Saturday, October 22, 2011

NL East Season 4 Preview

After last seasons appallingly bad predictions, FW_Kekionga threw out the old crystal ball and purchased a new one, and here's hoping it is more accurate!  Season 3 saw a surprise run by the NY Mets to take the NL East title, while favorite Pittsburgh got off to a horrible start and finished 2nd in the division despite trading away a fair portion of their superstars in a fire sale.  The Nationals pulled it together enough to win 71 games and take 3rd place, while the unlucky Phillies rode an abysmal start to finish in the cellar.  How will it go down this year?  Read on and find out!

New York Mets (94-68, 1st place in Season 3)

What a difference a closer can make.  Eugene Bush was worth every penny spent on his contract last season, turning in an all star performance and winning the Fireman of the Year Award.  He converted 45/48 saves, and elevated the mostly average NY pitching staff to multiple winning seasons.  The Mets were certainly a surprise to win the division, but by the all star break it was clear they were the class of the NL East.  Marvin Sellers was huge in the lineup, and the Mets made the most of his production.  The question is whether last years success can transfer to this season, and although there are a few questions about the Mets the odds are pretty good it will.

This years edition of the NY Mets brings back all the major players from last season, including ace pitcher Kelvin Beckham, star closer Bush, and lineup anchor Sellers.  IF Davey Candelaria, 1B Deacon Kelly, and 2B Maicer Tavarez will be counted on to support Sellers in the lineup, and will probably provide most of the production for the Mets offense.  After those four there is a pretty significant dropoff in talent, there are some good role players but no other players with complete games at the plate.  In the rotation is where the real questions lie however, as NY will need to replace 35 wins from last season due to the departures of Hee Seop Nakamura, Bo Barrett, and Ralph Hiljus, along with the demotion of 13 game winner Fergie Simon to AAA.  Ultimately it will probably depend on if the bullpen can be as good as last year, as it will be difficult for Bush to replicate what was as good a year as any relief pitcher could have had. 

The Mets minor leagues are in good shape for the upcoming season, with several players who could be contributors after callups, as well as some younger players who are a few seasons away.  The ones who could likely make an impact this season are SP Ron Garcia, SS Fausto Santana, and RF Peter Condry.  Despite having a later pick this season at #26, the Mets organization made a commitment to scouting this offseason and ramped up their college and high school budgets, and are hoping for a deep draft to maximize those investments.

Projected Finish: 86-76, 1st Place

Philadelphia Phillies (67-95, 4th place in Season 3)

The Phillies were young and inexperienced last season, and it showed.  Philly was the least clutch team in both leagues, going 20-35 in one run games, the worst total in both the NL and AL.  They suffered through numerous errors in the field as players like 3B Calvin Colangelo and 2B Thomas Bailey honed their game.  Most of the players on the Phillies roster could have used another season in AAA last year, but due to the sparse and expensive FA market the management was forced to bring them up early as they were the best options available to the franchise.  The pitching last season for Philly was also especially bad, particularly the bullpen and young starters Brian Kim and Willy Shuey. 

This years edition of the Phillies looks pretty similar to last years, as the team was unable to make any signings of note in free agency.  But Philadelphia did open up the pocketbooks to resign #1 SP Edge Gibbons, who was looking to leave for free agency, but had a change of mind after Philly offered him a 10 million dollar signing bonus to keep him.  This was very important as he was clearly their best pitcher and would have been irreplaceable had he left.  The rest of the pitching staff are all a year older and hopefully have better control of their skills, and if anything the law of averages is in their favor and they can't be much worse than last season.  As for the lineup it is looking pretty solid, with Bailey and RF Albert Stevens posting big numbers.  Colangelo's glove has improved dramatically and he should now be an asset instead of a liability at 3rd, and last years #4 draft pick LF Byron Sullivan is ML ready and should be a solid producer as well.  There is a lot to like about the Phillies lineup, the question will be if it can produce enough runs to cover for less than stellar pitching.

The Phillies again have the #4 draft pick this season, and their 2nd round pick is early as well at #53, and as the Phillies have heavily invested in 20/20 scouting, they are dearly hoping to get a #1 SP this year in the draft.  There are some solid players in the Phillies minors despite the fact that most of the team is made up of 26 and younger guys, including C Heathcliff Haney, 1B Alejandro Herrera, and RP Johnny Connelly.  The Phillies also solved their 2B problem in this years Rule 5 Draft with the selection of Crash Slocumb, who came over from the Milwaukee franchise.

Predicted Finish: 76-86, 3rd place

Pittsburgh Pirates (80-82, 2nd place in Season 3)

The Pirates were favorites to win the NL East for a 3rd time in Season 3, but somewhere along the way the season started horribly and by the draft they were offering their stars in a fire sale.  Star pitcher Hugh Downs was traded to Colorado midseason, and the white flag was raised.  Despite this they still had a better season than Washington or Philadelphia and finished in 2nd place.  The offseason saw the Pirates continue their rebuild, again partnering with Colorado in a trade that saw star closer Rick Covaleski go west in exchange for some great young hitters.  The offseason also saw several free agents leave Pittsburgh, leaving the pirates with plenty of picks in this seasons draft at #18, #43, #47, and #49.  The Pirates adjusted their scouting accordingly to maximize those picks. 

This years squad will still feature former MVP Yovani Fuentes anchoring the lineup.  Despite his declining power Fuentes remains the best hitter in the NL, and should again post a .350+ batting average.  With the incoming hitters from Colorado and an already pretty solid lineup to begin with, the Pirates should put up plenty of runs.  The pitching staff is where the questions will be.  The Pirates have two legit top tier starting pitchers in A. J. Sewell and Geoffrey Rivera, and a solid # 3 in Yamid Franco, but after them the pitching starts to look average, and how they will replace the production of Covaleski remains to be seen. 

The Pirates have plenty of young positional talent to draw from to replace their aging vets as they leave, with the possible exception of Fuentes.  Players like 2B Willie Donnelly and RF Chad York are both future ML guys, but they need some pitching prospects if they are to return to the elite status they were at in the first two seasons of MLB.  With their four 1st round picks in season 4, there is the possibility to bring in the pitching depth they need.

Predicted Finish: 78-84 (2nd place)

Washington D.C. Nationals (71-91, 3rd place in Season 3)

The Nationals surprised last season and played better than they were expected to en route to 71 win wins and 3rd place in the East.  But the fact remains that their best hitter from last season, OF Edgar Castillo, is aging and in decline, and outside of IF John Jung, there wasn't much in the lineup to support him.  The pitching was not good either last season, as only RP's Pepper Hayes and Mark Franco posted winning records.  Despite those deficiencies the Nats played well as a team and were competitive all season.

This years Nationals went on a spending spree in the offseason, taking advantage of their protected pick in the draft (#8 overall).  Washington signed SPs Emil Romero, Watty Foster, and Elmer Howard, along with IF Fred Dresden to massively improve their rotation and lineup.  With those improvements the rotation now has three more legit starters than last season, and another piece in the lineup.  While neither portion of the Nationals will be elite, they will certainly be effective enough to maintain last years improvements and bridge the gap to the day when their pitching prospects make the bigs.  The lineup could use a couple of extra bats, and the bullpen is still iffy at best however.

The Nationals have a great pick at #8 this season, and now have the luxury of being able to spend it on either pitching or hitting with the free agent additions this offseason.  Young SPs Raymond Small and Christopher Mays will both be #1 starter quality when they are done developing, and are within a season or two of making their debuts.  If Washington can build enough supporting parts to surround them, they will be a force to be reckoned with in a few seasons, but for this year it will be closer to .500 ball.

Projected Finish: 76-86, 3rd place.

Final Analysis

The East is a division in transition, as New York has seized the early momentum from Washington and Philadelphia in the race to replace Pittsburgh at the top of the standings.  All four teams have bright long term futures as there is a significant amount of under 26 year old talent in the division, with Philly being the youngest team in the NL, and the three other teams all boasting young studs at key positions with minor leaguers on the way.  The East this season projects to be a very closely contested division with all four teams having an average overall rating of either 68 or 69.  It's anybodies game, but New York gets the early edge because of last years performance. 

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