Thursday, April 07, 2005

2005 National League East Preview

The National League East is hard to pick this year- particularly in light of my strong, correct view that Atlanta- to their great credit- overachieved last year. Every team but the Nats could arguably win at least 85 games- but none really ought to win 95. And the Nats aren’t that bad. Everyone but the Philadelphia improved off-season on paper- and the Phils made a determined effort to improve by subtraction.

Nevertheless, I prefer the Atlanta Braves to win their 14th straight division title- but not comfortably. I was shocked to see them win 96 last year. They will be hard pressed to duplicate that number again- but again, I imagine something barely north of 90 wins will get in done here.

The Braves probably need less to go right than anyone else in the division. Their offense is still kind of a mess- losing the enigmatic JD Drew won’t help here. Brian Jordan stinks, and running him out there with Mondesi is not hopeful. In the National League, if you can’t count on consistent offense from your corner outfield spots and first base (LaRoche and Franco- ouch), you have problems.

But the top four in the rotation are superb- when your biggest rotation gamble is John Smoltz you have few problems. Kolb is a very solid closer- and the bullpen can get lefties out. The Braves make mid-season moves as well as anyone in baseball. So they’ll find someone to get righties out- and add another hitter in the outfield at some point- then Atlanta will narrowly win the division.

If I had to pick a team to make the play-offs that did not last year, well, give me the Marlins. They cannot hope to pitch with Atlanta over five months- unless Leiter and Willis have huge bounce back years. That does not mean they cannot pitch though- one thru five are guys who belong at this level- and four of them had ERAs under 4.02 last year. That is tough.

Delgado is a huge addition. You can hide him at first- and he hits like a NL 1B should: .269/32/99. Pierre and Cabrera are outstanding major league players- but yes, okay, they absolutely have to find an outfielder other than the worthless Encarnacion. They’ll get 100 HRs from the infield- a huge number. The projected rotation won 46 games last year- which is scary- but all five guys are pros and ought to do better with this offense. North of 90 wins too.

The Phillies have 86 games two years in a row- which isn’t bad. Had Millwood been anything other than a total bust, they would probably be looking at defending their second straight division crown.

The Phillies are sort of odd bunch. They are solid in a lot of places. Manuel has the best shortstop, first baseman, rightfielder and closer in the East, if not the National League. The bullpen is excellent- with a top-notch closer. If they were to try and trade any of their supplementary arms, the line would go around the block. Again, the Phillies get offense from where you need to get offense in the NL: corner outfield positions (Abreu .301/30/105 and, at times, Burrell .257/24/84) and 1B (Thome .274/42/105). Rollins is an elite player.

But can they pitch? The rotation won 35 games last year. Not good. Every one of the starters, other than Leiber, is a candidate to go 5-8, 4.28. In fact, Wolf did last year. It would really, really help if either Padilla or Myers has a breakout season. I have sort of given up on Wolf. He has a sore arm- tendinitis- and that just never gets better. Basically, they have one #2 starter (Leiber) and four #4 starters. CF is a complete mystery worthy of Scooby-Doo- and if Bell plays sixty effective games at third, I will be stunned. The Phils have cleared some payroll- so I guarantee one big in-season trade, where they take a big contract, to fill a pressing need- which helps.

I do sort of think the rotation will bounce back this year- but the division is better too- so Philadelphia could be a better team and still win just 87 games.

The Mets are better too. You could argue that if Martinez and Glavine pitch to at All-Star level, the Mets will make the play-offs, as no one else will have to do all that much. But I don’t think the Mets have caught up to the three good teams in this division- because where they are bad, they are dreadful.

The bullpen is probably the worst in the National League; it is horrid. Guys like DeJean and Heredia play key roles- and you can’t fix that with a shrewd Urbina trade- like say, the Phillies CF problem. The infield does not hit at all- and Piazza is down to a sad 20 HRs. Beltran and Cameron provide some juice- but they need lots of guys on to put up big offensive numbers- and where is that coming from? Reyes? Matsui? Wright is a nice player .293/14/40- but they probably need him to drive in runs- and I am not sure he is up to that six days a week.

Outside of Pedro, the rotation looks like the Phillies, except some guys are sort of a stretch for the #4 role. Trachsel’s loss really hurts- that missing 200+ innings probably means the ‘pen gets another 50 late frames to pitch- which will cost New York a handful of games. Tough division too- plus probably capped out payroll wise- so no big help is coming. 82 wins- more if Glavine is better. If Glavine can get to 14-10 that could get them to the fringe of the wild card chase.

The Nats probably are no longer a disaster- if just because the rotation is no longer a scary mess. Hernandez and Loaiza are true major leaguers- and probably won’t be cast off to play-off contenders in July as in past years. I like Rauch a lot. The infield is pathetic- they cannot be seriously considering letting Nick Johnson play 1B a lot, can they?- and will be pathetic until Castilla proves his 35HRs aren’t a Colorado mirage. Should be fun watching these guys field…

Conversely, the outfield can flat-out hit- quality players across the board- but like the Mets core hitters- who gets on consistently to drive in? How do they get to five runs night after night? If they can get 20 wins out of the rotation’s back three, the outfield hits and the ‘pen finds some arms outside of solid Cordero, all of which are probable, the Nats probably get a win total well into the 70s.