2008 preview: NL East

NEW YORK METS

In general

Last year is over. It is. So is the time to talk about it. That time was February, when players reported to Port St. Lucie. A slow start isn’t a reason to talk about it again, nor is losing two out of three to the Phillies in the second week. But neither of those will happen, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Final standings aside, there’s still a case to be made that the Mets were the best team in the division in 2007. They led for 140 days; Philadelphia was on top just four days. The Phillies certainly played better down the stretch and showed they wanted it more. The Mets tried to act calm and collected, like they’d been there before, but this group really hadn’t. They were in a pennant race, something they didn’t really experience in 2006, when they had a comfortable lead that even a three-game sweep in Pittsburgh didn’t threaten. That September, they clinched the next day. This year, you can be sure, the Mets won’t take anything for granted.

The Mets’ biggest concern — their biggest rival, in a way — will be age. Moises Alou is already out until May (I’m not believing any April projections with that guy), two key starting pitchers are in the twilights of their careers and coming off injuries or rehab in 2006, and they not only signed a 32-year-old second baseman with 42-year-old knees to a four-year deal, but they had about a dozen second base candidates miss time in Spring Training with injuries. But every team has injury issues. Hopefully, the Mets have the depth — or go out and get it — to get through the lean times this season.

This is still a lineup that can contend with any in the league. Jose Reyes will continue to mature, Carlos Beltran has put his rough first season in New York behind him and David Wright had as good a season as any in the NL. Carlos Delgado’s ’07 campaign was a big concern, but he’s playing for one last contract this year, so here’s hoping he has the same good fortune that so many players in that situation have had of late.

Where this division will be won is on the mound. There’s no doubt that the acquisition of Johan Santana was the coup the Mets needed this offseason. He’s the best pitcher in the game and a perennial Cy Young candidate. Bringing him in pushes everyone else back into a more suitable rotation slot, particularly Pedro Martinez, whose age and recent injuries made him a risky ace. And the young and impressive Oliver Perez (also in a contract year) and John Maine have the potential to make this the best top four in the league. I just hope Mike Pelfrey can get it together in ’08; he has too much potential to start off 0-7 and not stick in the rotation.

So many discount the Mets’ bullpen, but who outside of San Diego and Chicago really has a slam-dunk bullpen? Starting at the back, Billy Wagner remains one of the best closers in the league, Aaron Heilman has proven so valuable as a setup man that the Mets have refused to move him into the rotation even when he could’ve helped there, Duaner Sanchez looked good in spring ball and will work to get his arm strength and stamina back up before joining the team, and even Jorge Sosa has been a strong long man. The issue will be more Willie Randolph’s use of his relievers than their execution. Perhaps taking the wrong page from Joe Torre’s managerial handbook, Randolph overused his bullpen to the point that it struggled in September. Fresher arms through the first five months should mean better results in the final one.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Jose Reyes may very well be the best shortstop in the game, but his detractors are finding fewer and fewer things to criticize. His plate discipline is no longer an issue after he brought his walks up to a nearly 1:1 ratio with his strikeouts. The only thing left is his maturity and makeup — as energetic and fun-loving as he is, he found himself in the dog house a couple of times in ’07 when Randolph benched him for not running out popups that landed fair. He shouldn’t be making those mistakes anymore, and more rest in ’08 should keep him fresh for the stretch run. Put him in Citizens Bank Park, and he’ll hit 25 home runs too. In 2008, the average, runs and steals will be there. I expect the power and discipline will be, too.

Other fun things to look for: Santana’s dominance, Pedro’s perseverance, Pelfrey’s potential realized, Ollie and Maine taking the next step, and Wright winning that MVP that slipped from his grasp last year when his team crumbled around him.

ATLANTA BRAVES

In general

After so many years of Atlanta dominance, I wasn’t quite sure I could believe that it was the third-place team yet again in 2007. For a while, it looked like the Braves wouldn’t be. They took two out of three from the Mets in every series before the All-Star break and led the division for 29 days, but none after May 15. But they faded through August, including a home sweep to the Mets at the end of the month. I still think they’re counting on too much from Chipper Jones, Mike Hampton and even John Smoltz, all of whom have age and/or injury issues. Plus, Andruw Jones is gone, and Mark Kotsay cannot fill those shoes, even after Andruw’s down year in ’07.

Atlanta does get a full season from Mark Teixeira, who’s 27 and in his contract year. He’s next winter’s top free agent, with what figures to be no fewer than four teams seriously chasing him. First, there’s the Braves, who will be going after the Georgia Tech product and may take advantage of a year without Andruw’s salary to make a competitive offer. Second is his hometown Orioles, who will need a veteran cornerstone after a year of development from just about every other player in their lineup. Third and fourth, you’ll have the two New York teams with first-base openings and some big contracts coming off the books — more for the Yankees, who won’t have Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina in 2009.

I’m not as sold on the pitching. Smoltz is now on the DL, though he should be back to face the Mets in the season’s second series. Hampton — please. Tim Hudson remains a big-game pitcher for them, but as good a guy as Tom Glavine is and what he did for the Mets for the better part of his five years in New York, his final start at Shea was nothing short of disastrous. Was it the beginning of the end? Too soon to tell, because in the end, it was just one start. I love Rafael Soriano as the closer, but the middle relief in recent years has not been as good as that of past Braves championship teams.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Not much, because despite two years of third-place finishes, I still don’t like the Braves. I’ve always been a fan of Teixeira, so hopefully he has a down year and the Mets sign him at a relative discount (relative to what he should make). I’m not sure what kind of reaction Glavine will get at Shea, but my guess would be an unfavorable one. I can see the fans remembering the final day against the Marlins more than any near-no-hitters or Opening Day wins he had. The final line on Glavine’s Mets career: 61-56, 3.97 ERA, 1.38 WHIP. His first start, a 15-2 Opening Day loss to the Cubs in 2003: 3 2/3 8 hits, 5 earned runs, 4 walk, 2 strikeouts. His last one:
1/3, 5 hits, 7 earned runs, 2 walks, 0 strikeouts.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

In general

The Mets’ rivalry with the Braves never seemed to be that heated to me, except when they played. Perhaps it was distance, but more likely it was the fact that it was so one-sided. The Mets were the younger brother trying to knock the older brother off the couch, similar to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry … until 2004. But now, New York has a rivalry with Philadelphia in baseball. In some ways, the Mets-Phillies rivalry was similar to Mets-Braves, with the Mets in the Braves’ position of superiority (they’ve had more winning seasons and more playoff appearances than the Phillies in the past decade) and the Phillies playing the part of the young upstarts. Now, it’s a true, full-blown face-off, with many picking the clubs as the top two in the division.

I don’t buy it, for one reason: Pitching. The Phillies, as I said before, led the division for just four days and won by one game. Yet they did it with 11 starts from Kyle Lohse down the stretch and 12 from Jon Leiber over the season — and didn’t feel a need to re-sign either one. They did it with a 6.29 ERA over 30 starts from Adam Eaton, one of the worst ERAs for a full-time starter in baseball history. And they did it with a magical 10-4 performance over 20 starts from rookie Kyle Kendrick, despite his 3.64 K/9 ratio.

Brett Myers returns to the front of the rotation, which helps, and Cole Hamels may be the best No. 2 starter outside of Arizona, but after that they’re relying on 45-year-old Jamie Moyer (5.01 ERA in ’07), Kendrick and Eaton. Myers is back in the rotation because of the acquisition of closer Brad Lidge, but he had knee surgery in the spring and starts on the DL — meaning shaky 38-year-old Tom Gordon begins the season closing games. When he returns, Lidge has to adjust to another homer-heavy ballpark, recover from his surgery and overcome blown saves in front of the tough Philly fans. If I were a Phillies fan, the bullpen would concern me, but the rotation would terrify me.

Luckily for them, the Phillies play in a glorified minor league park. Well, a big league park with a minor league left field wall. Jimmy Rollins, free-agent-to-be Pat Burrell and free-agent gone Aaron Rowand have all taken advantage of it. Rollins and Burrell will again, as will new third baseman Pedro Feliz. But there are holes now in center and right fields, where I’m not sure Shane Victorino (center) is an everyday player (I know he played a lot in 2007, but we’ll have to see if he can adjust to pitchers exposing his weaknesses on a regular basis) and the combo of Jayson Werth and Geoff Jenkins in right isn’t any worse than what the Mets are going with in Ryan Church. When you’re counting on Burrell to be the anchor in the outfield, the best hitter of the bunch, you’d better be pretty sure of what you’re getting from him.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

A collapse, a plunge, a slow start followed by a long summer and a double-digit deficit and barely-.500 record in September. What can I say? I’ve got my team, and this isn’t it. Look, there are some good players and better guys, particularly Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Utley is the MVP of this team, regardless of the last two writers’ votes, and he probably would’ve won it last year if he hadn’t been out for a month. Howard will have to avoid 200 strikeouts or risk seeing his batting average plummet for a second straight season (.313 in 2006, .268 in ’07) and his homers take another dip (58 to 47), but he should reach 40 again, easily. And Hamels will have to put his unhappiness with his contract behind him for one more season. Look, kid, I know you’re confident in your abilities and all, but you’ve had one full, healthy season as a big leaguer. You’ve shown you can do it, now show you can do it again. Then you’ll have earned your payday. There’s nothing wrong with making $500,000.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

In general

The Nationals signed Odalis Perez to a minor league deal on Feb. 19. He was seen as insurance in case oft-injured John Patterson or Shawn Hill was not ready to start the season. Patterson has since been released, Hill is indeed injured, and Perez will be the Opening Day starter on Sunday night as the team opens Nationals Park. Wow. I’ve often chuckled at the pie-in-the-sky expectations some with this team have had this offseason, but how do you say those things when your rotation is Perez, Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann and Hill?

There’s a lot to like with Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, but the team will have to watch Dukes — and, to a lesser extent, Milledge — as he adjusts to a new team and new city, considering his history. I’m all for second chances and I hope Dukes can turn his life and career around the way Josh Hamilton did, though Dukes’ transgressions didn’t involve hard-core drugs and life-threatening choices. But 100 RBIs from each of them, including Zimmerman, who should reach that mark? (There are those expectations again.) To do that, you need to have guys on base, and if Cristian Guzman is going to be the leadoff hitter with his projected .310 OBP, there’s no way Milledge gets to 100, especially if he’s hitting second. And Dukes will have to play enough to do so, but when Wily Mo Pena returns, Dukes may return to fourth-outfielder status, unless he starts off on a tear. Zimmerman had 91 RBIs last year and no one else had more than 74. The new ballpark should increase scoring, but I don’t think it will be by that much to get three 100-RBI guys.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

I’d like to see this team take another step forward, though I would prefer they do that mostly against the Braves and Phillies. They need pitching, and that will come, but by 2010, we could be seeing a four-deep division with the Mets, Phillies, Braves and Nationals competing like the D-backs, Rockies, Padres and Dodgers will be in the West this year. And I’m looking forward to my as-yet-undetermined trip to D.C. to see the new ballpark. Plus, I’m anticipating Opening Night, when the Braves and Nats start the season in earnest on ESPN.

FLORIDA MARLINS

In general

This certainly is Hanley Ramirez’s team now, isn’t it? Gone are Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, leaving Ramirez as the lone star, the face of the franchise, and the clear Marlins representative in New York in July for the All-Star Game. Ramirez and Dan Uggla … and what? There’s Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham, who are slowly but surely rounding into solid players. There’s Jeremy Hermida, an outfielder who came up with a bang (a grand slam in his first at-bat) but struggled with injuries last year. And there’s a hothead in Scott Olsen as the only recognizable face in the rotation, with the possible exception of Ricky Nolasco. I mean, this team’s Opening Day starter is Mark Hendrickson! Even among basketball big men in the league, he’s still only No. 2, behind San Diego’s Chris Young.

I really don’t know what else there is to say about a team that dumps its best players every four years — is this a college program? — leaving its fans to wait another year or two for the prospects to mature. The two biggest pieces of the Cabrera/Willis deal are outfielder Cameron Maybin, who’s starting the season in the minors, and pitcher Andrew Miller, who struggled mightily in the start I saw him pitch against the Dodgers in Vero Beach.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

How will losing Cabrera affect Ramirez’s production? And will he run less, as manager Fredi Gonzalez would like? And when will they start building that new stadium? In 2009, Dolphin Stadium will be the oldest ballpark in the NL East. Amazing.

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