2011 Season Preview: NL East

Other Divisions:

I’ve been taking my sweet time with these, but I will have them completed on Sunday.  Since it was kind of an Opening Weekend with this new format, I didn’t mind stretching them out Thursday through Sunday.  I’ll have some thoughts on the first set of games tomorrow evening as well.  Until then, follow me on Twitter for instant thoughts as I’m watching a TON of baseball all weekend.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES:

Record – 93-69

Improved playerJimmy Rollins (his OPS has been in a free-fall since his 2007 MVP, but I think he’s got at least one more .800 OPS in him.)

Improved pitcherCole Hamels (he’s got Cy Young stuff.  Hard to improve on the season he had last year, but a Cy Young would do it.)

Regression playerRyan Howard (I don’t think the power drop was a fluke and while he can back into an .800 OPS season, he is supposed to be putting up .900 OPS seasons so an .825-.850 mark would be a disappointment.)

Regression pitcherRoy Oswalt (he will have a good season, but look for an ERA around 3.20-3.45 as opposed to the 2.76 he posted for the season or the insane 1.74 he posted after the trade to Philly.)

Why they will win – …because they have one of the best rotations assembled in baseball history.  The offense isn’t great especially with the uncertainty around Chase Utley, but that didn’t stop San Francisco with a lesser rotation and lesser lineup last year.

Why they might not win – …because now there is a lot of uncertainty in the bullpen, too and they don’t have the budget to fix the lineup or bullpen in-season, let alone both.  Outside of their own question marks, the competition is going to be fierce from Atlanta for sure and possibly even Florida.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – That rotation is just downright insane and the lineup does have three upper tier players even without Utley (Rollins, Howard and Shane Victorino) plus another pair of second tier guys with Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz so while they aren’t without questions, they remain a frontrunner for the division and the league.

ATLANTA BRAVES:

Record – 92-70

Improved playerBrian McCann (he has kinda fallen into a groove with four similar seasons from a runs scored, home runs and runs driven in aspect, but the OPS has dipped each of the last two years from .896 in 2008; I think he surges back up over .875 in 2011.)

Improved pitcherTommy Hanson (he’s among my favorites for ’11, big season forthcoming.)

Regression playerDan Uggla (there was no change in his skills leading to his .287 average meaning it was almost certainly BABIP-fueled luck [career-high .330 BABIP], so I think we’ll see it come back down, but 30 HR-90 RBI is still in order.)

Regression pitcherTim Hudson (I love Huddy, but those skills don’t yield a sub-3.00 ERA two years in a row with some incredible luck.  His BABIP and LOB rates well above league average last year and we’re unlikely to see that again, especially with Uggla fielding plenty of groundballs at second.)

Why they can win – …because their bullpen and lineup are both better than Philadelphia’s and while the rotation doesn’t quite stack up (nobody’s does), it is still very strong.  They need to wise up and swap Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones in the lineup or they’ll hurt their own chances of winning.

Why they won’t win – …because they probably won’t move Heyward to third and Jones to sixth in the lineup and that could be enough to be the margin that Philly wins by, after all I have the two just a game apart.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – This is a damn good team with reinforcements nearby in AAA and plenty of assets to trade if they need to go that route to plug holes during the season.  I still give the edge to that incredible rotation in Philly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they flip-flopped spots by season’s end.

FLORIDA MARLINS:

Record – 86-76

Improved playerLogan Morrison (he only hit 2 home runs in his 62 major league games last year and it would’ve paced out to just 8, but I think we’ll see 13-16 this year.)

Improved pitcherRicky Nolasco (I’ll keep beating the “Nolasco has to improve with those skills” drum for a third straight year.)

Regression playerJohn Buck (after a career year in 118 games, Buck earned a fat contract with the Marlins, but they are going to be disappointed when he hits mid-teens home runs with a .240ish average.)  Also watch out for Mike Stanton.  I love the kid and want to be wrong, but he could struggle mightily and underperform expectations if he doesn’t get a bit more selective at the dish and start making a lot more contact.

Regression pitcherEdward Mujica (another offseason acquisition that might not quite be what the Marlins are expecting as he is going to miss PETCO Park.  He needed to PETCO to protect his HR/9 to a still-ugly 1.8, imagine what it’s going to be without half of his games there.)

Why they can win – …because they remain sneaky good with a potent lineup of youngsters supplemented by solid “glue” veterans (like Buck and Omar Infante) meanwhile if Nolasco plays up to his skill and Javier Vazquez improves as planned now out of NY, they have a great rotation, too.

Why they won’t win – …because the competition is too tough.  It’s more about Philly and Atlanta being too good than it is about Florida not being good enough, the Marlins would contend in a lot of other divisions, but the one they are a part of is a bit too tough for this youth-laden ballclub.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – There are some bona fide stars on this team as well as some in the making, but they would all need to take a step forward together for this team to compete with two of the best teams in the National League.  This is a team on the rise. 

WASHINGTON NATIONALS:

Record – 74-88

Improved player – The Middle Infield (the club is expecting big things out of their double-play combo as Ian Desmond enters his second full season and Danny Espinosa begins his first.  Both have strong power-speed skills with strikeouts being their big problem right now.  At 25 and 24, respectively, there is time to improve, but it beings now.)

Improved pitcherJordan Zimmermann (I love the skills he’s displayed in his 122 major league innings as the 4.71 ERA and 1.35 WHIP are a bit misleading.  This guy has strong #2/soft ace potential.)  Also keep an eye on Ross Detwiler.  He’s in the minors right now, but I just have a feeling he can do something at the big league level.

Regression player – None.  This is a team on the come and no one in their lineup really over-performed.

Regression pitcherLivan Hernandez (Houdini would be learning from Livan if he were still alive.)

Why they can win – Without Stephen Strasburg, it’s really hard to put together a scenario where they can seriously contend.  Even with him it’d be tough, but at least they would have two strong starts atop the rotation.  As it stands, it’s Zimm and little else.

Why they won’t win – Again, because of that pitching, or complete and utter lack thereof.  It will be another long season, but there will be some incremental growth with the future looking brighter each year.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – It may not seem all that great, but this prediction is a five win improvement from 2010 despite the loss of Strasburg.  They are putting something together here and it will be nice to see their 1-2 together when Zimmermann and Strasburg are healthy together. 

NEW YORK METS:

Record – 70-92

Improved playerJose Reyes (look for a vintage [2006-2008] Reyes season as he is back to 100% health and still in the midst of his prime.)

Improved pitcherJonathon Niese (the skills are in place for a sub-4.00 ERA season and if he improves the middling walk rate, he could push down near 3.50 or better.)

Regression player – No one really screams regression or even significant disappointment to me.  Ike Davis might slide a bit his second time around the league, but I could see him matching ’10 or even a tick better, too.

Regression pitcherR.A. Dickey (it has to be Dickey.  You have to love the story and success he enjoyed last year, but knuckleballs are just too uncertain to bet on another sub-3.00 ERA even if the skills are intact.  Just look at the variation in Tim Wakefield’s ERA year-to-year and he’s this era’s knuckleball master.)

Why they can win – Even though I project them worse than Washington, there is a dream, everything-goes-right scenario in which they could go crazy and compete.  Niese and Mike Pelfrey jump forward, Dickey maintain while Chris Young and Chris Capuano battle for Comeback Player of the Year with excellent seasons while the offense is rejuvenated by Carlos Beltran playing 145 games and Eric Karabell prediction fulfilling itself as Brad Emaus wins Rookie of the Year.

Why they won’t win – …because very little of the above is likely to happen, except Niese of course because I predicted that!

Conclusion/Bottom Line – It’s going to be really ugly in year 1 of the Alderson Era, but he and his regime understand it is part of the process.  I’m bullish on this team long-term with him at the helm, but 2011 is going to be rough for this veteran-laden ballclub outside of star bright spots Reyes and David Wright.

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