Sunday, April 04, 2010

National League Preview

Hi folks and Happy Easter. Typically, before the start of each season I've posted a preview for each league on this blog, with the AL Preview being written up by me and the NL Preview being written up by Nick Mosvick. Sadly, I just haven't had the time to sit and write the AL Preview this year, but Mosvick held up his end of the bargain and provided a breakdown of the National League, with predicted finishes and synopses of all 16 teams. You can check that out below. Then, be sure to check back later tonight and tomorrow for a Twins Season Preview and my annual Opening Day site update.

NL PREVIEW - By Nick Mosvick

NL East

1) Atlanta Braves
The Phillies seem to be the consensus pick to win the NL East, but the Braves make a good pick to beat them to the punch because of their rotation. While they've lost Javier Vazquez, they have Tim Hudson back, they've got a full year of Tommy Hanson to look to, and, as long as his health holds up, they've got Jair Jurrjens too. That doesn't even count Derek Lowe, who for whatever reason has been tabbed as the opening day starter, despite having a 88 ERA+ last year. Hudson probably won't replicate Vazquez's production, since he's coming off of major surgery, but that gives the Braves three above-average starters. And they've got Kenshin Kawakami, who put up a 107 ERA+ in his rookie season. Bullpen-wise, much will rest on how good Billy Wagner is still, but he looked pretty dominant in limited action last year, so I'd hedge my bets that he'll have a very good season closing for the Braves.

The big news for Braves hitters is that top hitting prospect Jason Heywood will be joining the fold. While its hard for a 20-year to jump from Double-A and kill major-league pitching, Heywood's comparables suggest that he'll probably have an impressive rookie season. I'd expect 20-25 homers from him, good plate discipline, and the Rookie of the Year. Otherwise, the Braves smartly cut ties with many of their worst hitters from last year, specifically Jeff Franceour, Garrett Anderson, and Kelly Johnson. Instead, they'll have a offense built around old-timer Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar, Nate McClouth, and young guys like Jordan Schaffer and Heywood. The Braves probably won't have a great hitting club, but they should get on-base well as a team and they should have a good enough pitching staff to win the division.

2) Philadelphia Phillies
As noted, most experts seem to be picking the Phillies to win the division. And its understandable why. The Phillies had, by all measures, the best offense in the NL last year and may well repeat that feat. However, I think there are some reasons to doubt that. For one, two key contributors last year should be in for a regression. Raul Ibanez had a career year last year at age 37, posting a 131 OPS+. While ZIPS projects him to post a 125 OPS+ this next year, I'm not entirely sold and neither are many other projection systems. Ibanez regressed in the second half last year, posting just a .774 OPS in the final three months while dealing with injury issues. At 38, I suspect that he may have trouble staying healthy and may not be able to produce at the same rate. Another candidate for regression is Shane Victorino. Both Bill James and the CHONE projections have his power sliding a good deal. Of course, while the offense may slip, what is more important is the Phillies' lack of pitching depth.

The Phillies do have Roy Halladay for a full year, and he should make a run at the Cy Young. Additionally, Cole Hamels has a good chance to have a bounce-back year, given that his FIP last year was nearly identical to his FIP in 2008, when he posted a 3.09 ERA. However, the Phillies have a candidate for a good deal of regression in J.A. Happ. Happ was perhaps the luckiest pitcher in baseball last year, as he had the greatest gap between ERA (2.93) and FIP (4.33) and managed to strand an incredible 85.2% of baserunners. Not surpisingly, most projection systems have Happ posting an ERA right around were his FIP was last year. Similarly, Joe Blanton experience a big jump in strikeouts last year that may not stick and he's likely to be merely a league-average pitcher. Whomever else fills out the rotation isn't too impressive, given that the candidates include Kyle Kendrick, 47-year old Jamie Moyer, and Satchel Paige looking (but not pitching) Jose Contreras. As for the bullpen, no closer or reliever period was as bad as Brad Lidge last year. Lidge posted a 59 ERA+ last year and allowed a incredible 11 home runs in 58 2/3 innings. Ryan Madsen should close, but something tells me Charlie Manuel, ever the "gut-feeling manager," will probably foolishly stick with Lidge and perhaps cost his team some wins as he did last year.

3) Florida Marlins
The Marlins have a lot of incredibly talented players (Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson) but don't quite have a complete team right now as they want for prospects like Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton. However, they should win more games then the Nats and Mets. Josh Johnson was amongst the best starters in the NL last year and should be right up there again. Ricky Nolasco is sort of the anti-Happ, if you will. While he posted a 5.06 ERA, incredibly, his FIP was 3.35, giving him the highest disparity between the two. Why such a high difference? Despite an outstanding K/BB ratio (4.43) and one of the highest strikeout rates in the NL (9.49), he only managed to strand 61% of runners. That's some extreme bad luck unlikely to show up again. Of course, after Johnson and Nolasco, its a bit of a crapshoot. Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez, and Andrew Miller are all pitchers with the potential to have a big season, with Sanchez the most likely to do so. They also don't have much of a bullpen. With hitting, while they may have Ramirez, they also appear poised to put out hitters like Emilio Bonifacio, who may have been the worst hitter in the majors last season when he posted a .252/.303/.308 line with a 61 OPS+. They do have the reigning ROY in Chris Coghlan, however, and of course there is the chance that a hitter like Morrison or Stanton arrives at the majors this year and lights up the league.

4) New York Mets
It's been a turbulent couple of years for the Mets, but it seems like once again, they'll be paying an awful lot of money for a very mediocre team. And, of course, a lot of it is related to health. Jose Reyes? On the DL. Carlos Beltran? Out until June, possibly later. Johan Santana? Coming off of major surgery and looking in less-than-stellar form this spring. David Wright? Coming off a year that revolved around a major power outage. While I suspect, as many do, that Wright's year was a blurb and that the power will return this year, the rest of the team just doesn't look good. Yes, they did sign Jason Bay to a big contract, but Bay seems to have become an overrated player in his time in Boston. He'll be a good, but not a great hitter whose glove leaves a lot to desire. Outside of Wright and Bay, the Mets lineup includes bats of the no-power variety (Luis Castillo) and bats of the mediocre-power and no plate discipline variety (Jeff Franceour, Dan Murphy). The rotation is equally unimpressive. Even if Santana is back to form, everyone after him is a question mark. Can Oliver Perez ever find the strikezone? Will John Maine return to form after two injury-plagued seasons? Will Mike Pelfrey ever live up to the hype? My guess is that the Mets have neither enough hitting or pitching to contend this year. Worse yet, they don't seem to have too much hope on the horizon either, like the next team on this list.

5) Washington Nationals
Part of me felt like putting the Nationals fourth, if only to both give Nats fans a little hope and to make a bold statement as to how bad the state of the Mets franchise is right now. Why is there hope for the Nationals? One answer is pretty obvious. Stephen Strasburg should be arriving sometime this year and I don't think its beyond him to put up numbers similar to the ones Tommy Hanson put up last year once he reaches the majors. They also have a up-and-coming shortstop in Ian Desmond and a blossoming star in Ryan Zimmerman. They probably still won't win very much this year, but at least the state of the franchise is starting to look better. What is really going to make the difference is if the Nationals can do what the Rays did a few years ago and use their position in this year's draft to continue stocking their farm system with loads of talent.

NL Central

1) St. Louis Cardinals
There are a good deal of reasons to suspect that the Cardinals may not be quite as good this year, the NL Central also doesn't appear to be the most competitive division in the NL. The Cards, of course, has a good deal of stars to put on the field. They have reigning three-time MVP and Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, and Cy Young-runner up Adam Wainwright. There isn't a ton of depth in the rotation beyond their two aces, given that Joel Pineoro left in free agency, but Brad Penny is a comeback candidate who could have a good year as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Additionally, they have several hitting candidates who have the potential for big years, especially with Ryan Ludwick (37 homers in 2008) and Colby Ramus. I don't love the bullpen and I think that Ryan Franklin is probably in for a regression (he had an awful 44/24 K/BB ratio in 61 innings, not the sign of a truly dominant closer). But, with the star power that they have in both hitting and pitching in what looks to be a weaker division, they should win out.

2) Milwaukee Brewers
I admit that there is some bias in this pick. I could never view the Brewers as a rival, but rather as another midwest team that I could easily get behind if not for my high level of fandom for the Twins. They lost before Mike Cameron and J.J. Hardy in the offseason, so that could haunt them. But they still have one of the best 3-4 tandems in the game in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Casey McGehee had himself a nice rookie year last year (.301/.360/.499) and Corey Hart certainly seems like a good comeback candidate. And the team has a potential Rookie of the Year candidate in Alcides Escobar. They don't have a very imposing pitching staff, but they did sign Randy Wolf in the offseason and they have Yovani Gallardo, who is young (24) and struck out 204 hitters last year. Once again, given the mediocrity of the NL Central's competition, I think that the Brewers can easily be second in the division.

3) Chicago Cubs
Given all the money they spend, the Cubs really should be better. But spending doesn't mean much if you make poor investments. Case-in-point: Alfonso Soriano. A eight-year deal is often a potentially bad bet, but it was even worse given Soriano's age and skill-set. Soriano put up a terrible .241/.303/.423 line last year that amounted to a 84 OPS+. Yes, Derrek Lee had a great season last year (.306/.393/.579, 145 OPS+), but it won't be enough. Aramis Ramirez has struggled with injuries the last few years, so if he's healthy, he could change things. Granted, the Cubs had a pretty good rotation last year. But, let's keep a few things in mind. For one, they lost Rich Harden who despite being limited by injuries again, still managed a 110 ERA+ and 171 Ks in 141 innings. Two, Randy Wells was pretty lucky last year in posting a 3.05 ERA despite a very low strikeout rate (5.7 per nine) and only a decent K/BB ration (2.5), so its no surprise his FIP was 4.24. Now they still have Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster, but they are also adding the terrible former Twin Carlos Silva to that group. The Cubs also have a weak bullpen who's likely closer (Carlos Marmol) can't find the strike zone. I suspect they'll be a mediocre team again like last year, despite the high payroll.

4) Cincinatti Reds
The Reds do have a bright future in many respects, but its still not here. Jay Bruce should make the jump and be one of the most improved players in the game, given his impressive power that he's already displayed in the big leagues (.247 isolated power last year). They also have Joey Votto, who was amongst the best hitters in the NL last year despite missing some time with personal issues, putting up a .322/.414/.567 line, amounting to a 155 OPS+. They also have the talented Brandon Phillips at second. However, there are a lot of questions after that. How good will Edinson Volquez be after major surgery? Which Bronson Arroyo will show up? Will Johnny Cueto put it together? Will Aaron Harang bounce back or will he be traded? Will Homer Bailey finally live up to the hype? Too many questions now to be a great team, but a lot of young, blossoming stars to keep the fans watching.

5) Houston Astros
I was tempted to put the Astros last, if only because I'd like the Pirates to do better this year and because the Astros just didn't do anything this offseason except for give out one of the worst contracts of recent memory (Brandon Lyon). There are really only a few bright spots on the team. Wandy Rodriguez was amongst the best starters in the NL last year, putting up a 139 ERA+ and striking out 193 in 205 innings. Hunter Pence continued his development last year, increasing his walk rate (58 walks) and power (25 homers). But their establish stars are hurting. Lance Berkman had great year last year (139 OPS+) but he's already hurt. Roy Oswalt had his worst year in his career last year (102 ERA+). And worse yet, the Astros have one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Doesn't look good for 'Stros fans.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates
Its more or less wait and see at this point for the Pirates. They got rid of all their established stars via the trade over the last two years (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez) and free agency (Adam LaRoche) in trying to resurrect the franchise through a serious rebuilding process. The biggest positive is that Andrew McCutchen was a rightful Rookie of the Year candidate last year, posting a 122 OPS+. Garrett Jones, the ex-Twin, showed great power last year, hitting 21 homers in 314 at-bats and posting a 147 OPS+. But otherwise, the Pirates have to wait now and see if the prospects they got via trade, such as Jeff Clement, pay off and if draft picks like Pedro Alvarez can do the same. Its going to be another year or two at least.

NL West

1) Colorado Rockies
The Rockies seem like a chronically underrated team. They have some great pitching they've develop and they have several good young hitters. Of course they better, since I just did the insane thing and picked them to win the World Series. Lets list off the young players they have who have already broken out or are ready to: Troy Tulowitzski, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta, and Carlos Gonzalez. And what about the pitchers? They've got Jeff Francis coming back and they got breakout years last year from both Ubaldo Jimenez (132 ERA+, 198 Ks in 218 innings) and Jorge de la Rosa (193 Ks in 185 innings, 105 ERA+). They also established a good closer last year in Huston Street. I think with all the young talent they have, the Rockies can take the division.

2) San Francisco Giants
I feel like this is a bit of a questionable pick, but the Giants have a few very talented players and one rookie ready to take on the big leagues. I of course am talking about consecutive Cy Young award-winning Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandaval, and Buster Posey. Even with just one starter hitting above the league average (Pablo Sandaval), the Giants won 88 games last year. They have plenty of pitching depth with Matt Cain (151 ERA+), Jonathan Sanchez (a great breakout candidate, 177 Ks in 163 1/3 innings, 103 ERA+, no hitter) and even (no joke) Barry Zito, who was much better last year with a 108 ERA+ and a much improved strikeout rate (7.2/9). The Giants should be a good team again and give the Rockies a run for their money. That's a lot of top-end talent.

3) Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers had a terrible offseason and it seems mostly because of owner Frank McCourt's very public divorce proceedings. They lost talent (Orlando Hudson, Randy Wolf) without doing much to replace it. Their one notable signing (Garrett Anderson) is not only old, but was one of the worst hitters in baseball last year (88 OPS+, just a .303 OBP). Granted, they still have formidable talent in Matt Kemp, Manny Ramirez, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and Jonathon Broxton. In fact, Kershaw deserves credit for posting what seems to be like one of the most underrated seasons ever, given how much criticism I've read about him and his need to improve despite posting one of the best pitching seasons ever for a 21-year old, leading the league by allowing only 6.3 hits per nine innings, striking out 185 in 171 innings and posting a 142 ERA+. Yes, he needs a lot of improvement. Not really an ace yet (yes, ERA+ was by far the best on the team). Maybe, given all this talent, I'm just punishing Joe Torre for the head-scratching move of the week in making Vicente Padilla his number one starter.

4) Arizona Diamondbacks
I can't pick them to win anything anymore. Most of the young talent that was supposed to come to fruition just hasn't and the farm system is pretty bare. Yes, Justin Upton was great last year (26 homers, 20 steals, 126 OPS+ at 21) saving my fantasy team. Mark Reynolds was great too, with 44 homers and a 123 OPS+. But what about Chris Young, who was terribly disappointing with a 80 OPS+? Or Stephen Drew, of the 89 OPS+? And while Dan Haren was great last year (146 ERA+, 223 Ks), their other ace Brandon Webb is still hurting after a season-ending injury at the beginning of last year and I think that the Diamondbacks made a major downgrade in trading Max Scherzer for Edwin Jackson. Just not going to be enough without anymore help coming.

5) San Diego Padres
The Padres have not had a friendly past year or two. They traded their ace last year (Jake Peavy). Their other good pitcher, Chris Young, got hurt last year and was ineffective (5.21) and looks to still be hurt this year. They had a great hitter in Adrian Gonzalez (166 OPS+), but they really don't have much else and they also don't have a great system right now. Really, what seems to be the talk of the Padres right now is only about whether they'll be trading Gonzalez or closer Heath Bell this year. Its unfortunate, but things just don't look very good for the Padres.