will rebounding hitters bring Philadelphia Freedom for starters?


NL East: The big budgets, the big names…can this division’s teams live up to the big expectations in ’11?

ATLANTA: It’s a brave new world for baseball fans in Dixie. For the first time since Rhett was saying frankly he didn’t give a damn, or at least since a young buck called Greg Maddux first made his presence known on the mound, there’ll be somebody besides Bobby Cox on the bench for the Tomahawk Choppers. Considering that Cox’s 15 seasons of 90 or more wins is tied for best ever, Fredi Gonzalez has some pretty big shoes to fill. But given his past performance in a less-talented environment, one has to expect he’ll do OK. He has a fair bit to work with, including high-profile newcomer Dan Uggla who joins Gonzo coming over from the Marlins. Uggla more than makes up for the loss of Omar Infante with his bat, although not so much with his glove. What Uggla really does is make up for the loss of Chipper Jones– even if Chipper is still in the lineup. He gives the team the .300 hitting, 30+ homers they used to count on from Jones, something he’s not been close to since 2008, and with his advanced age and ongoing aches and pains, it’s not likely he will come close to it this year. A more likely scenario is versatile all-star Martin Prado taking over third (he logged 43 games there last year) and Chipper quietly bowing out before the mid-season classic. A scenario made more likely if Nate McLouth can remember how to hit again (after being second to only Willie Harris for futility at the plate among players in the league with over 200 ABs) thus reducing the need for Martin to play in the outfield. Thus far, Nate’s .300+ average (triple that of his ’10 spring training) and aggressive attitude at the plate this spring, signs of that happening are good. With Freddie Freeman and his 87 RBI in 124 games across the county line in AAA Gwinnett poised to be the new first baseman and this year’s Jason Heyward, Heyward himself back and the best-hitting catcher in the game still behind the plate, the Braves should do OK  scoring runs, but just as it did in their glory days of the 90s, the team’s real strength lies in their starting rotation.

Tim Hudson proved nay-sayers wrong by being the NL Comeback of the Year in ’10; one wonders why the nay-sayers existed anyway given that his career 165-87, 3.42 numbers resemble no one’s as much as Roy Halladay’s. He should match his 17 wins and 220 or so innings of last year while Jair Jurrjens is too good to be stuck on 7 wins and an ERA of over 4 and a half again for a second year in a row. Derek Lowe is unremarkable but a reliable workhorse and young Tommy Hanson dazzled people like myself who watched him as a rookie in ’09; his ERA should not rise much above last year’s 3.33 but his 10 wins will given a few runs. Which is something Uggla and a rejuvenated mcLouth should provide. It might not be this year, but this crew makes one believe, in baseball, The South Will Rise Again. 2011 Prediction: 90 wins, 2nd place.

FLORIDA: Lately, the Marlins could be the National counterpart to my Blue Jays. A reasonably decent team with some solid talent , mired down in a great division and by a mentality which refuses to allow them to take the extra step or two to achieve greatness. This year will be no different in Miami. As always, there is some very good young talent rising to the surface…this year Mike Stanton is the pick fantasy team owners are salivating over , not surprisingly given his 43 homers and 111 RBI between AAA and the majors last season. He’ll be playing beside the previous year’s Rookie of the Year, Chris Coghlan who has a good shot of rebounding from knee surgery and a disappointing sophomore stint. John Buck was superb up here in Ontario last season and should help the young pitching staff, but is unlikely to duplicate his 20 HR in spacious Sun Life Stadium.

The big Q in florida is Hanley Ramirez, who not unlike another Ramirez has abundant talent but a sparsity of maturity and redoubtable work ethic. Getting him to produce upto his ability might be new manager Edwin Rodriguez’s biggest challenge. However, with young Osvaldo Martinez seemingly ready to step up to the bigs, with the size of hanley’s contract and the M’s displeasure at spending big money, my best guess is that by July he’ll be some other manager’s worry, as Ramirez will be a bait fish luring in some more young talent from bigger ponds.

Javier Vasquez has logged 150+ innings annually since his 1998 debut and seems to be excellent anywhere but for the Bright Lights , big pinstripes of New York. A return to the NL East, and a pitcher’s park to boot , should return him to his near-Cy Young stature of 2009 and thus he’ll head up a good rotation with a passable bullpen behind it. 2011 Prediction: 76 wins, 3rd place.

NEW YORK: Sandy Alderson inherited a mess. So much so he’s already paid eight digit amounts to merely make a couple of headaches walk away (Perez and Castillo). That leaves him with just a half dozen or so even bigger, bigger money headaches to work around. Carlos Beltran, a man once referrred to by my local press as the best all-round player in the game, has played 145 games in the past two years and hit all of 17 home runs in them. Johan Santana is still out injured, and has never looked like the Santana of his Minnesota days since moving to the Big Apple anyway. Jason Bay is the latest of a lengthy list of stars who upon setting foot on Citi Field seem to see their abilities dissipate quicker than the number of hookers looking for dates when Charlie Sheen comes to town. One has to figure that he will somehow rebound from a dismal 6 homer, 47 rbi season almost mercifully cut short by a concussion, but whether he regains the form he had in Pittsburgh or Boston is debatable.

Still, it’s not all hopeless for the Mets. Ike Davis and his 71 RBI (second among rookies in the league) flew under the radar last year and should impress this year, and with David Wright across from him gives the Mets a pretty impressive pair of cornermen. Wright’s career RBI to AB ratio is better, by the way, than division mates Jayson Werth’s or Hanley Ramirez’s. Imagine how good he’d be if he once again had some other decent hitters protecting him!

Mike Pelfrey is good, but for a 6’7″ power pitcher, he walks far too many and doesn’t strike out enough. RA Dickey succeeds by doing what almost no one else does anymore , throwing the baffling knuckleball but the rotation is still thin on talent. How much can they expect from Chris Capuano, who won 18 games in 2005… and a total of 20 games since? October advice to NYC’ers— don’t bother stocking up on transit tokens. A snowball has a better chance in hell than you have of seeing a Subway Series this year. 2011 Prediction: 66 wins, 5th place.

PHILADELPHIA: Most people have already annointed the Phils as the 2011 NL champions. The 162 games are just a detail.

As much as I , with my Torontonian Pro-Halladay bias, would like to agree, I’m reminded that there’s a big bell in the city of Brotherly Love that shows that things can crack when least expected.

Obviously, there’s a lot that’s right with the team, starting with the rotation. So much has been written about Halladay/Lee/Oswald and Hamels that it’s almost redundant to mention, but a couple of numbers which stood out for me are that in the past two seasons, they’ve collectively logged 1724 innings (an average of 216 a piece per year) and 39 complete games. That kind of reliability can take the pressure of any bullpen, not that the Phils is a bad one anyway, and it should be stronger this year given that either joe Blanton or Kyle Kendrick will likely be in it as a long man and spot starter. Speaking of the last two, how many teams would love to have Blanton (at 9-6, 175 innings last year) or Kendrick (11 wins, 180 innings) as a number three guy in the rotation? Something which might be reality by mid-season if the Phils need to make a trade to add some pop at the plate.

What could go wrong for the Phillies this year was painfully obvious watching them in the NLCS last fall (if not obvious enough mid-season given their 51 games of scoring two or fewer runs). Their offensive numbers look far better than they really are. Too many of their runs came in clusters of too few games. A situation not likely to much improve with the departure of hard-working Jayson Werth and his 30 homer/ 90 RBI kind of regular productivity. Nor with his apparent replacement, Domonic Brown starting the season on the DL with a broken hand and the heart and soul of the club and the batting order, Chase Utley hobbling around with a bad knee and coming off a career-low type season. The hasty acquisition of Luis Castillo this week makes any reasonable observer question all the more the chances of Utley returning to the lineup anytime soon, and while he may make an adequate defensive replacement, its hard to see the slowing 36 year old, .235 hitting Mets castoff doing much to help the Ps score runs. Nor is it wise to bet on 38 year-old Raul Ibanez ramping up his .275, 16 HR numbers of last year. Jimmy Rollins is now renamed “Jimmy Rollins Question Mark.” Of course, theres still Ryan Howard and under-rated Carlos Ruiz (a gem behind the plate and increasingly, while up at the plate as well) and quietly consistent Placido Polanco, but all things considered, unless a new big bopper is brought in, sooner than later, the Phils seem destined to score less than they did last year and one wonders just how many no-hitters even Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee can churn out.

My guess- the Phils understand their timeframe for winning is finite, and will haul in someone like Hanley Ramirez or Michael Cuddyer by mid-summer. And will play a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games. 2011 prediction: 93 wins, 1st place. NL Championship odds: 4:1.

WASHINGTON: The song Capitol Region fans might be singing this year is “Wake me when September ends” by Green Day. There’s a sense that 2011 is merely a way of biding one’s time waiting for the real show to begin in 2012, when presumably Stephen Strasburg will be back on the mound and young Bryce Harper, aka the guy on the cover of SI back in ’09, aka the LeBron James of baseball, should be majors-ready. In the meantime, this still could be the best year for the team since they fled la belle province.

A legitimate superstar-in-the-making in Ryan Zimmerman, a future Hall of Famer behind the plate who though he can no longer hit like an MVP, can probably play his position better than he did in his prime down in Texas, and newcomer Jayson Werth an adequate replacement for Adam Dunn in the lineup, and Adam Laroche here too, one can expect the team to raise their 655 run output of 2010. Matt Stairs (providing some Canadian connection to the Nee-Expos still) and Rick Ankiel give them some newfound bench depth. However, the pitching is still shaky, with one wondering how long Livan Hernandez can continue to produce and whether the ’11 edition Jason Marquis will more resemble the horrible 2 win, 6+ ERA one of last year or the 15 game winning All-star of ’09? A so-so bullpen and weak defence which last year tied for the most errors in the game add up to a team which won’t inspire anyone that much this year. But will be good enough to prevent fans from singing “American Idiot” about GM Mike Rizzo. 2011 Prediction: 72 wins, 4th place.

Next we’ll get to the American League…and back to the Jays nest.

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