Before the season started I participated in an NL East roundtable (via the old site) which was hosted by MetsGeek. Now that the season is two months old, we thought it would be a good time to have another roundtable. Below is my contribution. Once the full transcript is posted over at MetsGeek, I'll provide a link:
1. After 50 games, is your team overachieving, underachieving or right where you'd thought they'd be?
The Marlins are underachieving. Prior to this recent rough stretch (where they've lost 7 of their past 10 - going into this weekend's series against the Nationals), the Marlins were well underperforming their expected Pythagorean record. It seems that has caught up with them now, as an ugly series against the Mets and then the Pirates have put a significant dent into their runs scored - runs allowed differential.
I fear that the Marlins missed out on their opportunity to take control of the division lead - as the Braves have scuffled some of late too. Had the Marlins been able to continue to play like they did for the first month and a half of the season over the past two weeks, the Fish would likely have a lead of three or four games in the division right now. Unfortunately, they didn't, and everyone is within 2.5 games of each other.
2. What has been the biggest strength of your team? Biggest weakness?
The Marlins biggest strength has been starting pitching. Dontrelle Willis is a Cy Young front-runner. Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett have done all that anyone could have expected.
Brian Moehler has been phenomenal. This is a guy who was nearly out of baseball not that long ago. Coming into spring training, it wasn't clear that he'd even have a role with the Marlins - let alone as a starter. The Ismael Valdez was hurt late in the spring and Moehler stepped up. In May, he was arguably the best pitcher on the staff.
Unfortunately, the biggest weakness has to be the Marlins other starting pitcher - Al Leiter, at least when he's pitching at home. Leiter has an amazing disparity in his home/road splits (especially when you consider how pitcher-friendly the Marlins' home park is). Leiter has an ERA of 1.96 in 4 road starts and a 10.44 ERA in 6 starts in Miami. If the Leiter, or pitching coach Mark Wiley, can get Al to pitch at home like he has on the road, things could look pretty good for the Fish. Realistically, Leiter will probably start to pitch more on the road like he has at home (he's not a pitcher anymore who is capable of sustaining an ERA around 2).
3. One of the requirements for being a baseball fan is hating your team's manager. How good (or bad) has your manager been?
Jack McKeon is either certifiably crazy or he has sold his soul to the baseball gods. There's no other explanation for it. Jack rants about meaningless things. He smokes cigars continuously. His lineup changes often make no sense at all (hey - let's give Jeff Conine a random start, in place of Juan Pierre, and bat Jeff second). How he handles the bullpen is simply amazing (not the good kind of amazing). It's not uncommon to see Jack have every arm in the bullpen warm up at least once (and some multiple times) in a single game.
All of that said, Jack seems to find a way to win. If the Marlins make the post-season this year, the Marlins should name their new stadium after him.
4. How are the top prospects doing? Has anyone else emerged as a potential top prospect?
The big news about Marlins minor leaguers is that 2003 first round pick Jeff Allison is back in the game. After some off-field drug related problems (of the recreational and not performance enhancing variety), Jeff rejoined the organization as an active player during May. He missed all of last season and spring training this year, so he's definitely behind. But he's only 20 and the potential that made him a first rounder is still there.
Jason Vargas, who was a second rounder last year, tore up High-A ball and was quickly promoted to AA.
Perennial prospect Josh Willingham has been on fire in AAA. He's started off the year with a .324/.463/.738 line. I don't have an MLE for that, but it has to be respectable. He's also hit 16 home runs and walked more than he's struck out.
5. What has to happen for your team to have a successful season?
In order to have a successful season, the Marlins have to stay healthy (there's not a lot of depth) and start to hit and pitch at the same time. While there are question marks throughout the bullpen, on the whole the Marlins pitching has been excellent. Offensively there have been some big holes. For the team to contend, Mike Lowell and Juan Pierre have to break out of their slumps and return to the form that we're all used to seeing them in.
The NL East
1. It comes as no surprise that the NL East is the best division in baseball. But has any team surprised you in this division?
The Nationals. It may be smoke and mirrors at this point, but I still didn't expect the Nats to be North of .500 two full months into the season. Maybe they're energized by the new city, but I didn't think they'd be this competitive in 2005.
2. So far, what team has been the best in the division and why? How about the worst team?
The Braves, because of their front office, manager, and coaches have been the class of the East so far. There are millions of reasons why the Braves run should be owner (even before this year) and there are very few quantifiable reasons why Atlanta should be in the division lead currently. Rafael Furcal has been pathetic. Adam LaRoche is getting the bulk of the at bats in the cleanup spot. Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan are shells of their former selves. Still, in a tough division, they're still on top.
The Phillies have been the worst/most disappointing. They got rid of Larry Bowa and still haven't turned it around. A club with the 5th highest payroll in the majors can't reside in last place - especially when they're in the same division as the Expos/Nationals.
3. So far, who is the division's MVP? Who is the division's least valuable player? In other words, who's worse, Doug Mientkiewicz or Christian Guzman?
The division's MVP has to be Bobby Abreu. His numbers are phenomenal and he's been keeping the Phils afloat. Miguel Cabrera should at least be a part of any NL East MVP discussion though. It's easy to forget that Cabrera is barely 22.
The least valuable player is clearly Cristian Guzman. It goes well beyond numbers though. I've watched him play in person a handful of times this year, and more often than not, he looks like he doesn't care when he's on the field. He takes his time and doesn't seem to sense any urgency. As a guy who's getting paid a fortune and who's able to hold a job that many would love to have, he could at least try to look the part.
4. Which minor league call up will have the most impact this year?
At least for me, it's too early to call this one. Unfortunately for the Marlins though, I don't think it's going to be a Marlin this year. There doesn't seem to be a Cabrera or Willis waiting in the wings, a la 2003. And if there turns out to be one for the Fish this year, we'll likely only find out if an important contributor goes down with an injury.
5. Which team will win the division?
The Braves. I'll only start to consider believing that another team can win the division when I actually see it happen. Besides, the Marlins (1997 and 2003) and the Mets (2000) have proven that you don't have to win the NL East to win the World Series. Well, I guess only the Marlins have proven that, as the Mets only reached the World Series in 2000.