Win Total Bets - NL East
March 25, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. So it goes with the Philadelphia Phillies (76 1/2 ) after we heartily endorsed a bounce-back and an "over" last season, only to see them flop to a 75-87 mark, and not even get a whiff of the division or wild card chases beyond early June. Moreover, the expected offseason housecleaning of an aging roster never took place, and the Phils' familiar lineup now has five regulars who will be 34 or older on opening day. It's the baseball version of George Allen's old "Over The Hill Gang" Washington Redskins, with the likes of 1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utley, and SS Jimmy Rollins still hanging on from the glory era; we almost expect to see Mike Schmidt at third base, and Greg Luzinski emerge from Bull's BBQ in Ashburn's Alley to pinch-hit in the late innings. Howard and Utley, in particular, have been breaking down physically the past couple of years, and Rollins is now seven years removed from his MVP season of 2007. Continuing the geriatric theme, 36-year-old RF Marlon Byrd was the top offseason position addition. Meanwhile, the staff is already dealing with an injury to co-ace Cole Hamels (biceps tendinitis) that will have him on the DL to start the season, and we have to wonder how the recently-signed A.J. Burnett will adjust to the bandbox dimensions of Citizens Bank Park after his recent revival in Pittsburgh. After being tempted do so last July, maybe this is the year that GM Ruben Amaro begins to break up the old gang at the trade deadline. Although, curiously, Phils fans, much as they might like to watch reruns of their old favorite TV shows, don't seem to mind Rollins, Utley, and Howard sticking around into the twilight of their careers, reminding of past glories. In his first full season as skipper, Ryne Sandberg might wonder what he has gotten himself into. It's an "under" for us at CBP.
The Phils weren't the only NL East side we missed on in 2013, as all the Miami Marlins (69 1/2) had to do last season was avoid 100 losses to make our "over" call a winner. Didn't happen. So why are we bullish on the Fish once again? Well, for once the Marlins went outside of their organization to add some much-needed offense in the offseason. No All-Stars have been enlisted, but serviceable sorts such as C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Rafael Furcal, and 3B Casey McGehee do collectively appear to provide some upgrades to the lineup, and perhaps add a little more protection for all-tool RF Giancarlo Stanton, whose numbers dipped last season after a big 2012. Mostly, however, we like the arms in Miami, with last year's NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez (12-6, 2.19 ERA) now a Cy Young candidate and young flamethrowers Jacob Tuner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez all posting ERAs considerably better than 4.00 last season. A front office shakeup might also provide dividends; longtime talent evaluator Dan Jennings has been promoted to the GM job, and the organization continues to pump out MLB-level talent. It's the potential of the pitching staff, however, that we believe gives the Marlins a chance to make a run at .500. Which would make it an easy "over" in Miami.
Flying well under the radar lately have been the New York Mets (73 1/2), who have become almost unthinkably irrelevant in recent seasons, and whose only national headlines seem to be generated by news relating to owner Fred Wilpon's financial issues. We don't think the Mets are any closer to a playoff berth this season, but they have set the bar pretty low in Queens, and manager Terry Collins has proven himself a sort-of modern-day Gene Mauch, astute enough to get the Mets to avoid 90 losses. Even without injured staff ace Matt Harvey, who will miss all of 2014 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery after starting for the NL in the All-Star Game last July, there is a collection of live young arms in Collins' rotation that includes the promising Zack Wheeler, Jenry Mejia, and Dillon Gee (as well as a live "old" arm, FA signee Bartolo Colon) to suggest the Mets can probably win their share of 2-1 and 3-2 decisions. Defense also figures to improve with newly-signed outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young patrolling CitiField's wide expanse of real estate and run down the fly balls that fleet CF Juan Legares can't catch. We're not sure the Mets can make a run at .500 unless Granderson delivers big and 1B Ike Davis (32 homers two years ago) regains some of the power stroke that disappeared in an injury-plagued 2013. But with the division not exactly loaded, there's no reason New York can't win in the mid-to-high 70s. Mets fans who enjoy that Shake Shack in the outfield concourse can also probably look forward to an "over" at CitiField.
Things are changing for the Atlanta Braves (87 1/2), who are now looking forward to a move into a new stadium north of town in suburban Cobb County, just beyond the I-285 perimeter, in 2017. So, enjoy Turner Field, and the homage to Hank Aaron's 715th homer in the adjacent parking lot on the site of old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, while you can. Meanwhile, we suspect the Braves' ability to draw clear in the division last season might be more of an indictment of the competition in the East than anything else. After all, Atlanta managed to qualify handily for the playoffs with a lineup featuring two regulars (2B Dan Uggla and CF B.J. Upton) who couldn't hit their weight, as each ended up far below the .200 level. That wasn't enough for manager Fredi Gonzalez to pencil either out of the lineup for 2014, however, and now Fredi must deal with life after C Brian McCann (FA Yankees), who was the unofficial on-field sheriff for the Bravos, and their unquestioned leader. With the offense featuring many soft spots and strikeout machines such as Uggla, both Uptons (B.J. and Justin), and Freddie Freeman, the offense tends to dry up for long stretches. Last season, Fredi found enough pitching to camouflage those shortcomings, but we are unconvinced there is enough depth on the staff to do the same this season, especially if the rotation encounters injury problems, with few ready reserve arms in waiting at AAA Gwinnett. We're hardly convinced that Chip Caray will be doing play-by-play for a playoff team this year; it's an "under" for us at Turner Field.
By our calculations a few years ago, 2014 was likely to be the "arrival" date for the Washington Nationals (89 1/2), who instead reached the playoffs a bit earlier than we expected (2012) before backing up a year ago, down to 86 wins. Now, the fiery Matt Williams takes over in the dugout from the aged Davey Johnson, and many in D.C. believe that spark on the bench will offer "Matt-tastic" results this summer, especially after the Nats generated a lot more offense in the second half of last season when making a belated run at a wild card berth. We're not so sure of a return to the playoffs, however, because the offense still does not make consistent contact, a problem that runs through most of the batting order. Outside of CF Denard Span & SS Ian Desmond, the team remains full of strikeout hitters, and Desmond still has not mastered the art of using his speed to advance on the base paths. Keeping gung-ho LF Bryce Harper from running into outfield walls and in one piece is another challenge. Still, we cannot summarily dismiss a team with as much quality pitching as Washington, whose 1-thru-4 starters match any (Dodgers included) in the NL. Especially with Doug Fister arriving in an offseason deal with the Tigers and providing an apparent upgrade from the erratic Dan Haren in the rotation. Yet some questions remain in the bullpen, especially closer Rafael Soriano, who was a mild disappointment in 2013. The dominoes could fall either way at Nats Park, so instead we'll sit back and enjoy a chili-smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl down the third base line, and watch what unfolds next to the Anacostia. No call for us in D.C.
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