Taking a Look at NL East Competition for the Atlanta Braves

Matt PowersCorrespondent IIApril 24, 2012

Taking a Look at NL East Competition for the Atlanta Braves

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    At this moment the Atlanta Braves are 10-6, an impressive record considering the fact that they had begun the season 0-4 against the Mets and Astros. The biggest reason for that turnaround is that over the past 12 games, the team has come together and the offense has been heating up.

    As it looks today, the Braves are a legitimate contender for a playoff spot this season, whether it is as the NL East champion or in one of the wild-card spots. This article takes a look at how much competition the Braves will get from the other four teams in the NL East.

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Some may be surprised when they look at the standings and see the Phillies in last. However, the decline of the Phillies is something that I had been calling for since early October. The Phillies' struggles are due to injuries to key hitters Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, as well as the fact that they are clearly aging.

    The Phillies' offense is a complete mess right now. Without Howard and Utley in the middle of the lineup, the Phillies don't have a big power threat or a player that may be their best true hitter.

    Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino are guys that have been All-Stars, but they have each started slowly and are better suited as complimentary hitters rather than top run producers.

    Jimmy Rollins is 33 years old this season and had lost a step last season, but he is looking bad this season with an OPS of .580 in 16 games. Third baseman Placido Polanco is 36 years old and looks even worse, having posted a .434 OPS.

    That doesn't even get into glove-only player Freddy Galvis starting at second for Utley or the fact that the bench hasn't really gotten going yet.

    The rotation is still strong, with Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels looking as good as advertised and Vance Worley continuing the successful start to his career.

    There is some concern, though, as Cliff Lee went on the disabled list just a few days after throwing 10 shutout innings against the Giants. Lee should be back in close to two weeks, but if the issue is worse than expected, the Phillies could really be in trouble with the state of their offense.

    The bullpen has been solid and could be close to getting some help if Justin De Fratus comes back soon. Big free agent signee Jonathan Papelbon has pitched well with five saves in the Phillies' seven wins. Chad Qualls has been excellent thus far, which is a nice surprise, and guys like Kyle Kendrick and Antonio Bastardo are also solid arms.

    It's early, and the Phillies have too much pitching talent to remain in last place. However, if they want to contend, they must get Howard and Utley back before mid-June at the latest.

    Their farm system is still strong, but they lack the elite players they have had in recent years. The bulk of that talent is still in the lower levels, so they aren't in a great position to acquire an impact bat.


    Odds to Make Playoffs: 50 Percent

    I'm only giving the Phillies a 50 percent chance because they are a team filled with veterans who have big-game experience and have a loaded pitching staff. The addition of a second wild-card spot in the National League is also being factored into that rate.

Miami Marlins

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    The team currently in fourth place is the Miami Marlins, a team mixed with promising young talent as well as some big free-agent signings from this past winter. The Marlins are a totally different organization this season, with a new ballpark as well as a new team name, and there is hope that could be enough to bring this team back to the postseason.

    The Marlins' offense starts with Jose Reyes, the new shortstop signed away from the Mets this winter. Reyes gives the Marlins their first true leadoff hitter in a while and also improves their third base situation (because former shortstop Hanley Ramirez moved over there).

    Giancarlo Stanton, formerly Mike Stanton, hasn't been hitting for power yet this year due to a knee injury, but he has the ability to hit 40 home runs.

    That's not all the Marlins have in their lineup, either.

    Logan Morrison is a solid hitter that can hit for some average and power and really gets on base well. Emilio Bonifacio is another speedster in the lineup who is having a solid start to his 2012 season after a breakout 2011. Gaby Sanchez is an average hitter at first base, and catcher John Buck and second baseman Omar Infante aren't exactly weak links.

    The Marlins' rotation is much improved this year, which could be one of the things that helps them become contenders. Ace Josh Johnson has struggled a bit in his first three starts after missing most of last year with an injury and needs to regain his 2010 form for this team to reach their potential.

    Mark Buehrle has been very solid since coming over from the White Sox and has a wealth of experience after helping them reach a World Series title. Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco are both strong in their roles, and if Carlos Zambrano pitches well, the rotation will not have any real weaknesses.

    The bullpen has been mostly solid, despite big free-agent signee closer Heath Bell struggling in his first few appearances. Bell has been better in his last two games and has recorded a save in each of those, however.

    The rest of the bullpen, featuring Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn, Chad Gaudin, Ryan Webb and Randy Choate, has pitched very well to this point.

    The Marlins are a young and talented team right now and have a real shot at making the playoffs despite the struggles of some of their key players early on. Once Reyes brings up his .230 average and Stanton starts hitting homers, this team could be very dangerous. 

    One thing worth noting is that if a hole opens up, they don't really have much premium talent in their farm system to go after a key piece.


    Odds to Make Playoffs: 65 Percent

    The Marlins get a 65-percent shot to make the playoffs because there is some concern about the health of some of their key players. If the knee injury bothers Stanton all year, Reyes sees his hamstring flare up or Johnson doesn't regain his 2010 form, this team will not reach its full potential.

New York Mets

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    The New York Mets are sitting in third place at the moment, but that is helped a bit by an early sweep of the Braves and taking a series against the struggling Phillies. The Mets' 8-8 record after dropping a double-header to the Giants on Monday is certainly a bit of a surprise for the team unanimously predicted to finish last in the NL East.

    The Mets' lineup is really weak, but they do have a bunch of decent younger players. Catcher Josh Thole is a good hitter that can control the strike zone and gets on base well, but he has almost no power. Young shortstop Ruben Tejada is proving himself to be a solid player at the age of just 22.

    Daniel Murphy has been hitting well at second base, though he has made a pair of errors already. Kirk Nieuwenhuis took over in center after Andres Torres was injured on Opening Day, and he's hitting .333 in his first 54 plate appearances in his career. 

    Ike Davis and Lucas Duda are a pair of younger players with power, but they are both struggling early on. Jason Bay isn't the player the Mets had been hoping to get when they gave him a big contract a few years ago, though this version of Bay is better than what we have seen the last few years.

    In fact, David Wright is the only true middle-of-the-order hitter in the Mets' lineup right now.

    The rotation starts with Johan Santana, who is no longer the same pitcher we saw in Minnesota after age and injuries have slowed him. Still, despite losing something, he is a quality pitcher.

    R.A. Dickey has been strong again, and until being shelled by the Braves last week, he had the longest streak in baseball of consecutive quality starts. Even Mike Pelfrey, Dillon Gee and Jonathon Niese have been pitching well, though they are likely to slip a bit as the season goes on.

    The bullpen has some interesting pieces but is very weak at the back end. Frank Francisco isn't a good closer, and it shows in his results this season. Jon Rauch has pitched well in a setup role, but he is pitching above his career numbers through his first nine appearances. Ramon Ramirez and Bobby Parnell are both strong relievers, though they don't have good numbers on the season.

    The Mets just don't have the talent to really compete. The lineup doesn't have enough power, the rotation is decent but not outstanding and the bullpen isn't close to elite. When you combine those three things, it is hard to see how this team could beat out the other teams in the NL East.


    Odds to Make Playoffs: 5 Percent

    The Mets have enough pieces to potentially hang around for a couple of months, and they could potentially finish out of the NL East basement if another team has a string of bad luck, but they aren't a playoff team. They have already started to come back to Earth after a 6-2 start.

Washington Nationals

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    The surprise leader in the NL East is the Washington Nationals, though I'm not too surprised.

    The Nationals have a bunch of young talent and a great pitching staff after making some offseason moves, which is how they managed to turn the franchise around. The scary thing is that they could be about to get even more talent soon.

    The Nationals have a slightly above-average lineup led by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a player that is struggling now but normally hits for average and power. Jayson Werth has rebounded from an awful 2011 season and looks like his old self, as does first baseman Adam LaRoche, who missed most of last year with an injury.

    Younger players like catcher Wilson Ramos, shortstop Ian Desmond and rookie backup infielder Steve Lombardozzi.have been solid so far. Second baseman Danny Espinosa has been struggling, but he proved last year that he could be a power and speed threat. The hole in the outfield has looked a bit better since Rick Ankiel has returned from injury.

    The big news is what is still to come for the Nationals. Slugging first baseman/outfielder Mike Morse has 30-homer potential, and could be back from his lat injury by June.

    Then there is Bryce Harper, the most hyped prospect in the history of the game, who could also be up in June. Though Harper isn't ready to be a star yet, he could certainly provide an energy boost to the team and potentially even hold his own.

    The rotation is absolutely loaded. Stephen Strasburg has been pitching like an ace this year, looking like he was worth the hype. Jordan Zimmerman is another young pitcher who has pitched very well after emerging last year.

    Gio Gonzalez, the pitcher acquired from Oakland in December, has been worth the high price he cost the team. Edwin Jackson has been solid in his role and Ross Detwiler has been superb in his first three starts.

    The bullpen is solid now but will get a boost when injured closer Drew Storen returns, hopefully by June. That will let Henry Rodriguez, who has looked good as a closer, and Brad Lidge, who has struggled a bit as closer, to pitch in other roles. Tyler Clippard has struggled this year but is a top setup man.


    Odds to Make Playoffs: 75 Percent

    The Nationals have so much talent. They are playing well right now, but the additions of key players like Morse and Storen will help even more. and Bryce Harper could also help. If the lineup and bullpen improve when those guys return, this team will be very dangerous with their loaded rotation.