1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Atlanta Braves
3. New York Mets
4. Florida Marlins
5. Washington Nationals
The NL East is easily the best NL division, with three playoff contenders ahead of two also-rans.
The Phillies are well on their way to repeating. Despite his subpar defense in LF, Raul Ibañez adds an impact bat to the lineup that improves even on the departed Pat Burrell’s. This is the best lineup in the NL, with Ibañez, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shave Victorino, and plenty of productive help around them. The pitching staff has an okay rotation and a solid bullpen, but the real strength is the defense, easily the best in the majors in terms of run prevention. Jayson Werth by himself is one of the best outfielders in baseball. Utley and Rollins are one of baseball’s best double play tandems, Pedro Feliz is an excellent defensive 3B and Raul is the only real weak spot. The Phillies are what the Red Sox are in the AL: a seemingly unbeatable force that’s arguably the best at scoring and preventing runs.
No team should match the Rays’ surprise run (whether or not the saberheads were really surprised), but one team that should rebound strong from a down year is the Atlanta Braves. Picking up Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez quickly makes the Braves rotation the best in the NL, placing them ahead of the emerging Jair Jurjjens, strike throwing Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami and whichever MLB-ready rookie they elect to throw in the #5 spot. Their offense should also score a lot of runs, as the Braves have quietly assembled a consistently productive lineup built around veteran Chipper Jones and top-shelf catcher Brian McCann. Nearly all of these hitters can hit for some power, and much of the lineup consistently gets on base. The defense is merely average, but the Braves should quietly take the Wildcard in a 90-95 win season the old fashioned way: With solid pitching and solid hitting.
Sadly, the big money NY Mets just don’t have what it takes to crack the playoffs this year. Save for the huge JJ Putz trade and signing K-Rod this offseason, they didn’t really add any talent. The lineup, while one of the league’s better lineups, is essentially the same lineup they had last season. K-Rod and JJ vastly upgrade an okay bullpen to an okay bullpen fronted by two great relievers. The next best arm is one of those other players acquired in the JJ trade, Sean Green. Overall, the pitching is among the best in the NL thanks to the bullpen pickups, but the defense is simply decent, the bottom of the lineup gets a bit thin and the Mets simply don’t have enough top-shelf oomph to oust the Phillies or outlast the soon-to-emerge Braves.
The Marlins manage to stay somewhat competitive despite no budget, no fanbase and a sadistic owner, but this season they simply won’t be in the hunt. This is a 65-70 win team that, despite some young stars and a talented, developing rotation, are hampered by a weak bullpen, a subpar offense and a subpar defense. Cameron Maybin is still a year or two away from becoming a star in the Hanley Ramirez mold. Both he and Ramirez are subpar defenders who will get away with it due to their bats. New 3B Emilio Bonifacio is still a couple years away, if he will indeed meet his potential. Jeremy Hermida and Cody Ross hit for power but only give you so much in the lineup, while Jorge Cantu is the most reliable bat outside of Ramirez. Godspeed, new stadium.
The Washington Nationals will definitely hang with the Marlins for 4th in the NL East, but no one’s wrong about the Nationals being bad. They actually have an average lineup between Ryan Zimmerman, a healthy Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young, newly acquired Adam Dunn, Elijah Dukes, with help from Austin Kearns and Ronnie Belliard. They’ll score some runs. The defense is also average, rather than bad as many may think. But the big problem with the Nationals is what has to be far and away the worst pitching staff in the majors. John Lannan fronts a rag-tag bunch of kids and tomato cans, many whom would struggle to hold down the middle of most AAA staffs. Daniel Cabrera is finished, rookie Jordan Zimmerman’s going to get initiated and Scott Olsen has a gopherball problem. The Nationals should allow the most runs in the NL, and it’ll be mainly because of poor pitching.