The top spot in the NL East, much like the AL East, is a three-way battle once more this year.
Of the Mets, Phillies, and Braves, who will take the title? Let's have a look...
New York Mets
The Mets melted down for a second straight season in 2008. They are determined not to let this happen again. One heartbreaking finish is enough, but two was unbearable.
A big part of their meltdowns have come from their inability to finish games, and subsequently, to finish the regular season. It seems that when the pressure is on, they haven't answered.
The Mets have gone head first in addressing their late-inning pitching problems by nabbing J.J. Putz—a dominant closer in his own right—as the setup man, and Francisco Rodriguez as their closer. K-Rod is not only the best closer in the game, he's the most electrifying, and he's had the best season a closer has ever had.
Disgusting. They have the best offense in the NL East. The kids from Queens are fast, powerful, and hit for average: the trifecta. Jose Reyes may be the most fun player to watch in Major League Baseball today.
What makes the Mets' offense better than the Phillies is that they have meaningful switch hitters and are completely balanced with their right-handed and left-handed hitters.
Reyes sets the table from either side. Luis Castillo does the same in the two-hole (or else David Murphy will hit there, who is drawing early comparisons to Don Mattingly). After that you pitch to a righty (David Wright), then you have to pitch to either a lefty (Carlos Delgado) or another switch hitter (Carlos Beltran).
This does a number on opposing teams' bullpens. They simply have to suck it up and run one pitcher out there and hope he can handle them on either side of the plate.
Multiple Gold Glover Beltran is in center field, flanked in left by a youngster with energy, and in right by the solid Ryan Church. The outfield is an asset to a fly ball pitcher like Johan Santana. The infield is slick at every single position with some gold glovers mixed in. The Mets should be way above average in fielding.
The staff will be above average. They have their true ace and some solid guys behind him. Guys typically pitching at the No. 3 or 4 spot are vying for the No. 5 spot in the rotation; a nice luxury to have. They include Freddy Garcia, Tim Redding, and the uber-durable Livan Hernandez.
The bullpen is in great shape for the 8th and 9th innings, leaving the 7th for Pedro Feliciano. Sean Green and the rest will make their spots through the rest of the game when needed. This bullpen is upgraded significantly with the addition of the late-inning help.
Predicted Finish: First Place
The Phillies won the World Series last season, breaking a 25-year championship-less streak for the city of Philadelphia. It was the longest such streak for a four-sport city. The Phillies won on timely hitting, clutch pitching, and plain guts (and also because Jimmy Rollins is Nostradamus).
The Phillies addressed most of their problems either at the beginning of last season or before the trade deadline. This offseason, they didn't want to fix what wasn't broken, so they simply added depth. Smart.
They have five capable outfielders who can all hit (Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth, Matt Stairs, Shane Victorino, Geoff Jenkins), and we know what their infield hitters can do.
The Phillies offense is just as scary as the Mets—and eerily comparable—but it is more manageable. Unlike the Mets, the Phillies are less balanced on which side of the plate their batters stand. The Phillies are heavily left-handed.
They have some platoon possibilities to offset this (Werth and Jenkins, Greg Dobbs and Pedro Feliz), but their biggest boppers are Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, both lefties. Rollins provides switch-hitting ability, but once you get past him, lefty relievers can come in to challenge the Phils' most dangerous guys.
After coming off a series with the Mets, this would seem like a birthday present. The Phillies will hit well against the Mets and Braves, though, because their two rotations are heavily right-handed.
Feliz is a marvel at third and doesn't get enough credit. In fact, the three best-fielding third basemen in the National League are all in this division (Wright, Feliz, and Chipper Jones). And I'm not totally convinced David Wright is the best one.
Rollins owns a Gold Glove. Utley and Howard are improving their defense, but if you're going to hit one on the ground, you still want it to be to their side.
The catching is quite good; they have Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz who can both hit a little as well, and they added Ronnie Paulino for insurance. The Phillies are a top-half-of-the-league fielding squad, but not sensational.
Cole Hamels has it figured out. Brett Myers is back in the rotation where he belongs. Blanton is no slouch. The No. 5 spot isn't as competitive as it is for the Mets, but J.A. Happ, Chan Ho Park, and possibly Carlos Carrasco give some insurance for a solid back end of the rotation.
The bullpen is well taken care of and probably deeper than the Mets', with names like Lidge, Romero, Condrey, Madson, Durbin, and Eyre. They will make up for any rotation woes.
Predicted Finish: Second Place (But a close one)
The Braves were competitive for most of the season last year. They fell off at the end, but it was a miracle they were even surviving until late summer.
No team was destroyed by injuries the way the Braves were. Their top four starters and top three relievers all missed at least two months of the season.
In the Mets' broken-heart case, they brought it on themselves; for the Braves, it was an un-opposable, wrathful curse.
The Braves will take more in-depth explaining because they have far more uncertainties than the Mets and Phillies.
They needed two top-of-the-line pitchers; they added three, but none are true aces. They needed to add a power-bat, but instead added an above average contact-bat with some power.
All in all, the Braves addressed their offseason needs well, but not spectacularly well.
The Braves aren't close to having the power bats boasted by the Mets and Phillies. They probably don't even have a guy who will hit 30 homers. However, they do have some "professional" hitters.
The Braves missed out on Griffey, but landed Garret Anderson. He'll hit .300 against righties and lefties and be more durable than "The Kid" would have been, though less powerful. Even if he platoons with Matt Diaz, who destroys left-handed pitching, left field will be an area of production for Atlanta.
Gregor Blanco, Josh Anderson, and prospect Jordan Schafer are battling for the center field spot, and all are capable. Anderson will steal you blind, Schafer is a great combo guy (a potential perennial 25/25 guy). Also, Jeff Francoeur will be better than last year. He'll hit 20+ homers with at least a .270 average.
Chipper Jones finally won a batting title while hitting .364 and whacking 22 dingers. This season he plans to even out his production with more homers, and likely a smaller average. 25+/.310+ is expected.
Left-handed hitter Kelly Johnson can hit 20 per year every year if he plays enough, but he often platoons at second base with Martin Prado (a righty); both players provide solid offense.
Expect Casey Kotchman to hit his stride this season. He is comfortable now and doesn't have to deal with family issues.
Overall, the Braves offense will be more improved than most expect since many players are coming back from "off" years.
The left side of the infield is a black hole, just as it is with the Mets and Phillies. Chipper Jones should have won a Gold Glove by now (the year David Wright got his first, both Chipper and Feliz outperformed Wright). Yunel Escobar is fundamentally sound with a strong arm, and Kotchman has the slickest first base glove in the division.
The outfield is solid. Garret Anderson plays his position well, all the center field candidates can go get it, and Francoeur has a Gold Glove and a rifle for an arm. The defense should be a top-third D.
The Braves missed many of their initial targets for a true ace, but Derek Lowe should be solid (as most good sinker-ballers are) in that roll. The club added Javier Vazquez to chew up innings, but don't forget that he still has nasty stuff. Both these pitchers log consistent 200+ innings per year.
With an utterly depleted 2008 rotation, Braves GM Frank Wren took that stat very seriously and got two of the most durable pitchers available. Young Jair Jurrjens won't have the pressure of being at the top of the rotation and newcomer Kenshin Kawakami is a bonus pick up who will add strong depth.
The No. 5 spot is pretty much a given for Tom Glavine, especially since he's the sole left-handed candidate, and a veteran presence (not to mention a future hall of famer).
Jorge Campillo will likely end up spot starting and in long relief with Jeff Bennett.
Jo-Jo Reyes will begin the season in the minors.
Prospect Tommy Hanson will begin the season below Triple-A, but won't be down their too long. The first injury to the rotation will have him flying to Atlanta. The kid's a monster, and probably the second coming of John Smoltz.
Furthermore, Tim Hudson returns in August (but don't be surprised if he becomes trade bait at the deadline).
The last third of every game is locked down with the now-healthy trio of Peter Moylan, Rafael Soriano, and Mike Gonzalez. The Braves will have a good lefty specialist in either Boone Logan or Eric O'Flaherty, and expect Blaine Boyer to really emerge as a dominant middle reliever.
The Atlanta Bullpen will be as strong, if not stronger, than the Phillies' and Mets', although all three will be assets to their teams.
Predicted Finish: Third Place (Again, very close)
All three teams will beat up on each other over the course of the year and will have to make sure to win their series' against the Marlins and Nationals. Thus, every division game for these three teams will be huge.
I see the teams finishing in this predicted order, but that's barring unforeseeable injuries. Expect the difference between first and third to be no more than a handful of games. As is always the case in close races, the winner will be the healthiest.