Monday

3-22-10: 2010 MLB Preview - NL East

Hello again everybody...

Well... I'm back.

No, not at work. That, fortunately, will wait until tomorrow. But I am back in the Cities after a fantastic week in Arizona.

I have to take a moment to thank my folks for showing me such a great time. Sure, it was mostly a matter of plunking me down in front of as many Spring Training games as they could manage, but that's not cheap, and as usual, they spoiled me rotten.

Thanks Mom and Dad for everything you've done and continue to do for me. I love you guys. You're the best!

As I said, my vacation was fantastic. But as with most trips, there comes a time when you're ready to get back home. And I'll let you know just as soon as that happens.

I'm kidding... mostly.

Ready or not, I'm back and there's writing to be done! But before I get to today's column, I want to mention 3 things.

First of all, I'd like to thank all of you that took the time to drop me a note about the new title and layout. I love getting feedback - good or bad - and I'm thrilled that most of you seem to like the changes. Hopefully the page will keep evolving as time goes along and keep getting better!

Secondly, I've got to offer up a few words on the big Joe Mauer news yesterday. The contract extension is finally done. 8 years, $184 million. $23 million per year. It's an astonishing number, and awfully hard to get one's head around. But given what the baseball market will bear, it's probably the correct number.

8 years means he'll be a Twin until he's 35. That's definitely on the down-side for catchers. But given Mauer's abilities, he'll be able to DH or play infield well into his 30's.

Already I've heard questions about whether it's too much. Have the Twins hamstrung themselves for the future? Is this another Kevin Garnett deal, where the Twins keep their superstar, but aren't able to add pieces around him?

Two critical differences. There's no salary cap in baseball. The Twins can spend as much as they want on players. The Wolves didn't have that luxury. And two, the Wolves didn't have a new, large source of revenue start coming in when they signed KG. Target Field is what made this signing possible. And it's what's going to allow the Twins to stay competitive over the course of Mauer's contract.

The deal took longer than I'd prefer. But I couldn't be more happy that it's finally done. Congratulations to Joe. Congratulations to the Twins. And most importantly (to me), congratulations to Twins fans everywhere. This is a good thing folks. Enjoy it.

Thirdly, I've been asked by a few of you why there wasn't a DFTU on Friday. When I do the MLB Preview columns, there isn't much time/room for the regular features, so I usually skip them. But I'll make a special dispensation for one particular member of the DFT's.

As many of you know, the Maple Grove Crimson bowed out in their opener at the State Tournament. It was a tough loss for the Crimson as they had an early lead, but couldn't hold on in the second half. I know the players and coaches feel like it was an opportunity missed, but for every opportunity you miss, you gain one in return. Learning how to deal with disappointment and adversity is never fun, and it's rarely an opportunity you welcome. But you deal with the path in front of you, not the one you'd prefer to be on.

For the six seniors on the club, it's especially tough, but playing organized sports is as much about learning life-lessons as it is about competing. Sometimes life is going to throw you some chin-music. When it does you can charge the mound and get suspended and fined, or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and smoke a line drive back up the middle that forces the pitcher to eat some dirt.

(Can you tell I've been watching a lot of baseball?)

I know my brother. I know how he teaches and coaches. As much as this loss will eat at him for a while, I'm confident that he'll learn and grow from it. And I know he'll pass that example along to his players and students.

It sucks to get so close and lose. But we have to remember that in order to get into a position to experience that heartache, there had to be a whole lot of success that led up to it. It's the journey, not the destination, right?

I couldn't be more proud of you, Mark. Congratulations on an excellent season!

On to today's column. We continue the 2010 MLB Preview columns, this time focusing on the NL East. Last year the Phillies repeated as division champs and made another trip to the World Series. Can they make it three in a row? Are the Marlins or the Braves ready to knock them off their perch? Are the Mets going to rebound from a disastrous 2009?

Let's get to the prognosticating!

”I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them.”
- Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), English novelist


WftC Translation: I don't like people that much.

Well put, Jane. Well put.

«Read the rest of the column by clicking on the title»


Time for the second in my series...

2010 MLB Preview: NL East

If you'd like to review last year's NL East Preview you can do so here.

As for how I think they'll finish this year? Let's just say that I think things are going to look a whole lot like they did in 2009...

1. Philadelphia Phillies: Last year the Phillies went 93-69. They won the NL East, won the NL Pennant, and lost to the Yankees in the World Series.

There's just no question that the Phillies are the class of this division. I hate to use the cliché, but they truly don't rebuild, they reload.

Last year, they needed another arm in their rotation, so they went out and traded for Cliff Lee. This year, they finally were able to work out a deal to bring Roy Halladay over from Toronto, so they shipped Lee off to Seattle. Last year, they had trouble finding someone to hold down the 3rd base spot. This year they went out and got Placido Polanco from the Tigers.

(Aside: For the second year in a row, I'd like to thank Phillies management for bringing over a guy from the AL that used to kill the Twins. Last year it was Raul Ibanez. This year it's Polanco. Thanks Phillies! We in Twins Territory love what you're doing. Keep it up!)

If anybody thought the transition from former GM Ed Wade to current GM Ruben Amaro was going to be troublesome, think again.

Let's run down their line-up: SS Jimmy Rollins (All-Star, Gold Glover, 2007 MVP), 3B Placido Polanco (All-Star, Gold Glover), 2B Chase Utley (4-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger), 1B Ryan Howard (All-Star, 2006 MVP, 2005 Rookie of the Year), RF Jayson Werth (All-Star, playing for a new contract), LF Raul Ibanez (All-Star, former Twins killer), CF Shane Victorino (All-Star, Gold Glover, should've been 2008 World Series MVP), and C Carlos Ruiz.

Poor Carlos, he's the only member of that line-up to not have been to an All-Star game. Look at those awards. Wow. Is it any wonder this club's been to two straight World Series?! And we haven't even gotten to their pitching yet.

Let's do that...

Roy Halladay comes over from the Blue Jays in the blockbuster trade of the off-season, and immediately assumes the “staff ace” position. What needs to be said about Doc? The former Cy Young Award winner has six All-Star appearances, and led the AL in complete games for the last three years and in shut-outs for the last two. The only trouble he's going to have adjusting to the National League is getting used to hitting again. Hardly a major concern. After Halladay comes Cole Hamels. Hamels' tenure in Philly has been rocky to say the least, but there's no question that there's a ton of talent in that left arm. Joe Blanton (who was rumored to have been discusses as part of the Halladay deal) takes the 3-spot. J.A. Happ (who was second in the Rookie of the Year balloting last year) has more than earned his spot in the rotation. Which only leaves the question of who'll pitch fifth. Jamie Moyer is trying to hang on. Jose Contreras comes over from the White Sox and is a possibility. And Kyle Kendrick is a starter of the future, though I think it likely that he'll start the season in AAA.

The bullpen hasn't changed much. Brad Lidge is still the closer... for now. As brilliant as he was in 2008, he was equally as shaky in 2009, losing the closing spot during the season. Manager Charlie Manuel is nothing if not loyal, so Lidge gets another shot in 2010. If he can't get it done, Ryan Madson is there to take over. J.C. Romero provides a left-handed arm (and perhaps some ill-advised pharmaceuticals... I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin). Danys Baez is about the only significant new addition, coming over after a couple of turbulent seasons in Baltimore.

Bottom Line: Injuries are part of the game, so you never know when a major one might jump up and bite the Phillies, opening the door for another club. But barring a major rash of set-backs, the Phillies should make it three division titles in a row.

2. Florida Marlins: Last year the Marlins went 87-75 and finished 2nd in the NL East.

The Fish had a great year in 2009, and should contend again in 2010. Unfortunately, they reside in the same division as the powerhouse Phillies.

The Marlins are the poster children for “young talent” in the big leauges. And there's enough seasoning there now, that if they were in either of the other two NL divisions, I might pick them to win. But the Phillies are so good, that I have to pick the Marlins second.

It was actually a difficult choice between them and the Braves, but as you'll see, I like Florida's run-production-potential a lot more.

Their line-up kicks off with 2009 Rookie of the Year, LF Chris Coghlan. A sophomore slump isn't impossible, but Coghlan certainly looks like the real deal. Then it's C John Baker who hit .271 in his first full season in the majors last year. Hitting third is SS Hanley Ramirez. All the 2006 Rookie of the Year did last year was collect his second straight All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award while finishing second in the MVP balloting. That brings us to 3B Jorge Cantu, who hit .289 while collecting 100 RBI in 2009. 2B Dan Uggla hits fifth. He had a rough go hitting only .243 in 2009, but still produced 31 homers and 90 RBI. RF Cody Ross, CF Cameron Maybin (who has enough talent that it was thought he was going to win RoY in last year's pre-season) and 1B Gabby Sanchez round out a potential-laden line-up.

Ramirez battled some nagging injuries last year, but if everybody can stay healthy, the Marlins are going to score a ton of runs. But can they stop other teams from scoring? As we get to their pitching staff, the “potential” label becomes applicable yet again.

Josh Johnson will be the team's number-one starter, and is a Cy Young winner in the making. He went 15-5 in 2009 and made his first All-Star appearance. Ricky Nolasco is solid, if not as much a “sure thing” as Johnson. Last year's 13-9 record is acceptable, but he'll need to lower that 5.06 ERA to truly consider himself a number-two guy. Anibal Sanchez is their likely third-starter. He only made 16 starts for Florida in '09, but amassed a decent 3.87 ERA. After those three, the question marks begin. Chris Volstad, Rick VandenHurk, Sean West and Andrew Miller are all potentials for the rotation. Depth is a good thing, but I'm not sure how reliable any of those guys are going to be.

In the bullpen, Leo Nunez returns as the closer after earning 26 saves for the Marlins last year. His 4.06 ERA is a little scary, but he's still the best option they have. After him, the bullpen starts to get thin in a hurry. Mike MacDougal is on his fourth club in 9 years. Not totally uncommon for a reliever. He's definitely got the stuff to be a solid set-up man. It's just a matter of keeping that gray-matter between his ears straight and functioning. Seth McClung couldn't make it as a starter in Milwaukee. He'll likely be a long-reliever with Florida. Those are really the only recognizable names in Florida's pen. If Nunez can stay steady, and if new pitching coach Randy St. Claire can help MacDougal become a reliable set-up man, then perhaps the Marlins will have something.

Bottom Line: Florida is an up and coming club. I like them a lot. I just don't think they have enough to overtake Philadelphia.

3. Atlanta Braves: Last year the Braves went 86-76 and finished third in the NL East.

I love, Love, LOVE the Braves pitching staff. Unfortunately I hate, Hate, HATE their line-up. This is purportedly manager Bobby Cox's last season - it's not that I don't take him at his word, I'm just always a little suspicious of pre-announced retirements, they tend not to stick so well - so maybe he'll be able to coax some magic out of their bats. But I just don't know how Atlanta's going to score enough runs to get by Florida or Philly.

Their line-up begins with CF Nate McLouth. McLouth came over from the Pirates last season and was supposed to blossom in the Atlanta system. Instead, he hit .257 and produced only 36 RBI in 84 games. He's got some speed (12-18 in stolen base attempts for Atlanta), so maybe he'll be able to raise that .354 on-base percentage and score some runs. 2B Martin Prado hits second. He's a terrific hitter for average (.307 last season), but doesn't walk as much as you'd like from a guy near the top of the order. 3B Chipper Jones hits third. As always, the question with Chipper is his health. If he can stay on the field, he's an All-Star talent. But various maladies affected him to the tune of a .264 average with only 18 home runs and 71 RBI last year. 1B Troy Glaus cleans up for the Braves. I'm not going to say Glaus is cooked, but you'll have to look real close to determine whether hitting coach Terry Pendleton is holding a stopwatch, or a meat thermometer this season with Troy at the dish. C Brian McCann hits fifth. With Jones' injuries, McCann is likely the best every-day player in Atlanta's line-up. He's been to four-straight All-Star games, won two Silver Slugger awards, and manages a talented pitching staff very well. SS Yunel Escobar, LF Matt Diaz and RF rookie-to-watch Jason Heyward round out a less-than-prolific line-up.

As many questions as I have about Atlanta's ability to score runs, I have less than zero questions about their ability to pitch.

Tim Hudson returns as Atlanta's likely number-one starter, and is telling anyone who'll listen that his arm feels the best it has in years. If that's true, and it holds up, he's an All-Star, no doubt. Derek Lowe is the likely second-starter. Lowe started out hot last season, but cooled as the year went along. If he can even out those peaks and valleys a little, Atlanta will have one of the better 1-2 punches in the league. Jair Jurrjens has the ability to be spectacular, as well as the ability to be very ordinary. He's only 24 years old though, so I expect he'll only get better. Tommy Hanson finished third in last year's Rookie of the Year voting. He went 11-4 in 21 starts with a 2.89 ERA as a rookie. His ceiling is virtually limitless. Kenshin Kawakami (himself young with a lot of promise) is the likely 5th starter. If you can find me a better 1-5 staff than that (presuming they're all healthy), I'd love to see it.

The bullpen is a different matter. Billy Wagner comes down from Boston (whom I hate) to be the closer, and while he's not the devastating pitcher he once was, his experience should overcome what he's lost in velocity. The real problem is getting to him with a lead. As I said, I don't think the Braves are going to score a ton of runs, so the pressure will be on their pen to hold small leads late. And with Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez both gone to the AL East, that's going to be a trick. Takashi Saito joins Wagner in the exodus from Boston (whom I hate). He's a nice pick-up. But otherwise, it's a smorgasbord of question marks.

Bottom Line: Let's just say I won't be shocked if Florida stumbles and Atlanta finds a way to finish second. After all, they were only a single game apart last season. But with the trouble they'll have putting runs on the board, I'm not sure their above-average starters will be able to do enough to have them finish better than third.

4. New York Mets: Last year the Mets finished 70-92 and were fourth in the NL East.

The only reason I'm not picking the Mets to finish last? The Washington Nationals. 'Nuff said.

You want proof that money doesn't buy championships? Watch the product at Citi Field in Queens this year.

I'll give the Mets credit. They certainly try. The trouble is, signing big-name players just isn't enough. If you don't have an organizational philosophy for those players to fit into, then you're just throwing money around like former Mets season ticket holder, Bernie Madoff (what, too soon?).

SS Jose Reyes leads off for New York. Reyes has loads of talent, but was derailed by injuries last season. Worse, they were injuries to his legs. The 2003 Rookie of the Year depends on his speed to be effective. If he can't get his legs right, he becomes very ordinary. 2B Luis Castillo hits second. Castillo still has some speed, and can still flash the leather now and then, but is really a shell of his former All-Star self. 3B David Wright is trying to rebound from a perceived “down year” in 2009. Of all the players to be affected by spacious Citi Field, Wright might have felt it most. He still hit .307, but his power numbers were way down. Did the cavernous confines in Queens get in his head? Hard to say. But if his homer and RBI numbers don't rebound, it's going to be a long summer for the Mets. Newly acquired LF Jason Bay cleans up for New York. But there are questions as to how Citi Field will affect him as well. Bay hit 36 homers and collected 119 RBI for Boston (whom I hate) last season, but that was with the Monster and Pesky Pole to help him. Now he's got Citi Field to deal with. 1B Daniel Murphy hits fifth. In his second full season in the majors, the Mets desperately need him to step up his power numbers. RF Jeff Francouer came over in a trade with Atlanta last year and hit a respectable .311, but again, not a lot of power there. CF Angel Pagan and C Omar Santos round things out.

If things fall right for New York, they've got some guys who can do damage in that line-up. But when was the last time things really went right for the Mets? 2000? Oof.

Their rotation is anchored by Captain Elbow himself, Johan Santana. That's not bitterness talking, that's just the facts. Santana's elbow might be the most talked-about since Tommy John's. When he's healthy, he's devastating. Two Cy Youngs account for that. But he only started 25 games for New York last year because of that elbow. And while there hasn't been a set-back in Spring Training this year, the Mets are being very, VERY cautious with him. That's because after Santana, the Mets rotation gets average, quickly. John Maine has shown flashes, but hasn't been able to remain consistent for a full season. Mike Pelfrey has a career ERA of 4.58, not good. Fernando Nieve is young and has potential, but hasn't started more than 11 games in a season in the majors. And Oliver Perez is Oliver Perez. Maddeningly inconsistent.

Fortunately, if they can get to him with a lead, K-Rod is a fantastic closer. The 1-2 punch of J.J. Putz/K-Rod was a failure last year, but that was mostly on Putz. Francisco led the NL in games finished, and collected 35 saves on a team that only won 70 games. That's pretty good. Between him and the starting staff, however... well, let's just say that when Kiko Calero is your most recognizable name? You've got trouble brewing.

Bottom Line: Anyone who challenges the Yankees for column-inches in New York is good with me. I just don't see many of those inches being “positive” in nature this year. Maybe Bay will wash the stink of Boston (whom I hate) off and have a big year. Maybe David Wright will rebound. Maybe Reyes' legs will be healthy. That's a lot of maybes. Enough for me to pick the Mets to finish fourth in the East.

And that brings us to...

5. Washington Nationals: Last year the Nationals went 59-103 and finished dead-last in the NL East.

The only reason I'm picking the Nationals to finish 5th is because I can't pick them to finish 15th.

Really.

Look, I'm as excited to see the development of Stephen Strasburg as the next guy. And I drool at the thought of having a third baseman like Ryan Zimmerman play for the Twins. But beyond those two guys, what's there to like about the Nats? I have trouble finding anything.

CF Nyjer Morgan leads off. Morgan's only big-league experience has been with Pittsburgh and Washington. What kind of karmic/former-life crime did he commit against the baseball gods?! Enigmatic SS Cristian Guzman hits second. Million-dollar talent, ten-cent head? Thy name is Guzman. The aforementioned 3B Ryan Zimmerman hits third. Nothing negative there. He's as good as it gets. RF Adam Dunn cleans up. He strikes out a lot and can't play defense. But he does hit a lot of home runs and cost a bunch of money. So there's that. LF Josh Willingham hits fifth. Who's Josh Willingham, you say? Exactly. C Ivan Rodriguez hits sixth. The trap is to believe that his experience will benefit a young pitching staff. But Pudge has never been known for his pitch-calling abilities. And with age, his ability to hold down base-stealers has gone the way of the Dodo. RF Justin Maxwell and 2B Adam Kennedy (former Twin-killer) complete the line-up.

Washington's pitching staff isn't quite so depressing. Jason Marquis isn't an Ace, but he brings experience and the ability to eat innings to a staff that lacks both. John Lannan enters his fourth big league season trying to continue his pattern of lowering his ERA each season. Craig Stammen pitches third. Stephen Strasuburg ought to have made this rotation. For now, the Nationals have sent him to AA-Harrisburg, but given his talent and Washington's desperate need to sell tickets, I don't believe he'll be there long. Scott Olson is their likely fifth starter.

The bullpen sends Washington fans scrambling for more Prozac. Matt Capps has 67 career saves in 5 seasons with the Pirates. If you were wondering what it takes to close for the Nationals, there you go. Brian Bruney comes over from the Yankees - yikes, talk about your “Penthouse to the Outhouse” trips! But at least he brings some experience. As for the rest of the 'Pen? Well, Miguel Batista has 15 seasons under his belt. Umm. Yeah.

Bottom Line: I'd like to think Washington has things turned around to a degree. Not having a decent ballclub in the Nation's Capital is something of an embarrassment to the league. But getting Strasburg's deal done last summer at least shows they're trying. Now if they manage not to lose Zimmerman, and can add some young talent around that core, maybe they'll get somewhere in a year or two... or five... or... well, you get the idea.

So there you have them, my picks for the NL East in 2010. I know, I know. So far, two divisions and barely any deviation from the 2009 standings. What can I say? It wasn't a terribly adventurous off-season for those ten clubs.

Maybe I'll be shaking things up on Wednesday when I bring you my Preview column for the NL Central... you'll have to tune in to find out.

Until then, thanks for reading!

4 comments:

  1. I'm thinking Cards, Cubs, Brewers, Reds, (pause for room for any two other teams not named Nationals), Astros, Pirates.

    But I'm just a hack, I'll leave the real predicting to you.

    Funny, all my older posts kept my previous name. Now I know the limitation of changing your nickname in Blogger.

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  2. Interesting predictions... you'll have to wait til Wednesday to see how close I come to that.

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  3. You know, it's not the "How much we agree" factor, it's the "Dan's got real, lucid reasons and I've just got gut feelings" factor.

    ...

    Ok, I guess it is the "How much Dan's real, lucid reasons agree with my gut feelings" factor...or I wouldn't have posted my predictions. :-)

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  4. "Lucid" here having the loosest of meanings.

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