NL East Preview

Atlanta Braves

Hubris may have finally caught up with GM John Schuerholz and the Braves.  The one element that has remained consistent for them in their long reign atop the NL East is their starting pitching.  This offseason, when budgetary push came to shove, they decided they were better off keeping their mediocre offense in tact rather than their pitching.  The new faces in the rotation have some legitimate question marks: can Russ Ortiz throw enough quality strikes to be effective in a park much more friendly to hitters?  is the real Paul Byrd the one who won 17 games last season in Kansas City, or is he the one who was pummelled out of the National League just a few years ago (career 4.70 ERA in the NL)?  Can Mike Hampton resurrect his career after a brutal stay in Colorado, where he lost his release point, his arm slot and his confidence?  One reclamation project is tough, but having three in the rotation in a division that promises to be much more competitive may be too much for even pitching coach Leo Mazzone.  The bullpen lost stalwart lefty Mike Remlinger and two decent right-handers, Kerry Ligtenberg and Tim Spooneybarger.  They were replaced by largely ineffective lefty Mike Venafro and the increasingly ineffective Roberto Hernandez.  With the exception of Greg Maddux and closer John Smoltz, the Braves pitching has a decent chance of being wretched, which is practically a foreign concept to anyone under 30.  The offense got a mild boost from the addition of Robert Fick and will benefit from healthy years from Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal, but that won't be enough to offset the considerable drop-off in pitching talent. Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd in the division

Florida Marlins

The Marlins seem to be going in a peculiar direction with their offseason moves.  Despite a growing mountain of evidence that getting on base helps a team score, the vast majority of their acquisitions this winter have been low on base players with only moderate power.  In the last year, they've acquired Juan Encarnacion (.324), Juan Pierre (.330 away from Coors), Todd Hollandsworth (.334), Gerald Williams (.304) and Al Martin (.341) for their outfield while divesting themselves of Kevin Millar (.367), Preston Wilson (.333) and Cliff Floyd (.361).  Subractionally, they signed Ivan Rodriguez (.342) at catcher, pushing Mike Redmond (.372) to a back-up role and are looking to trade for Shea Hillenbrand (.313) so they can dump Mike Lowell (.339).  AND they re-signed Alex Gonzales (.284!!!).  In the deal that brought Pierre, they also agreed to pay the majority of Mike Hampton's salary... so that he can play for the Braves.  However, that may not be as bad a deal as it sounds as they were compensated with Tim Spooneybarger, who was an excellent minor league closer and shows promise as one in the majors.  The Fish also traded for Mark Redman to bolster their rotation.  He has decent skills, but as long as manager Jeff Torborg continues to mishandle the starting staff it's hard to see how that move will be of any consequence.  Or is it coincidence that AJ Burnett has been suffering from arm pains after averaging nearly 110 pitches per start (3rd highest in baseball) or that only Dusty Baker and Bob Brenly leave their pitchers out for 120+ pitches more often, but who's starting staffs are on average 4 and 8 years years older respectively than Torborg's 25 year old staff?  Prediction: 74 wins, 5th in the division

Montreal Expos

As expected, the consortium of other major league team owners that actually run the Expos would not expand the payroll enough so that they could keep Bartolo Colon this year.  So, GM Omar Minaya patched together a deal that could potentially break even.  The offense gained Jeff Liefer, who's not anything special offensively or defensively, but does have some pop and lengthens the line-up enough so that the Expos' real threats aren't totally pitched around.  They also received Orlando Hernandez, who is a pretty good starter when he's healthy.  The concern is that he's closer to his suspected age of 40 as opposed to his listed age of 34, and that the physical breakdowns that have limited his effectiveness over the last 3 years will occur more frequently.  Still, if they can get 25-28 starts out of him, the deal will look pretty decent.  Rocky Biddle also came over in the trade and looks promising as a starter, posting a 3.48 ERA in the role last year and showing decent control.  With staff ace Javier Vazquez and emerging Tony Armas and Tomo Ohka, the Expos could have a surprisingly deep starting staff.  Zach Day is having a solid spring and Josh Karp isn't far away, making it even deeper.  The bullpen still has some concerns but that is largely due to youth, not quality.  The offense should also improve as Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider and Michael Barrett get more acclimated and Orlando Cabrera gets healthy.  Bench depth is something that will need to be addressed if the Expos are to contend late into the season, but this is a better team than many people think.  Prediction: 87 wins, 2nd in the division

New York Mets

This year's Mets look very similar to the 1992 Mets in that they're a collection of star players who are either past their prime or over-rated.  Tom Glavine made the smart move choosing the Mets, as his groundball to flyball ratio has been deteriorating steadily over the past 4 years and would not have fared well in either Atlanta or Philadelphia.  At least at pitcher friendly Shea, he'll have a chance to put up some decent looking statistics to bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy.  Regardless, his days as one of the best starters in the NL are over.  The front office did little to address the holes left by the defections of Edgardo Alfonso and John Thomson; Jay Bell and David Cone are not the answers.  Cliff Floyd will boost the production of the outfield and a rejuvenated Tony Clark will help the bench depth, but they still have dubious production at third and centerfield.  Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn, Mike Piazza and Jeromy Burnitz are likely to rebound following off years and the addition of Rey Sanchez is a slight improvement over Rey Ordonez.  The bullpen gained some depth with the addition of Mike Stanton and that should be sufficient for the first half of the season.  But the bench is still thin and there aren't any serviceable replacements for the rotation should anyone go down with injury or pitch ineffectively.  Prediction: 78 wins, 4th in the division

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies made a huge splash this offseason, bringing in Jim Thome to take over at first base and Kevin Millwood to anchor the rotation.  Thome brings a huge presence to the middle of the line-up and his keen eye for walks will provide plenty more RBI opportunities for the bottom of the order.  Millwood takes the pressure off Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla to carry the staff and will give the overworked bullpen more rest than last season.  Also new is Marlon Byrd in centerfield who brings more power and on base than his predecessor Doug Glanville.  And while the offense will take a hit from the departure of Scott Rolen, David Bell will be a serviceable replacement.  Placido Polanco will move from third to his more natural position at second, a switch that will emphasize his value as a solid player with good on-base skills.  The bullpen, which is the team's biggest concern, should be stronger with the return of Terry Adams back to the pen and the addition of Carlos Silva from the farm.  Should Mesa fail to save games (he blew 9 saves last year in 54 opportunities), the Phillies have a nice collection of tradable prospects who could bring a Matt Anderson or an Ugueth Urbina in trade.  The Phillies improved their defense, offense and starting staff this winter and should be the strong favorite to win the NL East and end the Braves' 8 year reign. Prediction: 92 wins, 1st in the division