Authored by Andrew Perna - 9th April, 2012 - 10:17 pm
The Philadelphia Phillies have won the NL East for five consecutive seasons, a streak that began after the Atlanta Braves had their run of 11 consecutive titles ended by the New York Mets in 2006. The Phillies took the 2011 crown by 13 games, the second-largest gap between first and second place in the Major Leagues.
There is an opening for a new champion this year, however, with the Phillies beginning the season without both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Aside from perhaps the financially-troubled Mets, the Braves, Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins all have hopes of surpassing Philadelphia as the class of the division.
2011 Standings (Offensive Rank/Pitching Rank)
1. Philadelphia: 102-60 (13th/1st)
2. Atlanta: 89-73 (22nd/4th)
3. Washington: 80-81 (24th/7th)
4. New York: 77-85 (12th/21st)
5. Miami: 72-90 (23rd/16th)
The Phillies struggled offensively last season without Howard in the lineup, leading many to worry about their production until he returns from his torn Achilles. Utley was not a huge contributor in 2011 and cannot be counted on for much this year, especially since his troublesome knees failed to get significantly better this spring.
Charlie Manuel can still win a sixth-straight division title due to the strength of his terrific pitching staff. There are other teams with starting staffs that will rival that of the Phillies, but the trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels is truly unparalleled. They had the best staff in baseball last season, which allowed them to finish with the most wins (102) in the game despite an unreliable offense.
The Question Mark: Chase Utley -- Will he contribute at all?
The Key: Hunter Pence -- He must carry the team offensively early on.
The Lock: Roy Halladay -- Always a leading Cy Young candidate.
The Braves are similar to the Phillies in many ways, a team with a strong pitching staff that sometimes struggled to score runs in 2011. They have injuries of their own, but entered the season with the best chance to upend Philadelphia because of the diversity of their roster. They have productive veterans (Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla) and young stars that have room for improvement (Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Brandon Beachy).
Atlanta may find that one of their strengths in 2011 will not be easy to count again because of the fickle nature of the game. The Braves had one of the best bullpens in baseball last year thanks to breakout years from Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. We will find out this year whether the duo is truly elite or the latest in a long line of one-year relieving wonders.
The Question Mark: Jack Wilson -- A valuable utilityman that may not finish season with Atlanta.
The Key: Jason Heyward -- They need the 2010 version, not the vastly disappointing 2011 edition.
The Lock: Tommy Hanson -- He has never finished a season with an ERA above 3.60.
As with the Phillies and Braves before them, the Nationals have a better pitching staff than a batting order. Their starting five is one of the most underrated in the game, with Stephen Strasburg leading a quintet rounded out by Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. They are so flush with starting depth that John Lannan was sent to Triple-A before the season. He made more than 120 starts for Washington from 2008 to 2011.
Washington could contend as early as this fall if Jayson Werth rebounds from an awful debut season and Bryce Harper finds himself in the Majors by midseason. In addition to more talent and power, Davey Johnson needs to preach patience. The Nationals had an on-base percentage of just .309 in 2011.
The Question Mark: Bryce Harper -- When does he arrive?
The Key: Stephen Strasburg -- For the present and the future, he must remain healthy in 2012.
The Lock: Gio Gonzalez -- Had an ERA of 3.12 last season, when he had to face the Rangers and Angels seven times.
The Mets are not short on talent, but they need just a bit more (and perhaps a more well-rounded roster) to compete in the National League East. If Ike Davis and David Wright are healthy, they will score runs, but they still have to somehow fill the void left behind by Jose Reyes. They will be not able replace the All-Star shortstop, but figuring out a way to set the table another way is vital.
Health is a theme for the Mets this season. Johan Santana, who started on Opening Day, did not pitch at all in 2011 and he must become their anchor once again if they are going to play meaningful games in August. Behind Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Jonathon Niese, R.A. Dickey and Dillon Gee are all more than serviceable.
The Question Mark: David Wright -- Can he produce without Jose Reyes on base?
The Key: Johan Santana -- If he can make 25 starts, 2011 will be deemed a success.
The Lock: Citi Field -- More home runs will be hit with the fences brought in.
If nothing else, the Marlins will be more entertaining with Ozzie Guillen and Jose Reyes joining the franchise. Already this season the manager has stolen headlines by making controversial comments about Fidel Castro. Oh, and the team opened up a new, expensive ballpark last week as well. They have the potential to score a lot of runs with Reyes and Hanley Ramirez on the left side of the infield and the maturing outfield tandem of Logan Morrison and Giancarlo Stanton.
The offense is not the only part of the roster that was fortified this winter, with Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano and Heath Bell joining the pitching staff. Zambrano could be the best fifth starter in baseball if Guillen is able to sharpen his focus and keep him on the mound.
The Question Mark: Josh Johnson -- How will be rebound after making just nine starts in 2011?
The Key: Reyes/Ramirez -- They will be much more productive that Jeter/Rodriguez ever were in New York.
The Lock: Giancarlo Stanton -- In his first two seasons, averaged a home run per 15 at-bats.
The Projected Finish
1. Phillies: If the offense falters, Ruben Amaro Jr. will acquire a bat.
2. Nationals: The Capital will get a taste of winning baseball.
3. Braves: Too much has to go right for them to make the playoffs.
4. Marlins: Year 1 as the Miami Marlins will not be as successful as hoped.
5. Mets: The division got deeper and they did not get better.