The National League East is a beast unlike any other to Mets fans such as myself. As a kid growing up, it was the Atlanta Braves who were the team to beat, thanks to a ridiculous stretch of division titles that started in 1991 and ended with the Mets finally knocking them off the throne in 2006.
Since 2007, it has been the other big rival of the Mets that has taken the role of Beast of the East. The Phillies have won three straight division titles by playing aggressive, confident baseball with a never-say-die attitude. I respect the way they play the game, as much as I can't stand them. Today I break down the NL East and offer my predictions on the final standings in the National League in 2010.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies have proven over the past few years that they are the class of the NL East. With two straight National League championships, some would argue they are the favorite to make it back-to-back-to-back appearances in the Fall Classic. They're impressive, I'll admit, and I do think they'll win their fourth straight NL East title this year.
The Phillies are my most hated rival. Really, the only thing I like about Philadelphia is these guys . But there's no denying their rotation is one of the NL's best, headed by aces Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and impressive sophomore J.A. Happ.
The lineup is full of the usual suspects: Rollins, Utley, Howard, Werth, Victorino, and Ibanez. The biggest offensive addition for Philly was old friend Placido Polanco, the ex-Phillies second baseman who was traded to make room for Utley and will now man third base. The bullpen is shaky, but whose isn't? Until someone knocks them off the throne, the Phillies are still kings of the NL East.
2. New York Mets
Ok, I know this won't be a popular pick, but I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy. The Mets on paper should have a pretty good offense with Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran expected to be back before May. David Wright should revert back towards his career norms offensively, and Jason Bay gives the Mets a nice one-two punch from the right side hitting behind Wright (or vice-versa). Jeff Francoeur, Angel Pagan, and Rod Barajas will look to fortify the Mets' defense as well as making their offensive contributions.
After Johan Santana, the rotation is full of unknowns, with Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, and Oliver Perez trying to make believers out of the Mets faithful after disappointing 2009 seasons. The wild card in the rotation may be the rookie left-hander, Jon Niese. The tastefully named youngster boasts a big-time curveball and may end up being the best starter not named Santana by season's end.
The bullpen is full of guys nobody's heard of, aside from Francisco Rodriguez and Pedro Feliciano. Japanese rookies Ryota Igarashi and Hisanori Takahashi are expected to make the team, as are journeymen Nelson Figueroa and Fernando Nieve. The latter two may end up being invaluable as inning-eating long men out of the 'pen who can keep the rest of the 'pen fresh after the inevitable five-inning start out of Maine or Perez.
Also, for the first time, the future of the Mets is on the horizon. A lot of the youngsters us Mets fans have been hearing about the last few years are creeping ever closer to the majors, and some of them should be up in Queens by mid-season. First baseman Ike Davis, CF/RF Fernando Martinez, P Jenrry Mejia, and SS Ruben Tejada headline a group of young prospects that will begin the year either in Double-A Binghamton or Triple-A Buffalo with hopes of making big-time contributions with the Mets in the future. I plan on attending Buffalo Bisons games and getting the scoop on some of these guys in person once the season starts.
The Mets are going to be a rollercoaster, but people forget that New York was in first place last May when Jose Reyes went down with his injury. If the Mets can stay relatively healthy, they have the potential to contend for a Wild Card. If they don't, they can finish as low as fourth. Your guess is as good as mine. I love to converse with readers in the comments, so your thoughts are always welcome.
3. Atlanta Braves
Atlanta looks like they have a pretty good roster this season. The story all year will be long-time manager Bobby Cox's swan song. Cox, the future Hall of Famer, will finally hang up the spikes after the 2010 season, and I'm sure the Braves would like nothing more than to return to the playoffs one last time with their legendary manager.
The rotation looks to be the strongest part of the Braves roster this year, headlined by the return of former ace Tim Hudson from injury. Hudson will be followed by last year's rookie sensation Tommy Hanson, along with the very underrated right-hander Jair Jurrjens and last year's disappointing free agent pick-up, Derek Lowe. Lowe is being paid ace-money to be the No. 4 starter, but if he can pitch like he did in his Boston days, or even his Dodgers days, he should be serviceable.
The lineup has some familiar faces in All-Stars Brian McCann and Chipper Jones. The always-dangerous Yunel Escobar is joined in the infield by former utility man turned starter Martin Prado and veteran newcomer Troy Glaus.
The back of the bullpen has an old familiar face to NL East fans in flame-throwing lefty Billy Wagner, the former Met and Phillie. Wagner signed with the Braves because he wanted a chance to close, and considering the other guys in the 'pen, it looks like Wagner should have the closer job for the foreseeable future. I'm still a big Billy Wagner fan and I hope he has great success this year—except when the Braves play the Mets.
I'll be honest. After the Phillies, no one really knows who's going to finish second, third, and fourth in the NL East. If the Marlins do indeed finish fourth, they'll be the best damn fourth place team in baseball. This team is loaded with young talent, and it wouldn't surprise me if this was finally the year that the Marlins put it all together and contended for a Wild Card.
However, for the sake of argument, there are plenty of reasons why they could easily finish behind the Mets and Braves, in some order. For one thing, besides Hanley Ramirez and last year's NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, is anyone in the Marlins lineup guaranteed to be there by Opening Day 2011?
Dan Uggla, the former All-Star second baseman, has been rumored in trade talks for years now. He could be trade bait come July. The entire outfield of Coghlan, Cameron Maybin, and Cody Ross is unproven. The three of them are as certain as starting-caliber outfielders as the Mets pitching trio of Pelfrey, Perez, and Maine are as legitimate starting pitchers. We simply don't know what we can expect from this Marlins' offense.
The pitching staff, on the other hand, is a bit clearer. Josh Johnson has become one of the best pitchers in all of Major League Baseball, and could put up numbers again this season that will make Roy Halladay fans think twice when naming the best right-hander in the division.
Talented youngsters Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Volstad will follow Johnson in the rotation, giving Florida one of the most talented young foursomes in baseball. The only question is: Can they put it all together over a full season? The bullpen is full of unknowns, including closer Leo Nunez. The Marlins can definitely make it interesting in 2010, but can they find the spark they had in 1997 and 2003? Only time will tell.
The former Expos will likely end up in a familiar position in 2010: the cellar of the NL East. At least this year the future is bright, with SS Ian Desmond being named opening day starter (supplanting Cristian Guzman and turning him into an $8 million backup.) The offense looks pretty good overall, with sluggers Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, speedsters Nyjer Morgan and Jason Maxwell, and franchise 3B Ryan Zimmerman. Also joining the team this year is the ageless Pudge Rodriguez, who should have a big impact on the young Nationals rotation.
That rotation will feature free agent import Jason Marquis, and fellow native New Yorker John Lannan. After that, the pitching staff is a complete mess, with young guys and washed up veterans competing for roster spots. Then, of course, there is phenom Stephen Strasburg, who will begin the year in Double-A. I expect to see Strasburg in the big leagues around Memorial Day, so there's something to be excited about, Nats fans.
While I won't go in depth with the other divisions, I will predict the standings of the Central and West just for fun.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: I think this team is built for October. It helps to have Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, along with that guy wearing No. 5 over at first base.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: I feel like the Brew Crew can win a Wild Card this year. They've got a nice young core and I'm excited to see the newest member of that group, rookie SS Alicides Escobar.
3. Chicago Cubs: Maybe next year? Poor Cubbies. Too strong a division this year.
4. Cincinnati Reds: Aroldis Chapman should give the fans something to cheer about. They also have some good young talent in Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Drew Stubbs.
5. Houston Astros: I like this team for giving ex-Met Jeff Keppinger a legitimate role on the team. He's one of my favorite players. But aside from Wandy Rodriguez, this whole team doesn't impress me. Maybe I'm wrong but I don't see it.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates: Can the Pirates leapfrog Houston? Not exactly the most exciting race to watch.
1. Colorado Rockies: Good team coming into their own and could be back in the World Series if all goes right. There's a whole lot to like about this team.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks: What a strange last few seasons this team has had. They're hard to put your thumb on. I think Justin Upton comes strong with a huge season.
3. San Francisco Giants: I thought about flip-flopping the Giants and D'Backs. Very talented pitching staff thanks to Ferris Bueller's buddy and reigning back-to-back Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, and partner in crime Matt Cain.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers: My how the mighty have fallen. The Dodgers ownership is going through a messy divorce, and it's probably going to cripple the financial flexibility of the team going forward. But never count out Joe Torre.
5. San Diego Padres: I actually think the Padres have a pretty good team this year. I just don't know if the standings will reflect that.
So that just about does it for my NL preview. I see the Rockies beating the Phillies in the NLCS this year. Let the debate in the comments section begin.
(For more Mets, Jets and Nets analysis, visit my personal blog, MetsJetsNetsBlog)