Preview of the National League East Division

1. Atlanta Braves- The Atlanta Braves look to not only win a 15th consecutive divisional title, but they look to extend the gap between themselves and the rest of the East. The old standards of solid pitching and efficient offense will continue but a new crop of Braves is filling in for an aging crew of veterans. The batting order includes strong veterans like Chipper Jones, Edgar Renteria, and Andruw Jones, with all of them bringing hundreds of victories and a wealth of playoff experience to a younger team. Right fielder Jeff Francoeur, left fielder Ryan Langerhans, and first baseman Adam LaRoche are only going to improve off their surprising 2005 performances. The loss of pitching coach Leo Mazzone should not effect a veteran staff that seems to run itself. John Smoltz will continue his impressive return to the starting rotation with a solid 15-17 win season and Tim Hudson will provide great pitching from the number two spot. The one question about the staff is how Chris Reitsma will turn out as a full time closer. He needs to prove that he is not an out of place reliever but a legitimate shut down threat in the ninth inning.

2. New York Mets- It is time for the New York Mets’ huge payroll to pay off for frustrated fans in New York. Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Cliff Floyd need to provide a combination of hitting and leadership that will force the rest of the lineup to get better. Third baseman David Wright will improve and possibly surpass Beltran in one to two years as the best player on the team. The pitching staff needs to stay healthy and consistent in order to challenge the Atlanta Braves for top spot in the division. Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine need to headline a rotation that is going from veteran to ancient in a hurry. If dollars meant wins, the New York Mets would be one of the best teams in Major League Baseball but in lieu of that scenario, they will take a chance of taking their veteran team into the playoffs with a wild card bid.

3. Washington Nationals- The Washington Nationals of 2005, in their first year in Washington, proved to be the scrappy team that faltered in the second half without a complete set of parts. The addition of pitcher Brian Lawrence will give the Nationals another solid arm and Alfonso Soriano will give them some additional pop in their bats. The Washington Nationals infield, including the improving Nick Johnson at first base, solid middle infielders Cristian Guzman and Jose Vidro, and potential All Star Ryan Zimmerman on third base, will be solid for years to come. What will keep the Washington Nationals from climbing into the wild card driver’s seat is the unreliability of their pitching. Ace Livan Hernandez is too uneven on the mound and a head case in the locker room, making it difficult to project how many wins he will reach. Closer Chad Cordero may be a good reliever but his closing style, which is to challenge hitters with balls right over the plate, could either be a raging success or a dismal failure. The Washington Nationals need the rotation to gel early in the season if they want to get past expectations.

4.Florida Marlins- Joe Girardi’s first year as Florida Marlins manager should be an interesting roller coaster ride for everyone involved. Girardi inherits a team that has been torn apart by management in order to save money, only two years after their second World Series victory in franchise history. The loss of Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Delgado, and Juan Pierre, among others, will sink the Marlins down toward the bottom of the NL East. However, Girardi’s enthusiasm and no-nonsense manner will provide discipline and order to the youngest team in the Major League Baseball. Third baseman Miguel Cabrera goes from young gun to veteran in an off season and needs to play the role of leader instead of prima donna. Starters Dontrelle Willis, Josh Johnson, and Jason Vargas will provide strong performances for most of the Florida Marlins’ contests but the rest of the rotation is a huge question mark and this young team needs more answers than questions.

5. Philadelphia Phillies- The loss of Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, and Vincent Padilla will hurt a Philadelphia Phillies team that is chronically underachieving. Aaron Rowand will provide a solid hitting repertoire for the batting order but outside of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies don’t have much consistency. In order to go anywhere this season, the Philadelphia Phillies need everyone to contribute far more than they have in the past (see Pat Burrell) and their young players to grow up quickly. Current ace Jon Lieber needs to be supplanted by Brett Myers or someone else within the rotation in order to lend legitimacy to the staff. It is hard to believe that they would sink below the lowly Florida Marlins, but the Florida Marlins’ potential exceeds the inflated perception of what the Phillies will do in the near future.

Division Winner- Atlanta Braves

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