NL East Preseason Outlook

by | Staff Writer

Philadelphia Phillies

2010 record: 97-65
Finish: First place, lost to San Francisco Giants in NLCS
Manager: Charlie Manuel, seventh season

Spring training site: Clearwater, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 14
First full workout: Feb. 19

Key additions: Cliff Lee
Key losses: Chad Durbin, Jayson Werth

Offseason grade: B

Cliff Lee  returns to the Phillies in hopes of winning one more postseason series than they did in 2009. (Getty Images)  
Cliff Lee returns to the Phillies in hopes of winning one more postseason series than they did in 2009. (Getty Images)  
The Phillies lost a major part of their offense in Werth, but gained a fourth ace (who's next, Felix Hernandez?) and should weather Werth's departure by working in Domonic Brown. The Phillies are the class of the NL East, and while their spending has limited their ability to add depth and the team isn't getting any younger, Philadelphia is still prime time.

2011 outlook

Offense: Could be a weak link (relatively, of course) thanks to the reliance on left-handers up and down the lineup, exacerbated by the righty Werth being exchanged for the lefty Brown. However, this is still a strong and deep lineup, although the ability for Jimmy Rollins to bounce back from two sub-par seasons will go a long way toward determining how the lineup performs. One issue is how much Raul Ibanez has in the tank -- if he's done, Ben Francisco will have to step in and gut the backup outfield depth chart. The Phillies are also among the better teams when it comes to speed, which should bolster an offense that might otherwise sputter.

Defense: The Phillies are a quality defensive club. Ibanez is a butcher in left, but there are no other glaring holes. In fact, the defense may be able to keep the offense from being exposed -- although, of course, the pitching will do most of the work here.

Pitching: The real story is in the rotation, where the club boasts four aces and a solid No. 3 in Joe Blanton, who will be pitching out of the fifth spot. All of the pitchers are durable and injury risks aren't as prevalent. By virtue of their rotation alone, the Phillies will contend for the best ERA in the league. There's even depth with Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley. The bullpen is where things get dicey as the club prefers to rely on its internal options. There are no issues with the closer or setup men, but middle relief is rather soft and could prove a concern.

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Intangibles: The Phillies have won the East four years in a row, claimed the World Series in 2008, lost to the Yankees in the 2009 World Series and were ousted in the 2010 NLCS by the Giants. Clearly, leadership is no problem and may actually have been improved, as Lee loves Philadelphia and the uncertainty surrounding Werth is gone. But the pressure on the Phillies to win is perhaps greater than it ever has been. Can the Phils handle it? Of course -- they've proven that. But when the slightest thing goes wrong, the media and fan base are going to go crazy. If Philadelphia doesn't win the World Series, there will be plenty of broken hearts. It's an awful lot of baggage and responsibility to cart around.

Key player: Now that Werth is gone, it's necessary for Ryan Howard to get back on top of his game in the last year of his original deal. (Yep, one more year until the ridiculous five-year, $125 million deal kicks in.) Howard had a career-worst season in 2010, which was still a darn good season, but he's being paid for much more than that. After hitting just 31 home runs, he needs to ramp that back up to the 40-50 range and continue his 2010 progress in not becoming a glorified platoon player.

Top prospect: The Phillies didn't try very hard to keep Werth and that's because of the presence of Brown. He won't get full playing time right out of the gate after struggling to adjust to the bigs in 2010, but seems a mortal lock to emerge as an All-Star over the next several seasons. Brown is a five-tool player and will be 23.

For the season to be successful: Win the World Series. It's that simple. With a super rotation, a formidable offense that excels in every category and a top defense, the Phillies are the team to beat heading into the season. Anything less is a disappointment.

Atlanta Braves

2010 record: 91-71
Finish: Second place, wild card, lost to San Francisco Giants in NLDS
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez, first season

Spring training site: Kissimmee, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 15
First full workout: Feb. 19

Key additions: Scott Linebrink, Dan Uggla
Key losses: Troy Glaus, Derrek Lee, Omar Infante, Takashi Saito, Billy Wagner

Offseason grade: B-

The Braves upgraded their offense with Uggla but stayed pat otherwise in the hopes their internal options will be up to the task. Their lack of depth in left and center field is concerning, given the possibility Martin Prado shifts to third base and Nate McLouth fails to hit.

The Braves add some power in slugger Dan Uggla. (US Presswire)  
The Braves add some power in slugger Dan Uggla. (US Presswire)  
2011 outlook Offense: The Braves were a middle-of-the-pack offense in 2010, and that should tick up with the addition of Uggla, although it remains to be seen what offense they can get out of McLouth in center field. Chipper Jones' return will be integral to the team as any setback will put Prado at third and a motley assortment of hitters manning left. The team will graduate rookie Freddie Freeman to play first, but he's not expected to contribute anything beyond what Gaby Sanchez did for Florida in 2010.

Defense: There is concern how a middling defensive club will adjust to Uggla at second, where he will never be considered for a Gold Glove. The Braves are shifting Prado to left field despite just four career games in the outfield, three in left. He is a below-average fielder at second and above-average at third, so who really knows how he will perform out there? In the end, the defense shouldn't win any games -- but not lose any, either.

Pitching: The rotation is deep and formidable and Tommy Hanson has a chance to emerge as an ace -- not of the team, but of the actual term. Mike Minor could also surprise if he is able to hold up over a full season -- that will depend on how he prepared in the offseason. The bullpen has the potential to be electric with Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, but the middle relief is a bit soft.

Intangibles: There is a new wave of players destined to make Atlanta a great team over the next decade, but these players are only just arriving. Jones is going to be heavily leaned on for a leadership role -- no problem there -- and Tim Hudson should also be looked up to.

Key player: Jones is the linchpin to how the season goes. He started 2010 slow, creating whispers of retirement. But he began producing before a season-ending injury derailed him. With an offense fraught with risk in McLouth, Freeman and Alex Gonzalez, Jones' bat needs to show up to deepen the lineup. He also needs to show up, period: Any absence by Jones will create a ripple effect that will compromise the team's leadership, offense and defense.

Top prospect: Julio Teheran should hit the majors in 2012 and will become the new ace of a team already stacked with young quality starters. He could possibly break in as a reliever near the tail end of 2010, but it is unlikely. The 20-year-old is widely considered to be the No. 1 pitching prospect in the game and will open the season at Double-A.

For the season to be successful: Jones needs to stay healthy. If he can, the Braves will boast a deep team that should challenge the Phillies for superiority atop the NL East. Atlanta will also be in the thick of the wild-card chase. The team has its sights set on the postseason and anything less will be a disappointment.

Florida Marlins

2010 record: 80-82
Finish: Third place
Manager: Edwin Rodriguez, first season; interim at conclusion of 2010

Spring training site: Jupiter, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 17
First full workout: Feb. 21

Key additions: John Buck, Omar Infante, Edward Mujica, Javier Vazquez, Ryan Webb
Key losses: Cameron Maybin, Ronny Paulino, Dan Uggla

Offseason grade: C+

The Marlins struck early on to bring in Buck, but overpaid (three years, $18 million) for a hitter coming off his only good season. They lost a major power source in Uggla, but Infante should fill the breach thanks to his fielding and slap-hitting ways. They also deepened their rotation and are keying in on their young players carrying the day.

2011 outlook

If he can stay healthy, Josh Johnson gives the Marlins one of the top pitchers in the National League. (US Presswire)  
If he can stay healthy, Josh Johnson gives the Marlins one of the top pitchers in the National League. (US Presswire)  
Offense: Should be better than 2010. Even though the club lost Uggla and is punting third base in favor of defense with Matt Dominguez, the Braves will get the bats of Chris Coghlan, Logan Morrison and Michael Stanton for a full season, which should make up any deficiency. Despite overpaying for Buck, he is also an offensive upgrade over last year's morass. Don't count out a return to form for Hanley Ramirez, who on his own could add two or three wins to the team.

Defense: They were a brutal fielding club last season and have made strides in this area by swapping out Uggla for Infante and Dominguez at third. Problem: the outfield. Morrison is a converted first baseman taking a crack at left, while Coghlan is being asked to man center in an extremely curious move, especially coming off knee surgery.

Pitching: The rotation is a bit of a risk, with ace Josh Johnson, No. 2 Ricky Nolasco and No. 4 Anibal Sanchez having a history of injuries. Vazquez bombed with the Yankees while Chris Volstad has yet to put together a season resembling his rookie year of 2008. The bullpen remake -- no accident -- should be able to pick up any pieces that shatter, provided injuries to the rotation stay limited.

Intangibles: This is an incredibly young team that may struggle to stay focused all season long. It takes tremendous physical and mental stamina to last a full 162 (and if lucky, more) games, and experience goes a long way here. With Uggla gone, there is a lack of leadership as Ramirez certainly isn't the guy to step into the breach. On paper, this team is formidable. But it's unclear if the team has the depth or fortitude to withstand the adversity sure to come.

Key player: Johnson needs to stay healthy -- period. The rotation is already fraught with risk, and it all starts with the ace, who has made more than 28 starts just once. He does have encouraging recent history on his side, but if Johnson goes down, no amount of potent offense will be able to cover for the missing right-hander.

Top prospect: Dominguez could very well open the season as the third baseman, but will have to prove himself in spring training. When he debuts, he'll immediately overtake Ryan Zimmerman and Adrian Beltre as the best fielding third baseman in the game. His bat, on the other hand ... well, he'll probably bat eighth in the lineup.

For the season to be successful: This team has the smell of a postseason team. It's young and oozing in talent, but it's also oozing in injury risks and is unproven. As long as the Marlins hang around the postseason race deep into September, it should be a rousing success and provide ample optimism heading into a new ballpark, new name (Miami Marlins) and new logo and colors (they are ditching the teal color, unfortunately).

New York Mets

2010 record: 79-83
Finish: Fourth place
Manager: Terry Collins, first season

Spring training site: Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 17
First full workout: Feb. 21

Key additions: Chris Capuano, D.J. Carrasco, Ronny Paulino, Chris Young
Key losses: Pedro Feliciano, Hisanori Takahashi

Offseason grade: D

There isn't much new GM Sandy Alderson can do here, and this is the rare grade that you can't hold against the GM. Alderson came into a lousy situation where he had virtually no dollars to spend for 2010 and an aging, over-the-hill team on the field. Anyone the Mets want to trade has been met with muted interest and free agents have needed convincing to come play in New York. This is a team one year older and it's hard to imagine the Mets doing any better than 2010's 79-83 record.

2011 outlook

The Mets need a full season from Carlos Beltran, but would they deal him before the trade deadline? (US Presswire)  
The Mets need a full season from Carlos Beltran, but would they deal him before the trade deadline? (US Presswire)  
Offense: The Mets had one of the worst offenses in the game, but the good news is that the offense is prepared for a rebound. It's virtually impossible for Jason Bay to have as bad a season as he did, while full years from Carlos Beltran and Ike Davis should help immensely -- and Jose Reyes is a huge wild card here. However, that will only be good enough to lift them to the middle of the pack. The good news is that the offense was bolstered by 130 stolen bases last season (fifth in the majors), and the same principal players responsible for that return.

Defense: They are rather solid here with Davis and Angel Pagan as the best defenders. Beltran is a shell of his former self and belongs in right, but time will tell whether the Mets shift him. David Wright's fielding has been horrendous the last two years and he needs to turn it around. While the Mets should benefit from Bay's bat, they won't do so from his fielding. Overall, this defense should be about the same.

Pitching: It's recommended that Mets fans take their bathroom breaks while New York is on the field as the pitching will be brutal. Ace Johan Santana won't be around for the first half, if not longer. The good news? The Mets do have at least two pitchers to build around with Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey. But R.A. Dickey, Young and Capuano are just plugs in a broken-down dam. The bullpen has Francisco Rodriguez at the top, but past that there's nobody special with the exception of Bobby Parnell, who could emerge as the closer of the future.

Intangibles: Here's the most important thing for the Mets this season: How can the club weather the night darkest before dawn? There are tons of expiring contracts coming off the books and Jenrry Mejia should be ready to be a meaningful contributor to the rotation. But New York still has to get through the season, and that's awfully difficult to do with hundreds of thousands of fans and media analyzing your every move. And there will be plenty of opportunities for disgruntled veterans to speak out. It's important for Wright and the new wave of Mets -- such as Davis -- to get out front and establish the clubhouse.

Key player: Reyes will be the cover story all year long. Is Reyes ready to return to being an elite shortstop? If he is, the Mets could very well finish over .500 (although more would have to go right than just Reyes) and could extend him and build the team around him once more. New York could also deal him for a ridiculous return at the trade deadline. But if he's the same solid shortstop ... well, that doesn't help the Mets much.

Top prospect: Meija no longer qualifies as a rookie due to the Mets' dumb decision to convert him to a reliever and carry him for all of 39 innings. But let's be honest: the dude is a prospect, and a really good one. After all, he pitched in the majors at the tender age of 20. He'll head back to the farm and work as a starter. You could see him in September, but the real playing time will come in 2012.

For the season to be successful: All the Mets want out of each of their players is a good season. That might sound obvious, but it's not just about winning in New York right now. It's about looking toward the future. The Mets would be better served in having Beltran hit the lights out of the ball in the first half so he can be dealt for prospects at the deadline. The same goes for other players like Young and Luis Castillo. There are other side benefits: Playing well will reduce the risk of discontent as well as give the team more options for 2012.

Washington Nationals

2010 record: 69-93
Finish: Fifth place
Manager: Jim Riggleman, second season (interim at conclusion of 2009)

Spring training site: Viera, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 17
First full workout: Feb. 22

Key additions: Rick Ankiel, Todd Coffey, Tom Gorzelanny, Jerry Hairston, Adam LaRoche, Henry Rodriguez, Jayson Werth
Key losses: Miguel Batista, Adam Dunn, Cristian Guzman, Stephen Strasburg (injured), Josh Willingham

Offseason grade: C

They have packed in depth and upgrades over players such as Batista and Guzman, but they also were worthy of a few head-scratching decisions. For example, LaRoche over Dunn or Willingham? The two would have required more of a financial commitment to bring back, but they're also worth it over LaRoche. Plus, the Werth contract is a doozy. They're trying to make a statement to attract free agents, and you can't argue against that strategy when the team is ready to make a move. But overall, the club doesn't have a shot at .500 and will have to wait for the return of Strasburg and one more year of collecting assets. Wait til' next year.

2011 outlook

The Nats paid big bucks for Jayson Werth. Will it pay off? (Getty Images)  
The Nats paid big bucks for Jayson Werth. Will it pay off? (Getty Images)  
Offense: Should be better with Werth replacing Mike Morse/Willie Harris, but the missing bats of Willingham and Dunn can't be made up by Werth alone, and LaRoche is just a solid first baseman. The Nats will struggle to be average, but there is upside that could put Washington in the middle of the pack. The Nats really need a centerpiece hitter to go along with Werth, and it probably will take until next offseason to get it.

Defense: It's near impossible not to improve on defense after deleting Dunn from first base and Willingham from left. It would not be shocking for the Nats to jump from one of the 10 worst fielding teams to one of the 10 best.

Pitching: It's going to be another long year for Nationals pitchers, as they gained Jordan Zimmermann back from his Tommy John surgery only to lose Strasburg. The club is leaning on Yunesky Maya pitching up to his days in Cuba, that Livan Hernandez continues to beat back Father Time and that one of the assorted players in contention for the last spot can break out. There will be plenty of heartache in store for the rotation, but once Strasburg returns in 2012 and pushes everyone down a spot, the rotation suddenly looks more intriguing.

Intangibles: The club ran at a good clip in 2010 and should repeat that in 2011 as the only player of any stolen-base significance that left was Adam Kennedy. Meanwhile, his replacement at second base in Danny Espinosa should have no trouble besting Kennedy's 14 stolen bases.

Key player: Strasburg is the focal point even as he sits on the sidelines for a year, along with Bryce Harper and Werth in the fold. While Tommy John surgery has become rather basic these days (take a year off, then come back good as new), there is plenty of risk in the rehab. Strasburg needs to avoid major setbacks. If his rehab goes as planned, he could get into some big-league games in September, although the Nats would be better served to bring him along a lot slower than that.

Top prospect: They replace 2010's top prospect of Strasburg with Harper, the first overall pick in last year's amateur draft. Harper is incredibly advanced for being 18 and could jump into the majors as early as 2013. Previously a catcher, Harper will serve in the outfield for Washington, likely in right field.

For the season to be successful: The Nationals want nothing more than to create buzz and are hoping that their moves this offseason will lead to 2010 being the last 90-loss team in a good while. They'll have their hands full with that, but as long as they can create and sustain a buzz without Strasburg and make a run for .500, the season will be grand.

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