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Baseball Nation previews the NL East

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Fans enjoy a matinee at Marlins Park - Credit -
Fans enjoy a matinee at Marlins Park - Credit -

Grant Brisbee: Alright, the NL East. Before we get started, it's worth pointing out that on June 1 last year, all five teams were within 2.5 games of first. The Marlins and Mets were tied for second with a .558 winning percentage. Do you think we'll see that kind of parity again? Also, please note that I stopped paying attention to baseball in June last year, so I have no idea what eventually happened.

Rob Neyer: I think the Braves won the World Series. Not sure. But this year, it seems like everybody's saying exactly the same thing will happen this year as what happened last year. So let me check ... Oh, right. Nationals, best record in the majors. Braves, Wild Card. Phillies, old and injured. Mets, boring except for Johan Santana's sketch no-hitter and David Wright. Marlins, humorous on many levels.

So here's what I can't figure out ... Why would anything be different this year?

Grant: We'll start with the Phillies, because I've never seen a quicker turn from juggernaut to punchline. In July, 2011, the question wasn't if they'd win more than 100 games, it was how many more? In July, 2012, they were an iron lung of a team counting on Kevin Frandsen to be their bright spot. I don't think we've taken enough time to look back and express the proper amount of WTFs. Which is why they would be my sleeper pick in 2013 ... if I had any confidence at all in Roy Halladay.

Rob: Today I was watching ESPN. They weren't showing Halladay's outing, but were cutting in occasionally. Everybody on the TV seems to think he'll be just fine, any day now. I'm not convinced. Seems like he's at least a few weeks away from becoming the Roy Halladay we used to know and love. Sure, if Halladay and Cliff Lee both pitch like they pitched in 2011, that's a real good start toward 90 wins. You know, considering that Cole Hamels is right there with them. But the lineup isn't anything special unless everyone's healthy all season and Michael Young finds his hitting shoes. I do like Ben Revere in center field.

Grant: It looks like I probably overreacted to the Delmon Young signing, seeing as he hasn't even taken a swing yet in the Grapefruit League, and I'm quasi-optimistic about Domonic Brown. And, for that matter, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. I've seen quite a few projections that peg the Phillies at .500, which seems about right. Because a .500 team is just a couple of unexpected performances from 90 wins or 90 losses, right? If Halladay is half as good as he was in 2011 -- which would be about a four-win pitcher -- I'd take the over on the Phillies.

They're certainly not a bad team, not like the Marlins, who are every bit as Astros as people think the Astros are. The glimmers of hope are Giancarlo Stanton and ... okay, so the glimmer of hope is Giancarlo Stanton, and the rest of the team looks like a GM that forgot to pre-rank his auto-draft on Yahoo!. Placido Polanco? Juan Pierre? And while Donovan Solano hit well last year, there is absolutely nothing in his minor-league history that suggests he can do it again. It's probably not smart to pick a 100-loss team -- too much can happen -- but the Marlins will come the closest in the NL.

Rob: What, no love for Justin Ruggiano? Seriously, this collection of talent could challenge the Astros for the worst record in the majors. Because once you get past Stanton there's just not much there, and that extends to the pitching staff as well. One of the more interesting questions entering the season is just how few people will show up to watch the Marlins in their new ballpark. Florida baseball ... sheesh.

There's not much to like about the Mets, either, considering they traded the reigning Cy Young Award winner. On the other hand, they do have some interesting young pitchers, one of whom might actually pan out this season. David Wright's real good and Ike Davis used to be real good, but otherwise ... I don't see this team losing 90 games, but that's more likely than winning 90.

Grant: I have a hard time believing that outfield is a real thing. Lucas Duda isn't an outfielder. I don't know why he hasn't been flipped to an interested AL team. It's not like the Mets are going to part with Ike Davis to make room for him, so what could possibly be the holdup? And then there's a reanimated Marlon Byrd at one of the corners, and Jordany Valdespin in center? Kirk Nieuwenhuis? Colin Cowgill? I have no idea.

But we could also look up in August, and see them rattling off a 20-win month behind Jon Niese, Matt Harvey, and Zack Wheeler. I like Tejada and Wright, of course, so it's not like they're an awful team. I just can't get over the outfield. It's like Sandy Alderson had six months to study for a test, and now we're living in a dream where he shows up to school in his underwear.

Rob: Or less. In mine, I've got a t-shirt but nothing else at all. Highly unsettling!

Grant: Good god.

Rob: Anyway, now we're down to the Nationals and Braves (again). And it's widely assumed that the same team that led the majors in wins last year will lead the majors in wins this year. Which does not, I'm sorry to report, happen real often. But you know, it's really hard to find any chinks in the armor. A full season from Bryce Harper, a full season from Stephen Strasburg, a full season from Jayson Werth ... seems like more from those guys is enough to make up for the inevitable issues elsewhere. And if there's one reason to think the Nationals won't play as well this season, it's that their starting pitchers were exceptionally healthy last season, with Strasburg the only one who missed any real time. Oh, and the bullpen was incredible, which probably doesn't happen again. Not as much, anyway.

I'd like to choose another favorite. I just don't see a good reason to do it.

Grant: Right. The epiphany this offseason came when they gave Rafael Soriano far, far too much money. The first instinct as an Internet Baseball Warrior is to rail against something like that. Billion-dollar relievers are never a good idea, unless, well, if the team doesn't have another hole to fill, I guess ... and that's exactly what happened. The Nationals didn't have anywhere to put the money. They couldn't put it toward the draft, they couldn't put it toward 16-year-olds in the Dominican ... I guess they could have started a slush fund for the next big Japanese or Cuban free agent, but now we're in hypothetical crazy town. They had money, and they had a way to make the team better.

They were also so deep, they could trade Mike Morse for a prospect as if they were the Astros, and no one blinked.

Rob: Yeah, it was a weird off-season, but you're right: What else were they gonna do? We haven't mentioned Dan Haren, but if healthy he should give them at least what they got from Edwin Jackson. There just aren't any real weak spots here, although I suppose there's always a chance that the middle infielders won't hit much. Small concern, really.

So we like the Nationals to win another division title. Do we like the Braves to win another wild card?

Grant: Conventional wisdom suggests the Giants/Dodgers/Reds/Cardinals/Nats/Braves will be fighting for the five playoff spots, and you know that some jerk team not listed will come up and knock one of the expected teams out. So it's not just a matter of wondering if the Braves are good enough to win a wild card; of course they are. But are they so much better than any two-team combination you can make out of of Giantsodgers/Reds/Cardinals that you'll pencil them in for another wild card? Nope. If you're asking me over a trap door, I'll probably take the Cardinals as the first WC and the Braves as the second, but the second WC is a precarious place to be.

I can't help but wonder if we're overrating the lineup because of the big outfield pickups. Starting with B.J. Upton hitting #5, there are a lot of spots where the Braves could get some .300/.310 kinds of on-base contributions. And when you wonder if the pitching would bail that out, it's not like Mike Minor and Paul Maholm are bad -- heck, they're pretty okay -- but it's not a rotation that has a big margin of error if things to go their way offensively.

And looks like Johan Santana's career is over. Goodness.

Rob: Well, maybe not over. But he's in for a hell of a detour, sounds like. Not that we were really expecting great things this season from him. But it's still a kick in the pants. I wonder if the story will always be that the no-hitter cost him his career. Anyway, about the Braves ...

Those are good points you make, Sir Grantland of Brisbee. Also Chipper's gone. You gotta love the Andrelton Simmons upgrade at shortstop, but the Braves' playoff chances might hinge on Brian McCann, who's gone from one of the game's best catchers to an afterthought in what seems like the blink of an eye. Jonny Venters is out, Jordan Walden's questionable, and so once you get past Kimbrel and O'Flaherty the bullpen's loaded with no-names. I like the Braves but you're right: They're just one of four or five teams looking for a wild card (you left out the Diamondbacks).

Grant: I left out the Diamondbacks because my man-crush Adam Eaton is hurt. Sigh.

I'll trust the Braves to build a bullpen out of sticks and mud if they need to, so that's not a huge concern, but you're right about McCann. He's still young (29), and last year was the first full season of his career where he didn't make the All-Star team. So raise a glass to medical science and hope they can fix whatever's wrong with his shoulder. I think they can ... but that's just because I hope they can as a baseball fan who liked watching him hit.

Rob: I'll let you run our projected standings, since it's pretty clear that we agree about everything. So boring!

Grant: On a scale of 1-to-10, how surprising would it be if the standings were anything different from:

1. Nationals
2. Braves
3. Phillies
4. Mets
5. Marlins

I'd guess 6, if only because it wouldn't take too many funny things to flip the Nats and Braves, or the Phillies and Braves for that matter. But, yeah, this isn't exactly a permutation you have to spend too much time on. Maybe there are some Braves partisans who would feel differently, but ...

Rob: Maybe not even 6, because baseball's funny that way. The Marlins might be a little better or luckier than the Mets, etc. But I gotta think this is easily the easiest division to predict, at least before the season.

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