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03/29/10 10:00 AM ET

NL East must contend with Phils' ambitions

As team to beat, Philly after third consecutive Series berth

It took the Philadelphia Phillies the first 98 years of their existence to reach three World Series. Now, they will try to make it three in as many years.

Who's going to stop them?

Oh, they'll have their challengers. The pieces are coming together so well for the Braves -- they have Bobby Cox, who has decided this will be his swan season of managing, feeling like Michelangelo putting the finishing touches on the Sistine Chapel. The Marlins boast ideal balance and a team that always seems to surprise by contending deep into the season now that it has deeper pockets.

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But those hopefuls also have question marks. Atlanta's lineup teems with players facing various issues, from Chipper Jones' attempt to reverse his freefall to Troy Glaus' comeback and shift to a new position. Florida wonders whether the back end of its rotation can hold up its own end.

The only question in the Phillies' mind is, does a team which spent 141 days atop the standings last season, then went out and added Roy Halladay, have anything to worry about? Maybe another slow start. Philadelphia did not get over .500 to stay last season until May 15, and a similar stumble out of the gate could feed those other contenders' confidence.

Otherwise, can't see it. If anything, this Phillies team will be better -- much better -- than the National League East threepeaters, which averaged 91 wins in 2007-09. When you realize that three important cogs are actually in serious rebound mode -- Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels -- the prospects for the rest of the division become daunting.

The Nationals will be the most improved team, and not only because after 103 losses they have the most room for improvement. Ivan Rodriguez, Adam Kennedy and Jason Marquis reflect a major facelift, but of most immediate interest is when will the capitol's name be changed to Strasburg?

Meanwhile, the Mets' Medical Mystery Tour appears to be continuing, with Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez among the latest passengers. There is simply too much uncertainty obscuring the Mets' feat of the offseason's biggest free-agent position addition, Jason Bay. He may have a negligible impact on a team which had 27 fewer homers than any other last season.

Best lineup
Every team has moving parts; managers piecing together daily lineups as if working a Rubik's Cube. Not the Phillies, who, counting new third baseman Placido Polanco, have six players who started 150-plus games in 2009. The lineup is so loaded that Shane Victorino, who scored 102 runs and stole 25 bases, had to drop to the bottom to make way for Polanco. The Marlins have some comparable firepower with Dan Uggla and 30-and-30 threat Hanley Ramirez, but the Phillies aren't just the best in their division. Their lineup has supplanted the Yankees as the best in the Majors. Our selection: Phillies

Best rotation
Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, together, could give Florida the best 1-2 pitching punch in the division. And the Braves, secure enough in Tim Hudson's health to deal away 2009 ace Javier Vazquez, are formidable with Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe. However, the Phillies not only lead with Halladay, who should respond brilliantly to finally getting his chance to pitch in a pennant race, but they will regain the tough Hamels. He learned his lesson by losing some of his focus off his 2008 heroics and is recommitted. A full season of J.A. Happ and workhorse Joe Blanton make the eventual identity of the fifth starter almost incidental, but the way Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick competed in Spring Training, either one would be the division's top No. 5. Our selection: Phillies

Best bullpen
Rodriguez is the top closer and, alongside a solid setup crew, heads what could potentially be the division's deepest relief corps. Rodriguez had 20 fewer save opportunities than saves in 2008, and you wonder how much busier he'll be kept by this Mets rotation. The Braves went to an A-list guy (Billy Wagner) after a couple of pretty good 1-As last season (Michael Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano), the Marlins also parted with a couple of good ones (Kiko Calero and Matt Lindstrom) and Lidge would do well to keep Phillies manager Charlie Manuel off the ledge. Maybe they won't get a chance to maximize their impact, but best is still best. Our selection: Mets

Best defense
In case you haven't noticed, leather is making a big comeback in the way general managers assemble teams and fans regard them. Those newfangled analytical stats have something to do with that, but mostly, it's a renewed appreciation for how range and arm can keep runs off the board. If Polanco, the erstwhile nearly flawless second baseman, performs comparably at third, the Phillies' defense will be so good, it should join the president's cabinet. Ryan Howard's improvement at first base, answering the infield peer pressure of Chase Utley and Rollins, has been remarkable. The outfield features the best range (Victorino in center) and best arm (Jayson Werth in right). And October again showed how good Carlos Ruiz can be behind the plate. Our selection: Phillies

Predicted order of finish






Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.