As the season draws closer to officially starting (in Japan, no less), where do the teams stand? I will be grading each team, division by division, in three categories: lineup, rotation and bullpen. After each grading session, I’ll predict the teams’ finish within their respective division. Let’s go!
Let’s start with the senior circuit where things have thinned out a little. The shift of both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols to the AL has decreased the league’s firepower to a degree. We’ll work our way from east to west, as does the sun.
Notes: The lineup is strong when everyone’s healthy, but counting on anything more than 100-110 games from Chipper Jones is a losing proposition. Bourn is an explosive leadoff guy, but question marks such as Freddy Freeman, Jayson Heyward, whoever takes over at short (Pasternicky or Simmons) and Dan Uggla have me cautiously optimistic at best. The rotation is solid but not outstanding. Jair Jurrjens is incredibly overrated (that's why they can't trade him), Tommy Hanson is coming off of injury, Beachy is young but effective, Mike Minor is solid and the back end of Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran offers hope. The bullpen is about as good as it gets. Kimbrel and Venters are potentially the best 1-2 punch of any bullpen in baseball and Eric O’Flaherty is simply amazing. Arodys Vizcaino gives the Braves another young arm to work with. If there’s any weakness here at all, it’s a lack of overall experience.
Notes: This team will score runs in bunches, rest assured. Reyes and Bonafacio at the top creates an incredibly fast pairing. Ramirez, Stanton and Morrison in the heart of the order, followed by an emergin Gaby Sanchez, make the Miami lineup one you don’t want to play around with. The question marks lie with Reyes’ ability to stay healthy and Ramirez’ return to prominence after a down year. If his spring is any indication, he’s in top form after moving to third base. Josh Johnson’s return is a welcome sign and the addition of Mark Buehrle should stabilize things. Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez are capable of doing very good things but must live up to the billing. Mark my words, Carlos Zambrano as a fifth starter will not pan out (Brad Hand, get ready). Although they added Heath Bell in the offseason, the bullpen is uninspiring. Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) is a capable set-up man, but Dunn, Webb, Choate and Mujica are not convincing.
New York Mets
Notes: If you aren’t preparing for a long season in Flushing, you should be. The lineup is impotent, David Wright is already hurt by an injury that could nag a long time (torn abdominal muscle) and there is little other firepower. Ike Davis, Jason Bay and Lucas Duda will need to do big things if this team wants to contend or simply remain competitive. Andres Torres is a boom or bust candidate in centerfield hitting in the leadoff spot. Johan Santana returns to the rotation and has been up and down this spring. RA Dickey is terrible but Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee all have the ability to do good things, albeit inconsistently. The bullpen is a mashed up group of veterans that can be effective. They are lacking a strong matchup lefty, however.
Notes: Another offensive powerhouse, the Phillies will look to do big damage in 2012. They’re a veteran bunch that is capable of putting up big numbers, but that has to come to fruition if they are going to win this division. Rollins, Polanco, Utley, Victorino and Howard (whose return isn’t set just yet, achilles injury) have to come through as they have in the past. Down years or significant injuries from these guys could put a damper on expectations very quickly. The rotation may be the best in baseball, given the 1-2-3 punch or Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Beyond them, Vance Worley can be solid while Joe Blanton is, well, Joe Blanton. Joel Pinero or Kyle Kendrick will replace him before it’s all said in done, in my estimation. The bullpen is in good hands with Papelbon, Bastardo and Qualls. Contreras and Stutes are also solid while unspectacular.
Notes: The Nats are a feast or famine bunch at the plate. They feature several high-strikeout/low on-base types (Desmond, Espinosa, Morse, Werth, LaRoche) that can provide power but are inconsistent producers. They can score ten runs one day and none the next, making them hard to predict. A call up of Bryce Harper should be expected early on, probably pushing Jayson Werth to center and putting Roger Bernadina on the bench. Strasburg is back and looking sharp, while Gonzalez, Zimmerman, and Jackson are a solid bunch. John Lannan may be traded prior to the season, opening up the fifth spot to Ross Detwiler or Chien-Ming Wang. The bullpen features a fearsome foursome of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge and Sean Burnett. This team will pitch well, but needs to score runs consistently in 2012 to meet expectations.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Washington Nationals
3. Miami Marlins
4. Atlanta Braves
5. New York Mets
I like the Phillies, with their experience and pitching, to win the division, provided they stay relatively healthy. Teams 2-4 are a total crapshoot and you could actually make a case any of them to challenge the Phillies for the top spot. I like the Nationals because of their pitching and I think they can score enough to win a lot of games, especially if Jayson Werth bounces back and Zimmerman stays healthy. The Marlins will be on their heels all year and I expect them to capitalize on any mistakes made by Philadelphia or Washington. Their rotation is slightly weaker than the others, and I’m concerned about Jose Reyes’ ability to stay healthy and guide the offense. Josh Johnson’s health is another question mark, plus the bullpen is not all that good. Heath Bell is overrated, in my opinion, and will potentially struggle without Petco Park to pad his numbers. The Braves will be competitive and could surprise. They need Chipper to stay healthy, Heyward to bounce back, Freeman to continue to grow and full season of production from Uggla. They have good pitching, but can they score enough runs in a potent division? The Mets stink. That’s all I’ll say about that.
On Deck: NL CENTRAL