Alright, this should be an interesting division. The Phillies are obviously the favorite, but the Braves have looked really good this spring, and the Mets almost have to be much better than last year. Here's how I think it will shape-up:
1. Phillies. They look like not only the best team in the division, but in the entire NL at this point. Polanco upgrades what was the only hole in the line-up as the new 3B, so they will score a ton of runs. It's downright scary to think about what Halladay could do in the NL even in that tough bullpark they play in. Should get 20 wins easy and we could see 25 for the first time who knows how long. This team is not without it's question marks though. It starts in the bullpen where it looks like Lidge won't be ready to start the season and even then, will he ever be ready to close again. Madsen is solid, but seems more suited for set-up than closer. No help at all from the left side in the pen if JC Romero can't bounce back. The other big question is Cole Hamels. He carried them two years ago, but was a shell of that last year. In my opinion, he is more important for them than Lidge. With their line-up, two top starters makes them almost impossible to beat in the postseason. If he could've been great last year for instance, I think they probably beat the Yankees for two in a row. Even if Hamels is ordinary again, they will make the playoffs, but they need him at his best once they get there.
2. Braves. This is the team everyone is talking about this spring. The biggest reason for that is 20 year-old right fielder Jason Heyward. He has been annointed the next superstar, and I have to agree with that from what I have seen. He has all the physical tools you could want, but has also shown incredibly rare plate discipline for his age. The Braves did the smart thing and made him an immediate starter rather than send him down for a month to slow his arbitration clock like most teams do with young studs. There is no question they are a better team with him playing right now. Probably of more importance than Heyward for this team though is it's pitching depth. They have a potentially great starting rotation with Lowe/Jurrjeans/Hudson/Hanson. Hudson is the key. He has looked good though at the end of last year and this spring coming back from elbow surgery. They lost their top two relievers from last year, but their pen should actually be better with Billy Wagner closing now. Man I wanted the Cardinals to signs him. Oh well. I think this is the NL wildcard this year, and if the Phillis slip up any, they could easily win the division.
3. Mets. This team had about as bad of luck over the course of a season as any I can remember last year. They almost have to have better health this year, and should be a winning team again, but they just don't have the pitching depth to stay with the Phillies and Braves. The offense should be better. Looks like Reyes will be back sooner rather than later and Beltan maybe in early May. Jason Bay will help, but they obviously need David Wright to hit for power again as well. K-Rod is solid at the end of the pen and I think the middle relief is probably a lot better than they showed last year, but were just exposed by the poor starting pitching. There lies the rub. Outside of Santana, every other rotation spot is a huge question mark. I think it has to be better than last year, but still nowhere good enough for Mets fans.
4. Marlins. This team is definitely a wildcard now that it seems they may spend some money. They have some good young starting pitching, and one of baseball's top everyday players in Hanley Rameriz. The bullpen is a real problem, with literally no proven performers out there. The line-up also doesn't seem to have the thump it did a couple of years ago. In two years, if they keep locking-up their guys, they could be a threat again, but probably not this year.
5. Nationals. Another team in this division that almost has to be bettter than last year. At least they have some hope with Steven Stausborg, who looks like every bit the real-deal pitcher Jayson Heyward is as a hitter for the Braves. They also made the right move for their team sending him down to start this year, as this team is obviously still a ways away from winning. Still, they are at least starting to put some pieces together with Zimmerman, Niger Morgan and some other young talents. Hope is a place to start.
Alright, later today I'll get to the NL central. I promise!