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August 29, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

The September Stretch

by Michael Jong

Last week, we looked at the immediate future of the playoff-bound Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies and their possible matchups in the first round. But the other three NL East teams are not going anywhere after September; they will be packing it up for the long winter months and awaiting the 2012 season. So what do these teams have to look forward to as they approach the last month of the 2011 season?

Florida Marlins: Hanley Ramirez and His Health
It is no secret that Ramirez's season has been a disaster. The highest-paid Marlin has had a 0.6 WARP season through 385 plate appearances, and he has missed playing time due to two separate DL stints for different injuries. Those two stints represent the first and second trips to the DL in Ramirez's brilliant career, though he did miss much of the last month of 2010 with soreness in his left elbow.

Ramirez's 2011 season is a lost campaign; nothing short of a miraculous run in the last month can make his season line look any better. However, before his injury it seemed as if he was playing more like his old self, and the Marlins would at least like to see that continue for the remainder of the year, hopefully starting this Wednesday against the New York Mets. The reasons for that are twofold:

  • The Marlins want evidence Ramirez is past his extended early-season struggles, and a strong September would assist in that matter.
  • If the Marlins continue to have problems with Ramirez's perceived attitude problems and the team remains as frugal as ever, they will need Ramirez to play well to receive any return via trade.

The first point is obvious. The Marlins will be moving into their new stadium in 2012 and would like that stadium to be the catalyst to rebuild their fan base. The team's attendance was highlighted again this past week when this photo by the Miami Herald's Tim Reynolds went viral. No matter how bad the situation may be surrounding the game (and a weekday afternoon game during the summertime in South Florida is bad), no one can defend the Marlins and their sparse fan base for their terrible turnout this past week in their day-night doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds. The new stadium is supposed to help in some regards, but the team would need a competitive ballclub in addition to better conditions to draw fans. Remaining competitive lays largely on a Hanley Ramirez resurgence.

Of course, as with all Marlins stories, there is a more insidious reason for management to be watching carefully this September. The Fish need Ramirez to play well not only for their own sake, but for the sake of a potential future employer. Ramirez will be owed $46.5 million over the next three seasons, and Florida has never paid a player that kind of money. If the club remains thrifty despite the supposed revenue stream from the new stadium, it will “have” to trade away Ramirez's more expensive years. At the same time, any trade would have to net a significant return, and the return the team is looking for is predicated on Ramirez returning to form.

New York Mets: What Do They have in Their Core?
The Mets have suffered more than their fair share of injuries this season, and it has made it difficult for general manager Sandy Alderson, manager Terry Collins, and the rest of the team's staff to determine who fits where on the team's roster. Injuries to Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy, Jose Reyes, and David Wright have forced the team to use makeshift lineups pieced together by minor-league veterans and players who were not ready for the show. As a result, much of the 2011 season is not indicative of the Mets’ true talent, whatever that may be.

With Jose Reyes set to return Monday, New York will once again have some semblance of a normal lineup. The team needs to use September to try to answer questions regarding the ballclub’s future, particularly when it comes to whether they will pay Reyes the amount he has been rumored to be seeking. Earlier in the year, when Reyes was having an MVP-caliber season, it was said his next contract would resemble Carl Crawford's deal. However, since then he has had two trips to the DL and, if he can remain healthy and play every remaining game, he is on pace to finish the year with only 130 games played. Throw in the fact that Reyes' performance is due for some regression barring an age-28 surge in performance and it is unlikely that teams will be willing to fork up that kind of money. If the Mets are faced with the option of paying Reyes a lot of money or watching him leave, what would be their best choice? They have one more month of data to collect.

Outside of Reyes, the team has a lot of question marks heading into 2012, and the last month would be a good time to see if they can find some answers. For example, is it worth playing guys like Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada? Duda took over in right field after the Carlos Beltran trade and has since bounced between there and first base, batting .288/.357/.486 along the way. He has had some promising minor-league numbers (career .286/.383/.473 hitter in the minors) to back that up, but he has also had more experience at first base than in left field and has been described by Kevin Goldstein as “having the range of a lawn ornament and a poor arm.” With first base blocked by Davis, Duda will have to prove himself in the outfield. Tejada is having as good a season (.283/.370/.332) as one could have expected, but his walk rate of 11.4 percent is the highest it has been since his stint in Rookie ball, and he provides little else at the plate. Both players could use September to cement their roles or play themselves out of a 2012 spot.

Washington Nationals: The Stephen Strasburg Show
For the Nationals, it may as well be all about Strasburg in September. The excitement over the first overall pick in 2009 returning from Tommy John surgery is raging. His most recent rehab start with Triple-A Syracuse was certainly a positive sign on the road to recovery.

All Washington wants to see is a healthy Strasburg pitching well for them upon his return to the majors, which should occur sometime in September. The team does have some precedent with regards to doing this; last season, current staff ace Jordan Zimmermann returned from Tommy John surgery at a similar point in the season, recording seven starts and a 4.94 ERA. While the results appeared grim, the 2.32 home runs per nine innings also appeared in line for regression, as evidenced by the 22.2 percent HR/FB rate. Sure enough, Zimmermann's decent strikeout and walk rates continued from 2009 and 2010 into 2011, en route to a 3.5 WARP season so far.

However, people like color commentator Rob Dibble, do not believe the Nationals are interested in seeing Strasburg pitching well as much as they are interested in seeing the crowds that will follow him. Strasburg is certainly the biggest draw Washington has, as evidenced by the twofold increase in price on the secondary market for tickets to Strasburg's projected start on September 6. However, as we saw in the case of Zimmermann, it does not seem like the Nationals are doing this simply to rush Strasburg and profit, but rather as part of the pitcher’s recovery. Zimmermann went on the 60-day DL on July 19 for his elbow problems, and was removed on August 26, 2010. Strasburg officially went down for surgery on August 22, 2010, but had spent time on the 15-day DL since July 22 with shoulder inflammation. He only threw three starts and almost 14 innings between his 15-day and 60-day DL stints. His recovery is not much different from Zimmermann's, and the success of the latter combined with the recent strong performance of Strasburg may have convinced the Nationals to give him a shot in 2011. Any additional money the team makes in sales is essentially an excellent bonus.  

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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