Sunday, February 25, 2007

TATB's Long-Awaited, Half-Assed, Red Sox-Slanted, Spring Training Preview Capsules: NL East

(Third in a six-part series, teams listed in order of predicted finish.)

Foul tips and other observations: Jimmy Rollins is right - the Phillies are the team to beat in the East . . . Reasons? Start with the right side of the infield. Reigning MVP Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley combined for 90 homers and 251 RBIs . . . And with the acquisition of Freddy Garcia, the starting rotation is deeper than the Mets', though the Phillies are counting on Brett Myers to finally pitch to the level of his stuff . . .Pat Burrell is a favorite target of the Philly jackals for his strikeouts and supposed lackadaisical attitude, but his numbers (29 homers, .890 OPS) suggest he's a very valuable offensive player . . . You know athletes live in a different world than we do when a mediocrity like Jon Lieber can roll into spring training in a $211,000 truck . . . Definition of a late bloomer: Jamie Moyer didn't win more than 13 games in a season until he was 34, yet he now has 216 career victories . . . Admit it: You had no idea Rollins hit 25 homers last year.

Breakthrough player: Cole Hamels. The cocky lefty already has one of the best changeups around.

Breakdown player: Flash Gordon. Actually, I'm still stunned his elbow survived Joe Torre.

Completely random Bill James stat: How's this for a balance of power? Howard led the NL in home runs on the road (29) and at home (29).

Foul tips and other observations: The lineup could hold its own in the American League, but the starting rotation is straight out of the Atlantic League . . . To put it another way: Both Chan Ho Park and Aaron Sele could begin the season in their rotation. Yikes . . . Tom Glavine should cruise to the 10 wins he needs for 300, but asking him to be the ace at age 41 is a little much . . . It'll be fascinating to see how Pedro Martinez adjusts and alters his style after shoulder surgery. His brother Ramon was never close to the same pitcher after his injury, but then he never had the command and guile that Pedro has. I'm guessing he'll still be effective, but I'm glad the Mets are paying the big bucks to find out and not the Red Sox . . How old is Julio Franco? He made his major-league debut more than a year before Jose Reyes was born . . . Reyes gets my vote as the most fun player to watch in the National League, and one can argue that he's already the best shortstop in New York. He's simply electrifying, especially when he's zipping around the bases and turning a routine double into a standup triple.

Breakthrough player: Mike Pelfrey. Either he or Philip Humber is going to have to deliver in the rotation, because Omar's Retreads won't get it done.

Breakdown player: El Duque. He's closer to Franco's age than he admits.

Completely random Bill James stat: Billy Wagner had the fastest average fastball among NL relievers (95.3 MPH).

Foul tips and other observations: Is John Smoltz a Hall of Famer? I say yes. He and the Eck are the only pitchers in history with 150 wins and 150 saves . . . GM John Schuerholz - who will make it to Cooperstown himself someday - did a hell of a job rebuilding the Braves' bullpen, getting Mike Gonzalez from the Pirates for the overrated Adam LaRoche, then absolutely stealing Rafael Soriano from the Mariners for Horacio Ramirez . . . I'm in the minority here, but I think Tim Hudson is going to bounce back big from last year's misery (13-12, 4.86). His stuff is too good and he's too much of a competitor the fade into mediocrity at age 31 . . . Anyone who thinks free-agent-to-be Andruw Jones would be a capable offensive replacement for Manny Ramirez next season isn't paying attention. Jones hits bushels of home runs (41 last year), but he's just a .267 career hitter . . . Joe Mauer gets all the pub for obvious reasons, but Brian McCann (.333-24-93) might just be the best young offensive catcher in baseball.

Breakthrough player: Kelly Johnson. Former outfielder with a .366 career on-base percentage in the minors takes over for Marcus Giles at second base and in the leadoff spot.

Breakdown player: Chipper Jones. He just got hurt reading this. Pulled eyelid, out four to six weeks.

Completely random Bill James stat: Chipper tied Miguel Cabrera for the highest OPS among NL third baseman (.988).

Foul tips and other observations: Fredi Gonzalez has a great reputation but a tough act to follow. Hanley Ramirez and the rest of the Marlins' kids responded well to Joe Girardi's tough love . . . It doesn't help that two of their better young pitchers, Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez, are already dealing with varying degrees of arm problems . . . The most similar batter to Miguel Cabrera through age 23? Some dude named Aaron. Decent company . . . I'm a Josh Beckett believer, but even his most ardent fan finds it hard not to wish Ramirez were playing shortstop for the Sox. His rookie season (.292, 74 extra-base hits, 51 steals) was nothing less than sensational . . . I think Jason Stokes has been on the Marlins' 40-man roster longer than they've actually existed as a franchise. One of these years, maybe he'll get a big-league at-bat to show for it . . . There isn't a more genuinely likeable and charismatic player in baseball than Dontrelle Willis, which makes his offseason arrest all the more disappointing . . . Who's the closer here? Ricky Nolasco has the stuff and the temperament, but not the experience.

Breakthrough player: Jeremy Hermida. A rookie-of-the-year favorite a year ago, he never got going, but his ability is undeniable.

Breakdown player: Dan Uggla. Struggled mightily in the second half. Did pitchers solve the mystery as to why the D-Backs let him get away in the Rule 5 draft?

Completely random Bill James stat: Willis, who never gets cheated at the plate, had the second-highest OPS among pitchers (.565, trailing Carlos Zambrano's .589).

Foul tips and other observations: This team is horrible. Any other questions? . . . John Patterson is the ace in the loosest sense of the word: his single-season high in wins is 9, and he won exactly one game last year . . . But he's a sure thing compared to the rest of the rotation. Thirty-something pitchers are in camp vying for the other four rotation spots and bullpen duty, among them Jermaine Van Buren, Tim Redding, and Jerome Williams. What, no Pat Mahomes? . . . Frank Robinson escaped just in time . . . Brian Schneider (.256-4-55) is the catcher the Sox coveted before re-signing Jason Varitek two winters ago. It's fair to say they did the right thing . . . A closer of Chad Cordero's caliber is wasted on a team that won't have too many save opportunities. Here's hoping Theo Epstein is still reminding Jim Bowden of that on a regular basis . . . At least Ryan Zimmerman offers some hope for the future. He might be better than Scott Rolen at third already.

Breakthrough player: Ryan Church. He'll hit (10 homers in 196 at-bats a year ago) if given a fair shake.

Breakdown player: Nick Johnson. Actually, he's already hurt. But when isn't he?

Completely random Bill James stat: Johnson was second in the league in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.29), behind only the Phillies' Burrell (4.32).

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