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PN Writers Roundtable: National League East

This is the Phillies Nation Writers Roundtable. Every so often, we’ll come up with a topic we’d all like to address and post our opinions on it.  Here’s today’s question:

Q: The Phillies play the Mets, Marlins, and Braves this week. The Braves were looked at as the 2nd best team in the NL East before the season started but haven’t quite lived up to that hype. The Marlins are who they are. The Mets are the bottom feeder right now, but have had an up and down season. Who out of these three teams (sort of excluding the Nats) do you believe will give the Phillies the closest race in the NL East and why?

Mike Baumann: At the beginning of the season, I was as high on the Braves as anyone, and despite their early-season stumbles, I remain most afraid of Atlanta. Honestly, Hanley Ramirez appears to have checked out in Miami, which can’t help their chances, and the Mets, despite an early hot start, have lapsed back into Omar Minaya’s Flying Circus. In Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson, the Braves have perhaps the two best young players in the division, and they’ve climbed back into second place over the weekend despite age finally catching up with Derek Lowe and Nate McLouth having the worst eight weeks of his life.

Also, I know the Phillies aren’t playing the Nationals this week, but don’t sleep on Washington. They’re only half a game back of the Braves, and with Stephen Strasburg due to come up within the next month or so, and these rumblings of Roy Oswalt packing his bags and heading east, they could have the juice to stay around the middle of the pack at least. Now, Pudge Rodriguez is hitting .325 and Livan Hernandez has a 1.62 ERA despite a K/9 of about 3 and a K/BB ratio of 1, so some regression is to be expected. Coolstandings gives Washington about one chance in 12 to make the playoffs, which I think is about right, but until they actually fall off the pace, let’s give them some respect.

Amanda Orr: Entering Sunday, the Marlins were 11th in baseball in overall ERA. However, they have a better rotation than the Mets and Braves. However, their bullpen is a little worrisome. Leo Nunez has been a solid closer, but they don’t really have anybody other than him.

Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla can get the job done offensively. Chris Coghlan hit a sophomore slump, and Cameron Maybin has yet to play to his potential, but you have to like the Florida offense. However, I think the Mets have more offensive potential than the Marlins.

The Mets are last of the four teams in runs scored, but with players like Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Jason Bay, you’d have to imagine that they will snap out of the funk. The thing that will hold the Mets back is their pitching. Entering Sunday, the Mets were 8th in the majors in ERA, but they’ve had all kinds of problems, from injuries to moving Oliver Perez to the bullpen. Johan Santana hasn’t been “the best pitcher in the NL East” as he proclaimed, but you’d have to figure he’ll come around. Pitching is not something the Mets can rely on right now.

The Braves have yet to play to their expectations, but they still can’t be counted out. Every pitcher hates facing Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, and Jason Heyward is finding his way onto that list. The Braves have the better bullpen of all the teams in the National League, but other than Tommy Hanson, they haven’t gotten much from their starting rotation.

Of course, you have the Nationals who can’t be counted out. They’ve been streaky, but I don’t see them contending this year. Much improved? Absolutely. So, after all this, I think I’m going to have to go with the Marlins, but it is very close. They have the NL East’s best rotation, plus a solid offense.

Paul Boye: It may have taken a little longer than some of us expected it to, but the Phils’ main competitors in the East have all started to show the chinks in their armor. Well, the Phils have, too, but that’s a totally different argument for another time.

If I had to pick a team that I think will be within, say, seven games of the Phils come late September, I’d go with (surprise!) the Mets. In the pre-season, I felt the Mets were leaps away from competing for a wild card spot, much less the division. Even now, I still don’t see them as being a better team than the Phillies, but in a division full of flawed teams, the Mets would appear to be the second-least flawed, standing the best chance of playing the rest of this season competitively.

The Met pitching staff is a sieve right now, as a lot of people thought it would be, but I can see a deadline deal (for a Roy Oswalt, maybe? A Jon Papelbon, if the cards fall right?) that will bolster their staff and put the Mets in a solid second place. Don’t sleep on Carlos Beltran, either. He should come back healthy sometime in June, and his bat will strengthen the offense considerably.

Again, none should pose a serious threat to a healthy Phillies team. But the Mets could be luring more than a few to sleep.

Corey Seidman: 1) Braves – Entering the season, I was one of the few that criticized the makeup of the Braves’ roster. Everyone was gaga over Atlanta’s pitching staff but I didn’t see it. People spewed nonsense like “Kenshin Kawakami is the best fifth starter in baseball,” even though the guy had absolutely no track record of sustained success. As we’ve seen this year, he’s nothing special.

In addition, I cited Derek Lowe’s decline as a must-be-examined aspect of the Braves’ rotation. Lowe was awful last year and has been awful this year. He’s a sinkerballer giving up fewer groundballs and walking too many. So far this year, Lowe has been Kyle Kendrick, just with so much run support that he sports a deceiving 6-4 record. (In the interest of accountability, I must note here that I didn’t think Tim Hudson could be relied on heavily, but he’s surpassed my forecast and has been nothing short of brilliant.)

2) Marlins – The Marlins do this every year. They have a powerful, extremely inconsistent offense, a rotation anchored by two underrated aces, but the rest of the rotation and the bullpen leaves a lot to be desired. The offense places too much importance on the home run, so when guys go through power droughts, the team blows. As currently assembled, the Marlins are, at best, an 84-78 team.

3) Mets – Carlos Beltran will likely never again be the player he was. Some highly reputable sources have hypothesized that Beltran’s range will be so limited upon his return, that he will only be able to play left field, removing a huge part of his value. Jose Reyes is adding very little to the team and pitchers have learned how to pitch to David Wright in crucial spots. The rotation is a disaster and the bullpen is already incredibly overworked. The 2010 Mets are a 75-78 win team.

So far as who is the biggest threat to the Phillies, it’s the Braves, a team that still has its top players underperforming despite a quiet winning streak that brought the team back into contention.

Nick “The Beerman” Staskin: Atlanta rebounded from a rough two week stretch to climb back into second place, but I don’t think they have the rotation depth that was thought to be there in the preseason. Aside from Jason Heyward, there isn’t a bat in the lineup that puts any fear into opposing managers. Chipper Jones is finished, Nate McLouth is overrated and it seems that Yunel Escobar healthy or not, just doesn’t have the mindset to be a star.

The two teams who worry me, and its not exactly a pooping the bed kind of worry, are the Nationals and the Mets. Both seem willing to open the purse strings to bring in the star power needed to make the wildcard. Stephen Strausburg is only a phone call away for Washington, and as long as Matt Capps is reliable at the back end of the bullpen they have to at least be considered as a long shot.

As for the Mets, you have to figure that Jose Reyes is going to start hitting and eventually some of Jason Bay’s fly balls will land over the fence. They did just take two of three from the Yankes, and have some pieces there to contend. Johan Santana is still Johan Santana, easily one of the top ten if not top five pitchers in baseball. If Omar Minaya can find a way to pair him with Roy Oswalt thats a nice one-two punch.

But when all is said and done, I really don’t see anyway the Phillies don’t win the NL East by at least seven games. Considering all the injury problems the Phils have had through the first two months of the season, they are still the top team in the National League, and they are only going at about 75% right now.

Pat Gallen: I chose the Braves in our season preview and I’ll stick with that (for now). Their offense scares no one (except for the great Jason Heyward, who is a star) and their pitching is shaky beyond Hudson and Hanson. I still think they have enough to make a run, however.

The Marlins have always scared me because they play like they have nothing to lose, even though they aren’t as talented. If they could find a third pitcher to step in and give them stability, they could be a force. But so far that hasn’t happened. Toss in the Hanley drama…

The Mets are the Mets. Relatively bad pitching beyond Santana/Pelfrey and a lineup that doesn’t have the makeup of a team that will make any sustained run. Carlos Beltran’s impending return means very little at this point. I still see the Mets as a 4th place team.

So for now, I’ll stick with the Braves as the team to stick closest to the Phillies this season, although I’ll have to see more from their offense and the staff behind the two aces.

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