Beware of the “NL Beast”By
There is no question that the most competitive division in MLB is the AL East. New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay are mainstays atop the standings, despite different approaches to roster construction. Toronto would probably be a playoff contender in any other division, though is establishing itself as a challenger to the big three. And Baltimore is the only team in the division with no hope of contending now or in the near future. Overall, the AL East should continue to field some of MLB’s toughest teams, thanks to a combination of the largest payrolls and most competent front offices of either league.
In the NL, the balance of power among the three divisions shifts almost yearly. Although the Central is home to World Champion St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, a Pittsburgh team with an improved farm system, and Chicago and Houston teams under new management, the East, featuring Philadelphia, Atlanta, an invigorated Miami squad, and a promising Washington club is the better of the two. The sudden influx of talent into the NL East as a result of this Winter’s signings and trades will likely result in four teams contending for the playoffs. Several NL East teams also have the depth and youth to contend beyond next season, making this division a challenger to its AL counterpart as MLB’s toughest in 2012 and beyond.
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Although Atlanta’s historic regular season collapse will mark 2011 as a failure, the Braves still won 89 games and will retain much of last year’s team. Atlanta’s formula for much of last season consisted of relying on its deep pitching staff to carry a subpar offense. Next year’s squad figures to be similar, with the pitching rotation consisting of some combination of Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Tommy Hanson, with Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Arodys Vizcaino, and others in the bullpen.
The offense will return most of its starters, the main difference being at shortstop. If no acquisitions are made via free agency or trade, Tyler Pastornicky, 22, will be inserted as the starter. Mike Newman of FanGraphs.com struggled to find a good comp for Pastornicky, but settled on Cincinnati’s Zach Cozart, noting that the former brings “a bit less pop and better speed.” Based on scouting reports and projections, it seems possible that Pastornicky could be an upgrade to Alex Gonzalez, who is now with the Milwaukee Brewers.
In terms of improving the offense, there is opportunity at left field, as Martin Prado struggled to stay healthy and productive in 2011. GM Frank Wren has shopped Prado along with Jurrjens this offseason in hopes of not only landing an immediate upgrade at left field, but a future center fielder, given the possibility of Michael Bourn’s departure after 2012. Teams have understandably been balking at the asking price and, at this point, it is possible that the Braves will simply rely on improvements from Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, along with a full season of Michael Bourn and the continued development of Freddie Freeman to bolster the offense – not a bad strategy considering that Heyward is expected to improve significantly while Uggla is unlikely to slump for as long as he did last year (though the combination of his age, 32, and skill-set could become a concern). Freeman would have been the Rookie of the Year in 2011 (.282 AVG/.346 OBP/.448 SLG/.345 wOBA) if not for one of his teammates, though is only 21 years old, so he could hit bumps on the road as he develops (as Heyward, also 21, has).
Atlanta has a positive outlook for the future as it has plenty of cost-controlled talent on its current roster and in the farm system, beginning with starting pitching. Not only are Beachy, Minor, Teheran, and Delgado likely to get opportunities as starters in 2012, but Vizcaino (who is viewed by some talent evaluators as a starting pitcher) and Kris Medlen could fill starting roles if necessary. Tommy Hanson, once the team’s ace, will also be in the mix once he recovers from shoulder issues. In short, the Major League roster already includes nine pitchers who can be effective starters this year and beyond (assuming Hudson’s 2013 option is exercised).
Two main criticisms of the Phillies are that it’s an aging team and that it no longer sports a prolific offense. According to Baseball Reference, the average age of its lineup in 2011 was 31.5 years, oldest in the NL. Its pitchers were an average of 29.2 years old, fifth-oldest in the NL. Furthermore, the offense was seventh in the NL in runs scored last year, after finishing as at least the second-best run scoring team in the NL from 2008-2010.
Chase Utley, who has been injury-prone and will be 33 years old next year, hasn’t played a full season since 2009 and his offensive production has been in decline (.402 wOBA in 2009, .373 in 2010, .344 in 2011). Hunter Pence, 28, provides some much needed youth, however, with the signing of Laynce Nix, the team does not seem confident in Dominic Brown becoming an everyday outfielder. Nix, Brown, Raul Ibañez, and John Mayberry figure to compete for or platoon at right and left field, with Shane Victorino at center field. After having the best year of his career in 2011 (.279/.355/.491/.372), Victorino should be expected to regress in 2012 (career line of .277/.344/.441/.344).
So far this offseason, GM Ruben Amaro has not done a lot of help mend the aforementioned issues with the roster. Arguably the team’s biggest priority this Winter was the signing of Jimmy Rollins, given the team’s position to win now and no internal replacement worthy of being a championship caliber shortstop. With Ryan Howard scheduled to miss part of next season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, the team signed Jim Thome to play first base, something he hasn’t done since 2007. Ty Wigginton, who was acquired via trade, will form a platoon with Thome, though he will probably fill-in at other positions too, as the 10-year veteran has played everywhere except pitcher, catcher, and center field in his career.
Under the direction of Amaro, Philadelphia has operated as a big market team by sacrificing the long term for the short term. While the team has one of the best starting pitching rotations in MLB, Roy Halladay is 34 (turns 35 in May), Cliff Lee is 33 (turns 34 in August), and Cole Hamels is set to become a free agent after next season. One injury among the big three could seriously hurt Philadelphia’s playoff chances, as there isn’t much depth behind them – Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick, and Joe Blanton are likely to combine for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. This club is very clearly built to win now, though it’s clear that, beyond 2012, not all of the team’s issues will be remediable via free agency.
For more on the Phillies, read New Years Resolutions for the Phillies at Crashburn Alley.
Before this offseason, it was clear that, given the team’s minor league talent, Washington would be a contender soon. But with the acquisition of Gio Gonzalez via trade, the organization may be envisioning contending sooner than others expected.
With Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, and Gonzalez, Washington sports one of the best young rotations in MLB. In 2012, Brad Peacock, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, and John Lannan will contend for the final two rotation spots, while Alex Meyer, Matt Purke, and Sammy Solis figure to be upgrades for a potentially terrific rotation in the near future. Soon, the team could have a surplus of starting pitching, which could be used to bolster a bullpen which already includes Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, or to trade for a more pertinent need in the offense.
By trading Derek Norris, the team will rely on Wilson Ramos, who quietly had a solid 2011, as its catcher. Very soon, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon will help form a potentially solid offense, though, even with a full year of Ryan Zimmerman and a bounceback campaign by Jayson Werth, the 2012 team has questions at shortstop, second base, and center field – the all-important, up-the-middle positions.
The current shortstop, Ian Desmond, has a career .304 OBP in 1,302 PAs and is a below-average defender, so the team should be active in finding a replacement. The second baseman, Danny Espinosa, may actually be a better fit at the six-hole, as he is viewed by some talent evaluators as a better defender than Desmond (Espinosa is originally a shortstop) and is easily the better hitter.
The ~.300 OBP provided by the center field combination of Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina desperately needs improvement, though GM Mike Rizzo thinks that “the 2013 free agent class at center field is much stronger than it is for the 2012 season. With that in mind we know Jayson can handle the center field position…He’s a good defender out there and is ready, willing, and able to take on the responsibility…” With Werth at center field, Michael Morse will play a corner outfield position as Rizzo has also emphasized that Adam LaRoche will be next year’s first baseman: “Adam LaRoche is under contract for us, we’re paying him a lot of money to play first base for us next year. We feel that he’s going to have a bounceback season.”
The free agent acquisitions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and Heath Bell confirmed Miami’s plan for winning in 2012. In October, I wrote that the team simply needed healthy campaigns from Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson to be a contender and, while I still think productive years from those two will be a key, the Reyes and Buerhle signings especially should bolster the team and, not only provide leeway for Johnson and Ramirez’s contributions, but take some pressure off of the two as well. While adding Albert Pujols would have made Miami a front-runner in the NL, he wasn’t an entirely necessary piece in order for the team to contend. Over the past two years, Gaby Sanchez has wOBAs of .346 and .342, respectively, and if he gets injured or struggles, left fielder Logan Morrison can readily move back to his original position.
In one of his recent podcasts, SI.com’s Joe Sheehan noted several interesting tidbits about the Marlins. Firstly, although Miami reportedly offered Pujols the highest-paying contract of any team, it’s possible Pujols was worried that, had he signed and the team struggled over the next few years, he’d be traded (he would not have 10-and-five rights at that point). Indeed, Sheehan and Rany Jazayerli pointed out that of every free agent the organization has ever acquired, only Alex Fernandez was not traded away within three years.
Sheehan also pointed out that that one of the reasons Mark Buehrle has been so effective, despite the lack of strikeouts, is the stellar defenses he’s pitched in front of. While putting Reyes at shortstop and Ramirez at third base improves the Miami defense, it will be important to place a defensively competent center fielder behind the lefty in order to improve his chances for success.
Could that player be Yoenis Cespedes? It is unclear how soon the 26-year-old Cuban could contribute to the Major League team, given that he’d need some seasoning in the minors, but last week it was reported that some teams regarded the Marlins as the favorite to land the outfielder. Here, Marlins Daily’s Matthew Marx recently made the case for signing Cespedes.
One free agent who has received little hype is Edwin Jackson. The righty, 28, posted a 3.79 ERA in almost 200 innings for Chicago and St. Louis in 2011. As Sheehan noted, Jackson’s history plays a huge role in how he is currently perceived (and why he might be undervalued). He is only 28 years old, yet has already pitched for six teams. Although he has the reputation of being inconsistent, he’s generated more Wins Above Replacement than Buerhle over the last three seasons (Jackson’s 11.2 to Buerhle’s 10.5). Of all the starting pitchers in this Winter’s market, he may have the most upside, yet can be had for considerably less than what C.J. Wilson got. The Marlins should sign Jackson to improve a starting rotation that, even with Buerhle, could use depth.
New York Mets
GM Sandy Alderson has been reluctant to use the word “rebuilding” in describing what he’s doing in New York – indeed, it seems unthinkable that a team in such a market would need to legitimately rebuild and even avoid resigning its star players (presumably, for financial reasons) – but that’s exactly what the team is doing. As Richard Sandomir of The New York Times recently reported, MLB views the Mets as a “troubled franchise on a short tether.” After operating with a payroll of almost $143 million in 2011, the team currently has almost $68 million in payroll obligations for 2012 and will undoubtedly operate with one of its lowest payrolls in years.
What is confusing about this offseason for the Mets is the team’s willingness to give Frank Francisco a two-year, $12 million deal and Jon Rauch a one-year, $3.5 million deal. For a team with financial issues, it seems weird to be handing out contracts to relievers, especially since bullpen arms are extremely fungible.
David Wright will be in the final year of a six-year, $55 million extension (with a $16 million club option for 2013 that includes a $1 million buyout) he signed in 2006, though the club option voids if he is traded. He seems like a probable trade candidate, though it’s possible he stays in New York until the trading deadline.
Of particular note is the return of Johan Santana, who is owed $49.5 million through 2013, with a $25 million club option ($5.5 million buyout) for 2014. Bill James projects the left-hander, who has not pitched in MLB since early-September of 2010, to throw 189 innings with a 3.19 ERA and 3.35 K/BB ratio.
Andres Torres, who was acquired (along with Ramon Ramirez) from the Giants for Angel Pagan, will be the starting center fielder while Ruben Tejada is currently slotted-in as the starting shortstop. Ike Davis, who hit .264/.351/.440/.345 in 2010 (147 games), will return as the starting first baseman after an injury-plagued 2011 season.