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NL East: Marlins, Braves still chasing Phillies; long road for Nats

Breaking down each team in the NL East heading into the offseason. Teams are listed in order of 2009 finish. Check out the other division previews here:

AL EastAL CentralAL WestNL CentralNL West

PENDING FREE AGENTS: SP Brett Myers, SP Pedro Martinez, RP Chan Ho Park, RP Scott Eyre, OF/1B Matt Stairs, IF Miguel Cairo, C Paul Bako, SP Rodrigo Lopez.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: 3B Pedro Feliz ($5/0.5M club -- declined).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SP Drew Carpenter, SP Joe Savery, SP Kyle Drabek, LF Michael Taylor.

BUILDING FOR: A third straight pennant.

BIGGEST HOLES: Third base.

TARGETS: 3B Adrian Beltre.

BREAKDOWN:Picking up Cliff Lee's $8 million option might have been the easiest decision any general manager will have this offseason. That keeps the lefty trio of Lee, Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ intact, with Joe Blanton as the fourth starter, Jamie Moyer still under contract as the fifth man and the minor leagues providing rotation depth. J.C. Romero will return from a season shortened by suspension and injury to replace Eyre. Re-signing Park would be worthwhile, as the veteran righty has excelled out of the bullpen over the last two years. The real issue is what the two-time NL champs are going to do at third base. It's not hard to blame Philly for declining Feliz's option. Though he's one of the best defensive hot cornermen in baseball, he's an out-machine on the other side of the ball, he'll be 35 in April and his World Series home run off Joba Chamberlain aside, his power has been eroding. With Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino atop the order, the Phillies don't really need Chone Figgins' speed. Rather, they should go after Beltre, who is four years younger than Feliz, his equal in the field, coming off a career-worst season that should depress his price and would likely benefit from a move to Citizens Bank Park, which favors right-handed power.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: 1B Nick Johnson, RP Kiko Calero, RP Brendan Donnelly, RP Luis Ayala.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: 1B Ross Gload ($2.6M club -- declined).

TRADE ACQUISITION: RPs Hunter Jones and Jose Alvarez (from Red Sox for OF Jeremy Hermida).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 1B/3B Gaby Sanchez, CF Cameron Maybin, OF Jai Miller, SP Cristhian Martinez, RP Christopher Leroux.

BUILDING FOR: Remaining in contention by consolidating gains.

BIGGEST HOLES: Third base.

TARGETS: Takers for several of their arbitration-eligible players.

BREAKDOWN:The Marlins have improved in each of the last two years under Freddi Gonzalez and finished this season with the third-best record in franchise history, but questions remain about how willing ownership will be to increase payroll in order to leverage those gains and build a true contender. The team is reportedly working on an extension for Josh Johnson, which would giving them an ace to go with superstar shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who is signed through 2014, but the rest of the roster is living year-to-year under team control, and the organization has a well-established pattern of trading or dropping players as they reach arbitration. The Yankees hadn't even had their victory parade when the Fish flipped the arb-eligible Hermida to Boston for a pair of marginal minor league relievers. Other Marlins eligible for arbitration this winter include Johnson, 2B Dan Uggla, 1B/3B Jorge Cantu, OF Cody Ross, SP Ricky Nolasco and RPs Leo Nuñez, Matt Lindstrom, Renyel Pinto. That makes all of them potential trade bait or even non-tender candidates unless, with their new stadium finally under construction, the Marlins are finally willing to start building in earnest.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: CL Mike Gonzalez, CL Rafael Soriano, 1B Adam LaRoche, LF Garret Anderson, PH Greg Norton, RP Buddy Carlyle.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: SP Tim Hudson ($12/1M mutual, no buyout if Hudson declines).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: CF Jordan Schafer, SS Diory Hernandez, RP Luis Valdez, SP James Parr, SP Todd Redmond, RF Jason Heyward, RP Craig Kimbrel.

BUILDING FOR: Sustained success in the new decade.

BIGGEST HOLES: Outfield, closer, first base.

TARGETS: LaRoche, OF/1B Adam Dunn, CL Billy Wagner.

BREAKDOWN:From the end of the 2008 season to this year's trading deadline, the Braves dealt four of their top 14 prospects (per Baseball Prospectus's preseason rankings) in pursuit of a return to the playoffs. They wound up finishing third in their division. Entering Bobby Cox's final season, Atlanta has to resist the temptation to spend more of its future for an unlikely result in the present (see also the Mark Teixeira trade of 2007). The Braves' best feature this season was their stellar rotation, which only got better and deeper as the season went on with the arrival of rookie Tommy Hanson and the return of Hudson from Tommy John rehab. By season's end, big-ticket free agent Derek Lowe, signed to be their ace, was, based on performance, their fifth starter. Close to an extension for Hudson and with still more depth in the minors, the Braves seem likely to trade one of their veteran starters (Lowe or Javier Vazquez) for a much-needed bat, with Dunn a particularly good fit given their holes in left field and first base and the Nationals' need for pitching. Re-signing LaRoche to fill the gap until the arrival of first base prospect Freddie Freeman and bringing in Wagner on an incentive-laden deal to close should keep the Braves within striking distance of the wild card without overinvesting in a team waiting for its still-rich farm system to bear more fruit.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: 1B Carlos Delgado, OF Gary Sheffield, C Brian Schneider, 4C Fernando Tatis, IF Alex Cora, IF Ramon Martinez, RP Elmer Dessens.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: RP J.J. Putz ($9.15/1M club -- declined).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: OF Fernando Martinez, SP Jon Niese, C Josh Thole, SP Tobi Stoner, 1B Ike Davis.

BUILDING FOR: A return to form and health.

BIGGEST HOLES: Catcher, outfield, first base.

TARGETS: 1B Lance Berkman, SP John Lackey, OF Matt Holliday, OF Jason Bay, C Yorvit Torrealba.

BREAKDOWN:The Mets have some soul-searching to do after a comically disastrous season. It's difficult to imagine them catching the hated Phillies without making a major splash in the free-agent pool as well as pulling at least one blockbuster deal, such as pilfering Berkman from the should-be rebuilding Astros. Berkman is a Texas boy with a full no-trade clause, but he's entering the last year of his contract, and the Mets have some talent in the low minors and big-city bucks. Torrealba is no great shakes, but he might be the best catcher on the market (he's also among the youngest at 31), and could serve as a veteran coach/caddy/platoon partner for Thole if the lefty-swinging rookie is as ready as he looked in September. The Mets seem unlikely to land Holliday or Bay, but they still need to bolster their corner outfield options of Jeff Francoeur, Angel Pagan and rookie Martinez, and that hunt starts with those two. Ditto their need to bolster the rotation and their likely pursuit of Lackey. Bringing in Lackey and perhaps a second lesser starter could allow them to trade some of their disappointing but still young and talented arms should they need to reinforce the offense. Ultimately, it's the return to health and form of Johan Santana, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran that will be the keys to the Mets' 2010 season. If those three aren't going to come back in peak form, the Mets might as well save their money.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: 1B Dmitri Young, C Josh Bard, SP Livan Hernandez, RP Ron Villone.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: OF Austin Kearns ($10/1M club -- declined).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SP Stephen Strasburg, SS Ian Desmond, CF Justin Maxwell.

BUILDING FOR: Some distant future.

BIGGEST HOLES: Pitching, pitching and more pitching.

TARGETS: Pitchers, any pitchers.

BREAKDOWN:As terrible as they were in 2009, the Nats can hit a little with Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham in the heart of their order. It's their pitching staff that's the disaster, and their team defense didn't help. Playing Dunn at first base could improve the latter, as should moving Cristian Guzman to second so that Desmond can take over at short, and any combination of Nyjer Morgan and Maxwell in center. The rabidly anticipated arrival of 2009 top pick Strasburg should also help, assuming all goes according to plan, but given that 2009's big rookie hope, Jordan Zimmermann, will miss 2010 following Tommy John surgery, the Nats might be a bit gun-shy about rushing their young stud. The silver lining is that the Nationals' pitching was so bad in 2009 that it won't be hard to improve it. They don't need John Lackey and Jose Valverde, but it may be hard to convince any but the most desperate free agents to come to Washington, where, despite the modest promise of offensive support, there's no real hope of winning in 2010.

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