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Assessing the Market: Part 1 - NL East

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The month of July is one of the most exciting times for baseball, simply because so much time and energy are expended in sifting through the rumors and analyzing the trades.

As enjoyable as that is for the analysts and fans, it's one of the toughest parts of being a GM.

Perhaps the most difficult part is assessing where you fit into the market. There are a few definite sellers (Kansas City) and a few definite buyers (Boston). But what about the 15 or so teams who are in the race, but not really there yet? The Milwaukees of the worlds. The Floridas. It's very easy to misread the market and go into the trading frenzy with the wrong approach or an unideal outlook.

So, for the next few days, I'm going to be assessing each team's position and then giving my opinion on what direction they should head.

Atlanta Braves: Yet again, the Braves have found themselves right in the thick of a division race. Even with some very dehabilitating injuries (Hudson and Chipper, most notably), the Braves are staying strong mainly on the bat of the white-hot Andruw Jones, who, after a slow start, is hitting .283/.359/.599. This graph shows his recent hot streak very nicely.

The day-by-day progression is the thin blue line, but the green line most accurately shows what Jones has done. He has had two streaks through which he has been unbelievably hot (XRR is a run estimation method, much like Runs Created), and a couple of cold spells in there.

One cannot expect Andruw Jones to be as hot as he is right now for the rest of the year, but Chipper Jones' return will ease some of that. Hudson's return, much moreso than Mike Hampton's, will give the rotation a much-needed lift.

The Braves, as usual, are not a flawless team. They could use a stronger corner outfield bat in a big way; Brian Jordan has a VORP of -5.4 and has just not produced. Their bullpen is also a bit of a problem. Roman Colon, Adam Bernero, and Danny Kolb have given the Braves 92.3 innings of a 6.43 ERA, which just won't cut it.

Potential Trade Chips: Jeff Francoeur, Andy Marte, Brayan Pena, Kyle Davies, Jacob Stevens - I can't see them trading Francoeur or Marte, but I assume that if the Braves are looking to add a solid player, those names will certainly be mentioned frequently. Francoeur has been a tools guy with questionable plate discipline but a wide range of skills otherwise; he's got a .272.322/.478 line with 13 steals in AA. Marte is the #1 prospect of Prospectus and John Sickels (I think), so I assume that he's as close to untouchable as they come. Pena's a catcher prospect who got his cup of coffee this year and raked in AAA for 44 games. Davies made headlines with his stretch of scoreless innings and is one of the better pitching prospects in their system. If the starters come back healthy, he could be traded. Jake Stevens is a bit of a worry; he has an ERA of 4.06 in pitcher-friendly Myrtle Beach.

The Verdict: The Braves are buyers, plain and simple, and will very likely contend for the division through September.

Florida Marlins: The Marlins were the "surprise" pick of many to take the NL East crown away from the Braves for the first time since the realignment, and they've gotten some fantastic performances this year:

Miguel Cabrera: .336/.389/.569
Carlos Delgado: .311/.404/.563
Dontrelle Willis: 12-3, 114.7 IP, 2.04 ERA

Even with those three All-Star caliber performances, the team is still only 38-36 and hasn't gotten going yet.

Two major reasons why they've struggled, though:

Juan Pierre: .254/.300/.336, 16/22 SB/CS
Mike Lowell: .222/.273/.343

It's extremely difficult to upgrade at those spots, though; both players are legitimate, established major league players.

Rumors have surfaced about A.J. Burnett's availability because he will most likely not be resigned, and a starting pitcher would be highly, highly marketable in what's looking like a thin group of pitchers to be traded.

The Marlins are generally pretty solid across the board. They've got the best young outfielder in the game and one of its most prolific sluggers. They also have a centerfielder with a knack for pestering pitchers and steal bases, efficiency from Easley and Castillo at second, a usually consistent third baseman, and a very solid rotation.

Like always, I would guess that if the Marlins were buying, they would look to add a bullpen pitcher.

The Trade Chips: AJ Burnett, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Juan Encarnacion, Jeremy Hermida and Scott Olsen. Hermida has been outstanding for AA-Carolina with a .303/.452/.526 line. Scott Olsen had a very nice K-rate in AA and was just called up to the bigs. In his first start, he went 5 and 2/3 very solid innings.

The Verdict: If I'm the Marlins, I'm trading Burnett. They're still built very well for next year and, in a year where things haven't gone too well and the NL East is brutally competitive, it makes sense to start thinking about next year.

If they decide to be "buyers," I would go for broke and look to add another big bat to the outfield. A heart of Cabrera-Delgado-Pick Your Big Outfield Bat would be very imposing and might be enough to get them over the top. However, with a guy like Hermida on the way, the best years of Cabrera's career still ahead, Beckett and Willis looking like a great 1-2 punch, and a couple more years of Carlos Delgado, the Marlins are extremely well-built for the future. Squandering that for a war of attrition in the NL East just isn't worth it.

New York Mets: It's easy to cite the Mets in an example of not being able to read the market or the standings correctly. Last year, they traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, which you all knew. That deal, though, was for 2005 and beyond as much as for a pennant run in 2004. That's an example of answering a very, very important question in the trade market:

"Will this player be on our next playoff team?"

The Mets seemingly said "yes" to that question about Zambrano and pulled the trigger.

If you do decide to be "buyers" in the trade market even as a middle-of-the-road team, if you can net a solid young player for the next season and beyond, that's worthwhile even if you're not in the race. For instance, if the Reds decide to trade Adam Dunn, anyone could benefit from getting into that sweepstakes.

The Mets are an interesting example in market-assessment - they have clear needs and clear surpluses.

Needs: Another bat, bullpen help.
Has: A couple of worthwhile prospects, starting pitching to spare.

Going for broke for a misguided playoff run, as the Mets, is not sensible this year, but a move to add a big-time first baseman for this year and next would be a worthwhile move.

The Trade Chips: Tom Glavine, Mike Cameron, Victor Diaz, Miguel Cairo, Yusmeiro Petit, Lastings Milledge, Brian Bannister, Aaron Heilman. Petit and Bannister have been very good for the Mets in AA this year; Petit has set off another one of the stats v. scouts debates. Milledge is toolsy but is hitting well in the FSL, which is a pitcher's league with a .304/.390/.430 line. The Mets would be happier with a bit more power from him. As a first round pick from a few years ago, he is highly touted.

The Verdict: To trade a Petit or Milledge, the Mets would have to be trying to assemble a package for a top notch bat. If the Mets are looking to make a run, they do need to add a first baseman and a bullpen arm.

The Mets should look to buy, but if it's not there should consider selling. They have 3 outfielders - Floyd, Cameron, and Diaz, for two spots in 2006, and at some point, one of them must be traded. Rumors have surfaced about Glavine, but I can't imagine him generating too much interest.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Fightin' Phils have been incredibly streaky this year, mixing in a 12-1 homestand with some losing ball otherwise; they're 27-37 outside of that streak.

Abreu's fantastic year is being partially negated by Thome's struggles.

Bobby Abreu: .319/.436/.557
Jim Thome: .214/.366/.364

Inconsistency from the bullpen and a bit of a slump from the starting pitchers isn't helping, either. Myers' ERA has risen to 3.18 and Jon Lieber all of a sudden has a 4.93 ERA. Robinson Tejeda had been exceptional until last night's loss to the Mets. Lidle's been mediocre.

Due to the long-term contracts that they've signed, the Phillies are fairly locked in at first, short, third, left, and right field. They've gotten great production out of centerfield. Utley's entrenched at second. And it would be difficult to see the Phillies benching Lieberthal in favor of another catcher.

The lineup is probably unchangeable.

The pitching isn't, though; they could stand to add another starter.

The Trade Chips: Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Howard, Michael Bourn

The Verdict: Based on their current construction, I don't think that the Phillies have any choice but to mortgage the rest of the future and add another arm to the rotation. If a Zito or Schmidt-type pitcher is available, I think that it would be in the Phillies' best interest to trade Ryan Howard and one or both of Hamels or Floyd to fulfill their need.

I think that the Phillies probably would have been best suited to have traded Polanco for a prospect (the match that kept hitting me was the Yankees, who were desperate for a second baseman before Cano started playing OK) to try and look to the future at the same time as they tried to compete. They didn't and added the reliever who is wholly unsuited to pitch in their park, but that's another story.

The bottom line is that the Phils have a static core of players in Abreu, Burrell, Thome, Utley, and Rollins, and they're going to need to go to battle with that group. They may as well enhance it for a run at the playoffs.

[on edit]: A friend of mine who was a Phillies fan was musing about adding in Eric Hinske and Ted Lilly for a couple of the Phillies' prospects, and I think that it makes sense if they were to platoon at third base, which would be the plan. I don't know if either player would be quite enough, but I do think that it's the right type of move for the Phils.

Washington Nationals: We'll keep the Nats simple:

Whatever you think about the quality of their team or if they've been lucky or whatever, they're in first place. By 2.5 games.

The Washington Nationals are in first place and have severely overachieved.

The Washington Nationals have overachieved.

They'll be getting Vidro back for July.

LF - Wilkerson
CF - Guillen
RF - Ryan Church
3B - Castilla
SS - Guzman
2B - Vidro
1B - Johnson
C - Schneider

They'd love to add one more bat. Ideally, at shortstop, but Guzman is locked up forever and can't be moved.

Supposedly, the Nats have tried to get Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, Bowden's former boys. Either guy would help.

The Nats could also use another arm; Patterson, Livan, and Loaiza have been good, but Armas has been shaky and they could strongly use another pitcher.

The Trade Chips: Ryan Church, Mike Hinckley, Larry Broadway, Others.

The Verdict: The Nats don't have the minor league system to really make a huge addition, but the way I see it:

  1. They're in the race.
  2. They have some needs.
  3. They have a legitimate shot to win the NL East this year, based on their current position.
It's difficult for them to upgrade based on their relatively weak minor league system, but if anyone should make a run, it's the Nats. Might as well, right?

How's that for simplification? Next time will be the NL Central evaluation, and Power Rankings will be done tomorrow.