Posts Tagged ‘Washington Nationals’

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.

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Matt_Garza

The outside looking in can seem the furthest away the closer you are. And while it is impossible to build a team around just one addition, acquiring the right finishing touch can make all of the difference in the world from one year to the next. For the teams that finished either within firing range of a division title (or should have), the Winter Meetings provide a chance to go the extra mile towards winning the race.

But what’s left to do that with? Free agents have been flying off the shelf quicker than at any point in recent history. And while Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joe Nathan are all gone does not mean that the opportunity to make an instant upgrade to what’s returning is. The slight move can be the right move, and here are a few options that a few competitors that finished on the brink of a title could make to close the ranks that eluded them last summer…

Washington Nationals—Omar Infante: For the Nats, it is about adding both depth and rounding out their lineup to secure it is in place for an immediate run. As they showed, in the last month of the season, they are capable of turning it on and playing as well as any team in the NL, but were caught too thin and injured to do so far too often. Infante represents an upgrade at one of their few questionable positions, and also provides depth all throughout the infield and in the outfield if needed.

Pittsburgh Pirates—Kendrys Morales: The general feel is that Morales will need to have the DH spot open to play from, but for the Pirates who have lost Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and Garrett Jones, adding the type of power bat that he represents in-between Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez upgrades them put them on par with the Cardinal club they are chasing. The price may be high, but the value would be worth it, and with Morales likely to last a while due to the draft pick compensation tied to him, they likely could get him at much more friendly rate within a month or so.

Arizona Diamondbacks—Jesse Crain/J.P. Howell: Shin-Soo Choo is the best fit for the club, but a bidding war with the Rangers could be looming for his services, which Arizona would surely loose. Instead, reallocating those resources towards two premier bullpen arms would both save money and support their emerging staff. The duo of Crain and Howell would give the Diamondbacks a very formidable late inning group to match the late-game units in LA and San Francisco.

Tampa Bay Rays—Corey Hart: They’ve said that they do not have interest in the rehabbing former Brewer, but revisiting him would be a smart move. He provides a power option to support Evan Longoria and Wil Myers in the heart of the order and can play both first base and right field, which gives Joe Maddon the type of lineup flexibility he loves to deploy. What’s more, he won’t be overly expensive due to injury concerns, so he fits right into the pocket where the Rays like to stay—the shallow part.

Cleveland Indians—Grant Balfour: The secret strength of the Indians last year was a deep bullpen, but with Chris Perez, Joe Smith and Matt Albers all departed, that stash is depleted. Balfour has been through the trials of the postseason the previous two seasons, and would provide a much needed (yet very ironic) calming presence to the Indians as they look to get over the hump and keep up with the Tigers.

Los Angeles Angels—Matt Garza: While the A’s and Rangers have been busy, the Angels have been waiting to find the right way to make an impact add to their starting pitching. Yesterday’s trade brought some young talent to the mix, but this is a team in need of a stragetic impact add. During the past two winters, they have only achieved half of that equation,  but bringing Garza aboard would give them one of the best #3 pitchers in baseball (finally back in the role that he made his name in with the Rays behind James Shields and David Price) and would give them a much needed boost in the match up department from the mound behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. He won’t make an 18-game difference by himself, but at this point, the Angels have to either keep adding or blow it up…and option B isn’t in play.

For more on the free agent market (and where these guys likely do end up), follow me 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

Spring Training is bit under a month away, yet there are still significant deals being inked around Major League Baseball. As I’ve said before here, this is the season where the in-between the lines deals get worked out; ones that can be very significant in the long run. Over the last few weeks, two contenders have gotten aggressive in doing just that, and banking their dollars on a few high risk/high reward elements.

The Washington Nationals have been the movers of the week, bringing back an MVP finalist, moving a big trade chip in Mike Morse as a result. That was expected, but was more of a shock was adding a big money closer to the mix as well, which really changes everything about a team that was already among the four or five best teams in baseball. Also, down in Texas a much heralded native son returns with something to prove….and a contract that demands it.

Here’s the updated MLB signing report, based from the original Top 75 Free Agent list.

LaRoche returned to DC out of necessity in some regards, but he also returns as a bonafide power boost to round out an impressive lineup.

LaRoche returned to DC out of necessity in some regards, but he also returns as a bonafide power boost to round out an impressive lineup.

7. Adam LaRoche—First Base, Resigned w/ Washington Nationals: 2 years/$24 million

This was a stalemate of a deal where the Nationals ultimately won out on both fronts. LaRoche was dead set on a three-year deal all winter, while the Nats put their foot in the ground on two years only. Ultimately, no team countered with a three year guarantee, and the Nats were the only show in town, so LaRoche returned to DC, to reap a generous deal on the heels of his 33 homer, 100 RBI breakout campaign. He landed a mutual option to extend for a third year, so if he keeps playing up to it, he’ll get what he was seeking.

11. Rafael Soriano—Pitcher, Signed w/ Washington Nationals: 2 years/$28 million

The now ex-Yankees closer took the risk of the offseason, walking away from a guaranteed $14 million per year in NY to test an uncertain free agent market. After a long while waiting on a calm pond of a market, he got the deal and the gig he was looking for. He becomes a bonus piece in the Nats pen that knocks everyone else down a slot in the pen, but very well could have been the final touch in making DC baseball’s most well-rounded club.

42. Lance Berkman—First Base, Signed w/ Texas Rangers: 1 year/$10 million

An interesting deal for the Rangers, who absolutely had to replace offense in their lineup after not resigning Josh Hamilton or Mike Napoli, and trading off Michael Young,  in landing Berkman. After making only 97 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2012 due to mixture of elbow and knee injuries, the Rangers made a very generous investment in one on the only power options left on the market, but are rolling the dice at investment they made at best he can recapture his 2011 form.

There are still deals to be inked and players to match with clubs. Follow me on Twitter in the meantime to get up to the moment word at @CheapSeatFan.

In the final entry in the CHEAP SEATS best units in baseball series, I’m turning to the biggest highlight of every day of the week; the best everyday lineups in baseball. With the DH in the mix (begrudingly), this would be an area that would most likely cater towards the American League, but there’s a lot of National League squads that have bulked up in the last few years, as well as creatively balanced squads that can win in a variety of ways. But when it comes down to it, it’s about putting up runs, and being able to do so up and down the order to reach this level of the game.

Fielder & Cabrera

Below there are teams that have shown and proved, as well as those that have potential to bust out. However, like all other things, it’s all on potential at this point in the year. And nobody has more of a chance to capitalize on it than these groups. But no more build up, get into it: the best lineups in 2013 baseball, starting with a squad that made the World Series last year….at less than full strength…

  1. Detroit Tigers: Let’s put in context how daunting of a 3-4 punch that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were last year: 74 homers, 247 RBI, 569 hits and a combined .322 average. What’s most frightening Is that 2012 was neither their best effort either, regardless of what honors and accomplishments they hit. Add in Austin Jackson’s leap forward, the addition of Torii Hunter, the underrated effort of Andy Dirks, a likely bounce back effort from Alex Avila and the return of Victor Martinez at DH, and you’ve got the biggest everyday issue for pitchers in business.
  2. Los Angeles Angels: Folks were ready to toss Mike Scicosia’s boys up here last year, but that was a bit premature. And it was also before Mike Trout made a legit claim to best in the world status and Josh Hamilton came over as well. Anytime Albert Pujols is just a piece of the puzzle, things are looking good. But outside of the big names, Howie Kendrick, Mike Trumbo and Erick Aybar are very solid table setters, and this should prove to be an unrelenting lineup.
  3. Washington Nationals: There are no breaks in this lineup, and it should actually improve this year. Adam LaRoche returns to be the power anchor, while Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond are among the most balanced bats in the NL. Adding Denard Span as a long-sought after legit lead off presence helps, but the continued growth of the prodigious Bryce Harper is the most exciting thing about the team, and the reason why it’s as good as the NL will see.
  4. St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals were a ridiculously balanced attack last year, with Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, David Freese and Jon Jay all hitting over .290, and Carlos Beltran adding in 32 homers on top of it all. Overall, five of their nine starters topped 20 homers as well, with rookie Matt Carpenter returning after a .294 average, 22 double rookie campaign as potentially an everyday presence as well.
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers: This is the year where we see if the all of the blockbuster bats can swing together. Having Matt Kemp is a damn good start to any lineup, but the last year as seen Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford be added on make the push. This isn’t a team that’s built play D; it’s about the O. And if health stays on their side, there could be no limits to the numbers it puts up.
  6. Cincinnati Reds: Being way too left-handed has been the knock on them.  Joey Votto may be the best left-handed hitter in the game, and Jay Bruce quietly one of his best power hitters. Adding Shin-Choo Soo makes them better, but doesn’t solve that issue. I mean, Brandon Phillips can’t do it all by himself on the other side of the dish. Good thing is that a full-season of Todd Frazier (19 homers, 67 RBI) and another strong effort from Ryan Ludwick (25 homers, 80 RBI), he won’t have too.
There's a lot more to the Brewers than waiting for Braun to attack; they led the NL in extra base hits last summer.

There’s a lot more to the Brewers than waiting for Braun to attack; they led the NL in extra base hits last summer.

  1. Milwaukee Brewers: Another very complete lineup, that is home to a lot of understated contributors. Norichika Aoki (37 doubles, 30 steals) and Jonathan Lucroy (.320 avg) were quietly very productive. The mid-season move of Corey Hart to first base once again gives the club one of the better offensive infields in the NL, with Aramis Ramirez and Rickie Weeks. And then on top of it all, there’s Ryan Braun, who’s been the most productive player in the NL over the last two years (.326/37 homers/112 RBI/189 hits/32 steals average for 2011-12).
  2. Texas Rangers: True, they lost Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, but there’s strength in numbers, and they have it. Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus are dynamic at the top of the order, while Adrian Beltre has become one of the best bats in the game. If Nelson Cruz and Lance Berkman can stay healthy, there’s a chance that this team doesn’t regress at all.
  3. Colorado Rockies: It’s not shocking that the Rockies were the most productive home offense in the game last year, but what’s real is they could get even better everywhere this year. Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and Todd Helton are a solid base, while Dexter Fowler (.300 avg), Josh Rutledge (33 extra base hits in 73 games) and Wilin Rosario (28 homers as rookie) rounded out a strong lineup. All of this was done with Troy Tulowikzki only playing 47 games, yet returning at full health finally for ’13.
  4. New York Yankees: A-Rod is out indefinitely, Derek Jeter’s health is in question, and Nick Swisher and Russell Martin were lost to free agency. Despite all of that, the Yankees lineup is still potent. Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeria and Curtis Granderson are power plant in the middle of the lineup, while Ichiro and Brett Gardner could be terror on the base paths in front of them. Add in the potential return of Jeter and a bounce back effort from Kevin Youkilis, and this is still the best offense in the AL East.

Just Missed: Blue Jays, Giants, Red Sox

For more on this, and the stroll up to Spring Training, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

So far this year in the CHEAP SEATS, the focus has been on breaking down the best units in baseball.  When we last left off, the best pitching units at the back end of games were broken down, but now it’s time to move to front end and the spotlight arms of the game. As last year’s World Series match up proved, a great starting rotation is the difference between night and day in a season. And to make this list, it takes more than just a great number one; having a great 2-4 is huge, and even a fifth arm can make all the difference.

Lee Hamels Halladay

Here is the difference between the cream, and the crop…the best starting staffs in 2013’s upcoming baseball offering. And remember, pitchers and catcher report a month from today. Spring’s saving mercy gets underway in the winter.

 

 

1. Washington Nationals: Top to bottom there’s none better, because even their bottom is better than half the team’s baseball’s top. Stephen Strasberg is on the verge of being the league’s best and is good enough to make a 20-game winner in Gio Gonzalez to second billing. Add in a potentially resurgent Dan Haren, along with two of the most underrated arms in either league in Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, and you’ve got a problem everyday of the week in DC.

2. Detroit Tigers: There’s a lot more to the Tigers than Justin Verlander (who’s averaged 20 wins the last four seasons). None of their starters have seen their 30th birthday yet. Max Scherzer actually struck out two more batters per nine innings than Verlander. Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez are tremendous options to be 3rd and 4th arms, while Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello are only 23 years old. This will be a strong collection for years to come.

3. Philadelphia Phllies: For everything that the rotation didn’t do last year, there’s still so much potential here. Cole Hamels has become a perennial Cy Young candidate, and nobody pitched to more tough luck than Cliff Lee did last year (30 starts, 3.16 ERA, but first win on July 4th). Add back a healthy Doc Halladay to the mix and this is as devastating of a top end rotation as there is, still.

4. San Francisco Giants: The strength of the World Champions is based in just how many arms can step up to be the top dog at any time. Matt Cain came into his own as an elite hurler last year, while Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgartner both sported 3.37 ERAs, while winning a combined 30 games. Barry Zito showed a renaissance in the NLCS and World Series, and if Tim Lincecum can manage a similar effort during his contract push this summer, no reason to not at least pencil them back into another October.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers: With the Zack Greinke signing, the Dodgers locked up the toughest 1-2 punch in all of baseball. Kershaw has 35 wins and a 2.40 ERA over the last two years, and Josh Beckett should serve to be an important veteran axis in the middle of the rotation. And they currently have quality options abound for the bottom of the mix, with Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley and Korean star Ryu Hyun-jin all options to round out a suddenly uber-talented mix.

Landing a reigning Cy Young winner is huge (and rare), but there's a lot more to the new Jays rotation than just RA's knuckler.

Landing a reigning Cy Young winner is huge (and rare), but there’s a lot more to the new Jays rotation than just RA’s knuckler.

6. Toronto Blue Jays: Of all the moves the Jays made to try to climb out of the bottom of the AL East, their aggressiveness to finally fix their horrible starting pitching should pay out the most. They put together a diverse group in finesse workhorses R.A. Dickey and Mark Buerhle, while Josh Johnson has one of the livest arms in the game, and Ricky Romero become a huge bounce back candidate as a fifth starter.

7. Oakland A’s: Billy Beane outdid himself putting together a group that came to age in a hurry last summer, and hijacked the AL West. Jarrod Parker and Tom Millone (both acquired in offseason trades) both won 13 games, and long with AJ Griffin (7-1, 3.05 ERA in 15 starts) all could make a claim to best rookie arm in the baseball, and if Brett Anderson can stay healthy to anchor the group, they’ll be a force once again.

8. Cincinnati Reds: It’s all about balance on the Reds understatedly good rotation. Cuerto has been among the NL ERA leaders the last two seasons, and Latos found recaptured his old form in his first year in Cincy. And if they hold true to their plan, and can successfully convert Arodis Chapman into a starter, this will be a very potent group.

9. Tampa Bay Rays: Not many teams could lose Matt Garza and James Shields in back to back years and stay relevant, but there’s also no other team with the young arms of the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and the quietly good Alex Cobb make up the meat of the group, but it really doesn’t hurt to have 2012’s Cy Young winner David Price entering his prime atop it all.

10. Arizona Diamondbacks: A gut of rich young pitching gives the D’Backs is impressive. Ian Kennedy has won 35 games since the start of 2011, and Wade Miley reached All-Star level as a rookie. Add in the potential return of Daniel Hudson from Tommy John Surgery by mid-summer, and the addition of Brandon McCarthy as well, and this is a rotation that will cause a lot of trouble.

Just A Bit Outside: Yankees, Braves, White Sox

 

For more in real-time on these starters starting up their year, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

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