Third Place, NL East: Braves/Nationals

Oh, there was a time that picking the Atlanta Braves for third place would’ve elicited laughter.  But then, there was also a time that an episode of ALF would’ve done the same.  Lately?   Not so much.

The Braves have a tiny bit of hope for bigger results.  But when it’s the end of February and you’re looking at Ken Griffey as some sort of savior, only to have him reject you for a team that lost 101 games, well…  Hope’s not going to get you too far.

But third place?  Yeah, there’s plenty of hope for that.

They finished fourth last season with a rotation that had more surgical steel in it than the Terminator.  John Smoltz, Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine starred in their own version of Cocoon, barely combining for a full season’s worth of work.

While the world’s unhealthiest threesome filled out the DL All-Star rotation, it forced Bobby Cox to rotate through some of Richmond’s finest pitchers.  Charlie Morton might make a helluva steak; the league’s batters certainly mistook him for meat.  And the less said about Jo-Jo Reyes, the better.

The point is, the pitching kinda stunk last year.  So what’d they fix in the off-season?  Yep, the pitching.

Javier Vazquez isn’t the ace he looked like he could’ve been early in his career, but he’s consistently solid.  You can probably break out your Sunday NY Times crossword pen, and ink his name in for 200 innings of 4ish ball, which is certainly better than the 70 or so they got from Hampton last year.

Derek Lowe doesn’t have the dominance of an ace either, but you’d be hard pressed to name 25 starters much better than him.  And that’s certainly better than what Smoltz gave them, or what they’d have gotten from the hurt-til-the-end-of-time pitcher had they re-signed him.

Right there, that’s nearly three times the innings than they got from their supposedly best guys last year.

That’s also about 400 more innings than the Nats can expect from anyone on their roster, unless you think that year 15 of the Daniel Cabrera experiment is the one that will finally bear fruit.

Their offense was middle of the pack last year, about 100 runs more than the Nats.  Yeah, they lost Mark Teixeira, but they only had him for half a season anyway.

Besides, they’ve got proven veteran Garrett Anderson to pick up the load.  Sure, he was overrated even when he was good, but anything that keeps Gregor Blanco on the pine can’t be bad, right?

If Frenchy’s able to rebound to his prior performance, which was merely mediocre instead of a calamity, and Chipper can continue to give them 2/3 of a season of out-of-his-mind ball, it’s an offense that’s not all that dissimilar from what we can expect from the Nats.

It’s that pesky pitching advantage which’ll propel ‘em past.

Besides, Nate Silver says the Braves are the third best team in the division.  And who are any of us to argue with him?

HOWARD MEGDAL: Anytime Nate Silver and Chris Needham are on one side of an argument, it is a poor choice to be on the other. Nevertheless, I believe the third-best team in the NL East is none other than the Washington Nationals.

Let’s start by figuring out what the Nationals would have to surpass in order to reach third place. The Braves won 72 games last season, but as Chris pointed out, they added significantly to the starting rotation. I certainly grant what Chris says about both Vazquez and Lowe. But who they are replacing is more complicated.

Tim Hudson, prior to getting hurt, provided Atlanta 142 innings of 3.17 ERA pitching- likely better than either Lowe or Vazquez will provide, though again, in 70% of the innings for either. Add Smoltz’s 28 innings of 2.57 ERA, and you’ve got essentially one whole starter that will be better than what either Vazquez or Lowe will provide.

There are other areas of concern, namely: do we really believe in Jair Jurrjens and Jorge Campillo? Color me skeptical about both, Jurrjens for his second-half struggles, Campillo for his lack of track record. For the Braves not to give back more of the Lowe/Vazquez gains, it will require both of these pitchers to pitch at a 2008 level. I’m not convinced they both will.

And while the Garret Anderson upgrade does help to an extent- remember, his OPS+ was just 97 last year, better than Gregor Blanco, but not even average- the offense will be missing 103 games of Mark Teixeira, and will still be entirely too reliant on Chipper Jones, who one of these years won’t be able to play even his 120-130 games-at least, not at his customary level.

But this is all beside the point. The reason Atlanta isn’t any better is the bullpen. There are a lot of ways to do this, but this is my favorite- the 2008 Mets bullpen was comically awful, particularly in the second half, posting an ERA of 5.02. Atlanta’s bullpen in the second half put up an ERA of 5.58. And the same guys are back.

The Atlanta Braves are a 75-win team.

So now we have the bar. How do the 59-102 Washington Nationals get to 76 wins? I believe they will see improvement in most of the following areas:

1. Jesus Flores will catch more than 90 games, and post a better line than his .256/.296/.402. And Paul LoDuca’s 46 games of .230/.301/.281 will be lost in the process.

2. Primary first baseman last year? Aaron Boone, .241/.299/.384. Primary first baseman this year? Adam Dunn, who hit just .236/… but .386/.513.

3. Can Anderson Hernandez hit better than Felipe Lopez’s .234/.305/.314? Probably, and he sure can improve on Lopez’s defense!

4. A healthy Ryan Zimmerman will provide more than 106 games of 101 OPS+- probably much more.

5. The outfield is filled with high-ceiling players. Lastings Milledge posted a second-half line of .299/.355/.448, and doesn’t turn 24 until April. Elijah Dukes posted an OPS+ of 125 in 276 at-bats. Josh Willingham, 118 OPS+. Considering that the three outfielders with the most at-bats for Washington posted OPS+ numbers of 98, 91 and 65, improvement is almost certain.

6. I happen to be a believer in John Lannan- I think he will stay around his 2008 levels at least. Tim Redding and his 4.95 ERA gives way to Scott Olsen, entering his age-25 season fresh off of a league-average 2008. The loss of Odalis Perez does take away some depth, but Collin Balester held his own at AAA (and his peripherals suggest MLB success if his home run rate comes down), Jordan Zimmerman looks ready after a strong AA showing, and while I’m not ready to crown Daniel Cabrera the 2009 NL Cy Young, his ERA last season was 5.25- and the starters beyond Perez had ERAs of 5.09, 5.51, 5.83 and 6.19. In other words, should Olsen improve significantly on Redding, the emergence of at least one young pitcher would allow the others to simply survive, leaving the rotation, as a whole, improved. I also believe Garrett Mock will be a fine starter, incidentally- not clear to me why he’s in the bullpen.

7. The bullpen, plus Mock, is largely unchanged. Jon Rauch is gone, but so is Luis Ayala- their two replacements are likely to balance out. Again, some improvement from the bullpen as pitchers get more mature is possible- but this is not where Washington makes up the ground.

Let’s say the bullpen is unchanged, the rotation is 3-4 wins better: the extra victories come from an offense that is monumentally better. Washington has a chance to improve, significantly, at every position with the exception of shortstop, often offensively and defensively. It is a young team full of upside- I like their chances of surging past the Braves, an old team filled with paper-tiger solutions.

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