Results tagged ‘ Cliff Lee ’

Who’s Pushing the Panic Button?

josh-hamilton-ap2Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.

However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.

They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.

(more…)

Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte, and the Role of the Veteran Stopper

201304041851678871948-p2One of the most vital tasks for any veteran pitcher worth his salt to master is the ability to will his team out of losing streaks. That means taking the mound knowing the bullpen is overworked and in need of rest and delivering a big performance. It means efficiently working through 7 or 8 innings while shutting down the opposing lineup. It means throwing everything plus this kitchen sink to get your team the win. On Thursday night a couple of crafty lefties in Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee were able to do just they. They were able to be the veteran stopper, putting both the Yankees and the Phillies among the ranks of the victorious. Let’s take a look at each pitcher’s performance:

(more…)

Will the Phillies’ Rebound Initiative Work Wonders?

doc.windupLet’s take a trip down memory lane real quick, back just two years ago. The Phillies were in the midst of assembling one of the greatest rotations of the past decade, a rotation that would be honored with many glowing nicknames like the Phab Four or Four Aces and a Joe-ker. The offense wasn’t too shabby either, possessing perennial All-Stars like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Shane Victorino. Basically the sky was the limit and the Phillies had the finest regular season in franchise history, winning 102 games. But they bowed out in the first round of the 2011 postseason, losing Ryan Howard as well. As he lay crumpled on the ground, writhing in pain, any notion of a future dynasty was soon dismissed.

The 2012 season would be one full of disappointment. Cliff Lee struggled to pickup wins as a terribly assembled and poorly managed bullpen blew lead after lead. Roy Halladay went down with a shoulder injury, ending his run as one of the most dependable big game starters in baseball. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley experienced lost seasons, as they were unable to get their bats going after injury. By midseason the towel was thrown in by the front office when 2/3rds of the starting outfield was shipped west. When the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East on October 1st, it marked the end of Philadelphia’s five year reign over the division.

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., ever the optimist, has again decided to play the role of favorite, reloading his aging roster with veterans in a last gasp sort of way. Michael Young was brought in to play 3rd through a trade with the Rangers. Delmon Young and Ben Revere were brought in to reinforce the outfield as well. If last year’s 81-81 finish was suppose to mark the end of an era, that’s not how Amaro Jr. views it. He’s imagining more of a speed bump, a one year deterrent on the way back to the postseason, and he may be biting off more than he can chew.

(more…)

Cliff Lee’s Tough Luck Year Continues

Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee has been one of the most durable, successful, and all-around excellent pitchers in Major League Baseball for the past 4 seasons. He’s got one Cy Young Award on his mantle, and can boast about 2 other top-5 finishes. But the 2012 season just hasn’t gone the way he expected it to. Lee has slipped a little bit this year, seeing his ERA rise from 2.40 (161 ERA+) a year ago all the way up to 3.83 (107 ERA+) this season. As you would expect, as his ERA and ERA+ dropped from elite a year ago to slightly above average this season, so it makes logical sense that his win total would drop as well. But for Cliff Lee to be the proud owner of a meager 2 wins is a little absurd, especially when you consider the fact that he has lasted fewer than 6 innings in just 1 of his 21 starts, while posting a quality start 60% of the time in general. Both numbers would lead you to believe that Lee had a record around the .500 mark, maybe a little better if he was lucky and his offense scored a lot when he pitched, and maybe a little worse if he was undone by poor defense or little run support. But Cliff Lee hasn’t just had bad luck, he’s having a historically bad run of luck, equivalent to a black jack player watching the dealer turn over 21 after 21 until the player is forced to walk away.

(more…)

Has Philly’s Ship Sailed in 2012?

Earlier today I discussed the hottest team in baseball, the New York Yankees, and now I want to take a look at a franchise currently mired in the worst slump, the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies have gone 3-12 over their past 15 games, a ghastly run of poor play from the team with the 2nd highest payroll in baseball.

Their slump has directly coincided with the loss of Roy Halladay, who was placed on the DL on May 28th for shoulder soreness, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. The good news is that he is already throwing and is ahead of schedule on recovery, which means a return in 5-6 weeks now looks likely, barring a setback. But even if Halladay can return ahead of schedule, do the last place Phillies, now 9 back of Washington in the NL East and 5 games out of a Wild Card spot, realistically have a chance to make the playoffs?

(more…)

3 Up, 3 Down: Monday Edition

3 up

  1. Rangers on a Roll.  The Texas Rangers are absolutely on fire right now, beginning the season with the best mark in baseball at 13-3. They lead all of baseball in both runs scored and runs allowed, making the Rangers a truly great team in the early going. Its been bombs away so far for Josh Hamilton, who after yesterday’s 3-3 game with a homer, is now hitting a massive .418/.438/.776 slash with 7 dingers and 17 RBI. Michael Young has been hitting behind Hamilton for most of the season, and he’s punishing opposing pitchers as well, to the tune of a .403/.431/.532 line. In addition to the fantastic offense the pitching staff has been sublime, with every starter posting an ERA under 4.00 so far. As a whole, the Rangers’ staff has the best ERA in the AL, the lowest walk rate, the fewest homers allowed, and ranks 5th in k’s. Colby Lewis has been downright phenomenal in his 4 starts, posting a 2.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts to only 1 walk. The worst starter on the staff so far has been Japanese import Yu Darvish, who has had some control issues, walking 6.6 per 9, but even he has a shiny 2-0 record and a 3.57 ERA. Texas has already won 2 straight American League pennants and this may be their best team yet. They begin a 3-game series with the Yankees in Arlington this evening and it will be another good test against one of the American League’s elite.
  2. Beast Mode. Matt Kemp said he was going to let Beast Mode out of the cage more often this season, and he wasn’t lying. He has hit a bananas .450/.500/.967 in his first 16 games with 9 homers and 22 RBIs. Every single one of those numbers is the best in baseball, and Kemp is the biggest reason why the Dodgers are off to an excellent 12-4 start, which is tied for the best record in the National League. Kemp said before the season that he thought he could be the 1st ever 50-50 player, and while he has only swiped 1 base, the power numbers are off the charts. His isolated power, which measures a batter’s ability to hit for extra-bases is an unheard of .517!! Kemp’s was .262 a year ago, a number that led the entire National League. Kemp will obviously cool down at some point in the season, but he is off to a historically good start.
  3. The red-hot Atlanta Braves offense. The Braves are leading the NL in scoring so far on the young season, showing an excellent blend of team power and speed. They have 18 home runs and 14 steals already, and are getting production throughout the lineup. The star of the offense has been Jason Heyward, who is back to hitting a .900+ OPS, and showing good instincts on the base paths, with 5 steals without being caught. The Juan Francisco-Chipper Jones platoon at 3rd base is working wonders, combining for 3 homers, 12 RBI, and 16 hits while keeping the future Hall-of-Famer fresh for the stretch run. Michael Bourne has been the catalyst at the top of the lineup batting .338 and stealing 7 bases with 5 extra-base hits. The only issue for the lineup so far has been a propensity to strikeout, as Atlanta ranks 10th in the National League in the category. The Braves big question this season was whether or not they would hit enough to support a deep pitching staff, and the early returns have been excellent. The boys from Atlanta will be in competition all season long with this kind of offensive production.

3 Down           

  1. The stumbling, bumbling Royals. The Royals are currently riding a 10-game losing streak, and they possess the 3rd worst run differential in baseball. The Royals’ offense, which was 10th best in baseball last year, has declined to 25th in baseball so far. No Royal currently has more than 9 RBI total, and they rank 2nd to last in the American League in strikeouts. Eric Hosmer has had a rough beginning to his season, hitting a measly .183/.269/.367 in 15 games after showing some promise a season ago. Another hitter struggling early is Alex Gordon, who is also hitting under the Mendoza line and has struck out 19 times already. Gordon had a breakthrough year in 2011, hitting for a 139 OPS+ while winning a Gold Glove, so it’s too early to give up on him, but the Royals will continue to lose until his play improves. The pitching staff hasn’t been much better outside of Bruce Chen, who continues to show that last season’s improvement was no fluke.  Chen has thrown 18 innings, posting a 2.00 ERA while only allowing 15 total base runners, and he has a 0-1 record to show for it.  Danny Duffy has also been solid, showcasing a blazing fastball to rack up an elite 10.4 K’s/9. The rest of the rotation has been abysmal, with no player posting an ERA under 5.50. The bullpen has also been sporadic, finding ways to lose games that the Royals have the lead in, contributing to the 10 game slide. Kansas City needs to turn things around quickly if they want a shot at finishing higher than 4th place.
  2. Pittsburgh’s offense. Pittsburgh is currently hitting .202/.249/.281 as a team, while scoring only 30 runs in 15 games! The complete absence of production in any form around Andrew McCutchen is almost unbelievable. McCutchen has hit an excellent .351/.403/.404, stolen 4 bases and scored 9 of Pittsburgh’s 30 runs. Four of Pittsburgh’s regulars currently have batting averages under the Mendoza line, with Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas being particularly awful, hitting .089 and .091 respectively. The Pirates rank dead last in baseball in every offensive category outside of triples, homers, and stolen bases.  Pittsburgh is hitting for a collective 52 OPS+ with 2 players doing the impossible and ranking negatively on the scale. The worst team OPS+ in the last 45 years was the Mariners historically putrid offense in 2010, which hit 27 points higher than the Pirates are currently hitting. Luckily for Pittsburgh the rotation ranks 2nd in baseball in runs allowed, so the Pirates have been able to post a 6-9 record. The pitching won’t be able to keep this up forever and if the offense doesn’t improve soon, the Pirates will start losing every night on the way to another 100-loss season.
  3. Pitchers on the DL. Cliff Lee threw 10 innings on Wednesday against the Giants, and now he finds himself on the disabled list for the next 15 days, due to an abdominal strain. “We’re being very cautious with this,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. `’There’s no reason for him to kind of completely blow it out because it’s an injury that if he hurts himself and really pulls it, we could lose him for a long time. We’ll shut him down, get him right and hopefully he’ll miss only a couple of starts and go from there.” The Yankees also had to shut newly acquired Michael Pineda down after only 15 pitches in his 1st rehab start. There is no timetable for his return and the Yankees, historically cautious with their pitchers, will probably give him a couple months to recover. Diamondbacks #2 pitcher Daniel Hudson will also hit the DL, a precaution due to shoulder soreness. Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos is also hitting the DL, becoming the 6th closer on the early season to have to miss time. He is complaining of shoulder tightness, which is never a good sign for a pitcher.

The Art of the Double Steal

The steal is one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, and thrilling events in all of sports. When a quick runner gets on first and begins to take his lead, the entire stadium sits in nervous anticipation, thinking along with the runner: Which pitch should I go on?, How big of a lead should I get?, and in the case of a pickoff move, Get Back! Get Back!

The true Picasso’s of the steal, Ricky Henderson, Maury Willis, Lou Brock were impossible to gun down on the base paths, and could nab any base off of any pitcher at any time. These players, if used properly by managers, could be used as baseball’s point guards, shifting the defense around, irritating the pitcher, and allowing other players to pick up hits. Today’s top thieves include Brett Gardner, Dee Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Juan Pierre. Each of these players are slap hitters who rely on speed, not power, to attack an opponents pitching game. If any of the hitters can get on base, pitchers should be proceed with extreme caution, or have their pocket picked.

There are many variants to stealing bases: the steal of 2nd, 3rd, home, a double steal, a delayed steal, and even the rare triple steal, a feat not performed in over 100 years. Today we’re going to look at a couple examples of the double steal.

The double steal is a particular treat, and was performed to perfection yesterday by the St. Louis Cardinals, completely catching the unsuspecting Reds napping. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, a speedster in his younger years, easily swiped 2nd and 3rd last night, contributing to a big 1st inning, which put the Cardinals up for good at 3-0. Beltran saw something in the delivery from Mat Latos and was able to jump the pitch, taking 3rd without a throw. Berkman, always a heads up player, followed his teammates lead and hustled into 2nd.

About a week ago two of the fastest players in baseball were also able to pull off the feat down in Miami against the Houston Astros. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio each led off the game with singles and put the pressure on immediately, taking 3rd and 2nd in one maneuver. Reyes has fantastic speed, and if he can get a good jump, he will almost assuredly take any base. Even with a good throw down to 3rd, Reyes was still safe, and Bonifacio wisely followed his example taking 2nd base.

Another version of the double steal, in which runners begin on 1st and 3rd is a particularly risky, but rewarding play if executed properly. The Yankees ran this to perfection with two excellent base runners, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, in 2010 against the Red Sox. The Yankees were able to pull this play of without a hitch, because of the speed of Gardner at 3rd base, and the jump Jeter gets at 1st. When Jeter reads the pitcher properly and gets a fast start toward 2nd base, it forces Martinez to react immediately, without looking the runner at 3rd base back. As soon as Martinez stands up to fire toward 2nd, Gardner takes off and is easily able to take 3rd base.

The middle infielder on the play is taught to come in to receive the throw in front of 2nd base so he can fire home to nab the runner. Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox shortstop attempts this maneuver, but because Brett Gardner’s jump was so excellent he has no chance at getting him at home. Jeter is able to take an extra pause to try to distract the fielder, and in doing so completely freezes Scutaro out, taking 2nd base to complete the double steal. This is a textbook version of the double steal of home, and it makes one wonder why more teams do not resort to this play in close games.

Around the League

-Boy that Cliff Lee-Matt Cain duel was a doozy wasn’t it? In a game seemingly from a previous era, the Giants were able to edge the Phillies 1-0 in 11 and it only took a tidy 2 and 27 minutes. Lee went 10 innings, throwing only 102 pitches with an astonishing 81 going for strikes. He allowed 7 hits, walked no one, and struck out 7, but got nothing to show of for his efforts. Matt Cain was similarly excellent, throwing 9 innings, scattering a measly 2 hits with 1 walk and striking out 4. The Giants won the game on a Melky Cabrera base hit 1 inning after Lee was removed from the game.

-The Washington Nationals won another 1-run game, their 5th already on the young season, beating Houston 3-2. They improved their record to a National League best 10-3, and look every bit the part of a contender. Adam LaRoche, Jason Werth, and Ian Desmond are all having nice bounce back years so far, and once Ryan Zimmerman gets it going the offense could be scary. The pitching staff has proven to be as strong as it looked on paper, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in all of baseball, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and company. The schedule has been a little cushy so far, with the Mets, Astros, and Cubs all figuring to be bottom-feeders, but give the Nats credit for taking care of teams they believe they should beat.

-The best record in the American League currently belongs to the 2-year reigning champion Texas Rangers at 10-2. They plowed over Boston again last night 6-3, and are now allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball, 30 total. Boston on the other hand  has been bombed for 74 runs already. If they can’t find a way to get the pitching staff in order it won’t matter what Bobby Valentine is doing or how many runs the offense scores, because team with bottom-5 pitching staffs historically do not make the playoffs and struggle to play .500 baseball. The Red Sox have played a brutal schedule so far, so expect some improvement once they get away from playing the Tigers, Rays, and Rangers, all of whom are good offensive teams.

-Bartolo Colon had a dominant night for the A’s against the Angels in a 6-0 win. At one point during his start he threw 38 straight strikes, and was utterly unhittable. He’s now 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA on the season and if he keeps this kind of performance up he could become very desirable on the trade market in June and July. The offense for Oakland was provided by Yoenis Cespedes, who smashed his 5th homer, an absolute missile to right field that scored 3 runs. Pitchers are starting to figure him out, over the past week and his batting average has dropped down to .238, but he has been having good at-bats for the most part, which is an encouraging sign.

Hitting Woes in Philadelphia

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.

 

Playoff Predictions, Really Just Guesses

Here’s my best guess for how the 2012 season will turn out:

Division Previews:

AL East

AL Central

AL West

NL East

NL Central

NL West

AL MVP: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

NL MVP: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks

AL CY Young: CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

NL Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

ALCS: New York over Los Angeles

NLCS: Arizona over Atlanta

World Series: New York over Arizona

I think that have the Yankees pitching depth and offense that will carry them to the title. New York will score somewhere between 850-900 runs. They also have 7 major league caliber starters, and that should allow them to win 95 games. Arizona is my best guess out of the National League. I don’t think there is a favorite and there are a bunch of teams that could win 85-90 games. The playoffs in the Wild Card Era have been a crapshoot, and with the addition of another Wild Card expect more of the same. I think that the National League has 8-9 teams that could get to the playoffs and I think that there are 8 in the American League. There is a massive amount of talent flowing throughout baseball today, and its reflected in the overall depth of the Major League Baseball.

Division Previews: National League East

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.

Philadelphia Phillies

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.

Atlanta Braves

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.

Washington Nationals

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.

Miami Marlins

For my full write-up on the Marlins click here

Predictions

*Atlanta Braves

*Philadelphia Phillies

*Miami Marlins

Washington Nationals

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers