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NL East Preview
By Joe Sheehan
Special to RotoWire
Joe Sheehan is the former co-founder and writer for Baseball Prospectus
who currently writes for Sports Illustrated and Basketball Prospectus.

More division previews by Joe Sheehan:
AL West | AL Central | AL East
NL West | NL Central | NL East


NL East Preview

The AL's edge over the NL stems from the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and A's raising the bar in the early 2000s through better management and lots of spending. Now, what may be the best team and best organization in the NL is raising the bar for everyone else in a way that no team truly has until now. The Phillies are also the only team in their division both committed to winning and currently wired for doing so. The Mets have taken a fall through injuries and mistakes, the Braves and Marlins seem more concerned with what they spend than what they win, and the Nationals are three years away.

Atlanta Braves  

The Braves' ownership, Liberty Media, showed their passionate interest in success by dumping Javier Vazquez and Rafael Soriano and not spending the $11 million they saved in the process. A team coming off an 86-win season that could have been a 95-win season with a couple of better decisions made its “big move” signing a third baseman who basically missed the season to play first base. This may be the stealth contender for worst ownership situation in baseball.  

Variance. If I told you that Jason Heyward, given 600 MLB plate appearances, would definitively hit .283 with 34 doubles, 18 homers, 88 RBI, 82 runs scored and 16 steals, you'd take that, correct? You'd probably draft him somewhere in the early double-digit rounds; which seemed to be the consensus last week at Tout Wars. You'd be happy with those numbers, especially the guarantee.

Here's the problem, though. It is entirely possible for the above prediction to be true, but never happen. The distribution of those 600 plate appearances will drive the overall stat line. Heyward may be a lock for those numbers, but if in his first 125 PAs he catches the back side of variance and hits .210/.278/.340 - which isn't unreasonable for any player's first month - he could end up in Triple-A before getting to the turnaround, waste 300 PAs that you can't use and come back in August just in time to help you finish sixth. It's unfair, but Heyward's value to your team is going to depend on what he does not in his next 600 PAs, but his next 100, because MLB teams have yet to grasp just how wide the error bars are on small sample sizes. For his sake and the Braves' sake, let's hope he rakes.  

Who. The Braves' decision to sign Troy Glaus to be their first baseman is wishcasting of the highest order. Glaus missed almost all of 2009 following shoulder surgery. He's 33 years old and was clearly over his peak at 30 and 31, failing to slug .500 in either year. He brings nothing to the table on the bases and as an inexperienced first baseman that wasn't terribly mobile at third, is at best going to be a wash defensively. Eric Hinske, signed as a four-corners reserve, is no worse a player and may be better, a left-handed version of Glaus who was comparable in performance two years ago and obviously better last season, is a year younger, and who on merit - or rather, “we don't care what you did in 2004” - would quickly gain the big half of the platoon. Hinske will outperform his draft position and auction price.

The Right Type of Risk. Always, always, always give me the player who is going to either be unavailable or awesome over the guy who might just hang around all year killing me. Billy Wagner has pretty much had one bad year in his career, an injury-shortened 2000 campaign in which he pitched hurt, posted a 6.18 ERA and shut it down in June. His ERA has been under 3.00 in every other season of his career, including an abbreviated 2009 in which he struck out 26 men in 15.2 innings for the Mets and Red Sox. The injury-shortened campaign may hold his value down; take advantage and get the second-best closer in the league behind Jonathan Broxton.  

It Could Happen. A couple of years back I wrote that Melky Cabrera would rope 80 extra-base hits in a season at some point. I don't know if 2010 will be that year, but Cabrera's 2009, while superficially unimpressive, included a lot of small improvements that could add up as he moves out of the AL East and, potentially, bats leadoff for the Braves. Cabrera had the highest SLG and ISO of his career last season; he had his best walk rate, lowest strikeout rate and, by definition, best K/BB. He continued to be a strong percentage base stealer, 10/12, running his career mark to 44 of 58. He's the anti-Bernie Williams in that regard. Nothing excuses the salary dump that was the Vazquez deal, but it's worth taking a look at Cabrera, who is 25 years old and has a whole bunch of things in his favor heading into 2010.

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