The Atlanta Braves have long been the powerhouse of the National League East, now having won twelve straight division titles dating back to 1995. Though the names on the Braves roster have changed, their successful ways have not.
General manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox have been the reason for the accomplishments. Early during their run the Braves had the money to go out and get marquee free agents, but in recent years their budget has gotten considerably smaller. Despite that, they continue to bring in players through free agency and, most notably, through trade. One of the most prominent trades during this past off-season was the deal that brought them Tim Hudson from Oakland in exchange for pitchers Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer, and outfielder Charles Thomas.
The addition of Hudson rounded out an extremely strong rotation that already includes John Thomson, Mike Hampton, and, of course the return of John Smoltz to a starting role. You would presume that the bullpen might now be a weakness for the Braves since Smoltz has shifted responsibilities, but the club acquired former Milwaukee Brewers closer Danny Kolb via trade and has looked strong this spring. Kolb earned his first All-Star invitation last year after compiling 39 saves and posting a 2.98 ERA in 57.1 innings.
Though few will question their pitching staff, there are, however, a few question marks when it comes to their corner outfielders. Thirty-eight-year-old Brian Jordan was inked to a one-year contract worth $600,000 after coming off two seasons in which he has played a combined 127 games (including only sixty-one last year and a horrendous stat line of .222/.275/.638).
Raul Mondesi is not as much of a question mark when it comes to health, but has been plagued by attitude problems over the last few seasons. He played in a career low 34 games in 2004, splitting time between both Pittsburgh and Anaheim. Raul can consistently hit 25 homers and drive in 80+ when he has mind in the right spot, but his batting average has been inconsistent and he could be penciled in within the .275-.285 range.
The Braves continue to have two of the best duos in the game with Andruw Jones in center and All Star third basemen Chipper Jones at the hot corner. They return with young catcher in Johnny Estrada, who had an offensive explosion last year.
New York Mets
The Mets have been the biggest spender in the East over the last few seasons, but they haven't appeared in the playoffs since the 2000 season when they reached the World Series and lost to the Yankees. Despite all of the spending they do, they don't have much to show for it.
Art Howe was brought in to replace Bobby Valentine and was fired last year after just two seasons as the skipper. This year, new manager Willie Randolph and general manager Omar Minaya hope to propel them back into the playoffs. They certainly have helped their cause with the additions of both Carlos Beltran, one of the highest regarded free agents on the market this year, and the declining yet still effective Pedro Martinez.
Beltran will add speed, power, clutch hitting, and above-average defense and while it is widely known that Pedro has been declining the last few years, he will still be a solid starter barring any injuries. One of the biggest question marks for the Mets is their pitching staff in general.
Tom Glavine isn't getting any younger and you have to question Minaya's logic when he issued Kris Benson a three-year, $22.5 million deal. This is a pitcher who has a career record of just 47-53 and 4.28 ERA and only one complete game over the last three seasons. Victor Zambrano is the only returning starting pitcher to post more wins than loses during 2004. Both he and the newly acquired Kazuhisa Ishii have had enormous control problems over the last few seasons, but Met brass has a ton of confidence in the abilities of pitching coach Rick Peterson to redefine their mechanics.
They do, however, have a strong infield that includes youngsters Jose Reyes, who has been plagued by leg injuries, and David Wright, a phenomenal all-around third basemen. Don't expect too many errors from Reyes, Wright, and Kazuo Matsui following the addition of Doug Mientkiewicz, who is recognized as one of the best defensive first basemen in the game.
The Nationals will open up their season against the Phillies in Citizens Bank Ballpark. Livan Hernandez will probably be the anchor once again, although Esteban Loaiza would like to prove that he can have another season like 2003 when he went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA.
Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen will make their outfield a solid and productive one. Although people question Guillen's maturity, I think it could have been answered after he checked himself into an anger management program during the off-season.
They still have the worst offense in the National League East despite their upgrades of both Vinny Castilla (who saw his stats severely inflated because he was playing at Coors Field with the Rockies) and infielder Cristian Guzman. Nick Johnson, who could be the key to the entire team, will make an attempt to play a full season without injuries and if he can do that then he could turn into a consistent and solid first basemen.
The Marlins could very well win the National League East this year because there's no question that their lineup is a scary one. Take a look at the names: Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, and Carlos Delgado. At just twenty-two-years-old Miguel Cabrera is already an excellent player and will only improve.
Even though the lineup may be on their biggest strengths, their pitching can be their biggest weakness. A.J. Burnett is coming back from Tommy John surgery and Josh Beckett had a rough 2004 after having a brilliant World Series performance two seasons ago. They lost an anchor in the bullpen in Armando Benitez but Guillermo Mota will try to take that role over. That leads me to something else. Mota has been in the set-up role his whole career and now will he be able to handle the pressure of being a closer?
The Phillies are one of the bigger spenders in the major leagues and have been one of the biggest blunders as well. Their lineup includes a lot of power in the heart of the order and a lot of speed in the middle, but also contains a load of strikeouts.
The Phillies have to limit their strikeouts and start to hit at a higher efficiency with runners in scoring position. If their rotation is healthy, there's no question it can be solid. Jon Lieber was brought in on a three-year contract to anchor the staff for at least this year. Cory Lidle, who did a solid job for the Phillies after being acquired from the Reds, was re-signed to a two-year deal.
Vicente Padilla, Randy Wolf, and Brett Myers round out the rotation with phenom Gavin Floyd waiting in Triple-A. Padilla and Wolf will both be entering the season coming off of arm troubles that limited their starts and effectiveness last year. Brett Myers had run-ins with the former pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and many hope that Rich Dubee can help him in having a plus .500 record and a sub 4.00 ERA.
Citizens Bank Ballpark could be a weakness for the Phillies pitching staff and a strength for the hitters. It is widely known as a hitter's park where pop flies turn into homeruns. Although Jon Lieber was brought in, there still is no real proven ace in the rotation. Lieber will most likely start on Opening Day and many hope that he will step up and become the leader of the staff.
Also keep an eye on Chase Utley at second base. Many believe he can have a solid year if new manger Charlie Manuel has patience with him and avoids yanking him out of the starting lineup in favor of Placido Polanco once he goes into his first slump.
Health is a major problem for the Phillies. Wagner was limited last year, which probably cost the Phillies a few wins. The losses of Wolf, Padilla, and young reliever Ryan Madson also took a serious toll on the team.
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