NL East: 5 things we learned during offseason
Here are five things we gleaned about the National League East during the offseason, none of which speculate on whether the Marlins will be more fun to cover without Ozzie Guillen as manager:
In this age of luxury-tax baseball, where even the wealthy Yankees are saving their pennies for subsequent seasons, it's hard for franchises to construct flawless rosters, from head to toe. Even title contenders could have glaring weaknesses in one or two core areas.
The Braves are no different, although they may be the only club this year with the option of choosing their Achilles heel -- at either third base or left field.
With the retirement of Chipper Jones, it'll be interesting to see if Martin Prado (10 HR, 70 RBI, 17 steals, .301 batting average) emerges as the day-one fixture at either third base or left field for the Braves, who open the season against Philly on April 1.
In my mind, it's easier to platoon or mix-and-match assets at left field, compared to the hot corner. And while Prado would be filling the immense shoes of a surefire Hall of Famer, Jones had explored other positions during his illustrious career with the Braves ... meaning the club (and its fan base) had already experienced some form of a post-Chipper transition years ago.
Bottom line: Prado may never be a reasonable bet for 20 homers in back-to-back campaigns, but he's far from an offensive liability at third base. Since 2008, spanning five seasons, Prado has flashed an on-base percentage north of .350 four times, and his 2012 jump in steals (17) doesn't seem like a one-year aberration for this savvy, versatile athlete.
Plus, with Prado entering the final year of his contract, he reserves the right to play elsewhere in 2014 ... if he's not comfortable with the prospect of splitting time at third base and left field. Or, if he just wants to shoot for the moon financially (highest bidder wins).
If that's the case, the Braves would have to weigh the pros/cons of auditioning Juan Francisco (nine homers in 192 at-bats last year) at third base throughout spring training (keeping Prado in left), compared to unearthing a hidden gem in the outfield (with Prado at third). Perhaps Evan Gattis.
If this was a fantasy-projections piece, Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.16 ERA, 197 strikeouts last year), Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA, 207 Ks) and Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 3.94 ERA) would all garner recommendations or strong consideration for the top 15 starters in all of baseball. Each hurler has ace-type stuff with sterling track records to match.
Of equal importance, the best days are likely ahead for each pitcher, bolstering the Nationals' rep as viable title contenders for the foreseeable future.
After Washington's Big Three, there's an initial uneasiness that comes with predicting greatness for Dan Haren, based on the pedestrian numbers from last season with the Angels (12-13, 4.33 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) -- especially amid whispers of lingering shoulder problems.
But let's have some perspective here: In Haren's final eight games with L.A./Anaheim, with per-outing averages of six innings, he posted a robust ERA of 2.81 and yielded only zero or one run seven times. Throw in the 41/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that span ... and we're talking about a stupendous No. 4 option for a pennant-contender in Washington.
And then there's Ross Detwiler, arguably the Senior Circuit's pre-eminent No. 5 pitcher. In his last 16 starts (July-September), Detwiler surrendered only four or more runs three times. In other words, you could do much, much worse than hand the ball to Detwiler every five days -- especially when he's in line for a progression of 12 wins, 3.35 ERA, sub-1.20 WHIP and maybe 120 strikeouts.
Obviously, the rebuilding Marlins and Mets cannot match the talent and depth of the Nationals' rotation. But the Braves and Phillies have a chance to claim equal footing this year.
For Philadelphia, it's imperative for its Big Three of Cole Hamels (17-6, 3.05 ERA, 216 Ks), Cliff Lee (3.16 ERA, 207 Ks) and Roy Halladay (88 victories since 2008) to start the season on a healthy, productive note.
For Atlanta, Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57 ERA), Mike Minor (11-10, 145 Ks) and Tim Hudson (16-7, 3.62 ERA) simply need to hold their ground through June, allowing for Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Brandon Beachy to either develop more consistency or fully recover from surgery.
In Beachy's case, he was on the fast track for stardom last season (5-5, 2.00 ERA, 0.96 ERA in 13 starts), before an elbow injury halted that maturation for multiple months. If Beachy had been healthy heading into this spring training, he'd be a top-five breakout candidate -- with lofty, yet attainable projections of 16 wins, 2.20 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 170 strikeouts.
Instead, that ticket for greatness will likely be redeemed -- in full -- next season. But Beachy, health permitting, will likely have time to post solid numbers in July, August and September.
Over the course of a 162-game season, baseball may seem like a daily series of random, chaotic events.
Especially with clubs in rebuilding mode.
But for the 2012 Mets, R.A. Dickey (20-6, 2.73 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 230/54 K/BB) brought tremendous value to a starting rotation that otherwise didn't bear the burden of carrying a light-hitting lineup every fifth day. For one superb season, Dickey was singularly called upon to halt losing skids and lengthen winning streaks every time out.
From May 22 to June 18 (spanning 48.2 innings), Dickey had a 6-0 mark, 0.18 ERA, 0.53 WHIP and otherworldly ratio with walks and strikeouts (63/5) -- the best six-start run of any pitcher last year. In that span, he also cruised through five straight starts without surrendering one earned run.
Fast forward to the present, as Dickey belongs to Toronto (via trade, with New York getting elite prospects Travis d'Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard in return) ... leaving the Mets to fill an anchor role previously held by a Cy Young recipient (Dickey).
Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner with the Twins (2004, '06), obviously has the talent of a No. 1 pitcher. But at age 34 (March 13 birthday) and coming off a disappointing 2012 campaign (6-9, 4.85 ERA, 1.33 WHIP), he's not a likely candidate to replicate his 2011 numbers (11-9, 2.98 ERA, 144/55 K-BB), or even log 30-plus starts.
Jon Niese (13-9, 3.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 155/49 K-BB) made substantial leaps forward in wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, but he's not a classic power pitcher. Does he have the stuff to carry a team that will presumably rank in the bottom half of runs and home runs this season (even with the readjusted fences at Citi Field)? Probably not.
In the curious case of Dillon Gee, it's extremely rare to see a starting pitcher regress in wins (13 in 2011, six in 2012) ... and yet, make considerable progress in ERA (4.10), WHIP (1.25) and K/BB ratio (97-29). The next phase of his development: Get the big four statistical categories trending in the same direction.
That leaves the door open for Matt Harvey, the second-year power pitcher and homegrown product. If any Mets hurler has the tangible upside to admirably fill the Dickey slot -- think vacuum effect -- it's the 23-year-old Harvey (3-5, 2.73 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 70/26 K-BB), who accomplished the following in just 10 starts with the parent club last season:
**Six outings of seven or more strikeouts.
**Eight outings of surrendering two runs or less.
**Nine outings of three or less walks.
Of course, Harvey's status atop the Mets' rotation could be a short one ... if Zack Wheeler (the club's No. 1 prospect) and his dynamic curveball start wreaking havoc in 2014.
Darin Ruf. Ben Revere. Domonic Brown.
The names atop the Phillies' depth chart don't necessarily roll off the tongues of the average baseball consumer -- especially in mid-January. But that's OK for now.
This time last year, the Phillies' starting outfield of Shane Victorino, Juan Pierre and Hunter Pence had an average age of 31. The Ruf-Revere-Brown grouping features three players at 25 or 26 years old, presumably with their best years on the horizon.
There are two ways to view Ruf's progress in the minors: The optimist would celebrate his 32 doubles, 38 homers, 104 RBI and .317 batting average against Double-A pitching last season. They might also note that Ruf is Philly's lone premium hitting prospect with a career batting average above .300.
The pessimist, in turn, would point out that most dynamic power hitters are playing in the majors at age 25 ... instead of schooling pitchers two, three or even four years younger in Double-A ball. Of course, no one brings that up when touting the skills of Rangers outfielder (and former all-star) Nelson Cruz, who was also a late bloomer at the major-league level.
Within the realms of batting average, OBP, runs, steals, triples and defensive prowess, the sky's the limit for Revere, a one-time jewel of the Twins' system before getting traded to Philadelphia over the winter. Surrounded by productive veteran bats (in the infield, at least), Revere (74 total steals for 2011/12) has a viable shot at 47 steals, 190 hits and a .300 batting average.
As for Brown, he's been knocking on the door of MLB prominence for some time, often drawing praise as the Phillies' next great outfielder. But for me, the one enduring image of his career occurred in spring training a few years ago, when Brown fouled off seven or eight pitches from Tigers ace Justin Verlander -- before launching a fastball over the right-field fence in Clearwater (Philly's Florida home).
Of course, there's a downside to flashing such immense potential against baseball royalty: Once Brown logs everyday at-bats, Philly fans might come to expect 20 homers and 20 steals. Sooner than later.
As a 22-year-old masher for the Marlins last season, Stanton accounted for 37 of the club's 137 homers, or 27 percent. And that occurred on a veteran-laden team with established talents like Hanley Ramirez (before the Dodgers trade), Jose Reyes, John Buck, Omar Infante and Carlos Lee.
Fast forward to the 2013 campaign, where Stanton (93 homers in just 373 career games) stands as the lone wolf (power-wise) in a depleted lineup full of aging, light-hitting vets (Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre) or young players who aren't blessed with power at this point (Adeiny Hechavarria, Donovan Solano, Rob Brantly).
How thin are the Marlins in the power and talent departments? Aside from Stanton, Justin Ruggiano (13 homers in 2012) and Logan Morrison (11 homers) are the only other double-digit-homer candidates -- but neither are guaranteed to reach that pedestrian threshold.
Yes, the Marlins have a solid track record of dismantling a roster and building it back up with high-end and perhaps championship-level prospects (down the road), but their current roster of hitting talent reeks of a Triple-A club ... even with Stanton looming large in the dugout.
Which brings us to this: Regarding opposing pitchers, what will be their motivation for digging in against Stanton three or four times a night, when they could just walk the Marlins' lone superstar and take their chances with a cast of flawed hitters?
Assuming Stanton doesn't get traded before Opening Day (not an easy proclamation), he'll eventually welcome in a solid cast of hitting prospects like Christian Yelich, Jake Marisnick, Derek Dietrich and Zack Cox. But even with that overhaul, Stanton remains a prime candidate for high marks with on-base percentage, homers, and unfortunately, strikeouts.
In other words, he'll be an all-or-nothing proposition on a club with a bleak, short-term future.