Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Contenders Among Us

This off season has been a particularly happening one in baseball. Not to mix metaphors, but once the ball got rolling, it seems every week since the World Series ended on October 28th there has been hot stove news.

This week is no different as the Nationals announced today the signing of starting pitcher Edwin Jackson. The signing of Jackson has been just another reminder to those of us who live and die with the Atlanta Braves that the National League East has become very competitive this off season. Of the five teams who reside in the NL East, only one team seems to be going in the wrong direction and will more than likely be out of contention before the first game is even played--the Mets. Here's a list of some of the biggest signings, trades and extensions in the NL East this off season:
  1. Derek Lowe: Traded away to the Indians by the Braves on 10/31/11. Indians will pick up some of the remainder of his contract ($5 million), but the Braves eat the majority of his contract and pick up a no-name prospect. This actually helps the Braves by freeing up a spot in the rotation for one of the many amazing young arms in Triple A (not to mention Medlan should he return to the starting mix).
  2. Jim Thome: Signed by the Phillies on 11/05/11. After a short stint back in Cleveland, Jim Thome signed with his old hitting coach Charlie Manuel. Brings veteran presence and a bench bat. May very well be Thome's last season if he can't return to the American League to DH. Look for production similar to his season off the bench with the Dodgers.
  3. Jonathan Papelbon: Signed by the Phillies on 11/14/11 after Philadelphia's talks with closer Ryan Madson seemed to stall. Rounds out an incredibly talented pitching staff. The former Red Sox closer is proven, more dependable than Brad Lidge and may be even more dominant in the National League. Look for him to slow down games in the NL East now.
  4. Ty Wigginton: Traded to the Phillies from the Rockies on 11/20/11. Fills the utility infielder role. Best guess? An insurance plan for the aging and oft-injured Philly infield.
  5. Heath Bell: Signed by the Marlins on 12/05/11. One of the best signings of the off season, Bell leaves the Padres for the very different looking Marlins. Bell said he was willing to be a set-up guy, but the Marlins will surely plug him in as a closer. Will liven things up in Miami.
  6. Andres Torres: Traded from the Giants to the New York Mets on 12/07/11 for Angel Pagan. One of the few moves in a positive direction for the Mets. Won't fill the production hole that Beltran's absence created and won't match Pagan's production, but can handle center field quite capably. Pagan will bring a needed bat and acceptable defense to the Bay.
  7. Jose Reyes: Signed by the Miami Marlins on 12/07/11. Blockbuster deal of the off season, as top tier free agent signings usually are. Will bring his dynamic speed, defense and bat to a team that has desperately needed something to get excited about for several seasons now. His presence on the roster will move Hanley Ramirez to third base, possibly a good thing for a player who has become a bit too comfortable with his surroundings. Miami overpaid for an often injured player.
  8. Mark Buehrle: Signed by the Marlins on 12/09/11. Within the space of a week, the Marlins made the announcement that they're serious about competing with their new name, new uniform and new park. Buehrle brings veteran presence, stability, consistency and a proven record to the rotation. The former White Sox ace also brings a bit of home for the new Marlins skipper. Moving to the National League may be a great move for Buehrle.
  9. Jon Rausch: Signed by the Mets on 12/14/11. Fills a gap left by Francisco Rodriguez when he was traded to the Brewers following the 2011 All Star Game.
  10. Dontrelle Willis: Signed by the Phillies on 12/15/11. The longtime Marlin signed with the Phillies after struggling in Detroit and re-establishing himself in Cincinnati. Yet another talented arm for the Phillies pitching staff. Unclear as to where he'll fit in the rotation.
  11. Jimmy Rollins: Re-signed by the Phillies on 12/19/11. The market for Rollin fizzled a bit due to numerous injuries, but the longtime Philly shortstop signed a 3-year deal with the team erasing questions about where they might look to fill his spot. Rollins age & lingering injuries remain question marks for the Phillies, but the addition of Ty Wigginton will surely help.
  12. Gio Gonzalez: Signed by the Nationals on 12/23/11. The biggest and most promising signing by the Nationals since Jayson Werth. Brings experience with the A's, struggles with the A's, and great talent to the Nats. Rounds out a very talented, young pitching staff. With today's addition of Edwin Jackson, the Nats' pitching staff could be one of the top 7 in Major League Baseball.
  13. Carlos Zambrano: Traded to the Marlins by the Cubs on 1/05/12 for Chris Volstad. Volstad is a promising pitcher who would have been successful with the Marlins, but will likely be more successful with the Cubs. The same can't necessarily be said for Zambrano. He could easily become a distraction in Miami. When under control, Big Z brings big game pitching. When out of control, well, ask Chicago's retired Gatorade machine. In my opinion, the Cubs got the better deal here. How will Big Z impact the division competition level? The Braves hit him well.
  14. Edwin Jackson: Signed by the Nationals on 2/2/12. Did fairly well with the Cardinals in the run up to the World Series and was a steal for the Nationals. When your fourth or fifth starter in the rotation is Edwin Jackson, your rotation is ridiculously strong.
This list leaves Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes out of the equation entirely. Cespedes could end up being the biggest NL East signing of the off season should he end up with the very interested (and suddenly rich) Marlins.

In addition to the fourteen listed and Cespedes, the following were signed by NL East teams: Mike Cameron (Nationals), Frank Francisco (Mets), Chad Gaudin (Marlins), Dan Cortes (Nationals), Jack Wilson (Braves), Xavier Paul (Nationals), Mark deRosa (Nationals), Ronny Cedeno (Mets), Joel Pineiro (Phillies), Austin Kearns (Marlins), Brad Lidge (Nationals), Juan Pierre (Phillies), Chad Qualls (Phillies), Chien-Ming Wang (Nationals), Adam Russell (Braves), Josh Wilson (Braves).

If the off season is any indication, both the Marlins and Nationals are ready to contend. No longer content playing the spoiler, both teams have been aggressive this off season and have been very successful attaining production as well as pitching. Both teams have some great young talent (Stanton, Sanchez, Johnson, Ramirez for the Marlins and Morse, Harper, Strasburg, Storen, Zimmermann, Ramos, Espinoza, and Desmond for the Nationals). Adding in key pieces as well as veterans with the presence and experience to lead the way, both teams will be very interesting to watch during the 2012 season.

The annual contenders will have their hands full with the newly rebuilt Nats and Marlins. The Phillies made plenty of moves this off season to shore up an already dominant rotation. The biggest questions for the Phillies will involve Ryan Howard's Achilles tendon, whatever plagued Utley for most of last season, and Jimmy Rollins' legs.

The Braves made very few moves this off season, something that has had fans scratching their heads. Moving D-Lowe opens up a spot in the rotation, as I said, for one of the young arms that we got to see with September call-ups. Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado seem to be the most likely. A rotation consisting of ace Tim Hudson, never traded Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and one or more of Mike Minor, Teheran or Delgado could be just as dominant as the Phillies' big three (Halladay, Lee, Hamels). Surely if healthy the Braves will not regret for a second hanging on to Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado. Without Lowe and with a healthy Prado, Jurrjens and Hanson, the great September collapse of '11 will be ancient history.

Suddenly the National League East looks as competitive as the American League East. No longer are the days of the Phillies and Braves contending for division champion and the wild card. The new look of the NL East seems to indicate that there are now many contenders.


Sean Riley said...

I still think the Braves, not the Phils, are the best team in the division. That bullpen is sick, and their rotation depth is equally good (with the best pitching prospect in baseball Julio Teheran barely cracking the roster). I'm worried about Heyward, but he still has amazing tools. Freeman will be a rock at 1B for a decade to come, and Chipper is still useful even though he's older than I am :). The Phils are a few injuries away from collapse, the Marlins still have a few holes to fill, and the Nats are a year away (esp. if Harper starts the year in AAA and Strasburg stays on a strict pitch count).
So I still think your Braves will win the East, regardless of what I tweeted last night. And my Cubs won't sniff October until 2014 at the earliest.

Tara A. Rowe said...

The problem with the Phillies, as we've discussed is that their infield is too fragile. And I say fragile mostly because of Utley & Rollins. I'm still not entirely sure what was wrong with Utley last season. That he didn't actually need surgery is still very strange to me. The Howard injury also adds an additional question mark. Who'd have thought that the 36-year old Polanco would be the most steady of that infield?

I am biased when it comes to the Braves, but this is how I see it:

Heyward appears to be healthy. Chipper is talking about J-Hey having returned his swing to what it was in '10. That's promising. He has slimmed down as well. If he can produce, that's a great addition to the lineup given that he didn't produce at all last season.

Freeman may suffer a bit of a sophomore slump, but I'm betting he continues to bring production and incredible defense. He is a confident young man and I can't wait to see him build off his amazing rookie year.

Chipper is old, but he is still a valuable piece. He apparently hurt one of his poor knees just after the season ended. Was hunting and stepped into a hole. Says that he's healthy now. I'm hoping that is the case. He may not produce quite like he did when he was younger, but he still gets on base. With some of the younger bats that is a very good thing. His leadership is what makes him a key piece, in my opinion. His help getting J-Hey turned around is greatly needed (especially with a new hitting coach who doesn't know these guys all that well yet).

It's hard to deny that the pitching depth the Braves have now is very similar to the greatest days of the 90s. Hudson is still one of the best ground ball pitchers in the game. When healthy, as they were before the ASG last year, Jurrjens & Hanson are a force to be dealt with. Beachy is going to have a great career as well. When you consider that more than one of Minor, Delgado, Teheran, Medlan and Vizcaino will not be in the starting rotation & will be joining that amazing bullpen with O'Flaherty, Venters & Kimbrel, WOW.

I may need to do a position by position analysis of the Braves now... See what you started, Sean? ;)

Sean Riley said...

Always here to help :)

I have a somewhat vested interest in a strong Braves season, as I have Hanson, Freeman and O'Flaherty on my Strat-o-Matic league team.

The only thing I worry with Heyward is with the nature of some of the injuries he racked up in his rookie season. No 20-year-old in presumably great shape should have knee problems. But he's an on-base machine and if Fredi figures out that he's a much better #2 hitter than...well, anybody else on the roster, he should blossom.

I love Tommy Hanson. If he doesn't get hurt, the Braves probably hang on.

From what I read Vizcaino is likely going to the bullpen, which makes for crazy depth back there. We forget about Cristhian Martinez, who could have closed for half the teams in the league. He's the Braves' mop-up man! Since Fredi loves to drive his relievers into the ground, the more quality arms the Braves have in the pen the better, I guess.

While I'm not a Braves' fan, I did grow up watching games on WTBS. I remember when Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Oberkfell, etc. left town and the Braves were really hurting for stars. I remember all the promos imploring the audience to tune in to watch "Tommy Gregg and your Atlanta Braves."

But then came 1991 and Glavine, Smoltz, Avery and Liebrandt. And Terry Pendleton. And Sid Bream and Mark Lemke and Lonnie "Adventures in Baserunning" Smith. That WS with the Twins is still the best WS I've ever watched. Sorry about the outcome, though. :(

The NL East is definitely tough. The Marlins spent all that money and they could end up 4th. And who knows, if the injury bug catches up to the Phillies, they might not make the playoffs (and we're also assuming the Giants, Cards or Reds don't snatch the Wild Card, which is certainly possible).

I love talking baseball. Pitchers and catchers report in just a few weeks! BTW, ever make it to Spring Training?