Sunday, March 6, 2011

NL East Preview

In case you haven't been following the offseason much or you don't geek out over watching prospects get playing time in Spring Training, I plan to break down each division and give you a heads up on what to expect. To start with, let's take a peek at the National League East!

2010 Standings:
Philadelphia 97-65 (.599)
Atlanta 91-71 (.562)
Florida 80-82 (.494)
New York 79-83 (.488)
Washington 69-93 (.426)

Season Recap
In 2010, the Phillies took the NL East crown and made it out of the divisional round by defeating the Cincinnati Reds. In the LCS, the Phillies lost to the Giants who could seemingly do no wrong. While it was a disappointment for sure, Philadelphia once again went deep into the playoffs which is something we've come to expect from them. Atlanta actually took the NL Wildcard but lost in the first round to San Francisco. The Marlins were an up-and-down club that showed flashes at times or what could be, but also made the type of mistakes that are commonly found on clubs with many rookies getting crucial playing time. The Mets were a major disappointment, again, and things don't appear to be getting much better any time soon. While the Nationals had everyone's attention late last summer as Stephen Strasburg made his sparkling debut, they weren't a contender all season long.

Big News for 2011

Like every division in baseball, there have been a lot players changing locations in the NL East, particularly within the division, as well as one huge free agent signing. No one saw it coming, but Cliff Lee turned down more money from the Yankees and Rangers to take an offer from the Phillies that would put him back in Philadelphia. He claimed that Philadelphia is where he wanted to play and that superceded the amount of money he could command. In an age of Franchise Tags (NFL), Max Contracts (NBA) and $33 million dollar salaries (A-Rod), I have to admit that Cliff Lee is a breath of fresh air!
Although they added Lee, the Phillies lost one of their most dominant bats when Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals. His contract was huge (7/$126) but it just goes to show that the Nats mean business. They did lose slugger Adam Dunn but replaced him with solid but unspectacular Adam LaRoche. Along a similar line, the Marlins traded Dan Uggla, the power-hitting 2nd Basemen, to the Braves. It was clear that Uggla wasn't going to be able to get an extension done with Florida so the Marlins dealt him while they could still get something for Uggla in return. Trading top talent within the division can be potentially lethal so keep an eye on how that plays out. Replacing Uggla's pop in the Florida lineup will be recent free agent signee John Buck, who slugged 20 homeruns and 25 doubles for the Blue Jays last season. In an atypical move, the Marlins signed the catcher to a three year deal worth $18 million.

Up and Comers
Dominic Brown may take Werth's void in right field for the Phillies this season. Brown has been a top prospect for a few years now so it will be fun to see if he's ready to make the jump, although he clearly lacks Werth's power bat. Everyone will be watching Bryce Harper and the Nationals to see if he does what Strasburg did last year: come up late and tear it up. Considered a true phenom, Harper is very young but extremely talented. His playing time may be determined by how quickly he picks up right field in the minors because everyone knows he can hit. Keep an eye of rookie first baseman Freddy Freeman in Atlanta, he's thought to be a real good one. Rookies Logan Morrison, Mike Stanton and Gabby Sanchez had really nice seasons for the Marlins last year and the 2009 Rookie of the Year, Chris Coughlan, will be looking for a bounce-back season in '11. There are plenty of young guys to keep an eye on in Florida without a doubt. Ike Davis had a strong rookie year for the Mets as did relievers Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel for the Braves. These guys will be counted on in big situations for their clubs this year. But the biggest young star is clearly Braves outfielder Jason Heyward who took the NL by storm last season and took home ROY honors by hitting .277/.393/.456 in his first big league season with 18 homeruns, 29 doubles and 72 RBI.

Injury Notes
On the injury front, Mets ace Johan Santana will be out until June by most accounts as he's coming off shoulder surgery. All signs appear to be good from Mets camp but he's still a long ways away. Jose Reyes appears to be over his lingering injuries from '10 and needs to prove his talent this season with his contract expiring at the end of the season. The aforementioned Strasburg will not pitch for the Nationals in 2011 as he's recovering from Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow. Chase Utley appears to still be battling some pain in his knees as he's needed periodic cortisone shots just to make some Spring Training starts for the Phillies. Carlos Beltran says he is 100% heading into the season but he will be making way in center field for the surging Angel Pagan by taking his game right field for the first time in his career. By having to cover less ground, the Mets are hoping that Beltran can stay healthy all season for the first time since 2008. Chipper Jones is back in the Braves lineup this spring and is going to receive more time off than usual this season in hopes of getting him through the whole year.

Prediction Time!
This division should remain competitive throughout much of the 2011 season. While I'm not expecting the Mets and Nationals to be true contenders, both teams should be much improved and can steal games from anybody. The issue with these two teams is that they are remarkably inconsistent and are still in the reloading phase of things. Chase Utley's knee and Domonic Brown's bat will have a lot to do with the Phillies' success in 2011. They have a ton of pitching but they won't be putting up as many runs per game as we're used to seeing. The Braves should be improved and if Chipper can (somehow) stay healthy this year, they may be able to supplant the Phillies atop the division. The Marlins are anybody's guess because they have a ton of talent but they are quite short on experience. They can play with anyone but are so young at so many positions, it wouldn't be surprising to see them collapse down the stretch.

Predicted 2011 Standings
1. Atlanta
2. Philadelphia
3. Florida
4. New York
5. Washington

I think the Phillies will face some injuries along the way and probably steal the NL Wildcard by finishing second in the division. The Braves are much improved and if their bullpen is anything like last season, they will be hard to beat. Add to the fact that they can seriously hit and you have a true power sitting atop the division and a team that could be seen as an early season favorite for the NL Pennant. Chipper staying healthy would be a huge plus, but they have enough organizational depth to weather the storm if he goes down again. Florida will likely be an above-.500 club this year but it won't be enough with the two juggernauts that lead the division. They could surprise, but if any of their stars should miss serious injury time, that might be enough to do the Fish in. New York will be up-and-down again and may play well early but they have a history of falling apart down the stretch with this group. If their pitching can step up they may have a shot at the wildcard, but I wouldn't bet on it. Washington will still be rebuilding and gearing up for a solid run in 2012 when Strasburg returns to the rotation. Look for them to give plenty of their young guys a shot to see who they need to replace and who keep developing. They'll be competitive, just not a contender.

Next up: AL East

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