NL East Preview - The Corners

Although the focus for the duration of the offseason and the majority of time leading up to the intrasquad games has been on the paucity of confirmed starting pitchers in the Mets rotation and whether or not the haphazard collection of outcasts and youth can manufacture among them at least one brilliant and unexpected season, there are in fact, other areas of each team to focus on, believe it or not. Thus, with that in mind, we move forward, away from the mound and to the players who fill out the rest of the field. Today it will be ranking the corner positions for each NL East team.

1. NY Mets - Hey, who in the NL East has it so good at the corners? One of the finest young third basemen in baseball in the form of David Wright, likeable, enthusiastic, talented and young - combined with the enigmatic but steadily spectacular Carlos Delgado at first base. Sure, Delgado's .265 batting average last season was a disappointing tail off from seasons past but you can't really quibble with the 38 homers and 114 RBIs or winning both the Roberto Clemente award AND the Thurman Munson award, can you? In fact, no first baseman had hit so many home runs or driven in so many runs in the first 45 illustrious years of the franchise.And who is going to forget his postseason debut against the Dodgers, hmmm? .429 against Dodger pitching he hit and then went on to bash 3 homers against the Cardinals. Backing up Delgado is the pension-aged Julio Franco and possibly, off season pick up David Newhan, who figures to be last season's Woodward. As for Wright, well the accolades just continue to swell and amazingly, the kid's head isn't swelling along with them. The numbers .311-26-116 continue to grow and again, the head doesn't. Yes, he had trouble in August against lefties and his throwing remains erratic, downright frustrating at times but no one is perfect even if Wright comes awfully close at times. Bottom line is no one else has this combination of talent on the corners, not in the NL East anyway.

2. Flordia Marlins - Interesting that Miguel Cabrera might battle David Wright for years not just as the NL East's preeminent third baseman, but as the preeminent third baseman in the National League. Last season .339 with 26 homers and 114 RBIs for Cabrera but he never really "killed" the Mets. Over 17 games he hit only .288 against Met pitching. Let's hope the trend continues. Backing him up will be Aaron Boone who they snatched off the Indians. On the other corner, in the continued absence of Carlos Delgado, will be standing former Met Mike Jacobs again. Last season Jacobs hit a steady if unspectacular .262-20-77 and against the Mets a very similar .272 in 17 games with a pair of homers and 8 RBIs. His backup is supposed to be Boone as well, so it should be quite a versatile act.

3. Philadelphia Phillies - Alright, let's get this over straight away. Ryan Howard, Ryan Howard. 58 homers and 149 RBIs will do that for you. Yes, he had an incredible NL MVP season and almost helped lead the Phillies into the postseason but did he really hit only .111 against lefties? Or .125 on the turf? .231 at home? Well yes, he did and although technically he probably doesn't qualify for the sophomore slump, if we're grasping at straws here, last season was his first "full" season so perhaps there is room for slagging off such spectacular potential. Not likely though. Howard is probably here to terrorise pitchers for the foreseeable future and remains incredibly only "one of" the best first basemen in the National League. Against the Mets, over 19 games, he had 8 homers, drove in 21 and hit .319. Looks like an intentional walk machine...The Phillies aren't quite so fortunate at third base, where big free agent signee David Bell was such a disappointment for so long. This season it looks to be third baseman by committee as the duties may well be shared between old timer Wes Helms, who was a frequent late-inning replacement at first last season and hit .385 after the All Star break, former Cardinal and Pirate, Abraham Nunez and his .211 batting average, Danny Sandoval a no-hoper with little experience and Greg Dobbs, who has already spent his purgatory mired in Seattle for a few seasons. More like third baseman by default with no clear candidates to make this anything but a weakness.

4. Washington Nats - Aha, finally an area of vague robustness in the Nats camp. At 3rd stands Ryan Zimmerman whose (.287-20-110) numbers put him firmly in the poor man's David Wright scuffed shoes category waiting for that second year consistency polish. Zimmerman has only a full season under his belt to gloat about but he bunts and steals bases with equal grace and has a good glove to brag about as well, something our belov├Ęd David Wright can only sometimes dream about when the nightmare throws aren't squirting out of his hand 20 feet wide of the first baseman.

And speaking of first baseman, the Nats can brag about the injury-riddled enigma and former Yankee future, Nick Johnson. Although he stayed healthy most of the season and had his best year with the bat, hitting .290 with 23 home runs, 77 RBIs, 100 walks and a .428 on-base percentage, the predictable broken leg was just around the corner. September, in fact. So this season, he won't be ready to start the season. Shocking. Nick Johnson on the DL? The All-Time leader in DL Minutes? So when we're talking about the Nats and first base perhaps one must consider the alternative, the back up who will likely spend most of the season starting, Larry Broadway, a good name waiting to go bad.

5. Atlanta Braves - Met "favourite" Chipper Jones returns for another season manning third base for the Braves but his time may well be winding down as he approaches 34 having missed 42 games last season and 43 the year before. Nonetheless, when he's healthy he still hits well ball against the Mets and last season was no exception as in only 9 games he hit .314 with a pair of homers and 8 RBIs. Still, the less he's seen, the better. His backups might prove more important over the long haul of the season and ironically, one of them is none other than former Met Chris Woodward, the man we know as Mr Versatility but also the man who hit a mere .216 last season. The other is former Dodger Willie Aybar, who hit .343 in September and might be a capable backup to Larry. Over on first base, the Braves will have, how shall we say it? Trouble. For bullpen help they sacrificed the promising Adam LaRoche and in his place they're left wondering about Scott Thorman who was brilliant when he first came up, hitting .341 with 4 homers and 9 RBIs in July before tailing off to a more realistic .214 over the final 56 at-bats of the season. A more realistic replacement is former Pirate Craig Wilson (.251-17-49). Still, unless the bullpen is spectacular LaRoche's power is likely to be missed.


NL East Preview - The Pens

There was alot of pissing and moaning over the past several days about the content of the previous review of NL East starting rotations, mostly remonstrative internal voices chiding the Army about the lack of imagination, the paucity of inspirational prose, the drab, dull straight forward spectulation punctuated by gratuitous photos of birds, fit and otherwise in a feeble attempt to provoke. Well, tough titties, as they say somewhere. Like the pitchers and catchers reporting this last week, the Army is out of shape prosaically and in need of verbal stretching, a few nights out in a slimy motel bar hanging with the groupies and a bit of sun.

Instead we are encamped in a hotel just south of London with a strange new lap top keyboard attempting to acclimate to a winter barren of baseball (no, no Dominican League reports here) and the deadening lack of offseason activity by the Mets front office.

Nonetheless, we shall struggle on with these previews with an eye towards improvement, flexing the verbosity, however misguided and misplaced, just for the sake of doing so in order to reach literary form by Opening Day.


1. METS - Well lads, it worked alright last season, didn't it? Still you've got to wonder what strange sort of magic is going to run on indefinately trying to pitch through games with starters who can't give you more than four or five innings an outing and expect a deep pen to pick up all the slack. Look, the Angels did it a mere five years ago and the Mets almost did it last season. But that isn't a comforting amount of precedents, believe me.

Wagner is back in the closer role to amaze and surprise us with all the variety of ways he can get in and out of trouble in the 9th inning. We won't forget the bloody postseason any time soon though. 6 earned runs in 5 1/3 innings is just plain butt ugly for a closer and did nothing to diminish the Wagner-as-a-choke-closer rumours. Still, he only blew five saves in 45 chances (although it seemed more like 15 given all the late inning and unnecessary dramas he created...) and for now anyway, the memory of Looper is still fresh enough to be able to continue to appreciate Wags and his hillbilly post-game explanatory twang. But if blows a few early, well, let's just say it isn't difficult to envision the closer spot becoming a nightmare. Is that overly optimistic?

Thereafter, questions. It's nice to fantasise that Duaner Sanchez will be back in pre-Taxicrash form. It doesn't hearten me to read that he's been feeling weird during rehab but he alleges he'll be ready for Opening Day. Fair enough, but is he going to be any good or did that separated shoulder separate Duaner from some of last season's magic?

If so, Heilman can step into the breach. Sure, he rather fancies being a starter over being mired in the bullpen but hey, too bad. He makes enough cash to make up for it. And besides, if Duaner falters he might just see himself the set up guy. And whilst he might be cranking up the innings pitching in Kansas City or some other equally ungodly place as a starter, hasn't he ever heard of motivational tools? Is he simply afraid that if he pitches too good out of the bullpen he might never see the starting rotation again?

After this trio there's the unsettled saga of the steroid-induced competency of Guillermo Mota. It's been pointed out before by much wiser sources that if you examine Mota's pre-cheating pre-enhanced stats versus the period of time he pitched enhanced you'll find a remarkable variation in competence. Willie's reliance on him in the post season was so predictable it bordered on the absurd but if he becomes ineffective after a half season layoff and off the juice, well, it's what you might call another question mark.

Shall we have a long and lasting conversation about Pedro Feliciano? Nah, I'd rather discuss the enigmatic man with the goofy hairstyle and goofier name. That's right, I'm talking about my new favourite Met, my darkhorse candidate for the coming-out-of-nowhere-to-put-up-stunning-numbers, Duaner Sanchez award. Abiorix Burgos. This is my answer and I'm sticking to it. No matter what happens this season, this lad will eventually find himself and become the sensation of the bullpen. Or not. Uneducated guesses and Spring Training go together like a packet of crisps with a pint of ale but the 100 mph fastball will cause early raves provided he can control it.

2. Atlanta Braves: This bullpen sucked last season and probably cost Smoltz, the auld closer, a good shot at the Cy Young, ironically enough. It's nice to see the Braves with so many problems for a change. 512 1/3 innings their bullpen pitched last season. 4.39 ERA and a 25-23 won-loss record overall with 38 saves out of 67 opportunities. That's about a 57% success rate. It's mediocre is what it is, which you shall see when comparing it with the rest of the NL East pens. Nonetheless, Bob Wickman came to the rescue eventually, saving 18 of his 19 chances and running up a meagre 1.04 ERA in the process. But that's not his career MO so unless he's found some new bullpen guru, don't expect the same sort of success from him in the future.

If you want to know something amazing about Wickman it's that allegedly, if this isn't a typo off the SI stats site - he has yet to give up a run pitching against a lefty in 451 innings. It sounds weird, something fishy because it says he's given up 476 hits against lefties but no earned runs. What he hasn't given up are big hits. Or perhaps he has an the earned run went to his predecessor.

Irregardless, the Braves spent the offseason shoring up their pen, their Achilles Heel. They traded for Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. Gonzo is a lefty from the Pirates who saved 24 out of 24 last season with a 2.17 ERA and you've got to believe the second Wickman does his predictable flounder, Gonzo will be there to take over the role. As for Soriano, a righty sliced off the Mariner tree, he had a 2.25 ERA last year but is built more for a set up role - situational 7th inning, more than likely. Filling out the rest of the pen are young relievers Tyler Yates and Macay McBride, neither of whom were terribly effective last season. Gonzo and Soriano additions plus Wickman returning make this a bullpen that might be crafty.

3. Washington Nats - Last week it was hardly worth taking the time to take the piss out of the Nats' starting rotation. It's like the proverbial one legged man in an ass kicking contest.

So it naturally follies that there won't be much left in the dying embers of early inning blow outs for the bullpen to save. If there is however, Chad Cordero might be just the man to do it. His arbitration hearing was a good basis for attempting to conclude whether or not he will be. Cordero argued that his stats can match up with most of the other top closers in baseball. During his three-plus seasons in the Majors, Cordero has 91 saves and a 2.61 ERA. Maybe, but as his employers rightly pointed out, the right-hander had a down season in 2006 and gave up too many home runs. Cordero saved 29 games, had a 3.19 ERA and gave up 13 long balls.

The rest of the pen has potential in the forms of Emiliano Fruto, who they nicked off the Mariners as part of the Jose Vidro trade with a mid90s fastball and imposing changeup (allegedly). There is also people like Jon Rauch, who made 85 appearances last season and endured with a respectable 3.85 ERA.

But basically it's not all that relevant how good the Nats bullpen becomes or how badly they flounder. Everyone will be too busy bemoaning the starting rotation blowing games early and watching the ticking counter of loss after loss add up in the standings.

4. Philadelphia Phillies - Whilst on the one hand Met fans can bemoan the addition of Freddy Garcia to the Phillies starting rotation we can equally rejoice in the fact that the best idea they've come up with for a closer in the interim is Tom Gordon. It's this nuance that makes taking the Phillies' bullpen in addition to their chances at NL East supremacy, difficult to swallow.

In answer to the Tom Gordon Dilemma the Phillies countered with Antonio Alfonseca, aka El Pulpo or The Octopus, so-named because he has 6 fingers and toes on each hand and foot. Last season he was limited to 19 games because of a sore elbow but beware - in the youthful optimism of Spring Training, coupled with a winter league performance in the Dominican Republic, a few whispers of a renewed and wicked sinker have returned. He might end up displacing Gordon as the season wears on. Or his elbow might blow again. Let's not forget he quit last season for the Rangers and asked to be released the elbow pain was so bad.

I reckon that's strike two on the Phillies bullpen and quite frankly, the don't need a strike three. Imagine the kind of media-driven hatred will be bred by multiple late-inning meltdowns by the bullpen during key stretches of the season. No amount of Ryan Howard is going to cure that so trust us on this one, the massive question, the poignant miseria for the Phillies this season will undoubtedly be their pen. But hell, you know if you root for the Phillies, it's always something to send the dreams crashing down.

5. Florida Marlins: After three straight years with closers on the comeback trail who made their mark in Florida and then fled for greener pastures, the Marlins are rather stumped to find a closer this season. In fact, they don't have one which can't make you feel too good going into a season. No, not with a guy like Taylor Tankersley playing the role of most practical option. Tank with his cueball head looks like he's just arrived out of some intensive offseason chemo treatments - have a look:

Does this look like a closer to put your faith in?

The answer is no. Last year the lefty started the season in AA and now he's going to be your closer? Guess you aren't planning on going far in the NL East. Combine this with the fact that the entire bullpen is undecided simply for the fact that there isn't anyone all that good vying for a position and you get the picture real quick-like.

Tank claims "the arms are there", as if that were enough. "The arms are here," he said. "The pieces to the bullpen are here. Where those pieces fit together, nobody knows. I don't even think Fredi and Kranny know right now. But they will, and we will. The roles will be filled, and we will get people out and do our job. As a group and as individuals, we will be successful."

Well, I hate to spoil the surprise party, but I know where this is headed. Alot of blown saves. Alot of late inning losses, alot of misery.


NL East Preview - Rotations

With the first tentative whiffs of the 2007 season leaking through this dismal period between the Super Bowl and Spring Training, it's time for the Army to dust off the keyboard and type out the first few words for the season, a season of fear and trepid expectation following the Beltran At The Bat ending to 2006.

In the next few weeks I will be previewing the NL East in pieces, usually by position and team as the struggle begins to suss out what to expect in the months of agony and euphoria to come.

Fittingly, to begin with the starters...and to wake us out from our winter slumbers, I have aligned a female image with each rotation to depict the fitness and potential of that rotation. (I know, no novel concept but we all need a little jolt to get us going, don't we?)


1. Marlins:

Will the D Train ever become a Met? 11-2 with a 2.03 in 16 starts lifetime pitching against the Mets of course is not the only reason he'd be an attractive addition but it is certainly a big one in the if-you-can't-beat-him-trade-for-him theory. Behind him is a starting rotation that includes Anibal Sanchez who threw the majors' first no-hitter in 28 months and Josh Johnson who was able to contend for an ERA title before running into September injury problems. Sanchez was 2-0 2.57 against the Mets last season and Johnson by gawd, was 2-0 with a total of 17 shut out innings against the Mets. For added measure, consider Scott Olsen's four starts against the Mets which resulted in a cumulative 3.81 ERA over 26 innings, albeit without a decision in any of them. The Marlins were by far the thorn in the side of the Mets batting order last season and this is why they continue to be ranked at the top.

2. Phillies:

Look out! The Phillies added depth and experience with 6'4 250 pound righty Freddie Garcia pulling off the coup of the NL East starting pitching additions. Effective throughout his career Garcia will likely get that much ballyhooed punch pitching against the NL instead of the AL this season. He has pitched once against the Mets going 9 innings, giving up 6 hits, a lone run and striking out 7). He will join a rotation already effective in the form of Brett Myers (1-1 5.09 v Mets) and Cole Hamels (an 8 inning, four hit shutout in his lone outing against the Mets last season.) They also have the ageless Jamie Moyer (5-2 4.03 post All Star) and Adam Eaton (7-4 5.12 for half a season and a lifetime 3-0 1.35 ERA against the Mets) although Jon Lieber could be gone by the end of Spring Training which will be a relief if he's out of the NL East considering his 2.79 ERA against the Mets last season. By the way, if you think the Mets ad campaigns suck, have a look at the Phillies' Pantyhose for that.

3. Braves:

Don't open your eyes...

These are not the auld Braves chockablock with Cy Young candidates but Smoltz, Chuck James and Tim Hudson are all potentially big in 2007. - With a better 2006 bullpen, Smoltz might have won the Cy Young award. He was 10-4 3.36 after the All Star break, perhaps proof that although he is growing older he is still one of the best pitchers in the NL East. Lefty James had a surprising rookie season and Hudson continues to struggle to regain his magical A's form, like his former teammate Mark Mulder has with the Cards. (More reasons to be glad the Mets didn't sign Zito to an absurdist contract?) The wild card is the return of Mike "Best School District" Hampton who had all of last year off. Other than Smoltz, no Brave starter was particular effective on a consistent basis against the Mets.

4. Mets:

The El Duque Fan Club...

Let's consider it fortunate that the Mets will be going with the 4 innings and a cloud of dust to the bullpen strategy again this year after it was so effective last season. Glavine and El Duque are the old heads attached to an otherwise unknown and unproven collection of potentials. John Maine (6-2 3.28 post All Star), Oliver Perez (1-0 4.63 post season), Aaron Sele (2-4 7.28 post-All Star), Mike Pelfrey (1-1 6.06 post All Star) and Philip Humber are all hoping but none of them, save a few moments in the sun for Sele have been there or done that. The darkhorse surprise is Chan Ho Park (7-7 with a 4.81 ERA in 21 starts, 33-33 since 2001) A post-All Star Pedro could give the Mets some much-needed help whilst the elder Glavine and Duque wear down but the imminent hope is that having forsaken bold off season moves they will be well-prepared to add a solid starter after the All Star break.

5. Nats:

The laughingstocks - the Meat Heads. John Patterson, who is coming off a forearm injury that saw him miss most of laugh season will anchor a rotation that has little else but prospects and vague hopes, delusions of grandeur. This is a rotation other teams will love hitting against.

Next review: the Bullpens...