Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Grading the MLB Franchises: NL East

The following series will evaluate the outlook of each MLB franchise entering 2008. Every team has been given a grade based on team success, fiscal responsibility, organizational stability and future outlook. Big market teams and historically successful ballclubs are held to a higher standard.

NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

Atlanta Braves (B)
Last season Atlanta realized it was no longer the top dog in the division. With New York and Philadelphia vying for first place in the NL East the Braves made a huge splash midway through the season. Although acquiring 1B Mark Teixeira from Texas cost premium prospects and failed to produce a playoff berth, he was worth it. Teixeira is a legitimate MVP candidate and the 2008 Braves will need a huge year from him to compensate for the loss of CF Andruw Jones. The rest of the returning lineup is competent. Bringing back Tom Glavine was more than a token gesture; he solidifies the rotation. GM John Schuerholz was responsible for Atlanta's remarkable run of division titles during the 90's. It'll be almost impossible for his successor, Frank Wren, to replicate that kind of excellence. A pair of outfielders, Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward, are Atlanta's best minor leaguers.

Florida Marlins (D-)
One wonders how such a dysfunctional franchise could win two championships in a decade. Owner Jeff Loria insists the team needs a new stadium to stay competitive. Until that happens he and team president Dave Samson attempt to sabotage the franchise into submission. The results of their meddling? A terrible product on the field (91 losses), dwindling crowds (less than 17,000 per home game -- lowest in the majors) and an embarrassing low payroll (less than $25 million by Opening Day -- second lowest). During the offseason Florida traded away two of its best (and priciest) players, 3B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis. Suffice to say 2008 won't be pretty for the Fish. If Marlins fans can take solace in anything it's the bevy of young talent stockpiling their roster. Maybe in a few years Florida will make another World Series run with the likes of Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hermida, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.

New York Mets (C+)
One year ago Mets manager Willie Randolph was lauded for leading his team to within a game of the Wold Series. A few months back angry fans were demanding his dismissal after a historic September collapse left New York out of the postseason by a single game. Ups and downs aside this is a team probably somewhere in the middle; a good ballclub that will contend in an increasingly-competitive division David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are the cornerstones to a solid foundation. Starting pitching, however, remains a huge concern. Tom Glavine's departure didn't help matters and Pedro Martinez's health is still reason to worry. GM Omar Minaya needs to acquire a quality arm but trading prospects might not be the best route. The once-promising farm system has dimmed, evidenced by former can't-miss prospect OF Lastings Milledge's sendoff to Washington. 2008 will be a pivotal year for the Mets, but then again every year is life and death when it comes to New York sports.

Philadelphia Phillies (B-)
The fighting Phillies surged to a division title last season only to be felled by the red-hot Rockies in the NLDS. Three MVP-caliber infielders (Chase Utley, Jimmie Rollins, Ryan Howard) look to prove 2007 wasn't a fluke as they lead one of the fiercest lineups in baseball. Free agent acquisition OF Geoff Jenkins should provide even more punch. Jenkins will take over one of the corner outfield spots, moving Shane Victorino to center to replace departed CF Aaron Rowand. While the offense is set the pitching situation appears to be a mess. GM Pat Gillick brought in closer Brad Lidge to shore up the bullpen but it's the starting rotation that needs support. After Cole Hamels Philadelphia lacks a consistent starter. One name to remember for the future is RHP Carlos Carrasco. Whether he'll help the team this year remains to be seen.

Washington Nationals (C)
A new ballpark should spark interest in the nation's capitol for this country's pastime. Visitors to Nationals Park will witness the offensive prowess and defensive wizardry of 3B Ryan Zimmerman. Unfortunately for Nats fans he is surrounded by unproven youngsters, over-the-hill veterans and mediocre arms.
C Paul Lo Duca, acquired from the Mets, was named in the Mitchell Report as a steroid user shortly after he joined the team. Manny Acta won only 73 games in his first year as manager... and that was considered a success. The Nationals have one of the lowest payrolls in the majors (around $40 million) and 2008 will likely be a tough growing year for the organization. OF Chris Marrero and LHP Ross Detwiler should be ready to go in a couple years. By then residents in D.C. hope to be packing the stadium to enjoy the product on the field -- and not the pretty facilities.

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