MLB Preseason Outlook: NL East

Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals look in good position to challenge for the division title this season.

The Eastern division of the National League will provide an entertaining race this season.  With the NL East featuring the wheeling-and-dealing Washington Nationals, the new look Miami Marlins, and the sideshow organization that is the New York Mets, you’d be hard pressed to find a dull moment in this division this season.  The Philadelphia Phillies ran away with the division last year with the best record in baseball, and the Atlanta Braves had their shot to get into the playoffs as a Wild Card, but let an 8.5 game lead slip as the St. Louis Cardinals stole the playoff berth.  All said, the Braves finished 13 games behind the Phillies, and the Nationals finished 8.5 games behind Atlanta.  This year could produce a different story as a result of the numerous offseason moves in the division.

Atlanta Braves (89-73, 2nd in NL East) – The Braves were bolstered last year by Rookie Of The Year Craig Kimbrel who lead the National League with saves (46) along with John Axford. Unfortunately for Atlanta, he blew a save in the last game of the season, which led to them missing the playoffs.  This year, the Braves will be looking to bounce back and claim that playoff spot.  At last year’s trade deadline, they were able to bring in center fielder Michael Bourn from the Houston Astros, who was able to help out hitting .278 in the latter part of the season.  Atlanta will feature a couple prospects in the field: speedy outfielder Jose Constanza, a late season call up last year, and Tyler Pastornicky, a contact hitting shortstop that finished his season at AAA Gwinnett last year.  Another player looking to complete his first full MLB season is Julio Teheran, another late season call up from Gwinnett.  Teheran anchored his club’s rotation in AAA with a 15-3 record, 2.55 ERA, and 122 strikeouts before going 1-1 in 3 starts (5 appearances) with a 5.03 ERA in Atlanta.  Youth is definitely on Atlanta’s side, especially with third year man Jason Heyward hoping to improve his numbers after his sophomore slump.  They’ve also got players on their way out: Chipper Jones has hinted at retirement following this season, and Tim Hudson, at 36 years old, can’t have many years left on that right arm.  With Jones, Heyward, Freeman, and catcher Brian McCann, the Braves definitely have the power to muscle their way into October.

Miami Marlins (72-90, 5th in NL East) – The fish formerly known as Florida will be moving into a new stadium for this season; Marlins Park is built specifically for baseball and features a retractable roof that will prevent rain delays.  Miami made numerous additions to their strong base of Hanley Ramirez, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez and (Giancarlo) Mike Stanton, and have signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and closer extraordinaire Heath Bell to go from the bottom of the barrel to genuine contenders in the NL East.  Following managerial issues last season, the Marlins were able to bring in Ozzie Guillen, who left his post with the Chicago White Sox. Guillen in turn was able to convince volatile pitcher Carlos Zambrano to come to Miami from the Chicago Cubs.  Zambrano, Ramirez, and even Morrison have shown themselves to be difficult to manage during their time in southern Florida, but Ozzie is a no-nonsense manager, and with his strong and strict managing style, he’ll be able to keep a tight grip on this team. The Marlins’ chances of winning the NL East aren’t big, but their season can’t be much worse than the reception to their new logo, or this thing.

New York Mets (77-85, 4th in NL East) – Where do you begin with the Mets?  You have an owner in Fred Wilpon who had some less than flattering things to say about his own players last year, and the team is also crunched for money.  As a result of those factors, the Mets lost speedy shortstop Jose Reyes to the Marlins, who carried most of their offensive threat.  New York will look to Lucas Duda, Jason Bay, and David Wright to shoulder the offensive load, and will need Ike Davis and Josh Thole to chip in as well.  Johan Santana is in the late stages of his recovery from the shoulder injury that kept him off the mound for all of 2011, and he looks poised to make a return to the starting rotation for the 2012 season.  Behind him in rotation are Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese and R.A. Dickey, all of whom had subpar seasons, so you can expect Mets fans to be excited for Santana’s return.  The Mets have had their share of struggles, and seeing them not make the moves to keep up with the rest of the division, they will most likely finish toward the bottom.

Philadelphia Phillies (102-60, NL East Champion) – Philadelphia notched the best record in the league last year, and complemented that with the league’s best record on the road (50-31).  One of the major factors that contributed to the Phillies’ success was their pitching staff anchored by the “R2C2″ combo of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.  This year, they’ll be without Oswalt, who’s currently looking for a new club, and they’ll be missing Ryan Howard at the front part of this season as a result of a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered during the final out of the Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Filling in at first base in his absence will be either John Mayberry, Jr. or offseason pick up Jim Thome, who’s making a return trip in the late stages of his career.  Outside of the question mark at first base, Philadelphia still holds on to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and trade deadline acquisition Hunter Pence to boast a formidable batting order that can strike fear in any pitcher.   One of the most valuable additions to the team that the Philly front office made was the signing of closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Boston Red Sox. With strong starting pitching, solid hitting, and a lights out closer, the Fightin’ Phils should have no problem posting another 90+ win season.

Washington Nationals (80-81,  3rd in NL East) – The Nationals finished last season with their best record since their inauguration in 2005 (81-81), so you can see how much things have changed in the past six years.  Washington is a scrappy hitting team, batting.242 last season, and finished towards the bottom of the pack in terms of scoring. They signed Edwin Jackson, Brad Lidge, and made a trade to acquire ace pitcher Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics.  Looking at the Washington pitching stable, they have Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson leading the rotation, and they’ll be followed by Lidge, Tyler Clippard, and closer Drew Storen from the bullpen, a stiff test for any batting order. The Nats may not have a shot at catching the Wild Card spot, but this might be their first season they finish above .500.

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