Wednesday, March 20, 2013

2013 Predictions: NL East

For Round 2 of my 2013 predictions, we’ll stay on the East Coast and jump leagues to the Senior Circuit. I would say the NL East is right there with the AL East and West in the running for best division in baseball, in part due to the strength at the top. The bottom is weaker than in either of those two, which probably drags it below them, but I would still say it’s the cream of the crop in the National League. So, starting with last year’s division winner, what can we expect in 2013?

Washington Nationals
Record Last Season: 98-64
Key Additions/Retentions: Dan Haren, Denard Span, Rafael Soriano, Adam LaRoche
Key Losses: John Lannan, Edwin Jackson, Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Morse,
Anything Else: Adam LaRoche had a career year last the age of 32
Bryce Harper will be entering his sophomore season, and he’s pretty good
Stephen Strasburg won’t be shut down this year, probably
Wilson Ramos was hurt almost all of last year
Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth also got hurt last year

That all sounds very rosy for the Nationals. It’s not that there aren’t downsides on the team-as mentioned, I think LaRoche won’t approach his 2012 peaks, and Ian Desmond may have been playing over his head last year. Dan Haren’s injuries, which scared off the Angels and Cubs, among others, may mean that the Nationals don’t actually have the Four Arms of the Apocalypse.

But this is still an incredibly strong team, on paper at least. That's to be expected, coming off of a 98-win season. Bryce Harper had possibly the best age-19 season in the history of ever last year, and could very easily be even better. Injuries kept Ryan Zimmerman from attaining his MVP-level performance from years prior (4.5 fWAR in 145 games last year and 2.5 WAR in 101 games in 2011, after two 7+ WAR seasons), so a healthy Zimmerman could make up for lost production. I’m a little higher on Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa than most, but they aren’t bad, at the very least. The team did a great job of addressing its few weakness, upgrading their outfield with Span and their bullpen with Soriano. Even in the event of injuries, they have some decent depth with Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi on the bench, neither of whom would be awful in short stints. And if Haren’s injuries keep him from being the Cy Young-type pitcher he was not so long ago (last year was his first full season without at least 4 fWAR, with three of the four before that topping 6), there’s still a great top-3 in place with Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann (even five starter Ross Detwiler can hold his own). There are just too many reasons to be optimistic to not call the Nationals an early favorite.

Atlanta Braves
Record Last Season: 94-68
Key Additions/Retentions: Justin Upton, BJ Upton, Jordan Walden, Chris Johnson
Key Losses: Martin Prado, David Ross, Michael Bourn, Tommy Hanson, Chipper Jones
Anything Else: Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward continue to draw nearer to their primes
Andrelton Simmons will hopefully play a full season
Brandon Beachy is hurt to start the year

While the Nationals and Phillies battle it out for best top three starters, the Braves more or less secured the title of best starting three in the outfield (for the second straight year, nonetheless). Even as a non-Braves fan, a starting three of Upton-Upton-Heyward has me excited at the potential. And with Justin, who spent a portion of last season recovering from an injury, there’s a good reason to think 2013 can be a bounce-back campaign.

The rotation looks a little weak compared to the Nationals. Their back three (Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm or Julio Teheran) is competent as far as back threes go. Their top two both missed time last year, although Kris Medlen’s injury last season was hopefully a one-time occurrence. Brandon Beachy will hopefully be back by midseason. They’re not a bad top of the rotation, although it’s not nearly on the level of the Nats or Phillies.

Really, the biggest problem with the Braves is more or less that, even with all of their upgrades this offseason, they still were probably just keeping pace with last year. They got career seasons out of Prado and Bourn-even if those two weren’t likely to repeat last year’s numbers (5.9 and 6.4 fWAR, respectively) in 2013, it’s still value you have to make up. The Upton Brothers represent as good a bet to replace that lost value as those two themselves do. Losing Chipper will also hurt. But overall, this is a strong team with a lot to look forward to, including maturing home-grown stars Freeman, Simmons, and Heyward (who may even make a run at the MVP this year).

Philadelphia Phillies
Record Last Season: 81-81
Key Additions/Retentions: John Lannan, Ben Revere, Mike Adams, Michael Young, Delmon Young
Key Losses: Ty Wigginton, Vance Worley, Josh Lindblom, Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco, Nate Schierholtz
Anything Else: Former prospect Domonic Brown may finally be given a chance to succeed
Roy Halladay was hurt last year, although the early returns this spring are a little worrisome
Chase Utley and Ryan Howard may be healthy, but maybe not
Carlos Ruiz begins the season with on an amphetamines suspension
They also lose half seasons of Hunter Pence, Joe Blanton, and Shane Victorino
Darin Ruf and/or John Mayberry Jr. will probably also be getting playing time

This team is actually very similar to the Braves. They made some decent changes this past offseason, but the net effect is probably staying in the same place. Polanco was ineffective, but they brought in one of 2012’s worst players in Michael Young in the hopes that he can bounce back. Mayberry, Ruf, Revere, and Young are more or less equivalent to the horde of players that roamed the outfield last season (including Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Juan Pierre, and Nate Schierholtz). Lannan and Worley are comparable. Carlos Ruiz will be missed, but his replacement Erik Kratz wasn’t bad (a .248/.306/.540 line in 50 games), and Ruiz was (again) a 33 year-old career year who probably wouldn’t have done that well again anyways. Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels should be about as good as ever.

Really, the Phillie’s season hinges on four players, all of who are coming off of injuries. Unfortunately, Ryan Howard is almost certainly going to disappoint. Even ignoring his Achilles tendon from last year, his numbers have been declining for a long time (since 2010, he’s been worth 1.4 wins, 1.7, and negative 1.0). His days as a star are almost certainly done, and he may not even be a starter-level player this year. Dominic Brown has disappointed his star prospect status so far, but injuries and inconsistent playing time may have played a large role there. Both situations might improve this year. So far, that’s one good and one bad outlook.

The other two are much harder to read. Chase Utley and Roy Halladay have been Hall of Famers when they’re healthy. However, that’s become a bigger issue as of late. Utley’s playing time hasn’t registered more than 115 games in a season since 2009, and has seen his total decrease by about 15 games each of the past two seasons. Halladay was the picture of consistency until last year, but he’s also going on 36; any injury, especially a shoulder injury, is cause for concern.

New York Mets
Record Last Season: 74-88
Key Additions/Retentions: Brandon Lyon, John Buck, Shaun Marcum, a decent haul of prospects
Key Losses: Mike Nickeas, Josh Thole, RA Dickey, Ronny Cedeno, Mike Pelfrey, Jason Bay, Scott Hairston, Andres Torres
Anything Else: Johan Santana’s health is in question to start the season
Ike Davis battled Valley Fever for a decent part of 2012
Matt Harvey will be playing in his first full season

The Mets will not be good in 2013, but they’re headed in the right direction. They picked up major prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud, the latter of whom might be catching for them later this year. 24 year-old Matt Harvey had an impressive debut last year, and will hopefully build off of that. They also have top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, although whether he will make a contribution to the pro team this year is questionable. Their rotation should at least be solid, thanks to Harvey, Marcum, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee (plus Santana, if he’s healthy). Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, and David Wright should provide a core for the offense, although the outfield looks absolutely abysmal right now. The current plan is to start Lucas Duda, Mike Baxter, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. That’s not a solution to any question, not even “Name the Mets’ 2013 outfielders”, since I doubt the team will even make it out of April with that configuration.*

*That was a little harsh for the sake of comedy, but even still, the point stands; it’s not a great outfield.

But really, that’s kind of the point. The Mets are rebuilding, and it seems to be going smoothly. They locked up Wright long-term; now they just need the plan to go as planned and they can look forward to 2014 or 2015.

Miami Marlins
Record Last Season: 69-93
Key Additions/Retentions: Jeff Mathis, Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco, Henderson Alvarez, a large number of prospects
Key Losses: John Buck, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell
Anything Else: Also lost pretty much everyone’s trust, including Giancarlo Stanton
Speaking of Stanton, he was a little banged up last season
They’ll also be missing half of a season of Hanley Ramirez

From a baseball standpoint, the Marlins’ moves made some sense. They did return a decent number a young players while shedding large contracts, accelerating their reconstruction. But since it’s the Marlins in question making said moves, there are ulterior motives at work casting a negative light on everything. The Marlins will be bad this year, and there really isn’t any indication they’re working to being good eventually like there is with the Mets. So even if you think their farm system is better (which is definitely a legitimate opinion), the situation is still bleaker. The major league roster looks even more devoid of talent than the one in Queens, and there is no reason to believe the front office is even interested in making moves to fix that. At least the Mets signed their face of the franchise long-term and kicked the tires on Michael Bourn and other free agents, showing that there is some willingness to spend. All the Marlins did was virtually guarantee than Giancarlo Stanton will finish out the 2010s playing elsewhere.

Final Predicted Finish: 
Washington Nationals
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
New York Mets
Miami Marlins

Picking the teams to finish in the same order as last year feels boring, but that probably is the most realistic scenario. The Nationals started out with a four-game lead on the Braves and a seventeen-game lead on Philly, while having a lot of potential to improve. The Braves didn’t clearly get better than they were last year. They might be a 90+ win team again, but the Nationals might be the best team in baseball. That’s just too much to top.

The Phillies will probably be mediocre. I think how far above .500 they finish will depend on their luck, whether the Mets’ rebuilding is ahead of schedule. and whether the Nationals and Braves exceed their already lofty expectations. The Mets will probably again finish with around 70-odd wins, with the potential to reach 80-some if a large number of things break right. The Marlins will probably be even worse this year, despite getting more out of Giancarlo Stanton, maybe even making a run for the number one pick in the 2014 draft (although the Astros probably still have that locked up at the moment). A repetition of last year’s results just makes too much sense...which probably means it won’t happen now. Oh well; such is baseball.

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