For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.
But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.
The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?
The Red Sox have been among the most active teams in baseball at the 2012 Winter Meetings, filling roster spots all over the diamond with medium to high-priced editions. After dumping the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford on the Dodgers this past August, Boston general manager Ben Cherington came to Nashville with money to burn. He wasted little time this offseason handing out rather generous contracts to back-up catcher David Ross and outfielder Jonny Gomes before the Thanksgiving turkey was even on the table and now it appears to be more of the same with the signings of catcher/1st baseman/DH Mike Napoli and outfielder Shane Victorino. Boston now has a glutton of decent but not great catching options, an overload of outfield/DH type, and a serious lack of pitching at the big league level. And the worst part of all for Red Sox fans? None of these moves will help Boston make the playoffs. Hell, this roster probably isn’t any better than the one Cherington tore apart at the 2012 trade deadline.
Fact: In 2012, for the first time in a decade, the Cincinnati Reds failed to score at least 700 runs. These kinds of little issues fail to get noticed during a banner season in which a franchise racks up 97 wins while clinching a playoff berth before every other team in baseball, but it’s true. The Reds, an offensive juggernaut in 2010 and 2011, were outscored by 20 other teams this past season. It seems somewhat unfathomable that Cincinnati could score so few runs with All-Stars like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips centered around a decent supporting case, but the numbers don’t lie. The Reds struggled to hit for average. They were abysmal at drawing walks, and they possessed very, very little team speed.
Some of these issues will need to be corrected this offseason, because it’s highly likely that Cincinnati’s pitching staff won’t be able to repeat the good health the had in 2012, which will likely lead to a decline in wins. The Reds also played a little bit over their heads a year ago, winning 6 more games than their run differential would suggest, although that is owed in large part to a stellar bullpen, which is also due for a bit of regression. So, if the Reds are going to repeat their NL Central title in 2013, what should they do to kick-start their offense?
Perhaps no team did more to address their weakness than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who pre-deadline, had one of the worst offenses in baseball, ranking 26th in baseball in runs per game (3.92) and 2nd to last in home runs hit (63, one ahead of the last place Giants). They were able to fill some of their biggest holes as well, plugging up gaps in the infield with Hanley Ramirez, a 28-year-old 3rd baseman who’s only a 3 years removed from finishing 2nd in the National League in the MVP race, and outfield with Shane Victorino, a 31-year-old former All-Star centerfielder. Los Angeles, perhaps more than any other team, did more to help their playoff chances because these acquisitions have the potential to greatly improve LA’s offense.
Standing 16.5 games back in the National League East and 13 back in the race for the 2nd Wild Card, the Philadelphia front office has decided to sell off some of the pricier outfielders in their possession, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. Pence has been the 2nd best hitter in the Phillies lineup this season, batting .271/.336/.447 (109 OPS+) with 17 homers and 59 RBI and looks to be headed to San Francisco. Victorino is also headed west, but to the Giants rivals from LA. The Flyin’ Hawaiian is having a bit of a down season, hitting just .261/.324/.401 with 9 homers, 40 RBI, and 24 steals on 28 attempts. Philly looks to be getting a package of prospects for their role in improving the offenses of the top-2 NL West teams. Let’s take a look at the potential return that San Francisco and Los Angeles will be getting.
2011 was a banner year for the Philadelphia Phillies. They were led by a fantastic pitching staff fronted by 3 of the top-5 in the Cy Young vote, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. They piled up 102 wins, the best record in baseball, before being vanquished in the Divisional Series against St. Louis. To add injury to insult, Ryan Howard tore his Achilles, costing him at least the first 2 months of 2012.
Philly came into 2012 with high expectations once again. The pitching staff will probably finish in the top-2 in baseball, but the offense currently has major issues. They are averaging exactly 2 runs a game, good for 2nd to last in baseball. The offense in Philadelphia has been in slight decline for the past 2 seasons after leading the league in runs scored in 2009. Last year the Phillies were 7th in the National League, a mark they may struggle to reach this year. So far this season, the Phillies have hit like a team from the Deadball Era, with plenty of underwhelming regulars clogging the lineup.
Philadelphia’s biggest problem is that the two best hitters, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, began the year on the disabled list. Howard is hoping to return sometime in May, but an early June return is probably more likely. He just began working out without a protective boot on 2 weeks ago, and is probably another 4-6 weeks away from making rehab starts in the minors. Chase Utley, who is having problems with his knees, currently has no timetable for his return. Ideally the Phillies would like to get him back ASAP, but Utley is probably a month away from rejoining the big league roster. The Phillies are going to have to look elsewhere, for the time being, to find offense and things may get a little ugly.
If yesterday’s lineup is any indication, Philadelphia could use a major jolt of power. The 3-4-5 heart of the order against Miami was Rollins, Pence, Victorino. Out of that group only Pence is a good bet to top 20 homers, which means that Philly is going to struggle to put runs on the board. The Phillies offense works much better when Victorino and Rollins are at the top of the order causing havoc and scoring runs, rather than driving in base runners. Lineups featuring this middle-of-the-order will be easy for opposing pitchers to work through. Without the threat of the longball, pitchers can attack Philly hitters with reckless abandon, knowing the worst outcome is a double or triple in the gap. And outside of these three hitters, the rest of the offense is a black hole.
Freddy Galvin and Ty Wigginton have each been given plenty of at-bats in place of Howard and Utley, and both have severely disappointed. The two have combined for 2 hits and 2 walks in 25 total at-bats, a meager display of offensive baseball. 3rd baseman Placido Polanco also looks like he might be an automatic out once again after posting a below average .277/.335/.339 with no power. He’s 36 now, so his days as an average bat and plus defender are behind him.
The options on the bench aren’t very appealing as well. Jim Thome still has some pop in his bat, but at age 41 he would be a statue if played in the field. Juan Pierre and Lance Nix also are usable pieces off of the bench, but shouldn’t be relied upon to produce big numbers if given regular playing time.
Philadelphia should be ok because they get to run 3 of the 10 best pitchers in baseball out every 5 days, and Vance Worley is no slouch either. It looks like Philadelphia will be without Howard and Utley for the 1st quarter of the season; so good pitching will be even more crucial. Until the offensive stars come back, Philly’s chances of winning are simple, if Halladay, Lee, and Hamels allow fewer than 3 runs a game Philadelphia has a chance, any more than 3 runs and its probably a loss. That doesn’t leave much margin for error, and in a reloaded NL East, it could cost the Phillies a playoff spot.
Notes From Around the League:
-Both Cole Hamels and Anibal Sanchez looked solid yesterday. Hamels was handed the loss, but pitched well, striking out 9 in 5.1 innings. He was tagged for 3 ER and a homer, but encouraging signs nonetheless.
-Derek Jeter had his 41st career 4 hit game yesterday in the Yankees 6-2 win over the Orioles. His play was the catalyst for victory, and he also drove in and scored a run.
-In the unlikeliest 1-0 game of the year, Oakland’s Tommy Millone outpitched Luis Mendoza to hand the A’s a win.
-Yu Darvish struggled in his Major League debut, but was still able to pick up the win. Darvish went 5.2 innings, allowing 8 hits, walking 4, and surrendered 5 earned runs. He looked a little jittery on the mound, so expect some improvement as he begins to feel more comfortable.
The National League East enters 2012 as deepest in all of baseball. Aside from the Mets, all of the other 4 teams have a chance to make the playoffs or win the division. Philadelphia and Atlanta have already proven that they are good bets to win 90+ games, and with Miami’s spending spree and Washington’s youth movement each of these teams could jump to the 90-win plateau. Let’s take a look starting with the defending division champion Phillies first.
The Phillies had the finest regular season in the history of their franchise a year ago, winning 102 games. But the season ended on a crushing note, losing 1-0 in a fantastic Game 5 to the Cardinals in the NLDS, with the last out being made by Ryan Howard as he tore his Achilles. With the acquisition of Cliff Lee prior to the 2011 season the Phillies had a staff for the ages, allowing a paltry 529 runs, or 3.27 per game. The pitching will once again be excellent, but the offense may not measure up and the Phillies may struggle to score runs. Philadelphia is also the oldest team by average age in baseball at nearly 30, so their title window may only be open for a couple more seasons.
The trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels is returning again for 2012 and will probably be the best top-3 in league. A season ago each pitcher had an ERA under 3, a k’s/9innings rate of better than 8, and each finished in the top-5 in Cy Young award voting. Ideally for the Phillies, they will get another 30+ starts out of their 3-headed monster and pile up another 50-60 wins. Throw in Vance Worley, who at 23, went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA and posted a near-elite strikeout rate. Joe Blanton, who is about league average, brings up the bottom of the rotation, which once again should lead the league in innings pitched as well as fewest runs allowed.
The bullpen got a pricey reinforcement this offseason in the form of Jonathan Paplebon. Paplebon posted an elite 12 k’s/9 innings a year ago, while cutting his walks by 60%, down to 10 total. He posted the 5th highest WAR for all relievers, according to Fangraphs, and gives more credence to the idea that the Phillies are in win-now mode.
The Phillies offense has been on a steady decline since winning back-to-back pennants in 2008-09. Last year they were 7th in the National League in scoring and 14th in baseball. While its possible to win the World Series with an average offense its unlikely as only 3 teams in the past 15 years have won a title with an offense ranked as low as Philadelphia’s. Early returns on the Philly offense aren’t looking to good either, with 3/4 of their infield struggling with injury problems.
Ryan Howard has been a major producer on the Phillies recent division winning teams. Howard has played at least 140 games every year since 2006 and in each of those seasons he has driven in at least 100 runs while hitting at least 30 homers. He’s finished in the top-10 in the MVP vote every year, winning in 2006, and will be sorely missed. He is probably looking at a June return, leaving Philly with 200 important at-bats to be filled by Ty Wigginton or Jim Thome. Neither player is an average hitter anymore and both are liabilities on defense. But each player is a good clubhouse influence who can hit a home run from time-to-time.
The Phillies will have to rely on their outfield, which could end up being one of the best in baseball. Led by do-it-all All-Stars Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, this unit plays solid defense while providing speed on the base paths as well as some pop at the plate. Pence hit for an OPS+ of 138 with 22 homers and 97 RBIs. Victorino had 27 doubles, 16 triples, and 17 homeruns while stealing 19 bases. Both players played excellent defense and provide a lot of range, taking away extra-base hits. Leftfield looks to be manned by John Mayberry Jr. who had 15 homers in 300 at-bats.
If Chase Utley can get back quickly, he the Phillies could score enough to win 95+ games. If Utley and Howard have any setbacks it could cost Philly greatly and they could become San Francisco East, a team with phenomenal pitching that is let down by its below average offense. Philadelphia will enter the season as favorites to win the division, but don’t let it surprise you if another team takes the crown.
The Atlanta Braves enter the 2012 season trying to rebound from one of the largest collapses in baseball history. The Braves seem to have the horses to recover, possessing pitching, pitching, and more pitching. 2012 will also be the swan song for franchise legend Chipper Jones. Chipper is a major league average player now so the Braves will need some of their young hitters to step up in 2012, particularly Jason Heyward. The fate of Atlanta’s season may very well hinge on if the big lefty can rebound.
Atlanta struggled to score for the most part last season finishing 22nd in baseball in runs scored. After finishing 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Heyward battled injury, posting a disappointing .227/.319/.389. Hitters with as much power, bat speed, batting eye, and ability like Heyward have the ability to win pennant races and MVPs. If he can stay healthy he is a good bet to rebound and hit an OPS+ around 140. The Braves also have last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up Freddie Freeman. Freeman has a bit of a strikeout problem but he hit .282/.346/.448 last year and hit 21 homers.
A couple more keys to the Braves’ lineup are Dan Uggla and Brian McCann. McCann has been the most consistent All-Star behind the plate in baseball, posting an OPS+ of 119 or greater each of the last 4 years. McCann has won 4 straight Silver Slugger awards and has hit over 20 homers in each season, and he is also a solid catcher behind the plate. Uggla had a terrible first half of the season posting a .185/.257/.365, until a fantastic 2nd half where he hit .296/.379/.569. He is also a big power threat for a 2nd baseman hitting 30+ homeruns each of the last 5 seasons.
The pitching staff throughout the organization is remarkably deep boasting 7 potential starters. Tim Hudson, age 36, is the senior pitcher on the staff, and he has posted an ERA+ above 115 each of the last 5 seasons. The rest is made up of young talents Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor.
Tommy Hanson is probably the most talented having posted a 3.28 ERA in 460 career innings. He’s a big 6’6” righty has a mid-90s fastball, a solid change-up, and a powerful 12-6 curveball. If he can stay healthy this season he could be a dark horse Cy Young candidate, and a potential 20 game winner.
The Braves should also boast a strong bullpen for the 2nd straight year. Craig Kimbrel led the National League in saves a season ago with 46 and posted a 181 ERA+ in 77 innings. He may have been overworked a season ago and he wore down at the end of the year, but he is an excellent closer. Set-up man Jonny Venters posted a 1.81 ERA and an elite strikeout rate as well. If the Braves take a lead into the 7th, they are a good bet to win the game.
For my full write-up on the Nationals click here.
New York Mets
The 2012 season will probably be a rough one for the New York Mets. The team has been trying to dump salary for the year and will probably continue to do so. The Mets still have quite a few highly paid players like David Wright, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana, all of whom could generate trade interest, especially if they rebound for solid seasons. The Mets outside of these few players are rather young, and some like Ike Davis has solid potential. In a division this tough the Mets will more than likely finish in the cellar and look to sell off any usable, higher-priced parts.
David Wright has steadily seen his value drop every year from 2008 onward. He bottomed out last season posting only a 2.6 offensive WAR, and he looked slow in the infield as well. If Wright can rebound and hit over .300 with 20-homer power he could generate a ton of interest on the trade market. 4-5 win players rarely come available and he could bring back quite a haul.
The offense outside of David Wright doesn’t look like it will be able to score too many runs. The Mets rated near the middle of the league a season ago. They could defy expectations if Jason Bay comes back strong and if Ike Davis can come back healthy. Davis showed some promise in his rookie year of 2010 hitting 19 homers and driving in over 70 runs. He had a strong start to last season hitting over .300 in 36 games before succumbing to injury. If he can reprise that 30-game stretch the Mets could have a potent offense.
The pitching staff was a disappointment a season ago finishing 22nd in baseball in runs allowed. The rotation and bullpen do not look very strong again this season and it would not be surprising to see the Mets finish in the bottom-10 again. Johan Santana, once one of the most feared pitchers in the game, is once again attempting to come back from injury. Santana didn’t pitch at all last season and at age 33 he may struggle to reprise his Cy Young form. Young pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese look like solid mid-rotation starters but in a tough division they may struggle again.
The Mets bullpen was a team weakness last year and has been somewhat rebuilt for 2012. Frank Francisco has been brought in to close and Jon Rauch has been imported to be the set-up man. The rest of the bullpen will probably struggle and no lead will truly be save for New York this year.
This team will probably struggle in 2012 and will more than likely finish in 5th in a tough division. Ideally for the Mets they will be able to get strong first halfs out of David Wright and Jason Bay in order to flip both players to contenders for elite level prospects, as they did in 2011 when they netted highly touted Zach Wheeler from San Francisco.
For my full write-up on the Marlins click here
New York Mets
NL East MVP: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
NL East Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
I think that this is the year Atlanta finally puts it all together and takes the division. If they have injury problems like they did a season ago with Hanson and Jurrjens, the Braves have depth in Arodys Vizcaino, and Mike Minor. They also have a supurb bullpen and if Freddy Gonzalez has learned a lesson from last year he won’t overwork Kimbrel and Venters. The Phillies have an absurd amount of pitching depth, which should carry them to the playoffs. The offense will probably underwhelm so expect a drop-off from the 102 wins of a season ago. I think Miami and Washington will be two of the 4-5 teams competing for the second Wild Card, with Miami winning it. Picking playoff teams from this division is a grab bag, with so many excellent ball clubs, and the division race should be an excellent one.