SHOTS AT THE THRONE: 2011 National League East Preview

Posted: March 21, 2011 by Matt Whitener of CSP in MLB
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The National League East has been, to put it plainly, predictable over the last few years. Everything basically starts in Philadelphia, and ends in D.C. The space between is left to be filled in by some order of the other three squads. For the fourth consecutive summer, the Phillies took home the NL East title, and nearly took landed the NL Pennant for the third year in a row as well. In a totally opposite showing, the Nationals lived in the cellar again….for the third year in a row as well. The prime suspects in the “others” of the division were the Atlanta Braves, who landed a surprising Wild Card nod and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2002. The seasons in the Florida and New York were marred by internal issues and managerial/executive strife, and neither could rally together enough to crack .500 for the year.

2010 Final Standings

1. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)
2. Atlanta Braves (91-71)
3. Florida Marlins (80-82)
4. New York Mets (79-83)
5. Washington Nationals (69-93)

So, is there to be more of the same in the East? The Phillies are the talk of baseball, after adding another former Cy Young winner to their pitching staff for the second year in a row, in Cliff Lee. His joining a staff that features Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and 2010 Cy Young winner Roy Halladay has the Phils pitchers being hailed as one of the greatest collections of arms in the history of the game. However, last year’s Phillies were supposed to be foolproof as well, but struggled early and only came together late to seal another division title. Will this year’s team be able to deliver from start to finish, even with their best everyday player’s health a complete mystery? We’ll see. The Braves and Nationals reloaded with big bats designed to push their lineups to the next level, but will they be enough for a legit run at the division? The Marlins redesigned their club, and the Mets are just hoping to have more of their players of the field instead of the disabled list, finally. But in the end, is anything really enough to even mount a legit shot at the throne? We’ll see….

Halladay was completely dominant, even perfect once, in his NL debut. What does his encore hold?

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Brian McCann-Atlanta Braves

First Base: Ryan Howard-Philadelphia Phillies

Second Base: Chase Utley-Philadelphia Phillies

Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman-Washington Nationals

Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez-Florida Marlins

Left Field: Jason Bay-New York Mets

Center Field: Shane Victorino-Philadelphia Phillies

Right Field: Jason Werth-Washington Nationals

More time on the field will lead to a lot more impact from Bay in the Big Apple.

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay-Philadelphia Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee-Philadelphia Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson-Florida Marlins

Starting Pitcher: Tim Hudson-Atlanta Braves

 

Bullpen Righty: Ryan Madson-Philadelphia Phillies

Bullpen Lefty: Sean Burnett-Washington Nationals

Closer: Francisco Rodriguez-New York Mets

 

BEST PLAYERS

1. Roy Halladay-Phillies
2. Hanley Ramirez-Marlins
3. Cliff Lee-Phillies
4. Chase Utley-Phillies
5. Ryan Zimmerman-Nationals
6. Ryan Howard-Phillies
7. David Wright-Mets
8. Josh Johnson-Marlins
9. Jason Werth-Nationals
10. Jason Heyward-Braves

Halladay is at the head of the class of pitchers in baseball. His NL debut featured a perfect game, a no-hitter in his career playoff debut and a Cy Young to cap it off with. Ramirez is annually a threat to toss in 30 home runs to go with his 30 steals, and maybe another batting title as well. Utley and Howard had down years in 2010, but they are the featured acts in the NL’s best lineup. Zimmerman and Wright are among the top three at the hot corner in all of baseball. Youngsters Heyward and Johnson will be among the best talents in baseball for a long time.

LINEUP

1. Phillies
2. Braves
3. Mets
4. Marlins
5. Nationals

Chase Utley’s knee injury has kept him off the field all spring, and Jason Werth left for Washington, but the Phillies lineup is still the best in the NL. Ryan Howard may have more raw power than any hitter in baseball and Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez have all made All-Star appearances. The Braves addition of Dan Uggla and the continual growth of Jason Heyward make them a viable contender for best lineup as well however, and they have far less question marks currently. The differential is all on shoulders, and knee, of Utley.

Heyward should eclipse the 30 home run mark for the first of many times this year.

ROTATION

  1. Phillies
  2. Braves
  3. Marlins
  4. Nationals
  5. Mets

Three of baseball’s best rotations are here. While it is too early to declare the Phillies rotation as among the best of all-time, the evidence for such a claim is there. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels and Joe Blanton have won 128 games combined over the past two years.It is the first time since the Braves 90’s dynasty that a team has a pitcher that makes them the favorite on his own six days a week. The Braves and Marlins both boast rotations with a clear ace (Hudson and Johnson, respectively) and a mixture of young power arms and proven vets behind them.

The addition of Lee on the heels of Oswalt makes the Phils armory the best by far.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Phillies (Halladay & Lee)
2. Marlins (Johnson & Nolasco)
3. Braves (Hudson & Lowe)
4. Mets (Pelfrey & Dickey)
5. Nationals (Hernandez & Marquis)

In Halladay & Lee, the Phillies have two of the annual favorites for the Cy Young award, regardless of league they play in. Matter of fact, their 3-4 punch of Oswalt and Hamels would also be number one on this list. The two biggest injuries in the division make their presence felt here, as both Johan Santana of the Mets and Stephen Strasberg of the Nationals would greatly boost the impact of their team’s bottom feeding rotations.

BULLPEN

1. Phillies
2. Marlins
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Mets

The Phillies have veteran power arms in Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge and Danys Baez, in addition to highly effective lefty J.C. Romero, in what could be a consistently well-rested bullpen. The Marlins have quietly built up a nice pen as well, adding Clay Hensley and Randy Choate to the mix in front of Leo Nunez. Francisco Rodriguez is the division’s best closer, but there isn’t a lot to get excited about in front of him in NY.

3-4-5 HITTERS

1. Phillies (Utley?/Howard/Ibanez)
2. Braves (Jones/Uggla/McCann)
3. Nationals (Zimmerman/Werth/LaRoche)
4. Mets (Wright/Bay/Beltran)
5. Marlins (Ramirez/Stanton/Sanchez)

If Utley is not in the mix, the Phillies group takes a huge hit. In Atlanta however, this isn’t the case with their #3 hitter, has if (or when) Chipper Jones struggles to stay healthy; they have Jason Heyward to drop down from the #2 spot. Jason Werth and Adam LaRoche give Zimmerman some much needed protection to replace the departed Adam Dunn. The heart of the Mets order could be huge, but as usual, it’s all about how often they actually are healthy and play together.

TABLESETTERS

1. Mets
2. Braves
3. Phillies
4. Marlins
5. Nationals

The Mets order led the NL in steals last year, which put crucial runners in scoring position to make it in without the long ball, since the majority of their power hitters spent more time on the disabled list than the actual lineup. The Braves have hit machine Martin Prado leading off, and follow it with Heyward’s prodigious power, so they are capable of scoring early before the heart of their lineup ever reaches the plate.

The return of Reyes, perhaps the game's fastest player, returned a needed spark to the Mets attack.

BENCH

1. Phillies
2. Braves
3. Mets
4. Nationals
5. Marlins

Russ Gload, Ben Francisco and Wilson Valdez give the Phils solid depth off the bench, although Francisco will be starting to lead off the season. Eric Hinske is one of the best pinch hitters in baseball, and gives the Braves needed depth in both the infield and outfield. David Murphy is a versatile hitter for the Mets, which could start in many other situations around the league.

DEFENSE

1. Mets
2. Phillies
3. Marlins
4. Braves
5. Nationals

David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Jose Reyes are all plus gloves who can cover a lot of ground for the Mets (who need all the help they can get considering their pitcher’s performances last year). On the flipside, the Braves have a lot of questions on defense, with a mixture of players on injury rebound and some guys that are just plain there for offense only.

SPEED

1. Mets
2. Phillies
3. Marlins
4. Nationals
5. Braves

Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan were the only set of NL teammates to each steal at least 30 bases a year ago and David Wright added in 19. Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins can both move around the bases and Domonic Brown will be yet another boost to the Philly speed around the diamond.

Ramirez's speed, in addition to his power and average, make him one of the game's most diverse talents.

MANAGER

1. Charlie Manuel (Phillies)
2. Freddi Gonzalez (Braves)
3. Jack McKeon (Marlins)
4. Jim Riggleman (Nationals)
5. Terry Collins (Mets)

Manuel has been to two of the last three World Series, bringing home the title in 2008. Now he is armed with his most talented team to date and will be able to attack opponents in a variety of different ways. Gonzalez is taking over for a future Hall of Famer in Bobby Cox in Atlanta, but he is user of talent, and he inherits his most talented roster to date in his new gig. Terry Collins first year on the job in New York will be ripe with expectations, but his no-nonsense approach could be just what the Mets need.

The cupboard has some nice ingredients, and huge shoes to fill, for Gonzalez in the A.

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH

1. Domonic Brown (Right fielder, Phillies)
2. Craig Kimbrel (Pitcher, Braves)
3. Freddie Freeman (First baseman, Braves)
4. Mike Minor (Pitcher, Braves)
5. *Julio Teheran (Pitcher, Braves)

The Braves feature more major league ready talent than any other team in baseball, and they will each be counted on in major roles to the club’s 2011 success. Kimbrel will be taking over for retired All-Star closer Billy Wagner, and will be expected to shut the door from Opening Day on. Brown will take over for Jason Werth in right field once he returns from a wrist injury that will sideline him for the first month of the season. He is a top 10 prospect in the game, and is the best all-around rookie talent in the Show this year.

FINANCES

1. Nationals
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Marlins
5. Mets

The Nats are looking to spend money anywhere they can to improve this core, and even after luring Werth and LaRoche to the rebuilding project in D.C.; they still have funds to spare. The Marlins have the least to work with in the division, but spend wisely. The Mets take the cellar here due to the fact their owner Fred Wilpon is in a serious financial trouble right now (even looking to sell part of the club), and the club had to take a loan from Major League baseball this winter while things are straightened out.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Cliff Lee (Phillies from Rangers)
2. Dan Uggla (Braves from Marlins)
3. Jason Werth (Nationals from Phillies)
4. Javier Vazquez (Marlins from Yankees)
5. John Buck (Marlins from Blue Jays)

Lee shocked the baseball world when he spurned both the Yankees and the Rangers to return to Philly and form the most potent rotation in baseball. The addition of Werth to the Nationals inspired similar shock, albeit for a different reason, with his massive 7 year/$126 million contract raising some eyebrows as to if he was worth it (I feel if you agree to suffer in DC all summer, you deserve that much at least). The Marlins made several smart, low payout/high return signings to add veteran, All-Star caliber players to their young club.

Back-to-back All-Star spots landed Werth a massive contract, and expectations, in D.C.

PREDICTION

1. PHILLIES
2. BRAVES
3. METS
4. MARLINS
5. NATIONALS

This should once again be the biggest margin of divisional victory in the NL. While they have some crucial health issues in their everyday lineup, the Phillies simply have fewer concerns than nearly any team in baseball, and definitely the National League. Their pitching staff has two legit aces that could be in a race to 20 wins all summer, and the lineup, even without Utley to start the year, is a top 3 group in the league. As for Atlanta, if their youngsters learn on the job quickly and their vets stay healthy, another run towards the Wild Card is definitely in play. The Marlins didn’t get worse, but I think this is the year where the Mets work it, a bit, and show some progress (unless they trade off their big contracts mid-season, a real possibility). As for the Nats…well, they future looks bright with phenom top pick Bryce Harper starting his path towards Washington and Strasberg rehabbing his post Tommy John elbow, but the day for them to thrive is still far off.

 

Comments
  1. Very generous of you placing the Mets in 3rd but I have a feeling they are destined for the cellar. INjuries and turmoil within the organization should be enough to spell doom for hte 2011 season.

    • Thanks for the read. The Mets pick was nearly a toss up between them & the Marlins, but I feel like they’ll get a lot more from Bay this year & Chris Young will help steady that rotation to close that gap (only 4 games last year). I can’t see them beneath the Nats, due to the fact they are still shaky on defense, have an unproven (yet talented) closer & have no real stopper in their rotation if they fall into a slide, with Strasberg shelved.

  2. “The prime suspects in the ‘others’ of the division were the Atlanta Braves, who landed a surprising Wild Card nod and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2002.”

    Prior to 2010, the Braves’ last post season appearance was in 2005, not 2002.

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