Friday, April 5, 2013

Nationals shape up as new NL East dynasty

The National League East has been a division of local dynasties. The Atlanta Braves won it for 11 straight years. Then the Philadelphia Phillies won it five straight times. Time for a new dynasty. The Washington Nationals.

Bryce Harper is up for the Washington Nationals for the whole season in 2013. He will be good for a very long time. So, one supposes, will the Nationals (MissChatter/Creative Commons).

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The Atlanta Braves won the National League East every year from 1995 through 2005, rebooted and returned in 2010 with a consistently strong team. But not strong enough to win the division again.

The Philadelphia Phillies were primed to become the division's next kingpin, but that didn't happen right away. The New York Mets combined young stars David Wright and Jose Reyes with Carlos Delgado's last good year and Carlos Beltran's best year to win the division in 2006, when they were easily the National League's best team. 

The Mets were going to win the NL East again in 2007. They held a seven-game lead through Sept. 12. But the Phillies went to Shea Stadium and swept three from the Mets, cutting the difference to 3 1/2 games and starting up a race. Turns out, the Mets lost 12 of their last 17 and the Phillies won 13 of their last 17 to sneak past the Mets by a game. By then, the Phillies had a core of Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Cole Hamels in place. Aided by astute pitching additions such as Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the Phillies would win the division five straight times, adding on six playoff series victories, two NL pennants and a World Championship.

Along, then, came 2012, which began with Howard and Utley on the disabled list. The Phillies couldn't cover and went to the All-Star break with a 37-50 record, losing 12 of their last 15 and falling to 14 games out of first place. Ryan and Utley were back in the lineup for the second half and the Phillies were their old selves, 44-31 after the All-Star break as they rallied to the fringe of the wild card race. 

By then, though, the division was changed, maybe for a very long time.

A young group of talent with the Washington Nationals leaped forward, managed by the great Davey Johnson. From 69 wins in 2010 to 80 wins in 2011, the Nationals already were 49-34 at the 2012 All-Star break, and they just never let go, even though the Braves stayed right with them and the Phillies began winning consistently.

Now, 2013 is coming, and it's just impossible to predict that anyone but Washington will win this division. The Nationals are even better now than at the start of last year. Bryce Harper is up this time for the whole season. Kurt Suzuki, who substantially upgraded their catching after a mid-season trade, is around for the whole year. Jayson Werth is back after missing half of last season with a wrist injury. The Nationals traded for a good center fielder, Denard Span. They signed a good free agent, Rafael Soriano, as their new closer. Stephen Strasburg will not be limited to 160 innings.

And all of that will be added to an impressive core of young, established talent. Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Drew Storen all will be between 25 and 29 years old in 2013. The Nats also brought back free agent Adam LaRoche, the next guy down from Adrian Gonzalez and Joey Votto among National League first basemen.

The only way to ruin this team is at the negotiating table, and that's not coming around for another nine months. So, make way for the Nationals. A lot of people believe the Braves will make trouble for them. We don't. Sometimes, we think the Phillies might have one last campaign, and that if they can go to it with all their guys for the whole year, they might teach these kids lesson. But the news coming from spring training said Halladay is out of velocity and command, and Lee didn't get people out, and that staff full of aces might be down to Cole Hamels.

Of all the clubs across the National League, the Nationals are the easiest to pencil in as a division winner. Last year, the Nats were among the best offensive clubs in the National League. This year, they might be the best, certainly the best in the NL East. Their pitching staff -- starting rotation and bullpen -- is right there on top of the NL with Cincinnati, if not a little ahead. Defensively, they are plus up the middle with Suzuki, Espinosa, Desmond and Span, and all of those guys can kick in offensively. Balls hit to the left side will have to deal with Zimmerman and Harper. Almost the entire team is younger than 30, but the Nats also have key veterans like LaRoche, Werth and Dan Haren who have, between them, been on nine postseason teams outside of Washington. And they have the best manager going.

Johnson is 70 years old, he has 16 years of managing in the big leagues, and he has finished first six times and second seven times. It says volumes about what has happened in baseball management that Johnson didn't work for ten years, from 2001 through 2010, because Johnson isn't the kind of guy who's sitting behind his desk in his underwear at one in the afternoon waiting for the general manager to come down and dictate the lineup. But he knows better than anyone what to do when the light goes on. So, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo took a lot of heat last year for sitting Strasburg after 160 innings, but if he's willing and able to work with Johnson, then he's got something going that a lot of other GMs in the game don't.

Only one little chink in this armor presents itself, and it is the kind of thing that can hurt. There are times in life when you need to get a left-handed hitter out in the sixth or seventh inning to keep the game under control, and the Nats don't have an obvious left-handed reliever for the job. Their two good lefties from last year's bullpen, Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny, both signed as free agents with Milwaukee. Veteran lefty Zach Duke made the Nats as a reliever, but he is a four-pitch guy without a magic bullet and he has been slapped around by left-handed hitters for a .748 OPS in his career entering 2013. 

Maybe it won't matter. Maybe Washington's starters will go seven innings every day. Maybe the Nationals will score so much that they can take a punch in the sixth or seventh inning. When you scan this club looking for flaws, all that emerges is this one little, common situation, but games turn on this situation. Chances are, the Nats will whistle past it. Although the Nats will not sneak up on people this year, taking them down is going to be a big job.

Our favorite candidate is the Phillies, assuming, for the purposes of forecast, that Halladay will not be great and that Lee is just working on pitches this spring. Along with bringing Howard and Utley back for the whole season, the Phillies made some nice upgrades.

Domonic Brown finally happened this spring, and he profiles as a fast, powerful right fielder along the lines of Atlanta's Jason Heyward and Miami's Giancarlo Stanton. The Texas Rangers made a big mistake in trading away Michael Young, and Philadelphia is the beneficiary. In his best days, Young was a 200-hit machine and, more recently, he excelled in a super-utility role to help the Rangers win two pennants. He's 35 now and he was down last year, but he's playing for another contract and the Phillies are giving him third base. Expect a productive season from him.

The Phillies paid Jonathan Papelbon $11 million last year to be their closer, then kept losing leads before they could give him the ball. During the winter, they signed Mike Adams, who is about as good as it gets for an eighth-inning reliever. And Phillippe Aumont is ready to make a contribution. Seattle took Aumont No. 11 overall in the 2007 draft, then shipped him to the Phillies in exchange for Lee in 2009. The Phillies moved Aumont to the bullpen, he started getting people out, and now appears to be the time for the 6-foot-7 right hander. 

Progressing year by year, the Braves reached the playoffs in 2012 as a strong first wild card with 94 wins. But they made some changes and they're licking some wounds. They might have too many holes for a return to the playoffs.

Catcher Brian McCann, a key piece of this team, is entering his age 29 season off shoulder surgery. He hasn't played all spring and, even if he does return before the end of April, his throwing arm will be an issue. Zapping out base stealers has never been a strong part of his game -- 24 percent against a league average of 27 percent during his career. Chipper Jones, now retired, was still producing last year and the Braves don't have an obvious replacement, though the spring numbers suggest that a platoon of Chris Johnson from the right and Juan Francisco from the left might work. Second baseman Dan Uggla suffered a big offensive decline in 2012 and he is entering his age 33 season. And Brandon Beachy, who led the NL with a 2.00 ERA when he went under the knife last year, still is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The starting rotation is questionable. Tim Hudson is 37, and he's always been pretty good, but it's pretty easy to name eight or nine guys who you would rather have as a No. 1 starter. Kris Medlen went 10-1 as a midseason call-up last year, but it's not established that he can maintain for a whole season. Lefty Paul Maholm is 31 with two straight solid seasons behind him (3.66 ERA, 351 innings combined). The Braves will hope for more of the same and better yet from 25-year-old lefty Mike Minor. Julio Teheran, 22, is thoroughly unproven. The Braves do have three very solid performers for their bullpen in Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.

The Braves made headlines by bringing in the two Upton brothers, Bossman Junior and Justin, but it's not obvious that the Uptons are upgrades, for they replace two dynamic players in Martin Prado and Michael Bourn. Prado, in particular, is one of the game's unsung heroes, a .300 hitter and .800 OPS performer at five positions with presence of mind and flair for the dramatic. He doesn't show up in the baseball columns, but he definitely shows up in the games. The Braves might miss him more than they know, but they're still powerful contenders in a three-team race with Washington and Philadelphia.

The top three will feast on a dreary bottom two, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, both of which are scandalized by their own ownership.

The National League, in recent years, has suffered from the travails of its three big city teams -- the Mets, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers appear to have solved their problems with new ownership, the Cubs have, perhaps, intensified their problems with new ownership, and the Mets are muddling along with the same ownership. Mired in debt and entangled in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme for the last several years, Mets owner Fred Wilpon appears no closer to building a contender. The Mets have some guys who might someday be somebody, but right now they've got nobody except for third baseman David Wright.

We're not as hard on Miami owner Jeffrey Loria as a lot of commentators are, but we're not as easy on him as Bud Selig, either. Loria is under a lot of heat for unloading several established players from his 2012 club, never mind that the Marlins' $118 million outfit was a last place team in 2012. If you're going to finish last, you might as well spend only $35 million, which the Marlins are paying this year. Either way, Loria's sell-off doesn't approach the most outrageous sell-off in Marlins history, which would have been Wayne Huizenga's fire sale right after the Marlins won the 1997 World Series.

That certainly wasn't the only Marlins folly under Huizenga. Putting the team in Fort Lauderdale for all those years was even worse. This franchise needed to be in Miami all along, but Huizenga is a Fort Lauderdale guy, so that's how it went. The more rabid South Florida baseball fans are in Miami, particularly the Cuban community. The Marlins might never sign a big time Cuban defector because of it. The pressure would be too great. But the Marlins stand to work up a solid base of fans there. 

So, all was looking great for the Marlins going to 2012 as they were set to open Marlins Park in the Little Havana section of Miami and Loria ponied up with a $118 million payroll.

Meanwhile, the Chicago White Sox were hoping to unload manager Ozzie Guillen before his mouth damaged the franchise, and Loria was glad to take him -- just in time for Guillen's mouth to damage the Marlins. Proclaiming, "I love Fidel Castro," just as the Marlins were about to open a new stadium in Little Havana might have been the most tone-deaf remark of 2012, at least right with any number of statements made during the election season. The season just had to fail. A Miami baseball team with a manager saying he loves Fidel Castro is a public relations disaster even if the team does win.

So, the Marlins are starting over, and they might as well. Guillen is gone, and so are key players from last season's belly-up ball club. Loria still is there, which isn't great news. But it's a new season, and that's always great news.

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