Last Friday I covered the NL West (click here to view) and hopefully I portrayed it well enough to show you what a tight race it should be right through the summer. Today’s division should be no different. In fact, due to roster changes (or in some cases, lack thereof), today’s division should be a four-team horse race right until the end.
This week’s topic: National League East
In 2006 the New York Mets dominated not only their own division, but the league as well. While three of the team’s fought hard to get a piece of the Wild Card pie, they all fell short. 2006 also saw the record breaking 14 year run of Atlanta winning the East come to an end. We all knew it would happen someday, and last season, it finally did. While there weren’t too many major moves this off season in the East, there were some nice bits and pieces added to some teams that should make this a very interesting race.
The crazy thing is any of these teams (except the Nationals) can win this division. That’s one of the things I love about Major League Baseball right now. There’s not one division in baseball where you can say for sure who will come out as the top dog. Let’s take a look at how I think things will shake out.
1.) Philadelphia Phillies
Now I know the Phillies are the “hot” pick right now amongst analysts, but I must say I really like the ball club they have put together. Everyone knows the solid lineup they have with masher and 2006 MVP Ryan Howard (.313, 58 HR, 149 RBI) and break through superstar Chase Utley (.309, 32 HR, 102 RBI), but what about the rest of the lineup? There aren’t too many changes from last season’s team that made a playoff run late in the year, but they did fill a hole at third. Free agent Wes Helms joined the Phillies and will be their starting third baseman. Wes had a nice season in 2006 with Florida hitting .329/.390/.575 and an OPS of .965. His .575 slugging percentage will be a nice fit to the lineup and should even increase as he plays half his games in the hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park. It will be a definite upgrade over David Bell who put up .270/.337/.399 numbers a year ago in the same spot. A little added protection will go a long way behind Utley and Howard.
Another key piece to the puzzle this off season was the acquisition of Freddy Garcia from the White Sox. Garcia put up some impressive numbers in 2006 (17-9, 4.53 ERA) despite his rough patches. He will be a welcomed addition to this bolstered Phillies rotation. He will join an already nicely put together rotation including ace Brett Myers (12-7, 3.91 ERA), Jamie Moyer (5-2, 4.03 ERA after joining the Phillies), Cole Hamels (9-8, 4.08 ERA in his first season) who should make great strides in 2007, and Adam Eaton (7-4, 5.12 ERA) who joined the team after pitching for Texas in 2006.
This rotation is what will end up separating them from the Mets and their lineup will separate them from the Braves to lead them to the NL East crown.
2.) New York Mets
If the New York Mets want to win the NL East again in 2007, there are a few key items that need to go right for them in order to hold off the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies again. The most important item is their starting rotation. They can not afford any injuries or any players to have sub-par seasons. With as many problems as they have had in the past, this has to be one area that doesn’t cause them problems. They look to get their ace Pedro Martinez back sometime around the beginning of July so until then they are going to need to rely on 3 pitchers that haven’t proven they can pitch consistently at the major league level. Their starters will also have to eat up some innings so not to burn out their bullpen too early in the season. If the Mets plan on playing again this October, they will need a fresh bullpen as pitching has shown to be the greatest weapon in the post season.
Their explosive lineup hasn’t changed much from last year and should be as good as ever. The one key addition of Moises Alou should be a big boost in their quest to repeat. While Alou has battled injuries the past couple of seasons, he is still a very solid presence in the lineup. In only 98 games last season, he still hit .301 with 74 RBI with the Giants and looks to put up similar numbers in the already potent Mets lineup. Alou even passed up other 2 year deals with other clubs so he could play for the Mets. They should be very happy with their investment, especially if he can play at least 130 games.
As I stated before, if the Mets have any hopes of competing for their second division crown in as many years, they need for their unproven starting rotation to come through for them. Other than lefty Tom Glavine, they don’t know exactly what they’re going to get. While they do have a steady bullpen, it will wear out mighty quick if the rotation can’t give them 6-7 innings on a regular basis. It won’t be as easy for the Mets in 2007.
3.) Florida Marlins
Now this pick is one I think I will get a few people to argue with me about. In fact, I could see them finish second or even first if teams struggle for too much of the year. You don’t want this group of kids to hang around as they showed in the second half of last year. There’s just too much talent on this team to hold them down.
Everyone knows the name Dontrelle Willis and what he can do, but how about the big steps forward Josh Johnson (12-7, 3.10 ERA) , Anibal Sanchez (10-3, 2.83 ERA), and Scott Olsen (12-10, 4.04 ERA) made in 2006? I don’t know how you feel, but I love this starting rotation. These young arms can carry this team a long way. As I mentioned earlier, the Mets rotation is in shambles and the Braves are shaky. I don’t think its too far fetched to say this rotation alone can carry them very, very far in 2007.
The departure of Wes Helms to the Phillies won’t be missed too much in Florida as now Miguel Cabrera can move to third base full time. The Marlins also have put together one of the best young infields in all of baseball. Between Cabrera (.339 AVG, 26 HR, 114 RBI, .998 OPS), 2006 Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez (.292 AVG, 17 HR, 51 SB), Dan Uggla (.282 AVG, 27 HR, 90 RBI), and Josh Willingham (20 HR, 77 RBI), there’s no reason why this group can’t make a serious run at the division title.
4.) Atlanta Braves
For the second year in a row the Braves will not win the NL East. In my eyes, the Braves took a bit of a step back during the off season. While they have put together the possibly the best bullpen in the National League, they hurt their lineup with the trade of Adam LaRoche. LaRoche’s trade the the Pittsburgh Pirates brought in a nice young closer in Mike Gonzalez, but in doing so they left a large left handed hole in the middle of their lineup. They still have some pop with Andruw Jones (who may not be with the team much longer) and “Frenchy” Jeff Francoeur, but the big bat of LaRoche (32 HR, 90 RBI, .915 OPS) will end up hurting them in a division where the two other big teams they will be squaring off against are stacked with great hitters.
The other issue is with their starting rotation. Remember the Mets rotation did get worse, the Phillies got better, and the Marlins should be even better this year after another year of seasoning. As far as the Braves, well they stayed the same. Of course if they can get the Tim Hudson (14-9, 3.52 ERA) back that they thought they were getting when they extended his contract a couple of years ago, that will be a big help. Last year Hudson had a rough time going 13-12 with a career high 4.86 ERA. If he can bounce back to the man he was prior to 2006, it will be like they signed a brand new player to slide into their rotation.
Bottom line is that regardless of how well their bullpen does it won’t matter if their starters are effective or if they can’t score runs. Of course don’t count them out until they are officially eliminated from post season contention as the Atlanta Braves have always been an organization that finds a way to win.
5.) Washington Nationals
The poor Nationals are in bad shape. Thanks to Major League Baseball running them for the first few years of their existance, very little was spent on their franchise’s scouting and development of players. Because of this they really don’t have a farm system. That combined with no payroll and only one true starter in their rotation makes for a team that is about to have a very long and painful year.
Starting pitcher John Patterson is the only member of the Nationals’ rotation that is a proven starter. The rest is a rag-tag group of no names and long relievers. The only bright spot to their rotation is closer Chad Cordero who it will be difficult to get the ball to as by the time the ninth inning comes, there most likely won’t be a game to save.
The same can be said about their starting lineup. Now that Alfonso Soriano has fled for Chicago, the only real solid player is the budding young third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman had a nice 2006 hitting .287, 20 HR, and 110 RBI for a team that really didn’t score a whole lot. Of course now with no Soriano and Jose Vidro ahead of him, it will be difficult to drive in runs. Plus with no real threat behind him in the lineup, pitchers really have no incentive to go after him. Hopefully Zimmerman is able to jump ship in a few years and join a team where he can show what he is capable of.
Like I said, this team is in horrible shape. I don’t even really remember the Montreal Expos looking this bad. The Expos always at least had a farm system to work with where as the Nationals don’t even have that. Look for them to be the worst team in all of baseball this season losing well over 100 games and giving the improved teams Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay a little extra breathing room.