The final division predictions of the spring.
I'll probably take my findings and do a post-season run through next Monday, with some post-season awards next Tuesday. Those are always fun to think about, though I don't think I've ever hit on anything with my picks.
So on with the National League East...and Mets fans, I warn you, it's not going to be pretty when you click on through.
Setting my expectations low worked with the Jets this year - I didn't expect much, and they way surpassed those expectations.
If possible, my expectations for the Mets this year are even lower. I just don't see how they can be even the fourth-best team in this division:
The Phillies are the cream of the crop. I'm not sure yet how they'll do in the post-season, but I'm not expecting the regular season to be anything less than a runaway. They're solid through the lineup, they're solid through the rotation - about their only question mark is Brad Lidge in the closer's spot...but I feel that Ryan Madson is ready to take over if Lidge shows any kind of flaw (or these injury problems persist). Even their biggest weakness is covered by a strength - their depth. I think the Phillies can take this division by ten or more games.
That's not to say the rest of the division is tremendously weak. I think the Braves are a serious wild card contender in the National League...I just think it shows how strong the Phillies are. The Braves have excellent, excellent pitching - don't undervalue the importance for them of having Tim Hudson back healthy for an entire season - and there's a good enough lineup to support the pitching. If Billy Wagner pitches as well as he did in the final couple of months last year after he came back from his injury, the Braves will also have one of the best closers in the league - if not all of baseball.
The Marlins are kind of a question mark - to be honest, I could see 3 through 5 in this division finishing in any order. But the Marlins are the only one of those three teams to have a shot at competing for the wild card. There are a lot of ifs, though. If their young pitchers live up to their potential. If their closer is effective. If their lineup produces consistently...and if clubhouse discontent involving Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez is settled or the team settles if Uggla is dealt. The Marlins, with much the same cast of characters last year as they'll have this year, managed to win 87 games (5 games out of the wild card). There's no reason that can't be expected to happen again. Except for all of the reasons I just mentioned.
The Nationals are finally on an upswing. I talked yesterday about the excitement Nyjer Morgan brings to the table. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn can provide power, and there's leadership in Ivan Rodriguez, who somehow conjures the best out of young pitching staffs. Veteran help on the staff comes from Jason Marquis and Chien-Mien Wang, due back around May. Management seems to be concerned about chemistry and production - not just having talent in the clubhouse - they released Elijah Dukes last week, clearing up some room in a crowded outfield. The Nationals won't be a contender this year - but they could be a contender in the near future...which is saying something for a much-maligned franchise.
And then there are the Mets. I watched them on Opening Day in their new ballpark last year - in what was supposed to be a super-charged exciting atmosphere - and I saw a team with no spark. Then injury after injury hit the team, and no one noticed the lack of spark because there were other excuses for the poor performances. Now, there is a chance that last year's embarrassment provides a spark that two late-season collapses didn't...but I doubt it. There's something wrong with this team's approach - and already the injuries are creeping in, so I'm not sure it will be seen this year either. Maybe a last-place finish will open the eyes that haven't seen it yet. Again, I'd love to be surprised if it turns out I'm wrong...but I fear I'm exactly right.
NL EAST NOTES
-Everything I read about the Phillies also mentions how much weight Charlie Manuel has lost. Must be significant...good for him, I guess.
-How about Jason Marquis' track record? He's played 10 seasons in the majors, and each team he has played for has made the post-season - 2000-2003 Braves, 2004-2006 Cardinals, 2007-2008 Cubs, and 2009 Rockies (all but last year were first-place division finishes, last year was a wild card). That's a streak that's likely to end this year with Washington.
-Finally, that's Marlins prospect Mike Stanton at left, in a picture scanned from my Sporting News Baseball Preview. He's doing what I think he's doing, right?
Now, I know this is a time-honored tradition in the 'boys will be boys' vein (Isn't there a valuable Billy Ripken baseball card in circulation that has him with a bat on his shoulder and an obscenity written on the bottom of the bat?), but I feel like if you're going to be flipping a middle finger in a picture that could very well (and did) make it to a national publication, you had better be more than a prospect...prove something first.
And then set a good example and don't do it. I find this disappointing.
Next Week: Post-season predictions