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04/02/12 10:00 AM ET

NL East promises to be heavyweight slugfest

Braves' defiance, Marlins' bats, Nats' additions to challenge Phils

In the bare-knuckled brawl that the National League East figures to be this year, almost every team looks like it has a puncher's chance.

The Phillies are the reigning heavyweight champions beginning to show some telltale signs of wear and tear. The Braves are the talented opponent that everyone is watching to see how they'll come back from the shocking knockout in their last bout. The Marlins are the challenger that added a bunch of muscle. The Nationals are the scrappy underdogs rising quickly through the ranks. The Mets are looking for the big upset.

"Everybody's talking about the Phillies regressing," said ESPN analyst Terry Francona, who, after eight years of managing the Red Sox, knows something about carnivorous divisions. "But even if they don't regress, it's going to be difficult.

"The Braves are pretty good. Just the fact that the Marlins and Nationals are going to be relevant, the division got better. That's going to chop into your win total. And with the unbalanced schedule and the Wild Cards meaning so much, it's tough. If the Phillies come back and win as many games as they did last year (102), they're actually better, because the competition is better."

After five straight division titles, the Phillies are clearly the team to beat. And as long as the Big Three at the top of the rotation remains healthy, they can't be counted out. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. also invested $50 million over the next four years on free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon.

The question is how much run support the pitching will get. The Phillies scored more than 100 fewer runs last season than they did in 2009, and they will open the season without first baseman Ryan Howard (torn Achilles tendon) and Chase Utley (chronic knee issues), with no firm timetable for either to return.

Francona, for one, doesn't believe the Braves will suffer a hangover from their inability to hold onto a big Wild Card lead last September.

"It sounds like they're using it to their advantage, playing with a little chip on their shoulder. I think it can help," Francona said. "Because I think there can be a hangover the other way -- when you win and then there's that sense of entitlement. They've come back and they look like they're a little ticked. And I mean that in a good way."

Everybody knows how the Marlins have a new stadium, new name, new uniforms, exciting new manager in Ozzie Guillen and went on a spending binge that netted shortstop Jose Reyes, starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell. It's more instructive to remember these are all additions to a team that got off to a 30-20 start last season before being dragged down by injuries to Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez.

The Nationals made an astute trade to add lefty Gio Gonzalez to the rotation. They added stability by signing face-of-the-franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term deal, and the rest of their homegrown core continues to improve.

And while it's easy to write off the Mets, the return of Johan Santana to the rotation makes New York a team that can't be taken lightly.

Predictions are always dicey, anyway. Who can forget 1973, when Phillies manager Danny Ozark famously said the division was so balanced that you could "throw a blanket" over the top four or five teams? Ozark was including the Phils. Instead they lost 91 games and finished last in a six-team field. Still, MLB.com's fearless National League East beat writers agreed to a poll. Here are the results:

Best lineup

Every indication is that Ramirez is fully recovered from the shoulder surgery and back problems that plagued him in 2011. Hitting coach Eduardo Perez even suggested that Ramirez could have his best season; considering that he has three All-Star Games, four 100-run seasons, a second-place finish in NL MVP Award voting and a batting title to his credit, is a pretty strong statement. Along with Giancarlo Stanton, that gives the Marlins a strong potential 3-4 combo to go along with the table-setting leadoff hitter Reyes. Speedy Emilio Bonifacio complements Reyes at the top of the order, while Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez add pop in the middle. The Braves are solid but need a bounce-back season from right fielder Jason Heyward and a healthy farewell tour by Chipper Jones. The Nationals expect Jayson Werth to improve. Rookie Bryce Harper is the wild card. The Phillies have no timetable for the return of Howard and Utley.

Our selection: Marlins

Best rotation

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young Award voting last season. Hamels has the added incentive of being eligible for free agency at the end of the season. And No. 4 starter Vance Worley finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting. Case closed. The Nationals are on the rise, but promise and potential aren't the same as a proven track record of success. Adding experienced arms in Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson was shrewd. Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg will be capped at 160 innings. Johnson and Buehrle give the Marlins a solid 1-2. If Ricky Nolasco, Carlos Zambrano and Anibal Sanchez are solid, the Fish can put their rotation up against that of almost anybody.

Our selection: Phillies

Best bullpen

Atlanta was one of the safest bets with late-inning leads last season, as Craig Kimbrel (46 saves, 2.10 ERA), Johnny Venters (1.84 ERA, runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting) and Eric O'Flaherty (0.98 ERA) gave manager Fredi Gonzalez a shutdown bullpen. And, with the Braves playing 55 one-run games, he used it plenty -- those three relievers appeared in a total of 242 games between them. Nationals closer Drew Storen experienced elbow soreness in Spring Training and will likely start the season on the disabled list, but is expected back by mid-April. In the meantime, Tyler Clippard and Brad Lidge will have to hold the fort. The Phillies signed Papelbon but need Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes to replicate their rookie effectiveness.

Our selection: Braves

Best defense

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, center fielder Shane Victorino and third baseman Placido Polanco all have Gold Gloves. John Mayberry Jr. figures to be a defensive upgrade whether he plays left field or first base. And second baseman Freddy Galvis, a converted shortstop who has been moved to second base until Utley returns, has a reputation for being a defensive whiz. The Phillies had the highest fielding percentage (.988) and lowest number of errors (74) in the division in 2011, and that shouldn't change this year. The Marlins signed Reyes for the skills he brings to the leadoff spot, but he's also an excellent defender at shortstop. And Ramirez appeared to make the transition to third base without a hitch in Spring Training.

Our selection: Phillies

Predicted order of finish

  1. 1st
  2. 2nd
  3. 3rd
  4. 4th
  5. 5th

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