Results tagged ‘ Jason Heyward ’

The Braves Wisely Double Down on Uptons

AP100624052591_crop_exactIn what is quickly becoming one of the wildest off-seasons in memory, the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks appear to have agreed on a seven player swap. Atlanta will add their second Upton brother this offseason, Justin, while also picking up 3rd baseman Chris Johnson. In return the Diamondbacks are getting Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, and a host of minor league talent. This trade has the potential to work out beautifully for both ball clubs. Arizona has, for some odd reason, been trying to trade the hyper-talented Upton for the better part of the last two years, trying to stake out the best deal. Well it appears GM Kevin Towers has finally found his elusive match, and he may have gotten the short end of the stick. On a more positive note, he also found his starting 3rd baseman and a nice collection of young talent as well, but it’s harder to judge his return in this deal until the youngsters involved acquire more seasoning. Instead, let’s take a look at what the deal does for the Braves.

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Flip a Coin: Cardinals-Braves

The inaugural Wild Card round (affectionately known as the Coin-Flip Round) takes place today and will feature a pair of exciting games. The first game on the docket matches up the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals with the Atlanta Braves, while game #2 has the Baltimore Orioles traveling to Arlington to take on the Texas Rangers. I suggest you cancel any plans you previously had for this afternoon/evening, because do-or-die baseball is here, which means that last year’s World Series combatants could be eliminated tonight. Let’s start by taking a look at the series over in the National League.

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The Best Defenses in Baseball – Outfield Units

Truly excellent defensive baseball is highly misunderstood by most fans today for a couple of simple reasons. The statistics (UZR, defensive runs saved, errors, assists, range factor) we currently have to evaluate an individual’s defensive contributions aren’t all that informative with each one containing inherent flaws, the fact that most people don’t have the time of day or the drive to watch more than a couple of teams, and the idea that most people don’t have a great understand how Major League defense actually works. The highlight shows on ESPN don’t do much to help that perception because they can make defenders who are a step late and need to dive look like All-Stars while simultaneously ignoring players who get excellent jumps on the ball off the bat, thus rendering the aforementioned dive as unnecessary. Well, I’m here today to help with all of that by discussing a few of the best defensive teams and units in baseball, starting with the best of the best in the outfield.

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Contenders, Pretenders Emerge as September Baseball Arrives – NL Edition

The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.

For the American League teams click here

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Atlanta Retools Their Rotation for the Stretch Run

The Atlanta Braves are currently sitting in the driver’s seat in the NL Wild Card chase, owning a 4 game lead over Pittsburgh and St. Louis for the higher seed. But this year’s Braves team is a little different from those in the past. For starters, Atlanta has the 2nd best offense in the National League, scoring 4.68 runs per game, 3rd only to the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies. The inability to score runs a year ago cost Atlanta dearly down the stretch, and this year’s roster doesn’t appear to have that weakness. Instead, Atlanta is struggling to put together a solid rotation, ranking just 9th in the NL in starter’s ERA and 12th in strikeouts at the All-Star break. Braves starters have struggled on the mound for a variety of reasons this season, be it ineffectiveness (Mike Minor), injury (Brandon Beachey), or in some cases, both (Jair Jurrjens). But since the All-Star break (32 games), Atlanta’s pitching staff has really turned it around, ranking 1st in the NL in team ERA (2.98), while posting a 22-10 record overall. A big part of the Braves pitching turnaround has been the performance of a few key additions as well as one big promotion from the bullpen from Kris Medlen.

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Trevor Bauer’s Rocky Debut in ATL

Last night in Atlanta Trevor Bauer made his major league debut, going 4 innings while allowing 2 runs (both earned), 5 hits, 3 walks, and 3 strikeouts. Bauer had been absolutely obliterating hitters at the Triple-A level this season, posting an 11-1 record, 2.23 ERA, while striking out 11.2 batters per 9 innings, prompting a call-up. While his 1st start wasn’t impressive, Bauer was able to keep Arizona in the game, allowing Chris Young to blast a game winning homer in the top of the 9th to give the Snakes a 3-2 victory. Let’s take a deeper look at some of last nights events in Atlanta.

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3 Up, 3 Down

3 Up

  1. Mother’s Day Walk-Off Grand Slams. Both Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto made their mother’s happy yesterday, hitting game-winning grand slams. Stanton leveled the baseball he hit, blasting a no-doubt homer to left-center field, off the catwalk, over 430 feet away. Very few players have the power to hit a ball where Stanton hit his blast, and it caps off an impressive week for the young slugger. Stanton has 2 homers, 4 doubles, 10 RBI and is batting .381 over the last 10 games. The Marlins are going as Stanton goes, and it’s no coincidence that his hot streak has led to a 10 win-2 loss stretch for the team. Votto’s grand slam was a bit more dramatic, coming with 2 outs and 2 strikes, the Reds trailing by a lone run. He got a good pitch to handle from Henry Rodriguez and stayed on the ball to drive it to deep centerfield for a homer. Votto single-handedly won the game for Cincinnati, going 4-5 with 3 homers, a double, 4 runs scored, and 6 RBI. He bumped his batting average up to .319, and already leads the NL in walks and doubles. If Votto can keep it up he stands a good chance of winning his 2nd MVP award.
  2. Atlanta’s balanced attack. The most impressive series victory of the entire season in the National League occurred over the weekend when the Braves completed their sweep of the previously red-hot St. Louis Cardinals with a 7-4 victory on Sunday. Atlanta also passed St. Louis as the top-scoring team in the National League, with a total of 189 runs scored, good for 2nd in baseball. The Braves have been getting good contributions throughout the lineup, with 6 of their 9 hitters checking in with an OPS+ above the league average of 97. Freddy Freeman is really beginning to blossom into an All-Star caliber 1st baseman, showing a great ability to get on base and hit for power His OPS+ of 130 ranks 2nd on the Braves and he leads the team in homeruns, 6, and RBIs, 28. Michael Bourne has been terrific since coming over from Houston at last year’s trade deadline, and is hitting .336 with 11 steals. Jason Heyward’s back problems look like a thing of the past and he is showing a new aggressiveness on the base paths, with 9 steals already, 2 shy of his career high. With Dan Uggla and Brian McCann starting to heat up, Chipper Jones bombing the ball like he did a decade earlier as well as a deep pitching staff, the Braves have all the pieces to win the NL East title this year, even with all the depth in the division.
  3. Shine on you crazy Diamond. Scott Diamond posted his 2nd consecutive start of 7 innings without allowing a run for the Twins on Sunday, providing the Twins some sorely needed quality innings. Minnesota has allowed the 2nd most runs in baseball this season, and despite only making 2 starts, an argument can be made that Diamond has been the team’s most effective pitcher. It’s not terribly difficult to be the best when your competition is between Carl Pavano of the 5.02 ERA in 43 innings, or Jeff Gray, the middle reliever. In Diamond’s 14 innings he has yet to allow a run, while walking just 1 batter, allowing 9 hits, and striking out 10. Diamond primarily throws a high-80s to low-90s fastball, mixing in a solid curve and change-up. Minnesota’s offense has also been terrible as well, ranking last in the American League, but at least they have found a little magic out of the former Rule-5 draft pick from the Atlanta Braves.

3 Down

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers Schedule. Wanna know the biggest reason for the Dodgers hot start this season? Yes Matt Kemp is amazing but the Dodger’s creampuff schedule also might have something to do with it. Jonah Keri discussed their schedule earlier in the season, and things haven’t really gotten any more difficult. The Dodgers have played 25 games against teams below .500, most in the entire league. They are 17-8 in those games, feasting on the likes of San Diego 7 times, Colorado 6 times, and NL Central weaklings Houston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh 3 times apiece. The Dodgers are a solid 6-3 in games against teams above .500, but with Matt Kemp sustaining a potential hamstring injury, and the Cardinals coming to town this week, expect the Dodgers to drop off.
  2. 2nd base in Detroit. This position has been comically bad for the Tigers so far this season. Detroit has tried 4 different players at the position so far, a group made up of Ryan Rayburn, Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, and current Oakland A’s 3rd baseman Brandon Inge. The group’s combined numbers: a .155 batting average with 1 homer, 3 doubles, and 5 RBI. Rayburn has received the most playing time at the position, and has been the worst of the entire group, hitting .135 on the season with only 6 walks, 5 doubles, and no homers in 99 at-bats. Rayburn could find himself cut from the team if he continues to remain this ineffective at the plate. No team that expects to be competitive can have a black hole on their roster the size of the one currently in Detroit at 2nd. The Tigers plan of Verlander, Fielder, Cabrera, and not much else was a risky one, and they seem to be paying the price in the early going, particularly at 2nd base.
  3. Bryce Harper’s Hype. Yes he’s 19 and a very, very explosive ball player. But Harper is only hitting .231 right now in his first 60 plate appearances and looks to be overwhelmed at the plate. He also has a bit of temper problem, and gave himself 10 stitches after a temper tantrum in the dugout where Harper tried to hit his bat on the clubhouse wall, only to have it rebound back in his face. The kid is only 19 and doesn’t have a single homerun at the Major League level yet so maybe the hype about him being the next Mickey Mantle (MLB Network) or Ken Griffey Jr. (ESPN) needs to stop. Let’s have some perspective please people. Both of those players had long, very successful careers and put in the hard work to become Hall of Famers. Harper may get there some day, but for now he’s a .231 hitter, with great speed, who is a little unsure in the outfield, which is why he is late getting to the ball and needs to dive so much. Let’s actually make him do the work, and become even an average Major League hitter before anointing him as the greatest player in history.

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.

Yankees-Red Sox and Fenway’s 100th Birthday

Fenway Park turned 100 yesterday and she decided to celebrate with 36 thousand of her closest friends. The Red Sox brought back more than 200 players from the franchise’s history, including recent legends like Pedro Martinez to older legends like Jim Rice and Oil Can Boyd. Other Red Sox legends brought back to Fenway included catching great Carlton Fisk, odd-ball pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and husky slugger Mo Vaughn. The coolest moment of the entire even was when 2004 World Series champions Pedro Martinez and Kevin Millar led the entire crowd in a toast to the legendary ballpark.

Once the ceremony was over the game was able to begin. Both the Yankees and Red Sox wore spectacular throwback uniforms. Boston’s included the old lettering on the chest of the uniform, white stir-up socks with a red stripe at the top, and plain white hats. New York’s uniforms were grey with the old NY symbol on the left side of the chest, a two-tone hat, and stir-up socks with 2 maroon stripes. This was the 1st time the Yankees have worn throwback jerseys since 1996, when they wore the jerseys for the New York Black Yankees of the Negro League.

The Yankees quickly jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Dustin Pedroia error, which allowed Derek Jeter to reach base. Jeter would gain access to 2nd on a wild pitch and was later singled home by Alex Rodriguez. Jeter is having an excellent season so far, hitting .359/.373/.609 with 4 home runs and a league leading 23 hits. From this point on the game turned into a home run fest.

The Yankees went on to score 5 more runs, all courtesy of the long ball. Alex Rodriguez, Russell Martin, and Nick Swisher all went deep one time for the Yankees, all solo shots. Eric Chavez, who had an excellent game playing 3rd as well, blasted his first 2 dingers of the year as well. Both were solo shots and thanks to Ivan Nova’s great performance they were all the Yankees would need.

Nova went 6 innings, striking out 5, scattering 7 hits. He only allowed 2 runs, one on a controversial home run to David Ortiz. In the bottom of the 2nd inning Ortiz was just able to poke a homer over the Green Monster, but it was initially ruled a double. Bobby Valentine came out to argue the play, and after a video replay, Ortiz was awarded the homer. Nova would give up 1 more run on a double to Mike Aviles, but that was all the Red Sox could muster.

The Yankees bullpen, the best in baseball a year ago, was excellent over the last 3 innings. They allowed only 3 hits while striking out 5 to close the game out, sending the Fenway Faithful home disappointed.

The Boston offensive attack is really missing the bats of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry. It was forced to start Jason Repko in center, Cody Ross in left, and Ryan Sweeney in right. Only Sweeney is off to a hot start, and the Red Sox need all the offense they can get, because their pitching staff figures to be mediocre at best. Right now the Red Sox pitching staff is ranked last in baseball in runs allowed. They have to improve on that standing if they want to be competitive, otherwise the 4-9 start will be more of a reality than a mirage.

The Yankees are also having some minor starting pitching issues, ranking 21st in baseball in runs allowed. The bullpen has been nearly as excellent as it was a year ago, but the starting pitching has been iffy. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia have both struggled to prevent runs. They could be replaced when Andy Pettitte is ready to be called up to the bigs and when Michael Pineda is ready to return from injury. The offense has been excellent so far ranking 4th in baseball, so if the Yankees rotation can improve, they will become a serious playoff contender.

Notes from Around the League:

-The Nationals starting rotation excelled again last night, shutting out Miami 2-0. Ross Detwiler, pitched 6 strong innings, striking out 7 while only allowing 3 hits and one walk. Washington’s rotation is ranked 4th in baseball and is full of hard-throwing players. The starting rotation ranks 1st in baseball in average fastball velocity, at 94.1 miles per hour. With such a hard-throwing rotation, the Nats can strikeout plenty of batters which is the most valuable skill to have in baseball. This team is not a mirage and needs to be taken seriously as contenders.

-The Braves are now 9-2 since stumbling out the gate, being swept by the Mets. The offense is rolling, leading baseball in runs scored with 84. Jason Heyward is mashing the baseball, hitting .340/.411/.580 with 2 doubles, triples, and homers. Heyward has now hit safely in 10 straight games, and is quickly establishing himself a potential MVP candidate.

-The Toronto Blue Jays turned their 1st triple play in 33 years last night in Kansas City, beating the Royals 4-3. In the 3rd innings Eric Hosmer came to the plate with runners on 1st and 2nd. He smashed a line drive straight to Adam Lind, who stepped on 1st getting Yuni Betancourt, and then fired down to 2nd to catch a straying Alex Gordon.

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.

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