National achievement: DC class of strong NL East
Better-balanced Braves well-positioned to challenge; veteran Phillies a dark horse
You could call it the Nationals League East.
Let's recap: Washington captured the division title last season. Led the Major Leagues with 98 wins. Improved, on paper at least, by adding right-hander Dan Haren to the rotation, Rafael Soriano to the bullpen and Denard Span to play center field. And, oh, by the way, the Nationals should have both ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg and 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Bryce Harper for the entire season.
As everyone knows, though, games aren't played on paper. Before the postseason invitations are passed out, there will be countless twists and turns that can't possibly be foreseen.
The Braves have averaged 90 wins a season since Frank Wren became their general manager prior to the 2008 season, and after adding outfielders B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, Wren thinks this is his best team yet.
"I don't see a big hole. We're in pretty good shape," he told reporters. "Just from seeing what these guys are capable of. It's by far the most athletic team, it has the most speed, is the most powerful, has the most balance. Now we've got to go play."
The Phillies have as many big names as anybody: Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Michael Young, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon. These are pedigreed players with histories of success. But they also raise legitimate questions about age and health.
"I still think we definitely know how to win games and we're going to find a way," said manager Charlie Manuel. "We're definitely going to stay there all year. We ain't going nowhere. We have a chance to have a big-time season."
Mets manager Terry Collins was asked early in Spring Training about his outfield situation. "Still searching," he said succinctly. That could end up being the theme for the season as the Mets bring back basically the same team that finished fourth last year and is now minus NL Cy Young Award winner and 20-game winner R.A. Dickey. The hope is to offset that with more innings from Shaun Marcum and Dillon Gee and improvement from Jonathan Niese and Matt Harvey and, if all goes well, the arrival of top prospect Zack Wheeler later in the season.
Three non-roster invitees -- relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Scott Atchison and outfielder Marlon Byrd -- are projected to make the Opening Day roster. That can be a difficult way to make a living in a division that's gotten better, at least at the top.
Everybody knows that the Marlins underwent an extreme makeover last season, but youth and enthusiasm can sometimes go a long way.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for everybody," said veteran Juan Pierre. "I think if everybody pulls together that we can actually have a good team. I know we're going to have to outwork guys. I know the young guys are working and eager to go."
With all that in mind, we polled our NL East beat reporters -- Mark Bowman (Braves), Anthony DiComo (Mets), Joe Frisaro (Marlins), Bill Ladson and Joey Nowak (Nationals) and Todd Zolecki (Phillies) -- and asked them to rate each team in four major categories and then slot them. Here's how they voted:
With the exception of Michael Morse, the Nationals return the same group that led the division in runs (731), home runs (194) and OPS (.750) last season. And it's not a stretch to suggest that shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa and even Harper can get better. The Braves lost Chipper Jones to retirement, Michael Bourn to free agency and Martin Prado in a trade with the Diamondbacks. But that deal brought Justin Upton from Arizona, and B.J. Upton was signed to take Bourn's spot. With that, a lineup that was heavily left-handed is more balanced. And that's important in a division in which the other top contenders are stacked with lefty starters: Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler for the Nats, and Hamels, Lee and John Lannan for the Phillies.
Our selection: Braves
Gonzalez won 21 games in 2012, made the All-Star team and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting ... and that's not good enough to be the Nationals' Opening Day starter. And Jordan Zimmermann, who had a 2.94 ERA, is listed third on the depth chart. Yes, Washington's starting pitching, topped by Strasburg, is that good. And Strasburg, free of the innings limit that led to him being shut down in September, is poised to have a breakout season. The Phillies signed 28-year-old Hamels to a six-year, $144 million contract, the third-largest deal ever for a pitcher at the time, and are counting on him and Lee to be elite starters. What could make the difference between whether the Phils have an excellent rotation or just a very good one is Halladay. The two-time Cy Young Award winner turns 36 in May and is coming off a season during which he was bothered by back and shoulder problems.
Our selection: Nationals
Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel is the only pitcher in Major League history to strike out at last half the batters he faced in a season. He whiffed 116 in 62 2/3 innings while allowing just 27 hits and 14 walks for a remarkable 0.65 WHIP. Along with lefties Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters, the Braves can shorten games. Pretty impressive. But consider the back end of the Nationals' bullpen: Drew Storen saved 43 games in 2011. Tyler Clippard saved 32 (in 37 opportunities) last season. And Rafael Soriano saved 42 for the Yankees before signing on to be the Nats' new closer. The Phillies lost 20 games in 2012 when they were tied or leading going into the eighth. So the addition of setup man Mike Adams could be one of the best under-the-radar signings of the winter and help get more games to Papelbon.
Our selection: Braves
The Braves led the NL in both fielding percentage (.986) and defensive efficiency ratio (.705), with the Nationals just one point behind in each category. In allowing Bourn to depart as a free agent and trading Prado, replacing them with the Upton brothers, Wren seemingly gave up some leather for more lumber. Still, Atlanta might have the best defensive outfield in baseball. Tight glove work was a hallmark of the Phillies while winning five straight division titles, a trait that was noticeably missing last season when they finished 81-81. Even though free-agent acquisition Young hasn't played third base full-time since 2010, he had a solid spring in the field, and a healthy Utley at second should improve the defense.
Our selection: Braves
Nationals. Despite being pounded by injuries, Washington became just the fifth team in modern big league history to improve by at least 10 games for three consecutive seasons. Can the Nats keep the streak alive? They'd have to win 108, but if they stay healthy, that doesn't seem impossible.
Braves. Atlanta added to an impressive foundation after winning 94 games in 2012 and may be the best team in baseball not favored to win its division. And if the rotation comes together, the Braves certainly have the ability to chase down the Nationals.
Phillies. The Phils have a lot of question marks -- Halladay, Howard, Young, Utley, both corner outfield spots -- but if things come together, there are still a lot of players on their roster who have proven they know how to win.
NEVER SAY NEVER
Mets, Marlins. New York still has David Wright. Miami still has Giancarlo Stanton. Both teams have some impressive talent coming through the system. If they can get off to a quick start and then push some of their prospects, anything's possible. Just ask the Orioles or Athletics.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.