The NL East Preview is a first in a series of divisional previews for the 2016 MLB season as viewed through the eyes of the indefatigable Jed Rigney.
Winter has finally come to an end and regardless of whether you believe in climate change, you have to admit it was a pretty tough one. In Los Angeles, we had it particularly rough with almost two full weeks of rain and even some cold wind a couple times. Brutal.
Now spring is here, and that means flowers blooming, sun shining and, most importantly, baseballers baseballing. Spring training for all MLB teams is well under way and we are days away from the start of the regular season.
Spring is also a time of new hope, and every team out there starts off the season with the same record, so they all think this just might be the year they win it all (except the Philadelphia Phillies – whoa, that’s a smoldering crater of a team right now). It’s the time of year when fans can dream of what might be – though, for Phillies fans, it’s more of a nightmare.
One of the reasons baseball is better than football or basketball is because on any given baseball day, the worst team can beat the best team. That’s just not true in those other sports. You’d never see a powerhouse like the Golden State Warriors lose to a crap team like the Los Angeles Lakers. [Editor’s note: Jed, the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors.] [Note to editor: Jon, I’m trying to make a point here, and I don’t need your “facts.”]
Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption tells us that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” However, it’s important to not get too carried away. We can all hope for a hot date with Charlize Theron – or Tom Brady for the ladies (and also me) – but the probability is that it’s just going to happen. it’s like the old expression goes: hope in one hand, poop in the other and see which one fills up faster. There can only be one World Series champion each year, and there are 32 teams – well, 31 because of the Phillies.
Some people look at the glass and think it’s half full, while others look at the glass and think it’s half empty. I’m kind of a cross between the two. My glass is definitely half full, but it’s Flint, Michigan, drinking water.
As in life, it’s advisable to find a balance as a fan between the positive and the negative. The yin and the yang. The ebony and the ivory. The Franklin and the Bash. And that’s what we’re going to do with this new series to preview the season called “3 Up, 3 Down” – where I’ll discuss in varying degrees of accuracy the arbitrarily selected three positives and three negatives for each team.
Let’s dive in with the NL East and its four Major League teams and also the Phillies. I was going to do these in alphabetical order, but that meant starting with the Atlanta Braves, and yikes, they’re not much better than the Phillies, so I’m going to go with reverse alphabetical order.
Not only were the Nationals the favorite to win the NL East last season, it was supposed to be a cakewalk. Well, it turned out that walking through cake is a lot harder than it seems, especially when Matt Williams is managing.
1 UP – Bryce Harper
He’s only 23 years old and he’s already the best player in the National League. It’s not very often that the “can’t miss” prospect who is supposed to be the next big thing actually turns into the next big thing. Harper’s offensive numbers last year were hot sex action to the max. He produced 25 percent more than the next best player. His defense is a bit lacking, but with those kinds of offensive numbers, he can set up a lawn chair in the outfield for all I care.
1 DOWN – Manager Dusty Baker
Okay, so they got rid of the Matt Williams Incompetence Machine. That is good. Then they replaced him with the Dusty Baker Dubious Thought Process. That is not so good. He is well-known for ruining pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood while with the Chicago Cubs, but when Dusty was with the Reds, he focused more on weird lineup decisions and poor bullpen strategies.
2 UP – Max Scherzer
Everyone knows the best pitcher in the universe is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, but just what the heck is wrong with being the second-best pitcher in the universe? Scherzer threw two no-hitters last season. The team was supposed to have an incredible starting rotation, but besides Scherzer, they turned out to be just “credible.”
2 DOWN – Jonathon Papelbon
Trading for closer Papelbon last season was an odd move, since they were somewhat set at that position with Drew Storen. He doesn’t get along well with others and his skills are diminishing. Not surprising at all that “Jonathan Papelbon” translates into “Good Toilet Paper.”
3 UP – The Division
No matter what your opinion of how good this team is, it is a fact that they’re in the NL East and that’s going to mean a lot of easy wins for the Nationals. Here are some more facts: a) the Phillies are in the NL East, b) the Braves are in the NL East, c) the Phillies are terrible, d) the Braves are only slightly less terrible than the Phillies.
3 DOWN – Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth
Last season, the team was hit pretty hard with injuries – most notably to Rendon and Werth. Once again, they’re being counted on to contribute significantly. Rendon looked like he was going to be a star, but when he got in the lineup last year, he was more like a satellite. [Editor’s note: Huh?] [Note to Editor: Get it? Because sometimes when you look up in the sky at night, you think you’re seeing a star, but it’s a satellite.] [Editor’s note: Um, yeah, okay.] [Note to Editor: Screw you, man, we’re keeping it in.]
As you may have noticed from the previous words in this article, I do not think the Phillies are a very good Major League Baseball team, and one could make an argument that they’re only a mediocre minor league team.
1 UP – The Fans
No matter how good or bad their sports teams are doing, Philadelphia fans have always been among the most passionate. Of course, passion isn’t always a great thing – hence the term “crime of passion.” The World Series win of 2008 is starting to disappear in the rearview, but fans would be wise to reminisce about those glory days and avoid committing any crimes of passion against themselves.
1 DOWN – The Fans
No matter how good or bad their sports teams are doing, Philadelphia fans have always been among the most insufferable. All fanbases have their rotten apples that go to games and get drunk, yell obscenities and start fights – it’s called “acting like a Phillies fan.” Be careful out there, non-Phillies fans, this team isn’t going to help their disposition. A Phillies fan isn’t happy unless they made you unhappy.
2 UP – The Future
One thing that might stop Phillies fans from hurting people is if they take a moment to look at their team’s minor league players. They have an impressive collection of young players with star potential, acquired through the draft and from last year’s talent dump. J.P. Crawford, Mark Appel, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson and more. These guys are coming soon, and they’ll make this current steaming pile of horse feces a distant memory.
2 DOWN – The Present
Have I mentioned this Philadelphia team is awful? I understand that teams go through these stages now and then. Look at the Houston Astros. They were a massive sinkhole filled with used diapers. But now look at them. They’re playoff contenders loaded with hot young talent stockpiled during their dark years. Maybe that’s where the Phillies will end up. For now, there’s just this mess. It’s like when someone throws up in the gutter. It looks and smells gross, but someone is going to come along to clean it up. Eventually. Right?
3 UP – No Ruben Amaro Jr.
Former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. recently shared this nugget in an interview with FanGraphs’ David Laurila:
“I’ve always believed in analytics. I just didn’t make it all public (in Philadelphia). I thought it was more of a competitive advantage for me to keep our thought-process about analytics closer to the vest.”
So, his plan was essentially to “play dumb” and then he made “dumb trades” and signed “dumb free agent contracts” and eventually everyone thought he was dumb.
3 DOWN – Mets and Nationals
Exacerbating the current Phillies roster affliction is the presence of the Mets and the Nationals in their division. Both of these teams are playoff contenders with strong pitching staffs and solid offenses. Do you remember when Philadelphia had Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels? It’s time for some payback. Let’s set the over-under on shutouts at 10 – from each team.
New York Mets
Halfway through last season, there weren’t many people who thought the Mets were going to make the playoffs, but thanks to great pitching and a confluence of misfortune for their divisional rivals, the Mets won the division and got all the way to the World Series.
1 UP – Starting Pitchers
It seems like every time some team puts together an All-Star pitching staff, somehow the pieces don’t quite click. Last year’s Nationals team comes to mind. But this Mets rotation is all home-grown prospects who all just came together at the same time. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are as impressive a collection of fireballers as I’ve ever seen.
1 DOWN – The Defense
However, it’s a good thing they get so many strikeouts because they need to keep the ball away from their feeble defense. It’s not that they have anyone that is particularly awful. Lucas Duda isn’t very good and David Wright plays third base exactly how you’d expect someone with a degenerative spinal condition to play. They also don’t have anyone that is particularly great. Athletes are like most ’80s movies – they do not get better with age.
2 UP – Yoenis Cespedes
At first I had Cespedes listed as a “down,” because he’s going to be playing out of position in center field (see above re: The Defense) and because he was so great for the team down the stretch last year that he must regress statistically – and it could be a lot. But, damn it, he was so good during that stretch, and he’s been suspected of having those skills all along.
2 DOWN – The Offense
Well, they kept Cespedes, so this isn’t as bad as it was looking with Alejandro de Aza out there. There’s a chance Michael Conforto can turn into a good hitter this year, and maybe resurgent Curtis Granderson will keep doing (or taking) whatever he was doing last year. The mediocrity here is mitigated by the strong pitching, so the team won’t really need to score a ton of runs. That’s just science.
3 UP – World Series Roster
Other than Daniel Murphy, this is basically the same team that surprised everyone and made it to the World Series. Though that’s a bit like saying that the cast of the TV show House, M.D. was the same when Lisa Edelstein left. Dr. Lisa Cuddy held that show together. Was Murphy the Mets’ Dr. Cuddy? I don’t know, but I do know he almost single-handedly beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs. But he didn’t really have much impact on the regular season, so his replacement, Neil Walker, will do just fine. I’m not sure what I’m saying here – I guess that I really liked House.
3 DOWN – Penny Pinching
The New York Mets, as you may have guessed, are located in New York. A team so located should have giant piles of cash they can set on fire at will. The Mets have been operating under a small-market budget since back when Bernie ponzi’ed all those good folks. The Wilpons own the team and have the privilege of being buddies with the powers that be in baseball, so you won’t see them get railroaded out of town like Frank McCourt. If this team could spend another $50 million, they’d be a monster.
It seems like every season there are a few experts who’ll start going off about how “you gotta keep an eye on those Marlins, they could make some noise.” This is rooted in the fact that two of the most unlikely World Series championships ever came courtesy of a Marlins team people shoulda kept an eye on, because they made some noise.
1 UP – Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez
By some stroke of luck, the Marlins have drafted and developed two of the top 15 players in the league with Stanton, the slugger, and Fernandez, the ace. One can only assume this good fortune was provided by the universe as a balance for the team having the worst owner in baseball. And he isn’t going anywhere. Maybe Marlins fans can hire V. Stiviano to come to Miami and bust up Jeffrey Loria’s marriage.
1 DOWN – Manager Don Mattingly
If you want to get an idea of how bad this team is from top to bottom, just look at the fact that they hired Don Mattingly to be their manager moments after the Dodgers kicked him to the curb, even though they had no idea who they’d replace him with. Though the Marlins are the same team that fired its manager midseason and replaced him with their GM. So, hiring one of the worst in-game managers of the last decade is just par for the course.
2 UP – Dee Gordon
I wrote about how great Dee was going to be when he first came up with the Dodgers. I am not right about much, but I knocked that one out of the park. He’s an electric player who gets on base and then terrorizes pitchers and catchers on the basepaths. It’s like Must-Dee TV. [Editor’s note: Are you tired, Jed? This is not good.]
2 DOWN – The Stadium
In addition to possibly being acquired through somewhat fraudulent means, the Miami Marlins stadium is a grotesque eyesore that is helping to keep fans away in droves. It’s not like they needed to reinvent the wheel here. Just copy what the Orioles did or the Astros. Instead, the team decided to think outside the box and unfortunately wound up so far outside the box that you need to take a connecting flight just to get back to the box.
3 UP – Low Expectations
When you’re a fan of a poorly run organization, there’s a small comfort in not having your hopes dashed against the rocks of reality. If you asked any of the dozen or so Marlins fans that show up to a game what they think the team will do this year, at least half would say they just want to see a decent team on the field. The rest would say, “Who are the Marlins? Someone gave us these tickets and said it was for a Jimmy Buffet concert.”
3 DOWN – Fire Sale
Don’t grow too attached to any of the players on this team, because if history has shown us anything it’s that child stars will do all the drugs and the Marlins will trade away players at the drop of a hat. You never know when they’re going to suddenly decide to hit the reset button and save some money.
Well, I put these guys off as long as I could, and I did promise to do a preview for every team – even the terrible ones. If I was able to find three positive things about the Phillies, I can do just about anything.
1 UP – Freddie Freeman
Last year was kind of a down year for Freddie, and it’s unclear whether he actually fits into the team’s future plans. He is an excellent hitter and has the potential to be one of the league’s top first basemen. The team is rebuilding and trading away almost everything not nailed down, so enjoy him while you can, Braves fans, before he’s wearing pinstripes or red socks.
1 DOWN – Manager Fredi Gonzalez
Braves fans already know what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t know Fredi Gonzalez is the hapless manager of the Braves who apparently knows where team owners buried the dead bodies, because this guy should not be allowed to manage games. Or maybe the team knows he’s awful, but they’re rebuilding so they don’t want to hire someone else and soon enough those dead bodies will be buried in the foundation of the new stadium.
2 UP – The New Stadium
I love new stadiums. I hate when teams hold cities hostage and blackmail local politicians into funding stadiums. But I love new stadiums. The league has really done a great job of building stylish and unique ballparks that are great to visit or even just watch on TV. Except the Marlins, of course.
2 DOWN – The Line Up
I mentioned I love Freddie Freeman, but there isn’t a lot else going on here with these guys offensively. I can’t imagine them scoring more runs than any team other than the Phillies. The defense should be decent, but that doesn’t add runs. My guess is by the end of the season, half the starting lineup is gone or benched and we begin to get a glimpse of the future Braves. And with all this in mind, they’re still better than the Phillies.
3 UP – The Shortstops
After fleecing the Arizona Cardinals for three valuable players in return for Shelby Miller, the Braves now have two of the best shortstops in the minor leagues with Dansby Swanson and Ozhaino Albies. The team also traded away defensive star Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for their one good prospect. Five of their top 10 prospects were acquired from other teams in the last year. You might want to check your team’s minor leaguers, the Braves may have just acquired one of them.
3 DOWN – The Starters
This is going to be tough to watch this year. There’s not a lot to get excited about with the current Braves starting pitchers. Julio Teheran seems to de-improving. And the rest of the guys are all potential. Some of them may be good. Some may be relievers. So, the team is employing the extremely scientific process of throwing them against the wall and seeing who sticks.
And the winner is …
The Washington Nationals are the most balanced team in the division, and while the Mets rotation is so very sexy, their team defense and offense put them just behind the Nationals.