With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 1, we look at the National League East …
Phillies: I see no weaknesses in the back-to-back NL champions. They have arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the top of the rotation, a starting lineup that will scare the bejesus out of you, a great defensive group, options at the back end of their bullpen and incredible depth. Cole Hamels, of course, is the key. Since the Phillies didn’t keep Cliff Lee in the Roy Halladay deal (Phillies fans will debate that for decades), Hamels is the No. 2 starter again despite a rough year in 2009. If Hamels’ comeback is the most important, then that of closer Brad Lidge is 1A. Lidge and lefty J.C. Romero likely won’t be ready for the start of the season, but they’ll join the club soon thereafter. Still, the Phils signed Danys Baez, who also has experience closing out games, and Ryan Madson is there, too, of course. Offensively, uh, yeah, they’re good. I love the addition of Placido Polanco, who is a great No. 2 hitter and allows Shane Victorino to slide down in the order. J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton and possibly Jamie Moyer round out the rotation, which is good enough — at least. Their bench is solid with the addition of Juan Castro and Ross Gload. Defensively, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Victorino and Jayson Werth are some of the best in the business at their respective positions. So, again, no weaknesses, really.
Marlins: Ask anybody around the league, and they’ll tell you the Marlins will be a pain in the neck this year — just like they were in 2008, and just like they were in 2009. The Marlins’ brass, however, wants more. They wanted a playoff team with a $30 million payroll, as evidenced by Fredi Gonzalez being put on the hot seat early this offseason despite finishing above .500 and being in contention most of the way last year. Pretty much the same core group is back, with Josh Johnson — fresh off signing a four-year extension — at the top of the rotation and Hanley Ramirez in the middle of the lineup. That young rotation that was the talk of baseball a couple of years ago isn’t looking so good right now, though. While Johnson and Ricky Nolasco give the Marlins a nice one-two punch, there are questions in the other three spots. And their closer, Leo Nunez, has only been one for half a season. The rest of the bullpen is a bit shaky and inexperienced, too. Offensively, they’ll have reigning NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan for a full season. But they need Cameron Maybin to produce as the No. 2 hitter, and I don’t think they have a big enough bat to protect Ramirez in the middle of the order (Jorge Cantu is the guy right now). With a new stadium, and Johnson and Ramirez locked up long-term, the future looks good for the Marlins. 2010? I think they’ll be in it in September, but it’ll be the same story as the last couple of years. This division is too good to win with that payroll.
Braves: There may be no better starting rotation than the Braves’, and there may be no feel-good story better than the one playing out in Atlanta. Bobby Cox‘s last season. Jason Heyward‘s first. Veteran players making the Braves look legit for the first time in a while. Meant to be? Perhaps. Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Kenshin Kawakami and Jair Jurrjens is flat-out scary. And I like their bullpen. Here’s my problem: The Braves will rely on a cleanup hitter (Troy Glaus) and a closer (Billy Wagner) coming off major surgeries. But they’re deep in the ‘pen, and the offense is pretty good, with Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Heyward (what a phenomenal player he is) and Yunel Escobar. Oh, and Wagner and Glaus have each looked good this spring. I have questions about Nate McLouth as the leadoff hiter (and Melky Cabrera seemingly being the No. 2 option), and their infield defense is shaky with Jones at third, Glaus at first, McCann behind the plate and Martin Prado at second base. But the more I see this team, the more I like it.
Mets: Meet the Mess! Once again, the Amazin’s have a nice-looking squad on paper, but who knows what you’ll get out of them? They already know Carlos Beltran won’t start the season healthy, nor will expected setup man Kelvim Escobar, and Jose Reyes probably won’t, either. But they still have Johan Santana at the top of their rotation, they still have Jason Bay in the middle of their order, and neither Beltran nor Reyes are expected to miss much time. The Mets will of course be a much better offensive club than last year’s rag-tag group, but I’d worry about their rotation. After Santana, there are four solid question marks in Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Jon Niese. Also, who will be the bridge to Francisco Rodriguez? There’s a flame-throwing prospect by the name of Jenrry Mejia who has drawn comparisons to Doc Gooden. He won’t start the season as the eighth-inning man, but that may be his role eventually. Once again, the Mets have the potential to be great and catastrophic, all at the same time. One thing that’s certain: It should be interesting.
Rizzo has done a pretty descent job in his short time as the Nats’ general manager. He acquired pitching help in Jason Marquis (though he’s not an ace by any stretch), got a solid catcher who can mentor Jesus Flores in Ivan Rodriguez (I don’t know about giving him two years and $6 million, however), went hard after Orlando Hudson (but he had to settle for Adam Kennedy at second base), came to terms with top pitching prospects Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, and he made the bold — and surprising — move of releasing Elijah Dukes, getting rid of a supreme talent but a perceived clubhouse cancer. Think again, though, if you think the Nats can go from 103 losses to playoff contention in one season. They’re at least another year away. I really like their lineup, with Nyjer Morgan at the top, and Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and a healthy Josh Willingham in the middle. And I like rookie Ian Desmond‘s defense at shortstop. But that starting rotation, led by John Lannan, is still shaky at best. And despite adding guys like Brian Bruney and Matt Capps, there’s no legit closer, and the bullpen should struggle as a unit. But expect progress.
NL East champion: Phillies
NL Wild Card: Braves
– Alden Gonzalez