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Saturday March 28, 2009 11:57 pm

2009 Season Preview - National League East

Cole Hamels in spring training
The 2009 NL East will be the most exciting division in Major League Baseball, bar none. Last season the world watched as the Philadelphia Phillies, a team thought to be competing for a wild card spot at best, went on to win the division and eventually defeat the Tampa Bay Rays to bring a World Championship to the city of brotherly love. Despite their recent success, this off-season’s transactions have guaranteed one thing: a division title is anything but a guarantee for this 2009 Phillies team. New York Mets GM Omar Minaya went out and imported two flame throwing relievers, J.J Putz and Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez. Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren signed veteran sinkerballer Derek Lowe to anchor their rotation, and the Washington Nationals signed slugging first baseman/outfielder/Sabermetrics golden standard Adam Dunn to a two year deal. What does this mean? This means that the NL East will have 5 teams with a legitimate shot of finishing the year with a record over .500. If everything falls into place, 2009 should provide some intriguing late season baseball.

The reigning World Champion Philadelphia Phillies kept their off-season moves to a minimum. After left fielder Pat Burrell declined a return to Philly in favor of signing with the Tampa Bay Rays, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro signed former Seattle Mariner Raul Ibanez to a 3 year, 30 million dollar deal. Amaro overpaid in a buyer’s market, but Ibanez’s ability is undeniable. He’ll hit over 20 home runs in Citizen’s Bank Park and provide an OPS over .800. Recently, hard throwing lefty Jack Taschner (1.69 WHIP in 48 IP last season) was acquired to fill the void J.C Romero left by failing a drug test (Romero will miss the season’s first 50 games). Other than that, this is the same Philadelphia Phillies team that you saw in October 2008. The starting rotation remains the same (Cole Hamels will start in front of Brett Myers, Joe Blanton, Jamie Moyer and J.A Happ), and the bullpen will welcome Taschner as it’s only new face. Outside of Ibanez, the starting lineup will be the same as well. To be successful in ‘09, the Phightin’ Phils will have to rely on familiar faces to be successful. Being that this squad got it done in 2008, there’s no real reason to believe they wouldn’t be capable of the same in 2009.

Doesn’t it seem as though the Braves’ glory years of division title after division title occurred decades ago? This distant memory will revive itself this season, because for the first time in three seasons, the Atlanta Braves WILL make the playoffs. An old baseball belief states that every successful team has a formidable first three pitchers in their starting rotation. The Braves have just that this season, with Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, and Javier Vazquez. Atlanta may have overpaid for Lowe, but make no mistake, they’re receiving a qualified ace. Since 2002, the lowest inning total Lowe’s produced has been 182.2. Throughout the previous four seasons, his WHIP has been 1.27 or lower. Javier Vazquez, also supremely underrated, sports a career 1.27 WHIP and struck out at least 200 batters in each of the last two seasons. With Tom Glavine and Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami in the 4-5 spots of the rotation, Atlanta’s starting pitching will be excellent in 2009. The Braves bullpen should improve as well in ‘09, as a healthy Mike Gonzalez will join Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan in the back end of the ‘pen. Meanwhile, the addition of Garrett Anderson shores up an already solid Braves offense. Expect bounce back years from Jeff Francouer and Casey Kotchman, each normally adequate average hitters who experienced incredibly tough luck last season (Kotchman’s 2008 BABIP dropped .31 points from his 2007 BABIP, Francouer’s .35 points). Atlanta’s coming back with a vengeance this season, and it will make the NL East that much more interesting.

And here we’ve arrived, the New York Mets. Since the end of 2006, it seems as though GM Omar Minaya has assembled teams that are just good enough to barely miss the play-offs. This year will be no different. If anything, this year’s Mets team will be even more pedestrian than 2008’s. Why? This year’s starting rotation isn’t stable. John Maine, recovering from a strained rotator cuff, will be relied upon to stay healthy throughout the course of the season. The team’s number two starter, Oliver Perez, showed up to camp overweight and is, unfortunately, Oliver Perez. Mike Pelfrey will be expected to repeat the success he attained last year in his first full Major League season. Livan Hernandez, who eats innings (among other things), will hold down the number five spot while giving up an abundance of hits and runs. Now, onto the offense. Second baseman Luis Castillo may be revert to his old self this season (or close to it), but that does not discount the fact that HE IS LUIS CASTILLO. He will draw his walks, slap a ton of singles, play good defense, and generally not be worth 25 million dollars. Especially in a lineup that features Brian Schneider and a pitcher’s spot. The team’s core, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright will be expected to shoulder the load of this team’s offensive success. The team’s bullpen has been greatly improved by subtraction (Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, Joe Smith, and Duaner Sanchez will all be pitching for new teams in ‘09), but still lacks a second lefty after Pedro Feliciano. The bullpen’s lack of a second lefty is even more baffling considering the fact that the team will start the year with two side-arming right handers on the roster (Sean Green and Darren O’Day). This will be a good Mets team, but starting pitching wins championships and this year the Phils and Braves simply have more of it.

The Florida Marlins will have to receive excellent pitching to make any noise in the 2009 season. Fortunately, given their starting rotation this may not be too daunting a task. Ricky Nolasco will front a rotation also featuring Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez, and Andrew Miller. This rotation has potential to be one of the best young staffs in recent memory. However, as could have been expected, Florida’s management bypassed an opportunity to field a winning team in favor of undergoing cost cutting measures. To the surprise of nobody, the team non-tendered dominant reliever Joe Nelson (ERA of 2 last season, 60 K’s in 54 IP), to merely save $800,000. After this bizarre decision, the team opted not to bring back Arthur Rhodes or Doug Waechter, each of whom had success in the Fish bullpen last year. If the Florida Marlins had fans, I’m sure they’d be dismayed. Because of these absurd financial decisions, other than Leo Nunez (acquired for Mike Jacobs) and Renyel Pinto, there’s no design to this Marlins bullpen. Matt Lindstrom is supposed to close, but he’ll miss the start of the season with a strained rotator cuff. Scott Proctor will also start the year on the DL with elbow discomfort. There are quite a few jobs to be won out of Spring Training this season, which should result in many appearances from Dan Meyer, Jason Standridge, John Koronka, and other such can’t miss prospects. The Florida front office simply didn’t build a very deep roster, and the team’s bullpen will reflect that. While Florida has some capable offensive parts (Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, Cameron Maybin), don’t expect this team to hit it’s potential in 2009.

The Washington Nationals will be a team to keep an eye on in 2009. They likely won’t compete in such a tough division, but the Nats have a solid team headed by much more competent management than previous years (Jim Bowden resigned as Nats GM under controversial circumstances this off-season). Washington’s offense should be above average, with Josh Willingham, Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge and Nick Johnson providing pop. The bullpen looks up to par, with flame thrower Joel Hanrahan doing the closing, and Joe Beimel splitting set-up duties with Saul Rivera. The only problem is the starting rotation. John Lannan isn’t an ace by any standard, and Daniel Cabrera most definitely is not a number three starter. Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmerman will be the four and five pitchers in the rotation, but expect to see many different faces starting games for the Nats this year (perhaps a Julian Tavarez sighting?). It may not be too memorable a season in Washington, but (I can’t believe I’m saying this) there’s hope for the future.

Predicted Order of Finish:1. Philadelphia Phillies, 2. Atlanta Braves, 3. New York Mets, 4. Florida Marlins, 5. Washington Nationals

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