Power Ranking the 25 Best Players in the NL East Entering 2012

Matt PowersCorrespondent IIDecember 12, 2011

Power Ranking the 25 Best Players in the NL East Entering 2012

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    After the Miami Marlins went on a three-player spending spree, you can make a strong case for the NL East being the second best division in the game just behind the AL East. With the Phillies and Braves remaining among the best teams in the game, plus a Marlins team capable of competing for a playoff spot and a talented, young Nationals team getting better it's hard to see any team struggling in 2012.

    With the NL East being such a good division, it only means that it is filled with some of the best players in the game from star shortstop Jose Reyes to ace Roy Halladay to young slugger Mike Stanton. This article ranks the top 25 players within the division.

    Trying to stick to players that have produced on the major league level, Nationals prospect Bryce Harper will not qualify for the list despite the fact he may earn a job with the big club out of spring training.

25. Jonny Venters

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    The Braves promoted lightly regarded prospect Jonny Venters in early 2010, hoping that the former starting pitcher could help in middle relief. Venters did more than help in middle relief, as he quickly began posting eye-popping numbers in high-leverage situations with his rubber-arm.

    Venters came into 2011 hoping to prove he wasn't a one-year wonder, and actually improved upon his numbers while earning an All-Star selection. Overall in his two seasons, Venters  has gone 10-6 with a 1.89 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 189 strikeouts in 171 innings.

    Due to this success, it's easy to call Venters one of the best setup men in the game, clearly proving that he belongs on the list of the top 25 players in the NL East.

24. Ryan Howard

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    This is a ranking that may surprise some people, but it's hard to rank Ryan Howard any higher. The fact that he is dealing with an Achilles injury that may jeopardize at least part of his season is a part of the reason, but not the only part.

    The other part is the fact that Howard has started to decline. From 2006 through 2009, Howard never hit less than 45 homers or drove in less than 136 runs in a season. However over the last two years he has averaged 32 homers and 112 runs batted in.

    The decline isn't unexpected as Howard is now 32 years-old and scouts were long worried about how his body would hold up. While he's not one of the game's elite players, he is still a threat in the middle of the lineup.

23. Mark Buehrle

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    After adding Jose Reyes to their lineup, the Marlins realized that they needed to upgrade their starting rotation. That caused them to go out and hand Mark Buehrle a four-year, $56 million contract. Buehrle, who has pitched only with the White Sox during his 12-year career, could potentially improve with the move to the National League.

    Buehrle is 161-119 with a 3.83 over his career, and has won at least 10 games in every one of the 11 seasons that he has spent in the White Sox rotation. He may not post big strikeouts, but he is a ground ball pitcher who knows how to pitch.

    Buehrle wasn't signed with the hope of him being the ace of the staff, but rather to slot in as the No. 2 guy behind ace Josh Johnson. His long record of success as well as some playoff experience should help a fairly young Marlins team.

22. Dan Uggla

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    About a year ago the Braves stole Dan Uggla away from the Marlins for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, and although he had his ups and downs, he still ranks among the best second basemen in the game. Uggla may have started extremely slow, but he rebounded in the second half to help carry the Braves offense at times.

    While Uggla's debut in Atlanta saw him post career low numbers with a .233 average and 82 runs batted in, he set a new career high with 36 homers. Most impressive was the fact that he was hitting .185 with 15 homers in 92 games before coming alive in the second half. Over the last 69 games of the year, he hit .296 with 21 homers and saw his OPS rise .327 points over his first half total.

    Uggla isn't an elite player as he doesn't usually hit for much of an average, he strikes out quite a bit and he isn't better than average on defense. Still, a second baseman who could hit 36 homers deserves a spot on this list.

21. Heath Bell

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    After saving 132 games over the last three seasons with the Padres, Heath Bell decided to move on as the team couldn't afford him. That led to Bell signing a three-year, $27 million contract with the Marlins, and becoming the first of the trio of new Marlins to sign.

    While Bell racked up an average of 44 saves over the last three seasons and made the All-Star team in each of those seasons, there are some questions. The biggest question is how well he will fare now that he is playing outside pitcher-friendly Petco Park. That's not the only question Bell must face, as the competition is much tougher in the NL East than it was in the NL West.

    The 34-year-old Bell could easily rank much higher on this list a year from now, but we need to see what he does in a park that won't give him as much help as Petco did.

20. Tim Hudson

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    After coming back from Tommy John Surgery in 2010, 36-year-old Tim Hudson have come back stronger than before with Atlanta. The former Oakland ace had taken a step back after being dealt to the Braves in 2005, but was still a solid pitcher.

    Hudson finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting in 2010, the year he returned from his surgery. He exceeded any reasonable expectations while posting a 17-9 record with a 2.83 ERA and pitching 228.2 innings. He took a step back this year, but still went 16-10 with a 3.22 ERA.

    The big-game pitcher and leader of the Braves staff has a career 181-97 record. He isn't the same pitcher who was a young star in Oakland, but he's a leader that his team can count on.

19. Tommy Hanson

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    Tommy Hanson, the young Atlanta star, would be ranked higher if it wasn't for questions on his health. Hanson spent the second half of last season dealing with shoulder pain, and may or may not be ready for spring training—depending on what rumor you choose to believe.

    When healthy, Hanson is among the best young pitchers in the league. The 25-year-old went 11-6 with a 3.60 ERA last season before an injury shut him down, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Before the pain started he was actually 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA.

    Hanson at full strength would rank in the top 10 players in the NL East, but since we don't know which Hanson we will see in 2012 it's hard to rank him higher.

18. Shane Victorino

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    To show you just how talented the NL East is, do-it-all center fielder Shane Victorino only ranks 18th among the top 25 players in the division. A true five-tool player, Victorino is a two-time All-Star already.

    In addition to playing strong defense in center field, over the last three years Victorino has posted some impressive numbers. He's hit as high as .292 with as many as 18 homers and as many as 34 steals in a season.

    Despite his production, Victorino doesn't get the credit he deserves because he's over-shadowed by some of his even more talented teammates such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels among others.

17. Jordan Zimmerman

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    Jordan Zimmerman was in a tough spot coming into the 2011 season. Not only was the 25-year-old facing his first full major league season, but he was doing it with an innings cap due to it being his first full season back from Tommy John Surgery.

    Without much notice, Zimmerman went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 26 starts. He also struck out 124 batters in 161.1 innings before the Nationals shut him down for the season as planned in order to limit his innings.

    Zimmerman is likely to get turned loose in 2012 and should team with Stephen Strasburg at the top of the Nationals rotation to be an excellent one-two punch.

16. Josh Johnson

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    The only reason Josh Johnson doesn't rank with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee is because of health questions. Similar to Tommy Hanson, Johnson is among the best pitchers in baseball, but is currently dealing with a shoulder injury that puts some question to his status.

    After a breakout 2010 season where he went 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA, Johnson was off to an even better season in 2011. Through nine starts he was 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA, but didn't pitch again due to shoulder pain.

    As good as the trio of new Marlins is, Johnson is the most important player. The 27-year-old needs to be healthy if the Marlins want to compete with the Braves and Phillies for a playoff spot next season. If he is healthy, he is a candidate to win 20 games.

15. Michael Bourn

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    The Braves acquired Michael Bourn from the Astros at the trading deadline for almost nothing. The Braves gave up a pair of back-end of the rotation starters as well as a reliever and the guy that Bourn replaced and landed a speedster who plays great defense.

    Bourn hit .294 last year and has led the National League in steals each of the past three seasons along with winning two Gold Glove Awards during that time frame. During those three seasons alone he has a total of 174 steals while averaging over 90 runs per season for an awful Houston club.

    Bourn is one of the best true leadoff hitters in the game capable of creating runs with his legs and also plays defense at a high level. He may have some limitations, but he's an exciting player capable of changing a game in multiple ways.

14. Mike Morse

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    One of the biggest breakout stars of 2011, Mike Morse has gone from utility player to star over the past two seasons. Heading into 2011, Morse was coming off a strong 2010 where he hit .289 with 15 homers in 266 at-bats. That caused fans to project him as a sleeper to have a big season in 2011.

    An injury to Adam LaRoche opened up an everyday job at first base for Morse, and he never looked back. In 146 games he hit .303 with 31 homers and 95 runs batted in. His .360 on-base percentage while splitting time between first and left field.

    Morse's big bat has really emerged from nowhere, but he may not have reached his peak. Morse will spend the 2012 season as a 30-year-old, and if he matches his 2011 numbers he will be an All-Star.

13. Jonathan Papelbon

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    When the Phillies decided to pursue Jonathan Papelbon and allow Ryan Madson to leave, they upgraded their closer. Before signing with the Phillies, Papelbon had spent his entire seven-year career with the Red Sox where he won two World Series titles.

    Papelbon saved 219 games over those seven seasons, and despite playing in the toughest division in baseball posted a strong 2.33 ERA. His 1.02 career WHIP and 12.2 strikeout per nine inning rate also show how good of a pitcher he really is.

    Papelbon's big game experience against the best competition could help make the difference for the Phillies.

12. Hanley Ramirez

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    Up until last season, Hanley Ramirez was the best shortstop in baseball despite some character concerns. An injury-riddled 2011 changed everything, as Ramirez was replaced by Jose Reyes in the Marlins lineup and now faces a future where he will either have his position changed or he gets traded.

    In his age 27 season, the year players usually put up some of their best numbers, the former battling champion hit only .243. Instead of hitting 30 homers or stealing 30 bases, he only managed 10 homers and 20 steals during 92 games.

    Hanley needs a bounce back season wherever he's playing, but if he becomes his old self he has hit as high as .348 in a season with career highs of 33 homers and 51 steals. His talent level is the only reason he stayed this high in the rankings instead of dropping even further.

11. Hunter Pence

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    Before being traded to the Phillies, Hunter Pence was already a two-time All-Star and middle of the order hitter. At the trading deadline he was hitting .308 with 11 homers and 62 runs batted in for the Astros in 100 games.

    After the trade Pence really broke out and over his 54 games in Philadelphia he posted video game-like numbers. Along with his 11 homers and 35 runs batted in, Pence hit .324. He was a big part of why the Phillies were able to run away with the NL East.

    Pence's big numbers over his career are impressive, but he may have just begun. Pence's big numbers with Houston could really go up in Philadelphia with a better lineup around him and playing in a hitter-friendly park.

10. Brian McCann

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    Brian McCann is about to turn 28 years old before the start of the 2012 season. That makes the fact that he has already been named to six consecutive National League All-Star teams as a catcher even more impressive.

    It's always great to get consistent production from your catcher, and McCann has been the definition of consistent throughout his career. In addition to being a clutch performer, McCann is a .286 hitter with at least 20 homers in each of the last six seasons other than his second season when he ended up with only 18.

    McCann is among the best catchers in the game and one of the faces of the Braves franchise as a local kid turned star.

9. Ryan Zimmerman

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    When people think of the best third basemen in the game, they usually pass over Ryan Zimmerman because he puts up his numbers quietly in Washington. What they forget is that he's among the most well-rounded players at the hot corner, similar to David Wright.

    Zimmerman had a rough year in 2011 because of injuries, but he still put up a solid line of .289 with 12 homers and 49 runs batted in. Zimmerman is usually capable of hitting near .300 with close to 30 homers and a very high on-base percentage. That still doesn't mention his defense- the best part of his game.

    Zimmerman was actually drafted for his defense, but has emerged as a very good hitter as well. So despite the fact that he doesn't get much national attention, he deserves a spot within the top 10 players in the NL East.

8. Mike Stanton

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    When the Marlins brought up Mike Stanton from Double-A in mid-2010, they were hoping that the kid with an 80 grade for power on the 20-80 scouting scale would be able to hit enough to not look bad. Not that the Marlins didn't have confidence in him, but rather because he was a 20-year-old prone to racking up strikeouts.

    Stanton ended up doing more than expected during his rookie season, as he hit .259 with 22 homers in 100 games. After putting up extremely impressive numbers as a rookie, fans were predicting Stanton would break the 30 home run mark in 2011. After an injury forced him to miss most of spring training as well as a bunch of games in the first two weeks of the season, fans expectations went down.

    Still the 21-year-old hit .262 with 34 homers and 87 runs batted in, and looked like the future superstar that scouts projected. Stanton's future potential is off the charts, and although he isn't there yet he is still one of the best young players in baseball. 

7. Stephen Strasburg

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    The most hyped pitching prospect ever reached the major leagues a year after he was drafted following a dominating stint across multiple levels in the minor leagues. Stephen Strasburg made his major league debut in June of 2010 and quickly became the talk of baseball with writers and fans thinking he deserved a shot at becoming an All-Star despite only having a handful of starts under his belt.

    Strasburg was living up to the hype as he was 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over the course of his first 12 starts. Most impressive was the 92 strikeouts in 68 innings, very high numbers for a starter. Then just as quickly as he had reached the top, disaster struck and he required Tommy John Surgery.

    Strasburg returned from his surgery late in 2011, similar to Jordan Zimmerman's path in 2010. Strasburg went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in the five starts he made, and struck out 24 batters in 24 innings. Especially impressive as he was still re-gaining his stuff following the surgery.

    Strasburg's 2012 will be similar to Zimmerman's 2011 in terms of the strict pitch counts and innings cap, but he appears to be back to full strength. Considering he's 6-4 with a 2.54 ERA in his first 17 career starts, it's a good bet that we see some of his dominance return.

6. Cole Hamels

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    Sometimes casual fans forget about Cole Hamels presence on the Philadelphia Phillies. Sitting behind Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and in front of rookie sensation Vance Worley, Hamels was occasionally looked over despite being the best No. 3 starter in baseball.

    All Hamels did this year was go 14-9 with a 2.74 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in addition to falling just six strikeouts away from back to back 200 strikeout seasons. The left hander is 74-54 over his seven year career, and seems to have rebounded well from a weak 2009- something that may be attributed to a deep workload in the regular season and playoffs in 2008 as a 24-year-old.

    It's hard to believe that a guy this good could ever be overlooked, and that the team's third starter finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting this season. Hamels, who will be 28 years old next season, is a strong candidate to lead the Phillies' rotation for the next five to 10 years.

5. Craig Kimbrel

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    When the Braves decided to select Craig Kimbrel in the third round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of his Alabama junior college, they did so with the intent of leaving him as a closer. Kimbrel had electric stuff, but major control issues.

    After rising through the minors quickly, Kimbrel finally made his major league debut in 2010. He went 4-0 with one save and a 0.44 ERA, but the most impressive number was the 40 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. Not only did Kimbrel have a successful debut, but he was able to learn from Billy Wagner, a potential Hall of Fame closer with similarly electric stuff and a similar sub-6'0" height.

    The lessens Kimbrel learned from Wagner were evident in 2011, as Kimbrel became the best closer in the National League. His 4-3 record and 2.10 ERA only tell part of the story, as does his 127 strikeouts in 77 innings. The most impressive part of his Rookie of the Year Award winning season is that he sliced his walks per nine innings rate from 7.0 to 3.7.

    Kimbrel is among the top five closers in the game already, even though he won't be 24 years old until May. If you have any doubts, take a closer look at his 2011 numbers—numbers that were even more dominant until a pair of blown saves at the end of the year likely due to his young arm being over-worked. 

4. David Wright

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    When people think of the best third baseman in baseball, David Wright's name is usually one of the first mentioned in the conversation. The reason for that is because he is a five-tool player at the hot corner, something that doesn't happen too often.

    While he battled injuries in 2011 and had a down year, Wright is a career .300 hitter with a .380 on-base percentage who has a pair of 30 homer seasons in addition to averaging over 100 runs batted in and over 20 steals per year. That doesn't even include his two Gold Glove Awards, a major accomplishment when Scott Rolen and Ryan Zimmerman also play third base in the National League.

    The 28-year-old Wright is among the most well-rounded players in the game regardless of position. He may struggle a little in 2012 because of the lack of talent around him, especially now that Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan have recently moved on, but he's still one of the best players in the game.

3. Cliff Lee

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    When Cliff Lee hit the open market following the 2010 season, the Phillies decided to jump all over him. The talented lefty wasn't just one of the best pitchers in the game, but he was successful with the team during his previous stint in 2009. In fact it was Lee's performance in the playoffs that helped the Phillies reach the World Series that year.

    Lee's first season back in Philly couldn't have gone much better for him, as he went 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA as well as a career high 240 strikeouts. Prior to this season, Lee's career high in strikeouts was only 185. Overall the season was good enough to rank him third in the voting for the Cy Young Award.

    Lee is among the top 10 pitchers in the game, which means that you can make an argument for him being the top No. 2 pitcher in the league.

2. Jose Reyes

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    Jose Reyes, the Marlins' new shortstop signed as a free agent away from the Mets, is one of the best players in the game when healthy. Reyes had spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Mets, but will now be taking on his former employer from within the division.

    Reyes' final season with the Mets couldn't have gone any better. His .337 batting average won him his first batting title and he also led the league with his 16 triples. Add in the rest of his numbers—seven homers, 44 runs batted in and 39 steals, and you see what a difference maker he is at the top of a lineup.

    Reyes needs to stay healthy and not have his hamstring problems flare up again if he's going to earn his new $100 million deal.

1. Roy Halladay

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    Since coming to Philadelphia, Roy Halladay has been every bit as good as expected. In addition to winning a Cy Young Award in 2010, a no-hitter in the 2010 playoffs and a perfect game he has compiled a 40-16 record over the last two years. In fact the only reason he didn't win a second Cy Young Award is because Clayton Kershaw had a spectacular season.

    Halladay has been strong throughout his career despite spending it playing in the two toughest divisions in baseball and now playing his home games in a very hitter-friendly park. As is that isn't enough, he is 3-2 with a 2.37 ERA in five playoff starts with the Phillies, showing his big-game ability.

    Right now there isn't a pitcher I'd rather have for 2012 as his combination of success and long-term durability is un-matched among the top pitchers in the game.