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Career Arc: The Strokes

2013 MLB Preview: NL East

Brotherly love runs deep in Atlanta as the countdown to Opening Day continues

The loaded Nationals try to meet sky-high expectations, the Upton brothers land in Atlanta, the Phillies’ aging core tries for one last run, young pitching tries to keep the Mets competitive, and the Marlins might offer Giancarlo Stanton for a Monet and two Picassos to be named later. Grantland’s countdown to Opening Day continues with a look at the NL East.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Denard Span (.273/.332/.380)
RF Jayson Werth (.253/.348/.422)
LF Bryce Harper (.274/.348/.486)
3B Ryan Zimmerman (.280/.350/.471)
1B Adam LaRoche (.249/.326/.445)
SS Ian Desmond (.269/.314/.432)
2B Danny Espinosa (.235/.310/.403)
C Kurt Suzuki (.263/.312/.400)

Coming off a season in which their payroll was a relatively modest $92.5 million and armed with young talent, depth, and well-heeled owners, the Nats had lots of options for this offseason. They handled those options brilliantly. First, they acquired underrated outfielder Span from the Twins for minor league pitcher Alex Meyer. Six weeks later, armed with a surplus of corner-outfield/first-base types, they flipped Mike Morse in a three-way trade, acquiring three minor leaguers to replenish the farm system after the Morse deal, the Gio Gonzalez trade in the winter of 2011, and other moves had thinned the Nats’ organizational depth. Re-signing LaRoche rounded out the lineup, one that figures to be one of baseball’s best once again.

Two players to watch: Desmond, who posted an out-of-nowhere .292/.335/.511 mark that suggests a likely pullback this season, and Harper, whose supernatural talent and huge finishing kick last year has rotoheads, at the very least, expecting a major breakout in Year 2. For sleeper purposes, keep an eye on Anthony Rendon. Injuries slowed his path last season, but he produced when healthy. If Zimmerman hits the DL again, Rendon would seem the most likely candidate to replace him. You wonder if second base might be Rendon’s eventual destination, though Espinosa makes up for his prolific out-making with plus power and above-average defense.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Stephen Strasburg (137, 2.51)
Gio Gonzalez (200, 3.24)
Jordan Zimmermann (153, 3.53)
Dan Haren (187, 3.67)
Ross Detwiler (130, 4.04)

At the risk of jinxing it, Strasburg should trounce that innings total, as the Nats no longer plan to impose an innings cap on their all-world right-hander. The staff as a whole does have some injury risk, though: Both Strasburg and Zimmermann have Tommy John surgeries in their past, and Haren struggled with back and hip injuries, as well as diminished velocity, last season. Still, the upside is tantalizing: Haren was a four-win pitcher or better1 in 2008, 2009, and 2011, and he’s the team’s fourth starter. Hell, the fifth starter is 27 years old, with solid command, ground ball tendencies, and maybe a bit of untapped upside. If everything clicks, this will be a terrifying starting five.

Meanwhile, the acquisition of Rafael Soriano strengthens a bullpen that now includes Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard as setup men. Journeyman Zach Duke projects as the only relief lefty for now. But if your team’s biggest need is a situation lefty for the playoffs, you’re in pretty damn good shape.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: They’re as good a bet as anyone to win it all this season, which would leave the Brewers, Padres, Rockies, Rays, Mariners, Astros, and Rangers as the only teams without a World Series crown.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Injuries rock the starting rotation, Desmond and LaRoche suffer through major regression, Ryan Zimmerman gets hurt again, and the Braves and Phillies postpone the presumptive D.C. victory tour.


ATLANTA BRAVES

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
SS Andrelton Simmons (.278/.323/.382)
RF Jason Heyward (.265/.342/.472)
LF Justin Upton (.263/.351/.442)
1B Freddie Freeman (.274/.355/.476)
CF B.J. Upton (.251/.324/.455)
2B Dan Uggla (.238/.336/.414)
3B Juan Francisco (.252/.288/.451)
C Gerald Laird (.245/.305/.352)

That top five looks pretty damn exciting. But remember, Michael Bourn and Chipper Jones are gone, after combining to contribute just under nine wins to last year’s cause. The best part of this year’s lineup is its upside, with 25-year-old Justin Upton and 23-year-old Heyward both wielding monster breakout potential, and 23-year-old Simmons carrying high hopes in his first full major league season. The worst part is the rest of the lineup, with Brian McCann out at least through April and a question mark to return to full strength for a while, and out machine Francisco as good a bet as any starter on a contending team to lose his job by the All-Star break.

Meanwhile, the bench should be solid, with Chris Johnson slated to platoon with Francisco and pinch-hit as needed, and Reed Johnson offering another useful right-handed bat off the bench. Oh, and go the extra buck on Freeman if you haven’t drafted your fantasy team yet; he’s just 23 and already entering his third full big league season, with encouraging trends across the board.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Tim Hudson (170, 3.91)
Paul Maholm (168, 4.05)
Kris Medlen (145, 3.36)
Mike Minor (171, 4.01)
Julio Teheran (143, 4.48)

Variance, thy name is Atlanta’s starting rotation. Medlen won’t duplicate the vintage Pedro Martinez impression he put on in 12 starts last year; could he still be elite? Is Teheran ready to fulfill the potential that’s made him one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in the game, or will a full-time rotation job at age 22 prove too much to handle? Can Minor put up the kind of huge numbers he flashed in the minors, or does another mediocre season like last year’s await?

The bullpen should be more predictable, with fireballer Craig Kimbrel back to scare the hell out of ninth-inning foes, lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty back again, and former Angels closer Jordan Walden offering setup support, if he can shake off a lingering bad back. If Brandon Beachy can return from Tommy John surgery by this summer, the rotation gets stronger, and the pen gets an added jolt when one of the starting five gets pushed to long relief.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The Upton brothers become the story of 2013, combining for 70 home runs and propelling the Braves to the division title, followed by 8,000 breathless profiles on the eve of the playoffs.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: All the starting rotation’s worst-case scenarios come to pass, the bottom of the order’s punchlessness negates the production at the top, and the Braves limp to a third-place finish.


PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
SS Jimmy Rollins (.260/.325/.422)
2B Chase Utley (.258/.362/.431)
3B Michael Young (.279/.323/.401)
1B Ryan Howard (.242/.328/.463)
LF Laynce Nix (.233/.295/.408)
RF Domonic Brown (.265/.335/.461)
CF Ben Revere (.285/.328/.342)
C Erik Kratz (.243/.310/.423)

Provocative headlines aside, the Phillies still have plenty of weapons, especially if they can get 400-plus games out of Rollins, Utley, and Howard. Young in the three-hole will be a nightmare against right-handed pitching. But Brown is a breakout candidate, Revere will provide enough value with his glove and legs to cancel out his weak bat, and Carlos Ruiz will be back after 25 games to give the offense a lift. It’s a funny blend of players past their prime and young talent trying to get established in the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean this lineup can’t be reasonably productive.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Cole Hamels (204, 3.32)
Roy Halladay (179, 3.07)
Cliff Lee (200, 2.82)
Kyle Kendrick (140, 4.43)
John Lannan (167, 4.47)

We’ve been talking about the Phillies’ three aces for years now. Hamels warrants the tag, firing 200-plus elite innings a year and perched right in the middle of his prime. Lee might’ve won only six games last year, but he’s still got supernatural command, and is damn near close to ace status, if he isn’t still one. The hot topic this spring has been Halladay, whose numbers and velocity slipped last season because of a shoulder strain. He’s struggled to raise his velocity above the mid-to-high 80s again this spring, raising concerns of more trouble ahead in 2013. But the silent killer could be the nos. 4 and 5 guys. Granted, it’s rare to find a rotation that’s average or better from top to bottom. But if history’s any indication, Kendrick and Lannan might end up being barely above replacement level. It’s great to have three aces. It’s nice to have two. But if two pitchers combine to make 60-plus starts and stink, that’s still going to hurt.

I’ve probably posted this Crashburn Alley post at least a half-dozen times by now, but it’s as relevant now as it was last June: If the Phillies want to get maximum value out of Jonathan Papelbon, Charlie Manuel needs to stop being so stubborn about saving him for save situations, and be more willing to use him in higher-leverage spots, like tie games on the road in late or extra innings. You can get away with suboptimal closer usage if you have a loaded bullpen; the Phillies don’t quite have that, though with Mike Adams now onboard, things should get better anyway.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The Phillies take back a piece of their glory days, top 90 wins, and get back to the playoffs, enabling the Internet’s many colorful Phillies fans to mock my misguided pessimism2 forever … which would be pretty damn fun, actually.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The infield’s core three is a shadow of its former self, as is Halladay, the #DomRepublic celebration’s put on hold, and Philly turns in another .500ish season. Or worse.


NEW YORK METS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Jordany Valdespin (.250/.287/.381)
2B Daniel Murphy (.282/.327/.397)
3B David Wright (.274/.361/.449)
1B Ike Davis (.245/.331/.453)
LF Lucas Duda (.248/.333/.418)
RF Marlon Byrd (.256/.304/.372)
C John Buck (.227/.306/.383)
SS Ruben Tejada (.272/.330/.341)

Pop quiz: Who are the two highest-paid Mets outfielders this year? While you noodle on that one (answer at the end of the Mets section), let’s tone down the hyperbole on the 2013 Mets outfield a bit. Duda’s shown flashes of power that suggest 20- to 25-homer potential over a full season (even if his defense is awful), and a Valdespin–Collin Cowgill combination could at least take advantage of platoon advantages. But yes, it’s still not a group you’d want to have, and other holes make the problem worse: Buck is going to make a crapload of outs and top catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud could wrest the starting job from him by this summer. Wright is the only true star anywhere else in the lineup, and Wright and Murphy might not be 100 percent for a little while, as both battle intercostal strains. Davis hit 32 homers last year, and Tejada is just 23 years old, with enough defense and on-base ability to stick as an everyday shortstop. But the Mets will need to start converting these lousy seasons into elite draft picks, so that at some point in Wright’s new eight-year contract, he’ll have true star talent flanking him.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Jon Niese (177, 3.64)
Shaun Marcum (162, 3.55)
Matt Harvey (163, 3.83)
Dillon Gee (134, 4.36)
Jeremy Hefner (145, 4.31)

This could have been a really, really good rotation had the Mets held onto R.A. Dickey. As is, we’ll see what a full season of Harvey brings, while looking for another year of development for plus-command starts from Niese and Gee. Marcum’s already hurt (again), but ZiPS rightly loves the guy for however many innings he can provide. The next big thing will be Zack Wheeler, the 22-year-old righty acquired for three months of Carlos Beltran who has front-of-the-rotation potential. With a young pitching corps this promising, the Mets might be just a couple of well-placed moves away from becoming dangerous. It won’t happen this year, but it might not be as far away as the team’s many doubters think.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Wright puts up MVP-caliber numbers, everything clicks for the pitching staff, and the Mets challenge for third place, staying in the wild-card chase until late summer.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The outfield is so bad that it makes the trivia question’s answer — Jason Bay and Bobby Bonilla — become a daily nuisance in Mets fans’ lives.


MIAMI MARLINS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)

Wait, is that against the rules? Damn it. Fine, here:

ACTUAL LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
LF Juan Pierre (.284/.333/.337)
3B Placido Polanco (.266/.317/.330)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (.286/.369/.606)
C Rob Brantly (.263/.307/.374)
CF Justin Ruggiano (.260/.320/.422)
2B Donovan Solano (.260/.303/.342)
1B Casey Kotchman (.268/.330/.389)
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (.254/.292/.354)

The reflex move would be to scream in terror over Brantly being the team’s cleanup hitter, but that would imply you know who Brantly is. Really all you can do with this lineup is monitor the progress of intriguing 23-year-old shortstop Hechavarria, hope that Ruggiano continues to work out as a steal off the Astros roster, and draft Pierre for your fantasy team, mocking your leaguemates for passing on a .290 hitter who steals 40 bases. Other than Stanton, the best hitting talent is all in the minors, with outfielders Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick offering the best hope for the future, assuming ownership’s willing to keep the next batch of young Marlins talent together for a while.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Ricky Nolasco (170, 3.81)
Henderson Alvarez (167, 4.49)
Wade LeBlanc (152, 4.13)
Nathan Eovaldi (136, 4.53)
Jacob Turner (137, 4.77)

Throw ‘em against the wall, see what sticks. Turner isn’t far removed from being a pitching megaprospect, and he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself with the talent-starved fish. They’ll see if Alvarez can survive with one of the weakest strikeout rates in years, if Eovaldi can be a viable nos. 4 or 5 man long term, and if any team might possibly be interested in Nolasco and his eight-figure salary. The best prospect in the organization is Jose Fernandez, the first-round pick out of a Tampa high school two years ago who’s got ace potential but just 11 starts in high Class A ball under his belt. While the team mulls how to handle l’affaire Stanton, closer Steve Cishek might be the team’s next-most attractive trade bait, as a ground ball–heavy sidearmer who’s also fanned more than a batter an inning over the past two seasons.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The Marlins lock up Stanton for the next seven to 10 years. Honestly, no other news would be a better outcome for this team, given the rash of teardown trades made this offseason and how far away the next wave of homegrown potential stars is from cracking the big leagues.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Stanton’s somewhere else by the end of the calendar year, and the league starts to take a hard look at the fine line between reasonable rebuilding and full-on fire sales.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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