Well-armed Phillies in NL East crosshairs
Braves expected to make run at four-time division champions
The first question likely to be posed by those pondering the National League East: Can anyone but the Phillies take it?
The Phightin' Phils have won the division four straight times. And heading into this spring, after they added one of baseball's best pitchers to what was already a historic rotation threesome, they looked like the NL East alpha dogs once again.
Then life happened.
Spring Training injuries to No. 3 hitter Chase Utley, hopeful Jayson Werth replacement Domonic Brown and closer Brad Lidge have added wonder and intrigue to a team so many saw as a sure thing.
Starters Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt still look strong. But as Halladay said when introduced with the rest of his rotation mates at the start of Spring Training: "A big part of it for me is not having the best pitching staff in history, but having the best chance to get to the postseason and the best chance to win a World Series."
The Braves, Marlins, Mets and Nationals will look to get in the way of that.
The NL East is a division in which plenty of change occurred in-house. Manager Fredi Gonzalez and second baseman Dan Uggla went from the Marlins to the Braves, Werth shifted from Philly to Washington, the legendary Bobby Cox no longer manages the Braves, the Nats' Jim Riggleman and the Marlins' Edwin Rodriguez will look to clear up their own uncertain futures, and the Mets are somehow under the radar.
The results will be decided on the field, not on transaction lists and depth charts.
"Right now, you just look at the roster, and that's how you predict who's going to win and who's not going to win," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "But the game's won on the field. Any player, any team would say that."
With that in mind, the Braves sport a well-rounded club that will rely on several promising young players -- right fielder Jason Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman, fifth starter Brandon Beachy and potential closer Craig Kimbrel -- to make the playoffs for a second year running.
They'll try to do it under the direction of Gonzalez, the Cox protégé who is Atlanta's first fresh face at the helm since 1990.
The new skipper has had a good spring.
Beachy and Mike Minor recently completed a heated competition for the fifth spot. Kimbrel and Jonny Venters have been dominant late in games. Chipper Jones and Nate McLouth -- two of Gonzalez's biggest lineup questions -- have been rocking Grapefruit League pitching. And, unlike the Phillies, the health reports have been positive.
But don't overlook Gonzalez's former club.
The Marlins have two bona fide stars in Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson. Uggla is gone, via trade, but they boast several talented young position players in outfielders Mike Stanton, Chris Coghlan and Logan Morrison and first baseman Gaby Sanchez. And this offseason, they effectively addressed their two most pressing needs -- bullpen and catching help -- by bringing in an assortment of relievers and signing John Buck.
In his first Spring Training as a Major League manager, Rodriguez declared to his troops that they would be "the last team standing come October."
A lot will have to go right, but they at least have a chance.
Then there are the Nationals, who added Werth -- on a franchise-record seven-year, $126 million contract -- and first baseman Adam LaRoche to protect one of baseball's most underrated players, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
By September, fans could begin to get a glimpse of what this team can be further down the road. That's when Stephen Strasburg could be back, when Bryce Harper could get a shot and when Drew Storen may have grown comfortable as a big league closer.
For the Mets, it's all about newness.
They hired a new general manager and manager, and they cut ties with Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo -- two players as symbolic of the Mets' recent underachievement as any.
But the symbolism of fresh starts cannot mask the reality of injuries (or lawsuits, for that matter). Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana are still on the mend and need to bounce back in this transition year, one that's seemingly more about finding identity than achieving actual on-field success.
First-year skipper Terry Collins, though, is a competitor.
"It's going to be a good division," he said, "and I'm looking forward to the challenge of it all."
Who has the edge? MLB.com's five NL East reporters ranked the clubs in four categories and submitted their predictions for how the division will finish. Here are the results:
Braves GM Frank Wren sought a right-handed slugger and he got one in Uggla. The newly minted $62 million man now joins a lineup with a more seasoned Heyward, an up-and-coming Freeman and proven sluggers McCann and Jones. If Jones and McLouth bring their solid springs into the regular season, the Braves could pack a mean punch. The Phillies' offense was tops in the NL East in recent years, but the loss of Werth -- the only right-handed power hitter they had -- and the injury to Utley sets them back. The Marlins have several nice, young pieces around Ramirez, but they're not as proven as Atlanta. Our selection: Braves
Is there any doubt? The Phillies' foursome of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt isn't just the best in the division, or the best in baseball -- it may be the best ever. Eight All-Star Game appearances and three Cy Young Awards exist among them. And if you combine their 2010 seasons, you get a 58-43 record, a 2.84 ERA and 883 1/3 innings. Sure, the Braves' staff looks solid top to bottom, and one shouldn't ignore a Marlins rotation that added Javier Vazquez, who should be better in the NL and away from the bright lights of New York. But the Phillies are on a different planet. Our selection: Phillies
They lost one of baseball's best closers to retirement and they're still loaded. That's because the Braves have two young but very ready replacements for Billy Wagner in Venters and Kimbrel. Since Venters is a lefty and Kimbrel is a righty, Gonzalez plans -- at least for now -- to deploy both in the ninth (a strategy that worked well for Cox with Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez in 2009). Fredi Gonzalez also has a few other solid pieces in his bullpen. In terms of the rest of the division, the Marlins added several nice arms and the Nats have some promise. Our selection: Braves
With catcher Carlos Ruiz, third baseman Placido Polanco, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, center fielder Shane Victorino and Utley at second base (if healthy), the Phillies have enough to make up for whatever defensive shortcomings first baseman Ryan Howard and left fielder Raul Ibanez may have. The Mets, don't forget, aren't too far behind with Jose Reyes fresh, Castillo gone, Angel Pagan manning center field, and David Wright and Ike Davis at the infield corners. The Nationals and Marlins improved on defense, too. Our selection: Phillies
Predicted order of finish
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.