This article is the third installment of a six-part series in which I analyze each division in baseball and tell you exactly how I believe things are going to shake out this season.
I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share his observations and thoughts.
Today we take a look at the NL East, the home of the reigning league champs for two years running.
Philadelphia Phillies (89-73)
The 2010 Phillies are virtually the same team that has won two straight pennants. It only stands to reason that they're going to win a third one, right? There can't be any doubt about anyone's consistency, as they've proven they've got staying power.
Roy Halladay, of course, will step in and anchor a pitching staff that has struggled at times, which in the past hasn't been a problem since the lineup always carried them. This year though, with Doc on the case, pitching will be a strong suit. With the amount of innings he's capable of throwing, that will save strain on the bullpen, and come the dog days of August, they should all be in good shape.
The one issue that's up in the air, however, is who closes games. With Brad Lidge injured to start the season, it looks as if Ryan Madson could be the man.
The question remains whether Lidge will get a shot once he comes back. Having not thrown an inning in spring training, and coming off a 7.21 ERA last season, I'd say on a scale from one to "bad idea," that'd be about a 9.5.
I've never been one to see completely eye to eye with Charlie Manuel's tactics, but the right move here is pretty clear. The closer job should be Madson's to lose. If Lidge earns it, he can have it back.
Ultimately, any bullpen issues won't be enough to keep the Phillies out of the playoffs. It sure wasn't last year.
Atlanta Braves (85-77)
In what will be Bobby Cox's last year as manager, the Braves have no choice but to pull out all the punches this year in order to give him a proper sendoff. The team they plan to do that with is a well-balanced mix of veterans and youngsters.
Slotted to start in right field is mega-prospect Jason Heyward. This guy has been dubbed by scouts as "a cross between Willie McCovey and Ken Griffey, Jr." which honestly sounds like they just came up with the first two power-hitting left-handed black outfielders they could think of.
Don't you think it'd be fun to be a scout? I do. ("Fat Mexican third baseman? My god, he's the next Vinny Castilla!")
Comparisons aside, I do think Heyward will make a splash this year. Last year in the minors he hit .323 with 17 homers, and is finding his power without striking out a ton.
Another under-the-radar youngster to watch for is Martin Prado. While everyone's been going crazy over Braves prospects like Hanson and Heyward, Prado has quietly hit .311 over the last two seasons. The Braves only just realized he could hit, and started batting him second last June. Expect him to be a catalyst in the Braves' offense.
The question with the Braves is whether the young guys who step up can make up for the old guys who may have lost a step or two. Chipper Jones' batting average dropped a hundred points last year from the season before (kind of expected, as it's hard to go anywhere but down when you hit .364). Even if his average remains decent, it's a pretty safe bet that his power numbers are down for good.
The Braves may have a hard time producing runs this year, so perhaps a shift of Brian McCann up to the three spot could be in order.
And of course, one really has to worry about the bullpen. They sent their two best relievers from last year packing and replaced them with Billy Wagner (38 this year) and Takashi Saito (40). Both are injury prone, and if one goes down, they really don't have anyone else to go to.
Florida Marlins (84-78)
The Marlins have a very talented young team, for which the plan is to reach their peak in 2012 to coincide with the opening of their new ballpark. But don't count them out before then.
They are led by ace Josh Johnson, and a staff behind him that has shown flashes of greatness, but has yet to be consistent.
Ricky Nolasco, for instance, has unhittable stuff most of the time, but runs into trouble when the ball is put in play, a fact which I attribute mostly to defensive abominations like Dan Uggla playing behind him.
Anibal Sanchez has also missed playing time, and hasn't really found his groove yet. But if everything comes together, this squad could potentially be dangerous.
The lineup is unremarkable as a whole. There are spark plugs like Chris Coghlan to set the table, but since you can assume Uggla will be gone by the trade deadline, it lacks a real power threat. They have one coming through the farm system in Mike Stanton, but he won't be arriving for a year or two.
This year, an unexpected source of power may be third baseman Gaby Sanchez. He put up decent power numbers in the minors and has done well enough in spring training to earn the starting spot.
I don't expect the Marlins to be serious contenders, but they could surprise some people.
New York Mets (75-87)
Things do not look good for the Mets.
Jose Reyes getting injured again is a very bad omen for this club, who still have Carlos Beltran recovering from knee surgery, and Johan Santana trying to get comfortable with his recently operated on elbow. Though they all may find themselves later in the season, the Mets will get a very slow start, which will be hard to recover from.
David Wright also has last year's power outage to try and bounce back from. Here's a fun fact: Since getting hit in the head with a Matt Cain fastball, he's only hit .239.
Another couple problems with this team:
Rod Barajas as catcher, enough said.
Also, very inconsistent starting pitching behind Santana. Oliver Perez had a 6.82 ERA last year which the Mets should have rewarded with a one-way ticket back to Mexico. Instead, they gave him the No. 4 starter job this year.
I don't quite have the heart to move the Nationals out of the cellar yet, but don't let that mislead you, the Mets are a last-place caliber team.
Washington Nationals (70-92)
The Nats have a good start to a contending team now. In an effort to bring in some defense, they added Nyjer Morgan last year, who proceeded to hit .351 and steal 24 bases in 49 games out of the leadoff spot for them.
He'll be a mainstay, as will shortstop Ian Desmond, a solid on-base guy.
With those pieces in place, now it's just time to wait until their pitching staff comes around. Right now it's pretty much a Triple-A rotation.
The Nats were last in the league in all the following pitching categories last year: ERA (5.00), WHIP (1.52), Hits/9 (9.7), Walks/9 (4.0), and strikeouts. And the bullpen was a big part of the problem.
Guess who led the team in both appearances and cholesterol? The now 40-year-old Ron Villone, who will once again be an integral part of the team.
Give them credit, though, at least they're not pretending they're going to try and contend like some teams who know they have zero chance but blow money on free agents anyway (Royals, A's, etc.)
Now that I've analyzed the whole National League, I give you my pick to win the pennant: The St. Louis Cardinals.
Check back in the next few days for my American League breakdown. One division will be analyzed each day, concluded on Sunday with the AL East, just in time to see its two powerhouse teams duke it out on Opening Night.