I asked Jayson Werth a perfectly simple question yesterday, and he, to his credit, gave a perfectly honest answer. I wanted to know what he thought about a question that will help decide the tenor of the Nationals’ summer: Are the Phillies or Braves better? Werth responded quickly: Phillies.
The Nationals are the reigning champion in the NL East and heavily favored to repeat. But they know defending will not be easy. The Braves and Phillies are clearly their biggest threats, but which is the biggest?
The consensus answer differs from Werth’s. Most pundits have picked the Braves to finish second. The online oddsmaker Bovada pegs the Phillies at 18-1 to win the World Series and the Braves at 16-1. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system has the Braves finishing second and the Phillies tying the Mets for third place.
The Braves made more noise in the offseason, but as both Werth and Ryan Zimmerman pointed out, there are reasons to doubt the impact. They added the Upton brothers, but they also lost Martin Prado, Chipper Jones and Michael Bourn. The gains may not even offset the losses. Throwing in likely third baseman Chris Johnson, here are how the Braves in question fared last year, in terms of both Wins Above Replacement formulas:
J. Upton: 2.1
B.J. Upton: 2.6
J. Upton: 2.5
B.J. Upton: 3.3
There is more to this than simply adding up WAR – Justin Upton played through a shoulder injury last year and in 2011, at age 23, he finished fourth in the MVP voting. Still, those are stark figures. The Braves added two potential stars to their outfield. But they lost a lot, too. If you want to make a Nationals pitcher happy, remind him Prado no longer plays in the NL East.
The Braves also lost valuable backup catcher David Ross and replaced him Gerald Laird, a lesser player. One Nationals official brought that up as an underrated loss, especially with Brian McCann coming off an injury-plagued season.
The Phillies made few major additions. Ben Revere will give them a much-needed defensive boost in the outfield. Michael Young fills a hole at third base, but his exquisite skill with a bat does not translate into big value at this stage of his career – you’re getting lots of singles and lots of outs. Old friend John Lannan will become their fifth starter. Mike Adams will handle the eighth inning for a bullpen that imploded last year. The Phillies are asking Delmon Young to cover right field, which sounds like asking a table lamp to fix you a pot roast.
Mostly, the Phillies are counting on improved health. They wilted last season either playing without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard or playing with diminished versions of them. Reports on both have been positive this spring. There is reason for skepticism. Utley may be healthy at the moment, but he’s still a 34-year-old with creaky knees. Howard just turned 33, and he owns a .690 OPS in his last 759 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.
Still, if those two can stay healthy, the Phillies have a chance to turn last year into a blip. After July last year, they went 35-24. Their rotation still contains Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and that alone may be reason to rank them ahead of the Braves on paper.
Atlanta’s staff contains several questions. Tim Hudson is a year older. Kris Medlen will have to resist the label of “fluke.” Do they have a true ace? Can Mike Minor and Julio Teheran step forward? If they can get the ball to their excellent bullpen, chances are the lead will hold.
In the end, the assumption that the Braves are better than the Phillies is far too easy. Both teams have flaws, but the Phillies have the clearest strength in their top three starters, and the Braves’ lineup did not improve as much as it seems at first glance.
And Werth had another conclusion: The Nationals have the kind of talent, on paper, that shouldn’t have to worry about challengers.
“I’m really not too concerned about other teams,” Werth said. “We just got to take care of ourselves, and we’ll be alright.”
FROM THE POST
In the National League East, the Braves and Phillies pose the biggest threat to the Nationals.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
The Nationals host the Marlins at 1 p.m. Dan Haren will make his spring debut against Nathan Eovaldi. This lineup was posted in the Nats’ clubhouse yesterday morning, but it’s subject to change – Davey Johnson said Bryce Harper talked his way into the lineup.
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Steve Lombardozzi, 2B
3. Jayson Werth, RF
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Chad Tracy, 3B
6. Danny Espinosa, DH
7. Kurt Suzuki, C
8. Corey Brown, LF
9. Zachary Walters
Other available pitchers:
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY