I was just reading one of the blogs on my blogroll, The Real Dirty Mets Blog, and the many writers of that great site made their NL East picks. I’ve been stewing over mine for a bit, and can’t quite share the same optimism most of the guys over there seem to have. As long as everyone stays healthy (never a given in Metland), the Mets should have one of the best lineups in the NL East, right up there with the Phillies. But the pitching…oh the pitching. So without further adieu, here are the predictions:
1. Philadelphia Phillies (94-68): As much as I hate to admit it, pencil the Phillies in for a fourth straight division title. This team is capable of winning 100-plus games, but I’m not so sure about their bullpen. Brad Lidge was awful last year (following a magnificent 2008) and starts the year banged up, leaving the closer’s role to Ryan Madson, who excels as a set-up man but seems to struggle in the ninth. The shaky pen will cost them a few wins, but the rest of the team is pretty stacked. Their lineup gets better with Placido Polanco replacing out-machine Pedro Feliz at third base, and they’ve still got one of the best offensive cores in the league with the likes of Rollins, Utley, Howard and Werth. The Phillies’ pitching staff receives a boost with the addition of Roy Halladay, but I still feel the team could have made this trade and held on to Cliff Lee as well, which would have set up a super top 3 of Halladay, Lee and Hamels. But they didn’t, and it won’t kill them. Joe Blanton is a solid innings-eater and a solid eater, period, judged by his portly frame. J.A. Happ emerged last season, and 800-year old Jamie Moyer occupies the fifth spot, for now. Questionable bullpen notwithstanding, the Phillies remain the cream of the crop in the NL East.
2. Atlanta Braves (90-72): Although Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels are a strong 1-2 punch for the Phillies, the Braves have perhaps the deepest starting rotation in the division. Tim Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery last year, and is back to full strength in 2010. Young Tommy Hanson has all the makings of a Cy Young candidate for years to come, while Jair Jurrjens had an outstanding year in 2009. Derek Lowe had a down year last year, but still is a 200-inning horse, and Kenshin Kawakami quietly posted a solid year. Losing Javier Vazquez will hurt, but the Braves’ bullpen is decent, so long as Billy Wagner’s arm doesn’t fall off (no guarantee coming off major elbow surgery and with his advancing age). The Braves’ lineup has a few holes, but I expect huge things from rookie Jason Hayward. This kid is going to be a star for years to come. Outstanding approach at the plate and light-tower power. Chipper Jones is coming off his worst season, yet for some reason, I think he’s got at least one more big year left in him. Brian McCann is as good a hitting catcher as anybody not named Joe Mauer, and shortstop Yunel Escobar has a world of talent he’s just tapping into. Their lineup isn’t quite as deep as the Phillies or perhaps even the Mets or Marlins, but their pitching should carry them a long way. And if Heyward busts out in a big way, they’ll score enough to contend for a playoff spot.
3. New York Mets (83-79):The Mets fell off a cliff last year, dropping to 70 wins after at least contending for the playoffs each of the previous three years. The steep dropoff can be attributed to injuries, as Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado all missed at least half the season. Even the durable David Wright couldn’t escape the endless pile of injuries, as he was hit in the head by a Matt Cain fastball and missed a couple weeks. And the injuries didn’t stop with the hitters, several pitchers also went down. Oliver Perez, who was awful before his knee injury anyway, had surgery on his knee. Johan Santana was having another strong year before an elbow injury sidelined him in August. Oft-injured John Maine experienced more shoulder woes and missed a good chunk of the season. You get the picture, there were a lot of injuries. Most everyone is healthy (Beltran will be back in May and Delgado is gone), but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to contend for the division title again. The reason? Pitching of course. The Mets have way too many unknowns in both the rotation and the bullpen. So many things have to break right for them to win 90-95 games. Can Mike Pelfrey, Maine and Perez all contribute 30 starts and win 10-15 games? Who is going to set up closer Francisco Rodriguez? Outside of lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano, the Mets’ pen has a lot of unproven guys, from Japanese imports Ryota Igarashi and Hisanora Takahashi to injury-plagued Kiko Calero and Kelvim Escobar to journeyman Nelson Figueroa, it’s just too much of a crapshoot at this point. Free-agent slugger Jason Bay will provide a nice boost to the offense, and the Mets should score a lot of runs. Just don’t see them preventing enough runs from scoring.
4. Florida Marlins (81-81): You can make an argument to flip the Marlins and Mets around, but I like the Mets’ starting lineup a little better, and the Marlins’ pen has just as many question marks as the Mets’. One thing you’ve always got to hand the Marlins, they do more with less than perhaps anyone in professional sports. While their payroll is either the lowest or close to the lowest in the majors, the Fish always seem to put a competitive team out there. This year should be no different. They’ve got one of the best all-around players in the game in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a few really talented young starting pitchers in Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad, a talented minor-league system which always seems to provide the squad with contributors like Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, and a players’ manager in Fredi Gonzalez. The Marlins’ bullpen is always a patchwork operation, and I’m not buying Leo Nunez as a closer. Still, the Fish will be competitive, just not a playoff team.
5. Washington Nationals (66-96): The Nats will occupy their now customary position of last-place in the NL East, but they’ll avoid the 100-loss embarassments of the last two seasons. More than that, they’ve actually got quite a bit of hope for the future, with super-prospect (and last year’s No. 1 draft pick) Stephen Strasburg waiting in the wings, where he’ll one day be the ace of the staff. The Nats also had the 10th pick in the draft last year, taking reliever Drew Storen, who is also close to making an impact in the majors. Add that with the fact they’ll again have the No. 1 pick this year (where much hyped hitting prospect Bryce Harper awaits), the Nats might be a contender in a few years. Just not this year, although the outstanding Ryan Zimmerman and all-or-nothing slugger Adam Dunn at least make them somewhat watchable.