This division is going to be a bloodbath, and I've been saying for months now that it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the Phillies' reign as champions comes to an end.
Florida Miami Marlins (Record: 92-70)
Do people realize how preposterously stacked this team is, especially on offense? Just take a look at the lineup. A core of Hanley Ramirez (mercurial yet undeniably blessed with rare talent),
Mike Giancarlo Stanton (he's going to hit 50 home runs at some point), Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, and Emilio Bonifacio was enhanced by the signing of Jose Reyes in the offseason. Let's also not forget the Marlins added Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano (can a change of scenery and union with the equally loco Ozzie Guillen revive his career?) to a starting rotation that features one of baseball's premier pitchers in Josh Johnson, as well as Heath Bell to fill the closer's role. If this team stays healthy, I honestly think it'll win the division.
As for the new ballpark... well, Lance Berkman is not a fan. After last night, I doubt Giancarlo Stanton is either. It looks like Marlins' owner Jeffrey Loria went for style over substance with this grandiose construction, and it could end up being to the detriment of his own team.
2. Philadelphia Phillies (Record: 91-71)*
There's a distinct whiff of fear in the air in Philadelphia about what the summer holds in store for the geriatric Phillies. It took some time for the uneasiness to become full-blown panic, but we're almost there. In fact, if you heed the warnings of writers and listen to sports radio, we're already there. Let's delve into the reasons for hysterics:
- Our old, injured team is, in fact, old and injured. Who knew? Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the starting left side of the infield, represents a combined financial commitment of $155 million. Both players are out indefinitely, and there exists a real -- fine, likely -- possibility that their best years are behind them.
- Chase Utley's degenerative knees have him on the fast track to early retirement. Even if that statement proves untrue, the unfortunate reality is it looks more and more likely that the Chase Utley of the past is no more. We were incredibly spoiled in getting to witness one of the best five-year stretches for any second basemen in baseball history, and it's never easy to acknowledge when a dominant player begins to decline.
- Ryan Howard, even when he's healthy enough to play, won't be truly 100%, back-to-normal healthy probably until next season. Add that to the fact he's already begun his decline, and I have an ominous feeling about the Big Stick in 2012. Specifically, I envision a player whose base strength won't be at its usual level, but whose plate discipline will remain erratic. In other words, expect to see a further decrease in Howard's power numbers while he still helplessly flails at curveballs and sliders a foot off the plate. All for the sparkling price of $125 million over the next five years. Can't wait.
- Remember Rany Jazayerli's inflammatory article on Grantland near the end of last season that rankled Phillies fans and prompted them to get all defensive? Well, I maintain that the reason so many Phillies fans cried blasphemy and went into vitriol-spewing mode is because Jazayerli was just articulating their deepest fears. At least that's how I felt about it. The guy is smart -- really smart -- and knows his baseball. His prediction of imminent doom for the Phillies beyond 2011 wasn't novel in thought, but it was the proverbial turd in the punch bowl that was an otherwise sublime season. Now, over seven months later, Jazayerli's warning smacks of painful prescience. This could be the worst Phillies offense we've seen in quite some time. Baseball Prospectus forecasted the Phils would score the least amount of runs in the NL East (30 fewer than Washington) and be among the NL's worst offenses. Considering some of the downright ugly lineups Charlie Manuel will have to trot out this season, there's little reason to believe that projection is way off base. Having great pitching is essential, but teams still need to score more than a few runs per game to win. Best case scenario: The Phils are relatively healthy by the end of the year and get hot at precisely the right time, ala the 2010 San Francisco Giants.
- Who plays left field? For now, it'll be a combination of John Mayberry, Jr., Laynce Nix, and Juan Pierre. I'm still holding out hope for Domonic Brown and am higher on him than so many other Phillies fans who have jumped ship. I saw a lot of improvement at the plate during his stint in the majors last season (especially with pitch selectivity), although there's no doubt he remains a relative disaster in the outfield and needs to improve there if he ever hopes to play regularly in the big leagues. Come on, Dom, put it all together.
Now for the good:
- JIM THOME IS BACK! It's only fitting that the guy who signed a mega-contract in Philadelphia nearly a decade ago as the Phillies were beginning their ascent is coming back for what in all likelihood will be his final season. I don't care if Thome plays some first base and totally stinks up the joint -- I'll still love him just the same. He'll be an invaluable member of the team both as a bench player and clubhouse presence. I can just imagine Gentleman Jim hitting a clutch pinch-hit home run late in the season to vault the Phillies to victory in a must-win game. One can dream, right?
- The starting staff is still led by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, with Vance Worley and Joe Blanton rounding out the final two spots. Halladay had some velocity concerns in the middle of spring trainer and seldom resembled his usually precise self. The good news is he threw the ball better his last two starts and looks fine to start the season. Lee dominated his final two starts when Charlie treated it like a regular season game and let him go six innings. Hamels' performance during the spring has fluctuated, but he's throwing the ball really well and is still very much in his prime as a pitcher. The man is going to get paid, and I hope it's by the Phillies. Truth of the matter is that none of the big three endear themselves to me quite like Vance Worley does. Here's a guy who was always in the second tier of prospects when you read reports about the Phillies' farm system and never exactly dominated in the minors. Yet the Vanimal resembles his nickname in both appearance and demeanor. With those thick, black-rimmed glasses protecting a menacing stare and a flat-brimmed hat snugly resting on top of his mohawk, Worley reminds you of a character you could've seen in Major League. Big Joe Blanton, fresh off elbow surgery, looked strong and sharp during the spring. You could do a lot worse as far as fifth starters go.
With that kind of starting pitching, a team will always be in contention. Still, as we saw in last year's playoffs, it doesn't matter how good the pitching is when the offense can't score.
- Jonathan Papelbon, while grossly overpaid, should fit in quite well with both this team and city. At first, I was incredulous that the Phillies sunk $50 million over four years into the closer position (though at least it wasn't spent on hard-luck Ryan Madson), especially when that money should have been used to upgrade the offense. But then I realized there's nothing I can do about it and that I might as well start prepping my Papelboner. If he can manage to convert saves at an 85+% clip, I'll be satisfied. So far, so good after one game. I also hope Papelbon can serve as a mentor to possible future closer Phillippe Aumont when he gets his chance with the Phillies.
- Congratulations to Joe Savery for making the final roster. It's been a long, strange trip for the former 2007 first round draft pick out of Rice, who's gone from starting pitcher to first baseman to relief pitcher during his time in the organization. He has finally settled in as a lefty reliever and even seen an increase in velocity. If Savery can also serve as an emergency pinch hitter (ala Micah Owings), he'll automatically vault himself to folk hero status among Phillies fans.
- Freddy Galvis. As a result of the Utley injury saga rearing its ugly head once again, the Phillies were forced to switch Galvis, a shortstop by trade and one of the organization's top prospects, over to second base. The 22-year old Venezuelan has seamlessly transitioned his slick-fielding ways to the position and will be the starting second basemen on Opening Day. Charlie Manuel, along with just about everyone else, has raved about Galvis's natural ability and baseball IQ (both in the field and on the bases). His ability with the glove has never been in question, even dating back to when the Phillies first started scouting him at age 14, but it's how he develops as a hitter that will ultimately determine his long-term potential in the majors. For someone labeled as an "all glove, no bat" prospect, Galvis had a remarkable spring at the dish, to the tune of a .280/.295/.476 line with 9 R, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 2 BB and 8 SO in 82 AB. Remember, before 2011, Galvis had cracked .600 OPS in the minors just once. However, he was also always the youngest player on his teams and still maturing physically. Galvis came into camp in February noticeably stronger, after having added around ten pounds in muscle during the offseason, and it reflected in his stat line. Don't expect a .771 OPS, but if he can manage to hover around the .700 mark -- however unlikely that may be -- while playing stellar defense, it would be a godsend.
Unfortunately, nothing gold can stay, and my outlook on this season is more grim than I would like. I've already come to grips that this most recent golden era of Phillies baseball is rapidly drawing to a close, and, as much as it pains me to invoke the thought, I wouldn't be surprised if they miss out on the playoffs altogether. While completely arbitrary and not grounded in statistical data, missing the playoffs in 2012 would follow the downward trend that started with the World Series victory in 2008:
2009 - Lost World Series
2010 - Lost NLCS
2011 - Lost NLDS
While the demise of the Phillies is being greatly exaggerated (I hope), it's apparent that the current core is indubitably on the decline. Brace yourselves, Phillies fans, the fun -- and, oh, how much fun it's been -- is just about over. Let's hope they defy the odds and have another (last?) run left in them, but I'm lacking confidence, just in case you couldn't tell. That said, I'm still comfortable -- who am I kidding, I'm definitely going against my better judgment here -- predicting the 2012 Phillies to be one of the two Wild Card teams in the NL.
3. Atlanta Braves (Record: 87-75)
It seems like everyone is either heavily sleeping on Jason Heyward or has just forgotten about him altogether. That would be a mistake. If Heyward can stay healthy (and, as we've seen during first two seasons in the big leagues, that's a big "if"), he has the raw talent to be among the game's best players -- if not the best player, period. We're talking about as bona fide a five-tool player as there is walking the planet, someone who personifies the spirit of the "can't miss" label and, based on pure ability alone, is really the perfect baseball player. Heyward can hit for average, hit for power, run the bases with speed and intelligence, possesses a cannon for an arm, fields his position effortlessly, and has a mental makeup that is off the charts. What he did in the minor leagues as an 18-, 19-, and 20-year old was nothing short of incredible. Aside from injuries, I see no possible way Heyward doesn't fulfill his immense potential and become a superstar in the majors. It just sucks that I'll have to watch him do it as an Atlanta Brave.
4. Washington Nationals (Record: 86-76)
Living in DC and having observed this franchise over the past four years, I'm prepared to believe in its viability as a legitimate contender. Even if the breakthrough ascent doesn't happen in 2012, it will in the very near future. The Nationals are coming, and the rest of the NL East -- and all of baseball, for that matter -- knows it, too. I liken what's happening to the pro baseball team in DC with what happened to the pro hockey team in Pittsburgh. Both teams just happened to be the worst in their respective sports at the perfect time and, as luck would have it, sucked their way into drafting generational talents in back-to-back years. Also like the Penguins, I expect the Nationals to reap the rewards of their past impotence for years to come as the team evolves into a league power.
Honestly, it's hard for me not to like the Nationals a little bit. I've watched a lot of their games and seen the core develop. If the Nationals do have their Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to build around in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, they're going to win at least a few NL East titles -- I'm predicting a World Series, too -- over the next 5-10 years.
5. New York Mets (Record: 70-92)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (Record: 96-66)
I think the Cardinals, even without Albert Pujols, will actually be better in 2012. This is still a team with a deep pitching staff and potent lineup. Adam Wainright (remember him?) is back from Tommy John surgery, while Carlos Beltran -- well, a healthy Carlos Beltran -- should help somewhat alleviate the loss of Pujols in the middle of the order. Having Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, and David Freese also helps soften the blow. Lastly, I really like the decision to appoint Mike Matheny as Tony La Russa's successor as manager.
Breakout player: John Jay. I liked him a lot last year and think he'll blossom as the Cardinals' everyday center fielder.
2. Cincinnati Reds (Record: 88-74)*
Joey Votto is probably the coolest player in baseball. He looks like a mobster straight out of Goodfellas and has a stare that'll make you shit your pants. Plus, the dude is a Moneyball disciple's wet dream. That 10-year, $225 million contract is insane, but Votto will be worth the investment for at least half the term. Unfortunate news about Ryan Madson needing Tommy John surgery and missing the season, but I think Sean Marshall is going to seize the opportunity and be a revelation at the closer spot.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (Record: 83-79)
Ryan Braun was obviously the target of an anti-Semetic drug testing program engineered by MLB to tarnish the reputation of the league's best, most visible Jewish player. It's a conspiracy, I tell you. All kidding aside, that had to be one of the more bizarre incidents ever, and the fact that Braun was exonerated based on a technicality won't clear his name in the court of public opinion. Where there's smoke, there's fire, and this whole thing stinks to high heaven. Alas, it's something that will likely get swept under the rug and fade into oblivion as time goes on.
With a rotation featuring Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo and Jon Axford holding down the closer's the role, the Brewers have enough to contend. Still, they're really going to come to regret the Shaun Marcum-for-Brett Lawrie trade, especially in light of Prince Fielder's departure.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (Record: 77-85)
My candidate for this season's Michael Morse Memorial Breakout Player of the Year Award (here's what I wrote about Morse in December 2010 and then again at the start of the 2011 season): Pirates' first baseman Garrett Jones, of whom I've always been an admirer from afar. As someone who's been privy to watching him play live, I know he oozes serious potential. Jones is one of those guys where the sound of his bat perfectly striking the ball just sounds different. It's the unmistakable, thunderous, and jarring crack that whips you to attention as the ball screams its way out of the park at warp speed. As soon as something like that happens, you put a check next to the "plus, plus" box in the player's "power" tool section. Jones fits a similar profile and possesses the qualities I look for in a potential breakout player -- imposing physical specimen, demonstrated big league ability during limited playing time, prodigious power as a hitter. Finally, according to Pirates fans, he's the best looking guy on the team. That has to count for something.
Also, Andrew McCutcheon is reminiscent of a young Barry Bonds. Good to see the Pirates acted like a legitimate professional sports franchise and locked him up long-term.
5. Chicago Cubs (Record: 71-91)
The gospel of Theo Epstein's second endeavor as a GM begins in 2012. He has the same resources at his disposal as he had with the Red Sox, and you have to think it's only a matter of time before the Cubs follow an analogous trajectory of development. It won't happen overnight, though.
6. Houston Astros (Record: 61-101)
So, this team is composed of Fat El Caballo Carlos Lee, Brett Myers back in the closer's role, and... what, exactly? A smorgasbord of minor leaguers? Gonna be a long season for the Astros.
1. San Francisco Giants (Record: 88-74)
Buster Posey's back, and the pitching is still, for my money, the best in baseball. The offense is always the question mark with this Giants team, but I think there will be enough to win the division.
2. Colorado Rockies (Record: 86-76)
3. Arizona Diamondbacks (Record: 84-78)
The Trevor Cahill trade certainly bolsters the starting rotation, and Justin Upton is a superstar, but I'm still not buying this team to repeat as division winners.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (Record: 78-84)
Matt Kemp is awesome, and Clayton Kershaw is the best left-handed starting pitcher in baseball (yes, better than C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels). Still, I don't see enough in the lineup or starting rotation that leads me to believe this team is ready to win the division.
5. San Diego Padres (Record: 69-93)
So, Cameron Maybin is finally going to break out this season, right? I've been hearing that for five years now.
Wild Card Round:
Phillies over Reds
Cardinals over Phillies in 5
Giants over Marlins in 4
Cardinals over Giants in 7