Posts Tagged ‘Atlanta Braves’

The MLB awards season continues here today, but where the games usually ended this past summer. It’s time to recognize the top relief pitchers in each league, one that is fairly familiar to these parts, and another that may very well be on his way to digging in the same fashion…

 

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2014 National League Goose Gossage Winner—Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

It is becoming old hat at this point for this nod to go the Braves fireballer. Well actually, the hat probably looks about as worn out as Kimbrel’s does by September, because since he took ahold of the Braves’ reins in the ninth innings four years ago, he has set the curve for all relievers in the game.

For the fourth consecutive year, he landed at least a share of the NL saves title, this time notching 47 in 51 opportunities. It is the third straight season he converted at least 92% of his save chances, and by reaching at least 40 saves this past year, he became the third player to ever reach that mark in four consecutive seasons.

To be only 26 years old, his performances are becoming regularly aligned with history at quite an early rate. He is already the all-time saves leader in Atlanta, as well as becoming the only player to begin his career with four saves titles. Via his combo of power fastball, which he varies between 95-to-100 mph at will, and spiking curveball that scrapes 90 mph itself, he has become a strikeout factory. He became the fastest pitcher to ever reach 400 K’s this year, needing just over 230 innings to reach the mark (a rate of 14.8 k’s per nine innings). For his career, he has rang up strikeouts against 42% of his opponents, and he allowed six less baserunners than innings pitched this year.

The numbers are regularly impressive, but what he represented in Atlanta has continued to increase in value yearly. He is the lynch pin of the Brave pitching staff, the truest example of what it means to make playing a team an “8 inning affair”. In a year where the Braves bullpen had to confront more injuries than in many others, his presence assured that the end result remained the same.

And has long as he continues to man the ninth with that signature glare into home plate, beating the Braves stands to be task done much easier earlier than later.

Runner Up 1: Aroldis Chapman, Reds

Runner Up 2: Mark Melanco, Pirates

 

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2014 American League Goose Gossage Relief Pitcher of the Year—Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

The American League’s answer to Kimbrel is another compact, fireballer that keeps the opportunities to an absolute minimum. In fact, Holland was even more proficient in slamming the door shut, closing out 46 of the 48 opportunities he was presented with. It was a continuation of the reputation he put into the atmosphere last year: Greg Holland is the best in the biz in the junior circuit.

His 5’10 and barely 200 pound structure belies the fact that he possesses some of the most overpowering raw stuff in the game. Holland’s 46 saves were good for second in the AL, while he converted at least 96% of his chances, the top mark in the league. The top gun in the three-headed KC monster pen of Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera continued his dominant fashion in how he goes about his business, striking out 90 batters in just over 60 innings and allowing only 57 baserunners on the year—of which only 10 runs were credit against him, for an ERA of 1.44.

One of the Royals great strengths as they made their first run to the postseason in 29 years was the reliability of its bullpen. With Holland—who made his second All-Star appearance in as many years—leading the way, the KC bullpen tied for the AL lead in saves, led in save percentage and yielded the third fewest bases of any AL unit. For Holland, it continued a two year streak where he has posted an unworldly

line of converting 93-of-99 save opportunities, while posting a 1.32 ERA over his last 129.1 innings and striking out 193 batters against only 38 walks and a .170 average against him.

The question of who would be the next standard bearer in the ninth inning after Mariano Rivera walked away seemed to be simply answered by saying Kimbrel. But Holland is making quite the push to make that a “not so fast” conclusion.

Runner Up 1: Fernando Rodney, Mariners

Runner Up 2: Jake McGee, Rays

 

Past Winners:

2013: Craig Kimbrel (Braves), Koji Uehara (Red Sox)

2012: Craig Kimbrel (Braves), Fernando Rodney (Rays)

 

For more commentary on the awards year, the free agent bonanza to boom and the game just being the game, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

 

2013-Braves-atlanta-braves-35376349-650-440

A funny thing happened in the NL East last year: outside of the Marlins heading up the rear, nothing of that was supposed to happen actually came to pass. This is no knock against the Braves, who dominated the division from its outset and held on for their first division title since 2005, but coming into the season, the division was all but gifted to its incumbent champions, the Washington Nationals.

2013 Finish

1. Atlanta Braves (96-66)

2. Washington Nationals (86-76)

3. New York Mets (78-88)

4. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89)

5. Miami Marlins (62-100)

However, things never quite jived for one reason or another for the Nats, and they languished off in the distance (that was often of the double digit variety) in second place for most of the year. Behind them, the Mets and Phillies traded jabs, with New York playing a stronger than expected effort behind the rise of Matt Harvey and the return to form of Chase Utley and rise of Domonic Brown helping to push the Phils.

However over the season’s final month, something clicked in DC, the Nationals came back to life and finished with the second best September record in the National League, which still kept them 10 games in the rear of Atlanta, but put both the division and the league on notice: they are still a force to be reckoned with. Will that carry over into the new season, or will the Braves hold their previously sizable ground atop the East? Or will the rebuilding Phillies or Mets pull the surprise of the season and ascend up the hill themselves? Let’s see how the East looks to shake out.

All-Division Lineup

1. Bryce HarperNationals, Left Field

2. Chase UtleyPhillies, Second Base

3. David WrightMets, Third Base

4. Giancarlo StantonMarlins, Right Field

5. Freddie FreemanBraves, First Base

6. Ian DesmondNationals, Shortstop

7. Carlos RuizPhillies, Catcher

8. Denard SpanNationals, Centerfield

Fernandez took the NL by storm in his rookie year, finishing second in ERA (2.18) while surrendering the fewest hits per game as well (5.3).

Fernandez took the NL by storm in his rookie year, finishing second in ERA (2.18) while surrendering the fewest hits per game as well (5.3).

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee—Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Stephen Strasberg—Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez—Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Jose Fernandez—Marlins

Right Handed Reliever: Tyler Clippard—Nationals

Lefty Handed Reliever: Luis Avilan—Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel—Braves

The Mets stand to benefit nicely from surrounding David  Wright with some protection. Namely Granderson, who had back-to-back 40 home runs years in 2011-12.

The Mets stand to benefit nicely from surrounding David Wright with some protection. Namely Granderson, who had back-to-back 40 home runs years in 2011-12.

Lineup

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Phillies

4. Mets

5. Marlins

Top to bottom, there’s no holes in the Nationals lineup, and all that it takes is even a portion of them showing up in shifts throughout the year to make them a respectable club. But when working in concert, there may not be a better NL lineup card than theirs 1-8. The Braves and Phillies did a lot last year in finding players such as Jason Heyward and Domonic Brown to step up in spots where they did not have a better option, and in roles where neither had succeeded before.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Mets

4. Phillies

5. Marlins

Whichever combination of Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche or Jayson Werth they decide to go with, it is a formidable 3-4-5 combination. Atlanta will build around Freeman, whom can operate just as easily out of the third or fourth spot. Curtis Granderson will get more pitches for Wright in New York, while a full season of Stanton in Miami could produce some of the most awe inspiring numbers in the game.

Table Setters

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Mets

4. Phillies

5. Marlins

There are dynamically different top of the lineup orientations in the division. Span and Desmond are instant offense to start the game in DC, while Eric Young led the National League in stolen bases last year for the Mets with 46. In Philly, the hope is that Ben Revere can stay healthy and produce the .305 average he did in 88 games over a full season.

Depth

1. Nationals

2. Marlins

3. Phillies

4. Mets

5. Braves

With Scott Hairston, Nate McLouth, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon to use at will, the Nationals once again have the best bench in baseball, with multiple starter quality players in the wings. The Phillies very well could be drawing on their bench for everyday contributions from John Mayberry, Kevin Frandsen and Darin Ruf if their past health issues (likely) arise again.

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Rotation

1. Nationals

2. Phillies

3. Braves

4. Mets

5. Marlins

The DC core of Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann gets even more impressive with the addition of Doug Fister, and is on the short list of baseball’s best collections. The Braves have a young and deep rotation without an absolute #1, but offer an arm with a chance to win every day. The Mets have an underrated group of arms that allowed them to compete more often than they should have a year ago.

1-2 Punch

1. Phillies

2. Nationals

3. Braves

4. Marlins

5. Mets

IF, and only if, Cole Hamels is healthy, him and Lee are probably the second best 1-2 combo in the NL, outside of Los Angeles. This is saying quite a bit, considering any combo of Zimmermann, Strasburg and Gonzalez is right on their heels. The Mets and Braves are facing seasons with their aces Harvey and Kris Medlen, respectively, mending from Tommy John surgery.

Bullpen

1. Braves

2. Nationals

3. Phillies

4. Marlins

5. Mets

Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilian, Drew Carpenter and Jonny Venters are a dominant group that goes against the grain of the starting staff usually setting the tone for a pitching staff’s success. In Atlanta, the pen is the reason for this. Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano give the Nats three arms with ninth inning experience to use at will.

Defense

1. Braves

2. Mets

3. Marlins

4. Nationals

5. Phillies

Atlanta’s Simmons is perhaps the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith range-wise, and brings an arm that is said to be able to pump it up to 98 mph as well. Heyward, Freeman and both Uptons are plus defenders as well that make it easy to work off the mound in Atlanta. Conversely, the Phillies age shows up most startlingly when they are asked to take the field.

In his first full year leading the Phillies, Sandberg will have to find a balance between the win-now age of the club and the realities of their limitations.

In his first full year leading the Phillies, Sandberg will have to find a balance between the win-now age of the club and the realities of their limitations.

Manager

1. Fredi Gonzalez—Braves

2. Terry Collins—Mets

3. Matt Williams—Nationals

4. Ryne Sandberg—Phillies

5. Mike Redmond—Marlins

Gonzalez deserves a lot of credit for keeping Atlanta moving ahead with such a massive lead last season, but it was Terry Collins who did the best job of all skippers in the division. He squeezed every bit of talent he could out of the Mets roster and could absolutely be the reason for any premature success they have as they restructure this season.

Finances

1. Phillies

2. Nationals

3. Braves

4. Mets

5. Marlins

The Phillies have the funds and Ruben Amaro has the gumption to use them, although he often doesn’t do so in the most measured manner. The Nationals and Braves also have the type of finances that can be used to add a piece on the run as needed, such as Atlanta did in acquiring Ervin Santana in the wake of the Medlen injury.

Impact Additions

1. Doug Fister (Nationals via trade)

2. A.J. Burnett (Phillies via free agency)

3. Curtis Granderson (Mets via free agency)

4. Ervin Santana (Braves via free agency)

5. Marlon Byrd (Phillies via free agency)

Granderson was a strong addition for the Mets who have struggled to produce regular offense for years now. Burnett and Santana were necessary acquisitions for their respective clubs, who found themselves under equipped with two solid fits to boost their suddenly slim rotations.

Leap Forward

1. Bryce Harper—Nationals

2. Wilson Ramos—Nationals

3. Alex Wood—Braves

4. Zack Wheeler—Mets

5. Adeiny Hechavarria—Marlins

It may seem strange to see Harper on this list considering he is a two-time All-Star already, but he is likely on the verge of a major jump ahead to the 30/30 club range of contributiors. Wood will be asked to carry much more responsibility in the Braves staff, which he is equipped to handle. Hechavarria showed a better offensive prowess than expected, driving in 42 runs for the Marlins, and is young enough to work on his low average.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez—Phillies

2. Travis d’Arnaud—Mets

3. Noah Syndergaard–Mets

4. Jake Marisnick—Marlins

5. Christian Bethancourt—Braves

The Phillies gambled big ($12 million deal) on Gonzalez being ready to be an instant contributor at the Major League level, and he’s quickly become an essential part of any potential success they have. D’Arnaud has been at the center of two trades for former Cy Young candidates, and now has the opportunity to show why as the everyday Mets backstop out of the gate.

PREDICTIONS

1. Washington Nationals

2. Atlanta Braves

3. New York Mets

4. Philadelphia Phillies

5. Miami Marlins

Maybe it is an exercise in not learning from the past, but the Nationals are just too exceptional of a group to bet against still. They have as deep of a starting pitching group as possible and as strong of an everyday lineup as a non-DH roster can hold. Add in the growth of its young stars and a deep bench capable of contributing on an everyday basis, and it should be their division to take. The only potholes that stand are if, as always, health works on their side and rookie manager Matt Williams can adapt well to his new role.

Yet, this is not to slight the Braves in any way. Despite another year of Tommy John surgeries haunting their staff, they still have as good of a team as they did a year ago. They will have to lick the wounds of both rebounding from those injuries and comeback strong from dropping a very winnable Division Series. But the talent is there still and a chance to grow together is exact what they will need if they want to defend their title.

Otherwise, the Mets and Phillies find themselves in comparable places again, where they are looking to figure out how to make the most of what they have, despite being a clear cut behind the two pacesetters in the division. Meanwhile in Miami, they made a lot of moves to add experience to their roster, but not enough to do much more than a 5-8 game uptick in the standings.

In the end, the Nationals have what it takes to win a competitive battle with Atlanta, in a division that will likely produce only one postseason participant.

For more on the season to come and what’s coming of it, follow me in real-time on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Strasburg

The National League East was the most diverse division in all of baseball a year ago. It was home of the a Cy Young winner on a fourth place team, a former middle reliever that inspired a 23-game winning streak as a starter, the greatest teenage season in baseball history, the farewell of Chipper Jones, two different coming of age stores (that went in two different directions), as well as the most expensive collapse in all of baseball. Yes, the NL East was the scene of five very different stories that left the division looking unlike anything that could have been expected.

The newly minted Miami Marlins entered the year with all the expectations that a complete franchise facelift brings. However, by half way point of the first half, they’d begun to fold already, trading their long-time franchise player and languishing at the bottom of the division. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the long-time division champs watched their age and injury come together in the worst possible way. Behind David Wright and RA Dickey, the Mets showed some promise, and the Braves continued to be the absolute best second place team imaginable. A place they inhabited because the Washington Nationals rose to power, and never gave it up.

2012 FINISH (*Wild Card winner)

  1. Washington Nationals (98-64)
  2. Atlanta Braves (94-68)*
  3. Philadelphia Phillies (81-81)
  4. New York Mets (74-88)
  5. Miami Marlins (69-93)

Fast forward to now, and things seem a bit more set than they did last summer. Behind a powerhouse lineup and pitching staff, the Nationals have gone from building to win-now status. But the Braves have had as aggressive of an offseason as they’ve had in years to make sure the DC rise isn’t unchallenged. The Phillies, on the other hand, have been in that same “win now” mode for three years, face perhaps the last season where they have a chance to do it. And new eras are coming into play with the Mets and Marlins, and pulling themselves up in a top heavy division will be a challenge of multiple types. But in a division with two teams easily able to represent the NL in October, is the upset even possible?

All Division Team

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves

First Base: Adam LaRoche, Nationals

Second Base: Chase Utley, Phillies

Third Base: David Wright, Mets

Shortstop: Ian Desmond, Nationals

Left Field: Bryce Harper, Nationals

Center Field: BJ Upton, Braves

Right Field: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

Stanton's prodigous power -to-age ratio is the reason he's the last man standing in Miami.

Stanton’s prodigous power -to-age ratio (40 home run per year average at 23 years old) is the reason he’s the last man standing in Miami.

Starting Pitcher: Stephen Strasberg, Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez, Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Cole Hamels, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies

Righty Relief: Tyler Clippard, Nationals

Lefty Relief: Jonny Venters, Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Top 10

  1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
  2. David Wright, Mets
  3. Stephen Strasberg, Nationals
  4. Cole Hamels, Phillies
  5. Cliff Lee, Phillies
  6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
  7. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
  8. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
  9. Bryce Harper, Nationals
  10. Justin Upton, Braves

Lineup

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

Top to bottom, there’s very few NL lineups that can swing with the Nationals. As you’ll see below, there’s no area they are weak in, but the strength is truly in the numbers. They finished in the top five in runs, total bases, team batting average and home runs in the NL. The Phillies haven’t been able to perform at maximum capacity for the past two years, but Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will both enter the season healthy for the first time in that span as well. Atlanta could very well carry six players that top 20 home runs, but could also lead the NL in strikeouts by a wide margin as well.

Wright carried a heavy load in the Mets lineup well a year ago, topping 40 doubles and driving in 93 runs.

Wright carried a heavy load in the Mets lineup well a year ago, topping 40 doubles and driving in 93 runs.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Nationals (Harper/Zimmerman/LaRoche)
  2. Braves (Upton/Freeman/Upton)
  3. Phillies (Utley/Howard/Young)
  4. Mets (Wright/Davis/Duda)
  5. Marlins (Stanton/Brantly/Ruggiano)

The emergence of the Adam LaRoche (33 HRs/100 RBI) pushed the Nationals lineup to a new level last year. With Zimmerman and Harper, the Nats have a chance to get 75 homers from the middle of their lineup alone. The Braves revamped the team with the addition of the Uptons, and Freddie Freeman’s continue growth will make the heart of the ATL attack formidable for years to come.

Table Setters

  1. Nationals (Span/Werth)
  2. Braves (Simmons/Heyward)
  3. Phillies (Rollins/Revere)
  4. Marlins (Pierre/Polanco)
  5. Mets (Tejada/Murphy)

Denard Span is the table setter Washington has been after for the last few years, and when coupled with the do it all Harper, the Nats will jump on pitchers early and often. Ben Revere is the type of regular on-base threat the Phillies need. His .294 average was a 27 point increase from 2011. Juan Pierre is still a steady hitter at age 35 and his consistent effort will be helpful in the sparse Marlin lineup.

Bench

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

The Nationals have the best bench in baseball. Wilson Ramos, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi start in a lot of other places. The mix of Delmon Young, Lee Mayberry and Freddy Galvis is a promising support group for Charlie Manuel in Philly, as long as they aren’t stretched too thin by being forced into the starting lineup too often due to injury.

Rotation

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

The best rotation in the NL got better when Dan Haren joined Strasburg, Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler in DC. This group won a combined (…) games in 2012. Not to be outdone, the Phillies boast two legitimate aces in Lee and Hamels, but the health of Roy Halladay continues to be questionable. The Mets staff is still without Johan Santana, but has several quality young arms in Dillion Gee, Matt Harvey and Jonathan Niese.

1-2 Punch

  1. Nationals (Strasberg/Gonzalez)
  2. Phillies (Hamels/Lee)
  3. Braves (Hudson/Medlen)
  4. Mets (Santana/Niese)
  5. Marlins (Nolasco/LeBlanc)

Strasberg and Gonzalez could become the first teammates to both win 20 games in a season since 2002. In Atlanta, Kris Medlen was unbelievable down the stretch last season, with the Braves winning 23 of his starts, consecutively. Paired with the always reliable Tim Hudson, they have the firepower to match up with the more hallowed top of the line in-division arms.

With O'Flaherty, Kimbrel and Venters waiting in the wings, if the Braves aren't beat by the seventh, it's probably not happening.

With O’Flaherty, Kimbrel and Venters waiting in the wings, if the Braves aren’t beat by the seventh, it’s probably not happening.

Bullpen

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

There’s no better bullpen in baseball than Atlanta’s. The late inning gauntlet includes the often untouchable trio of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel, and added former All-Star Jordan Walden as well. The Nationals added Rafael Soriano to Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard to form a formidable late game trio of their own. Mike Adams, who has posted an ERA under 2.00 four of the last five years, was added bridge the gap to Jonathan Papelbon.

Defense

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

The addition of both Upton brothers to an outfield with Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward makes the Atlanta outfield the best in the game. The Mets infield is strong unit, led by Wright and Ruben Tejada, while Giancarlo Stanton’s bat gets the headlines, but his athleticism and arm both round him out as a one of the best overall players in the game as well.

Speed

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

Once again, it all starts with the outfield in the A. While Michael Bourn is gone, the Braves will get even quicker with the combined efforts of the Uptons (49 steals a year ago), as well as Andrelton Simmons. Revere adds 40 steal speed to the Philly attack, and Span has twice hit 10 triples in a season, as well as topped 20 steals.

Manuel has averaged 90 wins in his eight years in Philly, and his handling could be the x-factor in the Philly year.

Manuel has averaged 90 wins in his eight years in Philly, and his handling could be the x-factor in the Philly year.

Manager

  1. Davey Johnson, Nationals
  2. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
  3. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
  4. Terry Collins, Mets
  5. Mike Redmond, Marlins

It is Johnson’s last go around in DC (he’s retiring after the season), and the 2012 NL Manager of the Year has the tools at his disposal to make it a memorable departure. Collins has kept the Mets surprisingly afloat the last few years despite the constant turmoil surrounding the Mets the last two years. Rookie manager Redmond will be tasked with a tough task pulling along the stripped down Marlins in his debut year.

Finances

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

The Phillies have the funds to make their usual aggressive additions if they find themselves in the chase late in the season. Despite having three four players due $20 million this season, GM Ruben Amaro has the green light to spend if needed. On the flipside, the Marlins and Mets are two of the biggest financial disasters in sports, despite the substantial $138 million commitment made to Wright this winter.

Impact Additions

  1. Justin Upton (Braves via D’Backs)
  2. BJ Upton (Braves via Rays)
  3. Dan Haren (Nationals via Angels)
  4. Rafael Soriano (Nationals via Yankees)
  5. Ben Revere (Phillies via Twins)

After years of being floated in Arizona, the Justin Upton finally was moved to a place where he can freely play with no rumors hanging off his every move. The Braves re-invented themselves by signing him and his older brother BJ. Meanwhile, the Nationals made several “finishing touch” type moves, highlighted picking up a potential steal in Haren, a 4-time All-Star workhorse who’s averaged 14 wins a season.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
  2. Matt Harvey, Mets
  3. Ike Davis, Mets
  4. Julio Teheran, Braves
  5. Ross Detwiler, Nationals

Harper is the easy call, but considering what could be on deck is one of the most exciting things to look forward to in the season. He hit 22 homers and stole 18 bases a year ago, and has a legitimate shot to become the youngest member of the 30 homer/30 steal club this time around. Harvey was at times completely overpowering as a rookie, averaging 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings over 10 starts.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Zach Wheeler (Pitcher-Mets, AAA)
  2. Travis D’Arnaud (Catcher-Mets, AAA)
  3. Anthony Rendon (Third Base-Nationals, AA)
  4. Andrelton Simmons (Shortstop-Braves, MLB)
  5. Adeiny Hechavarria (Shortstop-Marlins, MLB)

The future looks good for the Mets, and it’s most promising of its entire stockpile of young arms. Wheeler has a triple digit fastball, and the stuff to go along with it. Pairing him with D’Arnaud, the former top prospect of the Blue Jays and main return piece for RA Dickey, ensure the Mets will return to relevancy soon enough.

2013 PREDICTIONS

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

Last season was the story of anybody having a chance out in the East, this time around will not be more of the same. The Nationals and Braves are both returning very strong team’s that didn’t lose much over the winter, yet made some substantial additions. On the other hand, the Phillies who have a solid core, made some additions as well, but simply can’t keep up with the younger and more well rounded Nationals and Braves. But they are a veteran laden club with more winning experience than any other team ahead of them and a very good manager, if any team in the NL is capable of spring a surprise heist of a Wild Card spot, it’s them.

The Mets are growing, and have made several moves that have put young talent in their system and Major League staff, but after Wright and Davis, there’s nothing else in their lineup and the East is the wrong division not be able to hit in. The Marlins, after their “everything not named Giancarlo must go” dump are more of a factor in the push for the number spot in the Draft than the division.

So this brings it all back to the same two postseason reps from a year ago. The Braves are getting better in a hurry, and with their entire core under 30, their best days are yet to come. A return to the playoffs should be expected, and not just a one and done this year either. But the Nationals better days are here now. The difference comes down the arms: the Braves have a very good pitching staff; the Nationals have a devastating staff, which has four Cy Young capable starters and three relievers with 30 save capability. Add on the prime of Zimmerman, LaRoche and Werth with the rise of Harper and Ian Desmond all happening at once, and the Nationals aren’t just the best in the East. They’re among the two or three best period.

For more on the upcoming MLB campaign along the East coast in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Winter for Michael Bourn has been moving in slow motion, which is the ultimate irony for a man of his particular skill set. The four-time National League leader in stolen bases hasn’t seen his market advance very far at all, and with Spring Training looming in under two weeks, time is of the essence.

Michael Bourn

The reasons for why have been floated around, and have gained stream towards being seen as legitimate, and many have been due to the level of expectation financially and the time commitment for the deal as well. The fact that his primary skill is speed, and he’s already had his 30th birthday has been damaging. When combined with the fact that he has only managed to hit .300 once over the course of a full season, there is legitimate concern that there won’t be existing value once that goes.

These are concerns with some credence, but also the fact remains is that right now, he’s the best defensive center fielder in baseball. On that rationale alone, he makes any team substantially better. He has a plus arm, and the speed is still there right now. While he is cast as a leadoff hitter, he has the ability to fit into multiple positions in the lineup as well.

Many teams that would have been good fits chose cheaper, younger or differently skilled ways to go to solve their centerfield needs. The Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and even his most recent home, the Atlanta Braves, all entered the winter with a need in the middle, but found other ways of filling the need. This left Bourn looking in more obscure places to find work.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still locations that make a lot of sense for him to end up. At this point, most likely it will be a short term deal, perhaps even just a one or two year pact, which will still easily cover his prime seasons. The real question is who can, and should make the move, to get the most benefit out of one of the most uniquely skilled player s in the game.

 

New York Mets: The Mets have been the hot rumor team recently, and they make a lot of sense really. They have had a definite need in the leadoff spot since the post-Jose Reyes days began and could use the defensive upgrade in a major way. It sounds odd, but they have a legit chance to push into the middle of the pack in the NL East.

The issue is, to sign him they have to part with their first round pick as compensation, which is a major point of contention. Number one, they don’t feel they should the pick should be up for grabs, and they have a legitimate point. In a vague point in the new CBA, top 10 worse records are protected, but if any team’s top pick doesn’t sign from the year previous, they regain a pick a year later. As part of the domino effect, it moves each team that was is behind them back a spot, and potentially out of the Top 10. That’s what’s happening to the Mets, who have the 10th, but now 11th pick in the draft due to the Pirates not signing Mark Appell. And if they lose this pick, it goes to their divisional rivals in Atlanta, something they don’t seem too keen to do.

Arizona Diamondbacks: There’s a gut in the outfield in Arizona currently, even after moving Justin Upton out of town. But Bourn is an intriguing option there. He fits in to the top of the lineup right away, and keeps their defensive prowess up to par, which is needed with Jason Kubel manning left field. Not likely to happen, with rookie Adam Eaton on the verge, but there’s a place for him.

Baltimore Orioles: Another contender that would be boosted by his presence. The O’s are team with everything, except a true threat on the bases. Bourn would be yet another weapon for one of baseball’s most diverse attacks, and they could easily afford him. A hindrance would seem to be the presence of franchise cornerstone Adam Jones in center, but there are options there. If he moved to left, and Bourn was able to be placed between him and Nick Markakis, it would be one of the league’s best outfields immediately, and one that would be nearly impossible to take an extra base on as well.

Texas Rangers: The most obvious choice, but some for some reason, there hasn’t been a lot of traction there. They are taken care of as far as draft compensation goes, because they’ll be receiving extra picks in for Josh Hamilton. They have the opening, with only prospect Leoydis Martin being a viable option, and he could use more time to go.

There would be a change in approach needed however, because Ian Kinsler is better for the leadoff spot, and Elvis Andrus is a prototype #2 hitter. He would move down the order to the ninth spot, but the idea of the three of them hitting back to back, and followed by Adrian Beltre is enthralling. They have the money to take a bit more risk on the downside of the contract as well, so there could be something here. Time will tell, but it better hurry up.

Sergio Romo

The CHEAP SEATS breakout of the best units in baseball continues today, with a look at the best bullpens in baseball. This isn’t just the best closer, with a few other guys, but the teams that can make a window of opportunity really small to a get a W. There are some really strong groups of late arms coming into the league, with potentially some of the best units not even finishing among the Top 10 coming in. With Rafael Soriano still looking for a home as well, there’s still a huge piece that could change the fortune of a few of these groups, as well as a few not mention among them yet.

But this is what it is, and the series continues with a spotlight on the pitchers that don’t stand it as often…until the pressure is on highest.

 

1. Atlanta Braves: The only bullpen that can truly turn leads into six inning wins, and it got deeper this offseason. Craig Kimbrel has been the best closer in the game for his first two season in the game, converting 89 of 100 save opportunities, while opposing hitters have a .151 average against him. Eric O’Flaherty has 1.95 ERA over the last two seasons and Jonny Venters has struck out 258 batters in 229 pro innings. Add on Jordan Walden, who saved 32 games as a rookie All-Star in 2011, and you’ve got a devastating group.

2. San Francisco Giants: You’d think they would take a step backwards losing Brian Wilson at the beginning of the year, but not a skip was missed up and down their pen. That’s a testament to the game’s most balanced pen, with Sergio Romo handing in his second consecutive sub-2.00 ERA year, with 18 total saves. Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affelt and George Kontos all handed in ERA’s below 3.00 as well.

3. Baltimore Orioles: The O’s weren’t the best late-inning team in the game just due to a knack for walk off hits. Their pen was the secret strength of the team, led by Jim Johnson, who saved 51 games while walking just 15 batters in over 60 innings. Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Luis Ayala and Troy Patton were the ultimate support group and 18 won total games.

4. Oakland A’s: Whether it was Ryan Cook (14 saves, 21 holds, .166 average against) or Grant Balfour (24 saves, 15 holds, .160 average against) closing games, the entire path through the late innings against the A’s was hell. With their entire pen returning, the American League’s best total pitching staff will be trouble again.

5. St. Louis Cardinals: Once again, the Cardinals’ staff stepped up big late in the season. Jason Motte tied for the NL lead in saves with 42, and Edward Mujica put up a 1.03 ERA after being acquired from the Marlins. Randy Choate (.158 average vs. left-handers) and Trevor Rosenthal (15 strikeouts in 8.5 playoff innings) could both be huge additions over the course of the full season in 2013.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers: Around their big name additions, the Dodgers have done a good job off filling in the details as well, starting with a solid bullpen. Brandon League will resume his role as a full-time closer, after saving 37 games in 2011. 2012’s closer Kenley Jansen, who struck out 13.7 batters per 9 innings, will open as setup man, and with Matt Guerrier, JP Howell and Ronald Belisario in the mix as well, there will be no shortage of situational arms available as well.

7. Boston Red Sox: There may be no team with more “what if” talent on their bullpen mix than the Bo Sox. Joel Hanahran (36 saves, 2.72 ERA in Pittsburgh) was their biggest acquisition of the winter, but if Daniel Bard, Andrew Bailey and Koji Uehara can also find their old forms (and health), this could be the group at the top of the list by next year.

Aroldis Chapman makes the Reds group a top 3 pen collection, but even without him, Cincy still has a ton of strong late inning arms.

Aroldis Chapman makes the Reds group a top 3 pen collection, but even without him, Cincy still has a ton of strong late inning arms.

8. Cincinnati Reds: Another group that has a pretty big “if” attached to it. With Aroldis Chapman, this is a top 3 unit, but since the plan is to move him to rotation currently, it slides some. Even without him available daily, it is still a strong unit led by Jonathan Broxton, Jose Arrendando and one of baseball’s best left-handed setup arms, Sean Marshall.

9. San Diego Padres: A great unit that makes a so-so club a lot better on its own. Despite losing Heath Bell and Mike Adams the last two years, the Padres still have 10 relievers that averaged better than a strikeout an inning. When he gets a chance, Huston Street was lights out, converting 96% of saves chances with a 1.85 ERA.

10. Tampa Bay Rays: Annual guarantee in baseball is the Rays will have a dynamic bullpen. It will be needed more than ever, with a rotation thinned out after trading it’s workhorse, James Shields, and setup man Wade Davis. However, Fernando Rodney (0.60 ERA and 48 saves in 74 innings), along with Jake McGee and Joel Peralta are a strong base for the next wave of certain to follow up and comers that will join the group to build off of.

 

Just Missed: Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks.

Oakland A's

Yesterday, I broke down the Top 10 infields in Major League Baseball headed into 2013. Today, we move back a little further to the outfield, where things are not as set as yesterday’s groups are. With a premier free agent still on the board (Michael Bourn) potentially impacting this group, as well as a few moves that could effect the who is playing where, there could be some ground that gets shook up.

But at any rate, here we go again:

1. Los Angeles Angels (Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos, Josh Hamilton): This is nearly unfair on a few levels. Trout and Bourjos cover so much range that it’s much of an exaggeration to think they could play the entire outfield by themselves. Tack on Hamilton, who’s good for a default 30 homers, Vernon Wells on the bench and the scary idea that Trout is still improving, and this is the best of the bunch.

2. Washington Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth): Another highly versatile, do everything group. Span is the long sought after speedy, leadoff centerfield they’ve needed for so long. Werth is ridiculously versatile in both the field and in the lineup, and Harper is entering his 20 year old season already as one of the most well-rounded players in the game.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier): This is a group that COULD be the best of them all at the end of the year IF Crawford can make it back to form. Kemp is the perhaps the most dangerous player in the game, and Ethier is steady contributor as well. Defensively, Kemp is probably better suited for a corner now, but he makes up for it by being a 40-40 threat annually.

4. Oakland A’s (Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Chris Young): Yeah, four guys have to get listed here, because this is the deepest talent pool across the board after the addition of Young. What’s scarier is that Reddick (32 homers/Gold Glove) and Cespedes (23 homers) are just coming off of their first years as starters.

5. Atlanta Braves (Martin Prado, BJ Upton, Jason Heyward): This group is here for now, due to the fact they have acquired a left fielder to move Prado back to third. But even with just Upton and Heyward, it’s one of the best collections of young talent in the game. Heyward is back on track (60 homers, 23 years old) and Prado has hit over .300 three of his four full seasons.

6. Colorado Rockies (Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer): Quiet consistency. CarGo is a perennial MVP candidate, despite playing on some subpar clubs recently. He hit .300 and topped both 20 homers and stolen bases for the third straight summer. Fowler was rightfully one of the most sought after players of the winter after hitting .300 and topping 10 triples for the fourth straight year.

At the All-Star Break last year, both Holliday & Beltran were viable MVP candidates, and pushed STL to the brink of another World Series.

Holliday & Beltran were MVP candidates in their first year together, and pushed STL to the brink of another World Series.

7. St. Louis Cardinals (Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran): Beltran was a revelation in his first year in St. Louis at the plate, while Jay became one of the better fielders in the league, while hitting .304. Holliday is one of the best hitters in either league, and transitioned well to being the biggest bat in the Cardinal order, hitting over .340 for three consecutive months in 2012.

8. Cincinnati Reds (Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce): Cincy took this group to another level with the addition of Choo, and retaining Ludwick assured balance in their lineup. Bruce is the biggest power threat on the club, as well as perhaps the best fielding right fielder in the game. However, he may have to move to center to accommodate Choo.

9. Baltimore Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis): Jones and Markakis are the mainstays of the organization, with Markakis as the constant of the org and Jones currently the franchise player. AJ10 has improved in each of the last 5 seasons, while Markakis was limited by a broken arm. Along with McLouth’s resurgence, this is a group that could still grow more together a year later.

10 Toronto Blue Jays (Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista): Biggest boom or bust group of all on this list, but the upside is undeniable. If Cabrera can break even from his pre and post PED form, Rasmus keeps up his mid-summer form (.291/8/25 in June) and most importantly, Joey Bats has his health in order, and gets his average back up (from .306 to .241 in ’12), while keeping his power (14 June homers), this is a very strong group.

Just Missed: Yankees, Diamondbacks, Brewers

 

For more in-depth talk on this list, the upcoming season and what I had for breakfast, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

There was no more interesting division in baseball than the NL East this winter. It is essentially a rebuilt, redesigned, revamp of what it was just a few months back, familiar only in team locations in many regards. The Florida Marlins changed out everything about their club, both on field, off field and in the budgeting department. The Washington Nationals continued to drop big money, but also made smart, low price decisions as well. After a colossal collapse, that took them from a sure return to the postseason last year with a 8.5 game headed into September, they chose to had steady and give it another go. As for the Mets? Well, they let the National League’s batting champ walk to a division rival…and couldn’t do anything about it.

2011 Standings

  1. Philadelphia Phillies (102-60)
  2. Atlanta Braves (89-73)
  3. Washington Nationals (80-81)
  4. New York Mets (77-85)
  5. Florida Marlins (72-90)

While all of this was going around, one thing stayed the same: the Phillies looked down at it all. After winning their fifth consecutive division title, but being coming out on the wrong half of a classic Divisional Series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, they’ll look to pick up where they’ve left off for the last half decade. In order to do so, they’ll have to take on the revamped Miami Marlins, a newly deep Nationals team, the Braves with a major chip on their shoulder and a Mets club with absolutely nothing to lose….and does it without two of their top contributors in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for an unknown amount of time?

Doc Halladay had his standard Cy Young caliber year before being narrowly outdone in a classic Playoff matchup.

All-Division Team

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves

First Base: Freddie Freeman, Braves

Second Base: Dan Uggla, Braves

Third Base: David Wright, Mets

Shortstop: Jose Reyes, Marlins

Left Field: Logan Morrison, Marlins

Center Field: Shane Victorino, Phillies

Right Field: Hunter Pence, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cole Hamels, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson, Marlins

Righty Reliever: Tyler Clippard, Nationals

Best Players: Jonny Venters, Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Top 10 Players

1. Roy Halladay, Phillies

2. Cliff Lee, Phillies

3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

4. Jose Reyes, Marlins

Reyes rediscovered his healthy legs last year, and landed his first batting title as a result.

5. David Wright, Mets

6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals

7. Cole Hamels, Phillies

8. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

9. Brian McCann, Braves

10. Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Lineup

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

Miami one of the most versatile lineups in the game, featuring multiple 50 steals candidates, 5 former All-Stars and two of the premier young talents in the game in the former Mike, now Giancarlo, Stanton. The Braves lineup had a down year as a whole last summer, but the potential to rebound is definitely there. The Phillies will have to go into survival mode being down both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to start the year.

Rotation

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

This the best collection of rotations of any division in baseball. Halladay, Lee and Hamels would be the number one guy on nearly any other team in the game, yet they combine in Philly to be by far the best collection of arms in one city. They finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in last year’s NL Cy Young vote. Mark Buehrle and Gio Gonzalez join Miami and Washington to provide All-Star boost to growing rotations for each franchise.

Strasberg's return will feature an unparalleled mixture of expectation, but he won't be alone in carrying the weight.

1-2 Punch

  1. Phillies (Halladay & Lee)
  2. Nationals (Strasberg & Zimmerman)
  3. Marlins (Johnson & Buehrle)
  4. Braves (Hudson & Hanson)
  5. Mets (Santana & Dickey)

Halladay and Cliff combined to go 36-14 last year, with 14 complete games and 7 shutouts; dominant. Strasburg and Zimmermann have both had Tommy John surgery over the last two years, but the results both showed upon returning were very positive. Their potential should come into reality this summer. Much of the extent of how well the Marlins, Braves and Mets seasons go lay on the healthy returns of Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Johan Santana.

Bullpen

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

The backend of the Braves bullpen turns games into six inning affairs at best. Kimbrel had 46 saves and struck out 127 batters in 77 innings. Venters lowered his ERA from 1.95 to 1.84 and Eric O’Flaherty posted a 0.98 mark. In DC, Drew Storen, Brad Lidge and Tyler Clippard should be a very formidable group, and new closers Papelbon in Philly and Heath Bell in Miami bring solid new dynamics to their clubs.

Kimbrel set the rookie record for saves last year with 46, in addition to leading the Majors in relief strikeouts.

Tablesetters

  1. Marlins (Reyes & Bonafacio)
  2. Braves (Bourn & Prado)
  3. Phillies (Rollins & Polanco)
  4. Nationals (Desmond & Espinosa)
  5. Mets (Torres & Murphy)

Reyes led the league in hitting and triples last year, in addition to swiping 39 bases as a Met last year. Bonafacio stole 40 bags himself, and together they should be pure hell. Bourn has led the NL in steals the last two seasons. Him and Prado should make for one of the more potent hit and run combos in either league.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Marlins (Ramirez/Stanton/Morrison)
  2. Braves (McCann/Uggla/Freeman)
  3. Nationals (Zimmerman/Werth/LaRoche)
  4. Mets (Wright/Davis/Bay)
  5. Phillies (Victorino/Pence/Wigginton)

When Hanley is healthy, very few players can do more than he does. Behind him is Stanton, and only A-Rod and Ken Griffey, Jr have hit more homers before the age of 22 than him. If the Mets can keep Wright, Ike Davis and Jason Bay on the field together in the newly redesigned Citi Field, it push the Mets into a competitive season. The Nats hope that year two of Jayson Werth payout the promise his contract reads out at.

If Wright (102 games in '11) and the rest of the middle of the Mets attack can stay healthy, they'll shake up the East.

Bench

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

The Phillies bench will be pushed early due to filling in for its injured starters, but Jim Thome and Juan Pierre provide great options for an offense that will need contributions from everywhere. All in all, no team is particularly deep offensively in the East, and an injury to the wrong starter on any club could change the direction of the entire division.

Defense

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

Pence, Victorino and John Mayberry are a very strong outfield, while Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz anchor a good infield collection as well. Andres Torres will cover the expansive outfields in New York well, while Davis and Wright are plus fielders as well. Michael Bourn covers more outfield than player in the game, and the Braves will benefit from it in his first full year in the A. The Marlins will have to hope Hanley Ramirez takes to his new position at third base quickly, and Emilio Bonafacio and Logan Morrison take big strides in the outfield soon.

Speed

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

Reyes and Bonafacio are the burners, but Ramirez, Logan Morrison and Chris Coghlan can spark the bases as well. Wright is the rare third baseman that can steal 20 bases, and even after losing Reyes, the Mets should be a very good running team.

Manager

  1. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
  2. Ozzie Guillen, Marlins
  3. Davey Johnson, Nationals
  4. Freddi Gonzalez, Braves
  5. Terry Collins, Mets

Charlie Manuel is trying to wrap up his sixth consecutive division title this year, and has pushed the Phillies to the best record in baseball the last two years, as well as a World Series title in 2008. For as colorful as he is, there’s probably no better scenario for Ozzie Guillen than leading an exciting, rebuilt Marlins team that can be pushed by his energy. The best is yet to come for him. Terry Collins is a good manager, and as much life as the Mets show, he’ll be able to maximize it.

Ozzie's aggressive style fits in perfectly with the approach the Marlins have put forth all winter, and should pay off well this summer.

Finances

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

The Marlins’ bottomless, Scrooge McDuck-style money pit was one of the stories of the offseason, and they have the resources to continue to make needed additions to the team throughout the year. The Nationals also have the funds, and prospects, to make additions needed to shift a potential pennant chase in their favor. The Phillies hands are tied by the uncertain number it will take to secure Cole Hamels past this year and Ryan Howard’s escalated, $25 million mark he’ll pull down this year.

Impact Additions

  1. Jose Reyes (Marlins from Mets)
  2. Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies from Red Sox)
  3. Heath Bell (Marlins from Padres)
  4. Mark Buehrle (Marlins from White Sox)
  5. Gio Gonzalez (Nationals from A’s)

Reyes was the first big signing of the offseason, and the Marlins #1 target in their aggressive rebuilding effort early on. Bell, Buehrle, and eventually, Carlos Zambrano followed suit soon after and reshaped the direction of a team that competed early last year before injuries and a lack of depth dropped them into the bottom of the division.

Breakthrough Candidates

  1. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
  2. Lucas Duda, Mets
  3. Jason Heyward, Braves
  4. Brandon Beachy, Braves
  5. John Mayberry, Jr., Phillies

Before tearing his elbow up in 2009 and missing most of last year, StrasMania was at a fever pitch. This is the year to see what it can be about in full effect, despite an inning limit he’ll have to adhere too (most likely based on where the Nats are sitting in the pennant race). Jason Heyward had a brutal sophomore slump, but he’s still primed to become one of the game’s best hitters still. Lucas Duda is the type of low cost, high payout talent the cash and prospect deprived Mets have a desperate need to produce.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Bryce Harper (Outfielder, Nationals)
  2. Randall Delgado (Pitcher, Braves)
  3. Zach Wheeler (Pitcher, Mets)
  4. Julio Teheran (Pitcher, Braves)
  5. Tyler Pastornicky (Shortstop, Braves)

Harper's the next "Next Big Thing" in DC;whenever he arrives he'll widen the Strasburg spotlight to shine on him as well.

Harper is baseball’s “Next Big Thing”, and for good reason. The 18 year old has shown he can dominate minor league comp and play solid, if slightly inconsistent, ball with the big boys. That inconsistency will start him in Triple A, but it’s going to be hard to leave him there all summer, even if the Nationals are technically “in need” of him. The Braves really need for Delgado or Teheran to live up to their top prospect billing, so they can round out a pitching staff that needs improvement on its bottom half.

2011 PROJECTION

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

The Phillies have run the East for the last half decade in part due to a brutal lineup that featured MVP winners in Rollins and Howard, and one of the game’s most productive overall players in Utley. More recently, it has been due to their dominant pitching staff taking the lead. This summer the weight of the world will be on that pitching staff and whatever the lineup can provide. The good news is if any team can live with this arrangement, it’s the Phillies; and as far as win and losses go, they probably won’t skip much of a beat. Halladay is the best pitcher in the game and Lee isn’t too far behind. Hamels is in a contract year, and will be auditioning for one of the biggest deals this upcoming winter. With yet another up and coming stud in Vance Worley joining them and a championship-level closer in Papelbon backing it all up, runs may be a luxury, but not a necessity, until Howard and Utley potentially return.

However, it won’t be a runaway by any means. The Marlins are bringing in a lot of new pieces, but are both undeniably experienced and developing major young talents at once. They easily have what it takes to throw the Phillies from their home atop the division, but their pitching staff will have to prove both healthy and consistent. Also their very shaky defense will have to step up as well. The same story goes for the Nationals; a well rounded on pitching staff on paper will have stay on the mound, and its stars have to produce and be healthy. The Braves are coming off of an epic collapse, and now have to face both a tougher division and a certain pitching staff/lineup at once. The Mets are still stuck in financial limbo and cannot add pieces to their team of much substance at all, let alone up to the level that their divisional mates can…and have.

However, for all that has changed, the end result will be the same. They won’t finish with the best record in the game for a third straight year and the margin of their championship finish will be the slimmest since 2008. But the Phillies will ride high in the East again. And you know what else happened last time they had to fight so hard for the regular season title?

A World Series one followed. Not predicting THAT yet, but foreshadowing is what is it is.

For more on where the MLB is headed this summer and in the moment, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.