The National League East is going to be a dog fight right up to game 162. Entering Wednesday, the New York Mets held the lead in the division by one game. They swept the Atlanta Braves in their Opening Weekend series, and a Daniel Murphy walk-off single against the Washington Nationals on Monday boosted them to a 4-1 record, with the Nationals tailing them. Despite the Mets’ hot start, the standings will be drastically different by May.
The Phillies and Braves haven’y produced offensively so far this season. Philadelphia lost two out of three to the Pirates in their opening series, and lost their first game with the Miami Marlins this season. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are sorely missed in the Phillies’ lineup. Raul Ibanez would be a vital performer in Philadelphia’s lineup had he not slipped to the Yankees in free agency this winter.
The Atlanta Braves have struggled to produce runs for their strong young arms. They were outscored 20-10 this season before getting their first win against the Astros in Houston Tuesday. Chipper Jones’ return to the lineup certainly benefited Atlanta in Houston, but the Braves can’t rely on their aging star to produce runs consistently this year. Young players like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Dan Uggla need to push home runners in scoring position and support the Braves’ starters long enough for the bullpen to get warm. If the Braves can get a lead by the seventh, they’ve got a fleet of arms in the bullpen that can lock up offenses and close games. They will rely heavily on Livan Hernandez to eat innings up before they hand the ball to Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flahretty or Craig Kimbrel.
The Miami Marlins haven’t met expectations to this point. Their offense has been spotty. On opening night, when they unveiled their new metropolis they call home, located just outside Little Havana in Miami, they were able to manage just one run off of Kyle Lohse. The St. Louis starter took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and Josh Johnson had a crooked first inning that gave the Cardinals enough cushion to spoil the Marlins’ Grand Opening.
In the middle of their second week, the fish are 2-3 and locked in a tough series with the Cincinnati Reds. Jose Reyes had seven hits in 22 at-bats, and has swiped two bases for his new ball club. Emilio Bonifacio and Omar Infante have picked up the slack left by Gaby Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez, who have struggled so far this season. The Marlins’ pitching needs to keep them in games while the offense gets its sea legs. New acquisition Mark Buehrle, and NL Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson need to lift the team to a significantly above .500 record if they want to compete in the East.
The Washington Nationals have gone largely unnoticed in the East because they didn’t make the big splash the Marlins did; they didn’t collapse in September the way the Braves did; they don’t need to overcome injuries the way the Phillies have to this season; and they certainly don’t have the financial woes of the Mets. The Nationals largely remained the same. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to keep his All-Star form, and they will look for Jayson Werth to turn his swing around and have a productive 2012, after signing a big free agent deal in 2011 and posting a .232 batting average, 20 home runs and 58 RBI. Stephen Strasburg will be kept to 160 innings this year, but if the Nationals are in the hunt for a wild card spot, it will be tough to lose such a dynamic arm in the rotation.
By September, the East will be a sprint to the finish line, with the Marlins and Phillies leading the pack. Philadelphia’s offense will find itself, and with Howard scheduled to return to the lineup in early June at the earliest, the Phillies are going to need offense to be provided by Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and John Mayberry Jr. among others.
The Marlins have already started to click on offense without the force and power that Gaby Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez can characteristically provide. Their pitching is the only concern. Their starters need to go deep into games often, and if they don’t have Josh Johnson at All-Star strength, they will be lucky to snatch a wild-card spot.
The Braves and Nationals will battle all year for the right to scratch their way into a playoff berth and go on a Cardinals-like run in October. The East will be one of the division determined in the last weeks of September, and the second wild card spot will come down to the wire. Here’s my picks for the league's most competitive division:
Division Winner: Miami Marlins
Wild Card: Philadelphia Phillies
2nd Wild Card: Atlanta Braves