The U Files # 71: NL East Preview

There hasn't been much change in the standings in the NL East since the Atlanta Braves entered the division. There has not been a division winner other than the Braves since that time. The Mets have gone from challenger to cellar inhabitants to improved team. The Phillies have risen from ashes to the popular favorites and the Marlins have rebuilt the team from the fire-sale wreckage. To state it directly, there is more of an interest in this division.

Projected Finish
1) Philadelphia Phillies
2) Florida Marlins
3) Atlanta Braves
4) New York Mets
5) Montreal Expos

The Phillies may have the best offense in the National League, and they start a good pitcher every day, even if they lack a dominant starter. The Phillie hitting machine was held back by the middling performance of Pat Burrell, supposed to be an offensive force, and the shameful performance of David Bell, supposed to be middling. They still scored nearly 800 runs. Both are great candidates to rebound.

Kevin Millwood disappointed some with his performance in 2003, though he wasn't as bad as he looked. His strikeout, walk, and home run rates were all above average, and his ERA seems to reflect some bad luck. Lefty Randy Wolf had a down year, and can be expected to improve. Vicente Padilla is another above average pitcher, and Eric Milton is average at worst. The fifth spot goes to prospect Brett Myers, who has potential but will need to pitch with command.

The Phillie bullpen has been a sore spot in recent years. Led by closer Jose Mesa, it had been vilified, and given perhaps too much of the blame for the disappointing Phillie finishes. This has been the one area Phillie management has focused on in the recent off-season. New closer Billy Wagner is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, an asset even if – as closers are used today – he is used in a less-than-optimal manner. He is backed up by another addition, Tim Worrell, and incumbent Rheal Cormier.

The Marlins are on a high after their upset of the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Their offense wasn't imposing last year and hasn't improved, but their pitching is the strength of the team. The Marlins lost leader Ivan Rodriguez to free agency, but have a good in-system replacement in Ramon Castro, who also has a cannon attached to his right shoulder and hits for power. The Marlins traded first baseman Derrek Lee for the Cubs counterpart Hee Seop Choi. Choi is not the established player Lee is, but is younger, cheaper, and has a high ceiling. The Marlins will benefit from a full year of phenom Miguel Cabrera in right field, and Jeff Conine won't be worse than Todd Hollandsworth was last year. Mike Lowell won't replicate his 2003 rates (likely career year) but the Marlins will benefit if he does not replicate his missed time in 2003.

In the rotation, Josh Beckett may not post an ERA quite as low as he did last year (3.04), but if he pitches more innings (142.0), the Marlins won't have lost anything. Dontrelle Willis, of the inspirational, sensational 2003 rookie season also isn't projected to maintain his run rate, but again he can pitch more innings in his first full season than last year (160). A.J. Burnett will return from an injury-plagued campaign. Burnett is one of the classic big, strapping Florida pitchers with a big, fast fastball and high potential, but still has to harness his gifts. Brad Penny and Carl Pavano return as the two starters with the most innings last year, and don't project to pitch any worse than they did last year.

The Marlins replaced arbitration eligible closer Braden Looper with the established Armando Benitez in an exchange of closers with the Mets through free agency. The club lost it's other closer, Ugueth Urbina to free agency.

The Braves in 2003 led the National League with 907 runs. This had a lot to do with Gary Sheffield, who is gone to free agency and Javy Lopez, who had a career year and also is lost to free agency. Also gone is veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla. Replacing these are catcher Johnny Estrada, who will have trouble replicating a typical Lopez season, let alone Javy's 2003; young J.D. Drew (acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals for a well regarded pitching prospect), who has as much upside as you can ask for but can't figure out how to stay healthy, and incumbent Mark DeRosa, who is a bench player pressed into starting. If that's not bad enough, second baseman Marcus Giles may be due for a fall after a torrid 2003.

The pitching even in 2003 was a departure from the vaunted Brave staffs of the past decade. Tom Glavine had left for the Mets (and pitched poorly to boot), Greg Maddux looked less like the best pitcher in the National League for the past decade and more like a 37 year old. Maddux is gone now, though his replacement, John Thompson projects just as well as a 38-year-old Maddux – still above average. Russ Ortiz returns to lead the staff, and won't duplicate his 21-win season; having lost the run support that was the prime cause. His record will more accurately reflect his pitching now, good but not great. Mike Hampton returns in the # 2 spot, another above average presence.

The Braves once again close out games with converted starter (former co-ace) John Smoltz, who will be scary if he is physically able to do what he's done the last two years. Once again the Braves High Command has assembled a collection of spare arms and tasked renowned pitching coach Leo Mazzone to convert them into an effective bullpen (which he's done). This time Rockin' Leo will have Chris Reitsma and Antonio Afonseca to work with. Reitsma (recently acquired from the Cincinnati Reds for a ransom in prospects) has struggled as a starter but fared well in relief in his three seasons to date. Alfonseca comes from the Marlins, where he scared his home fans as much as the other team, doing seemingly little to stem the flow of men reaching base – and making you really wonder how he managed to allow so few runs. Mazzone will rock from his perch on the bench in his inimitable fashion regardless of how things go.

The Braves acquired pitcher Juan Cruz from the Cubs for a hard throwing lefty prospect. Cruz can hurl some serious heat, and his strikeout rates are impressive. He has been held back by poor control, though he was not nearly as bad as his 6.05 ERA last year. As a fourth starter he is a much, much better option than what would otherwise go.

The Mets come into 2003 with the only realistic hopes being to rebound from a 95 loss season and climbing out of the cellar. A team could finish .500 (81-81) and still finish third in this division, so the Mets should not expect too much as far as the standings go. The additions of Mike Cameron in center field and Kazuo Matsui at shortstop, and a full season of Jose Reyes (displaced from shortstop to second base) are significant upgrades to this team. The rest of the lineup except for right field returns from last year, and much depends on improved health. The Mets must have Cliff Floyd's bat in the lineup for well over 400 at-bats if the team is to approach winning as many as it loses, as well as the same from Mike Piazza.

The team should benefit from putting the 2003 fifth starter in the past (where 6 starters combined for an ERA of 6.50), but the top four spots in the rotation don't project to as much as average. Tom Glavine and Al Leiter are entering the twilights of their careers at 38 years and Steve Trachsel's peripherals recently have not matched his ERA – he is due to pitch more in line with his sub par components.

The bullpen will be led by newcomer Braden Looper, who will be backed by the same core as last years Mets (David Weathers and Mike Stanton). Weathers isn't a bad option to set up your relief ace, and Stanton, though departed from his prime should allow fewer runs than he did last year. John Franco was re-signed to a one year contract, and if he pitches as well as his projection will make the Mets reevaluate their stance on 43 year old hurlers. The rest of the pen will be composed of younger arms, who project nicely. The Mets will have to rearrange things in mid season when Scott Strickland returns from the disabled list.

The Montreal Expos leave as much to be pitied as any ball club. Still faced with the inexhaustible buzz about a potential relocation, again playing half it's home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and now without it's two best players. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero was the big name of the last free agent period, and rejected the Expos' offer of five years for $75 million greens (much of it deferred). Even with Vlad the Impaler off the payroll, the team was compelled to deal ace Javier Vazquez (to the New York Yankees, no less).

The Expos' lineup looks pretty nice, considering it just lost one of the most feared bats in baseball. The team got back exiting first baseman Nick Johnson in the Vazquez deal, who will get on base if he does nothing else, signed hot hitting hothead Carl Everett and brought in Tony Batista to upgrapde the hole that was third base. Incumbents Brad Wilkerson and Jose Vidro are a benefit to their lineup.

The pitching, if starters pitch as projected, will be ugly. Livan Hernandez pitched the best ball of his career in 2003, credits an adjustment to his delivery, but still has to prove he is not the mediocre pitcher he'd been prior. The rest of the staff does not have this controversial adjustment to bank on. None of the Monteal starters are pegged by statistical measures to post an ERA below 4 – even in a neutral park.

The Expos have not made any major changes to the bullpen. Rocky Biddle is a notable closer only for being called "Rocky". Some of the other names the Expos will pitch in relief will have fans asking, "Just who is this guy?"

Amazin Clubhouse Top Stories