Monday, January 16, 2017

NL East Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the sixth of a series of previews by division for the young 24th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  We will continue with the NL East.

In season 23, the Bow Sox featured an electric offense led by three-time All Star third baseman Rodney Bradley and the National League’s eventual Most Valuable Player, 1B Billy Ray Lane.  The team won just 83 games, though, due in part to a pitching staff that surrendered more than four and a half runs per nine innings.  Yet in spite of the team’s many All Star caliber players, Boston underwent a major makeover this offseason.

Despite the overall pitching problems, the back of the bullpen was a point of strength for Boston.  Impending free agent closer Rod Zavada saved 39 games, though his cost in free agency turned out to be prohibitive.  In a decisive move, general manager Xtrahits dealt starting catcher Davey Torres, who triple slashed .289/.399/.504, to acquire season 23 Fireman of the Year Roscoe Barkley.  Torres was then replaced by the selection of Ralph Kirby in the Rule 5 Draft.  The team also lost Bradley to free agency, but have replaced him internally with Hector Beltre.

Xtrahits also moved to sign Bob Leyritz to stabilize a disappointing rotation, as well as Francisco Abreu, Vic Arenado, and Les Hatcher to fortify a bullpen and bench that both lost players, including Alexi Mairena and Hersh Winston, who remains unsigned.

Despite a new look team, a five year extension to Lane and the promotions of 22-year old top prospect RF Jacob Swann and CF David Koh provide the underpinnings of a strong core for seasons to come.

After a long and successful run that included six World Series championships, the Charlotte Pups franchise changed hands over the offseason after three consecutive seasons of under .500 baseball.  The club’s new general manager, DWobble, moved aggressively to re-shape the team.  The Pups’ offseason certainly may qualify as the league’s busiest, particularly on the trade front.

The Pups let various players leave, including long time centerfielder Oscar Carr and type A free agent Kelly Kinsley, and traded LF David Valdes and RF Ted Park.  The club picked up several useful pieces, such as Gold Glove caliber John Crede to start at shortstop this season and offensive catcher Johan LaHair.  And while the club mostly had its aims set on the future, Rule 5 draftees Marwin Manto and Joaquin Cairo could prove to be useful complementary pieces in the future.

In reshaping the organization’s future, DWobble made several impactful moves.  The Pups acquired 25-year old Nipsey Paulsen, who will eventually slide in as the team’s everyday right fielder, as well as CF Yasiel Tapia, current ML contribution 3B Don Kelleher, relievers Ezequiel Marrero and Avisail Valenzuela, and starter Ralph Wilkerson.  Charlotte was certainly aggressive in its trade strategy, but has created a foundation conducive to a new era of success for the franchise.

Though just three seasons removed from winning the World Series, the Philadelphia Athletics featured a roughly average offense in season 23 that bogged down a top ten pitching staff and the second best defense in the league.  Bullpen issues also plagued the club, which include 21 blown saves.  Owner tommymax would work to address some of these needs, though not before relocating the club from Philly to Cincinnati, rebranding the Athletics as the blue collar Lumber Company.

Aside from the name change, the Lumber Co. is relatively similar in structure to last season’s squad - not a huge surprise after its eighth consecutive playoff appearance.  Tommymax declined the team’s end of a mutual option on closer Fausto Romero and signed a trio of relievers - Harry Clark, Mark Suzuki, and Ivan Fife - the latter two of which have thus far closed games with great success.  In one other noteworthy loss, long-time starter Alberto Maradona, who posted 64 wins over parts of six seasons with the franchise, was allowed to walk, though his innings have been replaced by the signing of long-time Old Style SP Joe Matheson.

Clearly, the bullpen issues that the club faced in season 23 have been addressed.  As for the offense, the Lumber Company parted ways with two part time players in Willie Alcantara and A.J. Cox, moving decisively to replace their roster spots with Doug Burks and Sergi Moehler.

Most notably, perhaps, is that the team gave contract extensions to season 21 Cy Young winner Tyreace Beck and SP Orlando Campos.  Beck’s deal is a three-year pact set to begin next season, while Campos’ extension takes him only through next season.  Taken together, these moves should serve to strengthen a perennial contender led by big boppers LF Ivan Romero and 1B Carlos Mota.

Last season, tedwilliams1 took over as general manager of the Knights franchise and led the club to its best record since season eight, as well as the club’s fourth World Series appearance.  The Knights had the league’s best pitching staff (3.18 ERA) and its best defense (.988 fielding percentage), but an anemic offense that triple slashed .246/.307/.377 is perhaps what prevented the team from taking the crown against eventual champs Albuquerque Arrows.

The team’s most important moves are probably those that occurred internally.  Tedwilliams1 accepted the $20 million mutual option on Heinie Swann, clearly valuing the reigning Cy Young winner’s contributions despite hit exorbitant price tag.  New York also extended CF Juan Seneca and six-time All Star LF Glen Raines, as well as CP Gil Gibson and stud SP Dummy Wyatt, among others.

However, New York was forced to deal with some losses. Relievers Mark Suzuki, Sean Fischer, and Harry Clark, all three contributors to last season’s successful bullpen, were signed away and have been replaced by several others, primarily Travis Thurman, in the midst of a career renaissance. Further, the team brought in Stuffy Stanley to add some offense to the lineup, and Willie Alcantara’s pedigree to fortify a bench that also lost Mel McMasters, one of the team’s best bench bats.

NL East Analysis

This season, the NL East may once again come down to Cincinnati and New York. The Lumber Company retooled its pitching staff and has the offensive pieces to win. Season 23 pennant winner New York also retooled its pen, while also working to fix one of the league's worst offenses. Either or both teams may need in-season trades to push them over the top, however, should their offseason moves prove inadequate in addressing their biggest needs.

Meanwhile, Boston was aggressive in its efforts to remain competitive despite losing several of the offseason’s biggest free agents. They may be in the mix for the postseason as well, though it may take a few deadline deals to turn on the heat and fully replace lost production.

As for Charlotte, the Pups had an incredibly busy offseason and, though they will likely not compete this season, DWobble has certainly built the foundation for what should be a competitive team in the seasons that come.

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