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March 16, 1999

NL East Notebook

Divisional offensive outlook for 1999

by Keith Law

ATLANTA BRAVES (1998: 826 runs, .275 Equivalent Average)

Starters (with projected Equivalent Average)
C Javy Lopez .296
1B Ryan Klesko .293
2B Bret Boone .245
3B Chipper Jones .318
SS Walt Weiss .258
LF Otis Nixon .232 / Gerald Williams .242
CF Andruw Jones .300
RF Brian Jordan .294

Bench/Alternatives: OF George Lombard .266, INF Keith Lockhart .258, The Execrable Ozzie Guillen .212

While damaged by the loss of Andres Galarraga, the Braves' offense will remain one of the league's strongest, particularly if they fill the left field hole competently (and don't bring Hal Morris or Jeff King on board). The Braves finished fourth in the league in scoring last year, tied with the Rockies, and a similar finish seems likely, particularly since the Cubs should fade back into mediocrity.

The Braves boast the league's top offensive third baseman in Chipper Jones and the league's best-hitting catcher not named Piazza in Javy Lopez, plus the continued emergence of Andruw Jones, whose quantum leap in performance last year was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Ryan Klesko projects to be in the middle of the NL first base pack, but many (us included) believe a full-time role at a comfortable defensive position will alleviate Klesko's recent struggles at the plate. Those players alone give the Braves a solid lineup, but that's just compared to the lousy competition in the NL.

On the downside, the Braves are leaning heavily on Bret Boone, whose .267 EqA last year was his first over .220 in three years. Boone could be quite the out machine if he holds the 2-slot for more than a month or two, getting on base only 30% of the time. They also face something of a hole in left field, where Otis Nixon is expected to garner most or all of the playing time. The obvious solution is to enact a strict Nixon/Gerald Williams platoon; last year, Nixon hit .321/.384/.367 against righties, and Williams hit .363/.408/.616 against lefties. The ideal solution would be to take George Lombard north and let him push Nixon into a reserve role; Lombard hit .321/.431/.608 against righties last year in Double-A Greenville.

Projected offensive rank in NL East: first

FLORIDA MARLINS (1998: 667 runs, .248 EqA)

C Jorge Fabregas .226
1B Derek Lee .275
2B Craig Counsell .274 or Luis Castillo .254
3B Kevin Orie .263 or Mike Lowell .260
SS Alex Gonzalez beta .239
LF Cliff Floyd .291
CF Todd Dunwoody .267
RF Mark Kotsay .273

Bench/Alternatives: C Guillermo Garcia .216, C Mike Redmond .216, CF Preston Wilson .259, SS Pablo Ozuna .276

Talk about your hairpin turns: the Marlin offense will be somewhat weaker than the Braves' this year. On the plus side, Kotsay, Lee, and to a lesser extent Dunwoody will all build on last year's gains, with the first two moving into the top half of the league for their positions. Cliff Floyd should continue to grow offensively, although any further improvements will seem small compared to last year's gains.

However, that leaves a few positions where the Fish will be a bit lacking. When Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez are playing regularly, your offense will be a problem, but then Benji Gil is among the alternatives. They'll look good compared to Mike Benjamin, but that's about it.

In addition, the team will suffer offensively behind the plate, although the decision to bring in a strong defensive backstop is somewhat defensible: a staff filled with young pitchers shouldn't have to break a young catcher in. Nevertheless, you have to wonder if better options than Jorge Fabregas might have been available.

Projected offensive rank in NL East: three-way tie for fifth (no team really deserves to be ranked third or fourth)

MONTREAL EXPOS (1998: 644 runs, .256 EqA)

C Chris Widger .254
1B Brad Fullmer .273
2B Wilton Guerrero .259
3B Shane Andrews .266
SS Orlando Cabrera .235
LF Orlando Merced .264
CF Rondell White .289
RF Vladimir Guerrero .325

Bench/Alternatives: CF Peter Bergeron .260, C/3B Michael Barrett .265, 1B/LF Fernando Seguignol .259, UT Jose Vidro .264

Another low-powered lineup in a division replete with them. The Expos should battle the Marlins and Pirates for the bottom spot in runs scored this year. However, the presence of Vladimir Guerrero and a healthy Rondell White in the heart of the order will make a significant difference. So would the possible promotion of Peter Bergeron to the majors and the leadoff spot; his adjusted 1998 OBA of .350 would have ranked third on the team behind Vlad and Rondell, making him an ideal leadoff candidate.

That's the indictment of the Expos' main offensive problem: no baserunners. Behind those two stars, Brad Fullmer led the rest of the pack with a raw OBA of .327, leaving few men on base for either of the main two hitters to drive in.

There is some cause for optimism: rookie Michael Barrett would be a clear offensive upgrade over Chris Widger, and would replace Shane Andrews well enough. Brad Fullmer could improve, but even then isn't likely to be much more than league average.

Projected offensive rank in NL East: three-way tie for fifth

NEW YORK METS (1998: 706 runs, .260 EqA)

C Mike Piazza .344
1B John Olerud .322
2B Edgardo Alfonzo .288
3B Robin Ventura .282
SS St. Rey Ordonez .204
LF Rickey Henderson .274
CF Brian McRae .285
RF Bobby Bonilla .269

Bench/Alternatives: CF Roger Cedeno .257, OF Jermaine Allensworth .258, UT Matt Franco .259

The Mets could be the league's biggest run-scoring disappointment if either Olerud or Piazza fail to repeat their 1998 performances. While the offense received some needed upgrades with Robin Ventura effectively replacing Carlos Baerga and Rickey Henderson providing a bona fide leadoff hitter, the Mets are still fairly dependent on overachievement by a few key hitters.

Piazza is obviously among the game's best hitters, but the concern here isn't his bat - it's his knees, which have endured years of catching without a major breakdown. If his knees hurt just enough to prevent him from catching, there's nowhere to move him with Olerud at first, unless the Mets want to play two players out of position - three if you count Bobby Bonilla, who's out of position anywhere but DH. The Mets have been spoiled with two of Olerud's three best offensive seasons (.304 and .348 EqAs), so they're headed for a disappointment when he inevitably returns to a still-strong .290-.300 EqA.

Beyond those two, the Mets are relying on the declining (30 points of lost EqA in two years) Ventura, the non-factor Bonilla, and a lineup with two pitchers in it whenever Rey Ordonez starts.

Projected offensive rank in NL East: second

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (1998: 713 runs, .249 EqA)

C Mike Lieberthal .250
1B Rico Brogna .262
2B Marlon Anderson .246
3B Scott Rolen .311
SS Desi Relaford .231
LF Ron Gant .268
CF Doug Glanville .247
RF Bob Abreu .285

Bench/Alternatives: OF Wendell Magee .258, OF Billy McMillon .267, C Bobby Estalella .280

Another lineup filled with black holes, surrounding two bright spots in Abreu and Rolen. The best lineup the Phils could field would involve Abreu in the first, third, fifth, and seventh slots, and Rolen in the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth slots, but there's some detail in the rules that mandates that Desi Relaford get his turn at the plate.

Relaford isn't the only source of blame for the Phils' continued inability to put runs on the board: leadoff hitter Doug Glanville and second baseman Marlon Anderson will both likely be well below average for their positions at the plate, and will continue to have problems getting on base, and Ron Gant is always a solid bet to fall off a cliff.

Projected offensive rank in NL East: three-way tie for fifth

Related Content:  Bobby Bonilla,  Otis Nixon

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