Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Time keeps on ticking in the NL East

PICTURED: The Phillies, circa 2005/2014. (Francis Specker/AP file photo)
PICTURED: The Phillies, circa 2005/2014. (Francis Specker/AP file photo)

For 14 years, the Braves ran the National League East. The Mets slipped through in 2006, before the Phillies dominated for five years until 2012. Now, the NL East has entered a new era, one in which there is yet to be established an alpha team.

It's a different place since these five teams first lined up in 2005.

2005 Nationals

Record: 81-81

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  • Manager: Frank Robinson 

    Future Phillies: Brian Schneider, Marlon Byrd 

    Best player: Jose Guillen (RF, .283, .817 OPS, 24 HR in 148 games)

    Brian Schneider made his first of three NL East stops on this .500 team; along with a 20-year-old Ryan Zimmermann on the bench, lusty for baseball; a 30-year-old Livian Hernandez, human giant Jon Rauch, and poor, sweet Carlos Baerga.

    Brad Wilkerson went off to record every “first” Nationals highlight, basically, and they climbed over the Braves and sat on them for the first half, eventually succumbing to starting Brian Schneider in 116 games and going 30-49 the rest of the way.

    There was a time when 81 wins in the NL East was only good enough for last place.

    And then…

    • 2009: Drafted Stephen Strasburg 1st overall.
    • 2010: Drafted Bryce Harper 1st overall.
    • 2011: Signed Jayson Werth ($126 million, seven years).

    2014 Nationals

    Manager: Matt Williams

    Former Phillies: Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez

    Best Player: Bryce Harper (CF, .274, .858 OPS, 20 HR, 58 RBI, 3.8 WAR in 118 games)

    Just Added: Doug Fister, Nate McLouth

    The Nationals finished in last place a few times, but they avoided being terrible forever the way that new franchises tend to be. Their cycle since their inaugural season included getting their legs under them, moving into a stadium that wasn't awful, and demanding to be taken seriously. Remember when Jim Riggleman quit as manager in June 2011 when the team had won 11 or their last 12 because ownership wouldn't talk about an extension?

    Now, the Nationals and Braves seem primed to build a rivalry in the next few years as they remain the two most likely picks to take the division. The Mets may hurl themselves into the gears of the machine for a month or so, but the Nationals are serious competition, a point they reached by advisable draft picks and less advisable but statement-making signings like Werth - whose deal may not prove to be wise in the long run, but certainly gained them legitimacy as a franchise with whom free agents could/should sign.

    The addition of Fister to their rotation was drawing comparisons to the 2011 Phillies, which is usually a good sign for a pitching staff. Despite missing the playoffs last year after promising the World Series, 2005 at this point seems like a bunch of strangers growing more and more distant.

    Harper is another year older at a point in his career where he’s still got plenty of years to spare, which also means he’s a year smarter, while spending the offseason getting “as big as a house.” A team of young, frightening players who keep adding improvements of varying size means we’re not in RFK Stadium anymore.

     

    2005 Braves

    Record: 90-72

    Manager: Bobby Cox 

    Former Phillies: Johnny Estrada

    Future Phillies: Pete Orr 

    Best player: Chipper Jones (.296 BA, .968 OPS, 21 HR, 4.1 WAR)

    Chipper only made it to 109 games that year, but you kind of got the feeling that he wouldn’t have suffered a drop off in 53 games severe enough to tarnish his numbers. At this point, the Braves winning the division was so ho-hum you didn’t really consider another possibility. No one knew that this would be the final time before a horrifying seven-year journey across a playoff-less desert.

    And then…

    • 2006: Miss playoffs for first time in 14 years.
    • 2010: Bobby Cox, Chipper Jones retire.
    • 2013: Win NL East with new regime.

    2014 Braves

    Manager: Fredi Gonzalez

    Former Phillies: Freddy Garcia

    Best Player: Freddie Freeman (1B, .319 BA, .897 OPS, 23 HR, 109 RBI, 5.4 WAR)

    Just Added: Ryan Doumit, most young players for years to come

    Really, the Braves have gone full circle in the time since 2005. It was their last year as NL East champs for a bit, leading to struggles along with the debuts and development of young talent, of which they seem to have too much for it to be legal. Now, they're back on top, completing a process the Phillies are only just beginning.

    Do you ever accidentally notice that Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Andrelton Simmons are all 23 years old, and just shudder? The 2014 Braves are just the beginning of a return to dominance for the Braves, as well as, hopefully, a return to losing in the first round of the playoffs.

    However, they have not done anything in the offseason to really get better than they are, other than replacing seven-time All-Star Brian McCann with no-time any-stars Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit, so in actuality, they’re probably a little bit worse than last year. Tim Hudson is also gone, leaving his spot in the rotation in the hands of Mike Minor. They have the talent to be in the mix, but remain vulnerable to lengthy offensive lapses, as Dan Uggla and both the Uptons are just as liable to strike out swinging as they are to hit the longest home run of the season.

    In lieu of free agent signings, the Braves systematically locked up a lot of their younglings, like Freeman, Simmons, starter Julio Teheran, and closer Craig Kimbrel. They even notched manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren some more job security while they were at it.

     

    2005 Mets

    Record: 83-79

    Manager: Willie Randolph 

    Future Phillies: Miguel Cairo, Pedro Martinez

    Former Phillies: Roberto Hernandez

    Best player: David Wright (3B, .306 BA, .912 OPS, 27 HR, 102 RBI, 4.7 WAR)

    David Wright was 22 in 2005. Can you imagine a barely legal David Wright on your team, hitting over .300 for the season, maintaining that OPS, a whole career of divisional and playoff wins ahead of him? Yes, you can.

    You have to imagine it, because it didn’t happen in real life. What a magical time, though. The Mets had so much heartbreak ahead of them, and they didn’t even know it. Collapses, scandals, K-Rod, stray dogs, heaps of not figurative garbage, the owner mocking the players in an interview… *sigh.* We didn’t know how lucky we were.

    At the time in 2005, however, they were building to contend, and would even win the NL East the next season. Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd were both on this team, but neither would be for much longer. Jose Reyes was also only 22, and Carlos Beltran wasn’t even 30; a time that feels very distant now.

    And then…

    • 2008: September collapse eliminates them from playoffs, following similar collapse in 2007.
    • 2008: Ownership’s involvement in Bernie Madoff scandal increases financial trouble.
    • 2011: Sandy Alderson replaces Omar Minaya as GM.

    2014 Mets

    Manager: Terry Collins

    Former Phillies: John Lannan

    Best Player: David Wright (3B, .307 BA, .904 OPS, 18 HR, 58 RBI, 5.7 WAR in 112 games)

    Just Added: Curtis Granderson, Chris Young, Bartolo Colon, John Lannan, Jose Valverde

    Jose Reyes is gone, Johan Santana is gone, Carlos Beltran is gone, K-Rod is gone, Omar Minaya is gone, Piazza and Floyd are long gone. The Mets could have made it work in the mid-late 2000s, but didn't. Now another generation is starting and they can feel even further removed from the nothingness of the recent past.

    Whatever the Mets are trying to be now, they’ll be being it without Matt Harvey for one season, which already puts a damper on things. The Mets aren’t quite ready to contend, but they should be able to compete, which is a nice way to say "annoying." With Curtis Granderson in center, they nabbed one of the upper tier blockbuster free agents from the market, and put him in an outfield that’s been mostly scoffed at for years. Some day, if Zack Wheeler breaks through and Harvey returns from Tommy John with a vengeance, there could be a potent 1-2 punch guiding the Mets’ staff.

    What the Mets need is time to keep passing. Alderson has control over the situation and is slowly putting out fires, or moving them to where they burn a little more strategically. His guidance will take the Mets to good places, just probably not yet. Our only chance is to trap him under something heavy.

     

    2005 Marlins

    Record: 83-79

    Manager: Jack McKeon 

    Future Phillies: Jeff Conine, Antonio Alfonseca, Juan Pierre

    Former Phillies: Paul Quantrill

    Best player: Miguel Cabrera, 22 (LF, .323 BA, .947 OPS, 33 HR, 116 RBI, 5.2 WAR in 158 games)

    Remember when I was gushing over a 22-year-old David Wright? Meet 22-year-old Miguel Cabrera, who also didn’t need much of an acclamation period to get his bearings in Major League Baseball.

    This year, the Marlins’ biggest contract on the books became Carlos Delgado’s four-year, $52 million deal. Two straight 83-79 third place seasons weren’t exactly what the franchise had in mind when they made a couple of high-end free agent grabs, like Delgado, so that meant it was time to shake things up. And if Marlins ownership has any reputation, it’s that their personnel and financial moves are always adept, effective, and not evil.

    And then…

    • 2006: David Samson’s “Market Correction” drops most of roster; team denies trade package from Tigers that would have gotten them Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson for Dontrelle Willis.
    • 2007: Team values “quality” over “quantity” during another trade-dump of its stars and misses out on getting Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw from the Dodgers.
    • 2011: Jeffrey Loria guts community and builds a new stadium, team rebrands, rebuilds, goes 69-93. 

    2014 Marlins

    Manager: Mike Redmond 

    Former Phillies: Greg Dobbs 

    Future Phillies: Giancarlo Stanton?

    Best Player: Jose Fernandez (P, 2.19 ERA, 187 SO, 0.979 WHIP, 3.22 SO/BB, 6.3 WAR in 172.2 IP) 

    Just Added: Jarred Saltalamacchia, Jeff Baker

    The Marlins wanted Jarred Saltalamacchia, and they got him. Not sure how excited he genuinely was to assimilate with this group, but he’ll be starting and have the chance to be productive. Jose Fernandez was amazing to watch last year, whether he was blowing Troy Tulowitzki’s mind or getting in Brian McCann’s face, and Stanton will always be good for a broken scoreboard or two.

    But no, this will presumably be another in a long line of “nothing” years in Miami, where they play bad baseball, run by horrible owners in an empty, $634 million stadium.

     

    2005 Phillies

    Record: 88-74

    Manager: Charlie Manuel 

    Best player: Chase Utley (2B, .291 BA, .915 OPS, 28 HR, 105 RBI, 7.2 WAR in 147 games)

    Future Phillies: Bobby Abreu, Marlon Byrd, Jim Thome, Placido Polanco

    There was once a time when Ryan Howard was more than just the thumbnail of “Top 10 Worst Contracts” slideshows. The Phillies shared some traits with a few current NL East teams; not quite there, still figuring out some things, but pretty sure the future would hold a few payoffs.

    Despite missing the postseason, they forced themselves into the picture. The main complaints weren’t that they looked incompetent - or used Michael Young as a starting infielder - it was that they stumbled at some point or another (SEE: April) and lost themselves a couple of games on the Braves.

    Also, both Ugueth Urbina and Jose Offerman were on this team.

    And then…

    • 2008: Won World Series.
    • 2010: Ruben Amaro Jr. inks Ryan Howard to needless five-year, $125 million extension.
    • 2012: Dumped Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence in deadline deals during first non-playoff year since 2006.

    2014 Phillies

    Manager: Ryne Sandberg

    Best Player: Chase Utley (2B .284, .823 OPS, 18 HR, 69 RBI, 3.5 WAR in 131 games) 

    Just Added: Marlon Byrd, Brad Lincoln, Bobby Abreu, Jeff Manship, A.J. Burnett

    The Phillies made their biggest move late in the offseason, signing Burnett to a perfectly normal one-year agreement that doesn't hold anybody back. Assuming Burnett pitches as well as last year - and hey, it's the preseason, why not fire assumptions wildly into the crowd - he gives the Phillies a legitimate rotation. He could wind up rivaling the Jamie Moyer/Matt Stairs acquisitions as the best of the offseason.

    I suppose it’s a testament to Utley that he remains the dominant force in this lineup, or at least the consistent force, after years of aging and knee problems. Ryan Howard is being banked on for his offense, again, with a deep hole to crawl out of. And Jimmy Rollins, always the optimist, can’t be too happy with how far the team has fallen, but doesn’t seem too concerned about staying there.

    Cole Hamels has noted publicly that to get better the team needs changes, which did start to occur when Burnett was acquired. Hamels' tendinitis woes are concerning, but his assurances that we shouldn't worry are nice. Cody Asche is exciting, and Maikel Franco will be showing up in spring training for a peek.

    Jonathan Papelbon will never be able to close well enough to vindicate a contract of his size. Behind him, a bounty of young arms could prove valuable, and the addition of Brad Lincoln isn’t awful – it just really shouldn’t be the best one the Phillies could pull off, if they really did consider themselves contenders.

    The Phillies have gone the opposite direction of their NL East colleagues, but they did play five straight seasons of postseason baseball. Now, they aren't unrecognizable by their faces, but by their stats. Amaro didn't have a bad offseason, but his mixed statements on the team's near future are unclear, leaving the Phillies in a somewhat ambiguous state of being, in need of youth and stability.

    Justin Klugh Philly.com
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