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Player to Watch: National League East Preview

by Wendy Thurm on April 12, 2011

Editor’s Note: As with my prior division previews, this sixth and final preview of the National League East will run concurrently here and at A Gathering Place for Women to Talk Sports.


As I discussed in the first Player to Watch post (American League West), my “player to watch” is the one player key to his team’s success. As this player goes, so goes his team. Or something like that. Bookmark this post and the other division preview posts so you can check back in October to see if I know anything about baseball.

The only division left is the National League East.  Let’s do it.


Atlanta Braves

Martin Prado was an All-Star second baseman for the Atlanta Braves in 2010 and finished 9th in MVP voting.  So the Braves did what any rational team would do: they traded for second baseman Dan Uggla and moved Prado to left field.  The Braves then signed Uggla to a five-year contract extension worth upwards of $62 million. The pressure is squarely on Uggla to perform in 2011.  That makes Dan Uggla my player to watch for the Atlanta Braves.


Uggla played five seasons with the Florida Marlins before being traded to the Braves.  With the Fish, Uggla hit 25+ HRs each season and had an average slugging percentage just under .500 (.488).  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Uggla is the first player in MLB history whose primary position is second base and who hit 20+ HRs in each of his first five seasons.


But Uggla suffered from spotty defense. In the 2008 All-Star Game, he committed 3 errors at second base, an All-Star Game record.  Earlier this year, Fangraphs listed Uggla among the MLB sluggers whose overall value, as measured by Wins Above Replacement, is significantly and negatively affected by poor defense.


The Braves have very good pitching this year, they have Jason Heyward and they have rookie phenom Freddie Freeman. But to compete with the Phillies in the NL East, the Braves need Uggla to ramp it up on both offense and defense. As Dan Uggla goes in 2011, so go the Atlanta Braves.


Florida Marlins

Mike Stanton was a mid-season call-up for the Florida Marlins in 2010 and he did not disappoint when he got to the show. At only 20 years of age, Stanton showed extraordinary power, belting 22 HRs in only 100 games. Expectations are high for Stanton in 2011.


With the loss of Dan Uggla to the Braves, the Marlins are looking to Stanton to replace Uggla’s home runs and overall power production. Stanton is part of a core of young, athletic sluggers for the Marlins, that also includes Chris Coughlan (2009 NL Rookie of the Year) and Logan Morrison. The Marlins will need the offense in high gear because other than Josh Johnson, their starting pitching is mediocre at best.


Stanton started the 2011 season recovering from a quadracep injury and has no home runs to date. The Marlins are hoping for Stanton to get going very soon. As Mike Stanton goes in 2011, so go the Florida Marlins.


New York Mets

Last month, I wrote a post analyzing whether and how New York Mets third baseman David Wright was adjusting to playing in CitiField. I concluded that 2009 was an aberation for Wright when he played better on the road than at home, the first season the Mets played at CitiField. Wright adjusted in 2010 and put up better offensive stats in games played at CitiField than on the road. The Mets are counting on Wright to play very well at home this year, which makes Wright my player to watch in 2011.


Off the field, the Mets are in disarray, owing to the Mets owners’ involvement with disgraced Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff. If the Mets fall out of the NL East early, the cash problems may force the Mets to trade the players with expiring contracts: Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez. Either way, the pressure’s on David Wright to either keep the Mets in the race or to continue to attract fan interest if the Mets trade their other “stars” away.


Philadelphia Phillies

Jimmy Rollins has played his entire big league career with the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2007, Rollins was voted the Most Value Player in the National League after he posted a slash line of .296/.344/.531 with 30 HRs (career high) and 41 stolen bases. Fangraphs calculated Rollins’ wRAA in 2007 at 31, also a career high. Throughout his career, Rollins has been a very steady hand at shortstop, as reflected by Fangraphs’s UZR numbers for Rollins and by his three Gold Glove Awards in 2007, 2008 and 2009.


Offensively, Rollins appears to be experiencing a slow, but steady decline. He battled leg injuries for most of 2010, which significantly cut his playing time and slowed his running game. With Phillies second baseman Chase Utley out indefinitely this season with a knee injury, Rollins has replaced Utley in the Phillies’ batting order, hitting third, ahead of slugger Ryan Howard. So far so good for Rollins in 2011 (batting .324 with 3 stolen bases through 9 games). The longer Utley is out, the longer the Phillies will need Rollins to perform in the No. 3 spot, to set things up for RBI king Howard. That’s why Rollins is my player to watch in 2011. As Jimmy Rollins goes in 2011, so go the Phillies.


Washington Nationals

Most observers see the Washington Nationals several years away from making any noise in the National League East but set up to do just that with hard-throwing starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (out this year with Tommy John surgery) and the very young hitting star Bryce Harper. But the Nationals aren’t waiting for Strasburg and Harper to make noise. They made a big splash in the off-season by signing OF Jayson Werth for $126 million. For that kind of money, Jayson Werth has to be the player to watch on the Washington Nationals in 2011.


Werth joined the Nationals after four very successful years with the Phillies. In every year from 2007-2010, Werth increased his wRAA for the Phillies, going from 13.7 in 2007 to 39.9 in 2010. Only Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman posted wRAAs higher than 30 for the Nationals last season. Dunn is gone, having signed with the White Sox, and Zimmerman has made an early trip to the DL. For the Nationals to make any noise on the field in 2011, Jayson Werth must lead the way. As Jayson Werth goes in 2011, so go the Nationals.


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