After looking at the AL East last week, we’ll stay on the east coast and review the division won by the other League champion.
Joe: Mets, Mark: Phillies (Wild Card: Mets), Matt: Phillies (WC: Mets), Russ: Braves
Mark and I were correct in predicting that the Phillies would retain their division title for the third straight year. We were both undone by the Mets’ injury woes with our Wild Card predictions and they also scuppered Joe’s NL East pick. Russ’s hopes that the Braves’ pitching acquisitions would push them to the top of the division didn’t quite materialize.
1. Philadelphia Phillies (93-69) – NLCS winners
It was another very successful year for the Phillies, even though they were unable to achieve their ambition of becoming the first National League team to win back-to-back World Series since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds. They took the Yankees to six games in the Fall Classic with the best offense on the Senior Circuit and will go into 2010 with a strong chance to get back there for the third straight year.
The Phillies were always likely to mount a fierce challenge simply because they brought back so many of the key players who won the World Series in 2008. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard led the offense yet again with excellent years, while Jayson Werth really stepped up to produce the strongest full season of his career so far. Cole Hamels was a disappointment relative to his great 2008, although a recent article on BaseballProspectus.com (subscriber alone, I’m afraid) makes a compelling case that it was as much due to bad luck (more balls put in play missing fielders) than anything seriously wrong with either his health or his attitude.
No team can stand still and the Phillies’ new General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr made three crucial acquisitions prior to the 2009 season. His main offseason move was to sign Raul Ibanez to fill Pat Burrell’s spot in left field and the former Mariner responded with a supreme first half to the season (.309/.367/.649 with 22 HR). He slowed down considerably after the All-Star break (.232/.326/.448, 12 HR), possibly hampered by an injury, and the overall value of his contract (3yr/$31.5m) still looks a bit rich for my taste, but his overall contribution to the 2009 season was very positive.
Undoubtedly the same can be said for the two key mid-season pitching moves made by Amaro. Pedro Martinez gave them nine decent starts down the stretch and did a fine job in the postseason until Game Six of the World Series. Meanwhile Cliff Lee came in and quickly assumed the role of staff ace, performing brilliantly throughout. With J.A. Happ also having a terrific rookie campaign, the Phillies adjusted well over the course of the season and that was a key reason why they won the National League yet again.
2. Florida Marlins (87-75)
It’s amazing how you can get to the end of the season and suddenly think: “hang on a minute, the Marlins have finished second”. They are one of the more anonymous teams in the Majors, largely due to the way in which they get through players like Homer Simpson gets through donuts. The Marlins’ opening day payroll was $36,834,000, according to the essential Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Only the Pirates spent less on their 25-man roster and it’s incredible really that the Marlins can still win eighty-seven games on such a measly outlay (the Pirates did a little bit worse than that, but we’ll put off that autopsy for a few weeks).
Of course, the Marlins have benefitted from a crop of prospects accumulated thanks to the now traditional Florida fire sales. That’s how they run their franchise and I’m very sceptical that things will change when their new stadium finally opens. Most teams start to consider trading a player when he is a year and a half or less away from free agency; the Marlins think about pushing players out of the door as soon as they become eligible for arbitration. Consequently Jeremy Hermida has already been offloaded to the Red Sox earlier this month and the slugging second baseman Dan Uggla will surely follow, as he is guaranteed a raise on his $5.35m salary.
While the approach is somewhat brutal, the Marlins always seem to find a way to plug the gaps they create. Take a guy out of the team, such as Mike Jacobs who was ‘snapped up’ last year by the hapless Royals Front Office, and they just replace his production with a rookie on the league minimum salary like Chris Coghlan (who hit .321/.390/.460 in his debut year). That procession continues around one of the best players in the Majors (Hanley Ramirez) and a genuine ace (Josh Johnson) to produce a fantastic team for the money spent.
Whether they can get to the playoffs without increasing the payroll is a different matter and there’s no doubt that the Marlins benefited from a disappointing year by the Mets. Still, to finish second despite a shocking May (9-20) was a considerable achievement by Fredi Gonzalez and his team.
3. Atlanta Braves (86-76)
The Braves’ GM Frank Wren knew he had to add some starting pitching for the 2009 season. Tim Hudson was scheduled to miss most of the campaign recovering from Tommy John surgery, John Smoltz was controversially allowed to depart and there was no guarantee that Tom Glavine would be able to take the mound again (he didn’t and may now retire, ready to enter the Hall of Fame with Greg Maddux in 2014). Wren’s efforts initially resulted in little else but frustration. Trade talks for Jake Peavy broke down and then the Yankees blew the Braves out of the water for A.J. Burnett’s services.
Thankfully for Atlanta, they were able to add Derek Lowe (who had arguably his most disappointing Major League season), Javier Vazquez (who was outstanding) and Kenshin Kawakami (who did well as both a starter and a reliever) and the rotation ended up being one of the best in the Majors. It was led by the Netherlands pitcher Jair Jurrjens (14-10, 2.60 ERA), who cemented his position as one of the most promising young starters in the National League. Not content with one exciting young pitcher, the Braves also eagerly awaited the Major League debut of Tommy Hanson (11-4, 2.89) and he didn’t disappoint after being called up at the beginning of June. With Hudson performing well in his seven late-season starts and then signing a three-year extension just a few days ago, the Braves are now in the luxurious position of trading from a surplus of starting pitchers this offseason.
Much as it will pain them to lose one of those starters (particularly as it looks more likely to be Vazquez making way due to the money left on Lowe’s contract), their final showing in 2009 revealed that the batting lineup is where improvements need to be made. Mid-season trades for Nate McLouth, Ryan Church and Adam LaRoche helped matters, but LaRoche is now a free agent and there’s also a pressing need for another outfield bat after the Garret Anderson experiment didn’t really pan out.
The Braves were not quite able to mount a strong challenge for either the NL East or the Wild Card late in September, but a couple of additions to the batting lineup and a late-inning pitcher (preferably a closer if Mike Gonzalez doesn’t return) would make them strong contenders in 2010. It’s scheduled to be Bobby Cox’s last season at the helm and many baseball fans would like to see him go out with a bang.
4. New York Mets (70-92)
A typo almost christened them as the New York Mess in the heading above and I probably shouldn’t have hit the backspace key as that would have summed up their 2009 season perfectly.
Everything looked rosy back in April. The Mets had made a splash over the offseason by adding the potentially formidable duo of J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez to the back of their bullpen and a glistening new Citi Field looked set for a successful inaugural season. But then the injuries struck. I wrote about some of them in a Weekly Hit Ground Ball column at the end of August and I will save Mets fans the pain of going over them once again. David Wright, Carlos Beltran and John Maine did all make their returns in September, but that was the only way their situation improved and it really didn’t count for much.
Nothing went to plan for the Mets. Citi Field certainly looks nice, even if it doesn’t immediately give you a sense as to whose home it is, yet the ballpark didn’t play as expected. Daniel Murphy led the Mets with just twelve homers as Citi Field proved to be a hitter’s nightmare. No one suffered more publicly than David Wright who hit just ten homers, much to the horror of many fantasy owners, although a .307 batting average and .390 OBP suggest that he was a victim of circumstances rather than a poor season at the plate.
They missed out on a number of free agent starters over the offseason and ended up retaining Oliver Perez for three years and $36 million, a deal that didn’t look great at the time and looks even worse now. They kept Perez but didn’t bring back Pedro. While that may have been the right call in April, watching him pitch in the World Series for the Phillies against the Yankees was the final indignity for the ‘Amazins’. The poor old Mets couldn’t win with that World Series and, sure enough, the Yankees’ celebrations capped off a miserable year in Queens.
The hope for the Mets is that such a collapse can’t happen again, yet Beltran remains an injury risk and Jose Reyes’ set-back laden recovery (if it can be described as such) has got to be a worry. Expect GM Omar Minaya to be busy over the offseason as his job, as well as manager Jerry Manuel’s, is on the line.
5. Washington Nationals (59-103)
Five years on since Montreal’s baseball team was gutted and then taken away, MLB still doesn’t seem a better place for having a side in Washington. That’s partly due to the aforementioned way the roster was obliterated prior to the franchise’s move, but there’s no little frustration in the U.S. capital at just how slowly ‘progress’ is being made.
It was a measure of the Nationals’ current predicament that the Major League team’s 2009 season was largely a sideshow to the amateur player draft. Washington had the number one pick and that gave them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add a starting pitcher of virtually unlimited potential to their organization. Stephen Strasburg came with a large price tag ($15.1 million in the end), but even the Nationals couldn’t make the mistake of being cheap and opting for someone else. Strasburg will once again be a welcome distraction in 2010, this time with everyone waiting to see when he gets called up to the Big Leagues.
Although it might have seemed like it, their number one draft pick wasn’t the only notable event in the Nationals’ 2009 season. A 26-61 record resulted in Manny Acta being sacked from his position as manager at the All-Star break. Acta’s managerial win-loss record (158-252) looks bad, but the fact that both the Astros and the Indians wanted him to be their new manager (he chose Cleveland) shows that not many in baseball hold it against him. Bench coach Jim Riggleman took over on an interim basis and he signed a permanent two-year deal last Thursday. He will lead the Nationals alongside the highly-regarded Mike Rizzo, who was appointed permanently as GM in August.
On the playing side, new recruit Adam Dunn did what his record suggested he would: smack approximately forty homers (he hit thirty-eight) and drive in 100 or more runs (105). Even more pleasingly, Ryan Zimmerman recovered from a frustrating 2008 campaign to the form that made him one of the few parts of the organization that Nationals fans could be rightly proud of. His season ended in style when his gold glove calibre defence was recognised as such to go alongside his excellent offensive production (.292/.364 /525, 33 HR).
Zimmerman and Strasburg look set to be the faces of the franchise for the foreseeable future and that’s a genuine reason to be optimistic about what that future could hold for Nationals fans.