With 2010 drawing to a close, and 2011 about to begin, it's time for the 30 teams in Major League Baseball to make their New Year's resolutions. On Tuesday I made suggestions for the 14 American League teams. Today, I offer my suggestions for the 16 National League clubs...
The Philadelphia Phillies resolve to score some runs. The big news of this offseason was Cliff Lee's return to Philadelphia, where he joins Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to form one of the most accomplished rotations in major league history. That gives the Phillies a significant head start toward their third NL pennant in the past four years, but the offense will have to do its part. That's not usually a concern for the Phils, but the core of their lineup is getting old. Jimmy Rollins, now 32, has hit just .248/.304/.406 over the last two seasons; Chase Utley, also 32, has seen his power decline in each of the last two seasons; and Ryan Howard, 31, has suffered the same affliction since 2006 and seen his walk rate drop in each of the last three seasons. Placido Polanco is 35. Raul Ibañez will be 39 in June. Domonic Brown is their only projected starter under 30, and of the other seven, all but Ibañez got hurt in 2010. Even with everyone healthy and Jayson Werth in the lineup, the Phils scored just 3 2/3 runs per game in the 2010 playoffs. The Phillies' can't take their offense for granted heading into 2011.
The Atlanta Braves resolve to put their best defensive alignment on the field. Dan Uggla was a nice addition for the Braves this offseason, but the team's announced plan to keep him at second base while pushing incumbent Martin Prado to left field undermines that upgrade significantly. Put simply, Uggla is a terrible defensive second baseman (he's not quite as bad as he looked in the 2008 All-Star Game, but there was more truth than lie in that performance). According to John Dewan's plus/minus system, Uggla was 13 runs worse in the field than the slightly-above-average Prado in 2010. That's nearly a win and a half that the Braves are giving up by playing Uggla at the keystone instead of Prado. Now, it's entirely possible that Uggla would be just as bad in left field, but second basemen handle more chances, and Uggla's level of play at second is well-established. The Braves are thus doing the rest of their team a disservice by not at least giving Uggla a look in left in order to maximize their defensive performance. Given how close the races in the National League have been in recent years and how powerful the Phillies look with Cliff Lee in their rotation, the Braves need to find every advantage they can.
The Florida Marlins resolve to loosen the purse strings. A year ago, it took a warning from the commissioner about their miserly ways to get the Marlins to sign Josh Johnson to a four-year extension. This offseason, the Fish did trade Dan Uggla after a brief attempt to extend him, but they also handed out three-year contracts to Ricky Nolasco and catcher John Buck, took on Omar Infante's two-year deal in the Uggla trade, gave LOOGY Randy Choate a two-year deal, and took a $7 million gamble on Javier Vazquez's ability to rediscover his fastball in the weaker league. For a team that had just two players (Johnson and Hanley Ramirez) signed to multi-year deals coming into this offseason, that's big spending, and with their new ballpark under construction and scheduled to open for the 2012 season, it's a trend that should continue.
The New York Mets resolve to avoid embarrassing themselves. The Mets got to within one run and three outs of the World Series in 2006, but since then this team has been associated more with punchlines than pennants. The collapse of 2007 was followed by another in '08, then a surreal '09 in which the roster was riddled with injuries and the front office collectively lost its mind. This year was something of an echo of '09 and ended with ownership installing a new administration headed by general manager Sandy Alderson, who brings to the job the sense of decorum and league-wide respect that the Mets are desperate to be associated with. The 2011 squad doesn't have much hope for contention, particularly with the Phillies re-arming and the Braves ascendant, but at the very least they need to get through the season with their dignity intact.
The Washington Nationals resolve not to rush Stephen Strasburg back to the majors. I'm not saying that the Nationals did anything wrong in handling Strasburg leading up to his Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3, only that they should be equally careful with him going forward. The Nationals are a team built for 2013 and beyond, and though Strasburg has a now-proven ability to excite the fan base, sell tickets and get Washington on national television, the long-term gains of getting him back to full strength on a schedule determined solely by his health and performance far outweigh the short-term gains of having him make a few starts down the stretch in 2011. The Nationals can market the Zimmerman(n)s and new arrival Jayson Werth in the meantime, while teasing Strasburg's return in 2012 and Bryce Harper's likely arrival in 2013.
The Cincinnati Reds resolve to keep their core together. The Reds won the NL Central this year with a good young team that should make life difficult for the rest of the division for years to come, provided ownership is willing to make financial commitments to the team's core players. They're off to a decent start with a reasonably-priced six-year extension for right fielder Jay Bruce and, yes, a three-year deal for innings eater Bronson Arroyo, but All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips is entering his walk year, and NL MVP Joey Votto and rotation stalwarts Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez are all arbitration eligible for the first time this winter (as was Bruce). After a decade and a half in the wilderness, the Reds finally have a team that could be -- in fact, should be -- a perennial contender. The organization owes it to its fans to keep that team together.
The St. Louis Cardinals resolve to sign Albert Pujols. Pujols, who is no less than the best player of his generation and already in the discussion with Rogers Hornsby and Bob Gibson as the second-greatest Cardinal of all time behind Stan Musial, will be able to sign with any team in baseball five days after the final game of the 2011 World Series. Yes, he'll be bearing down on his 32nd birthday and could demand the richest contract in baseball history, but the Cardinals cannot allow him to leave. Period.
The Milwaukee Brewers resolve to go all-in. The Brewers have one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, something that was true even before they traded five of their top young players for rotation reinforcements Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Those moves are evidence that Milwaukee, facing the strong likelihood of losing Prince Fielder to free agency after the coming season, is putting it all on the line in pursuit of one more playoff appearance with the core of its 2008 team: Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks (also a free agent after the coming season), Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo. The hope being not only to give the Crew its fourth postseason berth in its 43-year-history, but to convince Fielder (and Weeks) to stick around at a discount. If the Brewers are anywhere near a playoff spot in July, expect them to be buyers at the trade deadline. If not, expect Fielder to be dealt to reseed that barren farm.
The Houston Astros resolve to let their young players play and focus on the draft. The Astros don't have much going for them at the major or minor league levels, but they've cleared room in their lineup for prospects such as catcher Jason Castro and first baseman Brett Wallace, and while those two struggled in limited duty this year, Chris Johnson staked his claim to the third base job as a rookie, and righty starter Bud Norris pitched well after his luck evened out in the second half. None of those players project as stars, nor does top prospect Jordan Lyle, a right-handed starter who could reach the majors in the coming season, but just establishing those players as regulars could have some value down the road. Meanwhile, the team needs to restock with strong drafts and will have the ninth overall pick in June.
The Chicago Cubs resolve to be entertaining. Baseball is an entertainment industry, which is why exceptionally awful or embarrassing teams tend to generate as much copy as contenders. The Cubs were something of a pioneer in that field, trading on their identity as "lovable losers" for several decades before their return to respectability, though not the World Series, over the last decade or so. Even the Cubs' successes (particularly the 1984 and 2003 playoff teams) came packaged with captivating catastrophes that live on in baseball lore. The 2011 Cubs, however, threaten to be worse than bad, they threaten to be boring. Not bad enough to be awful, and not colorful enough to be embarrassing. Manager Lou Piniella was always good for an emotionally-charged quote or on-field tantrum, but he's retired, leaving the act to supposedly reformed human powder keg Carlos Zambrano, who will be hard-pressed to top last year's implosion.
The Pittsburgh Pirates resolve to score at least a few runs. The Pirates lost 105 games in 2010 and finished dead last in the NL in runs scored, runs allowed and defensive efficiency. If not for the futile Mariners offense, Pittsburgh would have been worst in the majors in all three categories. That's about as bad as a team can get, so improvement is almost a given, and it should come via the bats of the Bucs' young hitters, specifically center fielder Andrew McCutchen (24), who should have been the team's All-Star representative this year, third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24), who could have a breakout season as a sophomore, and to a lesser degree second baseman Neil Walker (25) and left fielder Jose Tabata (22). Throw in veteran reinforcements Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay and delete black holes Andy LaRoche, Ryan Church and Akinori Iwamura, among others, and Pirates fans should be able to open their eyes at least for every other half-inning.
The San Francisco Giants resolve not to take advantage of their grace period. Having won the first world championship in the 53-year-history of major league baseball in San Francisco, the Giants could coast through the coming season. Given their underwhelming offseason thus far, some might assume that's exactly what they're doing, but general manager Brian Sabean only had so much payroll room to work with coming into the offseason (which is entirely his own fault, but that's another topic). The Giants didn't look like a particularly good team heading into 2010, either, but constant tinkering on the part of Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy eventually got the offense to perk up enough for the pitching to carry the day. They'll need to be similarly active and flexible this season.
The San Diego Padres resolve to view their success in 2010 with a healthy amount of cynicism. The Padres' 15-win improvement in 2010 was a fluke. According to Baseball Prospectus's third-order wins (which uses the components of run scoring -- hits, walks, stolen bases, etc. -- to determine how many runs a team should have scored or allowed, then uses those totals to determine what their overall record should have been), the Padres were five wins better than they should have been in 2010, and even that was based largely on the performance of their bullpen, which is fluky almost by definition due to the variability of individual reliever performance, itself largely due to small sample-size issues. That's a poor foundation on which to build. That they have already traded their best hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, and two key members of that bullpen, righties Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica, for young talent suggests that the Padres are fully aware of how unrepeatable last season is.
The Colorado Rockies resolve to look before they leap. I love Troy Tulowitzki as much as the next baseball fan, but the Rockies didn't need to sign him to a contract extension this offseason, never mind give him one of the richest deals in baseball history. Tulo might be a stud on the field, but he has missed significant parts of two of the last three years due to injury, and it wasn't as though the Rockies were buying low given Tulo's headline-grabbing home run outburst in September. He wasn't due to become a free agent for two more years, so why not make him get through one more of those years healthy before banging out an extension? That would have had the added benefit of allowing Todd Helton's contract to come off the books first, had the Rockies not confusingly extended Helton back in March, giving him two more years for $9.9 million as a reward for deferring $13.1 million of his 2011 salary. That's another resolution that this team has to make: stop viewing Helton through purple-tinted glasses.
The Los Angeles Dodgers resolve to view the Padres' 2010 success with a healthy amount of cynicism. Don't look now, but the Dodgers seem to be patterning themselves after the 2010 Padres and Giants. After shedding 15 wins in 2010 with a team that tilted slightly toward pitching, the Dodgers have doubled down on arms, signing four starters, including ex-Padre Jon Garland, to compliment their two homegrown rotation leaders, and adding a pair of right-handers to an already-strong bullpen. Meanwhile, they have largely ignored their gaping hole in left field, settled for underwhelming solutions at second base and catcher, and continue to pretend that James Loney is anything other than a competitive disadvantage at first base. The Dodgers deserve credit for continuing to improve their team despite their current ownership predicament, but six starters and no left fielder don't typically add up to winning baseball.
The Arizona Diamondbacks resolve to let Brandon Allen play. I can understand if the Diamondbacks have prospect fatigue. Their 2007 division champion squad was loaded with young players who were supposed to form the core of a consistent contender, but the team has won as many as 82 games just once in the three seasons since, as those young players have each had their share of struggles and none has yet emerged as a legitimate star (incidentally, that 2007 team was another that overachieved, due in part to a strong bullpen performance, and subsequently had difficulty repeating that performance). Allen isn't as hot of a prospect as Stephen Drew or Chris Young once were, but he has significant power and patience at the plate, and the Diamondbacks aren't going to become contenders by blocking a potential long-term, team-controlled contributor with proven mediocrities such as Xavier Nady or Juan Miranda.