Archive for February 19th, 2009

An Emerging Threat in the NL East

February 19, 2009

For the last two seasons, a bitter rivalry has reared its ugly head between our beloved Mets and the new darlings of the NL East, the Philadelphia Phillies. On a daily basis, players and fans alike have professed that their team is the team to beat.

The endless pontification dates back to the time Mets slugger Carlos Beltran merely suggested that his team was indeed the team to beat. The torch was then passed over to a feisty Jimmy Rollins who made Beltran eat his words. In the last two seasons, the Phillies have overtaken the Mets for first place in their division. Since then, the mantra has intensified to allow for Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels to go so far as to equate the Mets to a bunch of “choke artists.” The latest jab was recently delivered by one of the newest Mets, closer Francisco Rodriguez, who acknowledged the popular sentiment.

As Philadelphia and New York continue to taunt each other, a new challenger is starting to surface in the East. The Florida Marlins recently displayed an eagerness to throw their hats in the ring by re-signing manager Fredi Gonzalez to a three-year contract extension.

“It was really, really a tough negotiation,” Gonzalez joked. “Jeffrey [the team’s owner] came in. He wanted to talk to me. He offered me the extension. I don’t think I let him finish the sentence, and I said, ‘Yes.’ I wanted to be here. I want to be here for a long time and win a championship.”

With strength up the middle in shortstop Hanley Ramirez (.301 BA, 33 HR, 125 Runs, 35 SB in 2008) and second baseman Dan Uggla (32 HR, 92 RBI, 97 Runs), the Marlins possess just as good a double play combination as anybody. They have filled their roster with other effective position players as well such as 28 year-old catcher John Baker (.299 BA, .327 against right-handers) and corner infielder Jorge Cantu (.277 BA, 29 HR, 95 RBI, 92 Runs).

The 2008 squad set a franchise record for most homers in a season, 208. Unfortunately, they scored high marks consistently in another not so glamorous category: six of their top hitters averaged 129 strikeouts among them.

“You try to build on the positives and learn from the negatives,” Marlins outfielder Jeremy Hermida said. “That’s what I’m trying to take, build on it and take it into this year.”

The Marlins have placed as much faith in their even-keeled manager as they have in their young pitching staff. Right-handers Chris Volstad (22 years-old), Josh Johnson (25), and Anibal Sanchez (25) are all very capable of winning at least ten games this season. The only uncertainty for a club that finished in third place last year with an 84-77 record would have to be their closer. With the departure of right-hander Kevin Gregg in the off-season to the Chicago Cubs, the Marlins have asked former set-up man Matt Lindstrom to fill the role of stopper in the bullpen.

“We’re definitely going in the right direction,” All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla said. “We’re going to work hard, play hard, and go out there and see what happens.”

You never know, the Marlins could actually be this year’s team to beat.