Baseball season is upon us (and an elongated NL East preview)

Posted: March 30, 2011 in Mets

It's baseball season again, and although he hasn't played in over a decade, here's a little love to my favorite player as a youth.

It’s certainly one of my favorite times of the year, right up there with Christmas and anytime I get to go on vacation with my lovely wife.
Opening Day 2011 is just about here, and despite the recent past and all the woes experienced by Mets fans everywhere, it’s the time to have hope. Time for optimism. So what if most experts don’t think the Mets have any chance of doing anything this year. So what if baseball writers seem to think there is some direct correlation between the Mets’ ownership trouble and the product on the field, although I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t want the Wilpons to cut their losses and sell the team.
The beauty of Opening Day is every team starts out 0-0. Theoretically, the Pirates are even with the Phillies. For one day, the Royals can hang with the Red Sox and Yankees. With 162 games awaiting, anything can happen.
As a Mets fan, I feel somewhat refreshed this season. For the first time in a long time, no one really expects much from this team. Despite an improved roster and a much improved front office and coaching staff, Vegas oddsmakers have set the over/under on the Mets season at 75 wins (Last year’s craptastic squad somehow managed 79 victories).
While the Phillies should rightfully be the favorites to win a fifth division title, I don’t think it’s going to be the slam dunk that many prognosticators believe. The Phillies, like any other team, has its problems. Arguably their best offensive player, Chase Utley, all of the sudden has Carlos Beltran’s knees. Raul “I fought in the Civil War” Ibanez could be their No. 3 hitter. Jimmy Rollins has to show he can be a real impact offensive player again. Hotshot prospect Domonic Brown has to fill Jayson Werth’s shoes. Their bench carries the likes of Pete Orr and Michael Martinez. The bullpen is iffy. Their starting staff is one of the best I can remember, but there will be a lot of pressure on Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt to not only perform but somehow avoid injuries. An injury to one of those guys could put a serious dent in the Phillies’ hopes, especially if Utley misses most of the season.
Yet because pitching covers a multitude of sins, I still like the Phillies to win the division at 93-69.

The Atlanta Braves made their return to relevance last season, winning the wild card and playing eventual World Series champion San Francisco very tough in a tight four-game series. If Brooks Conrad doesn’t commit three errors in one of the games, it may have been the Braves taking on the Phils in the NLCS and not the Giants. Atlanta appears just as strong this season, maybe stronger. Dan Uggla gives the Braves some needed power in the lineup, and Jason Heyward should build on his solid rookie season. Chipper Jones has had a strong spring, and while you know he’ll miss time to injuries, he’s still a threat at the plate. Brian McCann is one of the top offensive catchers in the league, while Martin Prado had a fantastic offensive season last year. If Nate McLouth can revert to his Pirate days and actually hit, the Braves lineup will be better than the Phillies (even without him, it might be). The Braves’ starting staff consists of Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens and rookie Brandon Beachy. Aside from the unknown Beachy (who had a wonderful spring and boasts fine minor-league strikeout numbers), the Braves’ top 4 is quite formidable. Their bullpen has great potential, although it lacks a proven closer with the retirement of Billy Wagner. Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are young fireballers, with Kimbrel having the inside track on the closers’ job after striking out 40 hitters in just 20 innings last year. I like the Braves’ team a lot, and think they’ll be right there with the Phillies in a classic pennant race. I’ll say they’re good for 91-71.

Maybe this is the year the Marlins get over the hump and join the upper echelon of the division. I like their talent a lot, and they’ve upgraded their bullpen significantly. Yet something always seems to undo the Marlins, most of the time it’s a shoddy defense. Their defense may be slightly improved with Omar Infante taking over at second for Uggla, but I still think it will be a problem. But this team should hit, even with Uggla gone. Mike Stanton will be a home run leader for years to come, I can see him slugging 35 to 40 this year. Hanley Ramirez is the best shortstop in the game, at least from the offensive end. He’s as dynamic an offensive player as any in the game. Logan Morrison has serious potential, with a line-drive bat and watchful eye at the plate. Chris Coghlan, new catcher John Buck and first baseman Gaby Sanchez round out a solid offensive unit. The Marlins’ starting rotation is strong with potential Cy Young winner Josh Johnson at the top. Ricky Nolasco may finally be ready to have his considerable talent result in a breakout year. His peripherals are always strong, yet his ERA lands in the low to mid 4s every year. If he takes a step up, he and Johnson form a potentially dominant top of the rotation. Anibal Sanchez, Javy Vazquez and Chris Volstad round out the rotation. A return to the NL should benefit Vazquez, who will never venture near Yankee Stadium again unless the Marlins play an interleague series there. The bullpen, an Achilles’ heel along with the defense in years past, should be much better with the acquisitions of Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica from the Padres. Along with Clay Hensley and closer Leo Nunez, the Marlins now have at least a decent bullpen with the potential of a great one. Ultimately, the D and overall youth of the squad may hamper it in a pennant race, but I see them at 85-77.

I’m going to temper my optimism about the Mets. I want to come right out and say they will contend this year, but the last two seasons can’t just be forgotten. However, the new regime of Sandy Alderson has things moving in the right direction. Just this week, they dealt a useless player in reliever Eddie Kunz to San Diego for a 2008 first-round draft pick in first baseman Allan Dykstra. While Dykstra (no relation to Lenny) has underperformed, he still has big-time power and a wicked eye at the plate. He can still become a useful asset. I like the enthusiasm and fiery attitude new skipper Terry Collins brings to the team, something sorely lacking in the laid-back years of Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel. The Mets will need several things to break their way to become serious contenders and some factors are already working against them. Team health is a big issue, namely for Carlos Beltran, but after a mostly inactive spring, Beltran appears ready for Opening Day. However, Jason Bay looks like he’ll start the season on the DL with a rib injury. Still, I like the lineup. Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan are dynamic table setters, while David Wright and Beltran are professional hitters who will knock a lot of runs in if healthy. Expect first baseman Ike Davis to take a major step forward this season. He’s got a great eye at the plate and hit a bit of a rookie wall in August and September last year before getting hot at the end of the season. 25 homers and 90-plus RBIs aren’t out of the question. I also think catcher Josh Thole has major potential to be an offensive force. He doesn’t strike out much, hits a ton of line drives and walks at a decent rate. I’ve seen many projections having him finish at .300 or better, and that will be quite an improvement over the black hole of Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco last year. Rookie second baseman Brad Emaus also has promise with a keen eye at the plate and decent power. Could be Dan Uggla-lite. The Mets also could have one of the better benches in the division with Scott Hairston, Willie Harris and Daniel Murphy all providing solid bats and multi-position flexibility for Collins. Chin-Lung Hu is a defensive specialist who will likely spell Emaus late in the game, while Ronny Paulino will serve as the backup catcher once his suspension for performance-enhancing drug use is up. The bullpen is a bit iffy, but most bullpens are. K-Rod must prove more adept at KO’ing major-league hitters, and not fathers of girlfriends. Bobby Parnell has an electric fastball, but needs his slider to be effective if he is to become the future closer. Taylor Buchholz, D.J. Carrasco, Tim Byrdak and Blaine Boyer round out the pen, with Jason Isringhausen remaining in Port St. Lucie in extended spring training. Would be a great story if Izzy somehow joins the Mets to finish his career in the same place he started it. All told, I’m looking at an 83-79 season from the Mets as this division really looks like it will be pretty competitive.

And then there are the Nationals. During the offseason, the Nationals did a lot to dispel the notion that they’re totally irrelevant by making a big splash in signing Jayson Werth. The Nats also made a run at Cliff Lee, showing they have money to spend and are willing to use it to get out of the cellar. The Nats also added Adam LaRoche to its offense, helping to offset the loss of Adam Dunn. But let’s be honest here, the Nats are still all about the future. Had top prospect Stephen Strasburg not had a catastrophic injury, I could see them escaping the cellar, but I just don’t think they’ve got the pitching. Jordan Zimmermann is their No. 1 starter, and he’s coming off Tommy John surgery. Vets Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis should give the Nats innings, but will they be good innings? Drew Storen has potential as a closer, but his awful spring have some wondering if he’s ready for the big-time. The most interesting aspect of the Nationals season will be the development of super prospect Bryce Harper in the minor leagues. If he tears things up like he has everywhere he’s been, I could see a September call-up just for the publicity alone. More likely, he’ll hit the bigs sometime in 2012, hopefully with a healthy Strasburg to give Washington an exciting young core to go along with other promising youngsters Zimmerman, Storen, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. Projected 2011 record: 66-96.

And there you have it, a Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Mets, Nats finish although I can see plenty of jostling in positions 2-4 and maybe 1-4 if the Phillies’ injury problems persist. If you have read all of this, here’s five gold stars for you.

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