One of the unfortunate circumstances for this Nationals team is they are forced to play in the NL East in 2007. Even the Nationals could surprise people (by finishing second-to-last) if the were allowed to play in the Central or the West. Alas, this is not the case, as divisions are cordoned off by geography and not by talent. A preview of what to expect from these teams:
The Mets can hit. Man can they hit, like an AL team even! With Wright and Reyes, they have a great, young, extremely talented left side of the infield. Throw in Delgado and Beltran, plus the acquisition of Alou, they have 4 legitimate power hitter and the best basestealer in the league. Also, Reyes hit 19 HRs last year, and Valentin hit 18. Lasting Milledge may not be ready for prime time yet, but the offense really doesn’t need him. While many predict them to win the division, they are clearly not the same team as last year. How their rotation will produce is unclear. Pedro is out until August, Glavine is now 41 (but could have his 300th win shortly after the All Star break), El Duque is a mystery who may be 41 or 51. John Maine was excellent last season, and will be good, but a repeat of his 3.60 ERA is a stretch. They may also be expecting a lot of Mike Pelfrey if they think he’s going to come in and be great, but he certainly has potential to be a very good starter. This team is not as good as it was last year, and will face some serious competition for first place. And if they stink up the joint, every New Yorker will certainly find a name for the stadium besides its new one, Citifield (although it will probably sound quite similar)
The Fightin’ Phils led the NL in runs scored last season, and they will most likely continue to have a great offense in 2007. It helps that they play in the bandbox that is Citizen’s Bank Park. What the hell is a bandbox? According to dictionary.com, “a light cylindrical box for holding light articles of attire (especially hats)”. Well not only can Citizen’s Bank Park hold hats with the best of them, it also happens to be very small and conducive to giving up more than its fair share of HRs. And the Phillies have some guys who can hit them. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley vs. Reyes and Wright is a great “which young infield would you rather have?” question (the correct answer is Wright and Reyes), but there’s no doubt which combo has more power (the correct answer to that is Utley and Howard). Besides those 2 mashers who also hit over .300, they still have Jimmy Rollins, the collision-prone Aaron Rowand, a great fielder and a great hitter for his position, and Pat Burrell. Shane Victorino is a very good hitter and could steal 40 bases, and Wes Helms and Barajas will make their lineup even more formidable. Their much improved lineup will complement their improved pitching staff. They picked up Freddy Garcia, who will be very good, but his numbers will probably suffer for pitching in Philly. He gives up too many HRs as it is, this place won’t help him, but he’ll still be above average. Brett Myers is only 26, he’s held his ERA below 4.00 the last 2 seasons, and was top 5 in Ks the last 2 years. They also have veterans Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, and Jon Lieber who all make nice pieces to fill out the rotation. Cole Hamels could be the real star of the group, a true potential ace. The bullpen is less of a sure thing. Can Tom Gordon close effectively for another year? If not, Antonio Alfonseca best be ready. Brett Myers has volunteered to close if needed, but they’d have to be crazy to move a guy who can do what he’s done over the season away from the starting rotation.
The Braves are in an interesting place right now. After finally not winning the division, they have managed to improve the team and as always with Atlanta, a lot of this has to do with time passing. Brian McCann may be the most underrated player in baseball – if he wasn’t injured last season we could very well have seen the first time ever a catcher won the batting title in BOTH leagues. As it is, he can hit for average and power with the best of them. Kelly Johnson, a converted OF (but former SS), will lead off if he can figure out how to play 2B, and could be one of the better hitters at that position. If not, the much less promising Martin Prado will play 2B, but he has no power or speed. Ryan Langerhans will have his shot in the LF, while Scott Thorman brings some power to first. Matt Diaz is also a young OF that should see significant time. The Jones brothers, Andruw and Chipper are still near the top in the league for their positions, the question going into every season as to whether Chipper can stay healthy remains. The rotation will consist of Smoltz, Hudson, and Hampton (who will miss the first month of the season) which isn’t young and isn’t always healthy, but could be very effective. Chuck James was very good last season, and if Kyle Davies can be as good as Atlanta thinks he can be, their have an impressive rotation. Finally, unlike last year, they seem to be in good shape in the bullpen area. With the acquisitions of Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano as well as enough meatballs subs to keep Bob Wickman full, they have 3 legitimate closers.
The Marlins were a pleasant surprise last year, most people expected them to be horrendous, and instead they were contenders for a large part of the season. Their lineup is young but surprisingly good. Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs, and Jeremy Hermida are all very good hitters and this could be a truly great lineup in a year or two. This year it won’t be amazing, but it is on the rise and should be decent. Miguel Cabrera’s still at third base, and if they played in a real baseball town he could be one of the biggest name in the major leagues. He’s only 24 and he hit a measly .339/.430/.568 last season, and was 5th in the majors in VORP. Their rotation still has Dontrelle Willis, unfortunately rising star Josh Johnson (last year, as a rookie, he went 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA) will miss the first two months of the season. But Anibel Sanchez (of no-hitter fame), Scott Olsen and Ricky Nolasco round out a very talented staff of youngsters, with Sergio Mitre at the back end until Johnson comes back. There will be ups and downs with this group, but it is certainly a solid group that could very well be shutting teams down by the end of the season. Of course, with pitchers of this age and experience level, they could be shut down themselves by August. They have no experience in their bullpen, and Tankersly is the closer for now, but other will probably have a chance. If Washington’s pitching wasn’t in shambles with questions everywhere, this is a team they COULD beat. By the time Washington gets its act together, this team could have the best pitching staff in the NL East.
Where do they finish? Well the Phillies and the Mets seem to be the class of the division, but since the Mets may have regressed a bit and the Phillies seem to have improved, we’re going with this finish:
If Pedro makes a miraculous comeback as is up to full effectiveness by the All Star break, this perspective could change.
Until next week.