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2018 Phillies Preview: The sun rises on a new National League East

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New managers, new ownership, and a whole new season of sucking in what could be baseball’s dumbest division.

Derek Jeter 2/13/2018 David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

Rumor has it these Phillies are better. Not “division champion” better, but a potentially finer product than the 66-win model we saw last year. It’s a good time to be better in the NL East, because so many other teams are getting worse—and the one that isn’t may be down to its last pitiful chance.

Desperate times for what could easily be baseball’s biggest fart noise, but times the Phillies could capitalize on to finish as high as second place. That may not mean a Wild Card berth, but it sure would look nice, visually. Here are the utter disasters and one good team standing in their way.

Mets

Mickey Callaway and Gabe Kapler are following similar paths: both have never managed an MLB team before 2018, both are 42 years old and possess a youthful glow uncharacteristic of baseball’s traditionally older, more beaten down managers, and both have been handed the reins of struggling NL East teams looking to start new eras. Callaway seems to understand where he is, and has come in with a mindset healthy for Flushing: “I’m Ready To Fail!

Take the blame early and they can’t blame you for everything all season long, right, Mickey? Good strategy. The copy editors of the New York Post newsroom are in full panic mode, now unable to use a season’s worth of “Mickey” puns and graphics. I’m imagining his face on a dead Mickey Mouse being dangled over a toilet by his tail.

Big names have not been added in bulk to the NL East this year. The division lost its looming dong specter in Giancarlo Stanton, but it gained Todd Frazier with the Mets, who might be their new lead-off hitter on a two-year deal for less than $9 million a pop. The 32-year-old is said take over third base, with Asdrubal Cabrera not wanting it and poor David Wright currently being swept into a dustpan.

This is not an intimidating signing, but Frazier fills a need for the Mets, as does the returning Jay Bruce, who gave the Mets 103 games of his life last year before Jay Bruceing over to Cleveland for a fourth of the season. He’ll bring that .250 BA and .800 OPS back to right field, and will be joined on the Mets roster by both Adrian Gonzalez (who played in only 71 games last year with an ailing back and missed the World Series because he was on vacation in Europe and serving as an analyst on SportsNet L.A.) and Jose Reyes (who hit .225 in Citi Field last season and will be taking outfield reps this spring), the stars of the future of 2007.

And what about young prospect stars coming down the pipeline, like Tim Tebow and Ruben Amaro, Jr.? The future is now soon inevitable!

Meanwhile, that young pitching staff you’re always being told to fear is doing what they do best: taking their physical health into their own hands.

Callaway is a pitching coach, so you would believe his strengths would be in cultivating the rich pitching talent that was once so untarnished on this roster. Remember a nude Matt Harvey in 2013? The future seemed so bright.

Now, the media refers to him as “former Mets ace Matt Harvey,” a devastating own for a man once highly touted enough to drop trow for ESPN the Magazine. But even Sandy Alderson knows: the Mets’ ability to compete will come down to their pitching staff staying vertical, or at least climbing into the MRI machine when asked. Harvey is in a deep hole, but Noah Syndergaard has come to camp looking more “strong” than ever, more “flexible” than ever, and he, Harvey, and Jacob deGrom (the “current” Mets ace), met up to discuss their plan to stay alive in 2018: get their work in and go from there.

It’s all you can really do at this point. It’s scary to imagine the Mets rotation at full strength—it’s the one that took them to the World Series in 2015, remember—but there’s a lot of ground to be gained on the health front, and the offense hasn’t been shored up in a way that says “playoff run,” or even “healthy infield.” Jason Vargas, a fringe candidate for a Phillies job just by existing, wound up going to the Mets and giving their rotation some much-needed depth. They can use him to protect themselves from the missteps and distractions that seem to haunt them year in and year out.

But you never know what’s going to surface on a late night shark fishing trip.

Marlins

Derek Jeter is back in baseball, folks, and he couldn’t be more out of his element playing a loathed villain.

You can’t blame the Marlins newest part owner, either; the season-long tongue bath Jeter received for his entire final season, which I documented in full here, probably allowed him to depart baseball thinking he was an infallible figure who, to his biggest fans (the media), entered every room floating hovering like a bemused cherub, flanked by a beam of glorious light. Then he wedged himself into the Marlins, broke them down, and hawked their best parts: Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, Christian Yelich to the Brewers, Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals, Dee Gordon to the Mariners. In the midst of it all, he held a town hall meeting so the people of Miami could take turns yelling at him or testing out their amateur stand-up material. You can go ahead and take down that gaudy home run sculpture apart if you want to, Derek, but in doing so, you’re probably disassembling the Marlins’ best candidate for the NL All-Star team.

Right now, the rotation, comprised of Dan Straily, Jose Urena, and a handful of staff openings, is not what you would call a “strength.”

Straily, you may recall, has already given up three home runs to Rhys Hoskins in the Phillies slugger’s young career. The rest of the free space will be taken up by guys with something to prove, guys who wouldn’t have a job anywhere else, or guys coming back from devastating injury, like Wei-Yin Chen (the team’s highest paid player), or hell, even some Rule 5 pick. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know if you heard but Dan Straily is the No. 1.

At this point, other than Jeter, manager Don Mattingly is probably the most recognizable name around here. For now Justin Bour, J.T. Realmuto, and Martin Prado are still around, but Realmuto and trade acquisition Starlin Castro have both asked to be sent elsewhere. Whatever the plan is, this first phase is going to be bad.

But hey, maybe we’re wrong. One Miami Sun-Sentinel columnist calls Jeter’s public errors “of presentation more than deed, if you study it.” Sure, he’s playing the long game, but he was pretty brutal in making the rules. The Marlins won’t even be running their sea creature mascot race this season, and also fired the guy who played Billy the Marlin (he’s been replaced).

Mattingly, to his credit, is hanging in there, claiming to be “excited” about this season. He’s even taking the time to respond to Bryce Harper’s in-division wonderment at what the Marlins have done in getting rid of their talented outfield, telling Harper, “Take care of your business and we’ll take care of ours.” Which is basically telling Harper to go win the division handedly while the Marlins try to cut spending by using only a single baseball made out of rubber bands all year.

Even Yelich, now safely with Milwaukee, said in an ESPN article this morning that fans should give the new Marlins ownership group a chance; though this was after he explained that Jose Fernandez’s death changed everything for the franchise—and that when their fire sale started in January, his agent deemed Yelich’s relationship with the team “irretrievably broken.”

But these optimistic quotes are the beats we hit every spring, regardless of the camp we’re standing in. I believe the first “I think we’re going to surprise some people” I saw this year was from the White Sox. Mattingly may not be ready to spout that particular cliche, but he is sticking with some of the classics:

“I don’t think about losing. I think about winning,” Mattingly said. “It won’t be any different with our guys. We’re going to prepare to win. We’re going to prepare to win a championship.”

Nationals

You don’t need to say it. We’re all thinking it: This could be it for the Nationals. I forget why and how, but after 2018, all of the good players will be leaving Washington because they hate it? But in the mean time, weeeee!

The third new manager in the NL East is Dave Martinez, and at 53 years old, he’s the geezer of the bunch. He’s also the only one with a clandestine inner circle from day one. However the Nationals plan to win the division this year, Matinez is not going to let us know about it until it happens. Same goes for their first round playoff elimination.

So, what preparations have they made to fortify their position at the top? Well, there’s Martinez. And then, nothing. They made no changes. And why should they? It’s not even the regular season. Hell, this is the easy part. The hard part comes around mid-October when, uh oh, those 120 games you won playing the NL East’s tankers, rebuilders, and amateur surgeons for 80 games don’t matter anymore. Clutchness and shutdown innings and airtight defense; that’s how you win in the postseason. Trust me, I have a television.

There were just a lot of replacements to spare parts behind the scenes for the Nationals this off-season: Howie Kendrick will be there if Daniel Murphy’s knee gives out, Brandon Kintzler will quietly take Matt Albers’ folding chair in the bullpen next to Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, and their affinity for large men named Matt continued with the acquisition of Matt Adams to take over for Adam Lind as the left-handed power hitter. Jayson Werth is gone, pursuing his true passions: organic farming and being blown away by our president’s oratorial skills. In left field will reside Adam Eaton, who is also good, leaving the Nationals with the same kind of strong, Bryce Harper-including lineup that has dominated the NL East for a generation... one. Last. Time.

Harper, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Taylor, Matt Wieters; all your favorite October locker-cleaner-outers are still here. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez still head the rotation, which has wavered slightly in its mightiness, but remains far superior to the Phillies, who have yet to add an established talent to supplement Aaron Nola beyond expectations for its other young starters to improve. Strasburg remains a phenom whose true fury still feels untapped, thanks to five years of damage to his elbow, neck, forearm, back, and oblique. Not fair, but at least he hasn’t had to watch his team win the World Series from the dugout with his hands in the pockets of a windbreaker.

This is the Nationals’ division to lose. Based on just about every metric, they’ve already won it. On to October!

Braves

The Braves’ biggest off-season news was when they had to surrender prospect Kevin Maitan and 12 other international prospects after an MLB investigation into their practices and their GM John Coppolella was deemed ineligible for baseball work, joining former Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia and former Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa on the relatively long list of people banned from the game under Rob Manfred’s reign of baseball (His two most recent predecessors, Bud Selig and Fay Vincent, banned only one and two people, respectively).

Outside of that, the headlines have been obligatory:

  • Ender Inciarte is looking “speedy.”
  • Catcher Chris Stewart is “there.”
  • Mike Moustakas taking over third is “not likely.”

The Braves and Phillies have matched up, timing wise, in that they are both looking at more positively measured farm systems and both appear to be looming threats of the nearer-than-before future. Both teams have scraped their coaching staffs clean of holdovers from the bygone era, with Bobby Cox’s crew now clear of the clubhouse (Sal Fasano is the Braves’ catching coach!)

Atlanta’s got prospects in Austin Riley, Ronald Acuna (who they were steadfast in holding onto throughout their ancillary involvement in big name acquisition this winter), and even Dansby Swanson, who is not a prospect anymore, but rather a player who screamed to the top of their prospect list, earned a starting job, plummeted in stock, and returned to the minors to get a second to put his head on straight. MLB Pipeline listed—am I reading this right—seven of their top 15 prospects as Braves prospects? Including spots No. 2-4? Good lord.

And then there’s you know, Freddie Freeman, still lurking around; something he plans on doing forever. He’s still got half of his 8-year, $135 million contract in front of him, and just watched Chipper Jones make the Hall of Fame, salivating the entire time. At 28 years old, he could be here when the prospects finish percolating and usher in a new era of Braves baseball, which is just a real shame.

Julio Teheran forgot how to pitch at home last season, which was weird, but he’s hoping a new haircut will take care of that. And the Braves are on the verge of pushing some real pitching prospects onto the front lines, instead of bumming people out with quad-A starters and spare arms dropping in for the night. It’s been whispered that by 2019, the Braves won’t have ANY need for a half-hearted survey of the cheap pitching market, thanks to the likes of Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Sean Newcomb, and whoever else wants to crawl out of the soil of their fertile farm system.

But in the here and now, there’s not a lot to be afraid of in Atlanta, unless you like libraries and hate paying for stadiums you can’t get to. The bullpen was quite limp in its defense of rare leads last season (Fangraphs had them at 29th in MLB at the end of May), and nothing extremely interesting has strengthened it this winter, barring the typical moves of a team filling out its relief pitching—anyone who was worried about the whereabouts of Rex Brothers, here he is. As Atlanta goes through the twists and fits of adjusting, there will be some transitions as young players find their roles and the future takes shape.

Let’s sum things up with one-sentence recaps:

  • NATIONALS: Current and defending champions; hold on division weakening.
  • METS: Hard to believe they can’t “Mets” their way out of any success they find.
  • BRAVES: On the upswing; and it could be a longer, deeper swing than the similarly rebuilding Phillies.
  • MARLINS: [Sound of waves washing a half-eaten fish carcass onto an empty beach]