Monday, January 17, 2005

An Early Look at the N.L. East

New York has certainly been the hub of hot stove activity this winter, with probably the three biggest off-season maneuvers – the signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and the trade for Randy Johnson. Surprisingly, the Mets have garnered most of the headlines by successfully recruiting both the most desirable free agent pitcher and position player. This is part of a greater trend in the National League East. Every team in the N.L. East has made major acquisitions over the winter, making this division the most balanced one in major league baseball. Any one of 4 teams could realistically win this 5 team division, which has been locked up by the Braves since Warren Harding was President. None of the teams looks like a world-beater, mind you, but each of the 4 contenders could win as many as 95 games if all breaks well for them. On the flip side, any of the 4 could also win as few as 75 games if their best laid plans go astray. The 5th team, ostensibly called the Washington Nationals, is far from awful and is my bet to be baseball’s best last place team in 2005.

Let’s take a look at where each team stands as currently constituted:

Atlanta Braves

Key Acquisitions – Tim Hudson, Danny Kolb, Raul Mondesi

Safe Bet – Hudson will pitch outstanding baseball and contend for the NL Cy Young Award. Has-beens and never-weres flourish under the genius of Leo Mazzone. In this case Mazzone has a big time talent in the prime of his career. Look for 20 wins and a sub 3.00 ERA.

Burning Question – How will John Smoltz adapt to his return to the starting rotation? My guess is that it will be a difficult transition for Smoltz. He’s been a closer for several years now and he has a history of arm trouble. A few stints on the DL wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Most Likely to Flop – Raul Mondesi is a very strange person. He will self-destruct in Atlanta, just as he did in New York, Arizona, and Pittsburgh. And, somehow, it won’t affect the Braves at all.

Question Mark – Can Danny Kolb be a big time closer for a contender? Danny Kolb saved 39 games last season for a bad team. That’s impressive, but not the most interesting stat from Kolb. That would be his 21 strikeouts in 57 innings pitched. Trust me, this is the only time in baseball history that a guy with that kind of K ratio saved 39 games. Is there a message in those numbers? I would say yes, and that message is that Danny Kolb does not have 39 save stuff, and that this number will decline significantly.

Florida Marlins

Key Acquisition – Al Leiter

Safe Bet – Miguel Cabrera will continue to mature into an absolute superstar. What I wouldn’t do to have this guy on the team I root for. Let me put it to you this way; has a section on each player’s page that tells you the most statistically similar player to the player you are looking at. It’s called a similarity score. Cabrera’s most similar player at this point in his career? A guy named Henry Aaron.

Burning Question – How will the lefties pitch? Dontrelle Willis and Al Leiter are key lefties in the Marlin rotation. Willis fell off considerably from his stellar rookie season, posting an ERA over 4.00 and giving up more hits than innings pitched. Leiter, as every Met fan knows, pitched very well at times last year, but threw a ridiculous amount of pitches, causing him to be removed from most games by the 6th inning. Both of these guys are capable of having excellent years. The Marlins will need them to.

Most Likely to Flop – Guillermo Mota will close for the Fish. He’s got a great arm, but closing games requires a certain attitude that Mota might not possess. Will he be able to take on the pressure that goes with being the last line of defense?

Question Mark – Can Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett stay healthy? Last year they combined for a record of 16 wins and 15 losses and only 280 innings pitched. Both of these strong-armed righties have had more difficulty with their arms than a UN weapons inspector. Will both of them stay off the DL in 2005? If they do, the Marlins will be very tough to deal with.

Philadelphia Phillies

Key Acquisitions – Kenny Lofton, John Lieber

Safe Bet – Bobby Abreu will continue to be baseball’s best kept secret. This guy needs Scott Boras to put together a binder on him. Maybe 5 players in baseball are better than Abreu. Maybe.

Burning Question – How will the players respond to easy going new manager Charlie Manuel after the firing of uber-jerk Larry Bowa? Well, honestly this question is really not burning. In fact, it’s not even lukewarm. It’s actually quite easy. Would you rather work for an absolute maniacal tyrant or a mild-mannered, professional gentleman? You see, it really is an easy question.

Most Likely to Flop – Shortstop Jimmy Rollins rode a hot September to post decent enough stats last year. I’m not sold on him. In his previous seasons he had a very difficult time getting on base, with OBP’s of .323, .306, and .320. This is a key season for Rollins. He is still young and very athletic, which could mean he’ll turn the corner and be a productive major league hitter. I just don’t like the quality of his at bats. My hunch is that he returns to his previous numbers.

Question Mark – Will several key Phillies have bounce back years? Billy Wagner, Pat Burrell, and Randy Wolf are very important player for the Phils. All of them suffered through injury plagued 2004 campaigns. All are expected to be ready for 2005. Wagner, the dominating closer who regularly touches 100 miles per hour on the radar gun, is the most important of the three. I believe he is also the most likely to return to form. That’s very good news for the Phillies.

Washington Nationals

Key Acquisitions – Vinny Castilla, Christian Guzman, Jose Guillen

Safe Bet – Livan Hernandez is a very good pitcher, even if I am one of the only people who thinks so. For quite some time I have wanted the Mets to acquire him. To be honest, last winter I suggested that the Mets trade a prospect to get him, some guy named David Wright. OK, sometimes it is a very good thing that the Mets front office does not listen to my ideas. Well, I am no longer suggesting that the Mets trade David Wright to get Livan, but I am still saying that this guy is a horse, an innings eater, and a very good pitcher.

Burning Question – Will anyone in Montreal notice that they left?

Most Likely to Flop – Vinny Castilla should never leave Coors Field. Ever. He should only sign contracts with the Rockies and not even go on road trips. At Coors Field he hits like Mike Schmidt. Away from Coors he hits like Jason Schmidt. Check out his career stats. In 14 seasons he has posted 6 seasons of 30 or more home runs and 5 seasons of over 100 RBI’s. All were as a Rockie. In two seasons with the Braves he averaged 17 homers and 69 RBI’s. Look for Vinny’s stats to return to these pedestrian numbers.

Question Mark – What’s next for Jose Vidro? This is a player that I really liked. Great approach, high on base percentages, good power for a middle infielder. Last year two interesting things happened to Vidro – he turned 30 and he had knee surgery. These are not necessarily alarming events, but Vidro has never struck me as a guy who stays in great physical shape. Can anyone say Carlos Baerga? I hope Vidro bounces back. He’s a fun guy to watch play baseball.

As the Mets still have at least one gaping hole to fill at 1st base, my analysis of them will come at a later date.


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November 1, 2005 at 7:32 PM  
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