For the past four seasons, the NL East has been the Phillies' personal playground, serving as a six-month warm-up for a run of post-season success that has yielded two pennants and a championship. The presumptive favorite hasn't changed in 2011, but the division's other occupants won't surrender without a fight. Prior to last season, the NL Wild Card hadn't come out of the East since 2003, when the Marlins claimed it and went on to win the World Series, but the Braves' 2010 post-season appearance proved that the division's playoff-caliber contenders weren't confined to Philly, and four younger, potentially hungrier rosters will be gunning for the division's defending champs come Opening Day.
With the aid of Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA, we've forecasted the performance of every player in baseball this season. When coupled with our estimates of playing time, PECOTA's projections allow us to generate an expected record for each team. Here's how the system sees the NL East playing out in 2011:
Philadelphia Phillies: 91-71 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: The Phillies feature the most imposing starting staff in recent memory. Coupling Cliff Lee with defending Cy Young Award-winner Roy Halladay gives them a convincing claim to the top two pitchers in the league, and Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels represent a middle of the rotation which most teams would gladly exchange their aces for. Altogether, PECOTA foresees 860 innings with a 3.29 ERA from the Phillies' front four starters, which would make anything Joe Blanton adds a bonus.
Why They Might Not Win: Although the team is talented, it isn't getting any younger. With an average batter age of 31.9 and an average pitcher age of 30.9, last year's Phillies were the league's oldest on both counts, and aside from losing Jamie Moyer to injury, they did little to lower those numbers this winter. The roster is built to win now and PECOTA thinks it will, but with advancing age comes increasing infirmity, so it's possible that injuries or an extended offensive slump like the one that derailed them for three weeks late last spring could linger.
Player Who Could Surprise: Scott Mathieson posted a 2.80 ERA in over 60 innings at Triple-A last season, but earned only two (ineffective) appearances for the big club. PECOTA thinks he can manage a sub-4.00 ERA in 67 major-league innings, which would be a boon to a fairly thin bullpen. Of course, with a rotation like that, who needs relievers?
Player Who Could Disappoint: Carlos Ruiz vaulted into the league's offensive upper echelons at catcher with a .302/.400/.447 triple-slash line last season. PECOTA doesn't foresee a repeat, calling for a .259/.349/.391 line from the 32-year-old, a significant decline, if still a valuable contribution at a weak-hitting position.
Atlanta Braves: 87-75 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: With second baseman Dan Uggla in the fold and projected to lead the club with 29 home runs, the Braves appear set to outscore the Phillies, and their five returning starters look strong.
Why They Might Not Win: Uggla’s arrival isn’t all good news, as the slugger isn’t known for his leather (at least not in a good way). Between his presence at the keystone, Martin Prado’s forced relocation to left field, and a heavier dose of Chipper Jones at third, the Braves stand to take a hit defensively. They also figure to lose ground in the bullpen, thanks to the departures of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, and expected regression from younger arms. Even if they don’t miss Bobby Cox, they will miss last year’s run prevention, since PECOTA expects them to allow over 70 more runs than they did last season.
Player Who Could Surprise: With Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor fatigued late last September, undrafted free-agent find Brandon Beachy was called up to make three starts, and acquitted himself well after a successful season split between Double- and Triple-A. Atlanta’s rotation is just as well-stocked this year, but if anyone goes down Beachy could again be summoned to the rescue—PECOTA thinks him capable of nearly a strikeout per inning and a sub-4.00 ERA.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Jonny Venters struck out under six batters per nine innings as a starter in the upper minors before surprising the organization by fanning over 10 per nine with a sub-2.00 ERA in the Braves bullpen last season. PECOTA projects an unsightly 4.77 ERA, but the system doesn’t know that his efforts were aided by an improved breaking ball or that his stuff played up in the bullpen. Still, some regression is almost certainly in the offing after the lefty limited batters to a single home run in 83 innings last season.
Florida Marlins: 84-78 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: Even after unloading Uggla on a division rival, the Marlins are projected to score the most runs in the division, as PECOTA foresees the usual offensive brilliance from Hanley Ramirez being supplemented by strong sophomore seasons from Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, with few glaring holes outside of veteran third baseman Wes Helms.
Why They Might Not Win: Good glovemen are still thin on the ground in Miami, though receiving a full season of Mike Stanton and exchanging Uggla for Omar Infante at the keystone should help. As usual, the Marlins will also be attempting to make do with a largely reconstructed bullpen.
Player Who Could Surprise: Ruben Gotay hasn’t sniffed the majors since 2008, but he posted a .410 OBP at Triple-A last season. PECOTA thinks that would translate to a .370 mark in the majors if the third baseman could crack the roster, and Helms shouldn’t represent much of an obstacle.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Michael Dunn’s 1.89 ERA in abbreviated action in Atlanta last season got him included in the Uggla deal, but since he misses the strike zone even more often than he misses bats, that figure is sure to rise. PECOTA thinks he’ll get his walk rate under six per nine, which might not be enough to avoid a 5.00-plus ERA.
New York Mets: 80-82 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: PECOTA essentially expects the Mets to break even, and like any team with a true talent level in the range of .500, they could get lucky enough to contend. The club’s new regime spent the winter collecting low-risk, medium-upside parts, and in the unlikely event that they all pay off, the Mets’ competitive timetable could be accelerated.
Why They Might Not Win: With Johan Santana’s return uncertain, the rotation lacks a sure thing, and the bullpen isn’t much better. The Mets are projected to allow nearly 80 more runs than they did last season, and with Oliver Perez still slated to frequent Flushing, Citi Field may be the only thing keeping the Mets’ projected runs allowed total in respectable territory.
Player Who Could Surprise: With the powerless remains of Luis Castillo still topping the Mets’ second-base depth chart, Rule 5 find Brad Emaus could open some eyes. PECOTA projects a league-average .250/.332/.371 line with plus defense from him in his age-25 season, which would be quite a return for the $50,000 it took to steal him from Toronto.
Player Who Could Disappoint: PECOTA doesn’t expect much progress from Ike Davis, but Mets fans hoping for a power display from Lucas Duda may be in for even more disappointment, as his .242/.327/.395 projection bears little resemblance to his slugging exploits in the high minors last season.
Washington Nationals: 70-92 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: The Nats won’t win in the classical sense, but they can achieve a victory of sorts by not losing the services of any more young pitchers to injury while waiting for Stephen Strasburg to make a triumphant return and lead the team to contention down the road.
Why They Might Not Win: Unfortunately, there’s little uncertainty here; the Nats are projected to allow far more and score far fewer runs than any other team in the division. Jordan Zimmermann is the only potential bright spot in an otherwise lackluster rotation, and Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman alone do not a productive lineup make.
Player Who Could Surprise: Catcher Jesus Flores lost last season to labrum surgery following an injury-plagued 2009, but was last seen posting an 877 OPS in limited action. Now healthy, the 26-year-old is back in Nats camp and poised to bounce back. PECOTA foresees a modest .249/.312/.394 performance, but even that would be a significant improvement over 39-year-old starter Ivan Rodriguez’s projected .246/.274/.337 line.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Jayson Werth’s restored facial hair won’t disappoint, but his bat might lose some of its luster away from Citizens Bank Park. PECOTA thinks a .266/.363/.471 triple-slash line is in store; while that’s useful, it doesn’t scream “franchise player” quite as loudly as a seven-year, $126-million contract.