N.L. East Roundtable


Recently, all of the lead bloggers for the five N.L. East teams put our collective baseball heads together for a roundtable “discussion”  surrounding our beloved division. Each blogger proposed a question and the other four members of the crew, which was answered by the blogger himself  and the others. Here is a transcript of the detailed Q&A:

1. Who has the best rotation in the National League East?

Kevin David (Teddy Never Wins): The sexy pick might be Philadelphia because of the huge trade that added Cy Young winner Cliff Lee to a rotation that features last year’s World Series MVP Cole Hamels and the surprising rookie J.A. Happ.  I mean that’s a pretty good rotation but I’d have to say Atlanta has the division’s best rotation. Jair Jurrjens is one of the game’s best young pitchers and has been solid from the start.  Add Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez(who’s 10-7 record is downright unfair), and Rookie of the Year contender Tommy Hanson and you have a rotation that would scare just about anyone come playoff time.  Also, I’d like to remind everyone that two time All Star Tim Hudson is set to return to the rotation in August.

Dan T (Tomahawk Take): Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens each are all-star quality but pitched in games with very little run support. They all have had stellar games this year, and the Phillies mad rush to improve its own rotation before the trade deadline is proof that they feared this team.

Michael Jong ( Marlin Maniac): That seems to me to be clearly the Atlanta Braves. The Braves have arguably the best pitcher in baseball this season in Javier Vazquez (it’s a travesty he didn’t make the All-Star Team because of W-L record), along with a bevy of other solid pitchers such as Derek Lowe and the young phenom Tommy Hanson. The Braves’ starters boast a healthy 3.78 FIP which agrees quite well with the team’s 3.72 starter’s ERA. If the Braves make it a race for the Wild Card, it will have to be on the back of their excellent starting pitching.

Adam Garnett ( Rising Apple): With the recent addition of reigning A.L. Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee as a co-ace with Cole Hamles and a blossoming J.A. Happ, the Phillies certainly have as formidable a 1-2-3 punch as any team in the division, but for my money, the Atlanta Braves take the title due to rotation depth. Don’t be fooled by his 10-7 record because Javier Vazquez, not Derek Lowe, has been the ace of the Bravos staff this season. His better than 5-1 K/BB ratio is astounding and he boasts the third most K’s (171) in all of baseball. Throw in a sub 3.00 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP and you have a top-5 Cy Young candidate, no matter what the record says. I give the Braves the nod mostly because of who their #3 and #4 are. Jair Jurrjens has also suffered the same fate as Vazquez with spotty run support and thus his deceiving 9-8 record. He also boasts a great ERA (3.01) and his 15 quality starts are tied for 24th most in MLB. At only 23 years of age, this kid is a future ace. The wild card is uber- prospect Tommy Hanson who has mostly lived up to his billing as the net great Braves pitching star. He has had problems throwing strikes at times, but has also been dominant, beating the Yankees and Red Sox in consecutive starts in June. If the Braves can somehow make a run at the wild card, I would not want to face them in a five-game playoff series.

Brant Houghton (That Balls Outta Here): It has to be my Phillies. With the addition of both former AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, and Pedro Martinez, this makes them push Jamie Moyer back into the bullpen because of its depth. Now, after Moyer has been moved, the Phillies will boast a solid rotation with pitchers that are willing to go after the batter. I felt as if Moyer was getting pummeled so much because he just did not hit his spots, and that batters were finally starting to catch on to him. Cole Hamels is having an off year so far, but with the addition of Lee, this takes some of the pressure off of Hamels. The Phillies rotation is consisted of lots of pitchers who don’t fool around and have solid second and third pitches that they can go to when their fastball is getting hit. That is what makes this rotation so special. Game after game, the Phils starters can shoot that fastball down your throat, but when they decide not to, the batters are simply baffled. Look for the combined rotation ERA to shoot downwards as the season ends.

2. What can the teams in the NL East as a whole improve on this year?

KD: At first inspection I’d like to call out the NL East’s ineptitude in interleague play but to me, it really has little significance.  There are far too many games in the regular season to care about how they perform in meaningless series against American League opponents.  Instead, I’ll say the NL East needs to prove they can win on the road.  Only the Phillies have a winning road record in 2009.  If the Marlins, Braves, and Mets want to be taken seriously they can’t keep giving away easy wins on the road.  As a matter of fact, the Marlins can thank their recent sweeping in Washington for likely knocking them out of the playoff race.

DT: The National League East has the world champions in it and below them are two other very competive teams that no one would want to face in the playoffs. Each one, though, has their own weaknesses. For the Phillies, it is pitching, especially the starting rotation. For the Braves, it is consistency that has eluded this team more than anything. One night they’ll play a defensive gem and the next they will give up four errors. It’s always a wonder how the small-market Marlins with the low payroll are able to outfit these championship caliber teams. They could use some solid defense and a few utility players with pop, but they’ve got some stars who could make a run for this thing. The New York Mets didn’t have the back up for Johan Santanna and this is one reason why they’ve struggled this year. Losing Jose Reyes to injury doesn’t help, either. The Nationals, who need to improve on every facet of the game, ought to study what the Marlins have done and copy it to the “T”.

MJ: In general, I think the teams can improve on defense. We all now know the value and importance of defense in run prevention, With the exception of the Philadelphia Phillies, who post an above average defense from both The Hardball Times’ Defensive Efficiency Rating and FanGraphs’ Team UZR, none of the teams in the NL East can boast an average defense. Via FanGraphs, the Nationals and Mets are 26 and 28 runs below average, costing the team almost three wins during the course of the year. The Braves and Marlins haven’t faired much better, costing 20 and 15 runs against an average team respectively. In this age of defensive improvement with a goal of not costing your pitchers wins with poor defense, this is unacceptable for any of the teams in the division.

AG: The division as a whole is pitching rich and boasts a number of bona-fide aces, but beyond the Phillies (whose numbers are skewed a bit because of the bandbox they play in), the NL East is lacks in the power department. The Marlins, Braves, Nats and the Mets (dead last in baseball as of this writing) are in the bottom half of the league in HR totals. Granted, two of the divisions biggest boppers, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado have missed extended periods of time with injury and the Mets and Marlins home stadiums are pitchers parks, but the division as a whole ranks low in power stats.

BH: It has to be defense. The Phillies have had an unusual amount of errors this year, and so have the rest of the teams in the East as well. Of course pitching is a factor in this, with all of the high box scores, but the defense as a whole has got to improve. The pitching could be a little bit better too. The Marlins are overachieving again, and the Braves arguably have the best rotation in the East, and so do the Phils, but when you get down to the Mets and Nationals, besides Santana, there is no bona-fide pitcher to back him up, and for the Nats, they do not have one pitcher that they can call a true ace. Of course they start up a youth movement right after the All-Star break, so you really cannot tell, but they are a mess rotation wide right now, and so are the Mets. Until they can establish a decent rotation with guys that can keep the ball down in the zone, they will continue to be the bottom feeders.

3.  In your opinion, who has been the strongest starting pitcher in the NL East this year?  Who would you say has been the weakest?

KD: To name anyone other than Josh Johnson for the divisions best starting pitcher would be ridiculous.  Josh Johnson is 10-2 with a sub 3.00 ERA on the year and is quietly making a name for himself come Cy Young balloting. What’s even more impressive is that only twice has he failed to pitch at least 6 innings.  Getting that kind of consistency from your starting pitcher makes things a lot easier on the bullpen. It’d be easy for me to say that free agency bust Oliver Perez has been the weakest starter in the NL East but it’s too hard to ignore the magnitude of suck that was Daniel Cabrera.  In just 2 short months, Cabrera managed to go 0-5 with a 5.85 ERA.  What was even worse is that in his 8 starts he only managed to strike out 16 batters while walking 35.  To put it into perspective, Tim Lineceum has a game with 15 strikeouts already this year. DT: The strongest starting pitcher is the East is Johan Santanna, even though the New York Mets are pretty much out of the race. The weakest starting pitcher is pretty much anyone on the Washington Nationals.

MJ: Keeping with the theme of Atlanta Braves pitching, Javier Vazquez has been the best pitcher in an NL East rotation this season. All the major DIPS love him: 2.64 FIP, 2.79 xFIP, and 3.10 tRA (if you scale tRA down from the Runs Allowed scale to the ERA scale, you get a tERA of 2.85). There’s little doubt that Vazquez is having a monster season this year, and no one else in the division is particularly close. One pitcher who has been excellent this year and could challenge Vazquez for this position is the Marlins’ Josh Johnson. Johnson has until recently been completely dominant and lights out against opposing hitters. He currently sports a 3.42 xFIP which is good for fifth in the National League. However, recently he’s been good but not great, and there is some fear that his workload has been stretched coming off a half-season recovering from Tommy John surgery, so as a Marlins fan and a fan of good pitchers in general, I’d be careful here.

As far as the worst pitcher in the NL East, it’s difficult to tell since often times starting pitchers don’t stay around long enough to be the worst in their division. If I had to name a player or two, I’d go withLivan Hernandez of the Mets or Jamie Moyer of the Phillies. Outside of the Marlins, Moyer has been rocked, and the good luck that he had in avoiding home runs last year has not been around to help him this season. Meanwhile, Livan Hernandez is…well, he’s Livan Hernandez. He doesn’t do much for your team, and this season he still hasn’t done much for the Mets.

AG: This one was difficult for me to choose, but I give the slight edge to Vazquez over Florida’s young ace Josh Johnson as the strongest starting pitcher in the NL East thus far. Again, Vazquez’s 9-7 win-loss record is not earth shattering but it is misleading. Vazquez and Johnson’s ERA, WHIP and BB totals are very similar, but Vazquez gets the nod because his 171/32 strikeout-to-walk ratio is off the charts. Bringing a number of factors intro play besides simply raw numbers, the weakest pitcher without a doubt has been Oliver Perez. To say he hasn’t lived up to the 3-year/$36 million contract the Mets gave him in the offseason is the understatement of the century. Besides missing more than two months with a phantom knee injury, his inability to throw strikes and mental lapses have made Mets fans want to jump off a cliff when he is on the mound. All you need to know about Ollie is this stat: 60 1/3 IP, 55 BB, 58K.

BH: The strongest starting pitcher to me Johan Santana. He may be on a losing team right now, but when they are healthy, he is the glue to keeping that team together. He pitches into the late innings, which saves their horrendous pen from tired arms, and can shut down teams whenever he wants. He is a complete stud, and every game the Phillies face against him, I almost have no hope. The weakest pitcher is Jamie Moyer. He is a huge disappointment for the Phillies this year, and Manuel finally put him in the bullpen. He is not hitting his spots, and when he does not do that, teams hit him with ease. Even though he is 10-9, if it were not for the Phils high-powered offense, he would be 5-13.

4. What is the one area that your respective team can improve on as we enter the stretch run this season that will most benefit the team’s goals, short-term or long-term?

KD: As a Nationals fan, where do I begin?  It’s easy to throw the blame at the pitching, especially the bullpen, but it’s actually been improving steadily as the season has progressed.  The one area I have been concerned with is our lack of production at second base.  This year we have seen a revolving door of nobodies at second to include Anderson Hernandez, Ronnie Belliard, Willie Harris, Alberto Gonzalez, and Alex Cintron.  None of them have been remotely productive offensively and what’s even scarier is that there is no middle infield depth in the entire farm system.  Unless they can get Orlando Hudson to magically pass a physical in Washington, it looks like Nationals fans are doomed to see subpar play at second.

DT: The Atlanta Braves could have used a big bat at the No. 4 spot but decided to stick with a younger, scrappier group of players at key positions. But one thing they must improve upon over the last 50 games of the season is patience. They must keep leads late in the game, and that requires players to be level headed and prepared for the team they are playing.

MJ: For the Marlins, one aspect the team can certainly try to improve upon is team defense. Again, as mentioned before, the Marlins have been bad on defense this season despite improving peripherally. The offseason move to jettison Mike Jacobs and move Jorge Cantu to first base was a smart one, but the team’s inability to field a decent third baseman and the acquisition of the excellent-hitting first baseman Nick Johnson has forced Cantu back to third base, where he proved last season that he was terrible. Combined with the club’s inability to field a decent outfield between converted infielder Chris Coghlan, center fielder Cody Ross, and resident outfield gargoyle Jeremy Hermida, and it has cost the Marlins a win and a half this year. That sort of play won’t help a young pitching staff work through their problems and it certainly won’t benefit a weak offense carried by one or two players.

AG: With the Mets, it in almost unfair of me to have to answer this question at the current time. Since their roster is so wracked by injury, I don’t have a feel on what can actually be improved upon between the white lines that will have an impact on short or long-term goals. I’m going to go in another direction here and say they need to improve on the performance and decision making of their training and medical staff. The details that have emerged about how the injury situations Jose Reyes, Beltran, and J.J. Putz were handled are troublesome to say the least. Of course, it all starts with upper-management, but don’t get me started there.

BH: It has to be the back end of the bullpen. Brad Lidge just blew his 7th save of the season, and has been off of his game the whole year. He likes to cause drama with loading the bases, and giving up homeruns. Ryan Madson is not doing much better though. He may be having another solid year as the “Bridge to Lidge”, but when the going gets tough, I just do not think he has it in him to get through the pressure game in and game out.

A cause to this problem may be multiple injuries that the Phils have sustained over the course of the season, and Charlie Manuel having to use the same pitchers over and over again, but you would think that the one strength of the Phillies last year, Madson and Lidge, would be one of the biggest strengths of the Phils this year.

5. If you had to start a team, which player in the NL East would you start your team with?

KD: Granted he’s hurt right now but I’d go with Carlos Beltran in a heartbeat. Even in his 30s he’s still one of the game’s best defensive centerfielders as well as a real threat to have a 30-30 season while hitting .330.  I’d also consider Josh Johnson for all of the reasons I’ve already mentioned.

DT: Chase Utley.

MJ: This might sound like a homer argument, but it’s the right argument as well. I would start my team with Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins. The argument, in my opinion, would be between five players: Ramirez, David Wright of the Mets, Jose Reyes of the Mets, Chase Utley of the Phillies, andBrian McCann of the Braves. Of the five players there, three of them play at the most premium defensive positions in baseball, shortstop and catcher, an important thing when considering their WAR’s.

Of the five players however, none are as good offensively as Hanley Ramirez, who is the most electrifying offensive player this side of Albert Pujols. Ramirez is a complete package offensively, giving you speed, power, patience, and contact at the plate. He could afford to walk more, and last season he certainly showed that he could, but his offensive repertoire is otherwise dazzling. And as a slightly below average defensive shortstop, he isn’t behind McCann and Reyes enough on defense that his offense wouldn’t make up for the deficit and then some. In the last three calendar years, Ramirez has collected about 140 runs above average by wOBA. From this list, Wright follows next with 133 RAA and Utley with 126 RAA, while Reyes and McCann are in the high forty’s.

That being said, Wright leads the list slightly above Ramirez in WAR over the past three seasons, which can be attributable to Ramirez’s horrific sophomore season in the field. The lead is less than 1 WAR over three years, so even if Ramirez were 8 runs better on defense that season (a number that he still hasn’t reached yet defensively outside of that second year), Ramirez would lead. Factor in that among those players listed, he is the youngest (a year younger than Wright) and in the most friendly of contracts compared to his value, and there’s very little reason I wouldn’t start my team with anyone other than Hanley.

AG: For me, it really boiled down between a choice of two middle infielders, but in the end Chase Utley edges out Hanley Ramirez as the NL East star I’d start my team with. Though Ramirez is hitting more than 50 points higher than Utley and possesses more speed and raw power, Utley is the ultimate gamer. His numbers the past four years or so aren’t too shabby either. Having watched this guy torture my Mets the past few seasons, I am convinced he is the heart and soul of a Phillies team that has a chance to win multiple more championships in the coming years. The guys brings it ever day, bats from the left-hand side and hits for power all from a second base positionthat is pretty thin league wide to say the least. Simply put, Utley is a flat out stud and could play on my team any day.

BH: For me, the argument comes down to either Chase Utley, or Hanley Ramirez as well.  Ramirez has the upper hand in overall athleticism, and Utley has the upper hand in overall ability because he works so goddamn hard. It has to be Utley though. Utley combines defense, with amazing power, and is not overwhelmed by the big at bat. Ramirez is still young, and somewhat unproven at getting his team to the post-season, and winning it all. Utley could carry the Phillies the whole year, and they would still make the play-offs, but I am somewhat skeptical about Ramirez’s ability to do that.