Sunday, March 08, 2009

MLB Preview #3
National League East

New York Mets

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Luis Castillo 2B
Jose Reyes SS
David Wright 3B
Carlos Beltran CF
Carlos Delgado 1B
Daniel Murphy/Fernando Tatis LF
Ryan Church RF
Brian Schneider C

Johan Santana
Mike Pelfrey
Oliver Perez
John Maine
Freddy Garcia
Tim Redding
Livan Hernandez
Jon Niese
Nelson Figueroa
Brandon Knight

The Mets lineup didn't change much from last year, but then again it really didn't need to. Reyes, Wright, and Beltran are stars, and the rest are good to great complimentary players (despite what locals think about Luis Castillo). Reyes and Castillo are about equal at getting on base, and if New York drops Reyes to second, it will be able to better take advantage of his power - especially compared to the punchless Castillo.

In addition to Murphy, Church, and Tatis likely sharing time in the outfield, the Mets have even more talented outfielders is Marlon Anderson and Jeremy Reed. On the infield, Alex Cora is a proven utility man and a capable emergency starter. Once again, Ramon Castro will relieve Schneider at catcher.

New York's starting rotation may be a bit short on household names, but it's not short on talent. Of course, top starters Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey have had their bumps and bruises, so that's something Mets fans will want to keep their eye on.

The much maligned New York bullpen should be helped by the move to Citi Field. Despite early reports that balls flew out of the new stadium, it is located just across the street from Shea and has bigger dimensions, so it should favor pitchers even moreso than the original Mets home. The Mets now have an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen after acquiring Francisco Rodriguez as their new closer and JJ Putz as K-Rod's top setup man. Putz had a tough 2008 due to injuries, but had he not been traded to the Mets he likely would have been an elite closer again this year. Rodriguez, Putz, Duaner Sanchez, and Pedro Feliciano should help the Mets avoid late game (and late season) collapses this year.

Philadelphia Phillies

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Jimmy Rollins SS
Shane Victorino CF
Chase Utley 2B
Ryan Howard 1B
Raul Ibanez LF
Jayson Werth RF
Pedro Feliz 3B
Carlos Ruiz C

Cole Hamels
Brett Myers
Jamie Moyer
Joe Blanton
JA Happ
Chan Ho Park
Kyle Kendrick
Carlos Carrasco

Well, it's hard to find fault in a team that won the World Series last year. Losing Pat Burrell in favor of Raul Ibanez was more of a downgrade that most people realize. But with the rest of Philadelphia's lineup, that shouldn't be an issue.

Like all good teams, the Phillies relied on key backups taking over if and when a starter faltered. Unfortunately for Philadelphia's opponents, that backup corps is as strong as ever. Geoff Jenkins lost his starting job to Jayson Werth last year, and this year he'll be Werth's backup. Greg Dobbs will once again back up the corner infield spots, with Eric Bruntlett up the middle. Catcher was a weak spot for the Phillies in 2008 after Carlos Ruiz struggled at the plate. But in addition to Ruiz and Chris Coste, the Phillies also picked up Ronny Paulino from in-state rival Pittsburgh. But all three catchers are probably just keeping the seat warm until prospect Lou Marson is ready.

Philadelphia's fifth starter spot is still up for grabs. But you know you're in good shape when that's the only question your starting rotation has. Myers, Moyer, and Blanton aren't elite pitchers, but staff ace Cole Hamels certainly is.

The bad news is that Brad Lidge probably won't convert all of his save opportunities this year, like he did in 2008. The good news is that Lidge is back as one of the best closers in the game. The even better news is that Lidge also has a strong support staff, led by Ryan Madson, JC Romero, Chad Durbin, and Scott Eyre.

Atlanta Braves

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Yunel Escobar SS
Kelly Johnson 2B
Chipper Jones 3B
Brian McCann C
Garret Anderson/Matt Diaz LF
Casey Kotchman 1B
Jeff Francoeur RF
Josh Anderson CF

Derek Lowe
Javier Vazquez
Jair Jurrjens
Kenshin Kawakami
Jorge Campillo
Tom Glavine
Jo-Jo Reyes
Tommy Hanson
Charlie Morton
James Parr
Jeff Bennett

I'll be honest - I have no idea how this lineup will shake out. On top of not knowing who will bat where, there are also questions of who will actually be playing at any given time. Garret Anderson may not hold up for a full 162 games. Josh Anderson is only holding onto his spot until top prospect Jordan Schafer is ready for the bigs. Jeff Francouer had enough trouble holding his starting spot last year, and questions remain this year. And that's just the outfield.

Fortunately, the Braves do have some decent backups. Matt Diaz was last year's starter in left field, and he'll likely see decent playing time on both corners this year. Gregor Blanco filled in for Francouer last year, and could do it again this year. On the infield, Martin Prado put up good offensive numbers last year, and warrants playing time this year when he gets a chance. Of course, he'll also have to compete with proven infielder Omar Infante for the utility role.

As always, the Braves have put together a solid rotation. Tim Hudson is out with an arm injury, but in his stead the Braves have acquired two very good starters - Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez. Jair Jurrjens was a darkhorse rookie of the year candidate last year, and this year he returns as a capable number three starter. The Braves also have some decent pieces to fill the last few rotation spots, including Jo-Jo Reyes, Ken Kawakami, and a swan song from Tom Glavine. The Braves may be headed for another third place finish in their division, but don't fault the rotation for them not finishing any higher.

The Atlanta bullpen may seem like a group of castoffs, but there is some decent talent there. Former Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez now assumes that role with the Braves. He'll be aided by Rafael Soriano, Manny Acosta, Boone Logan, and Buddy Carlyle.

Washington Nationals

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Christian Guzman SS
Elijah Dukes RF
Ryan Zimmerman 3B
Adam Dunn 1B
Lastings Milledge CF
Josh Willingham LF
Jesus Flores C
Anderson Hernandez 2B

John Lannan
Scott Olsen
Daniel Cabrera
Shawn Hill
Jordan Zimmermann
Collin Balester
Shairon Martis
Jason Bergmann
Matt Chico
Garrett Mock
Tyler Clippard

The Nationals are an organization looking for respect. While their record in 2009 might not win them any respect, they have pieced together a respectable lineup and a respectable bench. New to the DC are are Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, two players who won't hit for a high average, but who will get on base and hit for power. They, along with previous acquisitions Christian Guzman, Elijah Dukes, and Lastings Milledge, will help compliment Washington's star-in-training Ryan Zimmerman. And while the previously light-hitting Guzman probably won't match the batting numbers he reached in 2008, one of those other starters just might.

Like the Nationals lineup, the bench is full of recognizable names. While they may be castoffs from other organizations, they're also proven Major Leaguers, and many of them former starters. Nick Johnson will try to stay healthy and fight for playing time. Ronnie Belliard and Kory Casto will back up the infield, and former Nationals starters Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena will do the same in the outfield. Kearns, Pena, and Dunn - reunited from their time in Cincinnati - will give this team some pop.

Over the past few years, the Nationals have had no trouble acquiring players with character issues, alleged or otherwise. This year is no different as they add starter Scott Olsen from the Marlins. If players can Olsen and Elijah Dukes can contain their emotions, they will make the Nationals a better team. If instead they feed off of each other's negativity, then I pit manager Manny Acta. But outside of Scott Olsen and John Lannan, Washington is full of question marks in the starting rotation, none bigger than enigma Dnaiel Cabrera, who on any given night could strike out 15 and walk just as many.

The Nationals bullpen is highlighted by Team Canada member Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan has a thin bullpen behind him, composed primarily of fringe starters like Garrett Mock and Tyler Clippard.

Florida Marlins

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Hanley Ramirez SS
Jeremy Hermida RF/LF
Jorge Cantu 3B
Dan Uggla 2B
Gaby Sanchez 1B
Cody Ross LF/RF
John Baker C
Cameron Maybin CF

Ricky Nolasco
Josh Johnson
Chris Volstad
Anibal Sanchez
Andrew Miller
Dan Meyer
Burke Badenhop
Ryan Tucker
Rick VandenHurk

Like the Braves, and even moreso, I'm not sure how the Marlins lineup will look in 2009. If Cameron Maybin can stick in the leadoff spot, Florida will benefit from moving Hanley Ramirez to the three hole. But until then, the Fish will benefit from hitting Ramirez first, effectively giving their best player as many at bats as possible. Like Washington's, Florida's lineup delivers some pop with Ramirez, Cantu, and Uggla, but it also has many question marks. Still, the Marlins have the ability to make games exciting.

Florida does have some capable backups, primarily on the infield corners. Both Wes Helms and former Angels super-prospect Dallas McPherson can play both third and first base. Alfredo Amezaga, meanwhile, can play anywhere on the diamond.

The Marlins rotation has some young talent that may still be a year or two away from being good. Ricky Nolasco wins the top rotation spot by default, more or less. Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller will be good, but may not be Major League good yet. Anibal Sanchez has an MLB no hitter under his belt, but has been relatively silent outside of that one game. Dan Meyer was once thought to be one of the next big Oakland pitching prospects; now he's just fighting for the fifth starter spot on a bad team.

Matt Lindstrom has been named Florida's closer after converting five of six opportunities in 2008. He'll be supported by Leo Nunez, Logan Kensing, and Taylor Tankersly, as well as Scott Proctor. Proctor was an interesting acquisition, as talented veteran middle relievers are often not a priority on a team like this.