3 X 5 NL East Preview by Todd Vandenberg and Lee Vowell

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Atlanta Braves

Question: With the Braves building towards 2017, what can fans realistically expect from this season’s team?

Lee: The Braves farm system has not been a strength the last few seasons, but they did make some nice moves in the offseason. Those moves may not help this season or next, but by 2017 the Braves should at least be competitive again. They made six trades in an attempt to be younger and got good value back.

I do think the trade of Jason Heyward to the Cardinals was not a good one, however (unless you’re a Cardinals fan). He’s still young and is a plus-plus fielder. His value is great enough defensively to help a team for several years, and it’s not like he is a bad hitter; just not what fans have expected. Yet. Simply said, last year’s 6.3 WAR is nothing to sneeze at.

Todd: With such an anemic offense, and the second-best staff in the division (possibly third if the Mets come back healthy), second place would be a lot to cheer about. For all 14,000 fans that show up.

Question: Will the Braves really platoon at four positions?

Lee: It certainly seems at least four platoons are possible: 1) Catcher: Christian Bethancourt and A.J. Pierzynski; 2) 2nd base: Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin; 3) 3rd base: Chris Johnson and Jace Peterson; 4) LF: Jonny Gomes and Kelly Johnson; 5) CF: B.J. Upton and Zoilo Almonte. So that’s five. The problem is hardly any platoon is any good. And, of course, the reason for platooning in the first place is playing the matchups of pitcher versus hitter statistically, but the drawback is that it means you do not have one player good enough to send out there every day. The Braves really are a team of decent situational players, but not good every day players. A team like that has limited potential in reaching the playoffs.

Todd: The question should be, do they really have eight major league players to split between those four slots. Their offense is so, so thin.

Question: Markakis is the only player other than Freeman who is an offensive threat. This team can pitch a bit, but can it hit?

Lee: Is Markakis even an offensive threat? Since 2013 his slash line is .274/.335/.371. Upton might be an offensive threat if he ever changed his approach to hitting, but he won’t. This team is really not a good hitting team. Freeman is legit, but his numbers might suffer because he has nothing around him. So the answer to the question above is no. This team is not a .500 club with this hitting, and might even finish closer to the Phillies at the bottom than it does the top three teams in the division.

Also, one of the most mind-boggling offseason moves by any team is why the Braves would trade Heyward and then give Markakis a 4 year contract for $44 million. This is a guy who has negative WAR defensively who couldn’t really hit in Camden Yards. I understand the Braves wanting to retool for 2017, but then why get Markakis?

Todd: See above. The Atlanta Braves 2015: The Hitless Wonders 2.0. Upton has to at least approach mediocrity. Jettisoning Gattis, Heyward, and the good Upton – Freeman could put on his best Jimmie Foxx impression, and this team would still struggle to match last year’s lousy 573 runs.

Miami Marlins

Question: The one key to this team making the playoffs is…

Lee: The back end of the rotation, especially to start the season with Jose Fernandez out. Are they going to rely on Dan Haren to be healthy and consistent? Is Tom Koehler a true major league starter? This team in a division with the Phillies has definite potential to make the playoffs, but getting off to a decent start is the key. Even with Fernandez out, the top three in Henderson Alvarez, Mat Latos and Jarrod Cosart is not bad, but they are not good enough to make up for a lackluster four and five.

Todd: Stanton and Fernandez bouncing back to form.

Question: Will the Marlins still be close enough to contention for Jose Fernandez’s return to matter?

Lee: There is no reason they should not be. With two National League Wild Card teams and Fernandez returning as early as June 15, there is no reason the Marlins should not be in contention for the playoffs. Several things still have to go well, however. Dee Gordon needs to do a better job of getting on base than he did in the second half of 2014. Giancarlo Stanton needs to come close to earning his paycheck. The other young players need to continue to progress. But the Marlins should still be in contention when Fernandez returns.

Todd: In this division? Unless the Nats get off to a historic start, Miami will be in it.

Question: Will Loria begin his sell-off this season, or wait till next?

Lee: Jeffrey Loria is extremely underrated as an owner. He is willing to pay for his players and to upgrade his facilities. He is a proven winner in more than one sport. Marlins fans (all 10 of you) should feel lucky he owns the team.

OK, seriously…if the Marlins are not contending when Fernandez returns, the sell-off begins immediately.

Todd: All depends on the answers to the first two questions. If they’re in contention, he may even spend 37 cents to keep them there. As soon as they’re out, though, look for Giancarlo to head north. He’d look nice with an old English D on his cap.

New York Mets

Question: How will Matt Harvey rebound from injury?

Lee: I am worried that Mets fans will expect too much from Harvey this season. He’s definitely a big part of the future, and he should be good this year, but this season is about getting comfortable again. According to Sandy Alderson he will have a soft innings limit, meaning the Mets are going to approach his starts based on how he feels. Is there a chance if the Mets are out of playoff contention by mid-September then they just shut Harvey down? Probably.

Todd: Harvey will be a stud, win 18 games, contend for the Cy. Which won’t matter with this team, but he’ll look good.

Question: The signing of Michael Cuddyer: wise move or not?

Lee: Cuddyer is a decent player, but the Mets gave up a first round pick in order to sign him. It looks like that pick could be around the 15th in the draft, and on average the WAR for that number is low over a career, but we are talking averages. And I am not sure Cuddyer stays healthy enough to help the team for several years. So, if I were the Mets, I would not have signed Cuddyer.

Todd: I think Cuddyer will be okay, but only okay. He had a big year, especially in the second half, but his OPS was .734 in away games. That’s .500 less than at home. Let that sink in. Projected to a full season away from cruising altitude, what they signed is a .280 hitter with 22 HR and 45 RBI. He’ll have more RBI, of course, but this guy is not a star, at all.

Question: How likely is it David Wright will bounce back from his dismal ’14 season?

Lee: Wright is an enigma wrapped in a riddle with a bad rotator cuff. Wright has had some good years, but he is a 32 year old who has the body of a 40 year old. His peak years were early, 2005-2010. He had a decent 2012. So we are looking at three out of the last four years of him not being fully healthy and not producing as much. I do not see a bounce back season from Wright.

Todd: I think he’s better than a fifty –fifty shot at getting back to 20 HR, .800 OPS territory. I think the 100 RBI, .900 OPS guy is never coming back, but I do expect him to bounce back and be productive. Again, on this team, it won’t be enough.

Philadelphia Phillies

Question: How bad will the Phillies be?

Lee: The Phillies will be better early in the season, if they wait to trade Cole Hamels and, if he proves he can pitch again, Cliff Lee until the All-Star break. But that “better” part is still one of the worst teams in baseball. After those two guys are gone (or even if it is just Hamels leaving), they are easily the worst team.

Todd: It would be fun to see them historically bad. Not that I hate the Phillies or anything, but can you imagine how vicious their so-called fans would be, “cheering” for a 52 win team? They booed Mike Schmidt; what the hell will they do to Cody Asche?

Question: What are the odds both Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are still Phillies in September?

Lee: If Lee shows he can pitch deep into games consistently again, then neither will be with Philadelphia in September. Or August.

Todd: Zero. Hamels desperately wants out, and an actual baseball team will do what it takes to pick up Lee for their postseason run.

Question: When does prospect Maikel Franco bump Ryan Howard from 1B, or will he play 3B?

Lee: Howard’s contract is too big to sit him because he has to show he is healthy and can hit. That’s the only way a team would take a chance on a trade, and even then it should be an American League team that wants him to DH. The Phillies let themselves get old, and now they need to play the young guys to find out whether in five years they will still potentially be the worst team in baseball.

Todd: Sad to say, but I don’t see Howard having even a decent year. That being said, unless Asche plays lights out, he’ll be grabbing some pine to make room for the new One Tough Dominican.

Washington Nationals

Question: Their starting staff projects to be historically good. What is the possibility they achieve their potential?

Lee: Obviously on paper the Nationals have the best starting staff in the majors. Signing Max Scherzer only added to the quality and depth. It was a good staff to begin with. I think one question is whether the guys compete with each other to see who can outdo the previous day’s starter (like the Braves of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz) or if a couple of them are thinking about contract status (Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister, both free agents after this season). They will pitch in a division with bad hitting teams (except maybe the Marlins), so their numbers will look great. The big question with this staff is whether they will win a World Series or not. Are they talented enough? Yes. But nobody wins a Series in April.

Todd: 10 percent chance. Two of these guys, at least two, will probably go see Dr. Andrews. That’s baseball these days. If they somehow all stay healthy, though, they’ll make the ’71 Orioles look like scrubs.

Question: Is this a win or bust year for the Nationals?

Lee: Not really. The Nationals will have question marks after the season if no players are traded at the deadline. But they still have enough young talent to be in the mix for several years.

Todd: To go cross-sports, it’s just win, baby. If they manage to only lose one starter to the knife, they can win it all. And that still depends on the answer to the final question.

Question: What’s more important to this team: Bryce Harper bouncing back, or Stephen Strasburg staying healthy?

Lee: Definitely Harper. The pitching depth for the Nationals is too deep to worry about one starter. But does anyone remember four years ago when Harper was all the craze and Mike Trout was a blip? Harper was by now supposed to be putting up Trout’s numbers. Will this be the year he blows up? I am not sure if he ever comes close to what was expected of him. Or if anyone ever could have.

Todd: Really want to say Strasburg, but it’s got to be Harper. The Nats’ rotation is ridiculously deep, and can survive losing Strasburg. Harper not only has to bounce back, he has to grow up. Right now, it’s hard to believe that he and Trout were comparable breakout stars. Harper hasn’t exactly been a bum, but he’s playing up to about half of his potential. His last two seasons combined HR and RBI (33 and 90, respectively) don’t even equal Trout’s 2014 season (36 HR, 111 RBI). The Nats need a super-star, not a decent player. He needs to step up, and step up this year.

Predicted Finish:

Lee

*Nationals: 100-62

*Marlins: 87-75

Mets: 81-81

Braves: 76-86

Phillies: 66-96

Todd

*Nationals: 97-65

*Marlins: 92-70

Braves: 74-88

Mets: 73-89

Phillies: 56-106

* – denotes playoff team

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