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NL East preview: Braves will be a real threat to Phillies' reign

No division in baseball has as overwhelming a favorite as the National League East, where the Phillies are expected to romp to a fifth straight division title. Such expectations should not overshadow the fact that the Phils aren't the only team with legitimate playoff aspirations. Both the Braves, last year's wild-card winner, and the Marlins have the pitching to keep them in contention for a postseason berth. The Mets and Nationals, meanwhile, will be battling to stay out of the basement, which would be cause for joy in Washington and despair in New York.

WINTER GRADE: B

New manager Fredi Gonzalez is the biggest change, but as far as the 25-man roster is concerned, Dan Uggla is the biggest import. The Braves added him in a trade with the Marlins that cost them the versatile Omar Infante, but if the rest of their lineup -- specifically Martin Prado and Chipper Jones -- stays healthy, they should be able to compensate just fine. Derrek Lee left as a free agent and closer Billy Wagner retired, but the Braves were able to replace them with their deep well of young talent.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Is Fredi Gonzalez ready to replace a legend?

After guiding the Braves to 16 postseason appearances in his 21 seasons, manager Bobby Cox finally retired. He was replaced by one of his former coaches, Gonzalez, who was basically a .500 manager in Florida but inherits a playoff-ready team in Atlanta. Officially, Gonzalez wasn't hired until two days after Atlanta's Division Series loss to the Giants. Unofficially, he had the job as far back as mid-summer, when Braves GM Frank Wren picked up Gonzalez at a park-and-ride outside I-20 in Atlanta and drove to his cabin on Lake Wedowee, Ala., so the two could discuss organizational philosophies. Wren left impressed, saying now, "We think we've hired the next great manager."

2. Will Jason Heyward be healthy?

Heyward got off to a torrid start last year, highlighted by a laser of a three-run homer in his first major league at-bat, but slowed down when he hurt his thumb in May. It hampered him the rest of the season, but Heyward says he's at full strength now, which would give the Braves an MVP-quality bat in the middle of the lineup. The more pressing question, then, is how pitchers will adjust to him and how he will counter those adjustments.

3. Does Craig Kimbrel + Jonny Venters = Billy Wagner?

Wagner retired after one last stellar season -- 37 saves and a 1.43 ERA -- but the Braves didn't have to search far and wide for his replacement. Instead, they've handed the job to 22-year-old righty Kimbrel (0 career saves) and 26-year-old lefty Venters (one save). The two had already impressed with their fastballs. Now they'll have to impress with their performance to ensure that the Braves don't have any drop-off in the all-important closer's role.

X-FACTOR:

Chipper Jones, 3B

Jones will be 39 in April and is coming off a season in which he played just 95 games. His knees are an almost constant source of pain, but if he can still play, it's big for a couple reasons: First, it would give the Braves a power and high on-base threat in the No. 3 hole, and second, it keeps their best lineup on the field. When Jones can't play, Prado will move from left field to third base, which in turn means that Atlanta will be using a non-regular that day in the outfield.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Their pitching depth and quality is scary good. One through 12, Atlanta has the best pitching in the National League. Freddie Freeman, a Rookie of the Year candidate, has had a great spring. He'll follow the track of Jason Heyward last year and he's a very good defender. That Fredi Gonzalez has a lot of Atlanta experience and that Bobby Cox engineered him coming in makes this a very seamless transition. Atlanta has made progress, but has it been enough to catch what everyone has penciled in as the best team in the NL?"

WINTER GRADE: C

They traded Dan Uggla to the Braves for All-Star utilityman Omar Infante and reliever Michael Dunn, who should be an important part of an overhauled bullpen. He'll be joined in that 'pen by Edward Mujica, who comes over from the Padres in a trade that sent disappointing Cameron Maybin to San Diego. More significantly, the Marlins signed All-Star catcher John Buck and starting pitcher Javier Vazquez, who struggled with the Yankees last year but finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting with the Braves two years ago.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Is Hanley Ramirez ready to lead?

There's never been any question that Ramirez is one of the game's elite talents, but his benching last season for not hustling called into question whether the 27-year-old will be the kind of leader the young Marlins are looking for. Manager Edwin Rodriguez said he and Ramirez spoke first thing this spring and Ramirez promised he would be. "He said we're all on the same page," Rodriguez said. "The message was that we know [we're] young but we're not going to accept excuses."

2. Will the defense improve?

Last year, the Marlins had the fifth-most errors and the fourth-worst fielding percentage in the majors. To rectify that, the team went back to basics this spring, emphasizing fundamentals. Coach Perry Hill even had a back field at the team's spring complex all to himself, which was nicknamed the Bone Yard, where he spent hours schooling his pupils on defense. Players bought in, too, at least if their wardrobe is any indication. The most prominent clothing item in camp was a T-shirt reading "DEFENSE" on the front and "27 Outs...No More" on the back.

3. Can they count on their young hitters?

The Marlins' starting pitchers -- led by Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson -- should be as close as this team has to a sure thing, but their offense remains a question mark. Many of those question marks will be answered if Logan Morrison, 23; Gaby Sanchez; 27; and Mike Stanton, 21, become reliable middle-of-the-order threats. Stanton seems most likely to take the next step. His power exploits are already legendary. Sanchez said he and Morrison are constantly ragging on Stanton but "that's mostly because we're jealous of him." Last year, Stanton hit 22 home runs in 100 games. With a full season this year, 35 isn't out of the question. "This year is very important to us," Rodriguez said. "The players we'll be counting on for the next decade are here."

X-FACTOR:

Javier Vazquez

Johnson should be the most reliable pitcher in the rotation, and Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad will have time to grow at the back of the rotation, but the difference-maker is the veteran Vazquez. At 34, Vazquez is on to his sixth team in his 14th season but he'll be expected to be the No. 3 starter. His velocity is down from years past but he says he feels more comfortable now that he's back in the NL East, where he had his best years with the Expos and Braves. If he's the same pitcher who posted a 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 2009 for Atlanta, he lengthens Florida's rotation to the point that it can stack up more favorably with the Phillies and Braves.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Josh Johnson worked on a changeup this spring. He needs to find ways of having lower pitch counts. Ricky Nolasco has an average to above-average fastball and a tremendous breaking pitch -- it's a slider but it's more like a curve because the bottom falls out of it and he gets a lot of rotation out of the front of the ball. Leo Nunez, the closer, worked on a different grip on his slider during Winter Ball and it looks like it's working. John Buck will be an important pickup. He's a good game caller and he's a dominant figure behind the plate, which is nice to throw to. He's also got power at the plate."

VERDUCCI: Marlins are a darkhorse ... again

WINTER GRADE: C

As far as the roster goes, the Mets did nothing of significance, unless you consider Chris Young and Ronny Paulino to be game-changing free-agent acquisitions. The Mets grade this highly because of their revamped front office. Sandy Alderson takes over as general manager and he added former big league GMs Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, both well-respected talent evaluators, to his staff. There is a lot to rebuild here but those three know how to do it. Their goal, as Alderson put it, is to "create scouting and player development that has the continuity to and consistency to build excellence that we can sustain over many years."

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can they withstand the loss of Johan Santana?

Probably not. Santana won't be back from shoulder surgery until June at the earliest, and it's likely that by that time the Mets will already be playing out the string. The rest of the rotation is littered with question marks -- Mike Pelfrey has been too inconsistent to be a true ace, Young is coming back from injury problems of his own and Jonathon Niese (who was born the same day as Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, the Mets' most recent championship) still has only 38 games of big league experience. If Santana proves he's healthy and back to being an ace, that will at least alleviate one of their concerns heading into 2012.

2. Is Jason Bay back?

Long before Bay suffered a season-ending concussion at Dodger Stadium in July, his first season in New York after signing a four-year, $66 million deal was a disaster. He had struggled to adapt to Citi Field's spacious dimensions and had just six home runs in well over 300 at-bats. Bay says he's free of the after-effects from the concussion, and after some offseason adjustments he expects to return close to the All-Star form he showed with the Pirates and Red Sox. "Is it fair to think I'll hit 50 home runs? Probably not," he said. "But I'm looking forward to being the guy I was before I got here."

3. Will Jose Reyes be traded?

When healthy, Reyes remains as electrifying a player as there is in baseball. He missed 29 games last year and stole just 30 bases; his lowest previous full-season total was 56. Though still popular with Mets fans, Reyes is coming to the end of his contract and if the team thinks he's not worth the dollars he's likely to command on the open market -- he made $9 million a year ago -- or that the club's financial troubles will make re-signing him difficult, New York may just elect to deal him and try to get some value in return at the trade deadline.

X-FACTOR:

Carlos Beltran

One way or another, this is Beltran's last season in New York. His controversial, injury-filled and at times successful tenure -- he did make four All-Star teams with the Mets -- will end when his seven-year, $119 million contract does after the season. But despite his knee problems, scouts from other teams have continued tracking Beltran's progress, feeling that if he's healthy enough to play for a rebuilding club like the Mets, he might be healthy enough to help a contender down the stretch. The Mets would undoubtedly love to trade him, both to save the money they still owe him and to try to replenish a farm system that is in dire need of a talent injection.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Johan Santana may be more of a No. 3 starter now and they're loaded down with them. Playing in that division, where your No. 1 and No. 2 are basically a three and a four, God help them. Their system is really thin and there's not a lot there. I don't see an impact player coming from within and they have to change the climate. If they're smart, they'll blow the club up and start over."

WINTER GRADE: A

Did you hear? The Phillies signed a free-agent left-handed starter and now have a pretty good rotation. Getting Cliff Lee to return to Philadelphia was their only major move but it was enough to cement their status as the team to beat in the NL East. Losing Jayson Werth will be a blow, but their offense should be deep enough to compensate, especially if one of the trio of candidates to replace him -- Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown or John Mayberry Jr. -- emerges as a consistent bat before the playoffs.

THREE QUESTIONS:

1. Can anyone beat the Phillies?

Maybe not, but the gap between them and the rest of the division has already narrowed thanks to injuries to closer Brad Lidge (shoulder soreness, out 3-6 weeks) and second baseman Chase Utley (patellar tendinitis in left knee, out indefinitely). There's no one better when healthy, but the Braves are good enough that they could take advantage of Philadelphia's absences and make a run at winning the division.

2. Will Ryan Howard bounce back?

You know you're good when you hit 31 home runs, drive in 108 runs and people wonder what's wrong with you. Yet such is the standard that Howard has set that even those monster numbers -- a home run total Werth has exceeded only once and an RBI count he's never reached, for example -- represent a stark decline from his first four full seasons, when he hit 58, 47, 48 and 45 home runs and drove in 149, 136, 146 and 141 runs. With Werth gone, Howard, now 31, won't have the same protection in the lineup and scouts were already starting to feel the holes in his swing were widening.

3. Can they survive without Chase Utley?

Wilson Valdez was a pleasant surprise last year filling in as needed, but he hit only .258 with four home runs, the kind of numbers Utley might put up in a month -- a bad month. The Phillies were so desperate late in spring training that they even signed Mets castoff Luis Castillo, he of the .235 average and zero home runs last season, as a possible solution. If Utley is out for a month or two, Philadelphia can probably get by. If he's out longer than that, the impact on the lineup will be noticeable, forcing players to be shifted around the order to compensate and likely sending the Phillies out into the trade market to see what they can pick up.

X-FACTOR:

Joe Blanton, SP

"Everyone's overlooking Joe but don't sleep on him," Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino said. Blanton has been overlooked with good reason -- he's not Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt or Cole Hamels, all of whom have either won a Cy Young Award or MVP of a postseason series. As No. 5 starters go, Blanton may be among the best in baseball. He has a lifetime .545 winning percentage and 4.30 ERA and he's durable, having made at least 29 starts in each of his seven seasons. He could also be valuable as trade bait if the Phillies need to plug a hole elsewhere -- say, second base -- and teams needing starting pitching could well view Blanton, a No. 5 in Philadelphia's loaded deck of aces, as a top drawing card.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Cole Hamels is a No. 2 pitching in the No. 4 spot, which is like your varsity pitcher pitching JV. He looked really good this spring. Ryan Howard is going to have to become a better hitter. You can get him out with soft stuff away when he starts to cheat. He has to stay in the strike zone. Wilson Valdez hits the fastball well and is an above-average defender. I'm a fan of his. Charlie Manuel will manage a little bit differently this year; he's got some guys he can use as multiple pieces and some athletic guys he can use as super utilities."

WINTER GRADE: B+

The Nationals lost a lot of power when Adam Dunn signed with the White Sox and they traded Josh Willingham to the A's. Some of that will be made up with the acquisition of free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche and, especially, free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth. The LaRoche signing was smart -- two years, $16 million for a proven hitter and above-average defender -- but the Werth signing will take longer to judge. There's no doubt that Werth is a special talent, but he's also 31 and will be asked to carry a team offensively for the first time. That, plus the fact he'll still be making $21 million a year six years from now, means the jury is out.

THREE QUESTIONS:

1. Will Stephen Strasburg pitch this season?

It says a lot about the state of the Nats that their biggest question surrounds a 22-year-old pitcher with all of 12 games of big league experience who may not pitch at all this year. But Strasburg is nevertheless the most important player in their franchise's brief history, and if he can regain his health and his form that made him so effective in his rookie season, the entire organization will breathe a sigh of relief. GM Mike Rizzo says the team will be extremely cautious with its prized pupil, but if his rehab from Tommy John surgery goes well, expect Strasburg to be back with the Nationals sometime in September.

2. Will Bryce Harper reach the majors this season?

Don't bank on it. The No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft was "extremely impressive" in spring training in the words of manager Jim Riggleman, but the Nats see no reason to rush the 19-year-old power-hitting prodigy to the majors. It's the right decision. This team isn't going to compete for a playoff spot this year and Harper still has to learn how to play the outfield. If he makes the right strides in the minors -- he'll begin the year at Single-A -- he could compete for a full-time job in next year's camp.

3. How healthy is Jordan Zimmermann?

The other highly touted Nationals righty to have Tommy John surgery is Zimmermann who, without the fanfare of Strasburg's injury, spent almost all of last year rehabbing before returning to the Nats late last August, just two weeks after Strasburg was lost for the year. Zimmermann made seven starts, going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA, but this spring pronounced himself back to 100 percent and feeling as good as he had pre-injury. The rotation is mostly filled with aging veterans who are placeholders for this year, like Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis, or youngsters like John Lannan who don't project as top-of-the-rotation starters down the line. Zimmermann, though, is still just 24 and has the stuff, especially an impressive slider, to be a No. 2 behind Strasburg in the years ahead.

X-FACTOR:

Mike Morse, OF

Morse, 29, played 98 games for Washington last year, which represented a career high for his six seasons. He did hit 15 home runs, and in spring training this year he hit nine more, winning the starting left field job. If he continues to slug like that, he'll help fill the remaining power gap from Dunn's departure and help lengthen the middle of the Nats' lineup.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I see a lot of really good things here. They've done a really good job of drafting and a really good job in trades. They overpaid for Jayson Werth, but he'll have an impact in the lineup because they'll finally have some protection for Ryan Zimmerman. Bryce Harper is special. If he made their club, he'd be the Rookie of the Year. The last time I saw a kid his age with his skill set was Manny Ramirez."

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