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February 8, 2008

Spring Training Preview

NL East

by Joe Sheehan

We move to the NL East, which features the best team in a much-improved league.

Atlanta Braves

Where: Lake Buena Vista, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 84-78 (3rd, NL East)
New guys: Josh Anderson, Tom Glavine, Omar Infante, Jair Jurrjens, Mark Kotsay, Will Ohman
Gone guys: Lance Cormier, Willie Harris, Andruw Jones, Ron Mahay, Chad Paronto, Edgar Renteria, Oscar Villareal, Chris Woodward
Wow, he's still here? Mike Hampton opens the last year of his eight-year contract as a Brave, having missed the last two-and-a-half years to injury. He lasted just one inning in winter ball before tweaking a hamstring, so draw your own conclusions.
Winter grade: C-
Trading away Renteria shows a faith in Yunel Escobar that is likely misplaced. However, the presence of Brent Lillibridge should save them. Losing Jones was inevitable, although the contract he signed may turn out to be a bargain. They have no center fielder, despite trading for two nominal ones over the winter.
NRI to watch: Joe Borchard was given a fair shot at a job in Florida the last two seasons and failed to hold it. The Braves' lack of great players in left and center, however, could create an opportunity for him. If he could ever hit .260, he'd be worth a roster spot.
Job battle to track: Mark Kotsay is the obvious choice to play center, although there's never any assurance he'll be healthy enough to do so for any length of time. Glove man Josh Anderson and no-profile prospect Gregor Blanco are around to pick up the slack; Blanco is one of the few leadoff-type hitters in camp, and is probably a better player than the 32-year-old Kotsay.
One move to make: Escobar is a utility infielder who happened to have a peak season for batting average. The Braves can't get Renteria back, but they can minimize the damage by moving quickly past Escobar to Lillibrdge. The 24-year-old has good secondary skills and a plus glove at shortstop; rumors that he might be moved to center field persist, but those have more to do with the Braves' fascination with Escobar than with Lillibridge's skills.

After the Braves went for broke last year in trading for Mark Teixeira, it would have been nice to see them sustain that mode into the offseason. Instead, they pared payroll and added only marginal talents, doing little to address the problems that kept them from staying with the Phillies and Mets down the stretch last season. A team with a lineup core of Kelly Johnson/Chipper Jones/Mark Teixeira/Jeff Francoeur/Brian McCann should be able to compete with anyone. That they're trying to do it with holes at center field, shortstop, and in the bullpen is a shame.

Florida Marlins

Where: Jupiter, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 71-91 (5th, NL East)
New guys: Jose Castillo, Eulogio De La Cruz, Mark Hendrickson, Cameron Maybin, Dallas McPherson, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo, Jorge Cantu (NRI)
Gone guys: Armando Benitez, Aaron Boone, Joe Borchard, Miguel Cabrera, Byung-Hyun Kim, Todd Linden, Wes Obermueller, Miguel Olivo, Dontrelle Willis
Wow, he's still here? No one, really. Just seven Marlins remain from the 2005 team, and those seven combined for 249 AB and 38 1/3 innings that year.
Winter grade: C-
It's not that they didn't get good prospects in the Cabrera/Willis trade, or that they might not be better in a few years for it. It's just hard to see how dealing those two guys was a better idea than putting a team around them and trying to win. Improving the defense by aligning Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, and Dan Uggla differently around the field would have been worth a couple of wins. Throw in bouncebacks by pitchers, an emerging Jeremy Hermida, and some low-end free agent pickups, and this team could have contended in the NL. The deal also sends the message that you shouldn't get attached to Hermida or Ramirez. Just put the franchise down already.
NRI to watch: The Fish have 29 NRIs in camp, because you can never have too many options to put a minimum-salary player on the roster in place of one making more than that. Early steroid suspendee Jorge Piedra can hit, and he might make a serviceable stopgap in center field, allowing Maybin to play most of the season in the minors. They be taking another defensive hit if he plays there regularly, so Alejandro de Aza or Alfredo Amezaga will have value as his caddy.
Job battle to track: Third base is a mess in the absence of Cabrera, with McPherson, Castillo, and Cantu all vying for the job. If McPherson is able to swing a bat, he's mildly interesting. None of these guys are good; they're barely third basemen, as the three have combined for 95 appearances at third base in the last two years.
One move to make: Send Maybin to Double-A for two months. If he proves he can play there-he's had 20 at-bats at the level-send him to Triple-A, where he's never played, for the rest of that season. The Tigers screwed up last season; the Marlins can't let that drive their handling of a player who is completely unready for the major leagues.

If the ownership doesn't care, and the fans don't care, and the municipalities don't care, why should we? You can point to the 2003 title, I guess, but like the 1997 one, it seems anomalous. For a decade now, the Florida Marlins have existed solely in the hopes of extorting taxpayer dollars for a mallpark. Everything on the baseball side is secondary. They are one of the rare "hopeless and faithless" franchises around.

New York Mets

Where: Port St. Lucie, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 88-74 (2nd, NL East)
New guys: Ryan Church, Ruddy Lugo, Angel Pagan, Johan Santana, Brian Schneider, Brian Stokes, Matt Wise
Gone guys: Tom Glavine, Carlos Gomez, Shawn Green, Brian Lawrence, Paul Lo Duca, Lastings Milledge, Guillermo Mota, Aaron Sele, Jose Valentin (in camp as a NRI)
Wow, he's still here? Luis Castillo was supposed to be a short-term fix in the wake of Jose Valentin's season-ending injury. Over the winter, the Mets gave him a four-year contract. It's a very questionable decision given Castillo's fragility and loss of speed over the last few years.
Winter grade: B
Acquiring the best pitcher in baseball salvages what had been a lousy offseason. The Castillo signing, the Lastings Milledge giveaway, and the lack of other good decisions have all been forgiven and forgotten.
NRI to watch: Eddie Kunz was the Mets' first-round pick last year, and as a college reliever is wired to make the majors quickly. The hulking right-hander could make the team out of spring training given how soft the Mets are on the right side of their bullpen.
Job battle to track: If you find one, call me. This is a pretty set lineup, Santana locks up the rotation, and even the bench looks stable. There'll be some jockeying for roles and roster spots at the back of the bullpen, and that's all.
One move to make: As has been the case for the past few season, the Mets could use a power arm in the bullpen in front of Billy Wagner for situations in which a strikeout is better than a groundball. Aaron Heilman is a good reliever, he's just better suited to first-and-second, one-out situations than coming in with the tying run on third and nobody out. Perhaps Kunz will be that guy.

The 7-17 finish to the 2007 season was put to bed Wednesday, when the Mets introduced left-hander Johan Santana to the assembled media. The trade for Santana elevates them above a crowded second tier in the NL, making them the team to beat in both the East and the league. Despite having two young stars in Jose Reyes and David Wright, the Mets are an old team. Combine that with a thin farm system, and there's a pressure to win right now. They may not be the division favorite much past 2008.

Philadelphia Phillies

Where: Clearwater, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 89-73 (1st, NL East)
New guys: Travis Blackley, Eric Bruntlett, Chad Durbin, Pedro Feliz, Lincoln Holdzkom, Geoff Jenkins, Brad Lidge, Chris Snelling, So Taguchi, Shane Youman
Gone guys: Antonio Alfonseca, Rod Barajas, Michael Bourn, Freddy Garcia, Geoff Geary, Tadahito Iguchi, Jon Lieber, Kyle Lohse, Jose Mesa, Abraham Nunez, Aaron Rowand
Wow, he's still here? Jamie Moyer is 45 years old, and unless Julio Franco latches on somewhere, he'll be the oldest player in baseball. Last season snapped a six-year streak in which Moyer threw at least 200 innings a year (199 1/3).
Winter grade: B
There were a lot of bodies shuffled, but the net effect involves enough marginal improvements to keep them in contention. The Jenkins signing will look better if they platoon him with Jayson Werth, although Jenkins didn't take well to being platooned in Milwaukee.
NRI to watch: You have to root for a pitcher named Josh Outman. The Phillies' 10th-round pick in 2005, Outman moved quickly through three levels before struggling mildly at Double-A late last year. He's got no chance to make the team out of spring training; however, he could be up later in the year. Come on, it's just fun.
Job battle to track: Adam Eaton is the listed fifth starter. When he pulls up lame or just loses the job, a pair of Durbins-J.D. and Chad-will be lying in wait for the job. The challenge isn't picking one; it's telling them apart. Chad is taller, older, more experienced, and has a career ERA barely under 6.00. J.D. is the former Twins prospect with the career ERA barely over 6.00.
One move to make: Shane Victorino is a small guy, perhaps better suited to a fourth-outfielder role than an everyday one; it's likely that asking him to be the starting center fielder violates his warranty. Finding him a backup better than So Taguchi, especially one with some pop against lefties, would help this team a lot. It's a minor nit on a good roster.

The Phillies looked like the favorite to repeat as NL East champs up until a few days ago, but they remain at the top of the pool of credible NL contenders who don't have Johan Santana. Returning Brett Myers to the rotation is the right decision, one that keeps them from having to dip into the market for another Eatonesque mistake. They will score runs, and with an improved rotation and bullpen, they should prevent them a bit better than they did in '07.

Washington Nationals

Where: Viera, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 73-89 (4th, NL East)
New guys: Aaron Boone, Tyler Clippard, Elijah Dukes, Johnny Estrada, Garrett Guzman, Willie Harris, Paul Lo Duca, Rob Mackowiak, Lastings Milledge
Gone guys: Winston Abreu, Mike Bacsik (NRI), Tony Batista, Micah Bowie, Ryan Church, Robert Fick, D'Angelo Jimenez, Nook Logan, Brian Schneider, Jason Simontacchi, Levale Speigner, Billy Traber
Wow, he's still here? Nick Johnson missed the entire 2007 season with a knee injury suffered in a late-2006 collision. While he was out, the Nats committed to Dmitri Young for 2008 and 2009. Hilarity ensues.
Winter grade: B+
Jim Bowden dumped many of the bad ideas of 2007 and picked up some very good outfielders on the cheap. Unfortunately, slim pickings at the upper levels of the farm system means the Nats will field another shaky rotation. If Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, and Matt Chico stay healthy all year and pitch as well as they did at their best, the Nats can reach .500. They can also do this if it turns out that Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes can fly.
NRI to watch: Eighteen non-roster pitchers are in camp, and every one of them could make the team. It wasn't that long ago that we couldn't decide between Dennis Tankersley and Jake Peavy. Now, one is rich and the other is trying to make the worst staff in baseball. Tankersley's peripherals have not been good of late, so he's a long shot.
Job battle to track: If he's healthy, Johnson is a better player than Young, so there's the potential for a problem there. Then you have Dukes and Wily Mo Pena in left field, Felipe Lopez trying to get his job back against Cristian Guzman's contract, and eleventeen guys for two rotation spots. Manny Acta has his work cut out for him.
One move to make: Livan Hernandez wants to come to Washington, and heaven help me, I think it's a good fit. The wins and losses don't matter much for this team; however, having a starter who will throw 220 innings will make Acta's life easier, allowing him to reset the bullpen once a week by riding Hernandez deep into a game.

Acta is a competitive advantage for the Nationals, a rare manager who thinks deeply about baseball, about his roster, and about every move he makes. That advantage is currently wasted on a roster that has about 65 wins in it, so you can't expect miracles. The hope is that the talent base grows to match Acta's talents before the organization decides to "make a change" for the sake of doing so. He's already one of the five best managers in baseball.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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