NL East Hot Stove Forecast: Phillies won't need much to stay on top
That the Phillies' top prospect just happens to play the same position as their top outgoing free agent, and that the prospect, Domonic Brown, is just breaking into the majors as the free agent, Jayson Werth, is set to depart is a remarkably fortuitous bit of timing, particularly given the fact that, even without Werth, the Phillies' financial commitments for 2011 are already larger than their 2010 Opening Day payroll. You'll hear a lot about how the Phillies desperately need to resign the right-handed Werth to maintain balance in their otherwise lefty-heavy lineup, but even with the left-handed Brown replacing him in rightfield, there will be just four exclusively left-handed hitters in the Phillies' everyday lineup, and switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins (whose 2011 option was just picked up) and Shane Victorino are stronger batting right-handed than left. Yes, those four lefties are likely to eventually line up in the middle of the order, but Chase Utley hits lefties as well as righties, Brown hit .311/.367/.400 against lefties in Triple-A in 2010, and even Ryan Howard made large strides against southpaws this past season, slugging .492 against them. Meanwhile, outfielders Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr. can spell Brown and Raul Ibañez with right-handed power off the bench when needed.
On the mound, righty Scott Mathieson, after losing roughly two and a half seasons to a pair of Tommy John surgeries, dominated out of the Triple-A bullpen last year and should be a strong replacement for Contreras in setting up Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge. Vance Worley and Drew Carpenter give the Phillies alternatives to Kyle Kendrick in the fifth rotation slot. That leaves LOOGY J.C. Romero as the only out-going hurler who really needs to be replaced. Thus the Phillies' only pressing needs this offseason are a matchup-lefty and a viable backup to the aging and increasingly fragile Rollins and Placido Polanco in the infield, though that last could be a challenge given the dearth of available options and the difficulty involved in convincing the Juan Uribes of the world to sign without a guarantee of playing time.
In addition to the free agents listed above, the Braves will also be without retired closer Billy Wagner in 2011. Still, the Braves should be able to fill most of their holes in-house. Hard throwing rookie Craig Kimbrel took over for the injured Wagner in the Division Series and should retain the closer job. Blue-chip first-base prospect Freddie Freeman is ready to take over that position. Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz should be a viable platoon in left, though there's certainly room for improvement there. Most importantly, the injured Braves are coming back: Martin Prado at second, Chipper Jones at third, Jair Jurrjens to the rotation. Mix in the possibilities of a fully healthy sophomore Jason Heyward and, less compellingly, a full season of Mike Minor in the fifth spot in the rotation, and the Braves are looking strong heading in to 2011.
Or would be if they could find a viable major league center fielder. Prospect Jordan Schafer, who opened the 2009 season in center for Atlanta, was supposed to own that position by now, but he suffered a left wrist injury just days into the 2009 season and, despite having surgery on the wrist in September, continued to be hampered by the wrist in 2010. That means that the Braves need outside help. Trades for McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Rick Ankiel were all busts, at least as far as filling the position goes, and reflected poorly on the organization's scouting department, but there's really no viable starting center fielder on the free-agent market this winter, so another trade is likely in the cards for the Braves.
That's why they should be rooting hard for the Yankees to sign Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford. Brett Gardner is a South Carolina native, one of the best defensive outfielders and base stealers in the majors and an on-base machine at the plate. He's also a year away from arbitration and already displaced into left field by Curtis Granderson. If the Yankees sign Werth or Crawford, Gardner becomes the best fourth outfielder in baseball, and the Yankees, who could use some infield depth behind the aging Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, would likely be interested in the best utility infielder in baseball, 2010 All-Star Omar Infante. The only problem is that the Yankees seem more focused on pitching, specifically Cliff Lee, than those two big-money outfielders.
Other trade options are either even less likely (the Cardinals' Colby Rasmus and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp aren't going anywhere, nor are the Mets' Carlos Beltran or the Indians' Grady Sizemore if they bounce back from their 2010 seasons lost to injury) or less desirable (the Rays' B.J. Upton hasn't really hit since 2007, Boston's Mike Cameron is old and spent more time on the DL than in the lineup in 2010, and the defense and bat of the Red Sox' Jacoby Ellsbury are both suspect). The Giants would love to unload Aaron Rowand's contract (he's still owed $12 million annually for the next two years), but that's partially because he has hit just .257/.318/.405 in his three years on the Bay. Vernon Wells of the Blue Jays is another player on an albatross contract, but he's a sub-par defender in center and owed an unbelievable $63 million over the next three years. Most of the lower-profile players who might be available are either duds at the plate, overextended defensively in center, or both.
Only four major league teams were worse than the Marlins at turning balls in play into outs in 2010, but that isn't likely to improve in 2011. Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla are awful fielders, but their bats and the construction of the rest of the roster make them the least of the team's problems. Meanwhile, the team is suddenly overrun with first basemen and corner outfielders and is thus likely to have several players playing out of position in 2011. First base prospect Logan Morrison made a successful debut in 2010, but only after Gaby Sanchez had established himself at first base. Morrison is thus now a leftfielder, and a terrible one. That pushes incumbent leftfielder Chris Coghlan, who played second and third in the minors, back to the infield. He's expected to enter camp at the hot corner, though another option would be to return him to the keystone, his primary position in the minors, with Uggla moving to third, though that would just put one more man out of position. Meanwhile, centerfield is wide open. The Marlins are still waiting for Cameron Maybin to establish himself there, but Scott Cousins may have just snuck past him for the time being, at the very least giving Maybin more time to get his feet under him at Triple-A, though Cousins may be better suited to a corner spot as well. Oh, and with John Baker having just had Tommy John surgery, they could use a catcher, but since the Marlins don't really pursue free agents, they'll probably just stick with Ronny Paulino after he returns from the final eight games of his performance-enhancing drug suspension.
Not a problem is Mike Stanton, who is not only a monster power prospect but also a fantastic defensive rightfielder, and a lineup that follows Morrison's on-base skills with Ramirez, Uggla, Stanton and Sanchez is pretty impressive given how little the owners invest in this team. Kudos to the Marlins' scouting and player development staff.
On the mound, the rotation behind ace Josh Johnson is solid and there are some compelling young arms on the way to aid the bullpen, though the Marlins need to be careful not to rush those arms, a lesson that they may have learned after hard-throwing, 22-year-old righty Jhan Marinez finished the year on the 60-day DL with an elbow strain. Expect arbitration-eligible bust Andrew Miller to be non-tendered.
The Mets aren't a bad team; they've just had a four-year stretch of abysmal luck exacerbated by even worse management. Hope springs eternal, however, and with Sandy Alderson returning to the role of general manager for the first time since he handed the A's over to Billy Beane in 1998, Mets fans have reason to be optimistic. Alderson joined the A's in 1983, built the three-time pennant winners of 1988 to 1990, and later took on Beane as his assistant and eager pupil. It was Alderson who laid the groundwork for Beane's Moneyball philosophies, and while having a general manager who embraces advanced statistical analysis is no longer a rarity, it's still not a given and is rarely a hindrance to winning. Perhaps just as importantly, Alderson is smart, respected, no-nonsense and conducts himself in an extremely dignified manner, which is something the Mets very much need after the cascade of embarrassments of recent years (though Alderson's hiring of his former A's special assistant J.P. Ricciardi, who is prone to stick his foot in his mouth, leaves the door to embarrassment open).
The most important thing for the Mets in 2011 is health. If Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay, Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese and likely fifth starter Jenrry Mejia can stay healthy and effective, the Mets' fortunes should change drastically without much offseason tinkering. Top prospect Mejia is expected to compete for the final rotation spot in camp in part because Oliver Perez and John Maine are likely to be cut loose this winter, the latter via a non-tender. Closer Francisco Rodriguez, however, is likely to return as he and the team settled their grievance over his contract following the season-ending thumb injury that he suffered while fighting with his girlfriend's father at Citi Field in August.
Beyond that, Rodriguez could use some support in the 'pen, particularly from the left side. Simply re-signing Feliciano and/or Takahashi should do the trick there, though bringing in a top setup righty wouldn't hurt. Rauch would be a good fit, as Citi Field would swallow up most of the fly balls he allows. An upgrade at second base seems like an obvious move, with Luis Castillo entering the final year of his contract. Orlando Hudson is the obvious target there. Sophomore on-base machine Josh Thole should hang on to the catching job, particularly given how well his skill set matches Alderson's preferences. Angel Pagan's breakout 2010 season would seem to solve the team's long-standing rightfield problems, though pushing Pagan back into a fourth-outfielder role via the addition of a superior bat would brighten the team's outlook considerably, particularly given the concerns over Bay's post-concussion syndrome and Beltran's surgically-repaired knee. The Mets have nearly $109 million on the books for 2011 already, not counting arbitration awards for Pagan and starter Mike Pelfrey, so Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford may be too much to ask, particularly after the team's investment in Bay a year ago. Then again, Beltran is in the final year of his contract, so that's $20 million coming off the books for 2012. If Alderson is eager to announce his presence, he could surprise us, as could the 2011 Mets.
The Nationals are largely biding their time until they can build their team around number-one draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Strasburg's September Tommy John surgery has delayed that slightly, but also likely put Strasburg and Harper on a similar schedule, with both likely to be with the big club in 2012. In the meantime, the Nats will look to get Danny Espinosa established in the middle infield along with 2010 rookie Ian Desmond, though their current plan to play Desmond and short and Espinosa at second might need to be reversed given Desmond's poor showing in the field this year. Wilson Ramos, acquired from the Twins for Matt Capps, could start to push Ivan Rodriguez out from behind the plate in 2011. If so, converted catching prospect Derek Norris could be moved to first base to battle Chris Marrero for the position, the latter of whom could see big league action late in 2011. Of course, that means the Nats will need someone to play there in the meantime. Dunn will leave, netting the team another pair of draft picks, but a stop-gap contract with a veteran such as Lance Berkman or Troy Glaus would make sense.
On the mound, Drew Storen, who was drafted in the same 2009 first round as Strasburg, closed after Capps' departure and should return to the role next year, and while it's not the same thing as having Strasburg in the rotation, the Nats are looking forward to a full season of Jordan Zimmermann, who returned from his own Tommy John rehab late in 2010. Behind him, the Nationals still have $7.5 million committed to Jason Marquis for 2011 and renewed Livan Hernandez for another year in August, but Scott Olsen is likely to be non-tendered along with Chien-Ming Wang, who didn't throw a pitch in 2010, and his former New York battery-mate Wil Nieves.