MLB Preview Series

Throughout Opening Weekend, we will be embarking on a series looking at the 2011 MLB season.  Today I shine my spotlight on the NL and AL Easts, then tomorrow I will take a look at the Central divisions, before traveling westward on Saturday to check in with the 2010 World Series combatants out west.  On Sunday I’ll be giving you my award predictions.  Onward to the team capsules (2010 record in parenthesis):

Philadelphia Phillies (97-65) — For reasons detailed here, the Phillies will have a hard time winning as much as last year with a streaky lineup missing its two biggest cogs, right fielder Jayson Werth (signed with Washington as a free agent), and second baseman Chase Utley (recently placed on the 15-day disabled list with various knee injuries).  Held off of the 60-day DL, Utley hopes to be back by the All-Star break, however, and if any team can afford to round into form by September, it’s these Phillies.  They should comfortably earn a playoff spot, despite an improved division, on the back of their rotation.  In Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, the Phils boast four of the ten active leaders in strikeout-to-walk rate, one of the biggest indicators of sustained pitching success, unburdened by the fluctuations of park effects and defense.  If any of that quartet goes down, then watch out — they’re counting on around 850 innings from those four to mask the questions in their bullpen and lineup.  Projected wins: 91

Atlanta Braves (91-71) — The Braves are a good, young team on the upswing, but they just have too many question marks to leapfrog the Phillies this season.  While I believe they made the wrong choice sending fifth starter candidate Mike Minor back down to the, well, minors, in favor of Brandon Beachy, Atlanta still boasts a 1-5 rotation that stacks up against anybody’s this side of Philadelphia.  A full season of defensive stalwart Alex Gonzalez at short is mitigated by aging Chipper Jones to his right, and new second baseman Dan Uggla to his left.  Uggla does add another power bat to an already strong lineup, and should hit 30 home runs for the fifth straight year.  The key to their season is rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman; if he handles the jump to MLB pitching, then he will serve as as a high-average, high on-base complement to sluggers Uggla, catcher Brian McCann, and 21-year-old right field phenom Jason Heyward.  If Freeman falters, that leaves too many holes in the lineup, with Chipper in decline and little expected offensively from Gonzalez and center fielder Nate McLouth.  Projected wins: 88

Florida Marlins (80-82) — Isn’t this the same old story with the Marlins, over and over again?  They’re young, they’re inexpensive, and yet they’re exceptionally talented, they’re never financially viable enough to hold a team together as it grows into a contender — like trading Dan Uggla to a division rival after lowballing him with a contract extension offer. Behind ace Josh Johnson, the rotation is just too inconsistent, with Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad, and Anibal Sanchez unable to effectively harness their talent for more than a few starts at a time, and Javy Vazquez back in the NL, trying to rebound after a campaign that saw him fall from Cy Young-worthy in 2009 to losing his rotation spot with the Yankees in 2010.  Offensively, with up-and-comers Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison in the outfield corners, and first baseman Gaby Sanchez looking to repeat a surprising rookie campaign, there should be enough batsmanship around star shortstop Hanley Ramirez to make a play for the Wild Card — a position from which they’ve won two World Series.  They’ll fall a few games short, as their pitching staff will implode a few too many times, and they don’t have the gloves behind them to compensate.  Projected wins: 83

Washington Nationals (69-93) — 2011 is a bridge season on the Club Formerly Known As The Expos’ climb back to respectability.  Electrifying starter Stephen Strasburg (he of the 92 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 68 major league innings) begins the season on the 60-day DL, and holding the future of the franchise in his tender right arm, should not risk stepping on a major league mound this year.  Outfielder Bryce Harper, an 18-year-old monster with wood bat experience, showing more raw power than most scouts had ever seen at his age, starts the season in Single-A ball, and is not expected to be a full-time contributor in Washington until late 2012 at the earliest.  In the meantime, Nats fans will still have a few things to enjoy watching: stud Ryan Zimmerman wrestling Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria all season for top third baseman in the league honors; Jayson Werth counting his $126 million and trying to be the featured run producer in a versatile lineup that will surprise people; and a pitching rotation that will develop whiplash watching balls rocketed back past them.  As good as this team can be in a few years, with Strasburg and Harper joining Zimmerman, Werth, and shortstop Ian Desmond, any franchise counting on Livan Hernandez as the Opening Day starter cannot be taken seriously this season. Projected wins: 75

New York Mets (79-83) — As much as I enjoyed them playing contending foil to the Phillies, these Mets are now in shambles.  With their owners bleeding money after being caught in the middle of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and Citigroup trying desperately to find some legal loophole to jump out of their $400 million stadium naming rights deal with the team, financial salvation does not appear to be anywhere on the horizon, and money spent on inconsistent, injured talent looms large over every move the team makes. Coming off of significant knee surgery, former All-Star center fielder and fan whipping boy Carlos Beltran ($119M) will have to adjust to playing in right, and 2010’s surprise contributor Angel Pagan must prove he’s not a one-season wonder captaining the outfield in Beltran’s old spot.  All-Star third baseman David Wright ($55M) has regressed tremendously since the team moved to CitiField in ’09, watching his power go south, his strikeouts climb (as his walks declined), and his batting average dip below .300 for the first time in his career. Former All-Star starter Johan Santana ($137.5M) has not been healthy since his first season with the team in 2008, and is beginning the year on the disabled list, along with former All-Star outfielder Jason Bay ($66M).  The Mets best hope for respectability in 2011 lies in the bat and legs of dynamic shortstop Jose Reyes, who also coming off of two injury-plagued seasons.  Reyes himself is in the last year of a team-friendly deal signed in 2007, and will certainly price himself out of Queens with a healthy, productive campaign. Projected wins: 70

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