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While we are unlikely to see another 100-plus win team emerge from this division, there’s no question that it remains the NL’s best, and deepest. Four of the five teams calling the East home could legitimately be declared the preseason favorite, while the fifth could make a surprising challenge with some improved luck in the health department.
If forced to make a wager, I’d reluctantly bet on the Atlanta Braves emerging as division winners. Despite a slow start from second baseman Dan Uggla, a nightmarish sophomore season for Jason Heyward, and an injury plagued season for emerging ace Tommy Hanson, the Braves were a couple of outs away from reaching the 2011 postseason.
Even with the soon-to-be-retiring Chipper Jones already battling injuries, even slight improvement in their luck will push the Braves to the top of the heap.
The Philadelphia Phillies have the best 1-2-3 pitching combination in all of baseball with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels all coming off seasons in which they were legitimate Cy Young candidates. Unfortunately, age and injuries have taken their toll on the team’s lineup.
Ryan Howard is still a couple of months away from returning from an achilles injury suffered on the last play of their disappointing playoff loss to the eventual champion Cardinals in the NL Divisional round. Second baseman Chase Utley will also miss the start of the season as he recovers from an assortment of knee injuries.
This is without pointing out that former MVP Jimmy Rollins is a year older, so even with Hunter Pence in the lineup for a full year, the decline and injuries to their big three will significantly impair the team’s ability to win the East again.
The Miami Marlins are full of hope this season with a new home, new manager, new short stop, new closer, a new proven starter, and a new(ish) third baseman.
Ozzie Guillen is a proven winner whose act had worn thin in Chicago, but he should bring some much needed discipline and credibility to a mostly young Marlins team. The organization also made a big splash in free agency by bringing in Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle, proving to their fans that they are serious about contending right now.
If staff ace Josh Johnson can remain healthy, Hanley Ramirez can make a seamless transition from short stop to third base while rediscovering his offensive prowess, and budding star right fielder Giancarlo “don’t call me Mike” Stanton, can challenge for the league’s home run and RBI titles, the Marlins could find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 World Series title.
The Washington Nationals have plenty to be excited about entering 2012. Stephen Strasburg will begin the season fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and looking to establish himself as one of the NL’s best starters. And the acquisitions of lefty Gio Gonzalez and veteran Edwin Jackson should help solidify a very strong starting rotation.
On the offensive side, Nats fans are hoping that Ryan Zimmerman can play a full season after the franchise inked him to a $100 million extension this off-season.
If Jayson Werth can prove that his contract wasn’t a mistake, Mike Morse can build on his breakout 2011, and Bryce Harper can make his way to the Majors in time to help the team this year, the additional wild card spot could be the best thing to happen in the nation’s capital since Alexander Ovechkin made D.C. hockey relevant.
The Mets are likely to end up in the division’s basement again, but if Johan Santana, David Wright, and Ike Davis can all stay healthy and perform at their best, the Mets could surprise people this year.