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By Nick Gallaudet

With our American League preview in the books (NYY, Bos, Chi Sox, and A’s as my playoff teams) we’re making our way to the National League. We are going to start in the East, where major changes this offseason could make some differences this season as the Phillies look for their fifth straight division title.

 

ATLANTA BRAVES

It’s the end of an era, there’s no two ways about it. For the first time since like, 1939, the Braves will have someone other than Bobby Cox filling out the lineup card and being ejected. Everything I’ve heard about new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, is that he’s the only guy that could replace Cox. 3B and team grandpa Chipper Jones loves the guy, and an endorsement from Jones is good enough for me. As far as the way the team looks on the field, they’re a unique blend of young and old. The veteran leadership leaves little to be desired. Jones is a workhorse, granted he’s coming off of a season-ending knee injury, but he will go down as one of the top four or five switch-hitters in history, and he proved last year, he’s still got some gas left in the tank. The pitching staff is anchored by the underrated duo of Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, followed up by Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. If the Braves weren’t in the same division as Philly, these four starters would be getting a lot more attention, especially if Jurrjens can find a way to return to his 2009 form.

 

What is going to make or break this team are its youngsters. RF Jason Heyward still has some growing to do as a Major League hitter, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and if he and rookie 1B Freddie Freeman can do what they’ve been doing their whole professional careers, this is going to be a fun team to watch. The addition of 2B Dan Uggla, coupled with C Brian McCann, OF Nate McLouth, and Martin Prado, the 2011 Braves could boast one of the more potent lineups, a far cry from the anemic offense that made an appearance in the 2010 postseason. This team is promising, sporting the best bullpen in the division, even with the retirement of closer Billy Wagner, but they’re slow, and their defense is still shaky, so that could create problems in the postseason…again.

 

FLORIDA MARLINS

Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez: the 2011 Florida Marlins. Outfielders Chris Coghlan, Logan Morrison, and Mike Stanton (the youngest everyday player in the Bigs) are superstars in the making, but right now, Johnson and Ramirez are the only Marlins worth paying to see right now. In a really tough division, the Marlins are just not good enough As a franchise, they find ways to win with up-and-coming talent, but I just don’t think they have enough this season. Ramirez is going to put up good numbers, but after that, they’re going to have to rely on the likes of Wes Helms and Omar Infante for a veteran presence, and while both those guys are decent role players. I just don’t think they have what it takes to be the focal point of a lineup. The only hope the Marlins have of competing is if the young trio of outfielders come flying out of the gate hitting like they’re expected to in a couple years.

 

The pitching rotation is a different story. After Johnson, the talent level falls off dramatically with Ricky Nolasco and his ERA over 4.4. It doesn’t get much better after that, either, their staff looks like a bunch of number four starters, and that’s just not going to cut it in the East. There is not a lot of young talent here, either, just a lot of proven mediocrity with Javier Vazquez, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Volstad. The bullpen isn’t bad though, and if these starters can turn over decent outings to a revamped bullpen, they might have a shot. The reason the Marlins don’t have a whole lot of talent right now is because they mortgaged a lot of their talent to shore up their bullpen, trading away Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, and Dan Uggla all to pick up some bullpen reinforcements. I just think, if they can get their starting pitching together, this is a team to be afraid of in 2013, not 2011, but I think this team is going to hover around the .500 mark all season long, if they can provide even a little offense, they’re definitely going to miss Dan Uggla this year.

 

NEW YORK METS

Unfortunately, right now the most important person related to the Mets is Bernie Madoff. The story about the Mets ownership woes has been covered to death, so I’m not going to bore you with the details again; this is about the players. If it was 2006, this team would win 150 games, but unfortunately for them, it’s 2011, and Jason Bay, David Wright, Adrian Beltre, Johan Santana (out until July), and Darryl Strawberry just aren’t as good as they used to be. Out of all of those players, I really think only David Wright is capable of bouncing back the way people expect all of them to. I know Bay was hampered by injury last year, but in almost 100 games, he only hit six homeruns…six! That’s like almost $3 million per homerun! This is a team in total disarray, and the Mets will most likely look to unload some of those big contracts this year and really put their focus on the future.

 

This year will probably have a similar feel to last year: just trying to get through the season and look forward to when they have $55 million in payroll come off the books. I hate to see a team be put in a position where it has no shot at competing, but unfortunately, this is where the Mets sit. They have an under-producing, over-priced lineup, landing in the bottom six of most major offensive categories last year, and an under-producing rotation (Santana is 24-18 in the last two seasons), although Mike Pelfrey and Jonathon Niese are a couple young guns that could work themselves to the top of that rotation soon. The poor production coupled with their revamped, but still underwhelming bullpen spells another tough season for the Mets.

 

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

On paper, this is the best rotation in the league with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, but the game isn’t played on paper. I still think these guys are going to dominate the NL, but if the Miami Heat is any indication, sometimes things don’t work out the way they were supposed to. An under-covered storyline for this team is the fact that Jayson Werth meant more to this team than people realize. Philadelphia scored the second most runs in the NL last year, and Werth was a big part of that, scoring a team-leading 106 runs and driving in another 85. Werth led the supposedly potent lineup in slugging percentage and OPS, and was the postseason RBI leader for the Phillies. Losing Werth is going to put more pressure on 0-RBI-in-the-playoffs Ryan Howard, and I don’t know if he can handle it. I have to be honest, though, I’m really splitting hairs here, because the Phillies still have two MVPs in Howard and Jimmy Rollins, another MVP candidate in Chase Utley in their lineup, and two capable players in Ben Francisco and top prospect Dominic Brown waiting to take over for Werth. This team will put up runs and if this group of guys doesn’t win 95 games, I’ll be surprised, but mark my words: Werth’s absence will be missed in the playoffs.

 

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

The two biggest stars for the Nationals are Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and I can’t wait to see them contribute to this team! Too bad I have to wait at least another year. Strasburg may miss the whole season with Tommy John surgery and Harper is starting his season out in A-ball. Despite missing those two guys, though, this team is still decent. Their rotation is definitely not like the Phillies, but Livan Hernandez finds a way to win, and…actually, their rotation is like the opposite of the Phillies. They were last in the league in quality starts last year, and it’s probably going to be more of the same this year. Jason Marquis is their #2 pitcher, and his ERA last year was 6.60. Sorry Nationals fans, I hope you enjoy watching OF Jayson Werth and 3B Ryan Zimmerman try to rack up stats when you’re out of the playoff hunt around the All-Star break. There just isn’t enough here; C Ivan Rodriguez is too old and 1B Adam LaRoche is just not good. Like the Mets, this team is a couple of years from competing, but unlike the Mets, the Nationals have the young superstars to build around

 

Projected 2011 NL East Standing

TEAM                        W-L

Philadelphia Phillies    97-65

Atlanta Braves            90-72

Florida Marlins            81-81

New York Mets           77-85

Washington Nationals 66-96

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