The National League East in 2011


One definitely… one maybe… one possibly… two also rans.

Welcome to the National League East.

Where Philadelphia is definitely a playoff-level team.

Where Atlanta may be capable of getting there.

Where Florida could be spoken of in September.

Where New York and Washington will be finished by August.

But before we get to the teams… since this is division preview number one… a bit of an introduction.

First and foremost… the numbers add up.

At least… I think they do.

See.. as of right now, every team will play 162 games. And, in each of those games, there will be a winner and a loser. You can’t predict that all of the teams in baseball will have a winning record. Someone has to lose if someone wins. And so… despite a bit of an unbalanced edge to the American League that I don’t honestly believe interleague play will truly account for (I have the AL teams 28-games over .500, and that almost certainly isn’t going to happen)… my records for all 30 teams do provide 2,430 wins and 2,430 losses.

Secondly… cut me some slack.

I know Jose Reyes is not a personnel change for the New York Mets. You know he’s not a personnel change. But when you have a team facing all sorts of financial problems that present an incredible black cloud of doom just about over the edge of the stadium and ready to wipeout the season at any moment, and there is nothing above them (and even below them) in the division but teams with better finances, minor league talent, and/or major league stars… yeah, see, Jose Reyes and the 2011 season can become an interesting personnel debate on several levels. I grant you it takes a certain point of view. I’m going into this project assuming that you aren’t looking for the standard viewpoints out of my articles.

So let’s get to the divisions… and here the National League East… and I’ll try to explain any funny scenarios when I put together a seventh, general summary of the preseason, at the end of this.

Philadelphia Phillies
What I expect in 2011: 94-68, World Series winner

What they did in 2010: 97-65

Key personnel changes: Added Cliff Lee.

I can try to give work out a paragraph on bringing in Luis Castillo to try and manage second base during an injury. But really. No.

They added Cliff Lee. I don’t care about losing Jayson Werth.

The changes end there.

My expectations: I’m predicting them to win it all for a simple reason. Last year I predicted San Francisco would lose the World Series and they won it all. So, this year I actually expect Boston to take the title… so I’m picking Boston to make it and lose. And I do think the Phillies will be there as the National League representative in the end.

But there are problems.

See… World Series predictions aside… if they are healthy and send this rotation to the mound, Philly is capable of outclassing everyone in the National League. Remember… this rotation I going to pitch a ton of innings. The legendary four alone should chew up well over 800 combined innings of the season. (In fact, Joe Blanton is very capable of allowing the starting five to work more than 1,000 innings.) Most of the time they will finish at least seven. You have alot of room and flexibility when you only need to get two innings out of your bullpen against an opposition that was only able to score one or two runs on the way to those last outs of the game. And Philadelphia has some good arms in the bullpen, providing several options, so things only improve when they are rested in general and concentrated into a two or three inning span instead of getting called on for three to five innings of work.

And World Series predictions aside… and questions about contracts of the future and contracts made in the past (seriously… Ryan Howard… amazing)… if they are healthy the Phillies put together a nice batting order and decent fielding unit. Howard isn’t worth the length and dollars, but he’s still good. Add in players like Chase Utley and Shane Victorino and you are looking at some of the most solid offense or defense around. Not flashy. Certainly not as flashy as the starting rotation. Solid.

The problems? Well…

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): After that brief run on expectations, and when factoring in all the hype about the greatest starting pitching ever assembled, we get to the segment where events may take place that might change my opinion. And right off the bat, first preview column to be worked on and the first team considered, this section turns out to be pretty important… because those things that could go wrong and level the season may already be taking place.

Chase Utley… down. Brad Lidge… down. And while I may not be a huge Werth supporter when it comes to expecting his continued production or respecting his presence, let’s just agree that if you’re chasing someone like Luis Castillo to replace Chase Utley, there likely isn’t much depth at all on your current roster. (As a note, some like the depth in Philly in certain areas. So be it. My problem is that there is a significant drop between the regulars and the bench players. Yeah… sure… that’s usually the case with any team, or else those bench players would be starting. Trouble is… again… Utley down, frantic scramble takes place, Castillo signed. Depth? I rest my case. (Heck… it’s possible Castillo won’t even have a roster spot by the time I post this.))

The pitching rotation is, in a word, awesome. But as those San Francisco Giants I mentioned proved (you know… champions), a combination of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels can be beaten… and, incidentally proven thanks to the Giants and their 2010 efforts, so can Cliff Lee.

They are going to win a ton of games… they are likely going to hit August, perhaps not in control of the division (thanks to Atlanta being a playoff threat), in control of a playoff spot… and should be able to tinker with their roster instead of needing wholesale changes.

Allow me the emphasis… should be able.

While there is some talent in the minors that I came across in doing a bit of research, there isn’t much ready to contribute. As an example… Boston will have a starting outfield in Pawtucket made up of three players that all spent time playing for Boston in 2010. And two of those outfielders are considered solid pieces of the future for the Red Sox. If something happens, and Boston calls up an outfielder, there will be a drop… but not chaos. Boston also has infield help in the minors that right now would excel defensively on the major league level. Call up an infielder and they might not get help in the batting order… but with their lineup that isn’t likely to be the huge concern. Here in Philadelphia… the story is much different.

Realistically I don’t believe finishing behind the Braves could prevent a playoff spot, since I think the wild card is set to come from this division. The postseason doesn’t concern me much.

Instead… if there is a concern… it is October where brilliant pitching on paper was overcome last year. It could be this year as well.

Atlanta Braves
What I expect in 2011: 89-73, wild card

What they did in 2010: 91-71

Key personnel changes: Not a ton worth exploring.

Billy Wagner is gone. (See what I mean? Not much to explore.)

Actually… ok… there is something.

Dan Uggla. Has had his ups and downs with average, but overall will deliver decent on-base numbers and some power. He’s a very good addition to this club.

My expectations: I’m dropping the Braves two wins from 2010 for a couple of reasons. First… I think the Nationals will play better. And, much like my reasons for dropping the Phillies a couple of games, the potential of a division that has an improving basement should temper 95-plus-win predictions.

Thing is… I also expect the entire National league to play a bit better. The NL Central has three clubs that should finish with winning records, and Chicago could make that four. The NL West could have Colorado joining San Francisco in a run at the postseason.

In the American League, the Yankees have made it an annual tradition… at least they seem to… that beating up on the weaker starters in a team’s rotation can add up to an awful lot of wins. I don’t know if a National League club is dominant enough in any way that they can be a solid favorite on most nights.

That said… this is a good club that should have a steady and productive season. They have a lineup that can score runs. Their rotation ranks nicely against every NL team except the one they are likely chasing in this division.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): How about we change the pace and wonder what could go right.

With a batting order that should end up including Heyward, Jones and McCann being joined by new Brave Uggla, the eight regulars for Atlanta actually look pretty good. Remove Utley from the lineup for the Phillies, and you could make a strong (and probably very correct), argument that the Braves have the best batting order in the division.

So let’s see… good pitching… good hitting… no pressure from media, fans and even casual observers expecting a no-hitter every game… and suddenly you have to like the Braves.

And I like the depth in places. Is Tim Hudson or Derek Lowe one of the top four or five pitchers in the division? Nope. But either one could win 18 to 22 games, toss a gem on any given night, and string together a series of starts that carries the team along.

And keep in mind… this team is frighteningly young. Players like Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann could be team leaders… and I don’t believe any of them will be hitting free agency eligibility (or the prime of their careers) for a couple of seasons. The Braves are going to contend in the East for years to come.

Florida Marlins
What I expect in 2011: 84-78

What they did in 2010: 80-82

Key personnel changes: Javier Vazquez. That excite you? How about John Buck? I mean both are nice signings. I don’t think either changes the NL East landscape much. And… as noted in Atlanta… they sent Dan Uggla away.

My expectations: They have a top notch starter in Josh Johnson. That’s great.

They have a certified star in Hanley Ramirez. That’s great too.

They are also young and fast and talented.

Vazquez and Buck could be valuable additions. These are players that have seen what the rigors of media attention and pressure-filled divisions can do. No, they aren’t facing the same in Florida, but…

Remember in Bull Durham there’s a scene where Crash Davis is explaining what it’s like in the show? He talks about white balls in batting practice and the parks being cathedrals. Ok. When you talk about intangibles, I absolutely agree that alot of it is overrated. Get out there and play… results over potential. But I also believe that there is something to be said about a team being a bit overmatched already when they arrive at Fenway and half of the roster heads out to left field with their cameras. To keep with the movie theme and move to Catch Me If You Can… yes, the Yankees can win a game before it starts because everyone is swept away by the awe of the uniform.

Vazquez and Buck have played in areas that involve the brutal AL East. There is absolutely nothing they will see in Florida that should scare them. And telling youngsters about cathedrals and looking past the uniforms can be a positive thing.

So… where are we with the Marlins? I like the team in general. I think they’ll be a pain to match up against… won’t be too far out of it for most of the year, so people will keep talking about them… and it always seems like they have some pitching surprises to reveal.

What I don’t like is…

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): …the same things I like.

There’s a reason Vazquez and Buck are in Florida, and it isn’t just that the Marlins offered the most money or the best place to resuscitate a career.

This club reminds me alot of teams like Detroit and Texas and Tampa Bay over say the past ten years… where you could see some talent, but they got beat up alot before doing some winning. Detroit and Houston eventually made it to the World Series and then fell apart. Tampa Bay continues to hang around, and Texas looks set for a good run in 2011.

Is Florida capable of transitioning from potential to results and become a winner? …a playoff participant? Maybe. But my guess is not yet.

Washington Nationals
What I expect in 2011: 76-86

What they did in 2010: 69-93

Key personnel changes: No doubt you heard how they paid way too much to a career fourth outfielder named Jayson Werth. (Ok… I’m being cruel. Seriously though. Seven years? And those dollars? Wow.)

Actually, the Nationals were very busy. And while most of their moves… Adam LaRoche is a lovely example… aren’t flashy individually (or even likely to mean huge gains), when you start to add things up and see what is being put into place there seems to be some positive steps.

Hey… don’t expect miracles. It’s Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, and recently, Oliver Perez. This still isn’t exactly a top tier club with free agents begging to head their way. But this off-season may be the point we remember as them turning a corner, where these specific players don’t mean everything on a winning organization but it marked where they began to be taken seriously as wanting to win.

My expectations: The problem is they have virtually no pitching. Oh sure… they have pitchers. But not one guy on this club can go out take the ball after the club has lost two or three in a row and pitch a complete game shutout.

Does that matter?

No. Even the best of teams can lose an entire swing through the rotation. As I write this though… Rick Ankiel may be the best pitcher on their roster… and he is hoping to start in the outfield.

Ryan Zimmerman is a really, really good player. Like him alot. I’m at a loss to find another starter on this roster that would be in the top two at his position in the division.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): In this case… I have things going right and 76 wins.

That might be a tad high. (Jason Marquis as a reliable starter? Yeah… that definitely could be too high.)

But I definitely believe getting out of the basement is possible for this club… and coming out of spring training, I believe it’s very likely.

They have some noteworthy young talent, especially if Strasberg recovers his sparkling promise, that makes the future very interesting here.

And… get this… they may actually be the team in the NL East most capable of spending money next off-season. (I know… kind of a crazy thought… kind of a future and not 2011 season thought. But let’s do the math. Philly is dead in the water thanks to investments such as Ryan Howard and pitching. Atlanta and Florida have never been able to join the big spenders. (Come on… name one signing by the Braves or Marlins that even competes with Jayson Werth.) And New York is almost certainly looking at cutting payroll and hoping to survive a couple of seasons.)

New York Mets
What I expect in 2011: 71-91

What they did in 2010: 79-83

Key personnel changes: If Jose Reyes doesn’t get hurt and delivers excitement as he has at times in the past, there is a good chance he won’t be with the Mets next year. He’s not a change… but he’s back in 2011 because of a club option that they picked up. After that the excitement in the big city is Chris Young. That’s it. Chris Young.

My expectations: I don’t think they’re going to win 71… I think this club is set to implode and fall apart in a disorganized mess of unbelievable stories and unpredictable events… but I have to give them at least a nod.

Why so harsh? Ok…

Their ace is gone for months, and reading between the whispers allows for the thoughts that some believe Johan Santana may be gone for the full season. They have injury concerns and, potentially, a financial interest in managing/limiting playing time of some.

Did I say injury concerns? Because folks, two-thirds of that brilliant outfield… Beltran and Bay… may not be ready on Opening Day.

When they trade Jose Reyes… and I believe they will, hence saying when… they will have nothing else to trade this year, and the move likely won’t bring back any player that will contribute in 2011. (And arguably, the smarter move could end up being to keep him and play for draft picks when he leaves.)

This is a boat taking on water and it hasn’t left the dock… and it’s a 162-game voyage ahead.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): It’s already gone wrong here.

Let’s perform checklist of things to do before, during or after the year for the Mets.

Deal with Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. Check… but they were so effective in handling this that they released both, got nothing in return, and will be responsible for roughly $18 million this season, depending on whether or not other organizations pick the players up at bargain-basement prices.

Get Carlos Beltran off the books. Want mixed messages? Ok, here we go. The ever optimistic group will tell you that for the Mets to succeed, Beltran needs to play a major role. Beltran has since proven he can’t play center any more… likely won’t be able to play without a day or two off each week… and is more likely right now to be on the disabled list by June than a viable trade candidate by July. So he has to succeed for the team to succeed… but realistically the hope is that he succeeds so someone, anyone, might trade for him… and most people are counting the days until he’s off the team’s payroll. Oh yeah, that’s mixed. But it doesn’t end there…

Don’t use Francisco Rodriguez. He has an option that kicks in for next year based on appearances or completing a game or whatever. Point is… the Mets don’t want the big fish they landed a couple of years ago, and are hoping they don’t need to use him. (Isn’t it lovely when you’re roster has on it what you signed to be impact players, you don’t want them on the field?)

Do I need to go on? Get players off the roster… clear up money… and I really haven’t even mentioned the ownership’s financial mess, which is so incredible that even as they drop massive amounts of team payroll there is zero evidence they’ll be able to reinvest those dollars in the next few years. Think about that… Reyes, Beltran, Castillo, Perez, and Rodriguez all in other uniforms this year or next… more than $40 million in salary wiped clean… the team gets picks for offering Reyes arbitration… and then the Mets decide to go into 2012 with the lower payroll and another off season of no major acquisitions.

Should be delightful.

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