Having yesterday picked the Giants to surpass the more-talent/less-knowhow Dodgers in the West, we look ahead at the N.L. East:
Atlanta: And now, one of the great personnel questions in baseball history: If you put two underachieving brothers on the same team, in their home region of the country, for the first time in their lives, will they blossom? Can the purely personal premise of sibling rivalry (“Uptons Lead Braves To…”) overcome the undeniably statistical (27-year old B.J. Upton peaked at 22; his younger brother Justin has never been more than an average player when not inside the comfortable dome in Phoenix)?
The Uptons aren’t the only critical new couple in Atlanta. After years of tantalizing spring trainings, winter seasons, and MLB mini-hot streaks, Juan Francisco gets his shot to put up – and the Upton trade brought the Braves a useful righthander to platoon with him in Chris Johnson. Neither of them will make you think of Chipper Jones at his defensive peak, but nor did last year’s version of Mr. Chips. That they will not provide a speck of his leadership is a given.
Pitching is intriguing. Julio Teheran’s almost unhittable spring – climaxing in last Saturday’s six innings of being literally such – could combine with a full-season of Kris Medlen’s nearly unhittable 2012 finish. If so, the Braves could match the Nats arm-for-arm, especially if Mike Minor fulfills his promise. But if Fredi Gonzalez gets three lemons there, the Braves are finished, no matter how well the Uptons do, or Chipper’s successors do, or the bullpen does.
Plus there’s no Brian McCann. It’ll be at least May 1 before his shoulder quiets down and his travails this spring have the ring of one of those season-long things. Even though they let his perennial caddy David Ross walk over the winter, the Braves might have an intriguing Plan B in behemothian rookie Evan Gattis, who can catch, more or less, and lose a lot of baseballs because he seems to hit them into the clouds.
Nevertheless, there are too many “ifs” here. I hope the Uptons prove me wrong – even many of the people who let them leave Florida and Arizona last off-season speak nothing but praise for them as people – but as of today the record gives no reason to suspect they aren’t going to be busts in Atlanta, too.
Miami: Don’t get me wrong – the Marlins, Version Negative 2.0, aren’t going to win very much. But they might not be quite as repulsively bad as we all thought when the State of Florida’s bad bet on Jeffrey Loria’s business acumen predictably came up snake eyes – they might be better than the Mets. This will presumably turn on Miami’s willingness to promote the next great star who will eventually leave the team, Christian Yellich, who hit five homers and drove in 14 in 44 spring training AB’s. If the Marlins try to go cheap and keep Yellich in the minors not until May but until 2014, Miami’s huge holes could sink them completely. If they let Yellich up to join some combo of Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Ruggiano, Juan Pierre and Chris Coghlan, they will suddenly have an outfield nearly on par with Washington and the Phillies. The rest of the team is basically promising catcher Rob Brantly, and Other People’s Pitchers. Literally, outside of Ricky Nolasco, all the starting pitching candidates were underachieving pitching prospects obtained by trade (Alvarez, Eovaldi, LeBlanc, Slowey, Turner).
Far more interesting than the numbers put up by the team, will be those produced by the fans. I argued here last year that there was no chance Miami would suddenly turn into a 35,000-per-night city. Sadly I was right, and now we get to see how many will come to see these Dead Fish, and whether that spectacular new building might see an average as low as 3,500 a night.
New York: It has been postulated that the Yankees have let themselves go to hell because they saw a way to monetize the reality that the Mets just keep getting further away from respectability. One site specializing in such things suggested that New York’s opening day line-up could feature Marlon Byrd playing right and batting third. Last season, Marlon Byrd hit .070 in Chicago and then rocketed to a .320 slugging percentage in Boston and tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Byrd said he wasn’t using it for that purpose. Man, I hope so.
If David Wright’s injury recurs, the Met infield could be Ike Davis, Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada, and Zach Lutz. The outfield could easily be Byrd (or Mike Baxter) and Collin Cowgill next to Lucas Duda. The latest rebuilt bullpen might be worse than last year’s and the rotation could be the worst since Tom Seaver was a rookie (and could provide similar contrasts for young right-handers who may be all Mets fans have to root for this season: Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler).
New York knows the Mets are bad; it does not seem evident here that it’s very possible that they’re Worse-Than-The-Marlins-Kinda-Bad. Making things worse, the team’s first five series are against the Padres, Marlins, Rockies, Phillies, and Twins. Thus the Mets could easily be an utterly deceptive 10-6 or even 11-5 before – as the worn-out joke goes – the older kids get out of school.
Philadelphia: If you’re my age, or even close to it, you know the drill. Every morning some part is going to hurt, you just don’t know which one and how badly. Sadly the Phillies remind me way too much of me. Carlos Ruiz’s renaissance turned out to be an adderall-fueled illusion. Ryan Howard still doesn’t look 100%. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 34. Michael Young is 36. Roy Halladay had frightening moments of deadarmism this spring and it seems impossible to believe that it was only three years ago when we were assured he was the last puzzle piece to the greatest starting rotation in the history of mankind.
In a vast irony, perennial prospect Domonic Brown finally appears to be ready.
Don’t get me wrong: the Phillies could contend for second place here. I mean there are days when I creak less at noon than I did at 9 AM. Of course these only happen once or twice a month.
Washington: I thought this was the best overall team in baseball last year, and after its achilles heel was revealed in the decisive game against the Cardinals, management didn’t just lick its wounds – it invested even more in the squad. I am surely not the first to suggest that when you upgrade your fourth starter to Dan Haren, your first three starters are probably Cy Young candidates. The Nats surely did not need to sign Rafael Soriano as closer; clearly one of the internal candidates would’ve stepped up. But the mantra here appears to be don’t just try to beat everybody else – make sure you kill them.
That ‘don’t just try to beat them, make sure you kill them’ front office scheme? It mirrors words to that effect that Bryce Harper said to me after his first MLB exhibition game in 2011. It is a bit much to ask Harper to be the National League’s MVP, but it isn’t too much to put a bet down on him even at some very short odds. He debuted with all the technical skills, then had his moment of zen against the Phillies on May 6. Cole Hamels tried to put the veteran of seven big league games in his place by hitting him in the back. Moments later, Harper put Hamels in his place by stealing home on him.
Harper gave me his view of life way back in 2011! That is the remarkable thing about Harper that gets lost in the reality that he seems to have been around forever as prospect and mega-prospect and cover boy: he turns 21 next October. He’s fourteen months younger than Mike Trout. From 22/59/.270/.340/.477 – as a teenager – what kind of improvement can we expect this year? Is there a reasonable prediction for how high you go off that launch pad?
And it’s not as if he’s all Washington has. The infield is airtight, and power-packed at every position, and has rookie third baseman Anthony Rendon banging on the door. A healthier Jayson Werth is joined by Denard Span and Harper in the outfield. Catching are the unglamorous but highly-skilled Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos, and as referenced earlier the pitching staff is impossibly deep. Of course for the Nationals, there actually is a hole. The next power arm scheduled to join the Nationals’ bullpen is a fellow named Christian Garcia. He just partially tore a tendon in his pitching arm.
Other than that I don’t see anything missing here. And for those who think the Braves are going to keep pace with them, I disagree. It might be a race for awhile but it’ll probably end with Washington winning 100 games and lapping the field by 10 or more. Take the Phillies for somewhere around .500, and the Marlins and Mets amazingly out of contention.
On the record the Phillies say that first baseman Ryan Howard, still recovering from his brutal Achilles injury on the last play of the team’s 2011 season, will be attempting to play back-to-back rehab games for the first time tonight and tomorrow.
Off the record (in what is admittedly perhaps the least impressive advancement of a story ever) a Phillies’ source told me tonight here at Citifield that the hope is to activate the slugger in time to play Saturday in a nationally televised game against the Braves in Philly.
Phils’ General Manager Ruben Amaro tonight said of Howard to reporters “he’s getting close” but wouldn’t even go as far as the source as identifying Saturday as the soft target for the return. In his rehab work at Lakewood (Class A) and Lehigh Valley (Class AAA) Howard had gotten 8 hits in seventeen at bats with two doubles, one home run, and nine Runs Batted In through Wednesday night. As of this posting Howard is 2-for-3 tonight (both singles) with another RBI, all off Adam Warren, who a week ago tomorrow was making his big league debut for the Yankees against the White Sox.
The Phillies’ source said overall Howard seemed to be at 85 percent but was still significantly limited in his running – but with all other aspects of his game looking surprisingly up to speed.
11 homers, 44 RBI, and a .769 OPS, in 103 games.
It’s kind of hard to believe that looking at those numbers, or more correctly looking at the loss of those numbers, would lead lots of folks to completely write off the 2012 chances of one particular club.
Those are, of course, the 2011 statistics of Chase Cameron Utley, who may or may not be the second baseman in PHILADELPHIA for part of 2012. Filling a similar role of not-quite-two-thirds-of-a-regular last year, Utley was part of a Phils squad that won its division by 13 games. In slightly fuller part-time duty the year before, Utley’s Phillies won the East by six games. In 2009, his last complete year, they also won by six games. In 2008, his last great year, they won by three.
It’s ludicrous to suggest that the Phillies have gotten better the less Utley has played. But it’s just as ludicrous to suggest that he is somehow irreplaceable. They replaced him fine the last two years, and even when he came back to hit .438 in the NLDS, they still managed to lose with him. But now Utley is a complete maybe, and the Phillies are supposedly dead.
The actual argument about the loss of Utley is that a healthy version would have compensated for the real damage done by the absence of Ryan Howard. Yes, he basically can’t hit lefties any more (in 2008 counting the post-season he drove in 52 runs against left-hand pitching; last year, 28, including 0-for-6 against Cardinal southpaws in the playoffs). But he’s still like the big fat kid on the playground: he tends to win nearly all the wrestling matches.
Utley’s presence was ultimately necessary because of Howard’s absence. Hell, they could’ve played him at first and saved a little wear and tear on him. But as immobile as Howard appears as the dawn of a new season breaks, his problem now is largely down to recovery from an infection that sounds suspiciously like a hospital bed sore. If and when it is fully knocked out, he will heal up quickly, and his stamina will recover adequately.
In short, the message to the assumed contending trio of the Braves, Marlins, and Nationals is: you’d better bury Philadelphia while Howard is still out. Because if you don’t, you won’t when he comes back. There’s just too much there there, especially in pitching, especially with the seeming Nostradamus act of Ruben Amaro almost re-signing the destined for injury Ryan Madson only to suddenly pull Jonathan Papelbon out of the hat. If the Phillies get any worthwhile production out of Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, they’ll be good if not great (and surely Galvis is a defensive upgrade at second base).
The three other contenders in this division are hard to sort out, and are probably all overrated. WASHINGTON has no pennant race experience, ATLANTA has too much, and MIAMI thinks it isn’t necessary.
The Braves are the likeliest to provide the challenge. Jair Jurrjens’ incremental velocity loss is a major concern, as are the horrific springs of Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. So is the prospect that last season they actually burned out – rather than just wearing down – Jonny Venters. There are, however, waves of pitching options, and a strong offense that cannot again crater the way it did last September. I don’t think much should be expected of Chipper Jones, but on the other side of that coin, the Braves may have stolen a Jose Bautista-like player from Cincinnati in last Sunday’s trade for third baseman Juan Francisco.
Francisco has always had a reputation for tremendous power and a throwing arm not exceeded anywhere in the minors. But the Reds had transformed him from prospect to suspect by bringing him up in each of the last three years – and not having him do anything. We all know Dusty Baker’s inexplicable twist of the ’60s catchphrase: Don’t Trust Anybody Under 30. But Francisco may be Baker’s most appalling victim, worse even than what he did to Todd Frazier. Until September 1st of last year, Juan Francisco had started consecutive major league games once in his life. With little to play for down the stretch, Baker gave him a few more shots – three streaks of three starts in a row and three more of back-to-backs. Francisco responded with what was basically a 19-games-as-a-starter sample slash line reading 3/15/.280/.314/.500/.814.
I know straight extrapolations are dangerous it stretches out, but in just 114 games in a theoretical platoon with Martin Prado, Francisco’s line stretches out to 18/90/.280/.314/.500/.814. The kid has a thick body and needs to work harder, but countless are the examples of the underachievers who blossom when somebody has no choice but to play them regularly.
I do not see the Nationals competing offensively unless Bryce Harper ascends early, and all the indications from spring training implied this would be a 2013 event. Desmond and Espinosa can be a valuable offensive tandem but strike out fearfully often, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche begin the year hurt, and there is still no indication that Jayson Werth’s 2008-10 run was not his peak. The bullpen is very nice and the rotation is probably second in the division, but who has felt the heat, close and late? LaRoche, Werth, Lidge, and the ever-relocating Edwin Jackson.
The problem with the Marlins is that all of their offensive stars – Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Reyes, Gaby Sanchez, and Logan Morrison – could live up to expectations and the team could still linger around .500. I do not like this rotation. Josh Johnson is overpowering, but though he has been with them off-and-on since 2005, he has only once thrown a full complement of starts. Mark Buehrle is an innings eater but no all-star, and if you’re depending on Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, or Carlos Zambrano, you haven’t been paying attention. It is intriguing that 74 percent of the homers hit by Morrison and Stanton last year came with nobody on board, but that rotation and most of that bullpen seems shaky.
As an aside, the Miami experience will be as important at the gate as on the field. If the Marlins underachieve – or achieve and the fans still under-attend – there could be a quick fire sale, or a desperate effort to move the mega-contracts. And this isn’t just about South Florida. It reflects no great insight to realize that the willingness of the state of Florida, and the cities of St. Petersburg and/or Tampa to contribute to a new ballpark for the Rays, is almost wholly dependent on what happens in Miami. If the Marlins don’t draw, there is no other conclusion to reach than that the Rays will almost certainly have to move before 2017. They have developed a winning machine in Tampa Bay, and a loyal fan base, but very few of those fans seem to want to express their loyalty by paying, and fewer still want to pay their way into that nicely redecorated aircraft hangar.
I don’t have the heart to be rude about well-meaning NEW YORK. It is infuriating, knowing how that organization is infused from almost the top, to the very bottom, with earnest, hard-working people, that a team in a smaller market and a younger mega-tv deal spent the winter vacuuming up Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, while this club with its own tv channel couldn’t even make a serious offer to Jose Reyes. Worse yet, despite a few bright spots on the horizon, there is no immediate hope of improvement. Barring somebody collapsing above them, the Mets are likely to finish last this year and for several to come.
2012 N.L. EAST FORECAST:
The Phillies hang tough long enough for Howard to return in time to beat back the Braves, Nationals, and calamity-stricken Marlins, in a tight but possibly anger-filled race. The last-place Mets will sparkle on some days and Johan Santana’s comeback will be heart-warming – and then they might still have to deal him off.
Fascinating that the St. Louis Cardinals have asked the Phillies for permission to interview their AAA manager Ryne Sandberg – and received it.
For the second consecutive year, Sandberg will not get the managing job with the team for which he starred. When new Cubs’ President Theo Epstein outlined his minimum standards for the next manager (experience as a major league skipper or coach) it essentially eliminated Ryno from consideration because his stints with the Phils last spring and last September do not formally rise to that level.
Yet oddly, the Cardinals are happy to at least kick the Sandberg tires. I’m not sure what it proves, but it would seem to suggest that the division of thought on Sandberg’s managerial potential may now split into those who have seen him, the Hall of Famer, willing to ride the buses of the Midwest League, and those who have actually employed him to manage their bush leaguers. Everything I heard as of March, 2010, was that the Wrigley Field job was likely to be Sandberg’s whenever Lou Piniella left. But by August, when Piniella really did leave, the Cubs had soured on Sandberg and no longer thought him viable. Off he went to the Phillies, and now they are willing to let him talk to a National League rival, and there hasn’t been a peep about Sandberg even getting a promotion to the Phillies’ major league coaching staff. Even stranger, is that before he took the Phils’ offer last winter, Sandberg interviewed for the equivalent job in the Boston system – with Theo Epstein, the same man who’s ruled him out in Chicago.
I’m reminded of Babe Ruth’s quixotic hope that the Yankees would make him their manager (they’d seen him do that with his teammate, Bob Shawkey, who had only one season managing in the minors before he got the job in New York in 1930). Perhaps the more apt comparison is Gary Carter’s campaign to get the Mets to consider him for any of their last few managerial openings.
If Sandberg doesn’t get the St. Louis job, the Cubs-Cards rivalry might still be ratcheted up by the inclusion of Terry Francona in the mix. While Epstein has said a few polite things about possible Chicago interest in Tito, the Cardinals are scheduled to interview him tomorrow. I still think St. Louis is leaning towards LaRussa’s third base coach Jose Oquendo (although I would have considered it more than “leaning” if they had brought Oquendo back into the dugout as bench coach), but it would be a fascinating dynamic if Francona got the Cardinal job and was pitted against his old cohort Epstein in Chicago.
Besides the headline names, the Cards and/or Cubs seem interested in a lot of the same men the Red Sox are interested in: Rangers’ pitching coach Mike Maddux, former Brewers’ interim skipper Dale Sveum, and Phils’ bench coach and ex-Reds and Pirates’ interim manager Pete Mackanin. If you want to follow all this on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis, your best resource is the terrific MLBTradeRumors.Com site, which is a clearinghouse for every local newspaper story, every significant radio interview, and every last damn tweet on anything moving in the majors. It puts the ESPN’s and SI’s sites to shame.
So stay tuned to the prospect of Sandberg or Francona in St. Louis, and if you’re a Cub fan again tearing out your hair about Ryno, consider this Cooperstown fact. These are the Hall of Fame players who, since 1900, went on to manage “their” team: Honus Wagner (Pirates), Ty Cobb (Tigers), Walter Johnson (Senators), Tris Speaker (Indians), Nap Lajoie (Indians), Eddie Collins (White Sox), George Sisler (Browns), Rogers Hornsby (Cards and Cubs), Fred Clarke (Pirates), Jimmy Collins (Red Sox), Frank Chance (Cubs), Johnny Evers (Cubs), Joe Tinker (Cubs), Frank Frisch (Cardinals), Pie Traynor (Pirates), Mel Ott (Giants), Bill Terry (Giants), Gabby Hartnett (Cubs), Ted Lyons (White Sox), Joe Cronin (Senators and Red Sox), Lou Boudreau (Indians), Dave Bancroft (Braves), Yogi Berra (Yankees), Eddie Mathews (Braves), Red Schoendienst (Cardinals), and Tony Perez (Reds). That’s 26 guys, who managed a lot of years, yet won only 18 pennants among them — and 13 of the 18 were as player-managers and four of those were by Frank Chance. In other words, of the other 25 hometown heroes who later managed, they could collectively amass only five pennants as non-playing skippers.
Let’s see if we can get through the rest of the divisions before the All-Star break…
Atlanta: I am not sold on the idea that Freddie Freeman is ready (yet), lord knows what they do when Chipper Jones breaks down, and I have some doubts about the set-up men in the bullpen. But the rest of this team is solid, The Ted has long been Dan Uggla’s favorite ballpark to hit in, and I like the starting depth with Mike Minor already pressed into service for the injured Jair Jurrjens. Hope if you play fantasy ball you were not misled by Fredi Gonzalez’s insistence he would be giving Jonny Venters a share of the closer’s job; Craig Kimbrel will soon be regarded as one of baseball’s bests. If you were to pick one team not widely believed to be a division winner to pick as a division winner, it’d be this one.
Florida: If Mike Stanton is healthy and the bullpen doesn’t fall apart, this is another contender. Power is down with the trade of Uggla, but up with the acquisition of John Buck and the maturation of Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez. The three younger players already mentioned, plus Chris Coghlan, join Hanley Ramirez as five of the highest-ceiling hitters in the league and there are scenarios in which they all reach their apogees simultaneously and the Marlins crush the division. I don’t think that’s likely and I don’t think a Leo Nunez/Clay Hensley/Mike Dunn bullpen is going to get them very far, but it might be enough to put them into Wild Card consideration.
New York: This might not be as bad as it seems, and Terry Collins might be just the right guy to get the maximum out of Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright, and the giant franchise disaster that is the Madoff Lawsuit might not distract from whatever is done on the field. But that’s a lot of mights – and we haven’t even gotten around to what might be the implications of having to play a Rule V draftee at second base, and having built a set-up staff exclusively out of guys released by other teams, and being stuck dragging around an injury-prone leftfielder for another three years whose fly ball arcs end at the warning track and was only signed because ownership insisted.
Philadelphia: If everybody had been healthy, they still would’ve been overrated. Win all the divisions you want – eventually an unreliable closer will cost you too much to survive it. Now he’s hurt, and his heir presumptive is so incapable of stepping up that his manager and general manager have publicly expressed their doubts about him. There’s the outfield, already a problem spot before Domonic Brown was hurt (Raul Ibanez is its power – he hit 16 homers last year). And most disastrous of all, deranging everything from the infield defense to the entire batting order, is the combination injury/enigma of Chase Utley. I’ll repeat what I wrote here in my Fantasy Notes last week: everything I heard from everybody I know connected to the Phillies says that Utley’s options are season-ending knee surgery, or virtually-season-ending rehab. Either way, offensively the Phillies are reduced to Ryan Howard with very little line-up protection, the hustle and skill of Shane Victorino, and lord-knows-what from Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies are not contenders. Oh yeah – nice rotation. Unfortunately it’s like living in a mansion with no furniture.
Washington: It is yet to be explained why this franchise yoked itself to Jayson Werth. He’s a fine component for a contending team. He is not a franchise player, and has been evidenced by where they’re hitting him, the Lerners inexplicably invested $126,000,000 in a number two hitter. Here’s a young team with exciting young players like Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond (though they should switch defensive positions) and Jordan Zimmermann and Wilson Ramos (and maybe Drew Storen) – and even a young superstar in Ryan Zimmerman. Why not invest that money in Zimmerman? I know he’s locked up through 2013, but 2014 is when Bryce Harper is probably going to hit 67 homers while Stephen Strasburg wins 24 games. Or if you really feel like spending money on veterans, make them bargain buys like Adam LaRoche, or at least make them pitchers to relieve the despair created by some of those who will toe the slab in the Capitol this year.
Overview: I liked the Braves before Utley got hurt. I still do. I will take them: 1. Atlanta, 2. Florida, 3. Philadelphia, 4. New York, 5. Washington (Washington could vault into 4th if things go really sour in Queens). I think the Marlins and Phillies are Wild Card prospects but I’m not sure yet.