Two reasons the Braves’ subdued offseason has been poorly received by many locals: The 2011 season didn’t end well, and other members of the National League East have made bigger personnel noise. (It would, we can agree, be hard to make less noise than simply paying Derek Lowe to go away.)
Conventional wisdom holds that the Braves have been content to sit idle while the rest of the division moves onward and upward, but conventional wisdom can sometimes be less than wise. As pitchers and catchers set to work at Lake Buena Vista — if you can call what transpires in spring training “work” — let’s eyeball the Eastern bloc:
Philadelphia Phillies (finished 102-60 last season, 13 games ahead of the Braves): Lost closer Ryan Madson but added closer Jonathan Papelbon; lost left fielder Raul Ibanez and starting pitcher Roy Oswalt; will be without first baseman Ryan Howard, who tore his Achilles tendon on the final play of the Division Series, probably until Memorial Day.
Unless Vance Worley and Joe Blanton fall to pieces, the Phillies shouldn’t miss Oswalt, who was the fourth of the Big Four, and Papelbon figures to be a slight upgrade on Madson. But the everyday eight will struggle without Howard, and even his biggest years seem behind him. At 32, he’s the youngest among starting infielders. (And catcher Carlos Ruiz is 33, and center fielder Shane Victorino is 31.)
Starting pitching and the 2011 deadline addition of Hunter Pence should enable the Phillies to bleed out one more division title — that’ll make six in a row — but Philly’s window is closing. Last season’s Round 1 exit puts even more pressure on this aging team.
Washington Nationals (finished 80-81, 8 1/2 games behind the Braves: Added starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson and relievers Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin; lost Livan Hernandez, who made it his lot in life to beat the Braves 10 times a year for the past 50 years. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.)
The Nationals have targeted this as their year of arrival: The famous pitcher Stephen Strasburg should be recovered from his 2010 surgery, and the almost-as-famous hitting prospect Bryce Harper could be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. (And there’s another big hitter — third baseman Anthony Rendon — in the chain.)
The elder Nats, however, are less imposing. Outfielder Jayson Werth hit .232 on the first year of his $126-million contract. Shortstop Ian Desmond has made 77 errors the past two seasons. The first baseman is Adam LaRoche, who’s 32 and is coming off shoulder surgery.
New York Mets (finished 77-85, 12 games behind the Braves): Lost shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Angel Pagan; added closer Frank Francisco.
There’s not much to say. Owing to their Bernie-Madoff-incurred financial straits, the Mets have little to spend and are all but bereft of top-shelf talent. They should finish last by some distance.
Miami Marlins (finished 72-90, 17 games behind the Braves): Hired Ozzie Guillen as manager; added shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell and starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano; lost starting pitcher Javier Vazquez.
It’s a toss-up as to which NL’Easter is more pumped for 2012 — Washington or the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins. The Fish will move into their new downtown ballpark, which comes equipped with a retractable roof and actual fish tanks behind home plate, and they’ve spent nearly $200 million of fixer-upper money on free agents. Even Phillies manager Charlie Manuel indicated he sees the Marlins as the “biggest threat.”
But are they? The advent of Reyes means incumbent shortstop Hanley Ramirez will move to third base, and Ramirez has already expressed differing emotions about the move. Zambrano’s temperament can render his arm ineffective, and No. 1 starter Josh Johnson missed nearly all of last season with shoulder soreness. On paper, this seems a good team. On the field, it could be rather less.
Projections: The Braves chose to do little over the offseason because they believe enough players who had bad years will remember who they are, or were. That’s a risk, yes, but it’s a considered one. Much went wrong for the 2011 Braves, and still they won 89 games. Before we wring our hands over the possibility of them being passed in the standings, we need ask: Are the young Nationals capable of improving by 10 games? Are the new-look Marlins primed to improve by 18?
Much has changed, but really not much has changed. The Braves figure to be the second-best team in the East and the National League team best equipped to draw the wild card. Given that the wild-card holder wound up winning the 2011 World Series, that’s not such a bad place to be.
By Mark Bradley