The Phillies have the largest back target in baseball, and don’t overlook the teams of the National League East as sufficient arrow slingers. Here’s a look at the division, and the topics those teams are touting as they head into camp.
Nationals: Dunn’s arrival signals renewed hope for Nats
Last year the Nationals were baseball’s worst team, but they certainly played the Phillies like a challenger. Still, the 2009 Nationals have a long way to go. Adding Adam Dunn as offensive centerpiece helps, but there are too many holes for Washington to fix. Currently they have unproven Joel Hanrahan as closer, a suspect rotation (even moreso with Tim Redding in New York) and question marks in the offense. (Mainly, can Ryan Zimmerman finally break the glass ceiling and join David Wright, Hanley Ramirez, Chipper Jones and Chase Utley in the NL East infield first tier?) Don’t expect a 35-40-game turnaround from the Nats, but be cautious about this scrappy group.
Braves: New staff will energize team in ’09
It’s never good to take the Braves lightly. Sure the Phils owned Atlanta in 2009 (their wins at Turner Field allowed for some glad respite in crucial times), but as long as Bobby Cox is manager the Braves will grab headlines. The ’09 version brings Derek Lowe in as ace, backed by Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami and the steady Javier Vazquez. They’ll join young and fiery Jair Jurrjens and an unknown quotient on the rotation. With the usual suspects in the field, this team is still capable of challenging for the division. While it’s not likely they’ll beat the Phillies, they’ll absolutely provide more fits than in 2008.
Marlins: Young pitching should keep Florida contending
In a Q&A with Fish Stripes last year, I asked if the Fish could contend in 2009; blogger Craig Strain told me it wasn’t likely, but the team had a nucleus that could formalize into a contender. The Fish gave it a run in ’09, battling the Phillies for first place until the stretch. They return much of the same team, especially in the rotation, which seems to give the Phils fits each year. Example No. 1 Ricky Nolasco, 26, is a trendy darkhorse pick for Cy Young. It’s likely that anchored by Nolaco, the staff will keep the Fish in the running again in 2009. Don’t sleep on them.
Mets: World Series or bust
The Mets’ major offseason goal was to improve the bad bullpen. They did, adding Francisco Rodriguez to close games and JJ Putz to set him up. Pedro Feliciano and Duaner Sanchez will fall into more comfortable roles as middle relievers, while emerging Brian Stokes should be in the mix, as well. Otherwise the Mets made no splashes, keeping its offense static while bringing back Oliver Perez for the rotation. That’s okay, however, as the New York offense was second in the NL, and Johan Santana, John Maine and Mike Pelfrey comprised a solid 1-2-3. All signs point to another thrilling year at the top of the NL East, with the winner in the driver’s seat for a world championship.