Finding Flaws: NL East

A few weeks ago, I looked at the five AL teams with the best records to find the flaws for each of them. I meant to do the NL teams the following week, but I got sidetracked a bit. Now that I’m finally getting around to it, there are only two NL teams with winning percentages above .545. Neither of those teams resides in the NL East, where every club has a winning record.

So, I thought it would be interesting to look at each of the five teams and find out what their problems—and strengths—are. Let’s take it from the top.

Washington Nationals, 31-26

In my offseason rankings, I wrote, rather snarkily, that the Nationals had spared us the suspense of finding out who would finish last in the NL East. Whoops. My thinking, if you’ll allow me to make excuses for myself, was that the team wasn’t very good last year, and they added Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman to fill prominent roles.

On that count, I don’t feel too bad. Castilla is only hitting .281/.355/.438 (.793), and I’d say he’s more likely to finish the season below that number than above it. And Guzman has been worse than terrible, hitting .193/.232/.240 (.471).

In fact, Guzman has to be considered Washington’s number one flaw. He’s come to the plate 202 times this season and has made 157 outs. That’s simply incredible. With Guzman, Brian Schneider (.229/.300/.354), Jamey Carroll (.240/.312/.280) and the pitchers (.165/.172/.217), the Nationals are essentially playing with just half a lineup.

For that reason, the Nationals had better thank their lucky stars that Nick Johnson has stayed healthy this year. After playing just 169 games the last two seasons combined, he’s only missed one game this year and is hitting .333/.448/.530 (.978). With Jose Vidro out and Brad Wilkerson (.281/.359/.453) and Jose Guillen (.295/.330/.507) hitting fairly well, but not great, Johnson has had to carry the offense for Washington.

Since it’s not easy for one player to carry an entire offense, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the Nationals are only scoring 4.09 runs per game and have only scored more runs (233) than the Pirates (221) and Astros (201).

The good thing for the Nationals is that their pitching staff has been pretty solid. John Patterson, Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and Tomo Ohka have combined for a 3.43 ERA as starting pitchers this season. Overall, the rotation has a 3.98 ERA.

And while the bullpen hasn’t been great as a whole (4.21 ERA), the trio of Chad Cordero, Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski has been excellent. Those three relievers have combined for a 2.00 ERA in 85.1 innings.

Washington’s recent run is a nice story, but as presently constructed, there seem to be too many holes for a sustained playoff run. It’s not a good sign when you’re hoping for Guzman to start providing the level of offense he provided for the Twins the last three years.

Atlanta Braves, 30-27

For the Braves, it’s pretty simple: good pitching and bad hitting. Well, that and bad health.

John Smoltz and Tim Hudson have combined for a 3.16 ERA in 162.1 innings, but Mike Hampton and his 1.83 ERA are going back on the disabled list and John Thomson and his 3.42 ERA are out for at least a couple months.

It’s a good thing Kyle Davies has started his major league career with a 0.77 ERA in 23.1 innings, or else the pitching may have shifted from a big strength to a definite weakness. The Braves now need to hope that Davies keeps pitching well and that Hampton returns quickly.

As it is, the big problems on the pitching staff are Horacio Ramirez, who has a 5.43 ERA in 10 starts, and Dan Kolb, who’s lost his job as the team’s closer.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Kolb has been very strange, as he allowed 19 earned runs, three homers and 15 walks with 21 strikeouts last year, and 17 earned runs, two homers and 19 walks with 19 strikeouts this year. Those numbers are eerily similar, and not at all good when you realize that the former set came in 57.1 innings and the latter set has come in 21 innings.

Offensively, let’s just say that the Braves better hope the left foot injury Chipper Jones suffered Sunday isn’t serious. He and Wilson Betemit are the only players on the roster with an OPS of .800 or better.

Rafael Furcal has been the biggest disappointment, hitting .225/.278/.324 after hitting .279/.344/.414 last year. Marcus Giles (.760 OPS), Andruw Jones (.799) and Johnny Estrada (.724) have all been below last year’s production (.821, .833 and .828, respectively).

And then there’s the disastrous Brian Jordan/Raul Mondesi experiment. Jordan has an ugly .584 OPS, and Mondesi had a .630 OPS before the team cut ties with him. Even if Furcal, Giles, Jones and Estrada all start hitting better, the Braves will probably need to make a move for a real outfielder.

You simply cannot have black holes at both corner outfield positions, especially when you don’t get much offense from first base (.742 OPS between Adam LaRoche and Julio Franco). If Kelly Johnson or Ryan Langerhans or Pete Orr doesn’t show signs of producing like a corner outfielder soon, the Braves will need to trade for somebody.

You might say Atlanta’s 4.47 runs/game isn’t terrible, but consider that the Braves have scored 255 runs with a .712 team OPS while allowing 215 runs on an opposing OPS of .727. Something tells me that if they continue to allow a higher OPS than they produce themselves, they won’t keep outscoring teams by 0.70 runs per game.

New York Mets, 30-27

The Mets have a leadoff hitter with a .304 on-base percentage. The have a first baseman with a .355 slugging percentage. And they have a player hitting .292/.330/.382 (.712) that most of the team’s fans want to see in the lineup every day because he’s not the player who’s hitting .236/.276/.329 (.605).

So, yeah, Jose Reyes, Doug Mientkiewicz, Miguel Cairo and Kazuo Matsui are problems. Reyes is a problem you can live with because he’s an exceptional athlete and he’s very young, although you’d probably rather see him at the bottom of the lineup.

But Mientkiewicz and Matsui have been terrible to the point where it’s unacceptable that they play as much as they do, and the only reason Mets fans would say Cairo is an asset rather than a problem is that he looks great in comparison to Matsui.

The only reason the Mets aren’t having even more trouble scoring runs is that David Wright and Cliff Floyd have been excellent full-time hitters and Mike Cameron and Victor Diaz have added up to an excellent full-time player.

Carlos Beltran hasn’t been a bad hitter, but the Mets certainly didn’t give him all that money to hit .291/.348/.460 (.808). And while Mike Piazza is putting up above-average numbers for a catcher, .253/.317/.423 (.740) isn’t what you’re hoping for from somebody who’s a defensive liability behind the plate.

The pitching staff has actually been a bright spot for the Mets, with a few exceptions. Pedro Martinez has been terrific and Kris Benson, Victor Zambrano and Aaron Heilman have combined for a 3.96 ERA, which I think most Mets fans would have signed up for before the season.

Even Tom Glavine (2.16 ERA his last five starts) seems to be turning it around. So the only real problems on the pitching staff are Dae-Sung Koo, who is now on the DL, and Kaz Ishii, whose saving grace is that he isn’t the worse Kaz on the team.

Mike DeJean and Manny Aybar haven’t been good either, but the 4.47 ERA they’re combining for could be a lot worse. And on the plus side of the bullpen, Roberto Hernandez has been a revelation, and Heath Bell and his 25-to-6 strikeout to walk ratio in 23.1 innings are very exciting.

Some people look at the Mets and say they’re a .500 team, but they’ve outscored their opponents by 28 runs (261-233) and they have a significantly higher OPS (.759) than they’ve allowed (.704). They look to me like a team that should be taken very seriously in a division that doesn’t have any juggernauts.

Florida Marlins, 28-26

You’d think a team that has Carlos Delgado hitting .313/.400/.566 (.966) and Miguel Cabrera hitting .347/.393/.579 (.972) and Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Brian Moehler combining for a 2.50 ERA would be pretty formidable, but the Marlins haven’t been anything special.

Juan Pierre has been a huge problem. His OBP is a Reyes-like .311, but he only brings a .332 slugging percentage to the table along with that, unlike the .470 SLG Reyes has. And Mike Lowell has simply been a disaster this year, hitting .218/.262/.341 (.602) so far.

Guillermo Mota has an ugly 6.28 ERA, but that’s not a huge problem because it’s only over 14.1 innings, and Todd Jones has stepped into the closer’s role just fine with a 1.42 ERA in 25.1 innings.

Of course, as good as Florida’s four starters mentioned above have been, that’s how bad the other one has been. Last year Al Leiter pitched well; he just couldn’t pitch deep into games. This year, he can’t do either as he has a 6.35 ERA and is averaging just 4.8 innings per start.

Still, despite their problems, I’d expect Florida to improve for the same reason I think the Mets are a real threat. They’ve put up a .759 OPS as a team but have only allowed a .697 OPS. Somehow, that sizeable edge has only translated into a 24-run advantage for the team.

Philadelphia Phillies, 30-28

Philadelphia has four players above the .900 OPS mark and three more above the .780 line. The amazing thing is that none of those seven players is Jim Thome, who is hitting .205/.368/.320 (.387) this season.

Bobby Abreu (1.045 OPS), Chasey Utley (.943), Pat Burrell (.928) and Kenny Lofton (.978—I’m as surprised as you are) have been powering Philadelphia to 4.83 runs per game.

And Mike Lieberthal (.788), Placido Polanco (.780) and Jason Michaels (.792) have all been decent. The problems offensively have been Thome, Jimmy Rollins (.720), David Bell (.674) and everybody with fewer than 90 at-bats on the season.

The pitching staff, on the other hand, has been a three-man show. Brett Myers is having a fantastic season, with a 2.24 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 82 strikeouts and 21 walks in 80.1 innings. The other four starters — Randy Wolf, Jon Lieber, Cory Lidle and Vicente Padilla — on the other hand, have combined for a 4.73 ERA.

In the bullpen, Billy Wagner and Aaron Fultz have a 2.54 combined ERA. The rest of the relievers out there, however, have posted an abysmal 7.18 ERA.

Overall, the Phillies have a 4.70 ERA, which is much worse than the 4.45 ERA of last year’s team. Only three NL teams allowed more runs than last year’s Phillies, by the way.

So, either Philadelphia is going to need at least two starting pitchers—and a reliever or two—to step up and get the ERA down, or they’re going to need Abreu, Utley, Burrell and Lofton to keep hitting and Thome, Rollins and Bell to start hitting.

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