Offseason grades for the NL East
The Nationals and Phillies made signings that shocked the world. The Braves and Marlins made a stunning trade -- with each other. And the Mets mostly shoveled snow. So let's hand out our offseason report cards to the five NL East teams (in order of last year's finish):
We'll give GM Ruben Amaro Jr. his much-due props for the Lee signing -- the stealth free-agent blockbuster of the winter. But just because the Phillies now have a potentially historic rotation and just because they're now the clear on-paper NL favorites doesn't mean this team deserves straight A's.
First off, the Phillies haven't upgraded their bullpen, their stated No. 1 goal heading into the winter. They did re-sign two of their three free agents, Jose Contreras and J.C. Romero. But by not bringing back the underrated Durbin, who led this 'pen in innings pitched last season, they're probably worse off.
And by not even attempting to replace the middle-of-the-order right-handed thump of Werth, the Phillies have left themselves a major lineup canyon they may not be able to fill internally. So Cliff Lee or no Cliff Lee, our lofty academic standards don't allow us to give this student an A.
Uggla was a tremendous addition to a lineup that only slugged .385 against left-handed pitching last year. With Chipper Jones' future (after ACL surgery) more uncertain than ever, the Braves desperately needed a masher like Uggla. But there's another half to every inning. And Uggla sure isn't an upgrade for a defense that just missed leading the league in errors last year. One scout's assessment: "Their defense scares me."
Linebrink and Sherrill are decent rolls of the bullpen dice, as long as Jonny Venters/Craig Kimbrel are ready to give this 'pen the kind of stability that Wagner and Saito provided at the end of the game last year. But either way, pitching is the least of this team's issues.
So what's the biggest of those issues? Might just be the manager's office, where Gonzalez has the impossible job of replacing Cox, a living legend who was downright beloved in this clubhouse. Even though Gonzalez was essentially hand-picked by Cox to assume this gig, we wish him luck trying to live up to THAT legacy.
For a team that had to trade away its leader in home runs, slugging, OPS, runs scored and RBIs (Uggla), the Marlins had one of the best, under-the-radar offseasons in the NL.
They've transformed one of the worst bullpens in the league by trading for Mujica, Webb, Mike Dunn and Craig Richardson, and by signing Choate (.202 average, .263 SLG by opposing left-handed hitters last year). They could easily luck out in their gamble on Vazquez, whose career ERA in the NL (4.02) is more than six-tenths of a run lower than his ERA in the AL (4.65). And while they probably overpaid for Buck, they had to fill their black hole behind the plate somehow.
We're forced to deduct points for Uggla's lost offense, even though burgeoning stars Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison could well make up for all of it. And the Fish have left themselves with major questions about whether Chris Coghlan can handle the demands of playing the vast center field in Sun Life Stadium. Nevertheless, this is a team on the rise.
The grade this team really deserves is BET (Barely Even Trying). The Mets had no money to spend, no interest in any free agents except occupants of the bargain bin and no takers for the dead weight they'd most like to unload (Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo). So it isn't easy to grade a team that's mostly just treading water until it can dump nearly $60 million worth of contracts after the season and get its ownership mess straightened out.
We'll concede there's some upside in the Mets' low-buck investments in guys like Young, Capuano and Taylor Buchholz. And Collins will at least spike a few pulse rates in this clubhouse.
But basically, said one scout, their new administration has done so little this winter, it's left itself in perfect can't-lose position: "If they do well, it's the new regime. If they don't, it's Omar Minaya's fault."
The Nationals probably paid Werth $40 million more than any other club would have, but he's a better all-around player than Willingham. They were also hell-bent to upgrade defensively over Dunn, and LaRoche does that.
But whether this team is really any better depends on Werth's ability to live up to his contract, to handle being the kind of offensive centerpiece he never had to be in Philadelphia and to embrace his opportunity to be a face-of-the-franchise presence, on and off the field. He's talented enough and engaging enough to meet this moment. But will he? That'll be tough to assess until Show Time arrives.
Gorzelanny is a solid piece to drop into this rotation. But it's no secret the Nationals chased big top-of-the-rotation names (Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Brandon Webb, Matt Garza, Carl Pavano) all winter long -- and wound up with none of the above. So we'll give them credit for making a statement with the Werth signing. And we could see them finishing ahead of the Mets. But there's still a long ways to go.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
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