Baseball’s toughest division got a whole lot more exciting as the top two teams (Nationals and Braves) made additions. While the Nationals have the better overall ball team, the Braves could be right there with them again in October. The Phillies are still in the mix, but their best shot will be for a Wild Card spot. The Mets have some work to do while the Marlins, well, need some form of a clue.
- Division’s Best Player: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins (37 HR, 86 RBI, .290/.361/.608, .969 OPS)- Stuck in the hell that is the Miami Marlins and their management, Giancarlo Stanton had every right to want out of South Beach. All he could do was sit back and watch as star after star were given flights out. The lone gem left on this team, it was a difficult choice of who exactly is top talent within this division (Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, and Stephen Strasburg all got considered), but when you get this kind of production at his age (23) there is something special happening.
- Division’s Best Pitcher: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals (15-6, 3.16 ERA, 159.1 IP, 197 K’s)- He will finally have the chains cut off of him, and I’m pretty certain we will see some great things out of him. While injury still concerns me, he was great coming off Tommy John surgery, and his manager is the perfect guy for him not to over extend himself. Expect to see his name at the top of every Cy Young award list put out this spring (and fall).
- Division’s Best Manager: Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals- The old pro has done nothing but make this franchise believe they belong. What else would you expect from the man who led the “bad boy” Mets to a World Series title in 1986, and the veteran teams he had in Baltimore to playoff appearances in the late 90’s. Now he’s doing it again; it was strange to see him mess up a bullpen rotation so badly last October (given that is what he is known for) but he is back, and considering everyone in this division he is the wisest of the bunch.
- Division’s “X” Factor: Philadelphia Phillies- The Phillies are the “X” factor in this division for one simple reason: they have the ability to derail the Braves and Nationals plans for the top spot in the East. If Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitch as expected, and the offense, still formidable with a healthy Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, produces they could wreck positions in the standings. Which doesn’t bode well for the Braves, before 2012’s 12-6 record against the Phillies they were a combined 14-22 in 2010 and 2011. That is on top of the Nationals giving the Braves fits.
- Washington Nationals (2012 Finish: 1st (98-64))- Deep lineup, deep bullpen, great rotation, great manager. It isn’t bandwagon folks, this team is the real deal. That said, the best thing to do right here is to point out what they can do and how they can do it. With Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche they have balance (that is without mentioning Ian Desmond and the newly acquired Denard Span). Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmerann at the top of the rotation gives you three headaches and the possibility of sweeping two out of every three series if they get hot. Looking at the bullpen, even without a lefty, signing Rafael Soriano to go with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen has made the game even shorter for teams. They are the favorites in this division, in the National League, and for the World Series title. They just have to play with that discipline.
- Atlanta Braves (2012 Finish: 2nd (94-68))- The Braves won 94 games last season in Chipper Jones’ final season. Then went on the lose a heart breaker in the playoffs. So instead of resting on those laurels, they went out and signed BOTH Upton brothers (B.J. and Justin), traded Tommy Hanson for 2011 All-Star set-up man Jordan Walden, and plugged the organization’s top prospect Julio Tehran into the number five-spot. The Braves are well positioned to play deep into October as well, closing the gap on the Nationals but not quite all the way yet. I don’t foresee Justin Upton having any issues outside of Arizona and I expect the same from his brother B.J. I don’t have an issue with Heyward and Freeman continuing their ascent among the NL’s elite at their position. Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, and (midseason) Brandon Beachy make a fine staff base and the bullpen is (in my opinion) better than Washington’s. but without Martin Prado (now a Diamondback by trade) and the retired Jones, this team lacks someone who can throw up a professional at-bat. Andrelton Simmons is one who can, but if Brian McCann (shoulder injury) doesn’t bounce back as expected, and Dan Uggla continues hitting more mosquitoes than baseball, this teams strikeouts will keep them back. They are a team that can win this division, but it will take a lot of answers the Nationals, at this point, don’t have to deal with.
- Philadelphia Phillies (2012 Finish: 3rd (81-81))- The Phillies are older, and that doesn’t bode well for them since the teams they are looking to catch are younger and more talented. They have the pitching in Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the reason I didn’t include Halladay is because after an awful spring following a season in which he was riddled with injury, it might be time for him to realize he isn’t the same Halladay. And that is where my biggest concern with this club lies. They are dependent on him winning 15-17 games this season just to keep pace with the Braves and Nationals and I don’t see that happening. Not to mention holes in the middle part of that bullpen, it might be time for a new blueprint.
- New York Mets (2012 Finish: 4th (74-88))- They have the worst collection of outfielders I’ve ever seen, their “ace”, Johan Santana, might have just had career-ending surgery, and the closer’s role isn’t settled as of yet. But they have David Wright and the All-Star game in July, so come out folks! In All seriousness, I liked the R.A. Dickey trade for D’arnaud who will be their catcher of the future. Matt Harvey will have his lumps, but should blossom into a front-end guy in their rotation, and if Ike Davis can fix his hands on that swing he’ll see immediate dividends in his averages.
- Miami Marlins (2012 Finish: 5th (69-93))- Where do you start? Jeff Loria gutted the franchise again, which after having taxpayers foot the bill on a brand new stadium didn’t sit well with many in South beach (or those seeking stadium funding in other cities). Giancarlo Stanton is the bright spot, but the promotion of 20-year old Jose Fernandez (who hasn’t thrown a pitch above the lower minor league levels) to the starting rotation shows this a team without much of a clue. While their end of the deal with Toronto looks great for them on 2017, the immediate future looks dismal.