Friday

3-20-09: 2009 MLB Preview: NL East

Hello again everybody...

Welcome to the end of the week. I hope you're all set for a fun weekend. For me? I'm approximately 26 hours from being wheels-up for Phoenix, and I couldn't be more excited. Obviously I'm excited to see my folks. And I can't wait to catch some Spring Training baseball.

I'm also pumped because today marks the first in a series of columns previewing the 2009 MLB season. April 6th is Opening Day in the big leagues, and between now and then I'll be breaking down each division and finally telling you who I expect to win the whole thing!

If you want a refresher of my pre-season thoughts from last year, you can read them here. In several cases I was pretty close (check out my thoughts on the Cubs), and in several more cases, I was comically wrong (see: Seattle, Florida and Tampa Bay - though I defy anyone to say they saw the Rays coming!).

But hopefully, right or wrong, you found those descriptions entertaining. And I hope that you find my 2009 MLB Preview equally as entertaining. So let's not dilly-dally, let's get to the previewing!

"It's amazing what you accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
- Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), 33rd President of the United States


THAT must have been my problem last year. I cared too much about getting credit for my picks. So I'm officially announcing that I'll give credit to any and all who read these preview columns for any picks I get right! (Think that'll work?)

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As I said, today marks the kickoff of the 2009 MLB Preview columns. Last year I did it all in one big lump and it turned into an epic post. Epic here having the meaning of "longer than anyone should be forced to wade through". So this year I'm doing one division per column, and then a 7th and final preview column dealing with the playoffs.

So we kick off the 2009 MLB Preview with the division of the 2008 champs. So without further ado...

2009 MLB Preview - National League East

1. Philadelphia Phillies - Last year the Phillies finished 92-70, won the NL East, won the NL Pennant and won the World Series.

In my 2008 Preview, I questioned the Phills rotation and bullpen. And as it turned out those two parts of the ball club matured into the core of a World Series Champion.

In 2009 the Phills return their top 4 starters of a year ago: Cole Hamels, Brett Meyers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton. That's still an awfully solid starting rotation. Hamels has been bothered with some arm trouble this Spring, but at worst it seems it would only prevent him from making the Opening day start. And yes, Moyer is another year older, but at this point, can he really throw any slower? As long as he maintains his ability to locate his pitches, he'll be fine.

Their bullpen is anchored by closer Brad Lidge who was perfect in save opportunities last year. Missing from their pen is J.C. Romero who was suspended under MLB's performance enhancing drug policy. That may actually make their bullpen better.

As for their line-up, last year I worried that Ryan Howard's contract situation would create some problems in the clubhouse. Then I turned around and voted for him for MVP. Guess those problems never came to fruition. All the big bats from last year are back again: Howard, Rollins and Utley (who appears to be ready to go for Opening Day after undergoing off-season surgery). Plus they retained the guy who I thought should've been the World Series MVP: Shane Victorino. Plus the Phills have added Raul Ibanez who not only brings a solid left-handed bat to the line-up, but also improves the Left Field defense after the departure of Pat Burrell.

(Aside: I'd like to take this opportunity to personally thank Phillies management for bringing Ibanez to the National League so he can stop killing the Twins every time they see him. Thank you!)

Bottom Line: Not a lot of changes from a team that won the World Series last year. They say it's far tougher to defend a title than it is to win it in the first place. The Phillies will have to adjust to that pressure this year, but I think they have at least enough to defend their NL East title.

2. New York Mets - Last year the Mets finished 89-73, in second place in the NL East and failed to make the playoffs.

The Metropolitans were my pick to win the division last year. I thought the addition of Johan Santana would be enough to put them over the top. Unfortunately, I didn't take into account their bullpen being as bad as it was.

And oh boy did they go out and fix that. First they signed Francisco Rodriguez from the Angels. All he did last year was set the single-season record for saves. Then they worked a trade with the Mariners for their closer J.J. Putz. K-Rod will be the Mets' closer and Putz will be setting him up. That effectively makes it a 7 inning game for the Mets' opponents. If the Mets are still ahead going into the 8th, those two can pretty effectively put the baby to sleep.

The trouble for the Mets is going to be getting it to that 8th inning with a lead. After Johan Santana (who's elbow doesn't appear to be very trustworthy at this point), the rotation gets sketchy in a hurry. Mike Pelfry, Oliver Perez and John Maine fill out their top four. And the favorite for that coveted 5th starter spot? Livan Hernandez. Yikes.

The line-up gives every appearance of being solid again, so maybe the Mets can just flat outscore other teams. Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado looked fantastic in the WBC, so maybe they can bounce back this year. Jose Reyes and David Wright should provide the speed and power necessary to score some runs.

Bottom Line: I like the Mets, I think they can win a lot of games. But there's no way that rotation matches up with the Phillies, who should be equally adept at scoring runs. The Mets should be in the hunt for a Wild Card berth, but I see them finishing 2nd in the NL East.

3. Atlanta Braves - Last year the Braves finished 72-90, in 4th place in the NL East and missed the playoffs.

The Braves are a lot of prognosticators' "sleeper pick" this year. And it's not hard to see why.

They improved their rotation markedly with the addition of Derrick Lowe (who's been lights-out this Spring) and Javier Vasquez. They also added Garret Anderson's bat to their line-up and will have the opportunity to develop Casey Kotchman for an entire year at first base.

But given the line-ups at the top of the divisions that they have to compete with, I just don't see how the Braves are going to score enough runs to contend. Chipper Jones is aging and dinged up from the WBC. Brian McCann is a nice player, but expecting your catcher to anchor your line-up is always a crap-shoot (see: Mauer, Joe). And who knows which Jeff Francoeur is going to show up this year?

Then you look at their bullpen. Mike Gonzalez will do their closing, and he's pretty solid. Manny Acosta and Rafael Soriano are there to help in the late innings. Nothing wrong there. But like most bullpens it thins out quickly after those guys.

Bottom Line: I like the Braves. I'd like to see them sneak ahead of the Mets. But they're going to need several dominoes falling just right in their line-up if they hope to contend for the division title.

4. Florida Marlins - Last year the Marlins finished 84-77, in 3rd place in the NL East and missed the playoffs.

The Florida freaking Marlins surprised a lot of people, myself included, last year by contending late into the year. SS Hanley Ramirez developed into an elite, 5-tool player. 2B Dan Uggla had an outstanding first half, and then a disappointing second half. Jorge Cantu did a nice job for the Fish as well, splitting time between 3rd and 1st.

This year, the Marlins are expected to have super-rookie Cameron Maybin in center field and batting lead-off. Cantu is moving to 1st base full-time as the Marlins have handed the 3rd base job to Dallas McPherson.

Once again, it's the pitching that's a huge question mark. Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller form the core of a talented, but young rotation. They could be solid, or they could experience some serious growing pains.

And the bullpen, outside of closer Matt Lindstrom (who was also on the WBC injury float), is not exactly confidence-inspiring.

Bottom Line: The Marlins exceeded expectations last year, but didn't keep pace this off-season. I hate to say it, but they seem primed for a backwards step this year. I hope I'm wrong. Especially since it finally seems like their getting some help on their new ballpark initiative.

5. Washington Nationals - Last year the Nationals were 59-102, in last place in the NL East and with the worst record in all of Major League Baseball.

They say that every team's going to win 60 and lose 60, so it's what you do with the other 42 games that determines your season. Well the Nats couldn't even pull that off last year. 59 freaking wins? In a brand new ballpark?! Come on Washington! That's just bush!

And this off-season hasn't done anything to think that they'll be improved this year. G.M. Jim Bowden resigned after he was implicated in a scandal involving the skimming of bonuses paid to Latin American players. And as of yet, he hasn't been officially replaced.

That means there's been little change to a roster which only won 59 games last year. I have to keep repeating that to make sure I believe it. 59-freaking-games. Good lord that's horrible.

The one major addition they made was to sign Adam Dunn. Dunn brings a big bat, a ton of strikeouts and a questionable glove to a team that certainly didn't need the latter two on that list. It brings to mind one of Dark Star's favorite sayings: putting Adam Dunn on the Nationals is like putting a butler in front of your pup tent.

The rest of their line-up is suspect. Their rotation is awful. And their bullpen is anchored by closer Joel Hanrahan whom I only remember from getting shelled in the WBC.

Bottom Line: The Nats were awful last year, and will continue to be awful this year. It's a shame. The nation's capitol deserves better baseball than this.

There you have it folks. Mark it down. The Phills repeat in the NL East!

That does it for today. I'm back on Monday with more of the 2009 MLB Preview. Should I tell you which division is next? How about a hint. I started with one World Series participant. Maybe there's a pattern there! Until then, thanks for reading!

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