Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One Month In: NL East Edition

Lowe's 3.22 ERA is the worst amongst
Braves starters, yet is 22nd in the NL
For years and years, the NL East was filled with teams in big cities that somehow failed to make any impact on a national level. The Phillies were stuck in mediocrity (or worse) from 1994-2006, the Mets had a few good years but lately a few atrocious ones--and that's not even mentioning the team playing in the nation's capital. The Marlins, despite a World Series victory in 2003 and a talented team of youngsters, continues to draw about 500 people to a game. Yet, somehow, this once-ragtag group of teams has formed the toughest division in all of baseball thus far. The last-place team, New York, has All-Stars David Wright and Jose Reyes, in addition to solid pitchers in Chris Young and R.A. Dickey. The Washington Nationals, long a joke in the division, has been competitive behind solid pitching and a talented-if-struggling lineup. The top of the division gets even tougher due to the power arms thrown out seemingly every night. The pitching throughout the division is spectacular, headlined by the aces in Josh Johnson, Derek Lowe (right), and Roy Halladay. And Cliff Lee. And Tim Hudson. Anibal Sanchez. Get it? Opposing hitters sure do. To see how the rest of the division breaks down so far, hit the jump!

5. New York Mets (16-20, 7.5 GB)
What's gone right: Ike Davis is having a good season at 24 years old, hitting .302/.383/.543 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs, a positive sign indeed for the New York faithful. Carlos Beltran is having a decent offensive season, hitting .282 with a 149 OPS+, but at 34 his knees are shot and so his career will last only as long as his bat speed stays up. Beltran's clearly not the player he once was, but he's still productive in that Mets lineup. Jose Reyes is batting .318 as well, though his OBP, currently at .365, could be higher for a leadoff hitter with such a high average. On the pitching side, Chris Young looks to be back in 2007 Padre mode, when he went 9-8 with a 3.12 ERA. So far this year, Young is 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA in four starts, and the 6'10" righty from Princeton is certainly enjoying the career revival.

What's gone wrong: Outside of those players mentioned above, pretty much everything else. Ace Johan Santana is still out with an injury, and he won't be effective for New York this season. Last year's breakout success story, Angel Pagan, is hitting just .159, and now has some "point soreness" in his side that could keep him out a week--or a month, or longer. Jason Bay is hitting just .213, All-star 3B David Wright is hitting .234, and Mike Pelfrey is 3-3 with a 5.74 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP. R.A. Dickey is 1-4 with a 4.50 ERA one year after going 11-9 with a 2.84, and he's already 36 years old.

Future Outlook: When the rumors surrounding your best player (Reyes) involve words like "trade" and "rebuild," life doesn't look so good for Mets fans. A few years ago, with a young core of Reyes, Wright, Pelfrey, plus vets in Beltran and Santana, the future looked incredibly bright in New York. Now, the only promising young player is Ike Davis, the rotation is too old to be considered "potentially good," and the rest of the division is better both now and for the next few years. With all the Madoff issues surrounding the team, one wonders how long it will take the Mets to get back to a point of forward motion.

4. Washington Nationals (17-18, 6.0 GB)
What's gone right: From this point on, you might notice a theme with what's going right in this division--namely, the pitching (though not as well as the top three teams in the division). Maybe we're being nice because of how bad the Nationals/Expos have been since, oh, 1994, but Washington has been competitive early on in the season. They earned series wins against Milwaukee and San Francisco while beating the Mets in two of three on the road, mostly behind their pitching. Tom Gorzelanny is 2-2 with a 2.87 ERA in six starts, while Jason Marquis is 3-1 with a 3.66. Actually, Marquis has a nice 2.62 ERA when not facing teams called the "Phillies," but that's a problem seeing as the Phils are in the same division.

What's gone wrong: One would think, when a team spends $126 million dollars on a 30-year-old outfielder, that they would be hoping for production somewhere in the level of a 30-year-old Alex Rodriguez. Instead, they're getting the production of a 30-year-old Jayson Werth, and that has proven to be much less exciting than previously advertised. Werth is a talented player, and he will come around, but his .227/.324/.387 line is hardly cutting it when you're getting paid that much money. What's really sad is that Werth's OPS+ of 97 is actually second-best on the team, behind only catcher Wilson Ramos' 114--though Ramos has only played in 22 games, with only slightly more than half as many at-bats as the Nationals' regulars.

Future Outlook: Outside of Werth, the rest of the struggling Nationals' roster isn't exactly expected to do great things. The only other Nat who can hit is third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who remains sidelined with a torn muscle in his abdomen. Rick Ankiel could pick it up a little, but really there isn't much to look forward to until some players start returning from injury--Stephen Strasburg comes to mind. 2012 is the year to look forward to in the nation's capital.

3. Atlanta Braves (20-17, 4.0 GB)
What's gone right: Pitching, pitching, pitching--like the rest of the division, but better. Derek Lowe is 3-3 with a 3.22 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP, which is the worst line of any starter on the Braves. That's right, the worst. The Braves as a team have a 2.85 ERA, best in the National League and second only to the ridiculous Athletics staff (2.65 ERA) in all of Major League Baseball. Offensively, both Brian McCann (.307/.370/.386) and Chipper Jones (.272/.343/.448) are having very solid years, though neither are exactly in MVP contention at this point in the season. Either way, the story keeps coming back to that starting rotation. Lowe, Brandon Beachy, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, and Jair Jurrjens are a combined 16-9 with a 2.90 ERA, averaging a 57.9 gamescore and 6.20 innings every time they start.

What's gone wrong: One would think with that quality pitching, the Braves would be higher than third in the division--but that's before you look at the offensive numbers. Last year's rookie sensation Jason Heyward is batting just .220 with 14 homers, $62-million second baseman Dan Uggla is hitting .207 with an OPS+ of 76, and Chipper Jones is the team RBI leader with 24, at the ripe young age of 39. Freddie Freeman, while still early in his rookie season, is hitting .241/.336/.397 while manning first base, so he hasn't exactly been lighting it up either.

Future Outlook: The Braves present us with a very interesting case. Originally picked to challenge the Phillies for the division title, Atlanta has made their case for having the best rotation in MLB right now. They could be the most dangerous team in the playoffs should they make it there, but that offense could remain a problem all year. The keys are Uggla and Heyward, whose improvement on the offensive end could make the Braves the most dangerous team in the league. Heyward's another victim of a low BABIP (.241), as is Uggla (.226), while both of them are striking out less frequently than their career averages. That being said, it would seem highly unrealistic for the Braves rotation to keep up numbers as amazing as they have been, so the end result might only be a small net gain. Still, that should be enough to make the playoffs--and then, watch out for Atlanta.

2. Florida Marlins (21-14, 2.0 GB)
What's gone right: It was assumed coming into the season that the Marlins would end up third behind the Braves, but the Fish look pretty comfortable sitting in second place in the division. The Braves and Phillies have great pitching, as everybody knows--but Florida's Josh Johnson (3-1, 1.63 ERA, 0.90 WHIP) has been the best pitcher in the division so far, if not the league. In addition, two Marlins hitters just entering their primes are having career years. 26-year-old centerfielder Emilio Bonifacio has a career-best OPS+ of 113, hitting .301/.360/.417 (all career highs), while on his way to posting his first positive WAR of his career. First basemen Gaby Sanchez having an even better year, batting .331/.412/.534 in just his second full season in the bigs, though he is already 27 years old.

What's gone wrong: Aside from Johnson, the starting rotation (particularly the back end) is a little shaky. Not that most teams expect a ton from their fourth and fifth starters, but this IS the NL East we're talking about--Tommy Hanson and Cole Hamels are fourth starters. The Marlins' fourth and fifth starters, Chris Volstad and Javier Vazquez, are 4-5 but with a combined ERA of 6.58 and a WHIP of 1.71, which is particularly bad. When Josh Johnson isn't even an automatic win in the division, it's not a good thing to have 2/5 of your rotation to struggle so badly. In addition, shortstop Hanley Ramirez is batting only .208/.303/.272 with an OPS+ of 56. Ramirez's strikeout and walk numbers are no worse than his career averages, but one thing is vastly different--our new favorite stat, BABIP. A career .347 hitter on balls in play, Ramirez's average has plummeted to just .240 this season.

Future Outlook: The Marlins have put up an impressive start, but they do look built to fade back a little as the season progresses. I don't think they will finish lower than third, but they don't have the arms to compete with Philadelphia and Atlanta over the season. Eventually, the Chris Volstad v. Tommy Hanson matchups will come back to haunt Florida, and cost them the eventual Wild Card slot to either the Phillies or the Braves. Improvement is still plausible in areas (pitching, Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante), though whether it would be enough to get into the playoffs is in doubt.

1. Philadelphia Phillies (23-12, -- GB)
What's gone right: In three words, pitching and defense. Okay, that's not entirely true, but it does paint a large part of the picture in the City of Brotherly Love. Philly's four aces (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels) were the talk of the league in the offseason, and so far the results have been incredibly solid, though not quite up to the "all-time great" status that Phillies fans hoped for. The Phab Phour have averaged a hair under seven innings a start (6.97), with a 2.94 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. In addition, they're averaging only 1.28 walks per start, and a 5.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is explained by the 9.65 K/9--in other words, more than a strikeout every inning they've pitched this year (174.1). Placido Polanco (.353/.394/.453) has slowed down lately but his overall numbers are still fantastic, and Ryan Howard is tied for the league in RBIs, with 32.

What's gone wrong: The big concerns are still the injuries, which continue to plague the Phillies more than five weeks into the season. Chase Utley is still on the DL with knee tendinitis, and he's joined by starting catcher Carlos Ruiz (who is often credited with some of the rotation's success) and one of the four aces, Roy Oswalt. Neither Ruiz nor Oswalt, who both have back issues, are expected to miss much time--but the back can be one of those bothersome areas that never goes away. Closer Jose Contreras is on the DL as well, though Ryan Madson has been solid in the role thus far.

Future Outlook: Aside from the early-season struggles of Raul Ibanez, who was batting .168 as recently as May 1st before going 14-for-30 (.466) over his last eight games, most of the offensive struggles have been by backups--Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr at second, and Brian Schneider behind the plate. Once the Phillies get Utley and Ruiz back (assuming they stay healthy), that offense should get back on track--not that they've been atrocious without the pair (the team's .262 batting average is 6th in the league).  Combine that with the ultra-effective rotation and a solid back end of the bullpen in Madson (16 K, 1 run in 14 IP), and the Phillies will be tough to beat. 100 wins is a real possibility, but Atlanta and Florida will make a serious attempt to prevent that from happening.

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