2012 NL East Preview: Phillies Go For Six In A Row
Opening Night is approaching! The Miami Marlins will host the first game of the 2012 MLB season at the new Marlins Park on Wednesday night. Here's a preview of the new Miami ball club and the other four teams vying for an NL East division title this year, listed in order of predicted finish:
Where we left them: The Phils, having won their fifth straight divison title and set a franchise record for most victories in a season (102), stormed into the playoffs as the best team in the Majors. However, they ran into the hottest team in baseball, the eventual-champions St. Louis Cardinals, and lost to them in a five-game NLDS.
Same Ol’ Phils (but that's good): In recent years, one word has defined the Phillies: consistency. Despite some great pitching additions, like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the nucleus of this Phillies' machine has stayed the same and it does not seem to be changing any time soon. Coming off an Achilles tendon tear that happened on the last play of the year, All-Star 1B Ryan Howard will hope to rebound and continue his fantastic slugging career when he returns midseason; Howard has hit 100 and 200 home runs faster than any one else before and is always a threat in the clean-up spot.
Hitting in front of Howard are veterans SS Jimmy Rollins and 2B Chase Utley (when he returns), possibly the best hitting middle infield in the game right now. With last year’s addition of RF Hunter Pence and the recent pick-up of 1B Jim Thome, the Phillies’ offense, which has always been subpar to the team's exquisite pitching staff, may just have an amazing year.
OIPS (other important players): CF Shane Victorino, LF John Mayberry Jr., SP Cole Hamels, CL Jonathan Papelbon, RP Dontrelle Willis
Biggest Question: Can the Phils finally make it back to the Fall Classic, behind an improved bullpen and a healthy and powerful starting lineup?
Prediction: 1st in the NL East; 90-105 wins; best bet to win the division
Where we left them: In Fredi Gonzalez’s first season as manager, the Braves were this close to making the playoffs. Up 8.5 games in the NL Wild Card race at the beginning of September, Atlanta stumbled through the last month of the season, losing the wild-card spot in their last game against the Phillies, a 4-3 defeat in 13 innings.
The Youth Movement: Despite some average years from Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson, the Braves have established a formidable young nucleus in the clubhouse. OF Jason Heyward and 1B Freddie Freeman are developing into Atlanta's new young, power couple, despite both barely two years into their baseball careers.
On the other end of the dugout, the Braves have two fresh arms in Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Jurrjens is coming off an All-Star – but injury-plagued – season during which he had a 2.96 ERA and 13 wins; Hanson also had a solid campaign in just his second full season, posting a 3.60 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. The foundation is there in Atlanta, but it will take the presence of veterans to get them to the promised land.
Chipper's Last Stand: The face of the franchise for nearly two decades, Chipper Jones declared he would retire after this season late last month. Chipper has been a consistent and standout third baseman for the Braves since 1993, leading them to fourteen consecutive division championships and three World Series, including one win in 1995; and he’s not done yet. Despite recently having arthroscopic surgery, Chipper is expected to be back for the beginning of the season; the question is if he will be able to contribute in the three-spot in his final year in the Bigs.
OIPS: 2B Dan Uggla, C Brian McCann, SP Tim Hudson, CL Craig Kimbrel
Biggest Question: Can a combination of youthful and veteran players band together after last year’s collapse and reach the postseason?
Prediction: 2nd in the NL East; 85-95 wins; definite Wild Card
Where we left them: The Florida Marlins were wrapping up a disappointing 72-90 season at Sun Life Stadium with a 3-1 loss to the lowly Nationals. The Hanley Ramirez-less offense acquired only three hits off of up-and-coming Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The Marlins were falling behind in the NL East and it showed.
Name: Miami Marlins
Ballpark: Marlins Park
Manager: Ozzie Guillen
Shortstop: Jose Reyes
Third Baseman: Hanley Ramirez (after move)
Starting Pitchers: Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano
Closer: Heath Bell
OIPS: RF Giancarlo (Mike) Stanton, LF Logan Morrison, 1B Gaby Sanchez, SP Josh Johnson
Biggest Question: Will Miamians buy into the new regime, buy tickets and merchandise, and give the Marlins a fan base they can rely on?
Prediction: 3rd in the NL East; 80-88 wins; possible Wild Card
Where we left them: Just one game under .500, the Nats finished with their second-best record since moving to the capital in 2005. Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who had been out most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, returned for five starts, finishing with a dominant 1.50 ERA. The sun is rising on this young Washington club and big things are expected of them this year.
The Messiah: He’s back! The second coming of Stephen Strasburg is upon us, but instead of racing for shelters and panic rooms, Nationals executives are hoping fans will run to the ticket booth to get a look at the pitching phenom. Strasburg burst onto the MLB stage in 2010 with a dazzling seven-inning performance, striking out a Nationals record fourteen batters and allowing just two earned runs. Ticket sales went sky high afterwards, but when Strasburg was shut down for the rest of the season and most of 2011, Nats fans disappeared. Hopefully with #37 back in the fold, DC baseball fans will gravitate towards Nationals Park and finally give the team a home-field advantage.
OIPS: RF Jayson Werth (a.k.a. The $126-Million Mistake), 3B Ryan Zimmerman, SP Gio Gonzalez, SP Chien-Ming Wang, CL Drew Storen
Biggest Question: Can Washington build on last season’s success and become a playoff contender, while blocking out all the hype?
Prediction: 4th in the NL East; 75-85 wins; slight chance at the Wild Card
New York Mets
Where we left them: The Metropolitans ended last season with a thud. They finished 77-85 and fourth in the NL East for the third straight year and the arrow was certainly not looking up.
Wilpon Be Gone: There may not be a man currently more hated by New York sports fans than Fred Wilpon. Despite having not made significant improvements to the team in the past few years, Fred Wilpon, the Mets' majority owner, had maintained a slim amount respect from the fans.
Who’s Who: Remember the Mets from that glorious 2006 playoff run? Carlos Beltran. Jose Reyes. Carlos Delgado. Pedro Martinez. Tom Glavine. Billy Wagner. Even the least loyal of baseball fans know these names. Now look at the 2012 Mets. Recognize these guys? Of course not. The only remaining player from that '06 season is 3B David Wright. Clearly winning is not yet part of the culture in the Mets dugout, but this year could be a great opportunity for role players to springboard into stardom and notoriety... and maybe help win some ball games.
OIPS: LF Jason Bay, 1B Ike Davis, SP Johan Santana, SP R.A. Dickey, CL Frank Francisco
Biggest Question: In a rebuilding year and a crowded divison, can the Mets withstand the pressure of the New York press and the ominous Wilpon cloud hovering above them?
Prediction: 5th in the NL East; 68-80 wins; no shot at the playoffs.