NL East showdown: Position rankings

January, 11, 2012
1/11/12
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Mike Stanton/Hunter Pence/Jason HeywardGetty Images/US PresswireThe best right fielder in the NL East? Mike Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jason Heyward have their fans.
This is back-of-the-napkin stuff ... but fun back-of-the-napkin stuff. As we wait to see if Prince Fielder does land in Washington, let's check out the state of the NL East. We'll go position by position and rank the players. Then we'll come up with a final tally (five points for first, four for second, etc.)

Catcher
1. Brian McCann, Braves
2. Wilson Ramos, Nationals
3. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
4. Josh Thole, Mets
5. John Buck, Marlins

Phillies fans will storm the bastille over this one and say I'm underestimating Ruiz's ability to call a game, but I think Wilson Ramos has a chance to be something special. He hit .267/.334/.445 as a rookie, spending most of the season at just 23 years old. The thing that bodes well is that his walk rate improved from 4 percent in Triple-A in 2010 to 8.7 percent last season. And to think they got him from the Twins for Matt Capps. Ruiz is an underrated player -- he's posted a .376 OBP the past three seasons -- but Ramos' power and potential for improvement put him at No. 2 behind McCann.

First base
1. Freddie Freeman, Braves
2. Ryan Howard/Jim Thome, Phillies
3. Ike Davis, Mets
4. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins
5. Adam LaRoche, Nationals

Yes, there's huge value for the Nationals in signing Prince Fielder. With Davis and LaRoche coming off serious injuries and Howard out for at least a couple months, I have to give the top nod to Freeman. Sure, maybe he'll succumb to the dreaded sophomore jinx, but baseball history also tells us that players often make a huge leap from age 21 to age 22. If Davis hits like he did in the 36 games he played last year (.302/.383/.543) then he's an All-Star candidate, but while he says he's "good to go" for spring training, we'll have to wait to see how his ankle responds. As for Sanchez, he's a lukewarm cup of coffee on a 32-degree day.

Second base
1. Chase Utley, Phillies
2. Danny Espinosa, Nationals
3. Dan Uggla, Braves
4. Daniel Murphy, Mets
5. Omar Infante, Marlins

I put Utley first with some hesitation: His OPS totals since 2007 read .976, .915, .905, .832 and .769. Still, that .769 figure is better than Uggla or Espinosa produced in 2011, and Utley still carries a good glove. It's defense and predicted second-season improvement that pushes Espinosa over Uggla. Murphy doesn't hit many home runs or draw many walks, so most of his offensive value resides in his batting average. If he hits .320 again, he's a good player. If he hits .290, then he's still better than Infante.

Third base
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
2. David Wright, Mets
3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
4. Chipper Jones, Braves
5. Placido Polanco, Phillies

If healthy, Zimmerman is one of the best players in the league. Ramirez and Wright were once part of that discussion, but no longer. Both players had the worst years of their careers in 2011. Will Wright rebound with the fences moved in at Citi Field? Will Ramirez bounce back and handle the transition to third base? Your guess is as good as mine. Chipper is aging gracefully, playing through injuries but still putting up respectable numbers. If this is his last season, I hope he goes out in style.

Shortstop
1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
3. Ruben Tejada, Mets
4. Ian Desmond, Nationals
5. Tyler Pastornicky, Braves

Not much debate here. Tejada posted a .360 OBP in 2011 as a 21-year-old. He doesn't have any power, but I believe the Mets are in good hands at shortstop. The same can't be said about Desmond, who must improve his defense (23 errors) and approach at the plate (139/35 SO/BB ratio). Pastornicky hit .314 in the minors last year, including .365 in 27 games in Triple-A. He puts the ball in play and has some speed, but won't hit for much power or draw many walks, so he'll need to hit for a good average to hold the job.

Left field
1. Michael Morse, Nationals
2. Martin Prado, Braves
3. Logan Morrison, Marlins
4. Domonic Brown/John Mayberry, Phillies
5. Jason Bay, Mets

We have to consider Morse the real deal by now, don't we? Although he comes with a few caveats: That 126/36 SO/BB ratio is a concern; so is his .344 average on balls in play, which ranked 15th in the majors (can he repeat that figure?); and finally, he plays left field a bit like a fire hydrant. By the way, how bad is this group defensively? Morrison may have even less range than Morse, Brown looked terrible in right field with the Phillies last year and Bay isn't getting paid $16 million because he's adept at running down balls in the gap. Actually, I'm not sure what he's getting paid for.

Center field
1. Shane Victorino, Phillies
2. Michael Bourn, Braves
3. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
4. Andres Torres, Mets
5. Roger Bernadina, Nationals

This seems pretty straightforward other than the ongoing raging debate between Andres Torres fans and Roger Bernadina fans.

Right field
1. Mike Stanton, Marlins
2. Hunter Pence, Phillies
3. Jason Heyward, Braves
4. Jayson Werth, Nationals
5. Lucas Duda, Mets

Mike Stanton ... 2012 National League MVP? Too soon? I'm just saying don't be surprised if it happens.

No. 1 starter
1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
2. Josh Johnson, Marlins
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
4. Tim Hudson, Braves
5. Johan Santana, Mets

Is there a more important player in the majors in 2012 than Johnson? The Marlins fancy themselves contenders but they need a healthy Johnson headlining the rotation. After leading the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, he had posted a 1.64 ERA through 10 starts in 2011 before shoulder tendinitis shelved him for the season. He's been throwing and long tossing and is expected to be 100 percent for spring training. Strasburg has the ability to be just as dominant as Halladay and Johnson, but the Nationals will likely monitor his innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

No. 2 starter
1. Cliff Lee, Phillies
2. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
3. Mark Buehrle, Marlins
4. Tommy Hanson, Braves
5. R.A. Dickey, Mets

This is a terrific group of No. 2 starters, as even the knuckleballer Dickey posted a 3.28 ERA in 2011 (and 3.08 ERA over the past two seasons). Hanson has Cy Young ability, but his own shoulder issues from late last season raise a red flag.

No. 3 starter
1. Cole Hamels, Phillies
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
3. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins
4. Jair Jurrjens, Braves
5. Mike Pelfrey, Mets

Zimmermann is the sleeping giant in the Nationals rotation. His strikeout/walk ratio of 4.0 ranked 11th-best among starters in 2011 and another year beyond his own TJ surgery should help him develop the stamina to improve on his second-half numbers (2.66 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.47 after). I'm not a big Jurrjens fan; he's a good pitcher, but he's now battled injuries two seasons in a row and his strikeout rate took a big dip last season.

No. 4 starter
1. Brandon Beachy, Braves
2. Vance Worley, Phillies
3. John Lannan, Nationals
4. Jonathon Niese, Mets
5. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins

You could draw this list out of a hat. Beachy and Worley surprised many with their exceptional rookie seasons; I believe both are for real, as both seemed to deliver better-than-advertised fastballs. Now they just have to prove they can become seven-inning pitchers instead of five or six. Niese is an excellent breakout candidate in 2012: He throws hard enough for a lefty (90-91), gets strikeouts, doesn't walk too many, gets groundballs. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 3.36 compared to his actual ERA of 4.40. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win 15 games with a 3.40 ERA. It would surprise me if Nolasco does that; 2008 is starting to look further and further in the rear-view mirror.

No. 5 starter
1. Mike Minor, Braves
2. Carlos Zambrano, Marlins
3. Dillon Gee, Mets
4. Chien-Ming Wang, Nationals
5. Joe Blanton/Kyle Kendrick, Phillies

If you're talking depth, the big edge here goes to the Braves, who also have prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino ready to step in. Big Z is a nice gamble by the Marlins as a No. 5 starter, you could do worse.

Closer
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
3. Drew Storen, Nationals
4. Heath Bell, Marlins
5. Frank Francisco, Mets

As dominant as Kimbrel was in winning Rookie of the Year honors (14.8 K's per nine), he did blow eight saves. But Papelbon is just one season removed from his own season of eight blown saves. Factor in Kimbrel's K rate and slightly heavier workload, and I'll give him the slight nod. Bell will have to prove himself away from the friendly confines of Petco Park, so Storen rates the clear No. 3 here.

Bullpen
1. Braves -- Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro
2. Marlins -- Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Randy Choate
3. Nationals -- Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Perry, Tom Gorzelanny
4. Phillies -- Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Dontrelle Willis, David Herndon, Jose Contreras
5. Mets -- Bobby Parnell, Jon Rauch, Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak, Manny Acosta

The top four teams all project to have solid-to-excellent pens. Venters and Clippard are arguably the two best set-up guys in baseball. Cishek is the rare sidearmer who can get lefties out as well as righties and he allowed just one home run in 54 innings as a rookie. The Phillies don't need many innings from their pen and while Willis could be a terrific lefty killer (lefties hit .127 off him in 2011), Bastardo must rebound from his late-season fatigue.

Intangibles
1. Marlins
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Mets

New stadium, new free agents, new manager, new uniforms -- I view all of that as a plus for the Marlins. The playoffs left a sour taste for the Phillies' veteran-heavy squad and those guys will want nothing more than to win a sixth straight division title. The Braves have plenty of incentive after their late-season collapse. The Nationals are young but have no chip on their shoulder. But if they sign Prince ...

The final tally
1. Phillies, 58 points
2. Braves, 56 points
3. Marlins, 49 points
4. Nationals, 48 points
5. Mets, 29 points

And the napkin says the Phillies are still the division favorite. What, you want to bet against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels?

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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