July 6, 2007

Around the Horn: NL East

Around the Horn goes through all the teams in a certain division, talking about what they've done right, what they've done wrong, and what they need to do to get better. Usually I'll get to about two divisions a week. Today: the NL East.

New York: The Mets were thought to be easily the best team in the NL at the beginning of the season, but I'm not sure that's true anymore; personally, I'd probably take either the Brewers or the Padres ahead of them at this point. Their lineup was supposed to be amazing, but they're just eighth in the league in runs scored. None of their regulars have an OPS above .900, though David Wright is just a few points below it, and Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are also in the 800's. Shawn Green has a .770 OPS, but that certainly doesn't tell the whole story; he's hitting a stellar .309/.356/.511 (BA/OBP/SLG) against righties, but shouldn't be in the lineup against lefties (.208/.274/.273). Unfortunately, due to the Mets' injury problems and talent problems at the corner outfield spots, they have to keep Green in the lineup pretty much every day. Moises Alou hit well when he was playing, but he's been out since mid-May due to injury, meaning the Mets have to keep giving at-bats to players like Carlos Gomez (.303 OBP, though he's injured too) and Ricky Ledee (who had an OBP of .242 last year). Lastings Milledge has been hurt, though I'm not sure they'd want to bring him up even if he was healthy. I guess his trade value must be kinda shot, as the Mets don't like his personality but haven't dealt him yet. Second base and catcher have been problem areas for the Mets as well; Paul Lo Duca hasn't hit for any power this year, and he's not getting on base that often either, and Damion Easley and Jose Valentin haven't given the Mets much at second.

One surprise for the Mets this year has been their pitching; they're 5th in the NL in runs allowed. John Maine has been excellent, though he was somehow snubbed from the All-Star roster so Tony La Russa could bring on a few extra relievers. Oliver Perez is also having a surprisingly good year; he's got a 3.16 ERA, the first time it's been under 5 since 2004. Perez's K rate is actually down a little from past years, but he's actually found his control; he cut his walk rate in half from the last two years. He has allowed an abnormally low amount of hits this year, which probably won't continue, but his ERA won't rise that much, thanks to his newfound control. The other Mets starters have been decent; they could probably use another starter for depth reasons, but I'm not sure it's a pressing need. The Mets' bullpen has been terrific; Billy Wagner has been lights-out as the closer, and Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano have ERAs below 3.

The Mets were considered favorites to deal for Mark Buehrle a couple weeks ago, but that seems very unlikely now; Buehrle may not be traded, and if he is, it probably won't be to the Mets. They still do seem to be unwilling to trade Milledge, although I'm not sure he's really that type of impact player. They've been liked to the Nationals' relievers, but they won't trade Milledge within the division, and they definitely won't trade him for a couple of relievers. If Jose Contreras is traded, the Mets are a pretty likely destination, but I don't really see the Mets making any big moves. It would really be nice to find a platoon partner for Green and/or another outfielder to play, though...I really don't know who might fit that bill, but they really should get somebody.

Atlanta: This spring was the first time in my life the Braves entered a season without being the reigning NL East champions, and they're within striking distance to do it again. Not many people are taking notice, but Chipper Jones is hitting like crazy; he missed some games in the beginning of the year, but he's OPSing 1.019 for the year. Edgar Renteria is having a great year as well, possibly the best of any NL shortstop, but got left off the All-Star team so Freddy Sanchez could be on. Kelly Johnson is a converted outfielder, but his defense at second base has been decent, and his offensive production has certainly justified the move. Jeff Francoeur is still having plate discipline issues, though, and Brian McCann and especially Andrew Jones are having poor seasons by their standards (Jones is still below the Mendoza line). They're experimenting with Jarrond Saltalamacchia at first base, which I don't really get since he's a competent defensive catcher, but I'll write more on that later. Salty can hit, which is good, because their other first baseman (Scott Thorman) can't; Thorman has received over 200 at-bats despite posting just a .257 OBP.

Pitching-wise, John Smoltz is a deserving All-Star, and Tim Hudson's overall numbers are good, though he has been inconsistent. Chuck James doesn't have quite the potential of some of the other young pitchers in the league, but his 3.96 ERA is very solid. The weak link in the rotation has been Kyle Davies, who has an ERA over 6. The bullpen was a complete disaster last year, and they tried to rebuild it at the deadline, with some success; their middle relief seems fine, but I don't think any Braves fan will be safe as long as Bob Wickman and his 1.52 WHIP is still the closer.

So the Braves do need bullpen help; unfortunately, it's a seller's market on relievers (like every year). Their prime target seems to be Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka; he's signed through 2009, but he's also in his late 30's. They're looking at first basemen, too; they've looked at the Nationals' "All-Star" first baseman Dimitri Young, and they've also talked with the White Sox about their starters. I definitely think John Schuerholz will end up with another reliever by the time August rolls around.

Philadelphia: Scoring runs has not been the problem for the Phillies; they've scored the most runs in the league. That's partly a function of their cozy ballpark, but it's also a function of their great offense. Ryan Howard is a star. Chase Utley is the best second baseman in the game, and it's not even close. Jimmy Rollins is one of the many great NL shortstops; he's slugging .511 this year, although he's misused as a leadoff hitter because of his low OBP. Aaron Rowand is having a career year. Pat Burrell may be hated, but he doesn't suck; his .371 OBP would help any team. Shane Victorino has been fine in right field, posting basically league-average numbers. Third base and catcher haven't been extremely productive positions for the Phillies, but they don't really need a whole lot more offensive production.

The other half of the game has been a problem for the Phillies, though. Again, some of this can be explained by the Phillies' small ballpark, but they've allowed the most runs in the NL (tied with the Reds, who also play in a bandbox). The Brett Myers fiasco was really strange - he was their #2 starter coming into the year, and he pitched well last year, but he had a couple poor starts to begin the season, so they moved him to the bullpen; he eventually took over the closer role, but got hurt a little while ago. Cole Hamels has been great; I think he deserves to be an All-Star - he has struck out more than a batter per inning, and has a very low WHIP for a starter (1.21). Jamie Moyer has been as effective as the Phillies could have hoped for, making every start and posting a 4.25 ERA. But that's pretty much where the list of effective Phillies starters stops, and to make matters worse, their bullpen isn't really any better. Closer Antonio Alfonseca is notable for having six fingers on each hand; unfortunately for the Phillies, his pitching is much more forgettable. And Jose Mesa is their set-up guy.

The Phillies are in an awkward position at the trade deadline; they have two teams ahead of them in the divisional race and four teams in front of them for the wild card, but they can't really give up on the season when they're above .500. Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds give them a roughly 10% chance of making the playoffs, but that's at least somewhat probable. They're looking at Akinori Otsuka also, as well as just about every other reliever on the market, but they need a starter even more. I wouldn't be surprised if a Steve Trachsel-type pitcher ends up in Philly.

Florida: This year's Marlins team is rather unremarkable. Miguel Cabrera will outgrow the third base position soon, but he's still one of the five best hitters in the NL. Hanley Ramirez was the All-Star team's biggest snub; he is every bit as good and as young as Jose Reyes. Dan Uggla is following a surprising rookie season with another good year; he's slugging .499, although his OBP is a paltry .319. Josh Willingham is playing a good left field also, OPSing above .800. Center field could use some upgrading; Alfredo Amezaga has an OPS of just .675. Catcher could use even more upgrading; Miguel Olivo's OBP is just .269.

The Marlins' pitching looked great last year, but it hasn't been nearly as good this year. Josh Johnson missed almost all of the first half with some nerve problems in his arm, and he's back on the DL with more elbow trouble. Sergio Mitre is the Marlins' only starter with an ERA below 4.50. Dontrelle Willis is doing nothing to dispel the notion that he is overrated, as his WHIP is above 1.50 and his K/9 is just a little over 6. It might be wise for the Marlins to trade him while they still control him and his value is still high. Scott Olsen should be a very good pitcher long-term, as he's a power-throwing lefty, but he's not doing great this year. Their bullpen is somewhat unremarkable, as they have a bunch of good relievers but no standouts.

The Marlins tried to trade for Jacque Jones, but it didn't work out, and I'm not sure what other trades they can make. Personally, I would try to trade Willis if I were the Marlins, because I don't think his value will ever be higher than it is now. The Rockies and Diamondbacks both might be good trade partners for a Willis deal, if it does happen; my gut feeling is that he goes nowhere, however. And don't even bother putting together deals for Miguel Cabrera; they're not trading him.

Washington: Some people were expecting the Nationals to challenge the Mets' all-time futility record of 120 losses before the season. That's not going to happen, at this point, which is good news for Nationals fans. The bad news? Your team's still going to lose 95 games, and you've got absolutely no hope at contending in the near future. The other four teams in the division have lots of good young talent; not only do the Nationals have nothing in the big leagues right now, they have pretty much nothing in the minors either. Dimitri Young has actually hit well, with a .906 OPS, and Christian Guzman somewhat randomly has a .850 OPS (although he's only played about half the games so far), but the next-best OPS on the team is Ryan Church's .755. RFK Stadium is a pitcher's park, but this offense just isn't good. And the pitching is worse - they haven't really gotten a solid rotation down, mostly because most of their pitchers suck. Chad Cordero and Jesus Colome have been good out of the bullpen, making them attractive to teams looking for relievers, but their dangerously heavy workloads may scare away most teams.

Last year, the Nationals failed to trade away Alfonso Soriano, and instead walked away with just a pair of draft picks when Alfonso Soriano signed with the Cubs. This year, they'll try to learn from their mistake, as they do have some relievers that people want. The Mets definitely have interest in Cordero, as do a lot of other teams. But will they pull the trigger?

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