Spring Training Preview: NL East

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The National League East could be a very interesting division this coming season.

Most people feel that it is going to be a two-team race between the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, but if certain things break the right way, there is no reason why the Atlanta Braves won't in the mix as well.

Both the Mets and Phillies come into the spring with glaring question marks.

The Mets' starting staff is horrendous. While it was pretty-much a make-shift unit all of last season, the Mets relied on a tremendous lineup that was for the most part injury-free all season. With the makeup of the rotation this year, the lineup is again going to have to carry the load.

Philadelphia seems to be the trendy pick thanks to a tremendous starting staff. Unless their starters are going to go seven-plus innings on a nightly basis though, the Phillies are going to be in some trouble. Of the three teams that will be fighting for the top spot in the division, the Phils' bullpen is by far the worst, and by a lot. The lineup is a bit overrated too. Outside of burgeoning superstars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, there are an awful lot of holes. A dominant Pat Burrell would change that, though.

Atlanta has its own concerns, as well, as Mike Hampton returns to the mound after a nearly two-year layoff because of elbow problems. The Braves are young, but manager Bobby Cox knows how to push the right buttons and should have his team competitive all season.

A young Florida team had a surprising season under first-year skipper Joe Girardi, but he is gone and the Marlins likely won't match last year's success.

Washington, meanwhile, has a chance to be the worst team in the league.

NEW YORK METS: Tradition Field -- Port St. Lucie, FL

The Mets rode an incredible lineup to 97 wins and a division title last year. If they plan on having that same kind of success this season, they will need even more from that star-studded lineup, because the pitching is a train wreck.

Pedro Martinez likely won't be back until after the All-Star break. So, the rotation is headed up by 40-year-old left-hander Tom Glavine and righty Orlando Hernandez, who is listed as 37, but could be closer to 50. After those two you have Oliver Perez and John Maine, then a slew of characters that includes veterans Aaron Sele and Chan Ho Park, as well as youngsters Phillip Humber and Mike Pelfrey. Luckily the Mets' bullpen is as solid a group as there is in the NL, but working four-plus innings a night will take its toll eventually.

One area where there is no concern is the lineup. Jose Reyes and David Wright are two of the best young players in the game and should only be better this season. Carlos Beltran was a legitimate MVP candidate a year ago and Carlos Delgado was probably the team's most consistent player from start to finish. Moises Alou's addition will add some veteran leadership, as well. As long as the Mets stay healthy there is no reason to believe they can't win another division title.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: Bright House Networks Field -- Clearwater, FL

There has been an awful lot of talk coming from Phillies camp, as shortstop Jimmy Rollins has already declared them as the team to beat this season. He may be right. The Phils did a tremendous job this offseason upgrading their starting staff, as they brought in right-hander Adam Eaton and traded for a top-of-the-rotation guy in Freddy Garcia.

Of course, Philadelphia's lineup is powered by reigning MVP Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who was just locked up long-term by the club. The team tried hard this offseason to get a bat to protect Howard, but came up empty. So, that job again falls to Pat Burrell, who - in the understatement of the year - will have to be better if the Phils don't want to see Howard walk three times a game. That above everything else could be the key to the Phillies season.

Another thing that could hinder the Phils' chances is the bullpen. Closer Tom Gordon is always a pitch away from the disabled list and set-up men Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary leave little to be desired. Antonio Alfonseca has experience as a closer, but he is not a reliable eighth-inning option anymore. Look for GM Pat Gillick to deal one his starters - Jon Lieber - for some bullpen help as the regular season draws near.

ATLANTA BRAVES: Cracker Jack Stadium - Orlando, FL

Everyone is talking about the Mets and the Phillies in the NL East and teams are paying little attention to the Braves. That could prove to be very dangerous. Atlanta immensely upgraded its bullpen this winter, as it stole right-hander Rafael Soriano from Seattle for under-achieving Horacio Ramirez and acquired lefty Mike Gonzalez from Pittsburgh for Adam LaRoche. They will be used to set up Bob Wickman, but if he struggles, both can step right into the closer's role.

One big question the Braves have this spring is who is going to play second base? The team is hoping Kelly Johnson wins the job, but he is coming off Tommy John surgery and is shifting from the outfield. If Johnson falters Martin Prado is more than capable to get the job done. He would probably be better utilized as a utility player, though.

Mike Hampton will also be back in the rotation for the first time since 2005. Hampton missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery, but is ready to go. Luckily the Braves' deep bullpen will allow him to ease his way back. If he is healthy and if Tim Hudson bounces back to pitch the way he did in Oakland, the Braves could be the surprise team in the East.

FLORIDA MARLINS: Roger Dean Stadium -- Jupiter, FL

What a weird situation it was in Florida last season. The Marlins were one of the feel-good stories, as first-year skipper Joe Girardi had his young team in the postseason mix right up until the end of the season. So how was he rewarded? He was fired because of a rift with owner Jeffrey Loria.

So out with the reigning NL Manager of the Year and in with Fredi Gonzalez. Gonzalez has a tremendous young pitching staff at his disposal, but the workload a year ago may have already started to take its toll. Josh Johnson complained of soreness in his elbow all offseason and has already shut it down. Just a prediction here, but a Tommy John surgery is probably right around the corner.

Florida is not going anywhere this season so come trade deadline time you will once again hear the trade rumors surrounding Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. I suspect one of them will be dealt and it will probably be Willis.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS: Spacecoast Stadium -- Viera, FL

Things are not going to go well this season for first-year skipper Manny Acta. The Nationals could be the worst team in the league. Alfonso Soriano is gone and the team's best hitter, Nick Johnson, probably won't be back for a while, as he continues to recover from a horrific leg injury suffered at the end of last season.

When Johnson returns the lineup is not all that bad. Ryan Zimmerman is one of the best young players in the NL and Austin Kearns will provide some pop.

The pitching staff, though, is a mess. Other than John Patterson, your guess is as good as mine as to who will be in the Nationals' rotation. Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan and Shawn Hill are the favorites to round out the staff, but youngsters Emiliano Fruto and Matt Chico could crack the staff with impressive springs.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Chris Ruddick
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