A Brave New World
March 13, 2005

Atlanta Braves
I wish I could give credit where credit is due, but the Braves get way too much credit already.  Sure, John Schuerholz has done a very good job piecing together a competitive ballclub every year, but he also inherited a farm system that was one of the most productive in baseball and has had one of the higher budgets to work with in the National League.  He's also been settled in a division that has consitently displayed an obvious lack of intelligent leadership.  The fact that the Mets have been the second most intelligently run organization in the division speaks volumes about Atlanta's competition.  Yes, Bobby Cox does a good job managing personalities, but he's gotten way too much credit for giving young players a chance to play.  Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles, Javy Lopez and Rafael Furcal have all been platooned with far lesser lights for at least a year, sometimes more.  And when it comes time for a manager to show his tactical side - in the playoffs - Cox has not exactly been the picture of greatness, losing his last 8 straight World Series games and posting a career postseason mark of  65-63.  Call me crazy, but a manager with barely a .500 record in the playoffs (.507), especially one who's team often had the best record in the league, isn't one I'd immediately consider a Hall of Famer.  The record during the season has far more to do with the talent in the organization - in terms of roster depth, replacements for injuries and trades a GM makes - than it does a manager's ability to manage the game.  And Leo Mazzone's reputation as a miracle worker seems to be overblown as well, in terms of resurrecting careers, developing young pitchers and keeping his pitchers healthy.  No one seems to talk about the reconstructive surgeries that John Smoltz, Odalis Perez, Jung Bong and Horacio Ramirez have undergone in the last five years.  Nor do they talk about his failure to develop Perez, Jason Marquis, Jason Schmidt or Paul Byrd, all of whom have become good-to-excellent starters on other teams.  Nor do they seem to mention the burnout of Steve Avery, or the failure of Bruce Chen, Terrell Wade or Damian Moss to develop despite their high regard as prospects.  Nor do they seem to mention that pitchers like John Burkett and Jaret Wright were well on the way to resurrecting their careers before they got to Atlanta.  From the evidence, Mazzone doesn't appear to be much better than the average pitching coach.  In fact. it does look like his reputation is largely based on the fact that he had Greg Maddux pitching for him for 11 seasons.  So while I will give credit to Mazzone for being a fun interview and a pitching coach of above average competence, Cox credit for keeping his clubhouse orderly, Schuerholz credit for using his resources fairly wisely, one has to expand the definition of "great" to a point where it also is synonymous with "above average" to call the Braves achievements this last decade as "great".   It's kind of like calling Red Ruffing "great".  Sure he's in the Hall of Fame, but his 39-96 record and an ERA more than a half a run higher than league average before he came to the Yankees in 1930 says more about his talent than his record after he joined the team with Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, Combs and Lazzeri.

Anyway, Schuerholz did manage to pull off a nice trade this winter to bring Tim Hudson into the fold.  Hudson is a terrific pitcher in the Greg Maddux mold, so it's likely that Mazzone will get more due for being brilliant when Hudson finishes among the league leaders in ERA.  Never mind that NL pitchers naturally have a lower ERA than their AL counterparts and that Hudson has routinely been among the league leaders in ERA in the AL.  The real test for Mazzone will be keeping John Smoltz healthy.  After three arm surgeries, Smoltz was removed from the rotation in 2001 and made the team's closer in order to keep him off the operating table.  Now he will be moving back to the same workload that caused his injuries in the first place.  At age 38, it will be interesting to see if he can make it through 25 starts.  If not, Kyle Davies or Roman Colon may have to step in.  Davies posted some impressive numbers in AA last year, but has been summarily thumped this spring while trying to win a major league job.  Groundball machine Danny Kolb will take over as closer.  He should be fairly effective, but closers without a strikeout pitch are not ideal, especially in the postseason.  Gabe White will be the primary lefty in the pen.

On offense, the Braves lost JD Drew, but gained Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan.  Neither comes close to Drew's rate of production but if Mondesi can stay motivated, he should have no trouble playing more games than Drew, thus coming close to Drew's overall production.  Jordan is a huge injury risk and if/when he goes down, the Braves may have to shift Chipper Jones back to the outfield and let Andy Marte play third.  Marte is one of the better hitting prospects in baseball, and the Braves should have considered that before throwing good money Jordan's way.  Of course, they couldn't do that because Cox didn't have any 5th stringers he could platoon with Marte at third.  Ryan Laagerhans may get a chance to show he's the next Charles Thomas in left, except he's actually that good. 

Florida Marlins
Which is more amazing: a team winning 13 of the last 14 division titles yet only one World Series, or a team in the same division winning zero division titles, yet twice as many World Series in a shorter period of existence despite ownership that has completely scrapped the roster twice?  The Marlins didn't scrap their roster this winter, instead opting to bring in more offense to bolster an already solid pitching situation.  When healthy, Carlos Delgado is one of the premier power hitters in baseball and should provide valuable left-handed sock to a regular line-up that has no lefties with more than 3 home runs last year.  The key will be keeping him in the line-up as the type of nagging muscle injuries he suffered last year can be hard to kick. 

The pitching staff got somewhat of a makeover with the anticipated loss of Carl Pavano.  There is some dispute whether Pavano's loss will be that great: was he a guy who finally learned how to pitch or was he simply lucky last year?  Regardless, the Fish will welcome the return of AJ Burnett to take his place, as well as the addition of Al Leiter.  Few pitchers display as much passion or heart than Leiter, although his fastball has lost a couple miles an hour and his persistent bouts of shoulder tendonitis last season are some concern.  Gone is Armando Benitez as the team's closer.  Now Guillermo Mota will get a chance to prove he can close.  Antonio Alfonseca, Jim Mecir and John Reidling will bolster a pen that had glaring holes in the 7th and 8th innings last year.  If Mota can't cut it, Alfonseca, Todd Jones or perhaps Tim Spooneybarger will get an opportunity to succeed him.  Alfonseca would be the likely winner in such a derby as he has had some success in the role previously.

New York Mets
The Mets made the most noise of any team this offseason by signing two of the most high profile free agents: Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.  Although Martinez' effective pitch limit is around 100 pitches, he's still quite effective for those 100 pitches.  Moving to a more friendly park with better outfielders and getting to face the opposing pitcher should offset any continuing negative effects he might be suffering due to age or wear.  As for the New York media, it's highly unlikley they will be any more intrusive or irrational than what he faced in Boston.  In fact, compared to the scrutiny and melodrama he faced during his time with the Red Sox, handling the New York media will probably be cakewalk.  Pedro will be Pedro when it comes to his performance; it will be the bullpen that finishes his games that will determine whether he wins 12 or 20 games. 

Beltran, on the other hand, could take a big hit in production moving to Shea.  The ballparks in Houston and Kansas City have played quite favorably for hitters and few parks in the bigs have a more negative effect that Shea.  It wouldn't be that surprising if Beltran ended up with closer to 30 home runs than the nearly 40 he finished with last season.  On the plus side, manager Willie Randolph had a pretty nice career as a base stealer and will probably green light Beltran all year, giving him a pretty good chance of stealing 50.  One other important addition to the Mets roster this winter was the acquisition of Doug Mientkiewicz.  His effect on the team won't show up in his offensive numbers but will in the pitchers' ratios and ERAs.  The Mets have a talented infield, but that was somewhat obscured by the awkward play of Mike Piazza in his first (and quite possibly only) season at first base.  The Mets infield defense should be as tight with Minky as it's anchor as it was when John Olerud was picking it there and they were leading the majors in fielding percentage. 

Last year's addition of Victor Zambrano will probably not have any impact, despite pitching coach Rick Peterson's confidence that he can fix his wildness.  Zambrano had a torn right flexor tendon and his velocity this spring has not been reassuring.  He's more likely to end up on the operating table than pitch 100 innings this year.  New GM Omar Minaya's non-roster invitees included Andres Galarraga, Marlon Anderson, Ramon Castro and Kerry Robinson, although it's unlikely any of them will make the team.  Robinson has the best chance as he could be Cliff Floyd's late inning defensive replacement.  Castro, on a year's probation for his off-the-field troubles, might turn out to be a pretty valuable pick-up.  His catching skills are solid and he has good power potential.  Last year's disastrous performance is understandable considering the legal troubles that were hanging over his head all season.  With those out of the way, the breakout season that was projected for him may happen this year, especially with the Mets looking for long term solutions to Piazza's age-related frailty behind the plate.

Philadelphia Phillies
Quite possibly the best thing to ever happen to Charlie Manuel's career is that he followed Larry Bowa as the Phillies' skipper.  The laid-back Manuel is the diametric opposite of the fiery and high-strung Bowa, which should play very well with a team comprised largely of veterans.  GM Ed Wade traded one of the strongest components of his bullpen (Felix Rodriguez) to get some "stability" in centerfield in the form of Kenny Lofton.  While Lofton is still a solid player, his physical talents - particularly on defense - have been eroding since 2000.  The Phillies have two talented youngsters in Marlon Byrd and Jason Michaels who've been disappointing but neither appears to merit losing their opportunity to an aging Lofton.  Making the transition to youth and dealing with the perpetual chirping over playing time from Lofton may be Manuel's first big test in Philadelphia. 

The pitching staff got a new hairdo, but it's hard to say if it's for the better.  Jon Leiber takes over for Cincinnati-bound Eric Milton as the staff ace.  His groundball formula for success is much better suited to the home run happy environs the Phillies play in than Milton's flyball tendency.  But Kevin Millwood also left which forces the Phillies to depend on heretofore unreliable Brett Myers as one of their rotation.  Gavin Floyd has considerable promise but still has yet to control his walks and Vincente Padilla has yet to show that he's fully recovered from what team trainers are calling tricpes tendonitis.  This will be Manuel's other great challenge this season - piecing together a serviceable rotation that can compete against the improved staffs in the NL East.  The bullpen added Aaron Fultz and Terry Adams, but neither measure up to the quality of Rodriguez so it remains to be seen if the bullpen will hold up as well.

Washington Nationals
The biggest positive change for the Expos/Nationals that occurred this offseason was their travel schedule.  Not having to fly to and from Puerto Rico for "home" games and finally being able to settle down someplace they can call home rather than living out of their suitcases will have an enormous impact on the holdovers.  Another big plus will be playing their games on grass rather than turf, especially for players who have some history with joint problems like Jose Vidro.  Without changing any personnel, the Nationals were going to be much better this year than last.  Some pundits have opined that might have been preferable to what interim GM Jim Bowden actually did.

Trading Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis for clubhouse headache Jose Guillen was a risky move that could either payoff big or fail utterly.  Rivera has been considered by some as a AAAA hitter, although his performance in the second half last year made a good case that perhaps he might have a little more going for him.  Maicer Izturis probably isn't an everyday shortstop, but he would be a valuable bench player.  Even on a winning team, Guillen couldn't be kept happy so it's hard to see how he will fit in on a team with plenty of question marks.  The guy has plenty of talent and should produce on the field, but will he drive everyone else to distraction with his antics?  Can manager Frank Robinson focus him on the larger picture?  It'll be interesting to find out. 

Bowden signed two players that raised a lot of eyebrows: Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman.  Until Tony Batista took over third base last year on a one-year contract, the Expos had not had a legitimate regular playing third since 1998.  Even though he became a fan favorite, his range was a lodestone on the defense.  With Castilla the team gets a similar offensive player plus a gloveman with superior range.  True, there were better offensive players available this winter, but none had Castilla's defensive pedigree and would have come to DC for $3 million per year.  The Guzman signing (4 years, $16 million) was even more surprising given his lackluster performance the last three years.  However, Guzman is still fairly young (27 this year), is among the better defesnive shortstops in the game and, if scouting generalizations are to be believed, should do well in the National League: he's a good fastball hitter coming to a fastball league.  How good could he be?   At age 23 he posted an .814 OPS and the year before he led the AL in triples with 20.  His batting eye has increased three straight years and he's coming to a manager who has a history of making his hitters better.  The signing, especially because of the years involved, was a big risk but given that Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera signed for twice the money - are they twice as good as Guzman? - there's a decent chance he could be a smart signing by the time all is said and done.

Esteban Loaiza will get a chance to prove that 2003 was no fluke.  One of the bigger disappointments last year, Loaiza came into the season complacent after earning a nice raise with his 21-win effort.  He simply wasn't as sharp, a fact that was exposed early on and was a source of embarrasment to him as the year wore on.  He seemed to refocus in time for the postseason, but it's hard to determine whether his improved performance was due to his determination, or to his move to the bullpen.  His spring performance has been encouraging but even if he's back to form, it's doubtful he'll ever be as good as he was when he took the AL by surprise.  The biggest additions to the starting staff will be the return of Tony Armas and the emergence of John Patterson.  Both pitchers are returning from injuries that derailed promising seasons.  Although neither one has true #1 stuff, both can be good #2 or #3 guys.  Jon Rauch is another one who could surprise.  If their young starters can stay healthy, the Nationals could have a surprisingly strong rotation.