The NL East: What Needs To Go Wrong For The Mets To Contend?
As one of my coworkers put the Mets chances in the National League East, “The Phillies and the Braves haven’t gotten worse, while the Marlins and Nationals have gotten better.” So where does that leave the Mets? If they want to make any noise this year, a lot of things are going to have to go right. But it will take more than that for the Amazins to have any chance at a playoff berth-they are going to need things to go wrong for other teams in the NL East. While it may seem like the Mets might be destined to finish in the division cellar, each team does have a flaw or two that could come back to bite them. I am not wishing injury upon any team or player (nor would I ever), but if the Mets are going to be competitive, here is what might have to go wrong with their division rivals:
Philadelphia Phillies: Outside of signing Jonathan Papelbon, a somewhat lateral move, and re-signing Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies have been relatively quiet this offseason, especially in comparison to the past couple of years. After finishing thirteen games ahead of the second place Braves last season, the Phillies are once again the favorite to win the division. Even without Roy Oswalt, the trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels still probably gives the Phils the best pitching staff in the Majors, especially if Vance Worley can build upon his breakout 2011 campaign. So if the Phillies will falter anywhere, it will be a result of their offense. That prospect might sound slim, given that the lineup contains names like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence, but if there is one thing that can be said about that lineup, it is this: they are getting old.
Howard is coming off what might be his worst full season to date, posting a career low .835 OPS; that is still a solid figure, especially backed up by 33 homers, but now aged 32, one has to wonder if Howard is slowing down. The first baseman is also coming off Achilles surgery and probably won’t return before May. Utley, aged 33, was slowed last year by patella tendinitis which Ruben Amaro admitted might plague him for the rest of his career (Utley’s production has also fallen consistently each year since 2007). Jimmy Rollins, also 33, isn’t nearly the player he was during his ’07 MVP season. Placido Polanco is 36, Carlos Ruiz is 32, Shane Victorino is 31 and the spring chicken of the group is the twenty-eight year old Hunter Pence (or whoever plays left field). There is a very real chance that the team declines at once, although some of that decline might be masked by Citizens Bank Park. Of course, the Phillies might also collapse under the weight of ballooning payroll, but that is more of a concern for 2013 and beyond.
Atlanta Braves: Atlanta has been even quieter than the Phillies this offseason, except for dealing away Derek Lowe (an addition by subtraction move), but they are still a scary team, mostly because of their pitching staff. Anchored by the veteran Tim Hudson, the Braves rotation will likely boast four starters under the age of twenty-six years: Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and either Mike Minor, Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado. On a given day, any of those starters could be lights out. With such a young pitching staff, however, there is a chance that some of them won’t hold up, particularly at the back end of the rotation. Furthermore, Atlanta’s offense is a big question mark outside of Brian McCann, who might be the best offensive catcher in baseball at the moment. How will Chipper Jones produce at the age of forty? Will Jason Heyward regain his rookie form? What will Freddie Freeman do in his sophomore season? Which Dan Uggla will show up? Who will play shortstop? It will take awhile until most of these questions are answered. There is also a possibility that the dominant Braves bullpen, specifically Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, might not respond well after a heavy workload in 2011.
Washington Nationals: Mike Rizzo made a splash when he acquired Gio Gonzalez. The move bolstered a Nationals rotation that also includes Jordan Zimmerman (who is now a full season removed from Tommy John surgery) and phenom Stephen Strasburg. As I write this, there is also a good possibility that they will make a cannon-ball sized splash and ink Prince Fielder. Beyond that though, the Nats also face a lot of questions. Jayson Werth disappointed in 2011, hitting just .232/.330/.389, so Washington will hope for a bounce-back season. Mike Morse broke out at the age of twenty-nine, batting .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers, but can he duplicate that success? Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa make up an intriguing young middle infield combination, but neither one has proven to be consistent just yet. There’s also the possibility that Bryce Harper might debut, which would draw as much fanfare as when Strasburg came to the show in 2010. The only non-question mark is Ryan Zimmerman, who played in only 101 games last season due to injury. Washington has talent on their Major League roster and coming up through the farm system, but whether they can put it together at this point remains to be seen.
Miami Marlins: The Marlins have been the busiest team in the NL East this offseason. To recap, the Fish signed Jose Reyes (sigh), Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, while also acquiring Carlos Zambrano on the cheap and adding Ozzie Guillen to captain the ship. Miami is also swimming in young talent, including the slugger Mike Stanton, the possibly disgruntled Hanley Ramirez and the Twitterer Logan Morrison (not to mention Gaby Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez). And don’t forget about Josh Johnson, who if he stays on the field, is arguably the best pitcher in the division. On paper, the Marlins will win a lot of games, but unless you’re playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, games aren’t played on paper. The Marlins need Josh Johnson to stay healthy and hope that Buerhle doesn’t slow down in his thirteenth season. They also have to hope that Ramirez is actually content with a move to third base and that the acquisition of Reyes won’t impact his performance. Like the Nationals, Miami has loads of talent (probably more than Washington), but whether it can all come together at once is a question. However, in terms of holes to fill, the Marlins have done a good job of plugging them this offseason.