Break out the
bunting for the home openers and schedule your fantasy league drafts:
2008 is a month and a half fresh, which means that baseball season is
well within sight. Pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring
Training with position players to follow, and soon we'll be watching
and following spring training games (which bear no significance on the
regular season whatsoever) just so that we can watch the sport again.
Offseason trades and free agent signings have been made and analyzed by
prognosticators and fans, and we'll soon see how those players will pan
out with their new teams. Preseason rankings too have been made, and
time will tell the accuracy of those predictions for division winners
and bottom-dwellers. Long-term contract extensions will be discussed,
but it's time to zone in on the season ahead of us.
In the following paragraphs, I'll focus on the NL East, particularly the Atlanta Braves.
The NL East was baseball's strongest division only a few years ago as
every team finished with a .500 or better record. While it is no longer
considered the most powerful division in baseball, it's still potent
and has a chance to produce this year's NL Wild Card winner.
While many are picking the Mets to win the division (and represent the NL in the Fall Classic), the Phillies
have earned the right to be the favorite entering the regular season.
While the bigger story of last year's race is not so much the Phillies'
victory as it is the Mets' collective failure down the stretch, the
Phillies won it. The thing to keep in mind is that the Phillies
could've choked just as much as the Mets did; the first-place team
might struggle for a time, but if the second- or third-places teams
don't take advantage of the opportunity, they'll remain behind.
The Philadelphia Phillies don't have much turnover from last year other than losing Aaron Rowand to free agency, and having Shane Victorino
as the everyday CF should fill that hole nicely. Offensively, this is
the strongest team in the division -- or at least a close second to
Atlanta -- and will probably finish the season near or at the very top
of the NL in runs scored. With guys like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell
hitting in the hitter-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park, there's
plenty of reason for opposing pitchers to be intimidated. Other than a
hole in the catcher's spot (simply because Carlos Ruiz is still new),
the offense should be great.
The rotation and bullpen? Not so sure. Make no mistake, it's got its strong points -- Cole Hamels is one of the top young pitchers in baseball, and Brett Meyers' return to the rotation is a much-needed move. Kyle Kendrick
is a promising young starter, posting 10 wins and decent ERAs and WHIPs
last year, though he could improve his strikeout totals as he hopes to
avoid a sophomore slump. Jamie Moyer seems to be declining, posting an ERA right at 5 (although he did post a hair under 200 innings pitched). As for Adam Eaton...only opposing teams and their fans are glad to see that he's pitching. It's too early to tell if Kris Benson will earn a spot on the team after getting a non-roster invite to ST. Their bullpen is also suspect; signing JC Romero to an extension was a smart move, but bringing Brad Lidge to the small park is a gamble.
The question with the Phillies is whether their offense can continue to
bale out their pitching. Only two starters posted a sub-4 ERA last, and
neither of them pitched 200 innings. Also, remember: the Phillies were
division champs in 2007 largely because the Mets and Braves faltered
during the season (though, I've got to give them their due, it's also
because they played their hearts out when the season was on the line);
both of those teams have addressed their major problems, so they figure
to be more competitive this year.
Everyone's favorites for the division are the New York Mets, who traded for Johan Santana,
arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He'll help tremendously, but the
rest of the rotation must carry their weight. Maybe it's just me, but I
wouldn't like relying on Pedro Martinez coming back from
surgery in the #2 slot; while he pitched quite well in his 5 starts at
the end of last year, nobody expects him (or, barring Santana, anyone
else in the rotation) to pitch 200 innings, and that's something you'd
like to get from the #2. I don't see him remaining in the #2 slot for
the entire year.
Offensively, this is the third-best team in the division behind Atlanta and Philadelphia. Their big three players are Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran. They'll need to produce and play well, and they will. Delgado needs to rebound from last year; they have holes in right field and catcher, and they'll need to depend on Endy Chavez to fill in capably again for the aging (yet still potent) Moises Alou if and when he gets injured.
Back to the rotation. The Mets' rotation was far better than anyone
expected it to be last year, and it's still largely intact. A plus with
the rotation is that they're all pretty experienced: John Maine looks to be improving as a starter, and Oliver Perez
had a great 2007. The problem is that Maine's second half didn't look
like his first, and Oliver Perez is a bit inconsistent and walks quite
a lot of batters. Having a choice between El Duque and Mike Pelfrey for the #5 slot is better than having them be the #4 and 5 starters.
A couple of red flags surrounding the starting five: these pitchers give up a lot of home runs. Santana gave up 33 last year; Maine, Perez and El Duque
(who started only 24 games) each gave up 20+ last year. Also, they're
susceptible to injury: if any of their pitchers goes down (which will
likely happen just because that's how baseball works), they don't have
much backup. They 're thin after trading their top three pitching
prospects (but keeping Fernando Martinez!), and that may hurt them as
far as depth. One would think that the Mets would've learned from the
2007 Braves in terms of going to Spring Training with 6 pitchers
competing for 5 spots; in other words, that approach didn't work too
well for Atlanta.
A quick word before I go onto the Braves: the Mets have a very strong
team, plain and simple. They've got a good offense, Santana will lead
their club, and they'll figure prominently in the pennant race. I just
don't think that they're a sure thing for the NL pennant, much less the
Competing with them will be the Atlanta Braves,
headed by new GM Frank Wren. After last year's very shallow rotation,
it appears they have wised up. What sets them apart from other teams is
their rotation depth: they'll be taking at least 8 legitimate pitchers
to Spring Training to compete for 5 rotation spots. John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, and Tom Glavine
will round out the top of the rotation, and each is capable and likely
(Bobby Cox and Roger McDowell hope) of pitching 200 innings and 15+
wins. Some are saying that Glavine is no longer the ace he once was,
and while that's very true, the Braves don't need him to be (like the
Mets did last year). They signed him to be their #3 starter, not #1;
he's an important piece of the rotation, but not the most important and
shouldn't be pressured to carry the team.
Reports indicate that Mike Hampton,
who hasn't pitched in 2+ years, is healthy and expects to make 30
starts; given his injury history, the Braves have called for plenty of
backup. Chuck James, Jo-Jo Reyes, Jeff Bennett and Jair Jurrjens
will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation, and if Hampton doesn't
appear ready to go, a second from that group will take the 4th spot.
Buddy Carlyle, who started 20 games last year, could also play into the
My early predictions for the rotation: I expect youngster Jair Jurrjens to secure the 4th spot in the rotation, especially if Hampton can't go. The Braves didn't trade Edgar Renteria just to have him pitch in AAA. Chuck James
has his work cut out for him, and will need to show that he can pitch
effectively to earn a spot in the rotation. I don't expect him to make
30 starts this year with his shoulder troubles, though I do expect the
presence of Tom Glavine to help him a lot. I think Reyes could make about 10-15 starts this year, and Bennett will be an improvement in the role of long man/spot starter that Oscar Villareal filled last year.
Offensively, the Braves are stacked with a core of Kelly Johnson, Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. While they don't have a prototypical leadoff hitter (and haven't since Rafael Furcal left after 2005), Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar seem quite capable of handling those duties with their high OBPs; both also have speed, though not of the Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes ilk. I'm looking for a breakout year by Francoeur, and for Jones and Teixeira to top 30 HR and 100 RBIs each.
Their secondary players are also offensively strong: Matt Diaz should continue to excel in his platoon role, and his partner, Brandon Jones, seems quite capable as well. Newly-acquired Mark Kotsay, if able to stay healthy, could contribute quite nicely and will be an improvement
(at least average-wise) over Andruw Jones from last year.
The bullpen also looks strong. Rafael Soriano
will take over the closer duties, and as long as he can avoid last
season's short period of giving up the longball, should be one of the
better closers in the NL. Peter Moylan had the lowest ERA of any pitcher with at least 80 IP last season, and should serve as a terrific setup man. Mike Gonzalez
will return from Tommy John surgery around June. The rest of the
bullpen is made up of strong flamethrowers returning from last year
alongside newcomers Will Ohman and Chris Resop.
The major question surrounding the Braves for 2008 is whether their mix
of veterans and young players will be enough to compensate for injuries
in overcoming the Mets and Phillies. Despite the fact that many aren't
considering them for the postseason, they'll be in the thick of the
The two remaining teams in the division, however, won't be. The Marlins have traded their two stars in Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, and their biggest remaining names -- Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla
-- aren't yet the stars or leaders that they may become (though they're
still quite good). A quick look at their 40-man roster reveals that
most of the players are under 30, and with the exception of Luis Gonzalez,
there's almost no veteran presence on this team. They won't contend in
2008, though they should be a team to watch a few years down the road.
The Nationals have made a slew of offseason moves, and despite
being written off by pretty much everyone, I think will be a very
interesting team to watch this season. They also have a lot of young
talent, especially on their pitching staff. Sean Hill, Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico
won't vie for the Cy Young award or be on the All-Star Team this year,
but they could turn in a number of good performances. While I don't
think they can hang with the Braves, Mets and Phillies, I do think they
deserve more credit than they're getting, especially for going out and
making the moves they have this offseason (Lastings Milledge, Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada).
So that's it for the NL East. I don't think any of these teams stand
far ahead of anyone else in the league, though the Mets certainly have
an edge with Santana. My pick for the division winner? It's a tough
one. Part of me says the Mets – they should have won the division last
year, and they added a big piece in Santana to make their team much
better; that said, they were a .500 team after May of last year, and I
really question their leadership and hunger to win. The Phillies have a
chance if their pitching surprises everyone, and the Braves have a
chance if they can avoid significant injuries to their major players.
My pick is the Braves. More than just loyalty, I think that they'll get
to October via the same way they got there from 1991-2005: pitching.
They have more pitching than anyone in the division, so they'll be
better equipped for when a starter gets hurt or needs a spot start. If
Chipper Jones plays the full season and doesn’t miss a significant
amount of time, he'll be in the MVP running again and will play a huge
part in taking this team to the postseason.
from Author: I'm glad to have the opportunity to write for
athomeplate.com for the first time and to have you reading my first
article. My name is David Wagner, and I've been following baseball
since before I can remember. Having grown up in a suburb of Atlanta,
I'm a devoted fan to America's Team, the Atlanta Braves (insert your
cheers or boos here), and I can proudly say that I've rooted for them
since before their amazing run in 1991. While I will, from time to
time, express my favoritism for the Bravos, I'll discuss them (and all
other teams) as objectively as I can. In other words, I won't say the
Braves are the best just because I'm a fan.