SB Nation's NL East bloggers got together (electronically) and held a roundtable discussion on the upcoming season, moderated by Kevin Kaduk (aka 'Duk) at Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew. See 'Duk's questions and our answers below. Many thanks to 'Duk for his Moderatin'!
Peter Baker (The Good Phight - SBN Philadelphia Phillies blog)
Martin Gandy (Talking Chop - SBN Atlanta Braves blog)
Eric Simon (Amazin' Avenue - SBN New York Mets blog)
E Chigliak (Federal Baseball - SBN Washington Nationals blog)
Craig Strain (Fish Stripes - SBN Florida Marlins blog)
KK: Well fellas, you have to go back all the way to 1996 for the last time the NL East could boast of a worthy defending World Series champ. (You can't include those '98 or '04 Marlins squads, right?) You have to go back even longer — to a time where two of your teams didn't even exist — for a Phillies title. So how are the other four fanbases going to cope with 18 games in which Phillies fans can point to their ring fingers as a response to any argument? (And let's be honest, you know they're going to.)
ES: The Mets can start by winning 11 of 18 again and they can finish by actually making the playoffs this time.
PB: Frankly, it's not like we've had a long track record of success in Philadelphia, so I think there's going to be lots of basking and gloating. And I'll enjoy every minute of it. The atmosphere could change pretty quickly if the Phils get off to a slow start, however.
ES: Bold prediction: Fans will boo if the Phillies go 1-2 in their first home series.
PB: Well, yeah. I boo'd a disappointing sunset in Hawaii last week.
MG: If anyone could actually understand what Phillies fans were saying, then I'm sure we'd be quivering in our boots.
PB: Says the guy from the Deep South... (I kid).
EC: The problem for the Nationals, is that even at home games it seems the Phillies fans outnumber the DC Faithful, so even in Nationals Park, we have to listen to the Phillies fans' loud antics, and that was when they were the loveable loser Phillies, now they're going to feel as if they're entitled to cheer over the home crowd. And we've all learned not to wear Nationals' gear into Citizens Bank, so we just have to quietly cheer our team everywhere they play the Phillies...
PB: Well, we get invaded by legions of the hateful Orange and Blue whenever the Mets come to town, so I understand what you're saying even if I'm not particularly sorry.
CS: "...'04 Marlins squads, right?" Uh, no. In 2004 the Marlins made a legitimate title defense attempt. In early September the Marlins were half a game out of the wild card lead and then the hurricanes hit South Florida. The Marlins ended up having to play something like 28 games in 26 days with almost all of them on the road. By the time that ended, needless to say, they fell out of playoff contention.
To the main question at hand: do you really think a Marlins fan is going to be impressed with such a gesture? It's not like we haven't won the world series fairly recently. Also there is the fact the Marlins won the season series against the Phillies last year. And if we do so again, it is possible we will see very prominent finger gesturing, but I don't think it will be the ring finger that is used to express their opinion.
PB: Damn, pile on, everyone.
KK: Everyone pretty much has this penciled in as a two-team race between the Mets and Phillies. Everyone here agree? If not, why?
EC: Wow, you've reduced it to a two-team race, usually everyone just says it's a four-team race...which hurts.
ES: I think the Braves will be very good. Apart from Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson, the lineup may have some trouble scoring runs, but the additions of Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and, to a lesser extent, Kenshin Kawakami, give the Braves one of the best -- if not the very best -- starting rotations in the National League. Lowe and Vazquez were two of the twenty or so best starters in baseball last year, and will more than make up for the absence of Tim Hudson this year. I wouldn't be surprised if the Mets, Phillies and Braves all won 90 games in 2009.
PB: Like Eric said, I think the Braves will go as far as their pitching takes them, and that could be pretty far. A lot depends on which Javier Vasquez decides to show up. We might see a very tight race, particularly if the Phillies and/or Mets suffer injuries or see down-years from key players. Brian McCann is one of my favorite players in the league, despite the fact that he always seems to clobber the Phillies. The man is a warrior.
EC: I think the Braves made the most significant improvements to their roster this winter, but they're relying on young kids in a few spots and a bounce-back campaign from Francoeur, but any team with Chipper, McCann, Casey Kotchman, Yunel Escobar and a rotation including Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens is hard to dismiss. The Phillies didn't get any worse with the moves they made, so as long as Chase Utley comes back as Chase Utley, they're a threat to repeat, granted there is nothing wrong with Cole Hamels after all that work to win the Series. The Marlins will hang tough and fade unless one the top three falter...and the Nationals will have to shock the world...so I'd say a three-team race.
MG: As a Braves fan, I think we had a team on paper that could have competed last year, but then they got on the field and hurt every bone in their collective bodies. My thought about 2009 and the NL East division race, which I believe is a four-team race that includes everyone but the Nats, is that it will come down to which team can remain the healthiest and which team can weather the injuries the best. The Phillies get an instant knock because one of their key contributors, Chase Utley, will be out for a month or so. All of these team are vulnerable if someone like a Chipper Jones, or Jimmy Rollins, or David Wright, or Hanley Ramirez goes down. Similarly on the pitching side, most teams would be scrambling if one of their top starters goes down -- Cole Hamels, Johan Santana. That's actually where the Braves might have the biggest edge, in starting pitching depth. I think a lot of Braves fans are waiting for an injury so we can see Tommy Hanson make his major league debut.
PB: Martin, just a quick correction, Chase Utley is presently on track to play Opening Night against your Braves. Whether he is or will be 100% is open to debate. I agree that the Braves have the division's deepest rotation, and I fear 2010 if and when Hudson and Hanson are mixed in.
CS: I think it will be a four team race, also. The Braves can't be held down for very long, it is too good of an organization. If the Marlins young starters stay healthy and if the bullpen will do their part, the Fish should be in the hunt. The Mets or the Phillies may be the ones to bet on at the start of the season. But like Martin said: it all depends on which team stays the healthiest throughout the season.
MORE after the jump...
KK: So who's finishing third?
PB: I do think the Braves will finish third, but I think they'll be a lot closer to first place than fourth.
MG: I can't get past thinking that the Mets are a key injury or two away from fourth place. There's no depth in that system.
ES: Isn't that true of almost every team? If the Phillies lose Chase Utley and Cole Hamels for an extended period of time, or the Braves lose Brian McCann and Derek Lowe for half the year, is there any chance either team wins the division?
EC: I'm not too impressed the Mets' roster either, I had them finishing third in the one set of public predictions I made. But if NY had the Putz/Rodriguez combination closing for Johan Santana alone last year they would've won the division...so...
CS: To me, that is a coin flip or maybe more accurately, a series of coin flips. Any one of the four contending teams could finish third -- Phillies included. But since I'm supposed to guess, I will say the Mets.
MG: In response to Eric's assertion that if the Braves lose McCann or Lowe we'll suffer, there's no doubt that would happen some, but we have a very good backup catcher in David Ross, and the best starting rotation depth in baseball with Jo-Jo Reyes, Jorge Campillo, Charlie Morton, and, oh yeah, Tommy Hanson. This year I believe we're specifically built to withstand a key injury or two.
KK: Any of you want to do some bellyaching and lay claim to having a more frustrating offseason than Atlanta's? Talking Chop, do you feel as bad now as you did when all the A.J. Burnett, Rafael Furcal and Ken Griffey Jr. flirtations proved to be just that?
PB: No way. That was just brutal. I have no love for the Braves, but that was just awful to watch, the Furcal situation especially.
ES: Not in terms of the "is-he-signing? no-he-isn't" that the Braves went through, but there were plenty of onlookers who were excited when the Mets began stockpiling closers in December and then perplexed when they proceeded to do nothing of interest for the next three months. Considering all of the starting pitchers who changed teams this offseason, to wind up with only Oliver Perez and Livan Hernandez is a tough sell for fans who will be asked to shell out premium bucks to see a coupla meh pitchers toss five lackluster innings at Citi Field.
EC: I was glad Washington didn't give Teixeira a ridiculous contract and less than thrilled with the Dunn signing, but the Nationals didn't get left at the altar repeatedly like the Braves...
PB: All that being said, I still find the Raul Ibanez signing horrid. Ruben Amaro pretty much went out and paid retail in a bargain hunter's paradise. The team has been intent on getting rid of Pat Burrell since 2003, they finally had their opportunity, and they took it. That's not to say I expect Ibanez to be bad, necessarily, but his contract is terrible. Also, like Eric said, I really don't get what the Mets did. Yes, the back end of the bullpen should be terrific, but middle relief still looks pretty bad, and runs scored in the 6th and 7th innings count just as much as ones scored in the 9th. And they did absolutely nothing to address a rotation that, outside the best pitcher on the planet, is pretty shaky.
MG: Yeah, you'll be hating that Ibanez contract in a year or two. As frustrating as the Braves off-season was, I think it ended up okay, especially on the pitching side of things. We added three good starters, when was the last time a team did that? I do wish we would have gotten a better bat than Garret Anderson. If I have a criticism, it's that we spent too much on the rotation at the expense of the rest of the team. I think we'll be scrambling a few months into the season to find a better left fielder.
PB: That Braves outfield is pretty bad. However, the Phillies are one injury away from sticking Geoff Jenkins* out there, so I'd best bite my tongue. (NOTE: Obviously answered this one last week... replace Jenkins with Matt Stairs and the message is the same.)
EC: If any of your teams are looking for outfielders, please contact DC's "Acting" GM Mike Rizzo...Kearns or Willingham? Anyone?
PB: Yeah, really, can you tell us what on earth they're doing stockpiling all those outfielders in DC?
EC: That's what I've been asking all winter. At this point, it looks like Austin Kearns* and Josh Willingham are relegated to bench roles neither of them think they're right for, but the Nationals haven't traded Nick Johnson as everyone expected, so they have two left fielders after signing Adam Dunn as a free agent after trading for Willingham, two right fielders in Kearns and Elijah Dukes and Willie Harris on the bench, with Lastings Milledge starting in center...the answer is no, I can't tell you what they're doing stockpiling outfielders...
CS: What is this free-agent thing of which y'all speak?
KK: Let's covet thy neighbor's wife a little bit. What's the one offseason addition made by a division rival that you most admire?
PB: The Braves' signing of Derek Lowe, which really mitigates the hardships they experienced with Furcal, et al, earlier in the offseason. Lowe is an elite pitcher and would have been perfectly suited for pitching in homer-happy Citizens Bank Park. I badly wanted the Phillies to sign him.
MG: Believe it or not, it's the awesome fleecing of several clubs that the Marlins did. They got a very live-armed Jose Ceda from the Cubs for the illusion of a closer. They got rid of payroll and problems by dumping Olsen and Willingham on the Nats for three high-upside prospects. They got a warm bullpen body for the highly overrated Mike Jacobs, who probably improves the Marlins by not being in their lineup. It's sort of redundant to say that the Marlins got younger, because they seem to do that every year, but they've always been masters of trading players for at least some type of good minor league return.
EC: I'm kind of annoyed that the Marlins got Leo Nunez from the Royals for the Mets' castoff Mike Jacobs too. But the Mets getting K-Rod is the one I'm really going to be bothered by when he's dropping sliders on the Nationals all season.
ES: When the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez I cried a little. My dream of watching 162 games of utterly inept left field defense evaporated in a flash. Godspeed, lawn dart.
PB: There are already animated GIFs of an Ibanez Grapefruit League fielding mishap floating around, inspired by Lookout Landing. I'm really looking forward to covering my eyes for three years. At least CBP has a pretty small left field playing area, unlike the vast outfield of Safeco Field.
CS: The one I wasn't happy about was when the Mets signed Putz. Good closers don't scare me, the other team has to be ahead in the ninth in order to use them. But when the other team can "shorten" the game, that does cause some concern.
Aside: CS: Martin, Olsen wasn't a problem. His teammates on the Marlins really liked him and the fans did too.
EC: So no one's impressed by the Nationals signing Dunn?
MG: The Dunn signing was completely absurd for the Nats. I don't even think he makes that team better.
KK: This is the first shot that Jerry Manuel will have at a full season with the Mets. Does that improve New York's chances?
MG: With the Mets and their fans and their media it will ALWAYS be "what have you done for me lately." They're still haunted by the ghosts of two end-of-year collapses, and all that will once again come out in the wash if the team starts to flounder.
PB: The Mets have peeled away pretty much every layer of protection between Omar Minaya and the unemployment line. If they can't make the postseason, the blame will likely fall squarely on Minaya himself. This isn't exactly sabermetrically sound, but at some point, your players really need to step it up and win. I think Willie Randolph was unfairly blamed for a lot of things that weren't exactly his fault, but sometimes a change it tone is in order.
ES: To be fair, the Mets didn't really collapse in 2008. They were trailing for much of the season, pulled ahead briefly, and then were betrayed by their bullpen late (both in games and in the season). I'm far from a Mets apologist, but they were riddled by injuries last year and ultimately just came up short; not a collapse by my definition, and certainly nothing like the 2007 disaster.
If it's any consolation, Daniel Murphy says the Mets' clubhouse smells like "wins" this year, which I guess is a good thing if we consider the alternatives.
PB: It smells like Derek Jeter's socks? /ESPN
EC: Sorry about that late 2007 series sweep thing, Eric...I have a soft-spot for Jerry Manuel since he was once with Montreal as a player. The Mets were 84-60 after Manuel took over for Willie Randolph, it's hard to ignore those results...even if it wasn't enough to get them to the Postseason, if they can play the same way under him this season, it should improve their chances.
KK: OK, so despite their record over the past few years, you guys seem to have mad respect for the Fightin' Fish. Yet I look at the Nationals and see another youngish team that might be capable of playing some entertaining baseball — at least from the plate. With Bowden out, can Stan Kasten and the Nats do anything to improve the way they're perceived around the division and league?
EC: I think the Nationals are going to get a big chance to show everyone in the NL and MLB that they're legit this June...All the bad press the Nationals got this winter sort of overshadowed the fact that they did improve the team. I look at the middle of the DC lineup with Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson(for now?) and Elijah Dukes and think they could cause teams fits. With two lefties, John Lannan and Scott Olsen in the rotation, two kids Jordan Zimmermann and Shairon Martis and the player I alluded to in the first sentence, future #1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg potentially joining the rotation late, there is some possible spoiling to come...
PB: There's always the possibility that the Marlins' young rotation "comes together" kind of like the 2006 Tigers, but they really lack the depth among position players to compete in the long-term. Even though I really love Hanley Ramirez and his game. I respect the way the Marlins have remained competitive in the most adverse of circumstances; trade your high-priced talent for more young, cheap, talented pieces, and hope you strike it rich. It's as good a method as any.
PB: Speaking of Strasburg, do you think there's any way the Nats don't select him? What do you make of Boras' alleged demands for Daisuke Money?
EC: Daisuke Matsuzaka-money (6-Years/$50 M) is ridiculous...5-Years/$25-30 and you've got yourself a 20-year-old top-of-the-rotation starter. The Nationals have to draft and sign Strasburg. After not signing last year's 1st round pick, RHP Aaron Crow, the Nationals had better sign both Strasburg No.1 and the best available prospect with the No.10 pick they received as compensation for Crow, or they're going to cause their serious fans to revolt. That being said, Strasburg and his agent, Scott "Maximum" Boras, are in one enviable position, and under the scrutiny of the entire baseball world Strasburg's unphased and dominant so far this season with SDSU so his price keeps going up...
CS: I think the Nats will be vastly improved this year. Whether their improvement will translate into a large number of wins over last seasons total, remains to be seen. If the Nationals can stay on course, draft wisely, build up the farm system and stay out of the big money free agency market, they could get real competitive in a real hurry.
MG: For a long time the Nationals farm system was a disgrace, Kasten will do a good job of rebuilding that. I think it will take a couple of years to undo the damage that Jim Bowden caused -- he should not be allowed to General Manage in the majors.
KK: Over on The Stew, we're doing our divisional previews and handing out preseason awards. So let me ask: Who's the MVP of the NL East in '09?
EC: Adam Dunn, of course. Seriously, it depends upon which team wins...Philly wins it's Ryan Howard. The Mets it's David Wright. If the Braves somehow win, I think it will be on Brian McCann's back...
PB: David Wright...
CS: Hanley Ramirez
ES: Willie Harris. Or Alfredo Amezaga.
EC: Harris was the Nationals' MVP against the Mets last year.
MG: Chipper Jones, as he breaks in the new stadium the Mets built for him.
(ed. note - "'EC : Will Chipper name his next kid, Citi?' I totally added that after the fact, but this is one instance that coming up with a good line five minutes too late is totally possible, so I figured why not...")
KK: Who takes the Cy Young?
PB: Cole Hamels collects some more hardware.
ES: I assume we mean "...of the NL East". It'll probably be Hamels, but my dark horse is Vazquez.
EC: I'm giving the NL East Cy Young to Johan Santana.
MG: Thanks Eric, I'll pick Vazquez too.
KK: Rookie of the Year?
PB: Nobody on the Phillies, that's for sure. Their MLB-ready farmhands are complementary pieces at best. There's some pretty good talent a year or two away, however.
ES: Kawakami, maybe. Perhaps Cameron Maybin if he gets enough playing time.
EC: I'll take the Braves' Tommy Hanson, he got sent down, but I imagine he'll be back and stay long enough to take it.
MG: The Braves' Jordan Schafer.
KK: Time to stop being nice. Which player simply isn't going to produce this season? (Think Carlos Delgado in last season's first half.)
EC: I'm afraid it will be Adam Dunn, but he produced in Reds' lineups that weren't all that impressive...it'll be interesting to see how Francisco Rodriguez reacts to all the saves last season...Bobby Thigpen went from 57 to 30 to 22...
PB: Rodriguez does have a pretty lengthy track record, though. Anyway, my choice is Jorge Cantu. And I'm basing that on nothing but my gut.
MG: J.J. Putz is not a setup man. I think he'll get exposed. Also, it's time for Jamie Moyer to act his age.
KK: K-Rod or Brad Lidge, who ya taking?
PB: Lidge, of course. The switch to the NL will probably benefit Krud, but probably not as much as it might under other circumstances; he pitched half his games against a pretty bad AL West last season. Krud will be fine, but Lidge is the man.
ES: Oh, Lidge, probably. Rodriguez is a nice pitcher but he isn't even as good as Billy Wagner (who, it's worth noting, might be back in September). Lidge will blow some saves this year, but he has better stuff right now and should be the better pitcher in 2009.
EC: Don't see Lidge being perfect again, but better than Rodriguez?...Actually, I'd take Dr. Andrews for both of them...(ed. note - "Not that I'd wish that on anyone...")
MG: Do I have to pick? I'd rather not give anyone the satisfaction.
* * *