With Opening Day on the horizon it’s time to take a look at the National League East. The national media will tell us this is the best division in the N.L. but I’m not so sure. Philadelphia and Atlanta should be good and the Mets will be bad. The jury is still out on Miami and Washington. Here’s a closer look at all five squads.
The Atlanta Braves looked to be on course for a playoff berth in 2011, but a late season collapse resulted in an abrupt stop to the tomahawk chop. The Braves feature a core group of young players that should be better equipped to deal with the pressure of a pennant chase the next time around. This season could very well afford them that opportunity.
Jason Heyward has been launching baseballs into outer space this spring and appears ready to bounce back from last season’s sophomore slump. Fellow outfielders Michael Bourn and Martin Prado provide on-base potential at the top of the order for run producers Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, and Freddie Freeman in the middle. Chipper Jones is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and hopes to be ready for the Braves home opener on April 13. Jones has already announced that he will retire after the season and the Braves recently acquired Juan Francisco as Chipper’s heir apparent at 3B. Francisco was hitting only .196 for the Reds this spring but four of his ten hits left the park. Rookie SS Tyler Pastornicky (.221/.270/.250 this spring) rounds out the order.
Tommy Hanson gets the Opening Day assignment on the mound for the Braves. Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and Brandon Beachy will follow in the starting rotation for skipper Fredi Gonzalez. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are still battling for the fifth spot in the rotation, a role that Tim Hudson will assume once he is fully recovered from offseason back surgery. Hudson made his spring debut Monday and said he felt “totally normal.”
The bullpen is anchored by youngsters Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. Kimbrel took home the 2011 N.L. Rookie of the Year Award after leading the league with 46 saves and posting an impressive 127 strikeouts in only 77 innings. Kimbrel, a lefty, provides the Braves with a lethal one-two punch late in games. A member of the 2011All-Star squad, Venters appeared in a league leading 85 games and finished the year with a 1.09 WHIP and a 1.84 ERA. Lefty Eric O’Flaherty also had a nice year and returns in 2012. Righty Christhian Martinez also nailed down a bullpen spot prior to being arrested on DUI charges Monday morning.
The Miami (don’t call us Florida) Marlins made big news at the Winter Meetings by signing Free Agents Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle to big-money contracts. The Marlins have a new stadium, new uniforms, and a new manager named Ozzie Guillen. Miami gets to showcase it all in front of a national audience when they open up the regular season on ESPN Wednesday at 7:00 EDT.
A healthy Josh Johnson could be the key to the Marlins hopes of contending in 2012. Injuries limited Johnson to only nine starts last season but the staff ace is now healthy and will start Wednesday’s opener against St. Louis. Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Carlos Zambrano follow Johnson and Buehrle in what should be considered one of the top rotations in baseball.
With Jose Reyes penciled in at SS, Hanley Ramirez moves over to third base. John Buck provides some pop from the catcher’s position and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton can hit the ball out of any ballpark. The 22 year-old Stanton, formerly known as Mike, appears to be on his way to becoming a superstar. Another “player to be named later” is Juan Oviedo. The reliever formerly known as Leo Nunez is on the restricted list as authorities try to sort out his identity crisis. Edward Mujica and lefty Mike Dunn have secured bullpen spots for the Marlins.
The Marlins have plenty of talented players. What remains to be seen is whether or not personalities like Zambrano and Logan Morrison can coexist with the volatile Ozzie Guillen. It should be an interesting year in Miami.
New York Mets fans could be in for a long season. The good news is- staff ace Johan Santana is ready to take the mound on Opening Day against Atlanta. Shoulder surgery cost Santana all of last season. R.A. Dickey, Jonathan Niese, Mike Pelfrey, and Dillon Gee make up the rest of the Mets rotation. The uninspiring foursome combined for a 39-43 last season. Dickey had an impressive 3.28 ERA but the rest of the group finished the year at 4.40 or higher.
Frank Francisco is the Mets new closer. Jon Rauch and Manny Acosta will setup. Rauch also provides an option for Terry Collins should Francisco’s sore left knee continue to be a problem. Flame-throwing Bobby Parnell has had an impressive spring working in long relief.
The Mets hope David Wright can stay healthy this season and return to his old form. First-baseman Ike Davis also had an injury plagued 2011 and LF Jason Bay has yet to be as advertised. The Mets have a youth-filled lineup including SS Ruben Tejada, who replaces the departed Jose Reyes. Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy are a couple of guys that could give opposing pitchers trouble.
The Philadelphia Phillies still have one of the best starting rotations in the league but their offense has been decimated by injuries. Roy Oswalt is gone but the Phils still have three capable starters behind the big three of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels.
Ryan Howard is still recovering from an Achilles injury and Chase Utley’s right knee just refuses to cooperate. Third-baseman Placido Polanco has also spent a lot of time on the D.L. recently. The Phils added utility man Ty Wigginton to help fill the gaps and are still looking for another infielder. Michael Martinez was a Rule 5 pick last year and stuck around all season. The versatile youngster could see additional playing time in 2012. Outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino are two of the best in the business and John Mayberry should take on a bigger role this year after hitting .273/.341/.513 in 267 at-bats last season. The Phillies also signed veteran speedster Juan Pierre as outfield insurance and brought back Jim Thome to pinch-hit. Veterans Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz are back but an aging offense could see their window of opportunity beginning to close.
Ruben Amaro made a good decision by deciding against re-signing Ryan Madson. Or maybe he just got lucky. Madson signed with the Reds and is now out for the year after suffering an elbow injury that will require Tommy John surgery. The Phillies upgraded at the closer’s position by signing Jonathan Papelbon instead of Madson.
The Washington Nationals will start the season with closer Drew Storen and outfielders Mike Morse and Rick Ankiel on the disabled list. But Nationals fans will still have to wait a bit before top prospect Bryce Harper lands in the district. However, Stephen Strasburg is back and will start on Opening Day. Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson were added to a rotation that also includes Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan. I think Gonzalez could prove to be a key acquisition. Even without Storen, the bullpen is still in good shape with the likes of Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard, and newcomer Brad Lidge.
The double-play combo of Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond will need to take it up a notch if the Nats are to contend. Espinosa has shown power potential but Desmond hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. Ryan Zimmerman is back and having a nice spring. First-baseman Adam LaRoche returns after missing all but 43 games in 2011. Wilson Ramos survived the ordeal in Venezuela to win the starting catcher’s job. The Nats are improving but aren’t quite there yet.