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April 1, 1999

NL East Notebook

Divisional defensive outlook for 1999

by Keith Law

ATLANTA BRAVES (1998: 581 runs allowed, 1st in the NL)

Greg Maddux, R
Tom Glavine, L
John Smoltz, R
Kevin Millwood, R
Odalis Perez, L

Mark Wohlers, R
John Rocker, L
Mike Remlinger, L
Kevin McGlinchy, R
Rudy Seanez, R

Kerry Ligtenberg, R (hurt)
Mike Cather, R
Bruce Chen, L
Russ Springer, R (hurt)

The Braves' rotation remains among baseball's best, exceeded only by the Yankees' in quality and depth. However, the Braves will be breaking in a top pitching prospect, Odalis Perez, as their 5th starter, while sending a better prospect, Bruce Chen, down to the minors. Rookie pitchers are hardly a sure thing, and the Braves are not likely to be patient if Perez struggles to start the year. Kevin Millwood is coming off a significant workload, so his arm strength may be a concern. John Smoltz, who has battled through various arm woes the last two seasons, appears to be at full strength.

While the bullpen is generally considered a mess because of the injury to Kerry Ligtenberg (which may end his season), the Braves do have some talented arms in relief. John Rocker, Odalis Perez, and Rudy Seanez are all extremely capable short relievers, and non-roster invitee Kevin McGlinchy should be able to handle partial closing duties should he make the team. Mark Wohlers' fight to overcome Steve Blass disease may prove a distraction if he should relapse, but the Braves seem confident enough to reinstall him as the closer for now.

The team's defense took one significant step forward with the acquisition of Bret Boone at second base, although Ryan Klesko is a step backward at first now that the Big Cat is out for the season. Even so, outfield defense should be significantly improved with Brian Jordan in right, and Otis Nixon and Gerald Williams replacing Klesko in left. Add that to the incomparable Andruw Jones in center, and you've got a situation where almost anything hit over the infield may have to clear the wall to do damage. If Walt Weiss goes down for any length of time, Braves infield defense will be badly hurt. Basically, Braves defense will make the league's best pitching staff better.

FLORIDA MARLINS (1998: 923 runs allowed, last in the NL)

Alex Fernandez, R
Livan Hernandez, R
Brian Meadows, R
Jesus Sanchez, L
Dennis Springer, R

Matt Mantei, R
Braden Looper, R
Vic Darensbourg, L
Antonio Alfonseca, R
Kirt Ojala, L

AJ Burnett, R
Armando Almanza, L
Joe Fontenot, R
Ryan Dempster, R

The Marlins' rotation contains question marks in every spot, 1 through 5: Will Alex Fernandez be traded - assuming he'll even be healthy? (Yes.) Will Livan Hernandez and Jesus Sanchez break down after the abuse they took from Jim Leyland last year? (at least one will, and probably both.) Was Brian Meadows' second-half fade indicative of how he'll pitch this year? (Almost certainly: he pitched above his head last year.) And who the heck will be the fifth starter? (Dennis Springer, for now, which should help keep the bullpen fresh if he can pitch well enough to stay in the game.)

The Fishpen is full of young arms with high ceilings, but none are sure things. Matt Mantei, the incumbent closer, has never had a full healthy season since he reached the majors as a Rule 5 pick in 1993. Braden Looper, considered the closer of the future, had a mediocre year at AAA in 1998, and has had problems developing a strong second pitch to complement his blazing heater. Vic Darensbourg did a relatively unheralded but great job last season. Kirt Ojala should get used to pitching every time Dennis Springer has to start.

The Marlins' defense should improve with experience. Rookie Alex Gonzalez has shown an excellent glove at short in the minors. Both Todd Dunwoody and Mark Kotsay should continue to imrove at the major league level, and both Mike Lowell and Kevin Orie can pick it at third. Overall, don't expect greatness, just improvement.

MONTREAL EXPOS (1998: 783 runs allowed, 10th in NL, 3rd in the NL East)

Dustin Hermanson, R
Carl Pavano, R
Javier Vazquez, R
Mike Thurman, R
Miguel Batista, R

Ugueth Urbina, R
Anthony Telford, R
Steve Kline, L
Shayne Bennett, R
Mike Maddux, R

Jeremy Powell, R
Ted Lilly, L
Jose Bautista, R
Guillermo Mota, R

Felipe Alou may lose a good starter every year, but the Expos' system has managed to produce some adequate replacements to keep the rotation humming. Dustin Hermanson looks like an ace in waiting, and Felipe has handled the former reliever very carefully. Carl Pavano is probably a year or two away from stardom, but he should consolidate his gains nicely this year if his annual spring ritual of poor pitching and injuries doesn't extend into the season. Javier Vazquez is no ordinary 6+ ERA starter; his peripherals were strong, and his performance overall was excellent for a guy barely out of A-ball. Those three should form a solid, if as-yet unspectacular, core to the rotation. The back 40% will likely see a revolving door this year, starting with control-fiend Mike Thurman and Miguel Batista. Both will probably bounce around some, allowing Jeremy Powell, Ted Lilly, and perhaps J.D. Smart or Mike Johnson to appear in the majors. Only Lilly is a strong bet for extended success, but more help is further down the chain.

The bullpen has always been another source of strength for the Expos under Alou, as he has converted other managers' throwaway relievers into valuable setup men. Ugueth Urbina will anchor the pen again as the closer, although some ERA regression is likely. Anthony Telford and Steve Kline will form the R/L tandem setting him up; both are castoffs who have found new life in Felipe's pen through improved control and smart usage. Converted shortstop Guillermo Mota has received significant press this spring as a setup candidate; while he has pitched well so far in the minors, be aware that he relies heavily on only his fastball, and he has had injury problems for the last 18 months.

At the moment, the team's defense is pretty dreadful. First and second base, catcher, and centerfield will all likely be manned by mediocre to poor fielders, although Peter Bergeron should help the outfield situation if and when he arrives and takes over center, pushing Rondell White to left. The team's one possible superlative fielder, Vlad Guerrero, still suffers from occasional fits of defensive indifference, but that hopefully won't continue. One concern is the bad glovework of 2B Wilton Guerrero; without a regular defensive replacement, the Expos' groundball pitchers will suffer, especially against lefthanders.

NEW YORK METS (1998: 645 runs allowed, 4rth in the NL, 2nd in NL East)

Rotation du jour
Al Leiter, L
Rick Reed, R
Bobby Jones, R
Orel Hersheiser, R
Masato Yoshii, R

John Franco, L
Armando Benitez, R
Turk Wendell, R
Dennis Cook, L
Greg McMichael, R
Jeff Tam, R

Octavio Dotel, R
Jason Isringhausen, R

The Mets' rotation appears to be the one leg on which the team's strategy of contention can stand, but the team has severely overestimated the strength of its starters. Rick Reed and Al Leiter are both competent and occasionally excellent starters, but the former has battled Ackeritis recently, and the latter has a history of injury woes and off-years (most recently, 1997). Bobby Jones and Orel Hersheiser both face stamina problems, with Jones unable to pitch more than 180-190 good innings a year, and Orel unable to throw more than 75-80 good pitches a game. With a bullpen coming off of a bit of overuse, this could be a recipe for disaster. As for Yoshii, the Mets have obviously (belatedly) figured out that he's no solution, and they are actively searching for a replacement from elsewhere in the majors, rather than calling up top prospect Octavio Dotel.

The bullpen was, as mentioned earlier, used early and often last year, with Turk Wendell receiving the brunt of the work. The addition of Armando Benitez should help, although how he will react to NY is anyone's guess. He could reduce the load John Franco has to shoulder, which might help Franco regain his '96-'97 form. Dennis Cook is likely to regress from last year's career year in the lefty-specialist role. The team continues to shop Greg McMichael, which might open a spot for Dotel in the pen (at least if they're smart about it).

The team's defense remains strong overall with some potential holes. Edgardo Alfonzo will be a huge step forward at second over Carlos Baerga, and Brian McRae is a good defensive centerfielder. However, Bobby Bonilla is inadequate fielder at any position, meaning Bobby Valentine will have to regularly make defensive substitutions for his RF. Mike Piazza's defense, while much better than his detractors would have you believe, will probably start to slip over the next few years if his knees don't get rested more regularly.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (1998: 808 runs, 12th in NL, 4th in the NL East)

Curt Schilling, R
pray for rain
pray for rain
pray for rain
pray for rain

Jeff Brantley, R
Wayne Gomes, R
Yorkis Perez, L
Jim Poole, L
Ken Ryan, R
Mike Grace, R

Randy Wolf, L
Ron Blazier, R
Matt Beech, L (DL)
Cliff Politte, R
Ryan Nye, R

OK, so the Phillies will actually field four other starters, most likely Chad Ogea (R), Paul Spoljaric (L), Paul Byrd (R), and Carlton Loewer (R). Ogea and Byrd both have potential, but the former has been held back by frequent injuries (esp. to his knees), and the latter has yet to demonstrate his ability over more than a 3-4 week stretch. The Phils have obsessed over the need to put a lefty into their rotation, thus ignoring the fact that the Jays originally moved Spoljaric into the pen because he had problems starting above A-ball. The Toxic Tendon Twins of Mike Grace and Tyler Green were, naturally, not healthy enough to make the rotation; Green is already on the DL, and Grace is in the bullpen and probably headed to the DL as well. Both will get a handful of starts during their occasional bouts of health this year, and both will be lousy when they pitch.

The bullpen is thinner this year after the offseason trades of Ricky Bottalico and Mark Leiter, although the current corps has a bit of upside. Jeff Brantley has looked solid this spring, but he is coming off two years of injuries and HR woes, and he's probably trade bait if he's healthy. Wayne Gomes wore badly down the stretch last year, but if there are no lasting effects, he should be one of the league's more competent setup men. Yorkis Perez will man the left side he held down so well last year, with Jim Poole backing him up. Ken Ryan will probably continue his two-plus-year comeback in the majors as the last right-hander in the pen.

Defense still presents a problem at selected positions. Ron Gant will be no improvement over Gregg Jefferies' indifferent play in left, and could be worse if his hamstrings slow him down. Marlon Anderson and Desi Relaford are likely to be a subpar DP combo, although some of that will be alleviated with time and experience after playing together. The health of the two main catchers - Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Estalella - raises more questions about defense behind the plate. However, Doug Glanville's main contribution to this team is his strong play in center, and Rolen & Brogna are both strong defenders at the corners. Expect the Phils' pitchers to receive a few breaks from their fielders, but not as many as they'll need or deserve.

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