For a while now, the AL East has been considered MLB’s toughest division. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays are always among baseball’s best teams despite different approaches to roster construction. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming Blue Jays, led by GM Alex Anthopoulos, would probably be a playoffs contender in any other division, though are slowly but surely establishing themselves as a challenger to the big three. The only team with little hope at this point is Baltimore. Not only is the Major League roster a mess, but the farm system is mediocre at best (aside from Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy, there’s not much else). In fact, a slew of front office executives actually turned down the Orioles GM job this offseason before the team was finally able to hire Dan Duquette, who hadn’t even worked in a MLB front office since 2002. If you’re an Orioles fan, it might be time to jump ship – the Nationals are looking a lot better right now and for the future.
Which brings me to my point: the NL East is going to be really, really good over the next several years. In fact, it might become as tough as its vaunted AL counterpart considering that the Phillies, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals will be contenders in 2012 and beyond.
The Phillies should once again be one of the NL’s best teams thanks to its stud trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. However, there are pressing concerns for the team in 2012 and beyond. To start off, the offense was seventh in the NL in runs scored last year after finishing as at least the second-best run scoring team in the NL from 2008-2010. Some of that drop-off is due to offensive declines of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibañez, and Placido Polanco. According to Baseball Reference, the average age of the Philadelphia lineup in 2011 was oldest in the NL. Although GM Ruben Amaro added Jim Thome (who hasn’t played the field since 2007) via free agency and Ty Wigginton (via trade) to replace Ryan Howard, who will miss a portion of 2012 because of the ruptured Achilles tendon he underwent in Game 5 of the NLDS, the offense will be a major concern.
The outlook beyond 2012 is shaky as well. Dominic Brown, the once highly touted prospect, could add some much needed youth to the offense, but has yet to prove his potential. Meanwhile, not only will Hamels enter free agency after 2012, but Halladay will be 35 in May and Lee 34 in August. There is no immediate solution in the farm system to replace these aging players so GM Ruben Amaro will need to really pull some strings in order for the Phillies to continue to be competitive.
The Braves won 89 games last year and will feature a very similar ballclub in 2012. The pitching staff will be deep, featuring some combination of Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Tommy Hanson (who has been battling shoulder issues). The 2011 Rookie of the Year, Craig Kimbrel, and Jonny Venters will spearhead a bullpen which, once again, should be among the league’s best and includes Arodys Vizcaino, who is deemed by some talent evaluators as a potential starting pitcher.
The offense will return most of its starters with the exception of shortstop where 22-year-old Tyler Pastronicky figures to play. By most accounts, Pastornicky brings a solid glove, some speed, and little power. It’s possible the prospect be an upgrade over Alex Gonzalez, who is now with the Milwaukee Brewers.
GM Frank Wren has reportedly dangled Martin Prado and Jurrjens in hopes of finding a true left fielder along with a future center fielder, given that Michael Bourn is set to become a free agent after 2012. However, teams have balked at that asking price, so it seems the Braves will rely on a full season of Bourn and improvements from Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward to bolster the offense. Uggla, 31 and signed through 2015 is in decline, though I’d expect an improvement at the plate from Heyward, who battled injuries throughout last season. Also, I am tempering my expectations for Freddie Freeman, who had an outstanding rookie campaign but is only 22 years old. All-Star catcher Brian McCann, 27 and signed through 2013, will once again play a huge role in the offense.
With so much cost-controlled talent in starting pitching, the Braves will assign whatever payroll flexibility they have in future years to improve the offense. Though the organization has an opportunity to win now, the future is bright as well.