. Most predictions set his return at mid-season. Reliever Duaner Sanchez has recovered from a separated shoulder suffered in the hours before the trading deadline. And Guillermo Mota, who was suspended for the first 50 games of 2007 because he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, will be back in late May.
Next: Lastings Milledge, 21 and whip-lashed by the New York hype-and-burn apparatus, looks to be headed back to Triple-A, where the club hopes he'll mature. Endy Chavez is the fourth outfielder and versatile David Newhan probably is the fifth. Still, the Mets, who enter the season with 40-year-old Moises Alou in left and 34-year-old Shawn Green in right, are thinking big for Milledge, once touted as a 30-30 talent. Green is in the final year of his contract and thinking hard about retiring after the season.
First impression: The Phillies had 12 games to make up in the East – or three in the wild-card race – and went straight for starting pitching, re-signing Jamie Moyer before October was done, signing Adam Eaton in November and trading for Freddy Garcia in early December. Despite speculation right-hander Jon Lieber – who, at $7.5 million for 2007, is a relative bargain – would be traded, the Phillies enter camp with six starters. Or, at the very least, six pitchers who expect to start. Considering the fragile middle finger on Eaton's throwing hand, an ailment that has hindered the pitcher's past two seasons, GM Pat Gillick would be wise to keep an alternate starter close by. The Phillies do have a lot going for them; stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the right side of their infield, beloved gamer Aaron Rowand in center field, charismatic Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, developing ace Cole Hamels in their rotation and a pitching staff that, as a whole, was better as the season went on. All that's left is a jump from pretty good – they've won 85 to 88 games in five of the past six seasons but not made the playoffs since 1993 – to very good, a step that will depend on their bullpen.
Competition: Lieber could eventually go for a reliever (as could Rowand), but in the meantime the final spot in the rotation is his or Eaton's, with the odd man out taking a role in the bullpen. Eaton's power arm could be a better fit there. Meanwhile, they'll need a setup man for closer Tom Gordon, which probably will fall to Antonio Alfonseca, Geoff Geary or Ryan Madson. Rod Barajas and Carlos Ruiz are side by side at catcher, though Barajas should win that job.
Healing: Rowand's season of living dangerously ended in late August, accessorized by crutches. Three months after running face first into the center-field wall in Philadelphia and missing two weeks for it, Rowand collided with Utley, broke his ankle and subsequently had surgery. He'll be fine for spring training. Fellow outfielder Jayson Werth missed a good portion of 2005 and all of 2006 with a wrist injury.
Next: After feeling his way through nine first-half starts, Hamels, 23, was borderline brilliant in his next 14. In the National League, only teammate Brett Myers had more than Hamels' 101 strikeouts after the break, and Myers had only six more in 12 1/3 more innings. Hamels' season arc showed a young pitcher becoming more confident in the strike zone, walking 24 in 44 2/3 innings in the first half and 24 in about twice the innings in the second.
First impression: Nationals management has kept the locals curious – and more than mildly alarmed – by referencing the Detroit Tigers, who covered the ground from 119-game losers to World Series contestants in just three years. The Nationals have chosen the admirable route of fiscal sanity and farm system dependence (at least until the new ballpark money starts rolling in), a strategy they might have considered before swapping Alfonso Soriano for a place in the June draft. They made things interesting in the East two years ago, when they finished last but at .500, fell to an uninteresting 91 losses last year, and now seem to be in way over their heads. It's a big job for new manager Manny Acta.
Competition: Everything after John Patterson, who had elbow surgery in July, and Shawn Hill, who continued to have elbow problems two years after Tommy John surgery and made only six starts last season, is in play in the starting rotation. Right-handers Jerome Williams, Tim Redding, Joel Hanrahan and Jerome Williams and left-handers Billy Traber, Chris Michalak and Mike Hinckley, among others, are being considered. Travis Lee and Larry Broadway will compete for time at first base until Nick Johnson is recovered from his broken leg. Ryan Church can be had in a trade, opening left field for Chris Snelling or Kory Casto.
Healing: Johnson, who broke his leg in late September, will miss at least a month of the season. Cristian Guzman missed the 2006 season because of shoulder surgery, but is back and will start at shortstop, pushing Felipe Lopez to second base. Further stressing the Nationals' thin starting pitching, left-hander Mike O'Connor (elbow surgery) is expected to miss two or three months and Brandon Claussen (shoulder surgery) more than that.
Next: Casto is a decent-sized third baseman whose progress ultimately was blocked by Ryan Zimmerman, bringing him to camp as a corner outfielder. He hit at least 20 home runs in his past two minor-league seasons, when he also showed a willingness to walk.