Phillies Believe NL East Belongs To Them

For many, the thought is that the addition of Johan Santana to the Mets gave them the edge in the NL East. For the Phillies though, the bragging rights to the division are still in Philly and any changes will have to go through them. So, how does Santana's arrival and other moves, shape the face of the NL East?

While their chief rival finalized a trade for arguably the best pitcher in baseball, the Phillies weren't panicking. Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. acknowledged that two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana will make the New York Mets better. But he said the Phillies won't feel pressure to add another pitcher just to keep pace with the Mets.

"There's no question (Santana) is going to help that ball club. He's going to help them," Amaro said. "He's one of the better pitchers in the game, there's no question about it. But we can't worry about what other clubs are doing around us. We have to concentrate on improving our club."

To that end, Amaro reiterated that the Phillies would like to upgrade their pitching staff before the season opens March 31 at Citizens Bank Park. But he said no moves are imminent with any of the free agent pitchers left on the market. But, were they ever in on the bidding to pry Santana away from the Minnesota Twins? "At this moment, I don't think we have enough in the system to get somebody like Santana," admitted GM Pat Gillick earlier in the off-season. "Maybe a year from now, if a player like him was available, we would have the people available if we wanted to move them."

Amaro wouldn't rule out the possibility of re-opening talks with right-hander Kyle Lohse but said he hasn't had any recent conversations with agent Scott Boras. Lohse, 29, also had drawn interest from the Mets as a contingency plan if they were unable to trade for Santana.

The Phillies haven't shown interest in free agent right-hander Livan Hernandez and have been dissuaded by their concerns over the viability of injury-riddled right-hander Bartolo Colon. The Phillies did come away impressed by right-hander Kris Benson after watching a couple of public throwing sessions and auditioning him in a couple of private sessions as well. Benson, 33, missed last season after undergoing surgery on his right rotator cuff and may be seeking only a one-year, incentive-laden deal and would prefer that it be with a contending team.

So, just how does Santana's arrival in New York affect the Phillies? First, only four current Phillies have at bats against Santana, so there's not much of a sampling to go by there. The Phillies have faced Santana just once and it came almost six years ago in June of 2002 when the Twins came to town and beat the Phillies 5-1. In that game, the Phillies had Santana on the ropes and he left with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth when reliever Tony Fiore came on to strike out Pat Burrell to end the threat. When you look at the following numbers, keep in mind that over his career, opponents have hit just .221 with a .278 OBP, a .366 SLG% and a .644 OPS against Santana.

Current Phillies vs. Johan Santana

Geoff Jenkins 0 0 .250 12 3 0 0 1 6 .308 .250 .558
Wes Helms 0 2 .250 8 2 0 0 2 4 .364 .250 .614
Jimmy Rollins 0 0 .000 3 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000
Pat Burrell 0 0 .000 1 0 0 0 1 0 .500 .000 .500
TOTALS 0 2 .208 24 5 0 0 4 11 .310 .208 .518

In addition to Santana, the Mets have Ryan Church and Brian Schneider to their roster as the main off-season pickups. The addition of Church and Schneider came at the expense of Lastings Milledge, who many consider to be one of the budding stars in baseball, although his personality had grown a little rough on some players and fans in The Big Apple. The New Yorkers also took a hit with the loss of Tom Glavine, Paul LoDuca and Guillermo Mota. They also sent some high profile prospects to Minnesota, which could hurt them down the road in terms of having young players available to send to the big league club.

Meanwhile in Atlanta...

Fans of the National League East have long learned never to count out the Atlanta Braves. Somehow, the guys from the south always hang around and they've still got John Scheurholz and Bobby Cox to call the shots. New York's loss of Tom Glavine was to the Atlanta Braves, dealing a double blow in the division. Will Ohman and Mark Kotsay were nice additions to the Braves and both filled holes on the Atlanta roster that were glaring at the Braves early in the winter. The big loss for Atlanta was of course, Andruw Jones, who although he had a down year in 2007, could always be counted on to provide a spark in the Atlanta lineup and generally hit Phillies pitching pretty hard.

Atlanta is also going to take advantage of a farm system that has slowly been sending quality players up the ladder and the Braves should have exciting youngster Yunell Escobar in their lineup everyday at shortstop. Escobar could be one of the surprise players to come out of the NL East in 2008. The addition of Mark Texeira last season was their preemptive move to losing Jones and bolstered their lineup last season and gives them a big bat for all of this season.

As for additions and subtractions, the Phillies took a key hit in the loss of Aaron Rowand and their rotation took a bit of a hit in the loss of Lohse, if he does in fact sign elsewhere. Pedro Feliz arrives to play at third and the Phillies will have the platoon of Jayson Werth and Geoff Jenkins in right to replace Rowand's bat and the move of Shane Victorino from right to center to replace his defense. Brad Lidge arrived in an early off-season deal with Houston to give the Phillies the flexibility of moving Brett Myers back to the rotation, even though there are some question marks surrounding Lidge.

The Florida Marlins completed the gutting of their team with the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit, leaving them pretty much dead in the water for 2008, but poised to have a good young team in the not too distant future if the prospects that they're assembling turn out to be the type of players that most expect them to be.

In Washington, there's a new ballpark to show off, but the team is still going to have too many holes in their starting rotation to give much competition to the big three in the division.

The truth is that Santana's arrival doesn't completely tilt the division to New York's favor, but it certainly helps. The Mets must still discover the real issues that led to their collapse late last season and allowed the Phillies to twice make up deficits of seven games before ultimately winning the division on the last day of the regular season as the Mets were being blown out of the water by the Marlins.

When all is said and done though, the Mets, Phillies and Braves should battle well into the season for the top of the division. The younger Braves figure to be the first to falter, unless Scheurholz can again work his magic at the trade deadline and find a spare part that fits perfectly. Perhaps the recuperating Mike Hampton will even be enough of a spark to help push the Braves to the finish line. If the race does come down to the Mets and Phillies, it might be as much of a psychological thriller as it will be on the field, with the Mets trying to put down their demons from a year ago and the Phillies doing all they can to bring back those memories.

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