It's easy to dismiss the Florida Marlins as 2008's permanent resident of the N.L. East cellar. After all, their best two players are in Detroit gearing up for a World Series run, while the average age of the Marlins roster is the lowest in the league at 12 (it would have been 7, except for Luis Gonzalez.) But remember that we all had the Nationals as 120 game losers last year (not me ... I had them at a much more reasonable number, although it was still well off). And on paper, the Marlins have a better starting staff coming into '08 than the Nationals had going into '07, with former New Jersey Net Mark Hendrickson (who was once posterized by Michael Jordan), Scott Olsen (who was once posterized by the Miami Police), and super-phenom Andrew Miller leading the way.
The Marlins strength this season might be in the bullpen, where Kevin Gregg was a pleasant surprise as their closer last season after Jorge Julio took another step towards oblivion. The combination of Gregg, Matt Lindstrom (who will continue his assault of the Mets while Jason Vargas is on the shelf for four months), Taylor Tankerseley and Justin Miller had 272 K's in 260 innings pitched. And don't forget Logan Kensing, who was injured for much of '07.
And the Fish will be able to hit some too. They finished a respectable sixth in the N.L. with 790 runs scored, and making their returns will be guys like Hanley Ramirez (who as far as I can fathom, still hates the Mets and everything about them), Dan Uggla, and Josh Willingham. The problem is who's not returning: Miguel Cabrera and his 119 RBI last season. His replacement will be Jorge Cantu, who's going to have to close his eyes really hard and pretend it's 2005 when he drove in 117 runs for the Devil Rays. And as we all know, it's hard to hit a baseball with your eyes closed.
What's going to sink the Marlins to the bottom of the standings is the fact that the top three in their rotation just isn't going to be able to give the bullpen enough quality starts to try and finish off. And the fourth and fifth starters are going to wind up being Rick VandenHurk and Ricky Nolasco. Uh-oh.
While I'm not ready to peg the Marlins for 120 losses, I am ready to buy a housewarming gift for their permanent '08 residence in the cellar. I hear lava lamps are making a comeback.
The Mets this offseason have become the Ronald Reagan of baseball ... supplying weapons to the enemy. Between Paul Lo Duca and Lastings Milledge, the Washington Nationals scare the ever loving life out of me. (Did you know that Milledge already has a fan club in DC?)
Besides motivation, the Nats have all the ingredients for a surprise season. New ballpark. Solid manager. And most importantly, they have one of the budding young superstars in the game in Ryan Zimmerman. The Washington Nationals could contend into September. But there are some questions for me concerning the Nats:
- There are some divergent personalities in that clubhouse ... and as Bobcat Goldthwait once said: "Either this is really going to work or this is really gonna suck." Will they come together and have slumber parties where they break out their fuzzy pajamas, roast marshmallows and sing campfire songs? Can Elijah Dukes, Paul Lo Duca, Dmitri Young, Lastings Milledge, and Ronnie Belliard et al share a clubhouse without driving each other crazy?
- And speaking of Lo Duca, you had Brian Schneider guiding a very patchwork starting pitching staff towards a respectable season in 2007. So what will a change in catchers do? Is Lo Duca's fiery style what guys like Matt Chico, Jason Bergmann, and Tim Redding need to take the next step towards respectability? Or will this pitching staff prove to have a need for Schneider's easy hand and fall apart under Lo Duca?
- How are the Nationals going to turn their extra first baseman (and as of right now it's Dmitri Young) into some parts that will improve the club like, say, starting pitching? And can they even do it? Young hovered close to 300 pounds this spring, and Nick Johnson outplayed him in the spring by a large margin. Can Dmitri even bring back anything in a trade? Or will he just be put on waivers so that the Braves can pick him up?
Speaking of the Braves picking guys up on waivers, I have to be really careful here to not assume that Atlanta snaring Ruben Gotay is going to shift the balance of power in the National League East, or change what I'm about to write. My pessimistic self is tempted to do it, but I'll refrain. Here's why:
I think the Atlanta Braves are overrated.
(Blesses self and makes sure lightning doesn't strike him)
There's no reason to cry and whine about how everybody and their mother is picking the Braves to win the N.L. East this season. It only seems that way. The fact of the matter is that there are are plenty of people out there picking the Mets. But there are an awful lot of pundits that are picking the Atlanta Braves. I understand why ... it's because there are a lot of people who look at the names on the jerseys and want to believe that it's 1995.
And yes, Mark Teixeira is damn good. Anyone who's in his prime and shows an ability to go .300/.400/.500 more than once is deserving of your praise and your awe. And Tim Hudson is back to being a legitimate number one starter. Players like Chipper Jones and John Smoltz have hit those kinds of numbers often. And that's the problem. The Braves are a team that collectively have hit their ceiling. There aren't a lot of guys that are primed to improve by a significant amount, while with all of the old/injury prone guys that the Braves are counting a large amount on, there's potential for disaster. Let me ask you this: If the Mets were headed into this season with the core of their team all over 35 years old, how many people do you think would be picking the Mets to win?
I'll go one step further: If the Mets were headed into this season with a third baseman who has consistently missed a good amount of games in the last four seasons, a pitcher who has missed the last two seasons in full, a 40-year-old pitcher who has had nagging injuries during the spring, and a 42-year-old pitcher last seen giving up seven runs in a third of an inning, how many people do you think would be picking the Mets to win? Certainly not as many as are picking the Braves right now, I'll tell you that.
I think the Braves are a third place team. But put a gun to my head and ask me to predict whether the Braves will break into the top two or the bottom two, then believe it or not I'm guessing lower. Outside of Hudson and Teixeira, the major components to the Braves are old, brittle, or both. And unlike seasons past, Andruw Jones ain't walkin' through that door. (Some might say that these days, Andruw Jones needs margarine to merely fit through the door.)
Part two comin' soon! (Considering the season starts Monday, it would have to come real soon, wouldn't it?)