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July 25, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

Potential Post-Season Impact Players

by Michael Jong

Two teams in the NL East are currently in the thick of a division race, while the three other clubs are hovering close to a .500 record with little chance of making it to the playoffs; the Playoff Odds Report has the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves as very good bets to make the postseason while the New York Mets, Washington Nationals, and Florida Marlins each have less than a one percent chance to be playing in October. Still, all of these teams may yet have a player that could still have an impact on a playoff race, whether it is the NL East division race or a stretch run elsewhere. This week, let us take a look at one player on each team who could have a significant impact on his team’s (or another team's) chances at a playoff berth.

Philadelphia Phillies: Roy Oswalt, Starting Pitcher
Oswalt threw a simulated game on Friday and may be ready to begin a rehab start in the minors this upcoming week. He has been out since June 24 with a bulging vertebral disk and lower back inflammation. The Phillies should not really sweat Oswalt's regular season return, though, as their chances of making the playoffs are almost a certainty; they hold the best record in baseball and have a five-game lead on the team in Atlanta. The Playoff Odds Report has the Phillies as essentially a lock for the playoffs, putting them at a 99.1 percent chance of making the postseason. PECOTA projects that the difference between Oswalt and a fifth-starter type like the intriguing Vance Worley or the dreaded Kyle Kendrick over the nine or ten starts remaining in the regular season is likely to be a little more than one WARP, which would, at most, amount to part of the difference between the Phillies getting home field advantage in the National League Championship Series or not. Right now, Baseball Prospectus's projections have the Phillies finishing four games ahead of the San Francisco Giants, so that one win may ultimately not matter much.

Once the playoffs begin, however, Oswalt's play will make a difference. With the rotations shortened in the postseason, there is a chance Oswalt can throw three starts if the Phillies make it to the World Series. PECOTA projects that three Oswalt starts would be worth about 0.5 WARP, which may sound small but is far more important when considering that a team only has to win 12 games to win the World Series. In such a small sample, every half win counts.

Atlanta Braves: Dan Uggla, Second Baseman
Like the Phillies, the Braves are not really a major threat to miss the playoffs at this point, but they sure would feel better about their standing if their offense could provide that strong pitching staff some assistance. The Braves are right around the National League average in terms of offense, but only the Giants are scoring fewer runs while still remaining in competition for the playoffs in the NL. One major off-season acquisition has done absolutely nothing to help since the beginning of the season. We are almost at the end of July, and Dan Uggla is still below the Mendoza Line, batting .196/.269/.390. And while much of that bad line has to do with a .206 BABIP (the worst mark among qualified major leaguers in 2011), there is some concern that his approach has changed and made his struggles worse.

The biggest concern is the drop in Uggla’s walk rate. While his strikeouts are at a career-low 21.7 percent mark, his walk rate is down from its regular 10 to 12 percent to just 8.4 percent this season. This likely has a lot to do with his increase in swing rate.

Year

Swing%

Whiff%

K%

BB%

2009

40.1

24.4

22.5

13.8

2010

41.0

26.4

22.1

11.6

2011

46.3

27.1

21.7

8.4

Why is Uggla swinging more often than ever before? Maybe he is pressing because of his new long-term extension and the pressures that come along with it. Maybe he is hacking more in order to swing his way out of this extended slump. Or, maybe, this is a change more indicative of a different approach that may continue into the future. In any case, the Braves simply cannot have their fifth hitter underperforming so drastically. If Uggla continues to hit this poorly to go along with his subpar defense, he will have underperformed his current PECOTA rest-of-season projection by 0.8 WARP. While that may not dent the Braves' playoff aspirations, it would certainly give them pause heading into the postseason when runs will likely be at a premium—especially when the team might also end up throwing hapless bats like Alex Gonzalez, Nate McLouth, and Jordan Schafer out there on a regular basis. If there is one player among the struggling Braves that still has a chance to recover, it is Uggla; he is batting .220/.299/.478 with 11 home runs since the start of June, which is a positive sign.
 

New York Mets: Carlos Beltran, Right Fielder
With Jose Reyes out of the trade picture, Beltran has suddenly become the most prized possession on the trade market. The Mets have sweetened the deal by offering to pay Beltran's remaining $6 million salary, depending on the return. This has riled up a number suitors involved in playoff races who are looking to add a right-handed bat, including the NL East's two top teams. Beltran apparently was offered a list of teams to consider (since he has the right to reject any trade), and he himself may prefer a handful of contenders that include the Braves, Phillies, and Giants.

What can Beltran bring to a contending team? It is important to note that Beltran is hitting at an unbelievable level given his history and age; at age 34, he is posting the second-best TAv of his career (.326), behind only his MVP-caliber 2006 season (.333). The lucky contender that acquires him is expecting to get a good bat, as PECOTA is projecting a .268/.361/.439 line and a .292 TAv going forward, but the team that gets him should not expect him to continue to hit at the top-notch pace that he is currently showing. Furthermore, they should know the type of defender they are getting; Beltran's various knee procedures over the past two seasons have ravaged his once-stellar defense, and now he has struggled to be even an average right fielder.

Of course, the team that does ultimately acquire Beltran is not looking for his glove and will happily suffer a short-term loss of defense in the hopes of a continued hot hitting streak (look no further than the St. Louis Cardinals and Lance Berkman for a similar example). The power he is currently displaying may not stick, but the rest of his peripherals line up nicely with his career marks, meaning this run is not as fluky as one might think would be the case for a guy who just missed the better part of the last two seasons. For a team like the Braves or Phillies—who are each getting little production from one of their outfield spots—a Beltran acquisition represents about a one-win gain for the rest of the season.

Washington Nationals: Tyler Clippard, Relief Pitcher
The Nationals have a lot of players available for acquisition, but the majority of them will not net much in return, Clippad included. However, the righty may be the most interesting player the team is willing to trade. For the second straight season, his strikeout rate has skyrocketed, now sitting at 33.8 percent on the season. Meanwhile, he has displayed a concomitant decrease in walks over that same time period, morphing from an out-of-control pitcher who could not get anyone to offer on his tosses into a dominant reliever who could be closing games were it not for a younger, also-dominant reliever on his club. As such, it seems the Nationals are at least listening to offers for Clippard, as well they should. The situation for trading Clippard is absolutely ideal:

-        He is a reliever who is actually good
-        He is young at age 26 and under team control for four more seasons.
-        He is being traded during the peak reliever value time, right around the trade deadline.

Among the teams interested are the Braves, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees. Among teams with at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to the Playoff Odds Report), those teams rank first, tenth, third, and eighth in relief innings pitched, respectively. The Braves in particular are interested, in part to take some of the heat off of the overworked Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters. A word to the wise for teams in home run-heavy parks like Texas and New York, though: Clippard has allowed ground balls at a rate of only 27.7 percent and has allowed homers on 5.4 percent of contacted balls (2011 league average: 3.2 percent) for his career.

Florida Marlins: Leo Nunez, Relief Pitcher
Nunez is in a similar situation as Clippard in that he is an effective enough reliever on his own, but he has the added benefit of so-called “closer experience” on his (and the Marlins') side when it comes to fetching a return. The downside of acquiring a player like Nunez is his team control situation; he will be entering his final arbitration season and is expected to make between $6 and 7 million.

The Phillies apparently inquired on Nunez as part of their plan to bolster their oft-injured (but still effective) bullpen. The Phillies were interested in relievers whom they would control for another season, with San Diego's Mike Adams being the most prized target. While Nunez is no Adams, he would fit the team control aspect of the Phillies' request, and his skill set would play well for the role he would fit into in Philadelphia. Most contenders are looking for relievers to fit set-up or seventh inning roles, and Nunez would be more than qualified for such a position. His capable changeup allows him to face lefties effectively, meaning he would not have to be held to a ROOGY-type role on his new team. His main problem has always been the home run, which would fit poorly in Philadelphia, but as he showed in 2010 (when he flashed a 54 percent ground ball rate), he can suppress home runs when he uses his changeup more often.

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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