NL East early-season shakedown

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The Phillies’ elite pitching makes up for injuries

The division-leading Phillies were supposed to have an incredible starting rotation. It is still hard not to drool over the specifics.

Through May 21, Phillies starters have combined for a National League-best 3.14 ERA. Defense independent statistics like the Phillies pitchers even more. Their 2.51 FIP and 2.70 xFIP lead baseball by a wide margin. The Athletics rank second in those categories with a 3.02 FIP and 3.26 xFIP.

Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee have been the best. Each has struck out more than nine batters per nine innings (K/9) while walking fewer than two batters per nine innings (BB/9). Masterful control has been demonstrated by the entire rotation. Of the five starters to break camp, Joe Blanton has the worst walk rate at 2.36 BB/9. Not surprisingly, the Phillies have walked the fewest batters in baseball thanks to the stinginess of their starting rotation.

The Phillies have some glaring holes beyond their dominant rotation. In the field, the results have been mixed. Most of the Phillies regulars have contributed positively on defense according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). However, the only two negative regulars—Wilson Valdez and Raul Ibanez—have been so bad that they completely offset the positive contributions of their fellows. Ibanez’s -8.4 UZR is the worst in all of baseball.

The offense has struggled to support the pitching at times, with Ibanez, Valdez and Pete Orr the chief offenders. The catching platoon of Carlos Ruiz and Brian Schneider has been similarly punchless.

The real hurdle for the Phillies is their aging, injury-prone roster. Chase Utley, Brad Lidge and Domonic Brown began the season on the disabled list. Brown was recalled on May 20, and Utley is expected back Monday, but Lidge is at least three weeks away. Since the season began, J.C. Romero, Blanton, Jose Contreras Roy Oswalt, Ruiz, Schneider and Shane Victorino have spent time on the DL, and Blanton is returning to the DL after being scratched from his start last Thursday.

The Marlins do their thing

If any team qualifies as a surprise, it’s the Marlins, yet this is something they seem to do every season.

Hanley Ramirez‘s slow start is startling, as he has turned into a slap hitter in the early going after years of terrorizing pitchers with his power and speed combination. Thankfully for the Fish, sophomores Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, and Mike Stanton have picked up the slack in a big way. The trio all have wOBAs above .390. Few teams can say they have three players who produce at that level.

The downside is that only five other Marlins have contributed positively at the plate, and it is an interesting quintet. Greg Dobbs appeared done two years ago and was terrible last year. Now he is enjoying a nice BABIP-fueled renaissance (.408 BABIP). Emilio Bonifacio, who often catches flak from writers for his empty statistics, has been a solid utility man for the club. Seldom-used backup catcher Brett Hayes is the final position player to post positive batting numbers. Burke Badenhop and Brian Sanchez are each 1-for-1 at the plate, Badenhop’s hit plated a game-winning run.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Josh Johnson has resumed being spectacular, although he somehow only has three wins despite a 1.64 ERA. He was placed on the DL on Saturday with shoulder inflammation. Given his previous health issues, this has to be very worrisome for the Marlins.

Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco have also pitched superbly, giving the Marlins a strong trio at the top of the rotation when healthy. Chris Volstad has not helped, but his peripherals indicate that he could be better than his 5.73 ERA (4.30 FIP, 3.72 xFIP). Javier Vazquez has been an unmitigated disaster with a 6.41 ERA. He had his first strong outing on Saturday against the Rays, and with Johnson on the shelf, the Marlins will need Vazquez to build on that success.

The biggest surprise for the Marlins might be the bullpen. The unit was supposed to be a weak point on the roster, but the results have been impressive—a 2.76 ERA, 3.54 FIP, and 3.76 xFIP. With the exception of Edward Mujica and Randy Choate, the pen walks a lot of batters, so tougher times could lurk ahead.

With their best pitcher on the DL and their best hitter scuffling, the Marlins are going to find it very difficult to remain in second place.

The Braves lean on pitching depth

The Braves’ deep pitching staff has traded blow for blow with the Phillies. Their team ERA of 3.04 barely trails major league-leading Philadelphia (3.03). The Braves have gotten it done by building a rotation of incredible depth. Their regular rotation of Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy has been extremely potent. Now that Beachy is on the disabled list, the Braves have tapped top prospect Julio Teheran to fill in, and they have Mike Minor and veteran Rodrigo Lopez available to patch any other holes.

The bullpen is perhaps even more impressive. It is a shutdown unit headed by Craig Kimbrel‘s absurd 13.9 K/9. Kimbrel is not alone; Braves relievers are simply hard to touch. Opposing hitters have whiffed on 11.7 percent of their offerings, the best whiff rate for a bullpen by a full percentage point. The three lefties have been particularly potent. They have combined for 64.1 innings while allowing only seven runs, a 0.98 ERA.

For all the success of the pitchers, the regular lineup has been a disappointment. There was some hope that center fielder Nate McLouth would bounce back from a terrible year. The only thing that has bounced is his balls in play average, and his already heinous defense has gotten worse.

Rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman has struggled adjusting to big league pitching, particularly hitting for power. Sophomore icon Jason Heyward has found himself in his first prolonged slump, although a .232 balls in play average hints at better times ahead. Offseason import Dan Uggla is also snake-bitten, posting a .200 BABIP.

In a sense, the lineup should improve if the Braves find a solution to McLouth and the others settle in and adjust. However, the Braves may be forced to spend some of their enviable pitching depth on a position player if they want to take charge of the NL East.

The Mets try to figure out how to rebuild

Despite a decent record supported by solid play, the New York Mets do not have the roster depth nor financial means to even pay lip service to contending in the NL East. Instead, the focus in New York is on how to rebuild a woefully mismanaged franchise.

The obvious approach is to trade today’s veterans for tomorrow’s stars. The Mets have some good rental players to offer up in Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez. The market for these players may prove challenging to navigate.

Rodriguez is the most interesting case to watch. When he’s on, he can be one of the best relievers in the game, but any team that acquires him cannot use him as the primary closer. If he finishes 55 games in 2011, his 2012 option for $17.5 million becomes guaranteed, an outlay that no club in baseball would risk activating. Rodriguez has finished 18 games to date and will continue to close out games for the Mets. That limits potentially interested clubs to playoff contenders with a stable closer.

Rodriguez is expensive, too. He would be owed the pro-rated portion of his $11.5 million salary in 2011 plus a $3.5 million buyout, which further limits the number of clubs that might be interested. It is unclear how much money the Mets can include in the deal to offset his expense, which means they will probably have to settle for a middling return.

The market for Beltran figures to be even narrower than the one for Rodriguez. His knee cannot be expected to handle outfield duties on a regular basis any longer, effectively making him a switch-hitting DH. Of the 14 American League teams, perhaps 10 can be considered in the playoff hunt. Of those 10, the Red Sox, Tigers, Royals, Rays, Indians and Athletics either have no need for a DH or must balance a tight budget.

That leaves the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rangers and Angels as potential contenders who might have use of a DH. Yet none of those teams can be counted on as a serious suitor.

So, really, it’s a matter of “who will take him?” According to Cot’s Contracts, the Mets agreed not to offer arbitration to Beltran following the 2011 season (not that they would), so they have every incentive to trade him for any return. Since this is public knowledge and there are so few potentially interested teams, the Mets have an uphill battle to fight. It is possible that a desperate NL club may look at Beltran as a platoon option, but his cost makes this unlikely.

Their best trade piece is Reyes. Many playoff contenders could use a speedy, high-quality shortstop including the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Royals, Athletics, Cardinals, Reds, Brewers and Giants. It remains to be seen how many of those clubs would be willing to take on the pro-rated portion of his $11 million salary. The Rays, Royals and Athletics can probably be eliminated as suitors for that reason. Still, there should be some healthy bidding on Reyes. If the Mets are going to add a good prospect, this is the guy they will need to trade.

The Nationals take aim at 2012

The Nationals are still experimenting with their options as they try to jockey their roster into place for a 2012 run.

After adding Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche over the offseason, the Nationals were expected to be a successful offensive club. Instead, only the Padres and Giants have been more punchless in the National League. This has to be frustrating for the Nationals brass, yet there are plenty of positive signs.

Despite Ryan Zimmerman appearing in only eight games, the Nats have put together a respectable record. The Nats pitchers have succeeded with some strange results. Jordan Zimmermann has stranded only 58.7 percent of baserunners, while Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen each have left more than 96 percent of their baserunners on base. Most Nats pitchers have similarly unbalanced stats lines. Regression to the mean is likely to cause some very exaggerated storylines in the media as guys like Zimmermann get better results and others begin to allow more runs.

But really, the point of the 2011 season for the Nationals has always been to get their chickens in a line. This means figuring out which role players are going to have a future with the team, which veteran pieces can be flipped for other role players, and last but not least, getting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper ready to contribute as soon as possible.

Several things have been learned already. The Rick Ankiel experiment has failed. He simply has not played well enough to be tradable, making his continued existence with the team superfluous. He is currently on the disabled list.

Similarly, Mike Morse has struggled mightily with an expanded role. He is in the midst of a mini hot streak, but he probably has little margin for error. Given the thump in his bat, he should be a nice platoon option going forward. He’ll be eligible for his second round of arbitration after the season, so he could be a non-tender candidate.

Utility men Laynce Nix and Jerry Hairston have been useful; they may be shopped to other teams or earn a shot to help with the 2012 Nationals. Alex Cora and Brian Bixler have not been any help. It’s not entirely clear why Bixler is even on the roster. Recently recalled outfielder Roger Bernadina has been solid, as well. If no other team shows serious interest in him on the trade market, the Nationals should be thrilled to count him as a fourth outfielder in 2012.

If manager Jim Riggleman doesn’t break Clippard or Storen, the back end of the bullpen should be fairly stable going forward. Other interesting arms like Henry Rodriguez and Cole Kimball will get continued opportunities to develop into reliable contributors.

While a playoff run is highly improbable, things could start to click for the Nationals as we get into the summer months.

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Comments

  1. Will Hatheway said...

    I didn’t know Brian Schneider was still in baseball. Uh, go crappy former Nat’s.

    Those Phillies K/BB numbers are just stupid. Are there any historical comps?

    Wouldn’t Nolasco’s results actually reflecting his underlying numbers be a surprise? lol

    (you have some nice alliteration here, btw)

    You don’t think the Yanks would want Beltran to upgrade at DH? I’m not so sure they really care about the injury risk (unless his name Nick Johnson). Not saying it’s probable, just thought possible.

    One little issue: who thought the Nats would have an offense? They lost Dunn and Willingham, and Laroche is “meh”. Desi, Espinosa and Ramos couldn’t have been counted on to take huge steps forward, and apart from Werth their outfield looked to remain weak. Offensively, Cora is a huge part of this, so I mostly agree with your assessment of him, though I would suggest that he has some utility in that he’s been pretty nice in the field from what I’ve observed. Finally, I think they need someone who sets the bar higher than Riggleman, even if he doesn’t have that much to work with. Keeping a happy face through mediocrity doesn’t exactly build an expectation-building attitude.

    Nice stuff, Brad…

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    I might have been alone on the Nats offense train. I thought that Werth and Zim would form a potent core and that guys like Desmond, Espinosa, Morse, Bernadina, and LaRoche would all be average to slightly better. If you look around the NL, a team with 2 studs and 4-5 adequate hitters on a given night (morse is stil platoony) is probably a top 4 offense. There’s a lot of utility rounding out the roster too with Hairston and Cora around. Espinosa can fill in as SS if Desmond goes down.

    From speaking with a Nats insider, I had the impression they would use Werth in CF more than they have so they could be creative about improving the offense. So far they haven’t had the quality of players to even bother experimenting.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    Do the Yanks want Beltran? Almost certainly. Are they willing to trade more than a warm body when they know they are probably the only interested team able to afford his whole contract? Probably not. The Mets have to trade Beltran, they have absolutely zero leverage. The Yankees are probably the only team that can call Alderson up and say, “listen, we’ll take the whole contract off your hands.” Every other team would need payroll help which the Mets simply can’t offer.

    Twitter is saying today that the Mets project 70 mil in losses on the season.

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