Friday, March 4, 2011

Offseason Recap: NL Playoff Teams

Today, we’ll look at the NL playoff teams’ offseasons, and the reasons they may- or may not- be able to play past game 162 once again this season.

Philadelphia (Last year: NL East Champions, 97-65)
The Phillies basically made one move this offseason, swapping out a chunk of offense in the form of Jayson Werth for one of the best pitchers in baseball in Cliff Lee. The Phils let Werth go in Free Agency, and he’ll be plying his trade in Washington in 2011. With the extra cash available from that decision, they shocked the baseball world by agreeing to terms with Lee. Lee seemed to be destined to either remain in Texas or head to New York to play for the Yankees, when rumors of a “mystery team” began popping up in early December. Many saw this as a ploy from Lee’s agents to extract more money and years from the more established suitors, but these rumors were proven to be true when Lee turned down tens of millions and a 6-year deal with a player option for a 7th to take a deal that gives him only 5 years plus a vesting option for the 6th. With a rotation predicted to be historically good, the Phillies immediately became the favorite to take the NL pennant in the eyes of most prognosticators. Their offense remains potent, even without Werth’s strong bat, as they’ll replace him with top prospect Domonic Brown.

Why they can do it again: A rotation, starring what really amounts to four true aces in Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, is probably the best we’ve seen since the Braves teams of the mid-90's with their superb Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz troika. An offense that has to be considered one of the best in the majors, led by perennial All-Stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Really, this team is the obvious choice to represent the NL in the World Series.

Why they might not: The not-so-obvious underlying issues, however, could be a problem for this team. Oswalt, Halladay, and Lee are 33, 33, and 32 years old, so the beginning of a decline is not out of the question, and Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels had ERAs that outperformed their FIPs by at least 0.50 each last season, suggesting each may be in for a bit of regression. The heart of their lineup is predominantly left-handed, leaving them vulnerable to lefty pitching. Finally, Jimmy Rollins is now 32 and coming off a season in which he played only 88 games due to injuries, so his presence at the top of the lineup may not provide the production Phillies fans have come to expect over the last decade or so.

San Francisco (Last year: NL West Champions, 92-70)
The World Champs stuck with the motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They’ll return essentially the same team that won them the Series last year, with the exceptions of Edgar Renteria (now in Cincy), Juan Uribe (headed south to the rival Dodgers) and various minor bits of the bullpen. Aubrey Huff got significantly more expensive after signing a 2 year, $22 million deal to remain in San Francisco after a bounce-back 2010. Uribe, who was the Giants’ starting third baseman throughout most of the playoffs, will likely be replaced by a resurgent Pablo Sandoval. The Panda lost 38 pounds during the offseason, lowering his body fat from 30% to 19%. The “best shape of his life” cliché is immensely overused coming into Spring Training every year, but in this case it seems to be absolutely applicable. After watching him live for the last three days, I can tell you that he passes my personal eye test and looks ready to get back to his 2009 production level, when he burst onto the scene as a rookie before a disappointing 2010. Renteria will be replaced at short by new signing Miguel Tejada, and although Tejada is coming off his worst year since the turn of the millennium, it’d be hard for him not to exceed the pitiful production the Giants have gotten from Renteria over the last two seasons.

Why they can do it again: The pitching staff that won them a championship is intact, and Madison Bumgarner will begin the season in the rotation after proving to the baseball world he has what it takes to live up to his massive potential during last season’s playoffs. Take last year’s squad and add in a full year of Bumgarner and NL ROY Buster Posey (whose 450 foot home run yesterday off Jorge de la Rosa was, in de la Rosa’s words, “the longest home run I’ve ever given up.” Definitely the longest one I’ve ever seen in person that didn’t come off the bat of a certain Barry Lamar Bonds.), and this team certainly could make a run at another title.

Why they might not: Last year’s success was based on a lot of breakouts and bounce-backs few saw coming. Does Huff keep it up? Is Pat Burrell the player who was released midseason by the Rays, or the one who carried the Giants in a close division race down the stretch? Is Cody Ross the player who was put on waivers by the Marlins, or the one who absolutely took over the NLCS? Can Posey and Bumgarner avoid sophomore slumps? They’ve looked good so far in Spring Training, but the Giants come into the season with as much uncertainty as I’ve ever seen in a defending World Series champ.

Cincinnati (Last year: NL Central Champions, 91-71)
The Reds focused on securing their own players this year, signing Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto, and Bronson Arroyo to big extensions. They also resigned free agents Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Cairo, with their only notable free agent losses coming in the form of Aaron Harang and Arthur Rhodes. They signed Edgar Renteria, who will back up Paul Janish at short, and Fred Lewis, who will act as their fourth outfielder. Other than that, no major changes except for a bit more cost certainty with their young studs moving into the next few seasons.

Why they can do it again: They were young last year, and that didn’t stop them from taking the Central by a solid 5 games over the Cards. Their young players have matured by a year, and the Cardinals are simply not the same team without ace Adam Wainwright. Plus, they’ll have fireballer Aroldis Chapman for the whole season, which will be exciting to watch if nothing else. He put up 0.7 WAR (third among Reds relievers) last season in just 13.1 innings.

Why they might not: Rhodes was a major piece of their bullpen, and his 0.9 WAR outpaced all Reds relievers with the exception of Nick Masset. Although he’s ancient, losing Rhodes creates a hole in the bullpen that they’ll need somebody to step up and fill. Their young rotation has been somewhat prone to injuries and ineffectiveness, and Milwaukee may have had the best offseason of any team in the NL (the Phillies would be the other option), and with Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke, and Shaun Marcum, they’ve got three 2010 Opening Day starters in their rotation. Look out for the Brew Crew.

Atlanta (Last year: 91-71, NL Wild Card)
The Braves lost some depth this offseason, but none should be catastrophic. Outfielders Rick Ankiel, Melky Cabrera, and Matt Diaz all left the club this offseason, but none were exactly stellar last year. Derrek Lee took off for Baltimore, but the franchise is excited to replace him with top prospect Freddie Freeman, who is built like an NFL offensive lineman and hit the crap out of the ball in Triple-A last year. He slugged .518, and finished the year with a wRC+ of 140 at the level. They did, however, lose two key pieces of their bullpen in Kyle Farnsworth and Takashi Saito. They signed George Sherrill to replace some pen production, and the emergence of Jonny Venters as well as the absolute domination Craig Kimbrel showed after his late-season callup will have the organization optimistic about their relief corps. Their biggest addition came on the trade market, as they swapped infield/outfield Swiss Army Knife Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn to the Marlins for slugging second baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla, along with Chipper Jones (returning from a down year after an injury-plagued 2010), emerging star Jason Heyward, and Brian McCann form the heart of what has suddenly become one of the more potent offenses in the league.

Why they can do it again: They were good enough last year, and there are very few in baseball who would argue the Braves got worse this offseason. The addition of Uggla turns a so-so lineup into a very good one, they’ve got young pitching both in the rotation and the bullpen, and in Tommy Hanson they have a guy who’s well on his way to proving he can be a staff ace in Atlanta for quite some time.

Why they might not: If Chipper Jones has another down year, this offense might not be as strong as they look. Freeman, while promising, is young. His offense might not come right away (he looked overmatched in his 20-game stint in the bigs at the end of last year, mustering a wRC+ of only 25), and with his physical build the defense is certainly a question mark. Finally, they’ll have a tough time beating out the Phillies for the division, and the Wild Card is a fickle thing. With several teams taking big steps this offseason (notably the aforementioned Brewers), taking the Wild Card again could be quite a difficult task.

Hope you've enjoyed these. Now that we've been over all this information, I think it's finally time for me to step up and make some projections. I'll have those in my next post, and I'll try to line my predictions up with some of the more famous MLB analysts working for ESPN and the like. They've got access to much more information than I do, and this is a job for them, whereas right now it's still only my pastime. Regardless, I'm feeling pretty bold after being pretty much spot-on in my playoff predictions last season, so I'm interested to see how this goes. Might look like a genius. Might fall flat on my face. Prepared for either. We're now less than four weeks away from Opening Day, and I, for one, can't wait.

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