2011 MLB Preview: N.L. East

Are the Philadelphia Phillies going to run away with the National League East again, like everyone says? Anything's possible, but it says here they'll be challenged by the Atlanta Braves, with the Florida Marlins lurking as the potential dark horse in the race.

The Washington Nationals strike me as an organization that doesn't know what it wants to be. Not in 2011, anyway. How else to explain committing $126 million to right fielder Jayson Werth ... and at almost exactly the same moment -- we're talking geological time here -- going with Rick Ankiel instead of Roger Bernadina in center field? Yes, things will start to get interesting when Stephen Strasburg has recovered from Tommy John Surgery and Bryce Harper has graduated to the majors. Those guys, plus Ryan Zimmerman and perhaps second baseman Danny Espinosa, could be enough to push the Nationals to a winning record. But we're talking about 2012 at the absolute earliest.

What is there to say about the New York Mets that hasn't been already said? They might actually be decent. It really wasn't so long ago that David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran ranked among the very best players in the National League. Oh, not to mention Johan Santana. Well, Santana's out of action for a while but those other three guys will be in the Mets' Opening Day lineup. There just isn't enough talent around them, though. Particularly on the pitching side of the equation, where Santana's absence leaves the club with a patchwork rotation that will probably have more downs than ups.

Watch out for the Florida Marlins. Basically a .500 team a year ago, the Marlins should benefit from full seasons from youngsters Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, plus the considerable talents of Hanley Ramirez. They've also got a young and (mostly) talented pitching rotation, led by Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson. Trouble spots? Sure. They're obviously going to miss Dan Uggla, and we're still waiting for someone to explain why Chris Coghlan is the Marlins' new center fielder. Everything adds up to third place, but if you're looking for this year's 2010 Cincinnati Reds, the Marlins have to be somewhere on your list of candidates.

Perhaps there are too many questions the Atlanta Braves still have to answer. Can Chipper Jones, almost 39, come back strong from last summer's injury? Is rookie Freddie Freeman ready to thrive as the Braves' every-day first baseman? Can Martin Prado hit enough for a left fielder? Will Nate McLouth ever hit again? The Braves have a solid pitching staff but they're not likely to out-pitch the Phillies. Which means they'll have to out-hit them, and there are just too many question marks in the Braves' lineup to assume they'll do that. They definitely have a shot, though. And that shot gets a little less daunting with each day Chase Utley spends on the Disabled List.

Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies have The Great Pitching Rotation since pitching rotations were invented in 1893. But Jayson Werth is gone, Utley's just hoping to play again someday, and almost everybody in the lineup's on the wrong side of 30. Are the Phillies going to be good? Barring catastrophic injuries, of course they'll be good. But everyone seems to be assuming they will be great, and I'm just not seeing it. I'm seeing a team that might win 95 games if things go well or 85 if they don't, with around 90 the most likely outcome. And 90 wins puts them just a few breaks ahead of the Braves at the top of the division.

Projected National League East Standings

1. Phil. Phillies    90-72
2. Atlanta Braves    88-74
3. Florida Marlins   83-79
4. New York Mets     79-83
5. Wash. Nationals   69-93

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