Divisional Issues.

Hit .243 Last Year.

One of the themes of the off-season was how good the NL East got over the winter.  The division the Phillies have ruled for five straight seasons is suddenly full of legitimate contenders.  The power has shifted in the National League.  With the exception of the Mets, there will be no easy wins to pile up in divisional play.  For years the Phillies’ biggest competition has come from outside the division.  The pitching rich Cardinals and Giants, going further back there was the Dodgers, but about all the Phillies had to do to win the division was to get out of their own way.  If a team was contending, or even led the Phillies (like the Braves in ’10) it was considered an anomaly.  The Phillies were playing down to the level of the Braves of the rest of the competition.  That was hardly a concern last year on the way to 102 wins, but I don’t think anyone will predict the Phils make it to 100 this year.

I think the knee-jerk reaction is to assume the Phillies, if they’ve improved at all, it’s by a slim margin.  There’s countless questions surrounding health (Utley, Polanco, Howard, Blanton) and  reliability (Worley, Mayberry, Bastardo).  Meanwhile the perception is the Marlins and Nationals have taken giant steps forward while the Braves remain a legitimate threat.  I’ve made this argument before, but when looking at other teams or rivals it’s common to focus on their strengths, or their best-case scenarios while focusing on your own team’s weaknesses.  If you do that in the NL East this Spring, you might end up projecting the Phillies into a 3rd place finish.  In order to balance out some of the coverage, I’m going to highlight the issues the Braves, Marlins and Nationals have to overcome to be REAL threats.  There are more than you might think.  The Mets will remain afterthoughts.

The Nationals:

Why we’re worried:  Strasburg, Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Young bullpen and Bounce-Back Jayson Werth.

Some Facts:  The Nats won 80 games last year.  They hit .242 (27th in the league).

Reality:  The Nationals have issues scoring runs.  For as much as people complained about the Phillies’ offense last year the rest of the division was worse.  The Nationals haven’t done much to address the issue.  Bryce Harper is incredibly hyped but ran out of gas at the end of last season and struggled at AA.  It’s unlikely he’ll make the team out of spring training and if he does, it’s just a reflection on Washington’s current 3rd outfielder (Mike Cameron? Roger Bernadina?)

Their Concerns:  Their biggest offensive threat, Michael Morse, has no track-record.  He’s actually similar to Jayson Werth in some ways, and we saw Werth’s consistency last year.  Speaking of Werth, it’s unlikely he’ll be as bad as he was last year (.718 OPS), but he’ll be 33 in May.  That contract remains an albatross.  The Nationals should pitch well, but the top of their rotation (Strasburg and Zimmerman) has a history of arm problems and Gio Gonzalez will have to adjust to pitching away from Oakland’s cavernous Coliseum.

Atlanta:

Why we’re worried:  Plethora of Young Arms, Lights-Out Bullpen, Jayson Heyward Bounce-Back, Habit.

Some Facts:  The Braves won 89 games. They hit .243.  They went 9-18 last September.

Reality:  If you want an example of a team that didn’t do anything this off-season, take a look at the Braves.  This is Atlanta’s way, of course, but the activity of Miami and Washington made them seem especially quiet.  They’re relying solely on in-house improvements.  Heyward, the young arms (Beachy/Minor/Teheran), Freddie Freeman–all improvement is expected to come from within.

Their Concerns:  Chipper Jones is going to be 40.  Ace in the making Tommy Hanson made only 22 starts last year, Jair Jurrgens has had 43 starts combined the last two, and Tim Hudson will turn 37 this season.  Behind them is a ton of unproven talent.  Michael Bourn for a full season will help the line-up, but there’s still massive holes.  Uggla became Rob Deer last season, Freeman hit .277 in August and .226 in September, and there’s no guarantee Heyward will return to his rookie year form.  Also, the bullpen must come back from a year where the key guys threw an incredible amount of innings.

Miami:

Why We’re Worried:  OZZIE!  Reyes, Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Hanley and Mike Stanton.

Some Facts:  The Marlins won 72 games last year.  They hit .247 and had a 3.95 ERA.

Reality:  The Marlins are certainly improved.  Reyes is a nice addition to their lineup and Buehrle adds some stability to a young rotation.  But, we’re talking about a team that has a long way to go.  They finished behind the Mets last year.  You’d have to assume they’ll need to pick up 25 wins to be a real contender in the division.  That’s a significant leap.  The back-end of the rotation (Sanchez/Nolasco/Zambrano) has some upside, but doesn’t stack up with the rest of the division.

Their Concerns:  The Marlins have a very young and undisciplined line-up.  It’s the kind of line-up that Jamie Moyer beats inexplicably.  Hanley Ramirez at one point was a total stud.  Right now, he’s closer to becoming Soriano Part II.  He hit .243 in 92 games last year and has to move to 3rd base.  Jose Reyes hasn’t played a full season since 2008.  Josh Johnson made 9 starts last year.  Logan Morrison is a beast on Twitter, but mostly disappeared after May last season.  Are Mike Stanton’s 170 K’s a sign that he can be pitched to?

***

So, you see, it’s a division that still has its share of flaws.  And, the teams that improved were the ones needing the most help.  The Nats won 22 fewer games than the Phillies last year.  The Marlins won 30 fewer.  And, the competition within the division is tougher for them, as well.  If the Braves had gone out and signed Reyes, or if they had Harper and Strasburg coming on strong, you might have a legitimate reason to panic, but for now, let’s just wait and see how things develop.  The real competition in the NL could still reside outside the division.

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