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1) After a disappointing sophomore campaign, what can we expect of Jason Heyward going forward?
MJ: Jason Heyward had an injury-riddled sophomore season in Atlanta, but there is a lot to like about his chances at a rebound campaign in 2012. His offensive line was deflated by a .260 BABIP, but his peripherals were once again stellar. His 11.6 percent walk rate represented a regression from 2010 but cannot be considered poor, and his .162 ISO likewise dropped from the previous year but did not experience a precipitous fall.
DC: I absolutely agree with you, Mike. Despite a poor season, Heyward still has superstar potential. Expecting him to make good on such lofty potential this year might be a stretch, but I definitely expect him to be quite good. He’s a good athlete and I love his quick bat, and despite two MLB seasons under his belt already, he’s still just 22 years old.
MJ: Many of the repeatable skills that made Heyward a success in 2011 are still present even after a poor 2012, so you have to think with some health and recovery along with the vast array of skills that made him a top prospect just a few years ago, he should return to a place closer to his 2010 numbers than his 2011 numbers.
DC: Yes, the injury is a big consideration; that kind of thing can definitely affect a hitter at the plate. Heyward had said that his mechanics had changed as a result of the injury, and Chipper Jones also said that his mechanics had changed. Jones says that Heyward is making progress with his mechanics and getting close to the point that he needs to be at, which is encouraging.
2) With Alex Gonzalez the only member of 2011’s starting eight departing this off-season, does Tyler Pastornicky play shortstop, and if so, how good will he be?
DC: Yup, all signs indicate that Pastronicky will be the team’s Opening Day shortstop.
MJ: Tyler Pastornicky ranks as the sixth best prospect in the Braves' organization in 2012 according to Kevin Goldstein, but the reviews are not raving. The good news is that he can avoid strikeouts (career 11.4 percent strikeout rate in the minors), which should help keep his batting line afloat. The problem is that he provides little else with the bat and is just an average defender at the position. He is 22 years old, but he has never hit before this season and is a lifetime .278/.345/.374 hitter in the minors. Of course, if you have a pulse and a bat, you are likely to do better than Alex Gonzalez did last season at the plate (.241/.270/.372, .226 TAv), so even with a mediocre track record, Pastornicky may be better than Gonzalez was last season offensively.
DC: The Braves made no impact signings this winter in their middle infield, unless re-signing Jack Wilson counts. Wilson will back-up Pastornicky, but it seems unlikely he’ll usurp his starting role unless Pastornicky really tanks and the Braves either lose faith or feel he’d be better served with more Triple-A time. Seeing as how they’re so willing to start him in Atlanta on Opening Day, though, the latter option seems less likely.
3) How good is Brandon Beachy, really?
MJ: Brandon Beachy was a surprising ace-quality starter in 2011, notching over 10 strikeouts per nine innings on his way to a solid 3.68 ERA and an even better 3.19 FIP. It is difficult to imagine him completely duplicating the strikeout success, especially given his lack of strong prospect pedigree before 2011 and the fact that his five-pitch arsenal—headlined by a fastball and cutter in the 91-92 mph range—does not scream "strikeout artist."
DC: Yes, Beachy has just borderline 60-grade velocity, but he’s always managed to strikeout batters in the upper minors, and that counts for something, especially when that carries over to the majors (even in a 141-inning sample). He has a very deep arsenal and mixes his pitches well, and I honestly do like his stuff. Not a 10.0 K/9 kind of like, but something approaching 8.0 K/9, sure. He gets 12 mph of separation (!) between his fastball and change. He can give hitters a lot of different looks, and he’s able to change their eye level (PITCHf/x says there’s a three-plus foot gap between the vertical movement on his fastball and curve, with the change-up and slider in between). Maybe he didn’t have an elite pedigree, but I’m buying the strikeouts to a large degree.
MJ: PECOTA is too, projecting a 9.0 K/9 rate along with a 3.67 ERA that’s eerily similar to his 2011 mark. At this point that seems like a good guess. That said, Beachy may be the most puzzling of all of the Braves' pitchers to me, and I'd be kidding myself if I said I knew how good he really was.
4) What do the Braves do about their logjam of starters?
MJ: The easiest thing to do for the Braves and their luxury of starting pitching is to hold onto all of them until an injury inevitably arises. Whether it is Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, or one of the younger starters, someone in the Braves' top five is going to miss time, and that is where Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and/or Arodys Vizcaino will come in handy.
DC: I tend to agree. The Braves have eight guys capable of starting right now, but a lot of them are injury risks. No team makes it through the year using just five starters, and especially on this team, someone’s bound to get hurt.
MJ: Right now, there is no reason for the Braves to trade away their depth and risk an injury or someone’s surprising ineffectiveness hurting their playoff chances.
DC: That’s right. The other thing to keep in mind is that Teheran and Delgado don’t have a lot of experience at the upper levels yet. Yes, their stuff is great, but it’s not going to hurt to give them another year or half-year at Triple-A. You look at a guy like Kyle Drabek for Toronto last year who was praised and had great stuff, but he didn’t even get 200 innings at Double-A (and they were mediocre innings, at that) before he was rushed to the majors. Naturally, he bombed. It’s not going to hurt for Atlanta to give their top prospects more time to adjust to upper level hitting before throwing them into the fire. Delgado posted a 5.14 FIP in his 35 MLB innings last year. Give the guys a little time.
MJ: The one other thing we should consider is the kind of return they might get for one of their young guys. What if there are future offensive options available for the team to pounce on? Then all bets are off.
DC: Right. I don’t think the Braves are looking into trades, nor should they, but they’re certainly listening. If something piques there interested, I could see a deal being made. Jair Jurrjens might make the most sense to be dealt, but his name was on the rumor mill all winter and the Braves didn’t seem to get a deal they found sufficient.
5) Can Tommy Hanson stay healthy?
MJ: Hanson’s healthy is a concern, but we need to remember that he has had just one season in which he could not stay on the field long enough to make a strong impact for the Braves. That’s a problem in the sense that Hanson may be the team's best pitcher, but the aforementioned depth of their rotation talent makes his health less of a concern than it is for other teams. Even if Hanson is the team's "ace" (and that, itself, is questionable), the club has three capable replacements ready to go if he misses significant time. Rather than turning to replacement level talent, the Braves may be turning to someone in Teheran or Delgado who is perhaps 70 or 80 percent of Hanson's capacity at this stage. The Braves do not have to worry about starting pitching missing time because of their well-developed farm system.
DC: The Braves are very fortunate in that they have all of that talent. If they do lose Hanson, the drop-off is going to be much less severe than it will be for most other teams. That said, I do have some concerns about Hanson’s health as a result of the mechanical changes he's making this season, which I discussed in depth on Monday:
When I went to scout school, the instructors always advised caution when dealing with a pitcher who had made more than a minor tweak to his mechanics. You see, if a pitcher is throwing with the same mechanics through high school (or earlier) and into his major-league career, he has repeated that delivery tens of thousands of times. His muscles have developed around that delivery, and they’ve been strengthened based on the particular movements he makes. If you go and change a guy’s delivery in a non-minor way, other muscles that haven’t been evenly developed may now be relied upon more heavily. Pitching is an unnatural motion to begin with and places extreme stress on the body, so pitchers are going to get injured no matter what, but when those muscles lag behind and are suddenly being called upon to play a major role in such a violent motion, the theory postulates, a pitcher becomes even more susceptible to injury.
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1) Mike Stanton has already shown so much in two years in the major leagues. How much improvement can we expect from him in 2012?
DC: Stanton just turned 23 this winter, so in terms of physical improvement, he could see a fair amount. In terms of his raw production, however, the improvement could be limited. You see, I worry about the Marlins' new ballpark. The fences for the new park will be deeper to Stanton's pull-side and in centerfield, so in order to keep up with his 30-35 home run production, he'll need to make physical gains that outweigh the effects of the deeper fences, which may be difficult to do.
MJ: I would also find him getting physically stronger to be fairly difficult. Since 2010, only one player (Jim Thome) has hit more home runs per fly ball than Stanton's 24 percent rate. In other words, he is already one of the most powerful hitters in baseball, if not the most powerful according to those numbers. Even at his age, it seems difficult to even imagine further improvement in that area.
Where we could see some additional improvement is perhaps in his strikeout rate. It did drop from 31.1 percent in 2010 to 27.6 percent last season, though this might have had more to do with the opposition pitching more carefully around him than it does with his selectivity at the plate. Still, there is optimism that further gains in the strikeout department will lift all ships in his batting line and make for further improvement in 2012.
2) Will Hanley Ramirez be able to adjust to his new position at third base? Are these changes going to affect his chances of bouncing back after his worst career season in 2011?
DC: A lot gets made of Hanley's poor 2011, but if you extrapolate his numbers to a full-season, the only thing that's really out-of-line with what he's done is his batting average, and it's not that hard to chalk that up to an unlucky BABIP—especially since he was dealing with some injuries.
MJ: Yes, as I pointed out earlier this offseason, Hanley was well on his way back to his projected numbers after Jack McKeon took over as manager. In fact, his final few weeks of 2011 were very similar to his 2010 season.
DC: That said, studies have shown that players tend to lose a bit of production when they move to a new position and may be at a larger risk of injury, and if Hanley is as dissatisfied with the move (as it has seemed like he is at times this winter), he could be at a greater risk.
MJ: It is difficult to tell what effect we'll see from Ramirez playing with countryman Jose Reyes. The two seem friendly enough, and one suspects that Reyes has reached out to Ramirez already based on how open to the third base idea Ramirez seems to suddenly be. The challenge of moving to a new position and returning to superstardom could make him expand his game or could collapse it.
DC: These kinds of unquantifiable things are tricky topics to tackle, but no good can come of an unhappy player. Even if we don't know exactly what that effect is, reason tells us that we should discount him some amount for it. That said, regression alone points to some degree of improvement, so as long as he can stay healthy and relatively happy, he should be all right.
MJ: Yes, while the baseball factors may seem easy to chalk up to regression next year, the intangible factors seem far more threatening.
DC: All of the personal question marks and the new park cut into what we'd expect for him and might ultimately lead to what some consider a disappointing season, but he'll at least be better than he was in 2011.
3) Which version is more likely to be the real Logan Morrison: 2010 or 2011?
DC: For all the drama around Morrison this season, I thought he was pretty good.
MJ: Morrison's bat has always been about patience and solid swings, and the question mark had always been about power. Last year, things were reversed.
DC: Yes, Morrison showed the ability to hit for power against major league pitching, and his plate discipline was still solid. Scouts I’ve spoken with like his swing, and while the new park could cut into his numbers a little, the new Marlins park is actually shallower than the old one in parts of right field—much better for a lefty like Morrison than a righty like Stanton or Hanley.
MJ: In 2012, I suspect we will see a player in between the 2010 version and the 2011 one. Morrison is still maturing and developing his power, so some of his gains from last year could be real. I do not think he will hit homers in 18 percent of his fly balls, but his career 13 percent mark looks appropriate to make him a decent power hitter.
DC: I like Morrison and think 2012 batting average gains could follow his 2011 power gains.
MJ: His BABIP is bound to jump up a tad, and the result should be something close to his .259/.351/.460 line, if not better.
4) Can Josh Johnson stay healthy?
DC: Well that's the question, isn't it? Any time a pitcher lands on the DL in one season, he's more likely than someone who stayed healthy to pay a repeat visit to the trainer's room, and shoulder injuries are among the most serious for a pitcher. Still, JJ dealt with inflammation and not something more serious like a tear, and Corey Dawkins expressed optimism for his future health prospects back in September. Expecting something like 140 innings wouldn't sound unreasonable to me.
MJ: I too see something similar to those innings. Anywhere around 140 to 160 innings would not be out of the question given his injury history, and that will have a serious effect on the Marlins' rotation. The team is depending on a full return of Josh Johnson to compete, and knocking out 40 to 60 innings from his expected output could leave them down a win or two—wins that could well leave them out of contention in the all-important 2012 season.
5) Are the additions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell this offseason enough to make the Marlins contenders in 2012?
DC: It's easy to be optimistic if you're a Marlins fan after a winter like this and with the prospect of a healthy Josh Johnson. Spending money after years of penny-pinching can have that effect on a fan base. Yes, the team improves, but I just don't think they've improved enough to be true playoff contenders.
MJ: Objectivity may not be my strong suit here, but in my opinion, the Marlins have the necessary pieces to be on the fringes of contention. Adding Reyes and shifting Ramirez to third base should not only give the offense a big boost, but it should also improve the team defensively. Between those two positions, the Marlins are gaining a lot.
DC: Reyes is an impact player for sure, but the value of a relief pitcher—even a great one like Bell—is often overstated (Bell has averaged 1.1 WARP over the past three years).
MJ: Yes, the Bell signing stands out as something the Marlins will regret in the years to come. The Mark Buehrle addition was a solid, if unspectacular, move for the rotation, though.
DC: Yes, Buerhle is solid, but I don’t think solid brings them up to that next level. Buehrle is a number-two starter at best, more likely a three. And what has gone overlooked is the loss of the guy Buehrle is replacing, Javier Vazquez. I see that as a downgrade, really.
DC: That includes has abysmal first couple months, though. After he made some alterations, he absolutely dominated (as he has in the past) from June on, looking like the pitcher he once was. From 2005-2009, he averaged 4.0 WARP per year.
MJ: I do think Carlos Zambrano could be an upgrade over Chris Volstad, but perhaps enthusiasm should indeed be tempered. It is difficult to get excited about a team depending on a healthy Johnson and decent performances from new blood just to be on the outskirts of contention.
DC: Yes, I like Miami’s newfound aggressiveness, and they may well be heading in the right direction, but I don’t think the moves they ultimately made will be enough to overtake the Phillies and Braves. Plus, the Nationals had a better offseason than the Marlins, if we’re looking for underdog teams in this division.
|NEW YORK METS
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1) What will be the impact of moving the Citi Field fences in?
MJ: I think moving the fences in provides the Mets an opportunity to hit home runs that they never had in 2010 and 2011.
DC: Indeed. Greg Rybarczyk of HitTracker found that had the new fences been in place since Citi Field opened, David Wright would have hit 59 percent more homers and Jason Bay would have hit 100 percent more homers at home. That’s no small beans.
MJ: No, but at the same time, I think it also causes an already mediocre Mets pitching staff led by a returning Johan Santana to have more difficulty facing hitters. The Mets finished with the second-worst ERA among NL East starting staffs last season, and the only team below them (the Marlins) had slightly better peripherals and are moving to a more spacious stadium.
DC: Yeah, well that’s the thing. It might help your hitters, but by the same token it’s going to hurt your pitchers. Still, the apparently the Mets ran a study that found the team would have hit 81 additional homers compared to 70 for visitors since the park opened. Of course there are sample size issues to deal with, the fact that the team’s composition hasn’t remained static, etc.
MJ: Exactly. As it stands, the Mets only have three hitters who figure to be home run threats, and it is likely that the fence move is going to be a breakeven situation for the team.
DC: Just the fact that the Mets made the change is telling, though. Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and company are smart guys. They have access to information about their players and their ballpark that those of us in the public sector do not. That they think the move will be a net positive for the Mets counts for something.
2) What are they doing with the middle of their infield now that Jose Reyes is gone?
DC: With Reyes gone, the team cash-strapped, and the Mets lacking internal options, Ruben Tejada seems to fill shortstop by default. To offset his lack of bat, Daniel Murphy figures to start opposite him at second.
MJ: The problem is that neither looks like much of a player right now. There are still obvious questions about whether Murphy can handle second base defensively, and his bat is passable but still has questions since he is power-light and depends on BABIP to sustain his slash line.
DC: For all of his defensive question marks, Murphy’s bat is no sure thing.
MJ: Tejada intrigued last year by drawing walks at a 9.2 percent rate, but he never showed that kind of talent before and he seems like an average player at best. Even at age 22, he seems to have little upside.
DC: Ultimately, I don’t think either of these guys has a place on a Mets team that hopes to contend, but for the 2012 season, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to see if they can at least be useful complimentary pieces. And if Murphy’s bat does prove to be for real and he manages to play a passable second, perhaps he could find a permanent home there.
MJ: Without Reyes, the Mets have a lot of questions about their future at the up-the-middle positions.
DC: Make sure to keep Ronny Cedeno in mind as well. He figures to back up both positions and could be given a shot to start if either disappoints. Not that he’d be much of an upgrade.
3) After trading the closer job back and forth in Toronto for much of 2011, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch find themselves together again in New York. Who gets the most saves in 2012?
DC: You just can’t separate these two, huh?
MJ: If you look at their most recent stats, the answer to this question should be simple. Since 2009, Francisco has a 3.71 ERA and a 3.42 FIP. He has boasted a strong strikeout rate and has played in home run havens that may have artificially inflated his long-ball rate.
DC: I’ve long been a Francisco fan. He always seems to find a way onto my fantasy teams, and I can’t imagine this year will be any different.
MJ: Over the past three years, Rauch has posted a 3.81 ERA and a 3.97 FIP with only one good season over that span (2010 with the Twins). While Francisco is the traditional strikeout machine that teams like to see in the late innings, Rauch's game is predicated on fewer strikeouts, better walks, and home run suppression that must come despite a high fly ball rate. Francisco looks to be the superior choice here.
DC: Indeed he does, and all signs indicate that he’s the heavy favorite to get the job. While some might be concerned about his ability to hold onto the job, I’m more than comfortable handicapping it such that 80 percent of the team’s saves go to Frankie and 20 percent to Rauch.
4) If Johan Santana and Ike Davis are healthy and the fence shift helps Wright and co., the Mets can compete, right?
MJ: There are a lot of "ifs" here, and "compete" also seems to be a tough word to describe.
DC: Throw enough qualifiers into a statement, and just about anything is possible. If Ruben Tejada comes in contact with heavy doses of gamma radiation and Jason Bay comes across a pair of Pegasus Boots, can the Mets compete?
MJ: Santana was looking strong and was still defying his peripherals when we last saw him, so it is possible that he is still an ace-caliber starter or slightly below that level when healthy.
DC: I think that last part is key. Apparently Tim Kurkjian was told by Mets people that getting 100-125 innings out of Johan "would be a bonus." That doesn’t sound good.
MJ: Ike Davis seems to be a strong choice for a bounce back season from injury, but the fence would really have to disproportionately assist the Mets over other teams in order to be a net plus, which I do not think will be the case.
DC: I do really like Davis, as I’ve discussed before. Even if the gains he receives from the fence are balanced out by those visitors to Citi Field receive, I still think he’s a very good player. A healthy Davis likely contributes several wins above a guy like Nick Evans, who started the second-most games at the position for the Mets in 2011.
MJ: Even if we are bullish on Davis individually, the team still has some holes at other positions. If everything pans out, the team can add six or seven wins and be on the outskirts of contention, but the words "panning out" and "Mets" have not been uttered in the same sentence for years.
DC: It would really take a lot for this team to contend. The rest of the NL East is just so strong, and unfortunately, the most likely scenario probably plants the Mets at the very bottom of the division.
5) How much longer will David Wright be wearing orange and blue?
MJ: It has been three years since David Wright was an MVP-caliber player. At this point, it looks like his strikeout "issues" are a real change to his game from the old days. He still has a lot of power in spite of the Citi Field fences, so he would be an appealing option for teams looking for an infusion of home runs at third base.
DC: No argument here. Wright is a very good player and could very well thrive away from Citi, or even in this new Citi. While the Mets are clearly in some sort of rebuilding mode—however you want to label it—it was the right move to hold onto Wright this year to see if he can boost his trade value.
MJ: But the Mets do have the problem of Wright's reasonable 2013 team option automatically voiding if he gets traded.
DC: Yes, while the Mets can keep him for another two years at a reasonable price, anyone acquiring him at the trade deadline will effectively be getting a half-season rental player.
MJ: And if the fences don’t help him as much as we expect and he continues to perform as he has the last few seasons, his trade value could be quite low.
DC: Yes it could. The Mets are certainly hoping for a bounceback season, and it seems quite likely that Wright stays the entire year in New York no matter what—unless they are blown away with an offer at the deadline. It stands to reason that a team will give more for Wright next off-season when they’ll have his services for an entire year (and have extra time to work out an extension) than they will at this year’s trade deadline.
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1) When does Ryan Howard return, and what do the Phillies do in his absence?
MJ: Howard has been off crutches for a while, but the last we heard, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. would be happy to have him back in May, and our own Corey Dawkins mentioned that as well. That likely means we will not see him until at least June.
DC: That seems to be the most realistic timeframe.
MJ: The Phillies did prepare for this by signing Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton this offseason.
DC: Yes. I actually like both of those signings. I think Wigginton, in particular, is a quality signing. I’ve always felt he’s a bit underrated, and if it weren’t for the must-play-defense-in-the-NL issue, I would say that Thome is too.
MJ: Wigginton has a bit of a reputation as a classic masher of lefties coupled who's inept against right-handers, which causes concern if he’s relied on too heavily as a full-time starter at first base.
DC: I think “inept” is too strong of a word. He has historically been better against lefties, but he can certainly hold his own against righties. Check his player card, and his multi-year platoon split is actually quite small: .262 TAv versus lefties and .255 TAv versus righties. Most of that difference can probably be chalked up to sample size.
MJ: Thome can still hit, as evidenced by his .261/.379/.523 line since 2009. Unfortunately, he has not played the field regularly since 2005 with the Phillies, since he spent most of his White Sox career as the team's DH.
DC: Though it may be tempting to attribute a lot of his success since he last played the field to U.S. Cellular, Thome did also spent a couple years in Target Field and, even at his advanced age, still has a lot of raw power. The Phillies have said he’ll play first roughly once per week, but it’s yet to be seen how well he’s able to do so at this point of his career. He’s been away from the position for a long time. Additionally, we can’t forget about John Mayberry, who figures to fill in a bit at first as well, when he’s not in the outfield.
2) With Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best relievers in baseball, now pitching the ninth, how good is this bullpen going to be?
MJ: The bullpen should be as good, if not better, than last year's edition. Ryan Madson was excellent in 2011, but Papelbon has excelled for years, and the scare of his declining peripherals may have been relieved by one of his best seasons yet in 2011. At age 31, he should have a few more effective seasons left, and while the Phillies may have overpaid him…
DC: It was certainly funny to see the game of chicken between the Phillies and Madson unfold, ultimately resulting in the Phillies overpaying for Papelbon and Madson settling for a much smaller deal in Cincinnati.
MJ: …the team will get one of the best closers in baseball for it.
MJ: The question was whether the Phillies needed such a drastic improvement when the rotation averaged a league-best 6.6 innings per start last year. With Phillies starters going so deep into games, did the team really need to "shorten" the game any further by acquiring a supposed shutdown closer?
DC: That’s a good point. While the Phillies improved their bullpen this offseason, it still doesn’t approach the quality of some of the NL’s best, like the Padres or Braves, but maybe it doesn’t have to. The Phillies only had four relievers throw more than 40 innings in 2011, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the bullpen’s total innings, so it may not need to be as deep as other teams’.
DC: While Brown has said he’ll try to change the team’s mind, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has said that he’d like to give his one-time top prospect a full season at Triple-A. Brown was rushed to the majors last year and struggled mightily, so sending him to Triple-A and keeping him there no matter what may be the best course of action.
MJ: The Phillies will instead opt for a mix of veterans John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, and Juan Pierre. None of these three should have more than a bench role in the majors at this point in their careers, but the Phillies believe a combination of the three can serve as a stopgap to help Brown develop in a low-pressure environment without affecting the major league team's performance significantly. Mayberry figures to be the best of the bunch, but while he may have played well over 300 plate appearances in 2011, he's only one season removed from a mediocre 2010 minor league season. At this point, Brown and Mayberry are not likely all that different, and Brown still has the higher upside going into 2012.
DC: I’m sure my affection for Pierre is strictly driven by my fantasy goggles, but I do think John Mayberry can be a useful second-division starter. A team like the Phillies would surely like to do better, but he’s not the worst guy in the world to give a lot of playing time to. Between first base (when Howard is out) and left field, I actually think he could find himself approaching 500 plate appearances. At least one scout thinks he could get exposed against tough righties, but with above-average power, speed, and contact skills, Mayberry seems to have the makings of an undervalued asset.
4) Will Chase Utley bounce back?
MJ: It depends on what you mean by "bounce back." Is Chase Utley going to be the perennial MVP candidate he was as recently as 2009? Probably not, especially given what we know about how second basemen age.
DC: Perhaps most telling was when Amaro Jr. said that his knee issues could linger and implied that Utley is unlikely to ever recapture his once elite status. If your own GM doesn’t believe you can do it, well…
MJ: But can he return to being a five-win player like he was in 2010? That seems possible. Utley's problem has been a declining BABIP and diminished power over the last two seasons, but given that most defensive statistics claim that he is still a top-notch defender, it should not take a ton of offensive contribution to get Utley back to All-Star status.
DC: The knee issue and the fact that he’s 33 makes me wonder how long Utley can keep up that kind of defensive production and/or if he’s already begun to decline and the metrics just haven’t caught it yet. That kind of thing has to hamper his lateral movement to some degree. If Utley turns into a merely average defender, he’s going to lose a win off his value right off the bat.
MJ: In 2010, he was on his way to 20 home runs and a .300 TAv, and these numbers are not out of reach yet.
5) Philadelphia lost Roy Oswalt this off-season; is this still the best rotation in the National League?
MJ: They absolutely still have the best rotation in baseball. When two of the best starters in the game, including the best pitcher of this generation, reside in the top two spots, your team is doing well for itself. In addition, Cole Hamels re-established himself as a top-level starter last season.
DC: Yes, even without Oswalt, if you can boast three of the top 10 or 15 pitchers baseball and three of the top five in the NL (as PECOTA projects), you’re going to have to be really bad with the backend of your rotation to remove that advantage.
MJ: And Vance Worley and Joe Blanton, the projected four and five starters, should be solid contributors. The rotation is no longer four-deep in goodies with Roy Oswalt, but the 2011 Phillies did not have the real Roy Oswalt for most of the season anyway and still put on an absolute clinic.
DC: Some regression should be expected for Worley, and Blanton has plenty of injury risk, but I agree that they should be decent. I do think they might have been well-served by taking a page out of Boston’s book this off-season by signing a couple Aaron Cook types as insurance, but they do have Joel Pineiro and Kyle Kendrick.
MJ: Despite some solid additions by the likes of the rising Washington Nationals, the Phillies should still hold the top spot.
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1) Bryce Harper. When does he start his major league career, and is he the Rookie of the Year by year's end?
DC: The Nats keep saying over and over that Harper will begin the year in the majors, but I’ll believe it when I see it. It just doesn’t seem to make much sense. Ignoring Harper’s MLB readiness for a moment, the Nats are fringe contenders at best this year, and starting Harper’s service clock a year early for whatever he might be able to offer the team at age 19 seems irresponsible.
MJ: I'm of the opinion that the Nationals do want the extra year of service from Harper, but they are also very excited to usher in a new era of Nationals baseball in 2012. With the additions they have already made to a team that won 80 games last year, the front office has to be excited about advertising a new beginning with a great young core, and part of that core is undoubtedly Harper. If they really think he is MLB-ready or close to it, I would not be surprised if they wait the bare minimum amount of time to pass at the start of the 2012 season before they promote Harper's arrival with major fanfare.
DC: That last part is key: “If they really think he is MLB-ready.” Harper has played a grand total of zero innings at Triple-A and has struggled a bit in his measly 37 games at Double-A. Harper has all the talent in the world and is as good a bet as any to one day be a great player, but thinking he can do so in 2012 at such a young age and with so little experience just seems foolhardy.
MJ: He may not be ready, and it may not be prudent for their competitiveness in 2012, but they want that moment of glory to introduce Harper to the major league world, and they want it as soon as possible. If he even performs remotely well in Double- or Triple-A at the start of the season, I would expect to see a call-up by the start of June. If he does receive the call-up, I'd suspect he has such raw talent that he should be the favorite for Rookie of the Year, even in an abbreviated stint in the majors. The kid can play.
DC: Consider me skeptical that he can win Rookie of the Year after having what would essentially amount to double promotion, but the raw talent is unquestionable. It’s also worth noting that there aren’t a lot of terrific options in the NL like there are in the AL this year. Up against the likes of Matt Moore and Yu Darvish, he doesn’t stand a chance. Up against Yonder Alonso and Tyler Pastornicky, well, it’s at least possible.
2) How good is Stephen Strasburg compared to the rest of the National League’s finest starters?
DC: In terms of stuff, Strasburg, aka the Reverse Fire Extinguisher, may well be unmatched by anybody in the National League. You could make a case for a guy like Clayton Kershaw, but we’d really just be talking semantics. Strasburg has more injury concerns and less polish than guys like Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but his ceiling is out of this world. He consistently sits in the high-90s and complements his heater with a plus change and curve, throwing in a grounder-inducing two-seamer for good measure.
MJ: In terms of talent, Strasburg is impressive, especially at his age. In terms of performance this season, I would not be surprised if he continues right where he left off when he returned for five starts last season. In 92 innings, he has posted a 2.54 ERA and an impossibly low 1.87 FIP. Those numbers are going to go up, but given the skills package you mentioned, it is hard to imagine Strasburg regressing a whole lot in 2012. A sub-3.00 ERA seems very well within reach, and the sky is the limit for this immense talent.
DC: PECOTA projects him to have the best ERA in baseball this year, and it’s not close. The innings limit will hinder his value a bit, but by the time he’s shut down we could easily be calling it a no contest that he’s the best the NL has to offer.
3) Will Gio Gonzalez repeat his peripherals-defying magic in Washington?
DC: It’s rarely the right call to say a player will continue defying peripherals when the sum total of his trend is just two years, as it is with Gonzalez. You also have to take into consideration that his low HR/FB rates were aided by a ballpark in Oakland that ranks among the best in baseball at preventing homers.
MJ: Gonzalez allows too many walks and is not enough of a ground ball pitcher to suppress home runs at his rate, or at least that is our best guess. There is reason to suggest that he did not benefit from Oakland's spacious stadium as much as we perceive, though, as he posted an almost identical ERA and FIP at home and on the road during his career.
DC: I’m not a big fan of raw home/road splits, but no matter what, but expecting better-than-average BABIPs or HR/FBs is unwise. Gonzalez is still a good pitcher, though, and the move to the National League will help him. An ERA under 3.50 isn’t out of the question.
4) The Nationals were the favorite for Prince Fielder until he ended up in Detroit. Does the team have enough offense to complement their starting staff?
DC: Define “enough.” Enough to be a .500 team? Yes. Enough to secure a playoff spot? Probably not, but that’s not to say they can’t be good. This does appear to be an offense that will be better than it was last year, with several young players who could take a step forward in Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, and Ian Desmond. I’m also big believer in Mike Morse, who will be counted on to keep rocking. The health of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche are a bit concerning, though, and will likely prove key to the whole situation. If they stay healthy and match their previously established levels, they should do a lot of anchor the middle of that order.
MJ: I agree on Zimmerman, and I think this combined with the return of an effective Jayson Werth will be the difference maker between a mediocre Nationals team and a possibly competitive one.
DC: I agree, and I think Jayson Werth is due for a bounce-back year. His raw power and speed are still mostly intact, and we’re probably just dealing with some BABIP wackiness. He did deal with some nagging injuries, and if they subside, he’ll be in good shape.
MJ: Werth and Zimm were supposed to help anchor a revamped offense, but Zimmerman's injury problems made him look more like his Rookie of the Year version (.278 TAv in 2011) than his MVP-caliber 2009-2010 run (.301 in that time period). The Nats are bound to improve in 2012 from just those two players alone.
DC: Assuming Bryce Harper stays in the minors (and maybe even if he doesn’t), the team does have a pretty big hole in either center or right field (depending where Werth plays).
5) Are the Nationals finally ready to compete after years of wallowing at the basement of the NL East?
DC: They’ll certainly be more competitive than in years past, especially if they catch a few breaks. The problem isn’t so much that the team isn’t talented—they are—but that they’re not as talented as the Phillies, Braves, and possibly the Marlins too. A front-four of Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson is excellent, although an innings cap on Strasburg limits his value and rules him out for the playoffs even if they were to make it. And unfortunately, that rotation is matched or exceeded by what the Braves and Phillies will trot out there.
MJ: The Nationals have a worthy rotation, and I believe that it may actually be second-best in a loaded pitcher's division. The additions of Jackson and Gonzalez alone may have added a couple wins to the team's 80-win mark last season.
DC: The team certainly has upside, especially if they can stay relatively healthy (no sure thing with guys like LaRoche, Zimmerman, and Strasburg on board). And to their credit, they do have a very deep bullpen and a good offense…
MJ: That offense is on the rise.
DC: …but they’re still probably a year or two and a couple more moves away from competing.
MJ: I would agree with the sentiment that they are just weak enough at a few key positions that they may lag behind what happens to be a strong division in the NL East. Even if the Nationals and Marlins were good enough to be on the fringes of contention, the Braves and Phillies represent a very strong front at the top of the division.
DC: It’s going to be hard to breach that top two, and even then, it’s not exactly guaranteed that the Wild Card will come from the NL East.
MJ: The Nationals and Marlins may just be playing the role the Toronto Blue Jays have played in the AL East for the last few seasons: a competitive, good team lagging behind even better clubs.