Two on Two: 2008 NL East Preview
By Patrick Sullivan and Marc Hulet

We have come down to the two final divisions in our preview series. Today we turn to the NL East with repeat participants Chris Needham of the Washington Nationals blog, Capitol Punishment and Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times. Previous division discussions can be found below.

NL Central
AL Central
AL West
NL West

Sully: The two-team race seems to be a theme this year. In both Central divisions it seems that two teams have emerged. The Boston-New York duopoly of the American League East sure seems in tact. The NL West probably figures to be a three-team battle and the AL West looks a bit more unpredictable now that Kelvim Escobar will be shelved for the year. So what about the NL East?

Chris: I think what's most exciting is that nobody has any really firm clue what's going to happen. There are three pretty good, but flawed teams at the top. And two younger, somewhat interesting dregs at the bottom. Last year's chokeapalooza by the Mets leaves some lingering doubts in my mind about how they'll play, even with Johan in town. The Phillies pulled off a miracle run, but some of that was smoke and mirrors. And Atlanta? That offense was pretty scary last year, and if the back end of the pitching holds up a bit better and with a full season of Mark Teixeira, won't they be better?

I can make a good argument for any of those teams winning the division or finishing third.

Dave: I see things a bit differently. Everyone is tired of talking about the Johan Santana trade, but it really did change everything in the NL East. We went from having a potential three-team race to looking at a clear front-runner. You really do have to pick the Mets as the most likely team to win it all this year, but they're not a certainty. Atlanta and Philadelphia are still strong teams, and any number of up and down years could change things. Not to mention injuries...

Marc: I'd be shocked if the NL East was not a three-team race, with Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York battling it out for first place. It may very well come down to who has the best depth and who manages to stay the healthiest. All three teams have shown weaknesses this spring, and not surprisingly, those weaknesses all revolve around pitching.

My feeling is that New York is not going to be as dominant as everyone thinks they will be. Sure they have Santana but can Pedro Martinez pitch a full season? Is Orlando Hernandez' fastball going to get above 85 mph? Can Oliver Perez finally find consistency long-term? I don't know…

I like Philadelphia's offence – Who doesn't? – but, again, the pitching gives me pause. Where is the guy that you're guaranteed to get 200 quality innings from?

Washington and Florida just have too many holes in their pitching staffs to make any sort of competent runs at the top of the NL East. Washington should have flipped both Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young for prospects last season at the trade deadline when the players had some value.

Florida has just been snake-bitten with its young pitching… and it's been so bad that it seems to be more than just coincidence… They've lost Josh Johnson, Sergio Mitre, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen all for a variety of time over the past year. I almost fear for Andrew Miller.

Sully: With the way Philadelphia hits, they can afford a below average pitching staff. But I think that after Brett Myers and Cole Hamels the back of the rotation and bullpen get too thin too quickly. There's just not much there after those two.

Chris: Kyle Kendrick is a perfect example of that smoke and mirrors approach I mentioned earlier. His success, despite a 3.6 K/9, screams fluke. I don't like to read too much into spring training stats, but his 9ish ERA isn't assuaging any of those fears.

The Phillies might've made the most underrated move of the offseason, too, when they signed Brad Lidge. It's not that Lidge is anything spectacular anymore, but that it frees up Myers to move back to the rotation. Even with questions at the back of the rotation, he shores up one of the top spots and is probably the second best pickup (if you will) of any team in the division. They don't lose much of anything at closer, but gain 180+ innings of pretty good starting pitching.

Dave: You know, I always have a tendency to think that the Phillies' pitching will be better than it turns out to be. For this year, Hamels is an ace and it's nice to see Myers back in the rotation. I'd put those two against the Mets' top two. However, the rest of the rotation is very iffy -- I'll be shocked if Kendrick duplicates last year's success. And the bullpen has two big question marks at the top in Lidge and Tom Gordon.

In the field, Pedro Feliz, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley should provide outstanding defense, as should Shane Victorino in center field. The fielding will help,but it won't be able to save the Phillies beyond their top two starters.

Marc: A rotation is in trouble when it relies heavily on a 45-year-old (92 ERA+), an inconsistent rookie (119 ERA+) and Adam Eaton (73 ERA+). Yes, you have Hamels and Myers – both of whom can be great – but they have yet to show consistency. You can't really call Hamels an ace until he throws 200 innings. Myers could be a solid No. 2 if he can bounce back from an ill-advised move to the pen. I know it's only spring training but any time I see 19 hits in less than 10 innings, I worry. And Kendrick only struck out 3.64 batters per nine innings last season in the majors and he had a line drive rate over 21 percent… so he's not fooling a lot of guys.

The bullpen is bad… outside of maybe Gordon (98 ERA+) and Lidge (131 ERA+). Who else would you want to see pitching in the seventh or eighth inning with the game on the line? Francisco Rosario? Clay Condrey?

Dave: Wow, the Philly offense was just awesome last year. I think it will be very good this year, too; the best in the division. But it won't be as good as last year's.

Aaron Rowand and his fluky good year are gone, Feliz is at third, Rollins likely won't hit 30 home runs again. As much as I love Utley, it's hard to see him matching last year's numbers (setting aside the playing time issue). But Pat Burrell is a known commodity, isn't he? Slugging Average the last three years: .504,.502, .502. And Howard should at least improve his batting average of .260.

Sully: Everyone knows how fantastic Philly is at short, second and first. Once again, they will get a lot of punch out of these three spots. On a year-over-year basis, at first glance, it's hard to see how there won't be considerable fall-back offensively. Rowand and his 123 OPS+ now toil in San Francisco. Feliz, the former Giant and one of the very worst offensive regulars in baseball, now starts at third for the defending NL East champs. But a Geoff Jenkins/Jayson Werth platoon should go a long way in making up for the loss of Rowand and the Phillies OPS at 3rd in 2007 (PHI third basemen hit .255/.321/.368) was last in the league; just behind - you guessed it - the Giants. Amazing though it may be, Feliz may provide an offensive uptick! I think this offense rakes again.

Marc: Obviously the offence is this team's strength with Howard (134 RBI, 144 OPS+), Utley (103 RBI, 145 OPS+) and Rollins (139 runs, 118 OPS+). The scary thing is that they could all still get better – they're all under 30 years of age. Burrell is a nice fourth option offensively (127 OPS+) although his contract is cumbersome and likely limits their ability to improve the pitching because they can't throw money at free agents.

Third base is a black hole for Philly… Feliz plays nice defence but I doubt his bat is going to make much of an impact, if at all. But with the other offensive cogs, maybe it doesn't have to. Victorino is a nice immediate option for centerfield but I don't think he's a long-term solution. The minor league system is pretty dry – especially with impact bats. There isn't much depth to absorb injuries either.

The Phillies can probably come close to generating 5.51 runs per game again, but they are also probably going to surpass allowing 5.07 runs per game.

Chris: That's one scary infield! Of the three main guys, the only one playing over his head was Rollins, but it wasn't that much over. The only performance they'll have a hard time duplicating is Rowand's impressive .309/.374/.515, but Feliz at third might make some of that up. Feliz doesn't have a good bat (other than power), but as Sully mentioned, he's better than Abe Nunez ( .234/ .318/ .282)!

Sully: With regard to their Mets and their chances at winning the division, I come down somewhere between Dave and Chris/Marc. Sure three teams have a chance at winning, but I see the Mets as the favorites. As far as I am concerned the two most meaningful changes in the NL East come in the form of Santana's addition and Martinez's comeback. The Mets won 88 games last season and sported about a dead average pitching staff while getting a combined 28 innings from the two stars. Conservatively, they figure to get at least 325 innings or so out of the pair. The math is not that tough.

Chris: If they stay healthy, Johan, Pedro and John Maine are an elite rotation front. But I think you're starting to see some questions about the depth beyond that. Last season, they started Brian Lawrence and Phil Humber in key games down the stretch with predictable results. Unless Mike Pelfrey proves that he belongs, they're likely to be scraping the bottom of the barrel there as well. And if Pedro goes down...

Dave: The Mets have Santana, who really is as good as the New York hype he's receiving. Pedro has looked good this spring; and Maine has had a tremendous spring and could be poised for a very good year. However, the next two spots are a bit up for grabs: Perez could be awesome, or he could not be. And the fifth spot is totally in the air: neither El Duque nor Pelfrey looked good in the spring. Really, if the Mets hadn't made the Santana trade, their starting pitching would be looking much thinner.

The Mets' bullpen should be solid. Billy Wagner is showing signs of age, but the depth is decent. Duaner Sanchez is coming along slowly -- he'll be a key guy for the Mets.

Defensively, the Mets have standouts at catcher, center and shortstop. Overall, they're a good fielding team, maybe a bit better than average.

Marc: I don't have much to add on the rotation other than to say I don't like Pelfrey one bit – how a former No. 1 pick got this far with no usable breaking ball is beyond me.

Wagner (34 saves or more in six of the last seven seasons) continues to get it done at the backend of the bullpen. Jorge Sosa is a nice option for the middle innings and I think Matt Wise could be a steal. Aaron Heilman (BB/9 has gone down in each of the last five seasons) is one of the more reliable relievers, who will not beat himself, in the east and the southpaw situation is solid with Pedro Feliciano and Scott Schoeneweis.

Chris: What's not to like about the bats? If rigor mortis doesn't set in with Carlos Delgado or Moises Alou, they've got as deep an offensive core as any team in the league. If they can shore up some outfield depth to cover for Alou's inevitable injuries, they should be ok. As a Nats fan, I'm intrigued to see the reaction to Brian Schneider and Ryan Church. Schneider doesn't have much of a bat. And Church puts up good rate stats, but some of the ABs he has are U-G-L-Y, the kind that bring out the boo-birds, especially in New York.

With Jose Reyes, it's amazing how much the expectations game affects our view of a player. Last year, he had a .354 OBP, hit 36 doubles, 12 triples and 12 homers. He had more stolen bases than anyone since 1992, played every day, upped his walk total by over 20 for the second consecutive year, and he was a disappointment? Sure, he slumped at the end, but I think almost any Mets fan would've signed on the dotted line for a year like that before the season began. Rearrange his hot and cold streaks a little, and everyone would be raving about him instead of complaining about him.

Dave: I think Reyes will bounce back fine andDavid Wright will have another fine year. It would be nice for Mets fans if Delgado bounced back and Alou stayed healthy, but it probably won't happen. Can it be that Carlos Beltran is underappreciated? Last year, he 33 home runs, created over 100 runs, played a fine centerfield and continued to be one of, if not the best, base runner in the majors.

According to Bill James, the Mets manufactured the third-most runs in the National League last year. They were first in the majors in runs manufactured by deliberate acts, such as stolen bases, but tied for last in the majors in manufacturing runs from things like wild pitches, moving up on batted balls and taking extra bases on singles. That's a weird dichotomy. I have no idea what it means.

Marc: Re-signing Luis Castillo was a mistake. His value always lay in his speed but he stole only 19 bases and his slugging percentage hasn't toped .374 in more than four seasons – and it's never been over .400 in his career. I proudly display my Carlos Delgado autograph on my baseball bookshelf (the only autograph I have) but he's pretty much done. He slugged under .500 in 2007 for the first time in 10 seasons and his OPS+ was only 103. It doesn't sound like his body is going to hold up over an entire season so I don't see him improving on those numbers in 2008. Overall, the offence looks like it's going to be a little worse this season; I don't see any areas of significant improvement.

Sully: I know that John Smoltz is out for just one start but at his age, I think it may be cause for concern. Of more concern is just how mediocre Braves starting pitching is after Smoltz. Tim Hudson is still decent but there is not much else.

Chris: There are definitely reasons to be a bit skeptical about the Braves pitching, but there's also a possibility of some upside. Smoltz' injury supposedly isn't serious -- the kind of thing a little rest heals. But if you look at the disaster that was the back end of the staff last year, it shouldn't be that hard to improve.

The Braves got 64 games from starters with ERAs over 5 (5.37 to be precise). Combined, those 219 innings totaled up to a 6.28 ERA. Even a nearly washed-up Tom Glavine should be able to knock that down a bit. They won't have Mark Redman or Lance Cormier to kick around anymore!

Dave: I can't see Atlanta having much pitching this year, particularly given Smoltz's questionable health. The rest of the rotation is filled with huge, yet intriguing, question marks. Can Hudson repeat last year's performance (almost certainly not). Glavine andMike Hampton? Great stories, but don't count on much. Jair Jurrjens? Great name.

Marc: Atlanta has an advantage over all the other teams in the east – They have six solid starters with Hudson (128 ERA+), Smoltz (137 ERA+), Hampton, Jurrjens, Glavine (96 ERA+) and Chuck James (100 ERA+). You know you're probably not going to get 30-34 starts out of Hampton, Smoltz or Glavine at this stage of their careers, so you have to hope they don't all break down at the same time, which will allow Jurrjens to fill in most of the time.

As for the 'pen, if Rafael Soriano's elbow does not continue to bother him, he could be a nice anchor in the bullpen – He had a 0.86 WHIP last year. Peter Moylan's command has improved since he first appeared in the majors and is slowly becoming a dependable reliever for Atlanta. Chris Resop and Blaine Boyer have looked good this spring and could help out at some point this season, if they don't both make the opening day roster. Royce Ring (.205 career average versus left-handed batters) and Will Ohman (.196 average) should be successful LOOGIES. Mike Gonzalez could return from Tommy John surgery later in the year and offer the bullpen a boost.

Sully: The Braves are going to mash though, aren't they?

Dave: Teixeira has got to be an early candidate for MVP and perhaps the most-watched potential free agent of the year. The Braves also have some excellent young hitters, particularly now that Francoeur has apparently learned to walk. I wonder when Chipper Jones will ever stop hitting? Doesn't he know he's getting old?

Hey, I'm getting old, too. Believe me, it's hard to miss.

Marc: Even with the loss of Andruw Jones, the offence looks nice, with Jeff Francoeur (103 OPS+), Teixeira (150 OPS+) and old man Chipper (166 OPS+) leading the way. The collection of Kelly Johnson (117 OPS+), Brian McCann (100 OPS+) and Yunel Escobar (119 OPS+) is a nice supporting cast. And I have always been a fan of Matt Diaz – even when he was struggling to get out of Triple-A and receive the shot he deserved. However, I don't think he's an everyday corner outfielder.

I don't like the Braves' centerfield options: Mark Kotsay or Josh Anderson. I would rather see them try Gregor Blanco in center – or see if Brandon Jones can handle it. There is no point in them keeping non-roster outfielder Joe Borchard, who has had a nice spring. He is not going to hit .300 in the majors – or even .250. If Jordan Schafer is for real – then they really only need someone to hold down the fort for one season.

Chris: The Braves were a pretty elite offense last season even with a first baseman who slugged .394 for two-thirds of the year and with a centerfielder batting .222. Even with a step down from Chipper (I wonder how many people realize how spectacular he was last year) and with Edgar Renteria out of town, there's no reason to think they won't finish in the top 3 or 4 in runs scored.

Sully: Chris, let's stick with you here since you are the resident Nats expert for this chat. Will the pitching improve this season?

Chris: Your guess is as good as mine at this point. The Nats seem confident enough in their kids (who seem like future 4th starters to me) that they could jettison a still-rehabbing (eternally rehabbing?) John Patterson. The Nats succeeded last year because Manny Acta minimized the damage the starting pitching could do by turning the game over the pen as early as possible. It worked last year. Can it work again this year?

The Nats starters (other than Shawn Hill) are mostly flyball pitchers. That worked really well when the power alleys were 390+ feet away, and when you had Church, Nook Logan and Austin Kearns roaming around there, catching anything. With 370-something power alleys and Wily Mo Pena and Lastings Milledge (who is either great or terrible in the field depending on who you're listening to), can the arms hold up? Signs point to no!

The one arm to watch is Joel Hanrahan, the former Dodgers pitching prospect. The Nats gave him a crack at the rotation last year and he walked the park (when he wasn't giving up homers). They converted him to relief, and it's allowed him to focus more, especially on repeating his delivery. His hard stuff got even harder, and he was utterly dominant all spring, and not just against the bench scrubs. He'll likely start out as the 6th-inning guy, but on this team and with this starting pitching, that's a pivotal role for Acta.

Marc: As the broken record continues, Washington has some question marks in the rotation… but that's not surprising when any club is looking to Odalis Perez as a savior and/or innings eater. Jason Bergmann has shown promise, but I want to see him over the course of a full season… I think he might be better in the bullpen. Matt Chico (91 ERA+), Hanrahan (70 ERA+) and Tim Redding (career 88 ERA+) are all probably middle relievers at best on other teams. Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Clippard offer some hope for later in 2008 or 2009.

Washington might have one of the better pens in the east, especially if Hanrahan and/or Redding end up there as a long reliever. The bullpen has some depth with Luis Ayala, Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Chris Schroder and closer Chad Cordero (career 154 ERA+), although his biggest value to the club might be as a trading chip. Does a team that's going to lose 90 games really need a topnotch closer? Non-roster player Ray King should be an acceptable left-handed reliever.

Dave: Boy, I feel like I don't know a single pitcher on the Nationals. Tim Redding? Well, he's been around for a while. Matt Chico? Jason Bergmann? I mean, I've heard of these guys, but wha?

Like last year, the Nats will lean heavily on their bullpen. And from what I understand, the ballpark is likely to be a pitcher's park. So the Nats' pitching will look better than what we might expect, but we probably just won't understand how they did it.

Sully: The guy I am pulling for bigtime is Nick Johnson. I really hope he can somehow stay healthy this season. He is a real pleasure to watch at the plate.

Chris: It's going to be a shock seeing the team bat in a normal park. If it's neutral, it's a big jolt to the bats. The offense should probably be middle-of-the-pack, which is a big step up. The Elijah Dukes acquisition is key in that it gives the Nats a legit 4th outfielder (although he'll be starting initially because of Wily Mo Pena's injury). Last year, the Nats gave far too many ABs to Ryan Langerhans, Robert Fick, Kory Casto and other guys who couldn't hit their children's weight.

I'm excited, too, because there are quite a few breakout candidates. Ryan Zimmerman still has oodles of potential. Kearns was brutalized by RFK's walls and he's turning 28. The sky's the limit with Milledge, too. If they do what we expect, the runs will come. If one or more of them break out like they're capable of doing, the offense could surprise some people.

Dave: It will be fun to see how some of the young players develop in Washington. Milledge, Dukes, Pena. I also think Kearns is a fine player, as is Ryan Zimmerman. I hope they can both gain some power at bat, but I'm not sure they can. I wouldn't bet on it, anyway.

Marc: It looks like Cristian Guzman (career 74 OPS+) is going to win the shortstop job over Felipe Lopez (career 89 OPS+), but you really don't win with either guy in the starting lineup. If Washington had traded Belliard (100 OPS+ ) at last season's trade deadline, instead of offering him an extension, they could have more prospects in the system and Pete Orr or Willie Harris holding down the fort for less money. The same can be said for Dmitri Young (career 114 OPS+)… Sure, they didn't know if Johnson would make it back but you can always find a replacement level first baseman at Triple-A and that's probably what Young is going to end up as by the time his contract extension expires. First base prospect Josh Whitesell, whom the Nats just lost to Arizona on a waiver claim, could probably perform as well as Young will this season.

Sully: It figures to be a long one for the Fish. The pitching was a complete disaster last year but there were injuries all over the place. What do we think for 2008?

Dave: Florida will not prevent runs. They have no pitching and they have no fielding. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement. They do have young arms. Young arms can surprise and come through when you least expect it. But even if they have some young guys--say, Andrew Miller--turn in good years, I still think they'll give up more runs than any other team in the league.

Sully: I agree, Dave.

Chris: It's amazing how quickly that pitching staff collapsed last season, going from 5th in ERA to 15th. What was it? Rookies playing over their head? Fatigue from workload? I'd like to say some of it is the defense (they do have a pretty terrible defense!), but most of the same guys played both seasons.

They had a pretty significant bump up in offense, too. And the one-year park factor went from extreme pitcher's park to slight hitter's park. Might some of it just be the weather? I don't think there were any structural changes to the place. If it was just bad luck with weather, can we count on the pitching to 'improve' if the park returns to its historical level of offense?

Can I keep asking a bunch of questions without answering them? Perhaps?

Marc: Does Florida have any healthy pitchers left? Actually, the options are mostly guys brought in from other organizations: Mark Hendrickson and Andrew Miller. The other pitching options are going to have to be held together with duct tape: Ricky Nolasco, Scott Olsen. Rick VandenHurk appears to be an option as well, but I'm really not sold on his command and control. The same can be said for Andrew Miller – I would be shocked if his ERA is not above 5.00 by the end of the season. Rookie Chris Volstad should begin the year in the minors but he might be the team's most reliable starter by the end of the year.

Sully: Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla aside, does the hitting figure to be much better?

Chris: They're sure going to miss Miguel Cabrera's bat (though the pitchers won't miss his glove!)

Hanley's season last year was absolutely incredible. It looks like something Nomar would've put up in 1999 -- had Nomar been able to steal bases or play more than 130 games! I'm really surprised that he didn't get more support in the MVP push by statheads. By VORP, he was the choice. By Runs Above Position, he was neck-and-neck with David Wright. He was easily the best shortstop in the game, and I think everyone went to great lengths to contort his defense to knock him down a few pegs. If the numbers are the biggest factor, and you're going to disqualify leadership and team's position, doesn't he have to be your guy?

Dave: How much will the Cabrera trade hurt the Marlins? A lot, a whole lot. Of course, Hanley Ramirez is awesome, Jeremy Hermida may break out, yada, yada. But losing Cabrera and replacing him with Jose Castillo and/or Jorge Cantu hurts a lot.

Marc: Like most of the NL East, the Marlins have the makings of a nice offensive club, although the offence still has a ways to go before it can match up with Atlanta, Philadelphia or New York. Ramirez (145 OPS+) and Uggla (108 OPS+) have a lot of offensive upside. Josh Willingham is a nice complimentary player and Hermida could become a nice force, if he can build on his 2007 season. Ramirez has an impressive combination of power and speed. Uggla is probably going to remain a one-dimensional slugger but the offence he offers at second base is pretty impressive as long as that batting average doesn't sink too low and drag down is on-base percentage.

Mike Jacobs is probably an average offensive first baseman at best. At third base, Cantu has been solid, but he's motivated as a non-roster player. Once he has his guaranteed contract and the losses begin to mount, how much effort is he going to put forth? The same question can be asked for Castillo, although he at least has a guaranteed contract. Florida needs to resist the urge to rush Cameron Maybin… He's barely played above A-ball and needs polish – they're not going to win this year and probably not next year so there is no point in rushing him.

The cynic in me wonders how many more years Ramirez and Uggla will be in Florida… Both are entering their arbitration years so they are going to start to get expensive. Is Florida finally prepared to build a foundation? We'll see soon enough.

Sully: How about surprises in the NL East this season? It's a mild surprise but I will call Atlanta leapfrogging Philadelphia in the standings. The Phils finish third.

Chris: I think the surprise is going to be how few fingernails fans in Atlanta, Philly and New York are going to have by the time mid-September rolls around. It was a heck of a pennant race last year, and with three teams fighting for the division, we could have a pretty exciting stretch run. Or, as David suggests, the Mets could run and hide!

Dave: I think the Marlins have a chance to be just awful this year; worse than some might think.

I also think that something surprising will happen with the Braves' rotation. I don't know what it will be, but it will be something. Career-ending injury for Smoltz? Final career meltdown for Glavine? Hampton makes incredible comeback? Jurrjens wins ROY? Someone comes out of nowhere to lead the rotation? I don't know what will happen, but watch that rotation.

Marc: Surprise? Tough to say. Perhaps it will be how really, really bad the starting pitching will be outside of Atlanta and New York. I'm not sure any of the other clubs have more than two reliable starting pitchers. Florida and Washington might not even have one.

Sully: The awards candidates are pretty obvious this season. Who do you guys like?

Chris: Carlos Beltran never seems to get the love. If he can finally stay healthy... Otherwise, I think that Jose Reyes is in a good position because of those lowered expectations. If he improves, and the Mets do break through, he's likely to be looked at as the catalyst for their success.

If you're betting against Santana for the Cy, you're crazy. If it's not him, then it's Tim Redding. (I can dream, can't I?)

Rookie? Hmmm... are there really any impact rookies out there? Jurrjens seems like the only one with a job.

Dave: MVP's: Lots of guys: Teixeira, Beltran, Wright, Howard, Utley. Maybe even Reyes. I predict Jimmy Rollins won't win the MVP this year.

CYA: Santana. If he falters, Hamels.

ROY: Maybin is the big name, but he was sent down for at least the start of the season. Of course, that doesn't mean that much, but it's not a good start. Otherwise, Jurrjens.

Marc: Outside of Johan Santana, I don't think there is a CY Young candidate in the east… Although if we're thinking outside the box, maybe John Maine... He looks so much better than he did three years ago when I saw him pitch in Triple-A. He was a one-pitch pitcher on that day.

For MVP, I'm going to say David Wright or Mark Teixeria… It depends on who finishes first overall, likely. Wright is a better all-around player so I'd give him the edge but Teixeria may be motivated by dollar signs.

I don't know if there are any real good, realistic, contenders for the Rookie of the Year… maybe pitcher Carlos Carrasco can develop quicker than anticipated and save Philadelphia? Maybe Cameron Maybin will turn into Hanley Ramirez?

Sully: Now the order of finish. I have the Mets by five or six games. Then Atlanta, Philly, the Nats and the Marlins.

Chris: I was confident in the Phillies last season. This year, I'm torn. Let's guess: Mets, Atlanta, Phillies, Nats, Marlins.

Dave: Mets, Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins

Marc: Atlanta | New York | Philadelphia | Washington | Florida

Sully: There you go, Marc. I like it. Thanks, guys.


Really tough top three.

I think the Phils are out this year. Of course Martinez / Hernandez or Smoltz / Hampton could spend significant time in the DL. That could level things.

I would like to see one last big run by Bobby Cox and Co.

Go braves!

O.k., I had to stop reading after I got to this comment by Dave:
Dave:Really, if the Mets hadn't made the Santana trade, their starting pitching would be looking much thinner.

Ya think? Take the best pitcher in baseball off the team and it would hurt their pitching staff? That is expert analysis for you.

Good chat, guys.

I'm surprised no one thinks the Braves pitching improves given the "addition by subtraction" Chris mentioned. I mean, they had the 3rd best ERA in the NL last year and should get at least 30 (total) starts of combined 5.00 ERA from Glavine and Hampton. If Jurrjens manages to be league-average and Smoltz doesn't die, I don't really see much room for a regression.

Not like they're going to miss Bob Wickman.

I do not pick the Mets to win the division because of their vulnerability to injury and decline.

Looking at the offenses, it seems to me the Mets core includes Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Delgado and Alou. The other regulars are more or less ok, but not star quality. Of those 5, I think there is a strong possibility that Delgado is finished as a star player and that Alou is unlikely to be available for more than 100 games. And I do not see adequate replacements in the system or enough material in the system to trade for any.

It seems to me that both Philly and Atlanta have fewer such probabilities, with Chipper the most likely to get hurt, and most of the Philly stars young enough to continue top notch performances. And Atlanta does have some talent stored at the high minors to allow them to replace problems like Kotsay perhaps or package them to trade for replacements.

There is a similar, if less urgent, problem in the rotations. While NY's rotation seems to me deeper and more talented than the other two, of the 7 projected candidates to start, I think it likely that Pedro and El Duque will be hurt and that Pelfrey and Sosa will not be effective. It is possible that the other 3 will still make the Mets rotation better than either the Phillies or Braves, but it could be a problem that again cannot be fixed during the season.

For that reason, and because I really think the Phillies rotation is dreadful, I think Atlanta will win the division with the Mets coming in second and the Phillies third.

That's a perfectly reasoned case, Bob, but as I mention above for me it's pretty simple. The Mets are coming off of an 88-win season in which they had 28 combined innings out of Pedro and Santana.

Each of your concerns about the Mets applied last year. Delgado hit .258/.333/.458. Alou played 87 games. The only variable I see making 2007 and 2008 not an apples-to-apples comparison is they lose the depth that Milledge offered. I think some of this can be made up by the upgrade Church might offer over Shawn Green.

A perfectly legitimate point. I suppose we would have to look at how well the replacements for Alou did last year and whether we think this year's can do as well, and also whether Delgado's decline will steepen this year. We also have to consider whether Maine and Perez can repeat (I think they can, by the way) and whether the other pitchers can match El Duque's contribution or do as well as the fill-ins for Pedro did. Naturally, much of this is speculation, and your point about Santana being almost pure addition trumps them all.

Another factor to consider is whether we think Atlanta, which finished just 4 games behind NY, has improved that much more than the Mets have by adding Santana. I think, for example, that the Mets will finish ahead of Philadelphia, but also see Atlanta moving ahead of both. While no one change for Atlanta is as dramatic as Santana, and they too might see regression in places, I also think that the cumulative impact of a full year of Teixeira, projected improvement of Francouer and rebound by McCann as well as depth and AAA players in waiting may vault them past both NY and Philly.

But I cannot deny the logic of your thinking and would not be surprised if the Mets do indeed win the division, especially if Pedro turns in 20 or more starts. He is the most amazing pitcher I have ever watched, amazing even when he is working at a fraction of his ability.

Healthy Smoltz, healthy Chipper, full season of Tex, McCann splits the difference on 2006/2007 and Francoeur takes another step forward...then it's on in the NL East.

But I think even if only three of those five items come to be then the Mets wrap it up around the 24th or 25th of September.

Agreed, as long as the Mets also get at least 2 of the following:

No return of the 2005-06 version of Oliver Perez
20 starts from Pedro
At least stabilization rather than steep decline at 1B
At least something close to league average offense in LF

John Maine? As part of an elite front end? Why does it seem like I'm the only one on earth that remembers his second half? 5.53 ERA and 1.45 WHIP is not elite. And you can't help but laugh at people who like players based on spring training results.

Behind Johan, the Mets have nothing but inconsistency and injury risks. They're the Detroit of the NL. They're gonna need to get plenty out of their offense this year.

I tend not to put a lot of stress on second half results unless they reflect some specific problem or growth pattern. Otherwise it is an arbitrary distinction. You can pick any stretch of starts, let's say from May 3-July 3 and possibly find some promising or alarming trend. What is important is the overall performance, and in his abbreviated 2006 year as well as his full 2007 year Maine did pretty well.

In fact, Maine had some awful starts in the second half, but he also had some excellent ones. And his BB rate was adequate while his K rate was excellent. I don't know that you can consider him elite, but he has done enough to consider him a pretty solid starter. As a #3, he is certainly as good or better than anyone the Braves or Phillies can throw out there, and at least as reliable.

When I look at projections, I see little point in considering the obvious caveats. What is the point of saying "if Wright is healthy" for example? We know if he gets hurt, the Mets are in deep trouble, but why expect it? The same can be said about any team's chances. I wouldn't even consider the question of a Beltran injury although that is more likely, because again, the danger there is probably no greater than McCann getting hurt. So with Maine, he may be a flash in the pan, but there is no point to consider that based on his recent history.

On the other hand, Sully's point about Smoltz or mine about Delgado seem to me far more meaningful in light of their recent history.

all 3 contender have the same issue, they have some GREAT talents up front. but their depth and health is pretty suspect.

for the Mets. can they really count on contribution from Pedro / El Duque / Alou ? Delgado / Castillo show major signs of nearing the end of their usefulness . and the consistency of some of their youngster is worrisome.

for the Phillies, can no one find a better 5th starter than Adam Eaton? how much of a joke is it when Pedro Feliz is a upgrade with the bat? can their pitching staff manage to not suck?

for the Braves: will Smoltz finally realize his old? does Glavine have anything left? Mike Hampton comeback.. really?!?!? is CF going to be bad or historically bad?