The Doormats took over the reigns of the AL East last season after Philadelphia's 6-year run of division titles came crashing down (as yours truly foresaw in this very blog). Along the way, management and fans alike saw some glaring problems-- namely, their mediocre pitching (16th in majors with a 4.45 ERA), their middle-of-the-road hitting (13th in majors with a .777 OPS) and their below average fielding (19th in majors with a .981 fielding percentage). Failing to excel in any aspect of the game doesn't exactly scream "division winner," so Durham responded by signing... no one. The Doormats, in fact, did not make a single signing outside of arbitration this season. They did manage to lose Alfredo Kelly, a capable hitter who was underutilized last year, and a pair of relievers in Jumbo Appier and Jin Pan, both of whom have had success in the past. They also took the unusual step of releasing Yamil Mateo, a hitter who belted 40 homers just 2 years ago, and Reagan Washington, a streaky reliever whose career ERA (4.14) is nevertheless lower than Durham's team ERA was last year. The men who are supposed to keep Durham's playoff hopes alive this year, then, are all minor leaguers who have been promoted, and they are the following: Zach Foster (a long reliever whose ERA the last time he played in the majors was 6.88 over nearly 83 innings), Sammy Lira (a man with a 4.25 minor league ERA who would otherwise be entering his fourth year in AAA), Sammy Azocar (a 1-inning setup man whose minor league ERA is nearly 5), and Paul Maxwell (an admittedly capable fielder who has nonetheless OPSed .654 in his 636 major league at-bats and is 29 years old). Color me slightly unimpressed with this ragtag group; given that some would say Durham overachieved last year, one wonders if they have what it takes to be an above-.500 team this year. Maybe playing in this division will help get them some extra wins.
Rumor has it that Philadelphia's rapid decline (from 100 wins in season 9 to only 72 in season 10) was the result of the league's new rigorous steroid testing policies. While some would beg to differ (having a 4.86 team ERA doesn't inspire much confidence), the players' union's new deal for relaxed 'roid testing might be a boon to a Cheesesteaks team that suffered a severe power outage last season (186 homers in season 10 vs. 304 in seaason 9). And it seems management is keen to either prove that last year was a fluke or die trying; the Cheesesteaks team you see before you is practically the exact same one we saw last year (except, as Philadelphia might not be quick to point out, one year older). The injury suffered by Paul Wang last season will likely keep him out until at least the All-Star break, but other than that, there are no real additions or subtractions; what you saw last year is what you'll get this year. This isn't exactly a good thing, of course; former ace Rich Meyers is now 39, and age has taken its toll (his 4.99 ERA last year was a career high and his 153.1 innings was a career low except for season 5 when he recovered from elbow surgery). The average age of the current 25-man roster is a bit over 30, and 13 of those 25 players are 30 or older. Yes, maybe some of Philadelphia's problems last season were due to a lack of power hitting, but you'll also remember that the Cheesesteaks barely made any moves last offseason as well, leading one to wonder whether Philadelphia has much of a plan for rebuilding this once-proud franchise.
Atlanta Red Tide
In their final season in Hartford, this franchise was sometimes painful to watch. Registering a franchise-record 99 losses, this team seemed lost out on the field, and frankly, it seemed as if they didn't care. Their ML-worst 6.21 ERA was an absolute embarrassment, and their .794 team OPS seemed to be the only thing saving them from the utter dregs. Under new management and having moved to Atlanta, the franchise has been hard at work making sure their past failures don't continue to haunt them. Their new GM has publicly stated that there will be a major emphasis on pitching for the next few seasons; while there is still plenty of work to be done, it is obvious that this year's staff will be improved. Players like Vince Lilly and Sal Bryant have been tossed to the scrap heap where they belong, and the new management even saw through Freddy Franklin's mirage of a season (he had a 3.90 ERA but opponents hit .289 against him and induced a 1.41 WHIP). Antonio Reid and Herm Redman were big acquisitions that will immediately serve to stop the bleeding on this pitching staff. Jo-jo Loiselle hasn't had much success, and seems like an odd choice, but some claim there may be some talent there so a 1-year reprieve on this decision may be in order (he did have a great season 9). Chet Spencer, one of the few relative bright spots on the staff, was signed to a 3-year deal (which will strangely take him no farther than his arbitration years). Former 1st round picks Cecil Nixon and Charley Shelley should also be a boon offensively and defensively. Make no mistake: this franchise isn't going anywhere this year. But if they build correctly, a few seasons down the road, don't be surprised to see the Red Tide creep ashore in this division.
In all my years of watching baseball, I don't believe I have ever seen a team have turnover in the offseason like Toledo has had this year. To be fair, after going 59-103, it's hard to blame them. But after jettisoning much of one's team, one has to realize that the good will be gone with the bad, and it's not usually a good idea to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Some of their more notable departures were 2-time All-Star slugger Aurelio Rodriguez, slugger and 350-home run club member Harry Maduro, highly capable hitter Reggie Bowman, and the aging Lonnie Cox who nevertheless hit .306 with an .808 OPS last year. Then the trades started. The aging but studly Richard Tanaka was dealt to Ottawa for Octavio Santos (a good fielding CF whose hitting is up for judgement) and young catcher Benny Linton (I once overheard a scout say that watching him hit major league pitching was "like watching a 5-year old on a sugar rush try to smash a pinata and miss every time," though he is a good defender). Chico Sanchez was acquired for Cal Durham, even though Sanchez isn't very well thought of while Durham is a prospect with good upside. They then acquired innings-eaters Matthew Helton and David Samuel, neither of whom is too impressive, for Rob Michaels, a Gold Glove winner last year. They also dealt a couple of prospects for the fairly useless Felipe Rosario. Then, they dealt prized catching prospect Pablo Maduro to Fargo for 3 big leaguers who likely won't even be around when this team manages to get good. They also managed to acquire thus-disappointing pitcher Orber Torres for the mediocre Leon Leonard in perhaps their best bang-for-their-buck deal this winter, but I fail to see the logic in mortgaging to much of the future for moves that likely won't even put the team around .500. Their free agent signings are even more bizarre; they spent $17,480,000 in free agents this season, only 2 of whom have ever played an inning of Major League baseball, and those two are Rafael Pichardo (6.26 career ERA) and Joshua Meyer (turned 35 this winter). Frighteningly, this team shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down as they continue to solicit deals through Spring Training. Either this is an imploded team that will lose 120 games this year, or the new GM is an evil genius who will manage to win 120. Time will tell which we'll get, but I'd bank heavily on the former.
Frankly, it doesn't much matter who wins this division, as it could very well be one of the worst in baseball, if not the worst. All teams seem to have either gotten worse or not gotten better enough to make a splash. 1 & 2 may switch and 3 & 4 may switch, but I'd be shocked if we saw anything other than that. I'd also be shocked if any of these teams were playing past the first week in October; this is one of those times when it seems hard to accept that baseball rules dictate that one of these teams will have to make the playoffs while one AL North team will have to miss it. I sorely hope that I am proven wrong by at least one of these teams this year.