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Star-studded, well-balanced NL East is summer's must-see division

It's highly competitive. Three teams, maybe four, have a realistic shot at the postseason.

It's popular. Half of the position players who will start for the National League in next week's All-Star Game, including three-fourths of the infield, hail from this one division, as many as any division in the game.

It has a wealth of young talent. The game's most heralded young pitcher, top two young hitters and heavily-hyped recent No. 1 overall draft pick call the division home.

And when it's teams play each other, there's incredible parity. Three of the five clubs have an exactly even record within the division. The other two are either one game better or one game worse than that pace.

This is the National League East, and it is baseball's star-studded, well-balanced, headline-grabbing division of the moment.

First, the on-field results: If the playoffs were to start today, the Braves and Mets would both be in while the two-time NL pennant-winning Phillies are hot on their heels. The fourth-place Marlins are just a winning streak away from joining the race.

The parity is especially remarkable. The Mets are 18-18 against the rest of the division; the Phillies and Nationals are both 15-15. Only the Marlins (17-16) and the Braves (13-14) deviate from an exactly .500 record and only because they've played an odd number of games. And the runs scored by the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Marlins? 385, 387, 387, 384.

The pitching is noteworthy, too. The true No. 1 starter is a rare commodity in baseball, but every club in this division has one: the Braves' Tim Hudson, the Mets' co-aces of Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey, the Phillies' Roy Halladay, the Marlins' Josh Johnson and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg. And every club has an ace-in-training, too: Atlanta's Tommy Hanson, New York's Jon Niese, Philadelphia's J.A. Happ (soon to return from the disabled list), Florida's Ricky Nolasco (or Anibal Sanchez or Chris Volstad) and Washington's Jordan Zimmermann (who'll also return from the DL this summer).

There's also remarkable star power in and around this division, from Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley in Philadelphia to David Wright and Jose Reyes in New York to Hanley Ramirez in Florida to rookie Jason Heyward in Atlanta to Ryan Zimmerman in Washington. Managers have been making news as well, with venerable Braves skipper Bobby Cox set to retire and former Mets field boss Bobby Valentine interviewing to become the Marlins' new skipper only to be dropped from contention and publicly blast the organization.

Between Valentine's dalliance with Florida and the arrival of Strasburg in Washington, even the bottom teams in the division have been in the spotlight in recent weeks.

What's next? Here's a team-by-team look at what to expect in the second half.

This could be the final season for two future Hall of Famers and mainstays of the Braves dynasty that ruled the NL East for years. Third baseman Chipper Jones began hinting strongly at retirement a few weeks ago before shelving such talk until after the season. Cox has already announced last year that this would be his last year as manager, bringing an end to his 21-year-career with the Braves.

The Braves have an excellent chance to make sure Cox's final season in Atlanta ends the same way 14 others did: in the playoffs. Like in the heart of the Braves' divisional dynasty, their pitching has carried them. Hudson has been sensational (8-4, 2.44 ERA), and the rest of the rotation has been sturdy in setting up a very good bullpen. The relievers' 3.31 ERA ranks fourth in the NL and is anchored expertly by 38-year-old closer Billy Wagner (17 saves, 1.35 ERA).

Offense will certainly be the Braves' biggest concern in the second half. Jones still reaches base at a prodigious rate, but his power has all but vanished, as he has just five home runs. Precocious rookie slugger Heyward had provided plenty of pop until injuring his thumb and won't be fully recovered until the offseason. First baseman Troy Glaus has picked up some of the slack, but he's no sure bet to continue his production. And the Braves' outfield aside from Heyward -- especially Melky Cabrera (.253, two home runs) and Nate McLouth (.176 average, .295 on-base percentage) -- has been dreadful.

Atlanta has been winning by receiving just enough offense, keyed at the top of the lineup by deserving All-Star second baseman Martin Prado and, to a lesser extent, at the bottom of the lineup from undeserving All-Star utilityman Omar Infante.

"I don't know how long he'll be out, but Heyward is definitely the key to that order," an NL scout said. "They're not getting much from McLouth. Glaus can be pitched to. He's got holes in his swing, and I've not seen a lot of bat speed from him."

Prediction: Wild Card

The Mets' season-long soap opera continues, on field and off. Earlier this season they went from last to first to last in 23 days, but now they've again been the NL's best team since June 4, going 18-9 through the bulk of their interleague slate to reach second place, just two games behind Atlanta, though they've lost their last two series against divisional foes Florida and Washington.

While other clubs will have to make a trade to add an impact player in July, the Mets need only promote from within, as center fielder Carlos Beltran nears his major-league return after having knee surgery in the offseason. If nothing else, Beltran's return ought to signal the end of the terse interplay between manager Jerry Manuel and Mets management.

On June 11 Manuel suggested that Beltran would have been able to serve as designated hitter had New York's road interleague series been a week later. Immediately assistant GM John Ricco dismissed that notion as "pretty aggressive" considering that Beltran hadn't started his formal rehab assignment yet.

On June 24 Manuel hinted Beltran could return as early as June 28 in Puerto Rico; one unnamed Mets executive quickly shot that down as "too quick."

On June 27 Manuel admitted "impatience" in the process and said, "I just want to see a guy as quickly as possible." Speaking the next day, GM Omar Minaya took a cautionary tone, indicating that Beltran wouldn't play in the majors until he had completed consecutive nine-inning games in rehab.

While their pitching has been good, no one knows if knuckleballer R.A. Dickey or 35-year-old Hisanori Takahashi, in his first year in the majors, can keep it up in the second half. Rookie first baseman Ike Davis has added some power to the lineup, but Jason Bay, who has hit just six home runs, has been underwhelming and Reyes, the club's spark plug, has been sidelined for six games with a sore oblique, though he's expected to return Tuesday night.

"Their bullpen might be an issue, and their starting pitching might be an issue," the scout said. "They've got a lot of right-handed strikeouts in that order. Reyes is the key. If he keeps playing well, they can contend."

Too many question marks surround the Mets, whose recent track record -- September collapses in 2007 and '08 -- doesn't inspire confidence either.

Prediction: Third place

The three-time division champions raced out to a fast start, rising as high as 11 games above .500 with a 26-15 record on May 21 only to nearly compile the reciprocal record of 17-23 since then to fall four games back of the Braves. Philadelphia retained its core while adding Halladay and third baseman Placido Polanco, meaning the talent level is higher than it's ever been, but injuries have ravaged them.

Rollins missed 29 games with a calf injury; Utley is on the disabled list for eight weeks after having surgery on his thumb; and Polanco is also on the DL with triceps tendinitis. Until those players return, the Phillies are now a team placed on pause.

"If they get healthy, they're going to be a factor in the race," the NL scout said. With the trade deadline less than four weeks away, he said, "I'm sure they'll do something."

That "something" doesn't even include the return of the injured Happ. But the Phillies will investigate trading for starter Cliff Lee at the deadline for the second straight year. They may re-sign Pedro Martinez to pitch the season's final two months again. If they need outfield depth, the Phillies have their own promising youngster in Domonic Brown awaiting a call-up. In 76 games of Double-A and Triple-A ball this year he's batted .328 with 18 home runs, 57 RBIs and 13 steals.

They're too good not to rise to the top.

Prediction: NL East champ

The low-payroll and usually low-key Marlins may be in fourth place in the standings but they've led the division in highly-publicized controversy this season. First came the mid-May showdown between then-manager Fredi Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez in which Gonzalez benched his superstar shortstop for a perceived lack of hustle. Then a ballpark giveaway in which 15,000 vuvuzelas were handed out to fans and may have cost the Marlins a win after drowning out Gonzalez's conversation with the umpire, in which he explained a double switch. Days later the Marlins fired Gonzalez and began the contentious interview process to replace him with prospective manager Bobby Valentine.

The worst-kept secret in baseball was that Valentine was waiting in the wings to become the next Marlins' manager. Despite a half-hearted mid-May vote of confidence, owner Jeffrey Loria wasn't thrilled with Gonzalez and finally dismissed him two weeks ago. But after a courtship of Valentine that became rather public, Florida instead retained interim manager Edwin Rodriguez -- who began the year as the organization's Triple-A skipper -- for the rest of the season.

Offensively, the Marlins have one of the game's most talented players in Ramirez playing alongside Dan Uggla, the consistent slugger at second base. If 20-year-old rookie outfielder Mike Stanton -- who batted .313 with 21 home runs in 53 Double-A games to start the year and joined Heyward and Strasburg in the top three of Baseball America's preseason prospect rankings -- can find his groove in the majors, then the Marlins will have the offense to go with their stellar pitching and have an outside shot at sneaking back into the division race.

"They could get back into it because they have pretty good starting pitching," said the scout. That group is led by Johnson, who at 8-3 and with a 1.82 ERA is a strong candidate to start the All-Star Game for the NL.

Prediction: A close fourth place

Never mind that they are in a distant fifth place. As long as the Nationals are trotting out Stephen Strasburg this summer, they'll be one of the most closely-watched teams in baseball. In fact, five of Strasburg's first six starts have been nationally televised. Strasburg, who has gone 2-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings pitched, isn't the only one worth watching in Washington. In fact, the Nationals may have a brighter future than any of their division foes.

The Nationals have a likely No. 2 starter to slot behind Strasburg in Zimmermann, who made his first rehab start on Saturday after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. The heart of their lineup -- Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham -- has hit as well as any in baseball. They were able to draft heralded slugging prospect Bryce Harper with the No. 1 overall pick in June's amateur draft. The end of the bullpen is solid, with setup men Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen followed by closer Matt Capps. If the Nationals can re-sign Dunn, a free-agent-to-be, the building blocks will be in place.

"I think they want to keep the middle of their order together," the scout said. "They can hit."

Prediction: Last place -- but contending for the playoffs by 2012

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