Phillies

Most overrated and underrated NL teams, based on Vegas odds

Most overrated and underrated NL teams, based on Vegas odds

Some thoughts on the 2019 win total over-unders released Tuesday by BetOnline.ag:

Phillies ahead of Braves

The Phillies are at 84.5, a game better than the Braves (83.5). The more I look at Atlanta’s roster, the less confident I am in the Braves repeating their success of 2018.

Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. are two of the top five position players in the division, and Josh Donaldson could be a key pickup if he stays healthy. But the Braves’ rotation leaves a lot to be desired. 

Their current rotation is Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint.

Foltynewicz appears to have figured things out, but Newcomb had a 4.58 ERA after the All-Star break, Teheran has alternated good and bad seasons every year since 2012, and Gausman was so much better in 10 starts with the Braves than he was in his 150 previous appearances as an Oriole. Some of that was the move to the NL. Some of it was luck.

There is just a lot of variance in the Braves’ rotation and more of a chance for disappointment in a tough NL East. 

What if the Phillies get a superstar?

The Phils’ over-under would probably jump closer to the 87.5 or 88.5 range with the addition of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. 

The Phillies won 80 games last season with a true talent level more so in the 75-win range. Even factoring in the luck they experienced in 2018, the additions of Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson should improve the Phils by six or seven wins, especially considering the defensive upgrades the two position players provide. 

So, again, if you’re confident the Phillies will land one of the superstars, you should act now.

Overrated

The Dodgers, to me, are not a 95-win team, nor are they a dozen games better than each of their division rivals. Los Angeles’ current number is 94.5, followed by the Rockies at 82.5, the Padres at 78.5, the Diamondbacks at 77.5 and the Giants at 73.5.

The Dodgers’ lineup, though, doesn’t present the same danger as recent seasons. Here is their projected opening day lineup:

Joc Pederson, LF
Corey Seager, SS
Justin Turner, 3B
Cody Bellinger, 1B
Max Muncy, 2B
Chris Taylor, CF
Alex Verdugo, RF
Austin Barnes, C

Good? Sure. Great? No. The Dodgers will beat up on their division, but this is not a clearly better team than the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers or Rockies. 

It’s also why I expect the Dodgers to be heard from again with Harper or Machado. Simply winning the NL West isn’t their goal, and the Dodgers are not currently constructed to beat AL contenders like the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees. 

Underrated

The over bets I like the most belong to the Rockies (82.5) and Brewers (84.5). 

This is the best starting rotation the Rockies have ever had. The 2018 success of groundball specialist Kyle Freeland and the extraordinary German Marquez was not fluky. Both should build on that productivity in 2019. 

Marquez very quietly dominated in the second half, posting a 2.61 ERA with 124 strikeouts and 20 walks in 93 innings. The numbers of an elite pitcher, and even Coors Field couldn’t stand in his way. 

Freeland, a Denver native, is uniquely qualified to conquer the conditions of his home park. He went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA in 202 innings. If rotation-mate Jon Gray, who probably has the best pure stuff in the group, can ever get on track, look out. 

The Rockies lost DJ LeMahieu but added Daniel Murphy, who has the ability to hit .340 this season if he can stay healthy. 

I like the Rockies to not just hit the over, but to win the division, barring a Dodgers signing of Harper or Machado. 

The Brewers’ total of 84.5 is surprisingly low given their talent level and the expected return of top-of-rotation-arm Jimmy Nelson, who did not pitch in 2018. Their number is this low, I’m assuming, because of the Cardinals’ addition of Paul Goldschmidt, a true difference-maker. But outside of Goldy, the Brewers just have more offense and much more bullpen talent. 

The rotation is Milwaukee’s big question mark, but a team built this way will likely add to the starting staff either this offseason or ahead of the trade deadline. Put Madison Bumgarner or Dallas Keuchel on this Milwaukee roster and the bar would definitely rise. 

As of now, it’s Cardinals 88.5 and Brewers 84.5. Should be vice versa.

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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