The return of baseball brings unbridled optimism for fans of many teams. Last season's underdogs can become this year's powerhouses, as the Nationals, Athletics and Orioles proved in 2012. The injured veteran, the slumping sophomore and the projectable rookie are a few of the many targets for prognosticators. Many are happy to toss their far-reaching predictions out there, knowing that, should they be wrong, it will be buried under the avalanche of Twitter posts and stories from the season, and if on the money, the writer can gleefully retrieve it from the archives.
Two of many such predictions recently came from an unlikely pair: Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth and FOX Sports writer Jon Morosi.
OK, I will make this public: I believe the Phillies will finish ahead of the Braves this year. @ mlbonfox
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) February 26, 2013
And Werth? From the Washington Post:
Back in Viera, as he tied his shoes for a morning workout, Jayson Werth was asked if he considered the Braves or Philadelphia Phillies a bigger threat. Werth, the former Phillie, did not hesitate.
"Phillies," he said. "I think everybody is writing them off. They played good in September when they were healthy. They're not going to roll over, that's for sure."
And about the Braves? "Yeah, the Braves got the Upton brothers," Werth said. "But they lost [Martin] Prado and Chipper."
Are we giving the Phillies enough credit? Let's compare the three teams on a position-by-position basis, looking at both their ZiPS and PECOTA projections.
Phillies: Carlos Ruiz and Erik Kratz
Ruiz will miss the first 25 games of the season, serving a suspension for violating baseball's drug policy, so Kratz will assume the starting role for the first month. Ruiz had a career year in 2012, finishing with a .935 OPS, the 10th-best mark in baseball. His walk rate significantly declined, but his on-base percentage stayed afloat thanks to a lofty .325 batting average. Projections see him regressing significantly: ZiPS sees a .785 OPS while PECOTA sees .751. As for Kratz, the backup is projected at .747 and .710, respectively. Defensively, Ruiz is known for calling a good game and blocking balls in the dirt; Kratz doesn't have the same defensive chops but did make a name for himself throwing out basestealers from his knees last season.
Nationals: Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos
Suzuki will assume a majority of the playing time early on, but Ramos could challenge him as he works his way back from a knee injury that kept him out most of last season. Nationals manager Davey Johnson is hoping to get Ramos into his spring training lineup in about a week, and Ramos hopes to be ready for Opening Day as the backup. Suzuki is a light-hitting backstop known more for his ability to handle a pitching staff and play solid defense, while Ramos is younger and has significantly more offensive upside. ZiPS and PECOTA project a .663 and .697 OPS for Suzuki and .766 and .729 for Ramos.
Braves: Brian McCann and Gerald Laird
McCann is on the mend from right shoulder surgery but is aiming to be ready by Opening Day. A more realistic goal would focus on his inclusion in the Braves' lineup before the end of April. The 2012 season was the veteran's worst offensive showing of his career, declining in every offensive category, including walk rate, batting average and power. When healthy, he is among the game's best offensive catchers and has developed a great rapport with the starting rotation. ZiPS projects a .790 OPS while PECOTA projects .802.
Laird is about par for the course as far as backup catchers go. He does a little of everything at a below-average level. At a relatively cheap salary of $1.5 million, that is all the Braves need him to be during the 2013 season. ZiPS projects a .656 OPS and PECOTA projects .620.
Catcher rankings: 1. Phillies 2. Nationals 3. Braves
Phillies: Ryan Howard
Howard, once one of the game's most feared sluggers, is finally healthy. He missed the first three months of 2012 recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon, then played the other three months at more or less half-efficiency, unable to run as fast as normal (which isn't very fast to begin with) or put much weight on that left leg when swinging. He finished with a .718 OPS, a veritable free fall from his previous career-low .835 set the previous season. The hope is Howard can bounce back as an integral part of the Phillies' lineup. ZiPS and PECOTA both project improvement, up to .822 and .814, respectively. Given his average-at-best defense, the Phillies will need him to bring the bat back.
Nationals: Adam LaRoche
LaRoche, whom I called "underrated" last season, returned to the Nationals on a two-year, $24 million contract. The 2012 campaign was arguably the best of LaRoche's career, as he hit a career-high 33 home runs. LaRoche also earned his first career Gold Glove (not coincidentally, it was the first year Albert Pujols was not in the National League). While he is no superstar, he certainly still has All-Star potential. ZiPS projects an .812 OPS for LaRoche while PECOTA is less optimistic at .766.
Braves: Freddie Freeman
Freeman is among a slew of young players to come up through the Braves' system and enjoy success at the major league level in recent years. At the young age of 22, Freeman posted a .796 OPS, initially starting in the No. 3 spot but finding a home at No. 5 during the second half. ZiPS projects an .846 OPS while PECOTA has him lagging at .786.
First base rankings: 1. Nationals 2. Braves 3. Phillies
When he has been healthy, Utley has been the best second baseman in baseball. Problem is, he hasn't been healthy for an entire season since 2009. For the five-year period from 2005-09, Utley led all second basemen in WAR by a vast margin. FanGraphs has him leading second-place Brian Roberts, 39.2 to 23.4 while Baseball Reference has him leading Roberts, 38.6 to 21.8. Even during his injury-plagued seasons since 2010, he managed to rank sixth among second basemen in FanGraphs WAR at 12.6, and fifth in Baseball Reference WAR at 12.3. Utley's health is arguably the most important factor impacting the Phillies' success or failure in 2013. ZiPS projects an .822 OPS, and PECOTA is right there at .806.
Nationals: Danny Espinosa
Espinosa is quietly becoming one of the better second basemen in baseball. Soon to be 26 years old, Espinosa provided slightly above-average value at a premium position last season. He combined power (37 doubles and 17 home runs) with great defense and 20 stolen bases. His biggest hurdle is his propensity to strike out: He led the league with 189 last season, and it suppressed his average (.247) and on-base percentage (.315). ZiPS and PECOTA both expect him to hover around the same level offensively, with a .745 and .710 OPS, respectively.
Braves: Dan Uggla
2012 was disappointing for Uggla in a lot of ways. Coming off five consecutive seasons with 30 or more home runs, Uggla finished with a meager 19 and an uninspiring .220 average. The good news is that he led the league in walks (94) and walk rate (15 percent), but overall, he was still a far cry from the offensive powerhouse he had been in seasons past. Considering he doesn't add any value on defense or on the bases, the Braves are hoping for a rebound at the plate in 2013. ZiPS and PECOTA do see such a rebound: .781 and .777 in terms of OPS, both besting his 2011 and '12 finishes.
Second base rankings: 1. Phillies 2. Nationals 3. Braves
Phillies: Michael Young
With -2.4 WAR last season, Young was the second-worst player in baseball, "bested" only by Jeff Francoeur. Known for his ability to hit for average, he finished with a .277 mark, his worst since 2002. As a designated hitter for about half the season, Young finished with a single-digit home run total for the first time in five seasons while playing abysmal defense when he used in the field. The Phillies, having roughly half of Young's salary being paid by the Rangers, are hoping for an offensive rebound. Both ZiPS and PECOTA see Young improving on last season's .682 OPS, at .724 and .712, respectively.
Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman
Zimmerman has battled some adversity, now recovering from offseason surgery on his right shoulder. He was sluggish throughout the first half of last season, going into the All-Star break with a .694 OPS, but he heated up afterwards. He posted a .319/.381/.564 line the rest of the way, leading the Nationals into the postseason. Zimmerman plays above-average defense at third, but his shoulder made him make some funny-looking throws to first base. Assuming the surgery did its job and Zimmerman is good to go, the Nationals should expect the same All-Star-caliber player they've seen in seasons past. ZiPS foresees an .822 OPS, and PECOTA is just a shade higher at .823.
Braves: Chris Johnson
Despite sharing the same initials as Chipper Jones, no one will confuse the two. Jones retired as one of the best third basemen of all time. Now 28, Johnson has shown flashes of potential with the Astros and Diamondbacks but will have to play under Chipper's shadow throughout his tenure in Atlanta. ZiPS has him with a .705 OPS, and PECOTA has him at .723.
Third base rankings: 1. Nationals [Veritable Chasm] 2. Braves 3. Phillies
Phillies: Jimmy Rollins
Reports of Rollins’ demise were premature. The switch-hitting veteran hit 23 home runs, recovering much of the power he lost battling leg injuries in recent seasons. He became the seventh shortstop to hit 20 or more home runs at the age of 33 or older. Rollins also stole 30 bases in 35 attempts, continuing his reign as one of baseball's best and most efficient basestealers. Both projection systems see him continuing his reign as one of the game's better-hitting shortstops. ZiPS pegs him at .747 in OPS, while PECOTA is a bit less enthusiastic at .701.
Nationals: Ian Desmond
Desmond was, without a doubt, the best offensive shortstop in baseball last season. The only shortstop who challenged him in both leagues was Ben Zobrist, but he split his time about evenly between the infield and outfield and spent more defensive innings at second base than shortstop. Desmond hit 33 doubles and 25 home runs, adding in 21 stolen bases as well. His defense still leaves something to be desired, but it's nothing the 27-year-old can’t improve upon. Both projection systems see Desmond’s .845 OPS from 2012 as a bit of a fluke: ZiPS has him regressing to .746, and PECOTA sees him falling further down to .728.
Braves: Andrelton Simmons
A case can already be made that Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the National League. Rollins took home NL Gold Glove honors last season, but Simmons could have a trophy case full of them by the time his career is over. Offensively, he is still a work in progress, posting a singles-heavy .751 OPS in his first taste of major league action. He won't hit for much power but could become a doubles and triples threat, with the ability to swipe double-digit bases. As for 2013, he is projected to lag a little offensively. ZiPS sees a .727 OPS, while PECOTA is very pessimistic at .652.
Shortstop rankings: 1. Nationals 2. Phillies 3. Braves
Darin Ruf and/or John Mayberry Jr. could factor into the Phillies' left field mix, but right now, left field is looking like Brown's job to lose. Brown, still relatively young at 25, will finally be given a chance to prove himself on an everyday basis. Guarded closely by GM Ruben Amaro in trades involving Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence, Brown has been disappointing the past two seasons, making very little progress in between injury stints. Make no mistake, however: Brown has the tools. His plate discipline might be rivaled only by Utley among teammates, and he still has power potential, now being well past a hamate bone injury that previously sapped his power. The projections are in line with that thought: ZiPS projects a .770 OPS, and PECOTA projects a .746 OPS.
Nationals: Bryce Harper
There might not be enough superlatives to toss in Harper's direction. Any way you slice up his stats from last season, he ends up on lists that include a plethora of historic players, and he only turned 20 years old this past October. He took home NL Rookie of the Year honors due to his five-tool arsenal and, with teammates Denard Span and Werth, gives the Nationals one of the most potent outfields in baseball. An NL MVP award is not out of the question in 2013 for Harper, as the projections are very fond of him going forward. ZiPS projects an .871 OPS, though PECOTA is much more pessimistic, putting him at .766.
Braves: Justin Upton
In what was arguably the biggest move of the offseason, the Braves sent jack-of-all-trades Martin Prado, pitcher Randall Delgado, and three minor leaguers to Arizona in return for Upton and third baseman Johnson. Upton's production has been up-and-down, though always above-average, for the better part of the past five seasons. Once thought to be a perennial NL MVP candidate, Upton has surpassed 2.1 WAR just once, according to Baseball-Reference. Upton is projected, by both ZiPS and PECOTA, to have a big season with his new team. ZiPS sees an .867 OPS, third-best among all right fielders; PECOTA sees an .815 OPS.
Left field rankings: 1. Nationals 2. Braves 3. Phillies
Phillies: Ben Revere
The Phillies had a relatively quiet offseason, but their loudest move was a trade with the Minnesota Twins in which they sent out Vance Worley and Trevor May for Revere. Revere has zero home runs to his name in over one thousand major league at-bats but still has the potential to be plenty productive by hitting for a high average, stealing bases and playing great defense. Baseball Prospectus had him as baseball's second-best baserunner last season, behind only Michael Bourn. He doesn't have a great arm but can track down fly balls with the best of them. ZiPS projects a .676 OPS for Revere as well as a .287 average and 46 steals. PECOTA projects a .649 OPS with a .272 average and 35 steals.
Nationals: Denard Span
The Twins got rid of two center fielders during the offseason. Span made his way to the defending NL East champs, bringing with him gap-to-gap power and good plate discipline. He doesn't quite have Revere's running and defensive prowess but is still above average in both facets, which helps him make up for his lack of power. You can pencil Span in for around 30 doubles, a handful of triples and homers and double-digit steals. ZiPS agrees, putting him at .718 in terms of OPS, which includes 28 doubles and 20 steals, while PECOTA puts him at .728 in OPS, including 25 doubles and 20 steals.
Braves: B.J. Upton
While Upton is certainly the most recognizable name among the three listed center fielders, he isn't the slam-dunk top choice that many would assume. Offensively, Upton has been only a shade better than Span over their careers despite bushels of home runs and stolen bases. Upton's biggest problem is striking out, as he has logged 150 or more of them each of the past four seasons, keeping his batting average between .237 and .246. Upton runs the bases well and plays a good center field but just not quite as well as his aforementioned NL East peers. The Braves are banking on his offensive approach maturing. ZiPS sees Upton hanging around the same level in terms of OPS at .765, while PECOTA sees him regressing down to .733.
Center field rankings: 1. Nationals 2. Braves 3. Phillies
Phillies: Delmon Young
Young is expected to get most of the playing time in right field, but he will begin the season on the disabled list due to an ankle injury. As a result, Mayberry, Ruf and Laynce Nix can all play their way into increased time. Despite lofty expectations for Ruf among Phillies fans, the right field situation is a mess, and the aggregate production is expected to rank among the worst in the league. It doesn't help that Young has put up negative WAR in four of his seven full seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. He does one thing kind of OK, which is hit for power, but he has crossed the 20-homer plateau just once. He is a liability on the bases and is abysmal defensively. So, the Phillies are gambling -- though, admittedly, the one-year, $850,000 deal is low-risk -- on Young's ability to hit. ZiPS projects a .728 OPS and PECOTA projects .724, a bit below last season's .765 average among NL right fielders.
Werth, his playing time sandwiched around a midseason left wrist injury, was vastly improved over his inaugural season in Washington after signing a seven-year, $126 million deal following the 2010 season. Werth hit .300 with a .387 on-base percentage, but his power was missing, hitting just two second-half home runs. When he is healthy and has his full power capacity, he is one of the most complete offensive weapons around, as he has some of the best plate discipline in baseball. ZiPS projects him as one of the better-hitting right fielders in the Nick Swisher and Carlos Beltran territory, with an .824 OPS. PECOTA is less optimistic at .792.
Braves: Jason Heyward
Very quietly, Heyward was one of the best players in the league last season with 27 home runs, 21 stolen bases and great defense that earned him a Gold Glove award. At the young age of 23, there are very few players in the game you'd rather build a team around. It would shock no one if he were to win an NL MVP award this season. ZiPS projects an .862 OPS, and PECOTA puts him at .789.
Right field rankings: 1. Braves 2. Nationals 3. Phillies
The Phillies have been able to lay claim to what many think has been the best rotation in the National League since 2010, playing home to a trio of aces. Hamels, after a rough 2009, has developed into one of the top three lefties in baseball with a devastating changeup -- arguably the best of its kind. Lee, despite a dearth of wins last season, had a very solid campaign and is expected to continue to set the pace when it comes to limiting walks and getting strikeouts. Halladay looked mortal for the first time in a long time. Having lost a couple miles per hour on his sinker, he finished with a 4.49 ERA. Kendrick and Lannan are two contact-friendly starters; Lannan induces a lot of ground balls, so he will need the Phillies' defense to be on its toes when he is on the hill.
The projections, since there isn't a neat way to cram ten (five by two) in a paragraph:
1. Hamels: 3.26 ERA (ZiPS); 3.18 ERA (PECOTA)
2. Lee: 3.06; 2.96
3. Halladay: 3.42; 2.92
4. Kendrick: 4.31; 4.68
5. Lannan: 4.53; 4.57
Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Dan Haren
The Nationals, with the addition of Haren, can certainly challenge the Phillies when it comes to starting pitching. Strasburg, despite being shut down for last postseason, was one of the best, and certainly the scariest, starters in baseball with an upper-90s fastball and a high-80s/low-90s changeup. Yes, changeup. Gonzalez contended for the NL Cy Young after coming over from the Athletics, posting a 2.89 ERA. Zimmermann quietly finished with a 2.94 ERA, showcasing pristine control. Detwiler is similar in many ways to former teammate Lannan in that he gets a lot of ground balls. Haren, coming off the worst season of his career, is hoping his pattern of up-and-down seasons means good fortune is in store for him.
1. Strasburg: 2.69 ERA (ZiPS); 2.64
2. Gonzalez: 3.02; 3.67
3. Zimmermann: 3.42; 3.68
4. Detwiler: 4.08; 4.71
5. Haren: 3.90; 3.37
Braves: Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm, Julio Teheran
The Braves hope to get a rotation boost towards the middle of the season when Brandon Beachy is expected to return from Tommy John surgery. Minor, Maholm and Teheran are all vulnerable. Hudson, despite ever-declining velocity, remains one of the most dependable starters out there. Medlen grabbed attention with two streaks during the second-half last season: a 34.2 scoreless innings streak and a streak of 20 consecutive starts that the Braves won. From July 31, when he joined the rotation, to the end of the season, Medlen was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and an 84-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Minor, despite good strikeout and walk numbers and a low BABIP, finished with a disappointing 4.12 ERA because he was very homer-prone, allowing 26 in 179.1 innings. Maholm is an underrated lefty, posting 3.67 and 3.66 ERAs the past two seasons. Teheran hasn't had much major league action but will get his first real test once the regular season begins. Overall, the Braves' rotation doesn't have the star power that the Phillies and Nationals do, but it is likely underrated for that same reason.
1. Hudson: 3.61 (ZiPS); 3.64
2. Medlen: 3.35; 3.43
3. Minor: 4.01; 3.88
4. Maholm: 4.02; 4.26
5. Teheran: 4.48; 5.13
Starting rotation rankings: 1. Nationals 2. Phillies 3. Braves
Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon (CL), Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Chad Durbin, (several spots open for spring training competition)
We’ll keep it brief since we're getting up to 4,000 words. Papelbon, despite a couple memorable blown leads last season, is one of the few bonafide closers in baseball. He misses a ton of bats and walks few hitters, which is always a good combination in high-leverage situations. Adams hopes to be fully recovered from his thoracic outlet syndrome ailment by Opening Day, handling the Phillies' eighth-inning duties. Bastardo missed bats at a prolific rate last season, bested only by Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman. Durbin is a familiar face, having helped the Phillies to their 2008 World Series championship.
The rest of the bullpen is open to a slew of younger arms including Jeremy Horst and Phillippe Aumont.
The projections among those named:
1. Papelbon: 2.83 ERA (ZiPS); 2.45 (PECOTA)
2. Adams: 3.05; 2.63
3. Bastardo: 3.22; 3.20
4. Durbin: 4.48; 4.13
Nationals: Rafael Soriano (CL), Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus, Zach Duke, Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia
In a surprise move, the Nationals picked up Soriano to solidify an already potent bullpen. When healthy, Soriano has been flat-out dominant, posting a 2.65 ERA since 2006, the eighth-best mark among relievers with at least 300 innings. Storen's great 2012 season was whitewashed by an unfortunate end to the Nationals' playoff run in Game 5 of the NLDS. Returning midseason from elbow surgery, he posted a 2.37 ERA in 30.1 innings. Clippard has been a workhorse throughout his Nationals career, throwing at least 70 innings each of the past three seasons. Duke will likely be used as a spot starter if necessary and as a lefty specialist otherwise. The back of the bullpen has a lot of upside as well.
1. Soriano: 3.31 (ZiPS); 2.85 (PECOTA)
2. Storen: 3.20; 2.98
3. Clippard: 2.96; 3.05
4. Mattheus: 4.22; 4.10
5. Duke: 5.61; 4.03
6. Stammen: 3.24; 3.71
7. Garcia: 3.61; 4.35
Braves: Craig Kimbrel (CL), Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Jordan Walden, Cristhian Martinez, Cody Gearrin, Luis Avilan
Kimbrel is the best reliever in baseball, and it isn't particularly close. His projected ZiPS ERA is the best ever projected, according to creator Dan Szymborski. O'Flaherty has an aggregate 1.31 ERA over the past two seasons, spanning 131 innings. Venters was hittable last season after posting a sub-2.00 ERA in each of his first two seasons. The back of the bullpen has a lot of upside as well.
1. Kimbrel: 1.57 (ZiPS); 1.89
2. O'Flaherty: 2.91; 3.29
3. Venters: 2.95; 3.79
4. Walden: 3.31; 4.14
5. Martinez: 3.55; 4.15
6. Gearrin: 3.63; 3.79
7. Avilan: 5.13; 4.51
Bullpen rankings: 1. Braves 2. Nationals 3. Phillies
A recap of my rankings:
1st 2nd 3rd
C PHI WAS ATL
1B WAS ATL PHI
2B PHI WAS ATL
3B WAS ATL PHI
SS WAS PHI ATL
LF WAS ATL PHI
CF WAS ATL PHI
RF ATL WAS PHI
SP WAS PHI ATL
RP ATL WAS PHI
I think you have to go with the Nationals as the clear favorites, since they take two premium positions (shortstop and center field), as well as the rotation. I also think the Braves' outfield is better than anything the Phillies can muster outside of starting pitching, putting them a few steps ahead. That lines up with many of the projected NL East finishes -- the Nationals first, the Braves second and the Phillies third, missing the playoffs.
How do you see the NL East unfolding? Let us know in the comments.
Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.