Sunday, April 4, 2010

Pitchers in the NL East

As we take to the mound to review pitching staff's in the East, let me explain a bit about what I'm previewing and why. I'll consider a staff as a whole, namely the first four starters and the closer. The reason I won't go further than that is that every team in baseball needs more than five starters over the course of the year, and pretty much everyone's fifth starter stinks. I'll also include each team's closer in the mix, because he is just as important as a starter, if not more so. For the rest of the bullpen, performance is so volatile from one year to the next in middle and short relief that it's often not even worth analyzing. And like starting pitchers, many innings will be throw in relief by guys that are not on the roster. Also like fifth starters, a lot of middle relievers stink. With out further ado...

Atlanta Braves- Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Billy Wagner (closer)

If you ask many pundits who has the best pitching staff in the NL East, the Braves will be a popular answer. I like elements of the Braves' rotation, but I can't say I'm sold on all of it. Derek Lowe will get the Opening Day nod, and as such is the de facto number one. However, his 2009 season was bad, as he allowed the most hits in the National League, posted a 4.67 ERA and a WHIP over 1.5. How he rebounds will go a long way in determining the overall effectiveness of the staff. Jurrjens is coming into his own as a very good Major League pitcher, a solid number two, but probably not an ace. Hanson is the real deal, and whether in title or not, he is the ace of the Braves. His progression, like Lowe's return, will determine a large portion of the Braves' success in '10. Hudson made only seven starts in 2009 in returning from injury, and once again remains a question. He's very good when he's healthy, but he's 34 now and hasn't pitched a full season since 2007. Like Hudson, Billy Wagner made only a few appearances in 2009 after missing a year, and he would have to be considered a question mark too. Having only a modest second pitch, Wagner has made his living on upper upper 90s fastballs, and if the movement and/or velocity isn't there, Wagner could be in trouble. While Wagner is a good gamble, the Braves have effectively added one reliable late inning piece (Wagner), but lost two in Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. The Braves also lost Javier Vasquez for pretty much nothing that will help them now, and the sum of these transactions leaves them weaker in 2010 than they were in 2009.

Bottom Line:
A lot of questions regarding health and effectiveness. Could be best in the division, or could fall apart. Lost too much from 2009 to definitively put them in the top spot in the NL East.

Florida Marlins- Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, Leo Nunez (closer)

The Marlins boast perhaps the game's preeminent young power pitcher in Josh Johnson, a 26-year old horse the Marlins wisely have locked up for the long-term. Johnson is a younger Roy Halladay type pitcher, a big, strong, hard throwing guy who looks to go deep in each game and dominate opponents. Nolasco, Sanchez and Volstad are all young power arms who are looking to rebound from injury, ineffectiveness, or both. On any given night any of those three can shut it down, or can implode. Nunez had 26 saves in '09, but also had an ERA of 4.06, and gave up 13 home runs in 68.2 innings. All of which makes Nunez a lot like the rest of the staff.

Bottom Line: The Marlins feature Josh Johnson and a bunch of guys that might be great, and might stink, given any different game.

New York Mets- Johan Santana, John Maine, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez (closer)

Let's be real and real succinct about this. Santana is one of the best pitcher's in baseball, and the rest of the starting staff stinks. Thanks for coming. K-Rod is a good closer, probably the most reliable in the division, but wasn't all that great in '09. His stuff has been declining each of the past few years, and I'm not saying he's not good, but I am saying he's not worth what his contract calls for.

Bottom Line: Santana needs some help from the other starters. Starters not named Santana and middle relief are terrifying.

Philadelphia Phillies- Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ, Brad Lidge (closer)

The Phillies, in the aftermath of losing the World Series to the Yankees, in essence traded one year of Cliff Lee for four years of Roy Halladay. Roy Halladay who was dominating in the best offensive division in baseball. Roy Halladay who completed nine games each of the last two years in the American League. Halladay's numbers have the chance to be astronomical in the lighter hitting National League. While Halladay is expected to be great, and Joe Blanton will keep you in every game, questions surround the rest of the staff. Will J.A. Happ be able to maintain his level of success in his second full year in the league? Probably not quite as good, but he'll be good enough for the Phils. Will Cole Hamels rebound from a horrid 2009? Yes. After admitting he did pretty much nothing to get ready for the '09 season, Hamels was invisible this off-season, which is a good thing. By all accounts his velocity and command are far ahead of any point he reached in 2009. And let's not forget, he was the MVP of the NLCS and World Series in 2008. If he regains 2008 form, the Phillies could run away and hide in the division and have quite a setup in playoff series. The biggest question, however, is Lidge. If he's 2008 Lidge, the Phils could win 105 games. If he's 2009 Lidge, he won't keep the closer's job too long. He was almost certainly pitching hurt in '09, and if he comes back healthy and effective, the Phillies might well have the best overall staff in the division.

Bottom Line: Health already an issue with Lidge, Blanton and J.C. Romero starting the season on the DL. How Lidge and Hamels bounce back are keys in lineup after the incomparable Halladay.

Washington Nationals- John Lannan, Jason Marquis, Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Matt Capps (closer)

Thankfully for the Nationals and their fans, the Nats are unlikely to finish 2010 with the same rotation they begin the season with. Lannan and Marquis are effective big league caliber starters, Stammen and Mock, eh. Capps can be a good closer, but might be more suited to be a setup man on a good team. The real story comes when Chien-Ming Wang comes off the DL. Ok, that will be helpful, but the real real story happens when Stephen Strasburg is recalled to the big club, probably in May or early June. The uber-ace of the future can lend instant credibility to a franchise that sorely needs it.

Bottom Line: How far down the pegs the team is when Strasburg comes up is the only thing to keep an eye on. The team can hit, but their pitching staff is not up to snuff to that of Major League contenders right now.

Pitching Wrap-Up

Best staff- Atlanta or Philadelphia, depending on how the questions shake out
Worst staff- Washington
Best starter- Roy Halladay
Best reliever- Francisco Rodriguez today. Brad Lidge when he's right.
Biggest Rebound- Cole Hamels
Biggest Anticipated Debut- Stephen Strasburg
Best Fastball- Josh Johnson
Best Change Up- Santana
Best Breaking Ball- Lidge
Underrated- Jair Jurrjens
Overrated- Anibal Sanchez
Just Plain Rated- Joe Blanton
Ascending- Hamels, Tommy Hanson, Johnson, Stephen Strasburg
Descending- Derek Lowe, Francisco Rodriguez
Trainwreck- Oliver Perez
Best in Five Years- Johnson

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