NL East Preview

The teams, questions and predictions heading into spring training.

Josh Helmuthby Josh Helmuth

Still one of the toughest divisions in baseball, the elite in the NL East still have one thing in common: stellar pitching.

 

Philadelphia Phillies                 Predicted Finish – 1st

The team that dominated in pitching (3.02 team ERA) also only hit .253 as a club in 2011. Even though they most likely have lost Roy Oswalt in free agency (yet to sign with a team), they should still have the best rotation in baseball.

The Questions:

When will Ryan Howard return?

Howard injured himself on the last play of the season during the NLDS against the Cardinals, when he tore his Achilles tendon exiting the batters box. The surgery and rehab have most likely pushed his estimated time of arrival to around the 1st of May. The question is whether or not someone can step up and fill in that hole in the lineup. Most likely that plug will be Ty Wigginton, who is known for his streaky play. If he gets hot in April though, things could work out just fine for the Philly lineup.

Can the Phillies hit?

It all goes back to that very mediocre .253 team average in 2011. With Rollins and Utley aging and injury plagued the past few years (mainly Utley), and Howard out of the lineup during the opening stretch, it will be up to Hunter Pence to carry much of the load. Pence is a great player but he’ll need some help. Look out for up and comer John Mayberry, who put on a clinic in half a season last year, going .273/15/49/8. Shane Victorino can also add a big spark.

Rundown: Roy Halladay is still the best pitcher in baseball, with Cliff Lee not far behind. Cole Hamels has proven himself as one of the best number two starters in the bigs, and super sophomore Vance Worley could be the real deal too. If veterans Utley and Howard return to form, a World Series ring could well be in reach.

 

Atlanta Braves                 Predicted finish – 2nd

One of the biggest collapses in baseball history at the end of last year, the Braves will be relying on the health of their pitching staff for a 2012 rebound.

The Questions:

Will the rotation be healthy?

It could be a total hit and miss year for Atlanta. Their whole season will simply come down to the aforementioned question. Veteran Tim Hudson is one of the best control guys in the game and he will likely miss the first few weeks recovering from back surgery. Tommy Hanson, the other co-anchor of the staff is also recovering from shoulder issues, and claims he has adjusted his throw by taking out the ‘pause’ in his delivery; something team personnel has attributed to his injuries. And when Jair Jurrjens is healthy, he’s an absolute beast (sub 3.00 ERA).

The team is confident with Hanson and Hudson, but many are still predicting a Jurrjens trade. Whatever happens, the Braves still have the best pitching prospects in baseball, which include Brandon Beachy (possible breakout year this season), Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Julio Teheran.

Are Martin Prado and Jason Heyward ready to bounce back?

All signs point to yes. Jason Heyward has reportedly slimmed down and has been working on his swing all off-season. Many are projecting Prado to return to his all-star caliber play after battling a season of injury in 2011.

Rundown: Led by rookie of the year, Craig Kimbrel, the bullpen doesn’t get much better. Their dynamic lineup can be as good as any in the NL as well with Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman, Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward; not to mention a healthy Chipper Jones. However, as stated,  the rotation must stay healthy down the stretch. Either way it’s hard for me to see the Braves missing the playoffs again.

 

Florida Miami Marlins             Predicted Finish: 3rd

New manager, new ballpark, new name, new logo, new faces in the lineup and on the mound—it’s been a busy off season for the fish. This is going to be a good squad in 2012 if all goes as planned.

Questions:

Will Hanley Ramirez accept the third base job or be traded?

With the addition of Jose Reyes and as stubborn as Hanley’s been the past few years, I said right away that it was hard for me to see Hanley graciously accepting a move to third base; that he would most likely need to be traded. Now I don’t know Hanley personally, but much of the management in baseball still feels the same as I, as there are conflicting reports still surfacing.

Manager Ozzie Guillen said as late as this week that he is ‘confident,’ that Hanley will make the switch. I think it will all come down to W’s. If the fish get off to a good start and Hanley hits well, it might just work out. If Hanley starts out slow and the Marlins lose some games, then watch out…There are some teams that would love to have the young, elite shortstop.

Will the newbies put the Marlins over the top?

This club has the potential to very, very good.

They added Jose Reyes, who when health permits, is the most exciting player in baseball. The guy hit a ridiculous 16 triples last year while swiping 39 bags. They also brought in shutdown closer Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle to be their number two starter on the mound; both players I like a lot.

I’m confident in the new additions, but read below to see what winning in Miami will really come down to….

Rundown: ….breakout seasons from the youngsters: that’s what it will boil down to. Mike Stanton has 40 home run potential, Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez have 25 home run pop, and Emilio Bonifacio needs to prove that last year was no fluke. Bonifacio could easily hit .275 and steal close to 50 bases if given the green light to run freely. More importantly, Josh Johnson, their ace, needs to stay healthy for an entire season. If Josh can carry them on his shoulders, the Marlins could be in contention well into the late summer.


Washington Nationals              Predicted finish: 4th

The Nationals are no one’s doormat any longer. After spending some cash while also developing top talent the past couple of years, the ‘Natn’ls’ will be a force to be reckoned with.

Questions:

When will Bryce Harper make the big league club?

The number one pick of the 2010 draft will definitely play in 2012, and all speculation is pointing to Opening Day.

Manager Davey Johnson is really rooting for the kid, and it’s obvious the Nationals aren’t thrilled with starting Roger Bernadina in center field. If Harper, 19, has a decent spring at the very least, he should be in right field, with the team moving Jayson Werth to center.

Harper hit .297/17/58 in 109 minor league games last year and crushed the Arizona Fall League, hitting .333 with six home runs in just 93 at-bats. Let the Harper era finally begin in D.C. this summer!

What can we expect from Stephen Strasburg?

After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg is finally set to throw his first complete major league season. All reports say he is 100% and ready to go. However, no matter how well he throws, he will be on an innings limit, similar to the way Jordan Zimmerman was last year; somewhere around 160 innings pitched.

Most projections for the number one pick stud have him finishing around a clip of 2.80 ERA/1.00WHIP, 185 K’s. Not bad at all if he does have a cap on innings. And by not bad, I mean amazing. Then again, if Washington makes a playoff push it will be interesting to see if they toss him more.

Rundown: Already having Werth and Michael Morse, if Harper performs well, the Nationals could have the best outfield in the NL. Ryan Zimmerman is set to have a career year at third base and many are saying that catcher Wilson Ramos is the best up and comer at the postion. I love the addition of Gio Gonzalez as well. Coming in from Oakland, Gonzalez should thrive in the National League. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard also provide reliability in the bullpen. The Nationals should compete very well, but may be a year or two away from playing in October.

 

New York Mets                 Predicted Finish: 5th

They may have the bats to hit some home runs, but losing speedster and batting champ Jose Reyes hurts. They were also unable to address their starting rotation concerns, as no one knows what to expect with Johan Santana, who hasn’t pitched since 2010.

Question:

Is Johan ready?

Sounds crazy, but the surgery performed on his left shoulder supposedly takes a two year recovery period. No joke. It’s been 16 months, which means that we might not see Johan until May or June; and even then we won’t know what to expect

Santana had a great 2010, and personnel are saying that he might be better in 2012 based on what they’ve seen; but they haven’t seen much. The real test was on Friday, when Santana threw a bullpen session; the first time throwing off a mound since tossing four innings in an instructional league game back on Sept. 30.

Rundown: The Mets have a lot of potential. David Wright still has 30 home run capability and can also hit for average. While I’m not counting on Jason Bay, Andres Torres and Lucas Duda are no pushovers in the outfield. Also, with a career .292 average, Daniel Murphy is one of the best utility guys in the league. But like I said, we all know they have some bats; it will really come down to the play on the mound. And if you’re a Mets fan, do you really like the look of your rotation being (an injured) Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Niese, R.A. Dickey and Dillon Gee?

 

Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS