Belated Previews: AL & NL East

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

New Arrival – You can’t mention newcomers to this division without bringing up Francisco Rodriguez, the new Met closer, who helps strengthen the back of the Met bullpen, but what about JJ Putz? Putz (pictured) will likely man the 8th inning for the Mets and if he can return to 2007 form (1.38 ERA, 82 strikeouts in 71.2 innings), Met starters can comfortably turn over the game and head to the locker room knowing their win can be preserved.

We Won’t Will Won’t Miss You? – The Marlins typically trade their entire team each off-season, but one impact player to leave the NL East not from the Fish is Pat Burrell, who leaves with a ring, although one can argue he didn’t contribute much to it. Burrell went 1-for-14 in the World Series and leaves Philadelphia a career .257 hitter with 1273 strikeouts in 9 seasons, but Pat the Bat did hit 251 home runs in those 9 seasons. The Phillies think they upgraded with the addition of Raul Ibanez, who is a much better fielder than Burrell, but time will tell if Ibanez can replace Burrell’s career average of 31 home runs and 103 RBI per season.

How They’ll Finish:

1. Phillies – The champs are the favorite in the NL East with the best infield in the majors as three players (Utley, Howard, Rollins) are arguably the best at their position. The outfield leaves a lot to be desired as Ibanez isn’t a sure bet in left, but their pitching should be consistent if everyone stays healthy. Watch for Cole Hamels to follow up his stellar postseason with a Cy Young type year.
2. Mets – Pitching wins championships and that’s why the Mets still finish second in the division. Sure, they helped their bullpen out a lot, but after Johan Santana, can you really count on Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, John Maine, and Livan Hernandez to carry you to the World Series? I don’t think so. Perez is inconsistent at best, Pelfrey had one good year and should continue to develop. Maine is a question mark and what does Livan have left in the tank? The Mets hope he has a lot. There’s also no way Carlos Delgado duplicates his 2008 season at age 37.
3. Marlins – They have a new stadium coming and every six years or so, the Fish win the World Series. I think the Marlins are still a couple pieces short of the postseason in 2009, but don’t count the future Miami Marlins out entirely in the NL East race – they’ll stay in the race for a while and could win the division in 2010.
4. Braves – The Braves are a team in decline and the Derek Lowe signing doesn’t do them any favors in the rebuilding process. After a nice long run in the 1990s, the Braves need to strip their team and completely rebuild, an unenviable task for any GM.
5. Nationals – The addition of Adam Dunn gives the Nats a player that baseball fans have actually heard of. They chased Mark Teixeira who chose pinstripes instead of the nation’s capitol and did so because of the chance to win. It will be a long time before the Nats flirt with .500.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

Ah yes, my favorite division.  I think that three of the five teams in the AL East are going to win at least 90 games, which should make for an interesting and historically tight race. Which team will come out on top?

New Arrival – While the $160 million man CC Sabathia has garnered much of the media attention and hype in the Bronx, AJ Burnett (pictured) is a key acquisition for the Yankees. In 10 years in the bigs Burnett has only been healthy enough to pitch 200 innings three times – each in a contract year. Burnett won’t have a contract year for another five years and the Yankees hope he can shake the injury bug so he doesn’t wind up like another former Marlin who signed with the Yankees after a big year – Carl Pavano.

We (Might) Miss You – Maybe he hasn’t departed yet, but with the Blue Jays pretty far out of contention this year, start the Roy Halladay trade watch. Halladay is only under contract through 2010 and could fetch a king’s ransom if the Blue Jays decide to trade him. The only way Toronto is going to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox is going the way of the Rays and building from the farm system. That means trading Halladay by July 31.

How They’ll Finish:

1. Yankees – It’s almost too close to call, but if the Yankees stay healthy they will win at least 95 games and the AL East title. With 18 game winner Chien-Ming Wang as your number 3 starter, there are few teams in baseball that can rival the Yankees rotation depth. If Joba Chamberlain is their fifth starter, their sixth and seventh starters are highly touted (although less so after a disastrous 2008) Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Hughes is the real deal and is a future Cy Young candidate. Pitching wins championships and the Yanks win the East.
2. Red Sox – They made great pickups in the off-season taking fliers on John Smoltz, Rocco Baldelli, and Takashi Saito to bolster their depth. Their pitching staff is good, but can Wakefield and Smoltz (each over 40) each shoulder the load of the rotation that is expected to go deep into October? If not, Clay Buchholz is a more-than suitable replacement.
3. Rays – Let’s be real for a minute. They are arguably more talented this year than last with the eventual arrival of David Price, but their bullpen has HUGE questions, starting with who is going to close? Watch for a Mets-like collapse because of bullpen problems as the Rays fade away back to a *mediocre* (only in the AL East) 88-90 wins.
4. Orioles – Future rookie sensation Matt Wieters is the real deal and will jump into the MVP race when he gets called up, let alone the Rookie of the Year race. Adam Jones continues to develop and they have one of the most exciting players in the league in Nick Markakis, but alas, someone has to lose games in this division.
5. Blue Jays– Picked to finish last because of age (Vernon Wells, Scott Rolen, et al) in their lineup, not in their rotation. Their starters are pretty good and will strike out a lot of hitters, but with a so-so offense behind them, the starters can’t win games.

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