NL East Hot Stove preview: Phillies, Braves both need more offense
The offense has to be better next season, because it would be hard for the pitching to improve. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combined for 95 starts, 682 innings and a 2.51 ERA. Vance Worley stepped in for Joe Blanton and exceeded anything Blanton has ever done. A bullpen full of live-armed no-names was an asset all season long. The Phillies' pitching was the best single unit in baseball, and has almost nowhere to go but down. Oswalt may or may not be back -- the team declined his $16 million option but is open to re-signing him -- but it's hard to project a better collective performance from the top three, Worley and the bullpen.
So the Phillies may have to bite the bullet and re-sign Rollins, who hasn't been a star since 2008, to a deal that has a dangerous back end. They'll want to lay in some help on the corners to insure against Howard's return and Polanco's continued decline -- Wilson Betemit and Kelly Johnson might be interesting in this role. John Mayberry Jr. may be important to next year's team as a fourth outfielder who gets nearly-regular playing time platooning with Brown and spelling Shane Victorino at center and Howard at first. The Phillies' payroll is high enough, and the market thin enough once you get past the positions where the Phillies are strongest, that this may not be a year of big moves. The Phillies have committed to their current roster, so it's about putting players around the core who can do a better job of scoring than the '11 team did. Without Howard, this team is vulnerable.
They can do that by trade or by free agency, but it means the team's owners, Liberty Media, has to be willing to spend money. The best corner outfielders available on the market are Jason Kubel, Carlos Beltran and Michael Cuddyer. Beltran, who the Braves were in on at the trade deadline, would be an excellent fit, but likely to require a three-year commitment at upwards of $10 million per season. If they would prefer, the Braves could put some of that pitching depth -- the names above, plus Mike Minor or Brandon Beachy -- on the trade wire. That could make players like B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, Logan Morrison or Andre Ethier available -- three of whom are free agents after 2012. The goal, however pursued, is clear: Bolster the top of the lineup so that a third straight season of strong pitching isn't wasted.
The Nats could also use a true centerfielder. There are none in the system, although Harper -- playing more corner outfield -- could be brought to the majors as a CF. A better idea is trading setup man Tyler Clippard, coming off two big years in the bullpen, for a long-term solution, a model employed by the Padres in acquiring Cameron Maybin last offseason. Could Clippard bring in a Dexter Fowler, a Denard Span, a Drew Stubbs...someone undervalued by his current team? That's a trade the Nationals should pursue, as an eighth-inning guy is much more replaceable than a true centerfielder.
Forget making the park more attractive for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols. One of the Mets' best players last year -- before an ankle injury ended his year -- was first baseman Ike Davis. Davis may not hold his power gains in 2012, but signing a player who blocks him, when the team has holes at second base, rightfield and a total dearth of pitching, would be a misuse of limited resources. The Mets' hands are tied to some extent due to their failures the last couple of seasons, which have shown up in lowered revenues at the new park. They also are limited by the team-owning Wilpon family's losses off the field, as well as the ongoing legal battle over to what extent the family will have to pay for Bernie Madoff's crimes.
If there was a time for Sandy Alderson to invoke
The team needs Ramirez, because without him, it's terrible up the middle. John Buck is a career backup stretched as a regular behind the plate; there is no second baseman or centerfielder at the moment, although Emilio Bonifacio will probably lay claim to one of the positions heading into next year. Bonifacio's .360 OBP was a mix of BABIP fluke and improved walk rate, but I have a hard time seeing a player with a 23 percent strikeout rate and Bonifacio's lack of power sustaining the .296 BA that drove the OBP. He, like Buck, is a good bench player stretched in an everyday role.
The real issue is whether the Marlins will use the projected bump in revenues to add a free agent. Gaby Sanchez is an asset at first base, but signing Fielder or Pujols would free him up for trade bait to add a centerfielder. A starting pitcher such as Wilson is a nice fit, as Wilson is more a mid-rotation guy and would slide in behind Johnson on this team, and there's an argument that Wilson's stuff would be better suited to a bigger park in the NL than anywhere else. What the Marlins have to avoid is the big mistake; last year's deal of Maybin to San Diego for two middle relievers was a complete waste of a valuable asset. Do that again, and no amount of new venues will help them get back to contention.