NL East division update: September edition


This marks the final entry of the NL East division updates. The Braves have retained a comfortable lead on the division since racing out to a 12-1 start while the Nationals have been a disappointment and the rest of the division struggled. Let’s look in on each team with an eye on the positives.

Florida Marlins (51-85):

The Marlins have struggled to put forth any semblance of offense in 2013, which is not surprising for a team that occasionally counted the washed-up version of Placido Polanco as its second best hitter. Yet despite a terrible record, the Marlins can draw a few positives from the season.

The pitching staff was surprisingly effective, combining for a 3.72 ERA and 3.65 FIP. Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Jacob Turner formed the core of the rotation. Astute readers may note that those three pitchers were acquired in recent trades. Alvarez was part of the yield from the Blue Jays blockbuster, while Hanley Ramirez netted Eovaldi and Anibal Sanchez brought back Turner. None of the trio is elite or even noticeably above average, but they can keep an offense in ballgames while costing very little.

Young phenom Jose Fernandez will be shut down soon due to a hard innings cap. The presumptive Rookie of the Year established himself as an elite major league starter after a surprise promotion to begin the season. A dominating fastball and good secondary stuff allowed him to punch out close to 10 batters per nine innings (9.81 K/9) while limiting walks and hits. His .247 BABIP is the only red flag in his profile, but he would have produced elite numbers even without luck on balls in play.

His competition for Rookie of the Year includes three pitchers and one hitter. An apples to apples comparison for the pitchers is simpler. That group is composed of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran.

Voters typically lean on traditional stats like win-loss record, ERA, strikeouts, and hits allowed. Fernandez’ 2.33 ERA is the only mark below 3.00. With similar innings totals, his 105 hits allowed is the fewest among his competitors and he also leads in raw strikeout totals. The only category where he is somewhat deficient is win-loss record, where he’s a mere 10-6, but you can expect voters to forgive that due to a general lack of run support.

Among the rookie hitters, Yasiel Puig is the only candidate of note. His .426 BABIP has led to a gaudy .416 wOBA. While we should expect regression to the mean in the future, that doesn’t change what he’s done. A massive .351 average with good power is part of the reason why the Los Angeles Dodgers are sitting atop the NL West.

His story is high profile and sure to generate plenty of debate. If you turn to everyone’s favorite all purpose measuring stick (said facetiously), you’ll note that Puig’s 3.7 WAR (Fangraphs) is statistically indistinguishable from the 3.9 WAR accrued by Fernandez.

New York Mets (62-74):

A few days ago, this outlook would have been much sunnier, but an UCL injury to Matt Harvey likely means that he will miss the 2014 season. Harvey was to be a key component of a strong Mets rotation that could have helped the club contend. Now veterans Jon Niese and Dillon Gee will likely be joined Zack Wheeler, Jenrry Mejia, and a offseason acquisition. While that unit is solid top to bottom, depth could be an issue with the injuries to Harvey and Jeremy Hefner (Tommy John surgery).

Interestingly, the Mets front office has promised the fan base to spend to improve the team over the offseason. The Mets paid Johan Santana, Jason Bay and Frank Francisco roughly $50 million to do nothing in 2013. All but a $3 million buyout to Bay will be coming off the books in 2014, which is why the club is so keen to spend.

Usually when a team enters the offseason with a plan to spend, it’s targeting one of a couple positions to upgrade. Because the Mets’ roster is so heavily laden with second division talent, they can take a more flexible approach to acquire the best names who are most likely to help beyond 2014. The only position that is truly locked in is third base with David Wright. The Mets will also presumably commit to Travis D’Arnaud at catcher, but every other position including the rotation and bullpen could be augmented.

The club will likely be more heavily focused on making a trade for young, established major league talent than making a large splash in the relatively old free agent pool. Even an aggressive strategy would make the Mets fringe competitors in 2014 with a better chance to succeed in 2015 if and when Harvey returns and other prospects begin to contribute. As such, a trade like that made by the Braves for Justin Upton is kind of move that the Mets should pursue.

Purely as speculation, Elvis Andrus could be a good target and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Matt Kemp‘s large contract became available under the right circumstances.

Philadelphia Phillies (62-75):

It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Phillies are caught between a rock and a hard place. The team is locked into an aging core that’s too talented to discard wholesale and too injury prone to be a likely contender. Any attempt to reboot the roster would result in an Astros-like rebuilding experience and upcoming TV contract negotiations ensure that the Phillies brass do not view that as an option.

So instead of a reboot, the Phillies will take Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Domonic Brown and Jonathan Papelbon into 2014 and hope that aging role players like Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins can help glue the lineup together.

The offseason will be challenging as the club attempts to build long term depth without getting older in the process. That takes most of the free agent pool off the board. Barring blockbuster trades, the lineup is too lefty-leaning to hire left-handed hitters like Shin-Soo Choo, so that portion of the free agent pool can also be removed.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

A perusal of the available options leads to the conclusion that the safest approach is to re-sign Roy Halladay and Carlos Ruiz to team-friendly contracts and sign a right-handed outfielder like Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran (technically a switch hitter), Michael Morse, Hunter Pence, or even Rajai Davis on the cheap end of the spectrum. None of these options looks particularly likely. Pence is the only highly regarded name who also isn’t injury prone or well into the downside of the aging curve, but the Phillies already traded him in 2012 for a modest haul.

The big news out of Philadelphia in recent weeks is the firing of Charlie Manuel in favor of Ryne Sandberg. It’s too early to say much about Sandberg’s tenure, but he certainly has a difficult job ahead.

One positive note for Phillies fans is that he’s open to using Howard in a strict handedness platoon. Continuing a career-long trend, Howard posted a .370 wOBA against right-handed pitching in 2013 compared to just a .238 wOBA against lefties. Darin Ruf features a career .327 wOBA against left-handed pitchers in a small sample while John Mayberry Jr. has a better .367 wOBA against lefties. It’s worth noting that Mayberry’s numbers have been in decline in recent seasons. The platoon could produce a one to two win advantage in 2014 and may even help the club get out from under part of Howard’s pricey contract.

Washington Nationals (69-67):

Pending the outcome of last night’s game, the Nationals are seven games out of the second Wild Card spot. The Nationals have a relatively easy schedule, with 17 of 26 games against sub-.500 competition. They are chasing the Reds, who play 12 of their 24 games against sub-.500 teams. Nine of those are against in-division rivals that are currently ahead of them.

Statistically speaking, the Nationals’ attempt to slide into the postseason is unlikely to happen. In the last NL East update, we discussed how the Nationals received over 700 terrible plate appearances from reserves and Danny Espinosa. Since that time, the offense has climbed to ninth in the NL by wOBA and eighth by runs scored. This is due to elite production from Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper with no other regulars contributing less than four percent below league average. That’s a deep and dynamic lineup top to bottom and a big part of the reason why the team is 18-11 since the start of August.

Teams have overcome greater odds to reach the postseason. Back in 2007, the rival Phillies erased a seven-game deficit with just 17 games left to play with a little help from the Mets. The Nationals will have an additional nine games to overcome the Reds. Fangraphs anticipates just a 7.2 percent chance of the Nationals winning the Wild Card, not including yesterday’s action (the Reds won, so that number is likely slightly lower).

Aside from Ross Ohlendorf filling out the rotation, the Nationals have their best team on the field. Here’s to hoping that they can make the NL Wild Card race more interesting.

Atlanta Braves (84-53):

The Braves have the luxury of coasting into the postseason and hold a two-game lead on the Dodgers for the best record in the National League. This could be an important point since the Braves are 50-19 at home and only 34-34 on the road. Should they manage to hold onto the best record in the National League, they will be the fourth straight NL East team to finish the regular season with that honor. Unfortunately, those previous three rosters made little noise in the postseason.

Injuries have gutted parts of the lineup. Veteran righty Tim Hudson suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury in July. Brandon Beachy never managed to come all the way back from Tommy John surgery and may be headed back under the knife. Meanwhile, lefty relief aces Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty underwent Tommy John surgery earlier in the season.

On the hitting side of the ledger, the Upton brothers seem to be perpetually banged up and Jason Heyward will be on the disabled list for most of the season after breaking his jaw.

The Braves have handled these injuries adroitly thanks to excellent depth. Unfortunately, that means handing high workloads to young players who may not be physically used to the 162-game season yet, let alone the playoffs. When last we checked in on the rotation, Beachy and Alex Wood were preparing to join the unit with Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen expected to be moved to the disabled list and bullpen respectively. The freak injury to Hudson saved Medlen’s job and Beachy’s injury allowed Maholm to step right back into the rotation.

While the Braves have a strong unit of five starters, questions about their viability in the playoffs abound. Julio Teheran has had an excellent season, but he’s already 25 innings over his previous season high and he pitched winter league ball over the offseason. This may go to explaining why his walk rate spiked in August, or it could just be a small sample fluctuation. Either way, there is some cause for concern as the calendar turns to October.

Another young pitcher who could fall victim to fatigue is Alex Wood. The 2012 draft pick has been superb this season aside from a blowup outing against the Marlins Sunday. In Wood’s case, the concern isn’t his innings total, which is well below the 155 innings he threw last season, but an unusual delivery and stressful transitions between the rotation and bullpen.

The Braves have a difficult job in the coming weeks. They must keep the team relatively healthy for the postseason while retaining their fighting spirit. It seems like a convenient cover story, but complacency is often cited as the reason why a dominant regular season roster fails to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. The Braves must be careful not to enter the postseason flatfooted.

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Dave Cornutt
Dave Cornutt

The Braves are skipping Teheran tonight (Wednesday).  Kameron Loe is making his first major league start since 2007.

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Right. I learned of that after submitting the column. I have some comments over in yesterday’s fantasy piece, but it’s a good move from the Braves perspective.

D Leaberry
D Leaberry
The Nats have played as if in a state of shock since Memorial Day.  Apparently they thought they could just dial it in and make the post-season.  But in every category of baseball, they have declined since 2012.  Fielding, relief pitching, starting pitching and hitting have been down since last season.  Jayson Werth is possibly the only player who has played better in 2013 than in 2012.  Adam La Roche, Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa have played much worse in 2013 with Espinosa languishing in the minors for over two months flailing at pitches.  His career as a major leaguer… Read more »
Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Very true and good point on Johnson, that’s definitely something I should have included but it slipped my mind entirely.

The DNA is there for this team to have been very good. I can’t help but think that we’re seeing the 10th percentile performance out of them. It’s bound to happen sometimes over a 162 game season. Intangibles like the “state of shock” you mention could definitely be contributing.

D Leaberry
D Leaberry

Brad, the rumor mill for Johnson’s replacement has become active in DC.  Current Bench Coach Randy Knorr is at the top of the list.  Former slugging third-baseman Matt Williams, current third-base coach for the Diamondbacks, is high on the list of possible managers.  Nats GM Mike Rizzo was scouting director for Arizona in the early 2000s.  Knorr and Williams are thought to better match Rizzo’s stern personality.  Johnson has always run a light clubhouse and was seen is seen as a players’ coach.