The National League East in 2012


I could see any of three teams winning this division. Philly is the best option to pick, but both Miami and Atlanta have reasons to stake a claim. In the end, I expect all three to make the playoffs.

The interesting thing here is that the biggest market… New York… is home to the team in the biggest trouble.

Philadelphia Phillies
What I expect in 2012: 93-69

What they did in 2011: 102-60

Key personnel changes: Brought in Jonathan Papelbon while letting Ryan Madsen walk. The return of Jim Thome!

My expectations: The Phillies probably won’t win 93… and might not make the playoffs.

This is a club built on pitching. Actually… more specifically… starting pitching. Simple as that. And with Roy Oswalt gone, there could be questions. Though let’s be realistic… Halladay, Lee and Hamels are nice answers.

Still… why do I think actually seeing them in first place is unlikely? There is plenty here to defend as a division winner, and so… after 102 wins last year… Halladay, Lee and Hamels on the roster… I’ll tip the cap and give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’m looking at that idea of them falling short though for a simple reason… if anyone can tell you when Ryan Howard or Chase Utley will be playing, then you know when this team might create some fear offensively. And yet… even with both of them… fear isn’t a word that comes to mind for opposing teams when dealing with the Philadelphia bats.

As long as the big three can deliver about 100 starts though… things in Philadelphia look ok. Papelbon should be fine as the closer… though I have to be honest, the way he was handed the ball by Daniel Bard is going to be something he’ll miss. This is not a good bullpen around him.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): We start with the loss of Howard and Utley. This team had trouble scoring runs in the National League with those two. Without them… suddenly they are looking every bit like one of the older rosters in the major leagues.

Now… if you want to throw Jim Thome and Hunter Pence at me… that works. But this is a club that was near the top of the National League in runs scored for about seven or eight seasons… and then last year they dropped off. A full season from Pence and the contributions of aging veteran Thome are not locks to bring back the glory days with Howard and Utley out of the mix.

There also isn’t much depth that I can find on the roster. With Oswalt gone (and though not signed, he’s unlikely to return here when he does sign in a few weeks), the starting rotation is already playing the “Joe Blanton is nice insurance” card.

Miami Marlins
What I expect in 2012: 91-71

What they did in 2011: 72-90

Key personnel changes: How can you complain about adding Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell? You can’t… so don’t try.

The dollars may have been big… but they may have set themselves up for big results as well.

We also add a new stadium and Ozzie Guillen.

2012 is shaping up as a very interesting season for the newly named Miami Marlins… and I’m so impressed with their approach, I’m going to use their new name right from the start.

My expectations: I think they’re moving into the playoffs. If not winning a slot outright as a division winner (possible though not likely), the addition of a second wild card slot puts them right into the conversation and a very likely postseason participant.

I understand Zambrano is a risk… and probably not an improvement over what Miami had in place for their rotation. Got it. Against National League opponents though, they are very good, and their starters of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Zambrano could be the tops in the NL East this season. (I don’t expect it… there is not a history of perfect health here… but every one of these guys could be one of the top two starters for the Mets this year.)

Heath Bell should steady a bullpen that has good arms, shows promise, but lacks experience… at least successful experience.

And now… with Ramirez and Reyes in place, the Marlins have speed, switch-hitting, and danger in the first three slots of the order. If they can get the rest of their position players sorted out and healthy, they will drive opponents crazy every night.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Reyes, Ramirez and Johnson have to remain healthy… simple as that. They are the true source of power for this club… and success will come from there. If they stay on the field, the Marlins will field a two MVP candidates and a serious Cy Young contender.

There have been some questions about the health of expected starters and the depth of the bench. Shouldn’t be surprising for a club that has normally based its roster on a restricted payroll.

The nice thing for the Marlins is that they don’t live in a media circus. While people in Philly are wondering about Chase Utley’s health and watching Ryan Howard’s stats for any sign of decline as the big money gets ready to roll in his direction, the Miami Marlins should be running off solid strings of 6 and 7 victories out of every 10.

Atlanta Braves
What I expect in 2012: 90-72

What they did in 2011: 89-73

Key personnel changes: None.

Honestly. They traded Derek Lowe. That’s just about it. (Unless Jack Wilson excites you.)

My expectations: After announcing his intention to make 2012 his final season, Chipper Jones went for surgery. He shouldn’t be out long, but it may be worth noting that a destiny-filled tour of triumph may not play out perfectly for Jones or the Braves.

And injuries are where we start.

Tim Hudson is likely out for a decent amount of time. Perhaps as many as the first 40-games. Tommy Hanson is possibly headed to a later rather than sooner appearance when the regular season begins, having suffered a concussion that put him about a week behind his teammates. (And we shouldn’t forget that Hanson and Jair Jurrnes had late season injury problems in 2011.)

Toss in questions about Jason Heyward and we have a wonderful start for 2012 in focus here for Atlanta.

The reality though is that the Braves escaped last season’s collapse fairly quietly compared to the Red Sox. And… we find a club that didn’t make too many changes. If it weren’t for a very improved division, the Braves would actually be sitting in good shape for a playoff spot considering the extra invitation being offered in 2012.

The problems begin with something like Jones though… where his absence suddenly shifts the use of the roster for all the other positions and the bench. And so as the season begins, I would look closely to see if things are steady and organized, or an attempt to stay afloat until the roster gets back on the field.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): This could go in either direction.

If Heyward comes back strong and the starting rotation doesn’t suffer any more hits… then the Braves are a contender for the division title. And, having not traded Jair Jurrjens could help them start the year, and then provide them with a trade option in July. It’s not hard to see them succeeding.

And then again… well…

We’re kind of counting on players returning to form. Brian McCann and Heyward leading the way for the regulars. And that’s ok… because I’m a big believer in a player’s career average being a good gauge for a reason. One person does a little bit more than normal… another does a little less… and in the end you get the production you might expect.

The trouble?

The Braves are counting on a bullpen that features Kimbrel, Venters and O’Flaherty. This trio delivered almost 240 innings of solid pitching last season. All of them offered career highs in innings and career best performances. Now they’re all young, and all good, so maybe we are seeing the start of something that will be two, three or more years of pretty special. But relievers often vary from year to year for a reason… and they shared quite a workload in 2011.

This could be… and should be… very good.

And Atlanta is also the first place you should look if you think Washington is capable of cracking the top three in the division.

Washington Nationals
What I expect in 2012: 78-84

What they did in 2011: 80-81

Key personnel changes: Brought in Gio Gonzalez on a trade and Edwin Jackson through free agency.

My expectations: This is one place where that gosh-darn one-team-wins-one-team-loses problem becomes a nightmare. Why? Because the Nationals are bordering on a very decent club in a division filled with roadblocks. Maybe the wins come from the Mets and opponents outside the division. The problem is… Philly, Miami and Atlanta are powerhouses inside the division.

So… do I have them too low? Yeah… I probably do. This is a team that could contend for the playoffs with the extra spot available. But… well… let’s just take a look…

I wanted to start this section by saying “so close, so untested” as a thought. Let’s face it… the media loves Strasburg and Harper as stories. And that isn’t a bad thing, or even misplaced attention. Both players are likely to be important to the success of the organization.

But let’s face it… Harper won’t be with the club when the season starts, and Strasburg has 17 major league starts over two seasons. Seriously… I wanted to say they were untested… am I right?

Ok… let’s get to the close part…

The rotation is pretty solid. Not awesome… yet… that’s the Strasburg and untested part. But adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to Strasburg and Ryan Zimmermann gives this club above average arms all the way through the starting rotation. That’s nice.

The organization has shown a willingness to invest on the field. Hey… I may think the Jayson Werth signing was a huge reach… you still have to give them some credit for pushing their chips into the pot. The club made plays for Prince Fielder, and is getting serious looks from players instead of being used to drive up eventual contract agreements elsewhere or being viewed as a “no way” destination. So that’s nice too.

There are worse things on the planet than having Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel on the 25-man roster. And that’s where youth like Bryce Harper becomes interesting.

See? Moving in a very positive direction.

The problems of course head right back to what I just outlined. LaRoche and Ankiel are fine… but this batting order will be streaky and, overall, lacking in production. While the pitching looks really good on paper, as we all know the games are never played on paper.

I think we’re at the beginning of a good story. This is an organization that is looking right at being there when the division turns over. (Let’s not forget, Philly is an aging group that will not easily be able to replace their pitching stars and already are showing cracks on the field.) But we’re not quite there yet.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): We turn to Ryan Zimmerman.

In 2009, Zimmerman broke out with a monster season… 157 games played, a .292 average, 33 home runs, and all stats backing the arrival of a young star.

Zimmerman had a higher average in 2010, but dropped to 142 games played and reduced numbers in other areas that seemed a bit more off than something as easy to see as 15 less games played.

In 2011… 101 games played.

So the reality is… Washington needs to get their players on the field. It may actually be just that easy. If you tell me Zimmerman is going to play 150-plus, Strasburg and three other starters will combine for 120-plus of the starts on the year… then yes, I’m beginning to see a club that could get into that range of 83 to 85 wins this season.

For now though, I’ll just place them as a good club, growing into potential, and facing a tough division test.

New York Mets
What I expect in 2012: 65-97

What they did in 2011: 72-90

Key personnel changes: Jose Reyes is gone.

My expectations: Ok… let’s skip the fun stuff… you know, like noting how the Mets are the worst team in their division, from front office to the major league roster, and it isn’t even close. That’s too easy.

Instead, let’s see some hope.

The money issues off the field may be calming down, and Sandy Alderson is a decent baseball guy to run this group.

There are several young players on the roster now (Ruben Tejada and Jon Niese as examples) and more on the way (Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey). So, we could see some developing talent.

Yes, there is some hope.

The problems come from the foundation. What is Johan Santana going to offer? How about Jason Bay? Those are two players tying up huge chunks of money, and both of them are likely to be gone before this organization contends again. (Want to see the Mets get a huge lift? Santana and Bay playing well enough to be trade options would fit that idea… it’s not likely to happen, but it would be big if it did.)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Here’s a funny situation. According to the new agreement between baseball and the players association, there are conditions in place for how a team can offer arbitration to a player acquired in a trade. Basically it appears that the expiring contract dump is no longer in play. So… David Wright…

If he gets traded mid-season in 2012: (1) the team option for 2013 can be voided per his contract, and (2) per the new rules, having not been with the acquiring team for a full year he cannot be offered arbitration after the 2012 season. But, if the Mets pick up his option next off-season and then trade him, the acquiring team would be able to offer him arbitration after the 2013 season because he will have been with them for a full season. Understand that? In short… Wright may be worth more next December than he is this July.

And that’s where the Mets are. Every team in the division is better. Their star names are players they might be more interested in trading than keeping. They aren’t a place where free agents want to go right now, and even with some concerns dying down they don’t have financial room to sign free agents anyway.

They’re probably better than where I have them right now… but folks, the wins and losses have to go someplace. And if the Marlins are better (and they are)… and if the Nationals could be good (and they could be)… where are these wins coming from?

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