The Nationals are a beast

Let’s not kid ourselves: The Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East. The Braves are worthy contenders, with few flaws. But as far as I can tell the Nationals have no weaknesses.

On offense, they’ve added Denard Span to bat lead-off and return talented backstop Wilson Ramos, who will compete with Kurt Suzuki — 25 RBI in 43 games w/ Washington — for playing time. Rochey, a lock for 25 HR and 90 RBI, is also back., Jayson Werth rebounded in 2012 and Ryan Zimmerman, who had a .945 OPS after the break, appears primed for a monster season.

Ian Desmond is coming off a monster year and may be the best SS in baseball. The line-up’s weakest link, 2B Danny Espinosa, hit 37 doubles, 17 HR and stole 20 bases.

And, of course, there’s Bryce Harper, who hit .330 with 7 HR and a 1.043 OPS in September.

The Braves line-up has the potential to be better, but not much.

As for the reserves, Washington wins in a landslide. Their bench features Ramos/Suzuki, Tyler Moore (10 HR in part-time duty), Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy. Ours: Reed Johnson, Chris Johnson/Juan Francisco and three guys (Janish/Pena, Laird, Constanza/Schafer) who offer the occasional single, if you’re lucky.

The Nats have the edge defensively, as well. Andrelton is easily the best fielder on either team, but the Nats are better at 3B, 2B and C while 1B is probably a wash. Both teams boast athletic outfields.

The Braves rotation is good, but Washington’s is better. If Medlen and Minor pitch like they did in the second half they can hang with Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, but that’s a tall order. Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren compare favorably to Huddy, Maholm and Teheran. Gonzalez may end up with a 50-game suspension, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Yes, the Braves have a superior bullpen, but with Soriano joining Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard the Nats are no slouch. Watch out for Christian Garcia, who was tough down the stretch and regularly hits triple digits on the radar gun. He’s also been mentioned as a candidate for the rotation if an opening arises. If pressed to name a flaw I’d point to their lack of  reliable late-innings southpaw — Sean Burnett signed with the Angels, leaving only discarded Pirate starter Zach Duke.

The Braves may well be the second best team in the NL, but the Nats are clearly the best team in either league. I’d put their over/under at 98 wins.

Best winter in NL East? Could be the Mets

Sit on it, Philly!

Mets fans should be thrilled by the proposed R.A. Dickey to Toronto trade. New York will reportedly receive two former first round draft picks: catcher Travis d’Arnaud (.286 BA and .816 OPS in the minors) and pitcher Noah Snydergaard (13-8, 2.35 ERA, 1.085 WHIP)  – an impressive haul for a 38-year-old pitcher.

New York also kept its franchise player, David Wright, for $138 million over 8 years. It’s a risky deal, as Wright will be 37 when his contract expires, but considering some of the deals handed out this winter it’s not unreasonable.

They still have a LONG way to go, as evidenced by their projected Opening Day outfield of Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Jordany Valdespin and Lucas Duda.

The Nats imported Denard Span and Dan Haren, discarding Edwin Jackson and either Rochey or Michael Morse. Call it even.

The Bravos hope to draw even before the season starts but as of now they’re on the wrong end of the Chipper and Bourn for B.J. Upton swap.

Philly is the NL version of the Yanks, aging and fading. They were able to snag a player the Braves wanted, Ben Revere, but he didn’t come cheap. Their new third baseman, Michael Young, is a middle class man’s Placido Polanco, which is another way of saying I’ll take my chances on Juan Francisco. They’re reportedly hot for Cody Ross, which is sort of like being hot for Marion Ross.

Then there’s Miami. Unfortunately for the 38 remaining Marlins fans, Jeffrey Loria did not trade himself. They have Giancarlo Stanton — for now, but don’t be surprised if Texas rescues him from south Florida.

This is why you don’t build stadiums for billionaires

UPDATE: It’s official, reports Buster Olney.

How many franchises can I destroy?

The Marlins have surrendered, for next year and beyond.

They have reportedly shipped Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck to the Blue Jays for Yesco, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, RHP Henderson Alvarez, LHP Justin Nicolino, OF Jake Marisnick, C Jeff Mathis, and RHP Anthony DeSclafani.

Three of those players rank among Toronto’s Top 10 prospects, but that’s a helluva bounty. Miami now has just $16 million committed to next year’s payroll.

Perhaps FW should inquire about Giancarlo Stanton.

Ranking the NL East: Defense

None of the NL East teams will be mistaken for the early-to-mid-1980s Cardinals teams.

First, the infields:

The Phils are competent but aging. The Braves are a shade worse and have an untested shortstop who doesn’t project as a superior defenders. The Fish have a crappy SS moving to third but are more solid up the middle than Philly or the local nine. The Mets have a second sacker who makes Dan Uggla look like Roberto Alomar and a SS I know nothing about.

That leaves Washington, and even they’re shaky. But in Zimmerman, Desmond and Espinosa, the Nats have the most talented IF defenders, though their DP combo needs to cut down on the errors. Meanwhile, Wilson Ramos is a gifted backstop, potentially the best in the division defensively.

The Braves may rank near the bottom in infield defense but their OF leads the pack, thanks to Michael Bourn. Otherwise, only Philly ranks average or above.

Ranking the NL East Rotations

No. 5: Easy. The Mets. Their ace has had a hell of a career. Makes a mountain of money. But he hasn’t pitched in two years. He has not made 30 starts since 2008. Chances of him doing so this year are about the same as Duane from Forest Park being the next Fed chairman. The No. 2 starter probably wouldn’t make the Braves’ rotation. One-time elite prospect Mike Pelfrey is really tall. Say that for him.  His career WHIP is worse than Rick Mahler’s. Next up is Jon Niese, the Capt. Mediocre of young southpaws. In his two full big league seasons, he’s 20-21 with a 4.31 ERA and a WHIP north of 1.4. The old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey might well be their best pitcher if Santana does not regain his health. Then bringing up the rear is yet another portrait in mediocrity, Dillon Gee. The Mets have the only truly bad rotation in the division.

No. 4: Tough call between the Natspos and Miami, but I’ll say the Dolph….um, Marlins. Josh Johnson’s health is at least as questionable as Strasburg’s. I think the Fish might have a smidge more reliable depth in their starting five, with Buehrle, Sanchez, Nolasco and the combustible Carlos Zambrano.  But Washington’s top three of Strasburg, Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez is younger, better and that staff has a higher upside than Miami’s. If Johnson is healthy, it’s a solid group. If not, it could be a struggle.  

No. 3: D.C. Their top three could be formidable. But Strasburg and Zimmerman have both had serious arm injuries recently. After those two and Gonzalez, the quality falls off with Edwin Jackson, who has shown promise but topped out at as merely adequate, and John Lannan, who’s workmanlike. C.M. Wang is in the wings. He used to be good, but the last time he pitched more than a half season, 2007, Scott Thorman was the Braves’ opening-day first baseman and a house was considered a good investment.   

No. 2: Our Boys. Huddy has been excellent the past two seasons. Beachy looks like he might be ready to pitch deeper and become a superb fourth starter. Health is obviously a question for Hanson and Jurrjens. The Braves lack a true ace the likes of Halladay or (if healthy) J. Johnson. But the quality goes deep. With bad injury luck, the Nats or even Marlins could surpass our starting staff. But If JJ and Tommy make 30 starts each and Beachy progresses, this group will be as good as any in the league except for …..

No. 1: The Phils. It’s a tired song, but it’s true. Halladay, Lee and Hamels–forgive me, Lord — are as imposing as prime Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz. Lat season, all three Phillies pitched more than 215 innings, had ERAs under 2.80 and posted WHIPs under 1.05. They have three No. 1 starters, plain and simple. Vance Worley was good last year. Joe Blanton is average. When you have a clear-cut advantage three of every five games, your fourth and fifth guys can be average.

That second WC may come in handy

According to Buster Olney, rival execs believe the Nats are going to land Prince Fielder, bad news for Braves fans. Adding him to a line-up that already boasts Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth (a decent bet to rebound with those big guns protecting him in the batting order) — along with up-and-comers Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper — sends a message that the future is now in D.C.

While their pitching lacks the depth of the Braves staff, it’s fronted by a trio of young studs (Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez) and anchored by top set-up reliever Tyler Clippard and stud closer Drew Storen.

The Marlins have grabbed the headlines so far this offseason but even if they don’t sign Fielder I fear the Nats more.

 

Could the Braves have the lowest payroll in the NL East?

Probably not in 2012, as Ken Rosenthal reports the Braves are likely to raise payroll, although I’m guessing it will be a modest (think $5 million) increase, if any.

It’ll be a slight jump compared to the Nats and Marlins, who are reportedly bidding on the likes of Pujols, Fielder, C.J. Wilson and Reyes. Signing just one of those players would bump their payrolls — $63 million and $56 million in 2011, respectively — into the Braves’ neighborhood.

That neighborhood will also likely include the Mets, looking to shed a significant amount from the $118 million it spent last season. How does you spend $118 million and end up with R.J. Dickey as your ace?

Let’s hope he’s as overrated as Tebow

Nationals prospect and Yankees fan Bryce Harper, aka Borasbot II, strikes the cliched prose popularized by the 2011 version of Gilbert Renfroe. Get ready to start hating Harper — his performance in the Arizona Fall League has spurred talk of the Nats including him on the Opening Day roster.

Next year could be tougher

At least in the NL East. The Phils will still be the Phils and the Nats are already talking about bolstering their rotation.

The Nationals have sent a scout to Oakland to watch Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson pitch against the Athletics on Wednesday, according to two baseball sources.

It more than likely means that the Nationals will have interest in Wilson, who is a free agent after the World Series.

Wilson, Strasburg and Zimmerman would be a formidable trio. Jayson Stark reports scouts expect Prince Fielder to end up with the Nats, who’ve also discussed trading for B.J. Upton. Even the Marlins are making noise about spending big. I doubt they’ll exceed the Braves’ payroll but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nats do.

The Nats are beginning to scare me

Steven Strasburg has been virtually unhittable in the minors and will likely make his major league debut by the first of June. Now there’s talk Roy Oswalt might join him in D.C. It would be a smart move even if they were out of contention as it’s asking a lot of a rookie pitcher — no matter how talented — to carry a staff.