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November 12, 2008

Hot Stove Preview

NL East

by Caleb Peiffer

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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What Do They Need? Two starting pitchers would help to round out the back of the rotation. If Pat Burrell leaves via free agency, they'll have to find a left fielder, because no other internal option is feasible: Philly's top fly-catching prospects, Greg Golson and Michael Taylor, are both at least a year away, free-agent add-on Geoff Jenkins showed last season that he is stretched even in a platoon role, and Matt Stairs will be 41 in 2009 and is probably unable to play the outfield more than sporadically.

What Do They Have? Their top-shelf talent rivals that of any team in the game, with a championship infield core comprised of two former MVPs-shortstop Jimmy Rollins and first baseman Ryan Howard-and second baseman Chase Utley, the best of the bunch despite a lack of hardware. At just 24 years old, Cole Hamels is a true ace who has vaulted himself into the elite with a Cy Young-caliber season and one of the best recent playoff performances. Brad Lidge is a dominant closer who has converted 51 straight saves since September of 2007, the third-longest streak of all time, and he is backed up by the solid righty-lefty set-up crew of Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero. Right-handers Brett Myers and Joe Blanton provide a decent supporting cast for Hamels, and afield they have a pair of cheap, productive outfielders in Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll let Burrell walk. The club chose "trick" over "treat" on Halloween, proposing two years and $22 million, and since that non-starter deal, Philly has shown little interest in retaining its left fielder. Re-uniting Manny Ramirez with his first major league manager, Charlie Manuel, is an intriguing possibility, but the price will end up being too high. Look for the Phils to go the low-cost route, letting Jenkins be the primary placeholder in left and perhaps adding a cheap right-handed bat such as Emil Brown to back him up. It would be a shock if ancient marvel Jamie Moyer wasn't re-signed for the fourth spot in the rotation following his discovery of the fountain of youth last year, and they will likely pick up a stop-gap veteran to fill their need for a fifth starter (Carl Pavano, Odalis Perez, Mike Hampton, Freddy Garcia, and Paul Byrd are all options).

What Should They Do? Not inking Burrell to a long-term deal is a shrewd move from an economic perspective, given that his age (32) and immobility (those dreaded "old-player skills") portend a potentially rapid decline. But Burrell has been remarkably consistent over the last four years-hitting between 29 and 33 homers and slugging from .502-.507 each year-and the lack of a viable alternative makes taking on the risk of a multi-year offer the right move. Jenkins is two years older than Burrell, was a disappointment last season, and struggles against lefties. New GM Ruben Amaro Jr. should see if he can get Burrell for only a three-year commitment by beefing up the contract's average annual value. Regarding the rotation, re-signing Moyer is a no-brainer. For the fifth spot, the Phillies can probably get by letting J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick, and Adam Eaton battle it out during spring training. While Kendrick and Eaton pitched their way out of the rotation last year, the 25-year-old lefty Happ combined for a 3.62 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 9.6 K/9 in 166 2/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors, and he did not allow more than two runs in any of his four big-league starts. A solid performance from Happ would allow Philly the luxury of giving top pitching prospect Carlos Carrasco at least the first half to gain seasoning at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

NEW YORK METS
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What Do They Need? New York lost a major league-high seven games when leading at the start of the ninth in 2008, and the bullpen was a major contributor to the team's second straight September collapse, going 3-5 with a 6.65 ERA in the final 16 games. The Mets made more pitching changes than any other team in the majors (719) because almost all of their relievers were helpless against one side of the plate or the other (or just plain helpless). They need a couple of arms who can retire both lefties and righties, especially with Billy Wagner out for 2009 after Tommy John surgery. Beyond the bullpen, New York could go several different ways in left field. The Mets would also love to unload Luis Castillo's albatross contract, but that's a pipe dream unless Minaya can swap it for some other bad deal. Then there are questions about the rotation-if Oliver Perez and Pedro Martinez depart, New York will need at least one and possibly two starters, depending on whether they see Jonathon Niese as ready for primetime.

What Do They Have? Like the Phillies, they have a phenomenal core, consisting of the best left side of the infield in baseball (third baseman David Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes), as well as the best center fielder in the NL (Carlos Beltran), all of whom are signed through at least 2011. At first base, Omar Minaya had an easy decision in picking up the $12 million option on Carlos Delgado, who showed he can still be a powerful force with a .308/.392/.626 line in 372 plate appearances from June 27 onward. In the rotation, Johan Santana retains the title of best pitcher in baseball, coming off of career highs in both innings and ERA, and Mike Pelfrey has emerged as a young workhorse to complement the ace after harnessing his nasty sinker.

What Are They Likely To Do? They will probably let Martinez and Perez walk, while bringing in another Boras client, Derek Lowe. They'll sign a lower-profile starter to compete for the fifth spot (perhaps Bartolo Colon), package Aaron Heilman to Colorado for relief help, and sign Brian Fuentes to close, while bringing in several other lower-profile arms to compete for bullpen jobs. Expect them to stick with Ryan Church in right, a Dan Murphy/Fernando Tatis platoon in left, and Luis Castillo at second base, while bringing in a known quantity to back up at the keystone, such as Felipe Lopez, Alex Cora, Jerry Hairston Jr., or David Eckstein.

What Should They Do? It might be wise to re-sign Perez, who will come cheaper than Lowe or Ryan Dempster. Bringing in another starter who won't cost the team draft picks-like Colon, Odalis Perez, Freddy Garcia, or Randy Wolf-would also have the benefit of giving Niese more time at Triple-A. Biting the bullet and selling low on Heilman for a reliever or fifth starter couldn't hurt, as he has wanted out of New York for several years and badly needs a change of scenery. They could offer Type B free agent Luis Ayala arbitration so that if he decides to depart they'll receive a draft pick in return. Inking Fuentes to a three-year deal if he'll come will bolster the pen, as would pursuing a trade for J.J. Putz or Huston Street. Using some creativity to fill out the bullpen could shift their focus to a number of intriguing minor league free agents, such as 24-year-old lefty R.J. Swindle (1.53 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 67 K in 53 innings between Double- and Triple-A last year), Kiko Calero (coming back from a rotator cuff injury), Fernando Cabrera, and former Met Scott Strickland. New York should also try to keep its 40-man roster below capacity in order to add other potentially promising arms in the Rule 5 draft.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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What Do They Need? The defense is weak, especially in the infield, where Ramirez at short, Uggla at second, and Cantu at third all rate as poor fielders (although Ramirez showed significant improvement last season and may no longer need to be moved off the position). A first baseman would be nice, unless they decide to hand the second base job to newly-acquired Emilio Bonifacio and move Uggla and Jorge Cantu to third and first base, respectively. With Willingham gone, they have to find a left fielder. They're short a few arms in the bullpen, especially since they are set to jettison Kevin Gregg following his ugly second half.

What Do They Have? There is incredible roster flexibility here, with just three players signed for next season-young building-blocks Hanley Ramirez and Andrew Miller, as well as Wes Helms, who the club inexplicably handed a two-year extension following two straight sub-.300 OBP seasons. They also own the most valuable commodity in baseball, as well as a tremendous offensive second baseman in Dan Uggla, a young and extremely talented corps of starters headlined by Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Miller, and a trio of right-handed power arms out of the bullpen in Matt Lindstrom, Joe Nelson, and Leo Nunez.

What Are They Likely To Do? If you read between the lines after the acquisition of the trendiest player in baseball (the inexplicable key return on two deals in the past four months), the gutting of the Fish could continue with a deal moving either Uggla or Cantu. Such a trade would free up second base for Bonifacio while allowing minor league sluggers Dallas McPherson and Gaby Sanchez to battle for the first-base job. The club also plans on promoting the jewel of the Miguel Cabrera trade, 21-year-old Cameron Maybin, to the starting job in center field following his scintillating September demitasse. That will probably mean that current center fielder Cody Ross moves to left. Beyond that, Florida is likely to sign most of their remaining arbitration-eligible players, including Nolasco, Alfredo Amezaga, Matt Treanor, Jeremy Hermida, Johnson, Ross, and Nelson. They'll try to trade Gregg and make 100-mph flamethrower Lindstrom the closer.

What Should They Do? How low the Marlins' payroll needs to be next season is unclear, but if they were forced to also trade Cantu or Uggla after the dumps to the Nationals and Royals, the dwindling fan base in South Florida might revolt. They should be able to keep both. Cantu had the lowest Zone Rating among qualified third basemen last season, but the glove of the lefty-swinging McPherson-who hit more home runs in 2008 (42) than any minor leaguer in the past three seasons-might be even worse. A first-base platoon of McPherson and the right-handed Sanchez, who brings strong defense to the infield, would create a hydra capable of hitting 30 homers for a combined cost of around $1 million. Having Maybin open the year as the starter in Miami rather than at Triple-A Albuquerque is a risk, but a defensible one given the limitations of Ross as a regular in center and the lack of other options; it will definitely upgrade the outfield defense. Dumping Gregg and replacing him with Lindstrom is the right move, and the club should offer arbitration to Type B free-agent Arthur Rhodes, who pitched very well as the lefty specialist last year. Bringing in a lefty-swinging outfielder to help out the right-handed bats of Ross and Maybin would be sensible, and perhaps Mark Kotsay would agree to rejoin his original team. With several open spots on the 40-man roster, Florida can also afford to search for another Dan Uggla-esque gem in the Rule 5 draft.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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What Do They Need? They have a shopping list of pitchers and outfielders. The team's bullpen was a disaster: it registered only 26 saves all season, the lowest total in the majors, and contributed to Atlanta's 11-30 record in one-run games, the second-worst mark in the last 70 years. The rotation, however, presents an even more pressing need. Tim Hudson is in the last year of his deal, but is out until at least next August after undergoing Tommy John. Aging lions Smoltz and Glavine are in a similar position-the best-case scenario for Smoltz is a mid-season return following shoulder surgery, and Glavine is still undecided on whether to come back in the wake of his own arm operation. Behind Jair Jurrjens, the only starter under team control who pitched well last year is successful reclamation project Jorge Campillo. Atlanta will probably have to add two starters and some bullpen arms in order to take a serious run at disrupting the Philadelphia-New York axis atop the NL East. And then there's the issue of the outfield, which produced a grand total of 27 home runs last year, an embarrassing number for a corps that two seasons before had more than three times as many.

What Do They Have? An extremely underrated young double-play combination is developing in shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson. The inimitable Chipper Jones, one of the greatest hitting machines of all time, is coming off of a season in which he set career-highs in average and OBP at age 36. Brian McCann is arguably the best offensive catcher in the majors and already on a Hall of Fame career trajectory at age 24. They have a promising 22-year-old starter in Jurrjens, who anchored the rotation after the veterans went down. Top-notch outfield prospects Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward are a duo which should be ready to take over in the next couple of years.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Padres are close to sending Jake Peavy to Atlanta for a multi-player package, which could include Escobar, center-field prospect Gorkys Hernandez, and a pitcher. Atlanta is also believed to be the only team so far which has offered a major league contract to 22-year-old Japanese right-hander Junichi Tazawa, who bypassed the Japanese draft in order to begin his professional career stateside. Tazawa has been compared to Hudson, and sports a mid-90s fastball, a splitter, and an excellent curve. Bringing in Peavy and Tazawa and re-signing Hampton for the fifth spot would give the club an intriguing quintet heading into the season, and they also have plenty of depth at hand in the high minors. Peavy's potential arrival only makes sense in tandem with a push for contention that includes adding a power-hitting outfielder, and a trade for St. Louis's Ryan Ludwick has been rumored.

What Should They Do? Staying the course would be the wise choice. Giving up Escobar and prospects for Peavy would be a mistake; Atlanta could be poised to begin a strong run centered around home-grown players a few years hence. They should focus efforts on acquiring Tazawa, bringing back Hampton on a one-year deal, and letting top prospect Tommy Hanson compete for the fifth spot in the rotation this spring with the team's other young starters. Regarding the outfield, Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson can hold the fort in center field until Schafer is ready to take over-which might be sooner rather than later-and the team has little choice but to hope for the best with the enigmatic Jeff Francoeur in right. Bringing in a bat like Juan Rivera to play left would make sense.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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What Do They Need? Monday's trade for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham fortified the lineup; Willingham can play first base if Nick Johnson is not recovered from surgery to repair a torn wrist-tendon sheath, and he can shift to left when Johnson returns. The team could use an upgrade at second base over Ronnie Belliard, who is not going to hit .287/.372/.473 again, but the name of the off-season game is pitching. It's an election year in the national rotation, with nearly every seat on the Washington staff in play. Acquiring Olsen helps, and he represents a rotational upgrade despite an eroding strikeout rate, but at least three other spots are wide open. So is the bullpen, which by the end of the season had been stripped of all salable parts.

What Do They Have? Franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman counts as something, as do their two talented young outfielders, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. With Josh Willingham in the fold, Austin Kearns playing for a contract, and Wily Mo Pena out to prove that last year's debacle was a fluke, the outfield could be a real strength. Washington also has two decent young left-handed starters in John Lannan and Olsen, and its farm system is beginning to develop quality talent again after being trampled in the turmoil of relocation.

What Are They Likely To Do? There are rumors that the Nats could throw A-Rod money at Mark Teixeira in order to make the Maryland native their franchise player. The more likely major move would be adding Adam Dunn, who was drafted by the Reds in 1998 when current Nats GM Jim Bowden was Cincinnati's top executive. Dunn is underrated because of his low batting average and lumbering glove work in the outfield, despite being one of just eight players in major league history with 40 home runs in five straight seasons. He'll be a bargain compared to the other top free agents, and few teams could use his power more than Washington, which finished last among NL squads in slugging. As for the rotation, the Nats will try to bring back Odalis Perez, who did a serviceable job last season. A bevy of free talent will be shaken loose from the usual hangouts to battle for the available bullpen openings, with righties Saul Rivera, Steven Shell, and Joel Hanrahan (currently DC's notional closer) the incumbents most likely to land spots.

What Should They Do? Wooing Dunn isn't a bad idea, but his signing would lead to the forfeiting of Washington's second-round draft pick. That and the fact that the outfield is the team's one area of both strength and depth is enough to advise against it. Returning Perez to the fold would be a solid move, and the Nationals should also bestow an incentive-laden one-year deal upon a veteran starter looking to reclaim past glory after injury and ineffectiveness, possibly from a list that includes Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Jason Jennings, Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, and Mark Prior. If one of them happened to pan out, the Nats would be able to cash in at the trading deadline. If not, they'd only be out a couple million bucks. The fifth spot could then be reserved for the team's gaggle of fringy youngsters, like Shawn Hill, Garrett Mock, Shairon Martis, Collin Balester, and Tyler Clippard. Regarding the bullpen, Washington should first re-sign its own minor league free agent Chris Schroder, who has had success in the minors and could capably fill a middle-relief slot; the other names that might be auditioned are the same that the Mets will likely be after.


Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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