Early 2012 NL East Predictions
We're just about halfway through spring training, and a lot can happen between now and the start of the regular season.
But it's never too early for predictions, right?
For nearly two decades now, there's been a 50-50 chance of picking the National League East champions.
All you had to do was flip a coin; heads for the Atlanta Braves, tails for the Philadelphia Phillies.
They are the only two teams who have won the division since 1993, the exception being the 2006 New York Mets.
It's worth noting that in the NL East, second place can be good enough.
The Florida (now Miami) Marlins advanced from the wild card to the World Series in 1997 and 2003, winning both. The 2000 National League champion Mets also started from the wild card, but lost the Subway Series to the New York Yankees.
So should we just flip that Braves-Phillies coin again in 2012?
Here are my predictions for the NL East, in order of finish.
1. Miami Marlins
The Miami Marlins are brand-spanking new.
New name. New ballpark. New manager. New superstar shortstop.
There's no doubt that the Marlins are counting on Jose Reyes this season. But as important as he will be, I believe that Miami's new retractable-roof stadium will be the game-changer.
Look at what a new yard did for the Phillies after they moved out of cavernous Veterans Stadium.
For 16 years, the Marlins endured hot and humid south Florida summers that wore them down and kept fans away, no matter how well they played. If the pitchers weren't wilting in the heat, they were waiting out summer thunderstorms.
Now, the Marlins have both a park and a team that should draw enthusiastic and energetic fans to Miami.
Reyes will thrive in that environment, and so will new manager Ozzie Guillen, whose outspoken nature seems a perfect fit for Miami.
Between Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Guillen, expect enough spark to power the Fish to the top.
2. Atlanta Braves
The Braves started September with a nine-game lead for the Wild Card over St. Louis. No way they were going to collapse like the 2007 Mets or the 1969 Cubs, right?
When the month ended, the Cardinals were in the playoffs. The Braves went home in shock.
There's been a lot of chatter about whether the Braves will regain their swagger after such an epic collapse.
Seems implausible. Atlanta simply has too much talent to mope around all year.
They've got Brian McCann, arguably the best catcher in baseball. Second baseman Dan Uggla roared back last year from a troubling slump. NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel will be one of the league's top closers for years to come.
If anything is going to drop the Braves into a funk deep enough to ruin the season, it will be the retirement of Chipper Jones.
At 40 years old and troubled by a bad knee, Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that his future is very uncertain.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
It was a tough call to predict a third-place finish for the Phillies.
You could point out the folly of pushing aside a team that won 102 games a year ago. You could take note of the late-season collapse of the Braves.
You could also point out that the Phillies have a roster full of old guys.
Jimmy Rollins is 33 years old. Chase Utley is also 33, but his knees are about 73. Placido Polanco is 36. Jim Thome, 41. Roy Halladay turns 35 in May.
See a pattern here?
Then there's the loss of 32-year-old slugger Ryan Howard, who ruptured his Achilles on his last at-bat of the 2011 season. It was hoped that Howard would return sometime in May, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. now says there is now no timetable for his return.
The Phillies should still be more than good enough to compete.
Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are a formidable rotation on the mound. But, the key in the Phillies' race for the Wild Card or the division title lies in the training room.
Keep an eye on the injured list.
4. Washington Nationals
The Nationals have put together a team that should improve on its 80-win 2011 season.
Pitching will be Washington's strong point.
Stephen Strasburg is back from Tommy John surgery. Newly acquired Gio Gonzalez has looked very sharp so far this spring. Edwin Jackson also joins the team, although his one-year contract, reportedly worth between $9 million and $12 million, has raised some eyebrows.
So has the seven-year, $126 million contract signed by right fielder Jayson Werth.
Yes, he can go yard, hitting 20 home runs last year. But those 20 dingers came with only 58 RBI and a .232 batting average.
Small numbers for such big coin.
Still, Werth may be worth it in the short term. He and Ryan Zimmerman, whose having a sizzling spring, should bring some pop to the middle of the lineup.
Look for at least a .500 season for the 2012 season. But in this division, .500 could easily be a fourth-place finish.
5. New York Mets
Last week, I posted a slideshow on Bleacher Report headlined "5 Reasons for Optimism on the Post-Jose Reyes Mets."
I'm not backing down from any of those reasons.
If, as I wrote, pitcher Johan Santana is back to his old form, the team steals a few victories with stolen bases and the bullpen can prop up a weak starting rotation, the Mets could have a good year.
But that's a lot of ifs to hang a season on.
The good news is Santana has been dazzling so far this spring. The bad news is the rest of the starting pitchers haven't been.
Some of the relievers are showing good signs, but the Mets got more bad news this week. Lefty reliever Tim Byrdak needs knee surgery and will be out for at least six weeks.
David Wright''s health is also a big concern. He was sent back to New York this week to be treated for pain in his rib cage. It's not clear when he'll return.
It is clear that in a powerful NL East, the Mets will struggle to climb out of the basement.