PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES – (Last Year: 102-60) – As a 102 win team retaining most of their players, the Phillies had two primary tasks for this offseason: fill the vacant shortstop position, and hammer out an extension with star left-hander Cole Hamels. They accomplished the former, bringing back veteran Jimmy Rollins on a very reasonable 3 year, $33 million deal. They elected to table the Hamels issue with a one year, $15 million deal to avoid arbitration. Elsewhere, they made some formidable additions with deals that carried substantial risks. Jim Thome was acquired on the cheap, but in the National League he’ll be expected to carry the load at first base once or twice a week, and his back is cause for significant concern in that role. In place of the departing Ryan Madson, they inked one of the best relievers in the game in Jonathan Papelbon, but it cost them the largest-ever contract handed to a reliever, at a length of four or possibly five years. Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix were brought on for positional depth in the infield and outfield, on the hopes that their bats can be passable for 200 or more plate appearances a piece.
Not surprisingly, the Phillies’ 2011 success was driven by the pitching staff. The frontline trio of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee provided 682 and 1/3rd innings of 2.51 ERA pitching, striking out nearly a quarter of the hitters they faced and walking less than 5 percent of them. The entire staff allowed just 529 runs, or 3.27 runs per game, 10th best among NL pitching staffs in the post-integration era. On the mound, the Phillies look to be elite again in 2012. Along with their top 3, Vance Worley will return and seek to build on his impressive rookie campaign, though he can expect his sophomore results to track more closely with his peripherals. The bullpen, now helmed by Papelbon, will otherwise be a carousel of young arms with varying potential and effectiveness. The most prominent of them, Antonio Bastardo, was one of the best young relievers in the league last season. He will join Mike Stutes, Michael Schwimer, Justin DeFratus, and David Herndon in a thrifty ensemble that should be more than sufficient in supplementing the elite starting rotation.
On the offensive side, the Phillies will fight a three front war against regression, injury, and ineffectiveness. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino both had the best year of their careers last season with the bat, but the former will not repeat his .361 BABIP in 2012, and the latter faces the formidable challenge of sustaining the serious power surge he underwent in 2011. With Raul Ibanez bound for the Bronx, and Domonic Brown the apparent organizational pariah, John Mayberry, Jr. will likely see substantial starting time in left field. He must uphold his success from last season, a level of productivity that neither scouting nor statistics had portended in his prior major or minor league experience. On the health front, Chase Utley will be treated with renewed caution in the hopes that he can rebound from 2011 and approach his former output. Ryan Howard, already having experienced a set back in his recovery from Achilles surgery, is sure to be on the shelf for at least the month of April. And Jimmy Rollins always has the potential to miss some time. Placido Polanco will once again provide excellent defense on the left corner of the infield, but his bat has not been a factor for either of his previous two seasons with the Phillies. Philadelphia’s offense, in terms of runs per game, was slightly above average in 2011, which is more than enough to support a pitching staff of their caliber. But a bevy of injury risks and the inevitable decline attendant to having the oldest offense in the league bode poorly for them managing the same production in 2012.
With offensive regression and the improvements made by other teams in the division, one hundred or more wins doesn’t seem likely for the Phillies this season. They remain anchored by an elite pitching staff, though, and figure to post a win total in the mid-to-high nineties — favorites to once again win the NL East. ~ Ryan Sommers (www.crashburnallley.com)
NEW YORK METS – (Last Year: 77-85) – The New York Mets are facing a season based on low expectations. Ownership is in dire financial and legal trouble, which led to an historic reduction in payroll. No one in the organization is using the word “rebuilding,” perhaps because the correct term is “reducing;” it appears the Mets are cutting costs wherever and whenever possible.
Relievers Frankie Francisco, Ramon Ramirez, and Jon Rauch, and outfielder Andres Torres, were the most significant additions to the team. Torres slots into centerfield, an upgrade defensively over Angel Pagan. Francisco, Ramirez, and Rauch are expected to solidify the bullpen, one of the club’s weak spots in 2011. Youngsters Ruben Tejada and Lucas Duda have the tall task of filling big shoes left behind by Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Team executives are hoping against hope that Johan Santana can return from shoulder surgery, Jason Bay can become a feared slugger again, and Daniel Murphy can play second base; even if all three things happen, the Mets are still likely to finish in last place.
Expect to see a Mets offense that can get on base but is unable to push baserunners across home plate and a defense that is fundamentally flawed and not equipped to assist a pitching staff that pitches to contact. Additionally, with the additional Wild Cards, the Mets may be the center of attention at the July 31 trading deadline, as they’ll likely be one of the few “sellers,” offering veterans such as Bay, Murphy, Mike Pelfrey, and David Wright. I predict 68 wins this season. ~ Joe Janish (www.metstoday.com)
ATLANTA BRAVES – (Last Year: 89-73) – I expect the team to win 91 games this year. They have been around that mark each of the past two years and ran into some very unfortunate issues toward the tail end of last season. They have a very similar roster in terms of key players heading into this year, and the only differences from this year’s opening day roster and last year’s will be Bourn in center, Pastornicky at short, and Mike Minor in the rotation right out of camp.
Frank Wren felt confident that the team that had an 8.5 game lead in September is good enough to make it to the playoffs, and I agree that keeping the roster in tact was a wise decision. They still have the ability to make trades during the year, which should help them solidify their roster mid-season. ~ Ben Duronio (www.capitolavenueclub.com)
MIAMI MARLINS – (Last Year: 72-90) – The Marlins excited the baseball world this past winter by inking three top-tier free agents: Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes & Heath Bell. Although the roster is unquestionably improved, the Marlins still find themselves with a tough hill to climb, especially when you factor in the improvement — at least on paper — of their division rivals, the Nationals and Phillies.
That said, there is expected to be a new atmosphere within the Marlins clubhouse, which has now been relocated to the new state of the art ballpark in Downtown Miami, and optimism in the Marlins front office has certainly been expressed.
A healthy Hanley Ramirez could go an especially long way in pushing the Fish over the .500 hump, possibly even netting a post-season spot. However, it’s a difficult division and the Marlins, who have little leverage need to take advantage of each and every game if they plan on competing this year. I predict 84 wins. ~ David Gershman (www.marlinsdaily.com)
WASHINGTON NATIONALS – (Last Year: 80-81) – For a team that has been mired in misery for the past half-decade, you might have forgiven the Nationals if they called it a day after finishing with 80 wins. The injury returns (Steven Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman), potential bouncebacks (Jayson Werth), and emerging superstars (Bryce Harper) alone would have likely made the team a game or two better in 2012. But instead of waiting one more season, the Nats went for it. They dealt 4 prospects for Gio Gonzalez, signed Brad Lidge and Edwin Jackson, and made an attempt to lure Prince Fielder to DC. Is that enough to make the Nats a playoff team?
Probably not. The Nats pitching should be fantastic. Strasburg looked like he returned to form in his brief stint at the end of last year and spots 3-5 are going to be manned by guys that would be a slot higher on most other teams. Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Lannan/Wang are not old, if not outright young, and likely to give the Nats decent innings. The bullpen was great last season, with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen manning the back end and Lidge or an emerging Henry Rodriguez could make it lights-out. In total, it’s likely to be one of the better staffs in the NL. The offense, though, could be an issue. With the failure to land Fielder or a productive CF, they are dependent on a lot of question marks to get better. Not only do they need a whole year from Zimmerman and a bounce back one from Werth, but they need Mike Morse’s 2011 not to be a fluke. They need Adam LaRoche to recover from his injury lost season. They need Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos to keep improving. They need Ian Desmond and whoever mans center (likely Rick Ankiel) to not be black holes in the lineup. Individually you might say each of these is likely to happen, but having most of them turn out in the Nats favor is a lot to ask. An early call-up of Bryce Harper could help, but unless he is everything immediately the team will need a lot to go right.
The second wild card is a godsend for this team as they just don’t have the base talent to improve another 10 games or so that they need to get the first one. Seven games or so? Now that’s doable. Still I see the team falling just short. I’ll say 85 wins right now, with the Bryce Harper 2013 season looking like the break through year for this squad. ~ Harper Gordek (www.natsbaseball.blogspot.com)