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MLB Atlanta BravesMiami MarlinsNew York MetsPhiladelphia PhilliesWashington Nationals

NL East Predictions: Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins Capitalize on Philadelphia Phillies’ Slide

 

The Philadelphia Phillies have had a long stay atop the National League East, but the rest of the division played some serious catch up this winter.

It wasn’t long ago when the Phillies were casing down the top of the division. They had to cut their teeth for years, learning to win the hard way. Philadelphia went 80-81 in 2002, the same record the Washington Nationals had last year, but it took them years to break through. From 2003-06, the Phillies won between 88-85 games each season but never made the playoffs.

Since the Phillies finally surpassed the New York Mets, they never looked back, winning five-straight division titles. At 102-60, they had the best record in baseball last season despite getting down years from Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who will both start the 2012 season on the disabled list.

My big question with the Phillies is how much more can they take? What happens if another important hitter like Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence or Shane Victorino misses significant time? Dare I even ask what happens if one of the Big 3 goes down?

When I look at Philadelphia, I see an aging team with a lack of depth. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series with a veteran roster last season, but had a lot of younger players step up. Of course, 36-year-old Chris Carpenter and 35-year-old Lance Berkman were the biggest catalysts of their championship run, but they would have never made it without David Freese, Jaime Garcia, Jon Jay, Allen Craig or Fernando Salas.

Another thing that worries me about the Phillies is the fact they’ve traded away so much of their minor league system the past few years, I doubt they can make a big addition at the deadline again if they need to. They already finished a distant third behind the Miami Marlins and Nationals in offseason additions, as their biggest move was to bring in Jonathan Papelbon to replace Ryan Madson as closer, could they also finish third in the standings?

I think so. The only question is can one of those teams take the next step, or next several steps, faster than the Phillies did in the early 2000s?

I’m picking the Nationals to win the division because they have an improved rotation, rock solid bullpen and a lineup that should bounce back. The might not have the most impressive roster in the division, but they certainly have the best balance between pitching and hitting. The Nats got very little from Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche in 2011 but still won 80 games.

The Nationals added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to their rotation and veteran Brad Lidge to the bullpen this offseason. They fell short of signing Prince Fielder, but the fact they pursued the slugger suggests they could afford to add some more payroll between now and the trade deadline.

At this point, I don’t think people are expecting a ton from their young superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. That’s a mistake. Even if they put a 160-inning limit on Strasburg, that should be plenty enough when you consider that means he can still pitch five innings over 32 starts and not break that limit. I would expect Washington to find ways to skip Strasburg’s starts every now and then, probably giving him 26 or so for the season.

I expect Harper to contribute before the All Star Break, maybe even in early May, and be very good, but not a superstar, right off the bat. You don’t see many teenagers find success in the majors, but this guy is special. Everyone raves about his power, but he also hit .297 and stole 26 bases in the minors last year.

Along with the veterans who should bounce back, the additions to the pitching staff and the young superstars, the Nationals also have some intriguing breakout players, as well. Starting pitcher Jordan Zimermann, Catcher Wilson Ramos, second baseman Danny Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond all have the potential to take a leap forward. One thing I worry about is if Michael Morse can provide a repeat performance of his breakout 2011. He was one of only ten players who hit 30 home runs and had a .300 average last season.

The Nats are dealing with some injury concerns of their own, with Morse, closer Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang starting the year on the DL. I think the fact that they’re not changing ace setup man Tyler Clippard’s role is a good sign that they don’t expect Storen to be out long.

When I look at the Nationals, I see a young team with some depth and exciting potential. I don’t think it would be crazy to expect every aspect of their team to improve in 2012. You could say the same about the Florida … er … Miami Marlins. I have the Fish finishing second out East this year.

They added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, new caps, new jerseys, a new city and a new ballpark but I think their most important addition was manager Ozzie Guillen. From what we get to see, Guillen is like a cartoon character, a brash loud mouth who swears through his broken English. That image makes it difficult to remember this is a World Series champion manager who knows the game and how to get the most out of his players.

Guillen’s going to love managing a team that has speedsters Hanley Ramirez, Emilio Bonifacio and Reyes to go with a high-potential pitching staff. His personality won’t mesh well with all his players, adding a big x-factor to the Marlins, but I think he’s as likely as anyone to get the most out of former Cy Young contender Carlos Zambrano.

The Atlanta Braves were a game away from winning the wild card last year, and still have the pitching depth to contend. They could have really used another bat, but did virtually nothing over the winter. I think that’ll cost them in a big way, but the New York Mets are the dogs of the division.

The following is how I’m predicting the NL East will unfold, but this is a great division that has the potential to produce three playoff teams in a weakened NL.

2012 NL EAST PREDICTION:

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. Miami Marlins
  3. Philadelphia Phillies
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. New York Mets

OTHER NL PREDICTIONS