MLB 2012 Season Preview: National League East Division Race A Test Of Endurance, Player Development

In 2011 the National League East truly began to show us something.

The Philadelphia Phillies aside, three of the remaining four ball teams within that division showed promise that better days were definitely ahead. Now, in my estimation, 2012 will see the National League East become, not just the toast of the senior circuit, but all of major league baseball. The key won’t be in the budgets, as all but one (the New York Mets) have spent responsibly and gone the route of developing within their organization. More important than any factor involving who comes out on top in this division will be sustained health and the development of some of the brightest stars in the game of baseball.

This conversation, rightly, starts in Philadelphia. The Phillies have run off five straight division titles and seem poised for a sixth. What they’re facing is time. The core of their lineup (Rollins, Howard, Utley) aren’t getting any younger. They are going to need the young players (Dominic Brown, John Mayberry, Jr. etc.) to start showing the promise on a more consistent basis if they plan on defending their post atop the division. The Phillies have the luxury of three starters (Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee) who can shut down any offense on a given night. The problem is, how many of those nights will go wasted if the Phillies can’t produce enough runs to back them up?

Down in Atlanta, the Braves are putting together a revival of their own. Although they hit a snag in their development with an epic September collapse that saw them blow a 10-game lead and a second consecutive playoff berth, they may feature an embarrassment of riches that no other team within the division can match. Their pitching staff, top to bottom, is the best in the division. With Kimbrel, O’Flaherty, and Venters getting an added boost from the return of Kris Medlen, the workload for the Braves bullpen should be better distributed.

One key area of concern for Atlanta (as it was in 2010) is can it remain healthy. The Braves came into September with the fourth best record in baseball. They lost Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens (2/5 of their rotation) to injury. Both pitched at an All-Star level and would have helped greatly down the stretch. Jason Heyward also battled nagging injuries that not only put a damper on his swing, but his numbers as well. Brian McCann looked lost the second half of the season after injuring his oblique and continuing to play. His production paid dearly (.203 BA in the second half, .146 in August/.200 in September/October) and so did the Braves chances because of it. They will need each to bounce back and remain healthy to compete.

Down in Miami, the Marlins are opening a new ball park that will finally validate their place in that area. Gone (hopefully) are the days of 5,000-a night crowds and competing on a turf that isn’t suited for baseball. Gone also are the day of frugality in South Beach. Miami loosened the purse strings this off-season and brought in a cavalcade of All-Star talent. Jose Reyes, Mark Buherle, Heath Bell, and Carlos Zambrano join a Marlins team that will be managed by Ozzie Guillen.

Health still remains an issue as Jose Reyes has to prove he can make it to mid-August/September without breaking down. They also need a healthy Josh Johnson, who is possibly the best pitcher in baseball when he is on and healthy. They will look for increased development from Stanton, Morrison, and Gaby Sanchez.

The Washington Nationals are looking like a force to be reckoned with soon enough. All they did was go out and pick up a young lefty for their rotation (All-Star Gio Gonzalez), lock up their franchise player Ryan Zimmerman  to a new extension, welcome back their future ace (Stephen Strasburg) and announce they plan on unleashing super-prospect Bryce Harper at some point during the 2012 season. A lot will depend on Zimmerman staying healthy and the rotation not taking a step back. Jordan Zimmermann (that other guy) who was drafted in the second round in 2007 needs to show he’s also ready to join Gonzalez and Strasburg as a formidable top of the rotation.

The New York Mets are looking to pick up the pieces from a season ago, as well as legal trouble from up top. They have a long way to go in this division due to their pension for bad signings (even at the time, Jason Bay and Johan Santana were grossly overpaid), lack of development in their farm system (rated 22nd in MLB), and a scandal that significantly sapped the resources of the owner (settled in the Bernie Madoff hearing for a reported $162 million dollars). Finding a silver lining in Queens is about as hard as finding a positive way to explain Bobby Bonilla getting $1.2 million dollars every season until 2035. This isn’t the part where I try either because the Mets will bring up the rear in this loaded division.

All things considered, a mix of above average to capable veterans, rising superstars, and a wealth of pitching make this division the best in the National League, if not baseball.

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