No Surprise: The Phillies Will Grab the Flag

Roy Halladay, Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies

The votes are in and it appears to be unanimous: the Philadelphia Phillies are the New York Yankees of the National League — or rather, the Ponies are so good that the Yanks are the Phillies of the American. It’s not exactly a secret; the Phillies are that good. If there’s any curse on the Phillies it’s simply this: they’re on the front cover of SI, which might mean that their coming campaign will fizzle. But I don’t see how. The core of Halladay, Hamels, Happ, Howard, Utley and Werth (and the addition of an admittedly overpriced Placido Polanco) makes them the odds-on favorites in the NL Least, with the Tomahawks, Fish, Nats and Apples finishing as also-rans. It won’t be close.

What’s interesting about “the Least” is not the fight for first or even second (which will go, almost by default, to Atlanta), but the fight for third. Don’t laugh. The Marlins always seem to play over their heads, as they did for a time last year — when they were all the rage for fans who think that April matters. They’ll come back to reality in 2010 (or, being the Fish, they’ll take a bunch of mugs and win the World Series). Outside of Josh Johnson (as good a pitcher as there is in baseball) and Ricky Nolasco, their front four is shakey. They’ll have to count on Burke Badenhop to step up (how likely is that?), and outfielder Chris Coughlan will have to dodge the sophomore jinx. He won’t. True: the Fish have a power infield, with one of the strongest up-the-middle combos (with Ramirez and Uggla) in the MLB. But the Nats have their own power players, and if Stephen Strasburg arrives fully ready in June (or earlier), the front four of Strasburg, Marquis, Lannan and Stammen (and Hernandez) will regularly outpitch the Fish. So, given a little luck (and a healthy and as-advertised Strasburg), the NL Least will be 1) Philadelphia, 2) Atlanta, 3) Washington, 4) Florida and 5) New York. Or it won’t — and the Nats will suffer through a not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year season, and finish fourth.

So here’s the question: what the hell is wrong with the Mets? Well . . . maybe nothing. If Jose Reyes can resurrect his best years, if Jason Bay can be in New York what he was in Boston, if David Wright can be the bopper he was in ’08, and if the New Yorkers can find someone who scares hitters even half-as-much as Johan Santana – then the “boys of slumber” can finish as high as second. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and a second act that features Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and a half-dozen question marks does not bode well for a team that, even when healthy, will have trouble winning 9-7 slugfests. This says it quite well: the Mets face “a rather inconvenient truth” — that even if healthy (which they’re not), they’re just not very good. So buckle your seat belts Mets’ fans: these are your daddy’s Mets.

As for the Nats — barring injury (there oughta be a default button for that phrase here somewhere), the Nats will bring the bats, and everything else will depend (as it always does) on pitching and defense. Both are better, but nowhere near where they should be. In our dreams Adam Dunn has a fantasy player year (of close to fifty dingers), Ryan Zimmerman becomes all-world (and finishes as a runner-up in the MVP voting), Adam Kennedy returns to form, Matt Capps becomes Joe Nathan (sans injury), and the platoon in right field is filled by someone like this guy. If that happens then anything is possible . . .

Since this is baseball, and anything is sometimes just not possible, the kind of season the Nats will have will be obvious for all to see within the season’s first twenty games. The bullpen is better, but it’s still iffy, and the team will need to find an early spark. I agree with the SI assessment: the early spark for the Nats will have to be Nyjer Morgan. A fast start for the fleet-footed center fielder will build confidence in a team that (after the 100-plus losses of ’09) sorely needs it. That means the pressure is on; Morgan will be expected to run the Nats into (instead of out of) games, and he’ll be expected to use his speed to make up for a shaky corner outfield defense. Which is simply to say: if Morgan proves to be the spark we expect, then the Nats will not only have a better 162-game outing this year than they did last, they’ll actually be a pleasure to watch. Especially when they play the Mets.