Who would have thought that the one team in the National League East lacking any kind of relevance on the field heading into the 2012 season would be the New York Mets?
Citibank spending a ton of money on stadium naming rights and then taking a financial bailout have some fans referring to the Citi Field as Welfare Park. That and the Bernie Madoff scandal are the only things keeping the team in the New York papers, but they are hamstringing owner Fred Wilpon.
On the field, the Mets are a mess. Former two time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana has been a bust since being acquired for peanuts, a bag of used batting practice balls, a McDonalds double Cheeseburger wrapper and a broken eight-track player from a 78 Pinto.
So while the team didn’t give up anything of value, the contract he’s been signed to has helped keep the Mets from competing. Mike Pelfrey has shown to be an every other year pitcher, and luckily for the Mets that means this should be a good year. The former 9th pick overall has shown occasional brilliance, but not dominance. At 28 it’s time for him to start showing some consistency. The nice thing is that you can count on him for nearly 200 innings every season.
Jon Niese is a fourth or fifth starter for a decent team, and probably not pitching for a good team. R.A. Dickey has been a godsend to the Mets after being a journeyman everywhere he went in the American League. A 2.84 ERA in 2010, followed up by a 3.28 ERA last year with 200-plus innings is everything you could hope for out of a second or third starter, though over that time he’s 19-22 in 60 starts with the Mets. He’s 37, but as a knuckleballer dare I say he may be just coming into his prime?
Projected fifth starter Dillon Gee is someone to keep an eye on. He’s only 25 but he threw 150 innings last year and only gave up 140 hits. He doesn’t strike a lot of batters out, but his minor league statistics show that he’s capable of improving that aspect of his game as he pushes towards the 175 inning mark. I haven’t included a lot of prospects in my evaluations, but one guy that should have a close eye kept on him is Jeurys Famila, he’s 22, and at 6’3 is growing into his body. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, but throughout his minor league career batters just don’t get on base against him, and that is a sign of knowing how to pitch.
They have rebuilt the bullpen for 2012, acquiring free agent veteran closer Frank Francisco from Toronto and trading for Ramon Ramirez from the Giants. Jon Rauch was brought in as well as he hopes to bounce back from a lousy 2011 in Toronto. Tim Byrdak is 38, but he’s left-handed, so after he is off the disabled list he will be in the mix. He is mildly effective, but his workload has been getting smaller and smaller and he is becoming more and more of a situational lefty. At his age can he come back two days in a row even if he only has to face one batter? Manny Acosta is a solid but unspectacular reliever; Bobby Parnell and DJ Carrasco are scheduled to round out the pen.
I’ve seen different projections that list centerfielder Andres Torres as the leadoff hitter, and I just don’t get it. He’s 34, and is a “never was” player who if given regular at bats could strike out 150 times, maybe get 50 walks and 75 hits with little to no power.
Jason Bay came back from a horrible 2010 to be just below average last year; his .374 SLG last year was the worst of his career. It is starting to look like he’s the oldest 33 year old on the planet. A comeback isn’t impossible because in 2009 he had a very solid year for the Red Sox. But for any of you fantasy players my advice is to let someone else draft him, and then beat them because they did.
Lucas Duda opened a few eyes last year with a solid season, and he could help them in right field this year now that Ike Davis is healthy (minus his current minor disease) and playing first base. Hopefully Davis can recapture the magic he had before his injury last season because it looked like he was on the verge of exploding as a major force in the NL power circuit.
Daniel Murphy is a solid second baseman who showed some serious improvement at the plate and this year could be time for him to take another step up. Ruben Tejada has the unenviable task of taking over for Jose Reyes at shortstop. But this kid, who’s only 21 (and looks 12), is a slick fielder and an excellent base stealer. He could struggle in 2012 because of the Mets philosophy of rushing prospects, but hey, they say if you can make it here you can make it to free agency even faster and get the heck out of Dodge? They do have Ronny Cedeno as an insurance policy.
David Wright was wrong last year (I know, I couldn’t help myself!). He is the straw that stirs the drink, to use another New Yorker’s line. He also could be traded before the All Star break if he is healthy and the team struggles, as expected. When he’s himself he is a run producer, a team leader and an MVP candidate. I’d love to see him get his 575 at-bats this year if it’s with the Mets or with a contender. Catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas round out this team, which is destined to finish last in the East despite their potential. This team is just in the wrong division at the wrong time, and not even David can make them (w)right (again, I had to do it!). I have them at 71-91
The rest of this division is going to be difficult to project. I love the moves the Washington Nationals have made over the last couple of years, and with a healthy Stephen Strasburg to anchor that pitching staff, this is a team that could be exciting for a long time. He came back last year sooner than expected, and reminded us about why he’s the real deal. Without looking at anyone else’s projections of Cy Stephen, I think he reaches 175 innings this year, wins 14 games and strikes out 195 guys with a 2.85 ERA which isn’t bad coming off of a Tommy John Surgery.
The Nats traded for Gio Gonzalez to be their number two starter. He was very good in the AL. I expect to see his numbers blossom even more in the NL. Jordan Zimmermann isn’t Strasburg, but he has ace potential as well. He is tough as nails, strikes out a good number of hitters and came back in 2011 to have a very nice season after elbow surgery stunted his progress. I’m not going to predict he is going to win the Cy Young Award this year, but if he puts up those kinds of numbers it wouldn’t shock me. Edwin Jackson comes in and all he does is give general managers ulcers. His talent is incredible, his eternal upside seems limitless, and with a no hitter and a couple of solid seasons under his belt now, maybe Washington is going to be his place to put it all together. His track record makes me believe that he will, at best, tease you with a great start and then get blown out in the next one.
The starters get a lot of love, but this bullpen also is ridiculously talented. Drew Storen could dominate as a closer for the next decade which is awesome unless you’re Tyler Clippard, who has become maybe the best setup man in baseball. Brad Lidge signed on with Washington in the offseason and could step in if either of them gets hurt. He also brings a lot of seasoning to an otherwise young bullpen.
Tom Gorzelanny is the kind of guy every team needs. He can spot start, pitch long relief, or come in just to face a tough lefty. As he transitions from a failed starter into a bullpen arm I look for his production to improve dramatically. If he falls in line with the rest of the pen, the Nationals could have the best bullpen in the NL. The rest of the pen is lefty specialist Sean Burnett, Ryan Perry and Henry Rodriguez. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Cuban Yunesky Maya transition to the pen as well. This steam is just stockpiled with talented arms.
Superstar prospect Bryce Harper is going to have a hard time cracking the lineup come April, but like everyone I expect him to be a contributor by the time his chances at Super 2 status end in June. Holding his place is Jayson Werth whose value has dipped (ha bet you thought I was going to do another cheap play on his name) since leaving Philadelphia, but who also is capable of putting up very solid numbers in right field. Michael Morse is a big guy, but he’s also athletic. He will move from first base to left field. If he puts up the numbers he did last year my predictions this year are going to be ridiculously low. He was the best player you’ve never heard of last year.
Roger Bernadina is scheduled to be the starter in center field, but the team has Rick Ankiel, Mark DeRosa and Harper waiting in the wings just in case. Adam LaRoche comes back healthy this year for another go at first base. He still plays excellent defense and has 20 homer pop in his bat. Danny Espinosa will be pushed by Steve Lombardozzi Jr. Ian Desmond is an unspectacular shortstop who doesn’t get on base much and should bat eighth for them.
The captain of this team is third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Hopefully he can stay healthy. Wilson Ramos was a top prospect when he was acquired from Minnesota. He became a household name this offseason for some very scary reasons, but after surviving his being kidnapped he looks to have a breakout season. He has shown flashes of offense to go with his stellar defense. This team is incredibly talented but, I think, just too young to put it all together. I say they win 83 games this year and finish fourth in the best division in baseball.
The Miami Marlins spent a lot of money this offseason to usher in their brand new ball park. They seriously failed at the logo and uniforms, but I survived the powder blue Twins softball uniforms and the disgusting mess that was the Astros uniforms for what seemed like forever. In the end it’s who is wearing the ugly clothing and not the clothing itself that makes a difference, and this team is poised for big things.
Jose Reyes comes in as the biggest of their free agent signings, and his acquisition will move Hanley Ramirez from shortstop to third base. If Reyes can stay healthy and Ramirez buys into the move the Marlins are going to have some of the best range defensively of any team in the National League. What they do with that range remains to be seen, as neither is likely to win a gold glove on their talent (though winning one based on name recognition is a possibility). Omar Infante is penciled in at second base, but watch for Donnie Murphy, and Nick Green, who has been a career minor leaguer, to push him.
Gaby Sanchez isn’t Prince Fielder by any means, but he plays an adequate first base, hits a little, drives in a few and, well, isn’t Prince Fielder (the free agent I believe they needed most of all). My guess is that when Matt Dominguez is ready at third base, Hanley Ramirez will move to first base, do his best Miguel Cabrera impersonation and become the best hitter in the National League. Oh, wait, he may already have done that, thanks to Albert Pujols leaving for the Los Angeles Angels.
John Buck is a solid defensive catcher, but nothing more. Logan Morrison had minor surgery in the offseason and is chomping at the bit to improve off of a pretty impressive season last year. Emilio Bonifacio took great strides in becoming a solid top of the order guy and base stealer. With him and a healthy Reyes running the bases in front of Hanley and future home run champ Giancarlo (formerly Mike) Stanton, we are going to see an awful lot of these ugly uniforms touching home plate. As for Stanton, his excellent increase in walks last season bodes well. If he can start putting more balls in play, Stanton will be the most dangerous hitter in the National League.
The Marlins pitching staff also went through an amazing transformation, which could culminate in a championship if ace Josh Johnson can ever stay healthy for a full season. Behind him Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and the ever entertaining clubhouse cancer Carlos Zambrano are the projected starting five. Wade LeBlanc, fellow lefty Brad Hand and right handed prospect Tom Koehler could fill in at any point this season, or be traded to further bolster this team as it competes for a division championship.
Heath Bell was brought in from San Diego to close with Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) setting up. Ryan Webb, Steve Cishek and Ed Mujica are right handers in the bullpen while southpaws Mike Dunn and Randy Choate combine with them to form a solid Miami bullpen.
While it could be a top five pen in the NL, it is likely only the third best in the East, however, which is why I think that by the all star break they will be trading guys like Brad Hand and Koehler to a team like the Twins or the White Sox for established arms. I think if they stand pat they will finish with an 86-76 record.
The Atlanta Braves survived nicely without future Hall of Fame Manager Bobby Cox. Chipper Jones has vowed to continue his Hall of Fame career for at least one more season. He may not get his 3000 hits, or his 500 homers, but he is arguably the third-best switch hitter in the history of baseball behind Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle.
Dan Uggla isn’t going to win a batting title or a gold glove, but he is going to hit a lot of homers and drive in a lot of runs. Tyler Pastornicky is a true rookie this year and is going to fight hard with fellow youngster Andrelton Simmons to be the starting shortstop. Veteran Jack Wilson provides insurance. First baseman Freddie Freeman had an outstanding 2011. Looking through his minor league stats he could just be getting started. As he cuts down on his strikeouts his numbers he could blow up.
Brian McCann is a perennial all star behind the plate. Right fielder Jason Heyward is the local guy turned rookie of the year runner up in 2010. He had a sophomore slump last year, but could see himself improve dramatically in 2012. Michael Bourn is an excellent centerfielder and Martin Prado remains a consistent ball player who can be used almost anywhere on the field.
Jair Jurrjens was shopped like he was a 70-inch TV at Wal-mart on Black Friday, but at Ferrari prices. He’s not a Ferrari, but he’s a very nice Mercedes, if you will. Tommy Hanson is a very capable number two who will slide into the third spot once Tim Hudson is 100 percent healthy. Brandon Beachy had an excellent year in 2011 and is only going to be 25, so big things could be in store for him. Mike Minor is extremely talented, but there have been rumors that he’s whining about wanting a trade if he’s sent to the minors even though the club still has options. Prospects Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, and Todd Redmond all are fighting for the back of the rotation. Teheran and Redmond will most likely start in AAA for the Braves. Neither will be there long, especially if the Braves falter and decide its time to trade Hudson, and Jurrjens.
Craig Kimbrel is a stud in the making. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to have a better season than he had last year, but if this is somehow his norm, Mariano Rivera is going to lose his hold as the greatest closer in the history of baseball. That being said, one year does not a career make. He almost has to have a “back to earth” season, and that is the only reason I’m predicting the Braves will finish with an 86-76 season and tied with the Marlins. The rest of this bullpen is filled with young mega-arms like Arodys Vizcaino, who is the team’s second-ranked prospect. Jonny Venters, the 26-year-old flame-throwing lefty, could be a closer on half the teams in baseball.
In the end I believe the Braves have to rely too much on Chipper and Uggla offensively. While I think they have the best young arms in all of baseball as a collection, I just can’t believe that all of them will click on all cylinders this year.
The Philadelphia Phillies have three guys that could win 20 games any and every season in Roy “Doc” Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Vance Worley also should not be forgotten, though he is not on the same level as Roy Oswalt, who was let go in the offseason. Worley was 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 131 innings as a 23-year-old. If talent and work ethic rubs off from the top three starters and from veteran Joe Blanton in the five slot, I think we could be talking about Worley on an All Star or better level.
To protect the leads this staff is almost assuredly going to foster, the Phillies brought in former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. Kyle Kendrick who is a former top starting prospect has become the go to guy for logging long innings and keeping games from ever getting out of hand. Jose Contreras is a former starter who is coming off of elbow surgery. He should set up along with Antonio Bastardo.
Mike Stutes and Chad Qualls are projected to fill out the pen.
As formidable as the bullpen has become, I think the Marlins and Braves both might have better relievers. But the Phillies set themselves apart with the rotation and the starting lineup. Jimmy Rollins is back. He swears he’s 100 percent and feeling like he’s 25 again. If that’s the case he’s the best shortstop in baseball. More likely, he’s playing his age, has lost a step and could be a big injury risk for a lot of money – oh, and also a top five shortstop.
Placido Polanco doesn’t have the greatest range, or the strongest arm at third base, but he makes plays look routine. He is 36 now, and showed some decline in recent years offensively, but he doesn’t strike out, and is an ideal number two hitter. A healthy Chase Utley batting third gives you strong on base and slugging percentages, which is how this batting order works. Everyone in the lineup gets on base at a good clip and has enough power to be dangerous.
Ryan Howard will bat cleanup when he’s recovered fully from his ruptured Achilles tendon, and he is a prototypical power hitting first baseman that drives in a ton of runs. Backing up is super utility guy Ty Wigginton, who has good pop. Though he has no range and a weak arm, he’ll also make a very good right handed designated hitter for the Phillies in AL parks and the World Series.
The lefty backup at first and DH is future Hall-of-Famer-and-Phillies-hero Jim Thome. He’s 305 years old, but he can still hit the ball as far as anyone else in all of baseball. His bat will be secondary to his primary role, being a bench coach and mentor. Hunter Pence will get his first full year with the Phillies. If he produces like he did last year, the loss of Jayson Werth will never haunt them. I think Pence will actually out-produce last year to the tune of .310, with 40 doubles, 27 homers, and 115 RBI out of the five-hole in the lineup.
Shane Victorino is a stat stuffer. Double digits in doubles, triples, homers, and steals make him a fantasy hero, but more importantly Phillies fans love this guy, and Phillies fans don’t love anyone. He could be mayor if he wants. His batting average and on base percentage were down from his career year in 2009, he could bat first, second, third or sixth. He is also the best centerfielder in the national league defensively which means Pence and Laynce Nix in the outfield and the pitching staff love him even more than the fans.
Carlos Ruiz is a very good catcher and Brian Schneider is a solid defensive catcher. I’d like to give these guys 100 wins this year, but in this division, where only beating up the Mets is a sure thing, there is no way. Still, this team is loaded and a 97-65 season seems about right.