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With the season just days away it is time to take a closer look at the most competitive division in the National League.  Last year the Philadelphia Phillies won their fifth consecutive NL East title thanks to their starting rotation and the Atlanta Braves missed out on the playoffs thanks to one of the worst end of the season collapses in MLB history.  Rounding out the division the Nationals came in third with an 80-81 record, the Mets went 77-85, and the Florida Marlins came in last place with a 72-90 record.  This year things have changed as with the exception of the New York Mets, the Phillies, Braves, Marlins and Nationals are all thinking playoffs going into 2012, and with the expanded playoffs system their is a real chance that three of the four could go.

  • Atlanta Braves--  Like many of the teams in the NL East their strength is in their pitching staff.  Even with Tim Hudson starting the year on the DL the Braves still have enough starting pitching between Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor that Hudson's presence will not be as missed as he would be if he were on another team.  However the real strength of the Braves resides in their bullpen.  Closer Craig Kimbrel set a rookie record with 46 saves last year and this year he is back looking to match that performance.  Kimbrel also has help in the bullpen with setup man Jonny Venters, lefty specialist Eric O'Flaherty and just acquired Livan Hernandez who will be the teams long reliever and may get some spot starts.  The real problem that plagued the Braves through out 2011 was their failure to score enough runs.  It will be interesting to see if those problems continue in 2012 because while you don't really know what the Braves will get from Chipper Jones in his final season or Tyler Pastornicky in his rookie season the Braves do have some good offensive players.  First baseman Freddie Freeman is a consistent hitter with some power, Michael Bourne is a danger when he gets on the base path, Jason Hayword is still young and could have a breakout season, and Dan Uggla and Brian McCain are both great power hitters.  If the Braves can produce a couple more runs per game and don't fall apart at the end of the season, then they should give the Phillies are real run for their money in the division title.
  •  Miami Marlins-- The Marlins may have finished 2011 in last place of the NL East but they had a lot go wrong last year with Hanley Ramirez hurt and not playing well, Josh Johnson missing all but the first month of the season, Javier Vazquez and Omar Infante atrocious first half of the season, and no stability at third base.  This year the Marlins are a whole new team with a new name, new stadium, new uniforms, new manager (Ozzie Guillen), and new big name players (Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano), and if they can stay away from the injury bug they could be a serious World Series contenders.  This year the Marlins are probably the best offensive team in the NL East with Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez (who played like an MVP candidate this spring) Mike Stanton, Logan Morriosn, and Gaby Sanchez, and the Marlins maybe the most balanced team as well.  Outside of the big name players starting, the Fish also have Austin Kearns, Chris Coghlan, Greg Dobbs (who had as good a season as a bench player as you could ask for in 2011) and Wade LeBlanc (who will be starting in Triple-A) all add serious depth to this team should they be needed.  The Marlins rotation is solid with a healthy Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez at the top of the rotation, and Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano's (probably #3 pitchers on most other teams) rounding out the rotation.  One of the few bright spots on the Marlins team in 2011 was the improvement of their bullpen.  In 2010 the Marlins had one of the worst bullpens in MLB, but they were in the upper middle of the pack in 2011.  Now the Marlins bring back most of those same players and add Heath Bell to be their closer.  The Marlins have a lot of changes that they will need to get adjusted to, but if they can do it quickly and play well, they may be a dark horse to win the World Series.
  •  New York Mets-- The fact that the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles will finish last in their respective divisions maybe the safest bets in all of baseball for 2012.  The Mets have lowered the walls and brought in some others to make the dimensions of Citi Field more friendly to players like Jason Bay and David Wright, but even with those changes one has to wonder where any offensive production will come from outside of Bay, Wright, and first baseman Ike Davis.  The Mets did make two good additions to their bullpen in Frank Fransisco and John Rauch, but their starting rotation just does not compare to the rest of the teams in their divisions.  Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, and R.A. Dickey are okay pitchers, but they are not really any better than Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan who will be the fourth and fifth starters on the Nationals.  The good news for the Mets this year is that Johan Santana will be back to opening the season, but after missing the last two seasons it will be interesting to see if he is able to be the pitcher he once was.
  •  Philadelphia Phillies--  When you talk about the Phillies everyone always talks about their pitching, and with good reason.  Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels is the best 1-2-3 rotation in baseball without a doubt, and even though Roy Oswalt will not be with them this year it is not that big of the a loss.  Oswalt spent much of last year out of the rotation and Vance Worley did an amazing job filling in for him last year.  The Phillies need Worley to be the same pitcher he was last year if they wish to win their sixth consecutive division title.  The Phillies bullpen being their weakest part of their team last year the team brought in Chad Qualls to be their setup man and the Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer.  This should secure them at the end of games, but they still do not have great middle relievers.  Just like Atlanta, the question with the Phillies is can their offense score enough runs to win game.  Having a healthy Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence (a year late, but he's Jayson Werth's replacement) in the outfield is a good start and Ty Wiggington is one of the best utility bench players in all of MLB, but will that be enough to cover up the fact that they will be with out Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for an unknown amount of time.  While it is still hard to bet against the Phillies, in the last two years the Braves, Marlins, and Nationals have all made serious improvements while the Phillies have just been trying to patch up what ever holes that keep popping up.
  •  Washington Nationals-- The Nationals could be on the verge of making the same kind of jump the Tampa Bay Rays made a few years ago, going from constant laughing stock to yearly playoff contender.  The Nationals have an established third baseman, but they also have several players who are looking to make names for themselves this year.  First the Nationals were able to acquire pitcher Gio Gonzalez, someone who a lot of teams were after, away from the Athletics.  He will go great with budding youngsters Michael Morse, who was the best offensive player for the Nationals in his first full season as a big leaguer blasting 31 home runs with 95 RBIs, and Drew Storen, a shut down closer with 43 saves last year.  Then of course the Nationals have two young former number one picks who people have been waiting on pins and needles to see in Stephen Strasburg (he will start opening day) and Bryce Harper who could be called up as soon as mid May.  With all the young players the Nationals could take a lot of people by surprise, or Morse could be a one year wonder, Strasburg could get another arm injury, and Harper may not be as ready for the pros as most people think he is.  All and all the Nationals should make some noise this year, but 2013 is more likely the year they really take off.