I don’t think anyone that’s been watching this offseason would disagree when I say that this is going to be the most intriguing division in baseball this year. It might rival the AL East for the best division, or it might have a bunch of busts. The Marlins made big splash after big splash. The Nationals will have Strasburg back, and the much-anticipated debut of Bryce Harper (eventually). There seem to be four legit teams in this division. So, here’s how I see it playing out:
1. Philadelphia Phillies (98-64)
2. Miami Marlins (88-74)
3. Washington Nationals (86-76)
4. Atlanta Braves (85-77)
5. New York Mets (70-92)
The Phillies may have lost Roy Oswalt, but that certainly didn’t hurt them last season. Vance Worley came in as a rookie and went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA. He’s got great stuff, and is a luxury to have at the back of a rotation. Also, don’t forget that Hunter Pence only played in 54 games for Philly last season, and clearly benefited from being a part of this lineup (.954 OPS). Their offense may suffer briefly without Howard, but Thome can pick up a little of the slack. I don’t think anyone’s knocking off the Phillies just yet.
I think the Marlins jump up this high in part because of their offseason moves, and also in part because of the lack of offseason moves by everyone else in the division. But, as always, it totally depends on pitching. Josh Johnson has to stay healthy, because there’s no one else in this rotation that’s a legit #1 starter (anymore). Buehrle makes an excellent #2 who can eat up innings, and that allows the rest of their guys to slide down one more spot into a more appropriate place in the rotation. If Johnson’s healthy, this could be a very tough rotation. And the new lineup with Reyes at the top, and the combination of Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, and Logan Morrison in the middle could be very dangerous.
The Braves/Nationals choice was a tough one for me. I expect the Braves to take a step back, but how much? I also expect the Nationals to take a step forward, but how big? In the end, I gave the Nationals a very slight 1-game edge because they won 80 games in 2011, and will have some major additions in 2012. Most importantly, they’ll have Strasburg back at the top of the rotation, and they also added Gio Gonzalez in a trade with Oakland, who I think will make a great #2 behind Strasburg. Add to that the boost Bryce Harper likely will be to the offense, and the fact that Jayson Werth couldn’t possibly play worse than he did in 2011 (could he?), and this team could make a run at the playoffs.
My main reason for expecting the Braves to take a step back is because they lost guys that contributed in 2011 (Gonzalez, Linebrink, Lowe, etc.), and did virtually nothing to replace them (sorry, but signing Jack Wilson doesn’t count). They’re expecting big things from some rookies, but that’s never a guarantee, and this team went through some major dry spells offensively last year. Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward (assuming he recovers from his sophomore slump) could be the pillars of this offense for years to come. Uggla simply needs to perform consistently, and Chipper just need to hold off playing like the 40-year-old he’ll be shortly after the season starts. The pitching staff held this team together last season, but the back end of their rotation is a little rougher around the edges now. If all goes perfectly, they could still contend for a playoff spot. But, they also could end up below .500 just as easily.
The Mets, well . . . they’re the Mets. Not a single person in their projected opening day lineup hit 15 home runs last season (granted some were injured, but they still don’t have a legit power threat – as in, 30-home run guy). Their projected leadoff man had a .312 OBP in 2011 (Andres Torres). And, other than Johan Santana, who’s coming off shoulder surgery, you’ve probably never even heard of anyone in their starting rotation (okay, maybe you’ve heard of Mike Pelfrey, who was a fabulous 7-13 with a 4.74 ERA last year). A depleted lineup. A starting rotation that could have a combined ERA of 4.50 pretty easily. And, a bullpen that is going to rely heavily on mostly unproven relievers. There’s a good chance the Mets will battle Houston for the worst record in baseball.