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NL East preview: Phillies still the class of talent-laden division

Might the NL East be ready to wrest the title of Toughest Division in Baseball away from its AL counterparts? Not quite, but it has become the game's most talented grouping one through five.

The major moves of the Marlins and Nationals have elevated their rosters to the level of the Braves, who opted for the status quo after missing the playoffs by one game. The Phillies, meanwhile, still have those three aces atop their rotation but an aging roster and injury depletions in their offense. As for the Mets? They have encouraging pieces in place, even if their win-loss record may not reflect that in 2012; put them in a weaker division and they'd be a .500 club.

The Phillies are still the favorites. The Mets are probably headed for their first last-place finish since 2003. But the other three -- Braves, Marlins and Nationals -- could easily finish in any order of 2-3-4.

Said new Marlins closer Heath Bell, "This is going to be the funnest division. That's not even a word, but you can try to write it."

Consider it done. Maybe the NL East's new slogan ought to be, "Funnest for Fans; Toughest for Teams."

WINTER GRADE:C

The Braves could have received an 'I' for incomplete, given their lack of offseason moves. They traded starter Derek Lowe to the Indians for salary relief, added backup shortstop Jack Wilson and, well, that's about it, after deciding to give prospect Tyler Pastornicky the first shot at winning the starting shortstop job after Alex Gonzalez departed via free agency. Atlanta is reliant on its young talent continuing to emerge at the major league level and may already look smart for not trading its seeming surplus of pitchers now that one of that group, Arodys Vizcaino, will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery.

Putting faith in that pitching staff -- from veteran Tim Hudson and the four 26-and-under starters (Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor), as well as three top-50 prospects, according to Baseball America -- may be the Braves' smartest play.

KEY QUESTION: Can the Braves score enough to win?

Atlanta has excellent pitching -- 605 runs allowed last year (third in the NL) and a 3.48 ERA (fourth) -- but only scored 641 runs (10th). Only one playoff entrant in the last six seasons has scored fewer than 700 runs. (The 2010 Giants, who won the World Series, plated 697.) By not adding to the lineup from outside the organization, the club is counting on bounceback years from Jason Heyward (see below), Dan Uggla (whose on-base skills didn't match his power production) and Martin Prado (whose .302 OBP was 54 points below his previous career rate), while hoping trade deadline acquisition Michael Bourn can be a lineup sparkplug at leadoff.

X-FACTOR: Jason Heyward

In 2010 Heyward was the runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year with a .277 average, 18 home runs, an impressive .393 on-base percentage (fourth in the league) and a 131 OPS+ (meaning his OPS, adjusted for league and ballpark, was 31 percent better than the average player), a surefire bet to be a middle-of-the-lineup mainstay in Braves' lineups for seasons to come. In 2011, however, he struggled -- through injuries and slumps -- and for a while lost his starting job while falling to .227, 14, .319 and a 95 (meaning his OPS+ was five percent worse than average).

Over the winter, however, he so thoroughly rebuilt his swing piece-by-piece that he estimated he went the first two and a half weeks of the offseason without actually hitting the ball while working on his stance and his hands. He also ran more, using Turner Field's warning track for offseason sprints, and ate healthier in order to lose 20 pounds. Whether results follow remains to be seen, but a return to form for Heyward could drive Atlanta's offense.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I like Brandon Beachy a lot. He's got a good delivery. He throws downhill and hits 91 to 94. . . Jason Heyward looks a little rough to me. He has a long, upper-body swing that he needs to fix. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy will be at the top of that rotation for years to come."

VERDUCCI: Braves' pitching bears watching; who is their indispensable player?

WINTER GRADE: A

It was nothing if not eventful and, the Marlins hope, productive. After adding manager Ozzie Guillen as last season ended, this winter the Marlins signed closer Heath Bell, shortstop Jose Reyes and starter Mark Buehrle and traded for another starter, Carlos Zambrano. They also publicly pursued (but failed to sign) Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Yoenis Cespedes. Miami in 2012 is clearly a better team than Florida was in 2011 -- oh yeah, they also changed names and are moving into a new ballpark next week.

KEY QUESTION: Can the Marlins' many new parts coalesce?

This isn't football or any other sport that requires intricate synchronization of plays, but certainly any major changes will require a period of adjustment, most notably Hanley Ramirez moving from shortstop to third base. And they've added some strong personalities in Guillen, whose opinions often grab headlines, and Zambrano, a talented but tempestuous former ace who was twice suspended by the Cubs.

Can all of that come together? The players believe Guillen is just the guy to manage them. "When you play hard for him, when you play smart, when you play right, he's going to have your back," Zambrano said. "Ozzie, for me, besides my friend, is one of the best managers in baseball."

Added Bell, "The team is going to be the face of the franchise. If you do want to call us somebody's team, we're Ozzie's team."

The other new part -- Marlins Park -- remains an unknown in how it will play and whether it'll play to the strengths of the club.

X-FACTOR: Josh Johnson

Reyes' troublesome hamstrings are also important, but the Marlins seem to have more proven offensive depth than they do in the rotation and Johnson has Cy Young-caliber stuff. The 6'7" righthander led the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010 and had a 1.64 ERA in 60 1/3 innings last year before shoulder inflammation shut him down after nine starts; in his six full big-league seasons Johnson has surpassed 30 starts only once and has averaged 19.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I love Giancarlo Stanton's work ethic. He tries to learn everything he can and he really wants to be the best player in baseball. . . This team needs a righthanded bat off the bench. Chris Coughlin, a lefty, can play a lot of positions and he'll help. . . There's not a lot of competition for positions here, and on championship-level teams that's what you want."

WINTER GRADE: D+

The 'D' is for the Mets' offseason personnel moves: losing Jose Reyes while adding only centerfielder Andres Torres and relievers Frank Francisco, Ramon Ramirez and Jon Rauch as the club sheared a record $52 million from its payroll and watched several rivals get stronger.

The '+' is because the club -- hamstrung this offseason by financial constraints -- recently received what could be encouraging news: the Mets reportedly have sold 12 minority shares for a cash influx, repaid their loans and settled a Madoff-related lawsuit, all of which could relax the purse strings in the near future.

KEY QUESTION: Can everybody bounce back?

For the Mets to be competitive in the stacked NL East, they'll need ace Johan Santana, third baseman David Wright, leftfielder Jason Bay and first baseman Ike Davis all to rally after injuries and/or down seasons. And the club will need continued improvement from its 26-and-under crowd: rightfielder Lucas Duda, shortstop Ruben Tejada, second baseman Daniel Murphy, catcher Josh Thole and starters Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee. Also, the club features two talented starting pitcher prospects in Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler.

Said Wright, "I'll be the first one to tell you, There are a lot of 'ifs.' If this happens, if that happens. But there really is a lot of talent in these young players."

X-FACTOR: Citi Field's fences

Two of the Mets' weaknesses last year were home run power and outfield defense, both of which may be alleviated by the club's decision to move in the outfield walls. Most visibly to fans, the new dimensions should create a power boost for Wright, Bay, et al.; New York has hit 162 homers in its three seasons at Citi Field, the fewest by any major league club in its home ballpark during that time span.

But the outfield defense will benefit from more than the addition of Torres. G.M. Sandy Alderson explained this spring that the Mets studied the change in outfield area. Every ballpark is uniform in its infield size and outfield size out to 300 feet. "Now you take the remaining area and look at what the reduction represents," Alderson said. "As a percentage, it's pretty significant."

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Johan Santana is the good news. He looks like he's bounced back. He got up to 90 mph in camp and his fastball and change had some finish. . . . Jason Bay has not looked great. It almost looks like he's guessing [at the plate]. . . . Through the minors Lucas Duda's swing was long with a hole inside. He's learned to protect himself and drive that pitch."

WINTER GRADE: B-

The Phillies have made so many moves the past few seasons -- trading for and/or signing Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hunter Pence, to name three -- that being mostly quiet this winter made sense. They re-upped one core player, extending shortstop Jimmy Rollins for three years (with an option for a fourth), and made one splurge, signing Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer; the latter came after the club nearly retained Ryan Madson (who later signed with the Reds and now needs Tommy John surgery). Philadelphia also added Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton to be a stopgap platoon at first base to tide the club over until Ryan Howard returns from an Achilles injury.

The grade isn't higher because of the looming uncertainty surrounding starter Cole Hamels and centerfielder Shane Victorino -- both of whom are entering their final seasons before becoming free agents -- and because the club received bad news about second baseman Chase Utley, whose chronic knee soreness is putting the early part of the season in doubt. After Michael Martinez broke a bone in his foot last week, the club now has little depth and will start unproven 22-year-old Freddy Galvis (.292 career OBP in five minor-league seasons) at second base.

KEY QUESTION: When will Howard and Utley return?

The right side of the Phillies' infield has long been their strength, but the club could be without both of their stars for a month, maybe two. As it is, Philadelphia has seen its run output decline by more than 100 in two seasons, to just 713 last year, its fewest since 2002. In the meantime, the Phillies will need continued All-Star production from Victorino, Placido Polanco and especially Pence; one scout told SI that he pegged Pence for at least 35 home runs this year.

Of course, Philadelphia will only need to score so many runs, given its stellar starting pitching and underappreciated defense -- last year the club allowed 529 runs, the fewest of any major league team in a 162-game schedule since 1969.

X-FACTOR: John Mayberry Jr.

Finally exceeding 60 big-league plate appearances in a season for the first time at age 27, the former first-round pick proved he belonged. Beginning with a two-hit game on Memorial Day, Mayberry batted .299 with a .356 OBP and impressive .609 slugging percentage over his final 62 games while belting 13 home runs in 174 at bats. He'll play a lot of first base in Howard's absence and should become the everyday leftfielder after that. Hunter Pence, Galvis and Mayberry are the only position-player regulars under the age of 30.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"They may look different in the way they score runs, but they have the lineup pieces [to win]. . . Cliff Lee looks like himself. Same with Roy Halladay. They are both throwing the ball really well. . . I think Jonathan Papelbon will thrive in Philly. His velocity this spring is 94 to 96 and his slider and split look like quality pitches."

WINTER GRADE: A-

In five years the Nationals turned around their farm system from dead last, according to Baseball America, to best in baseball. That No. 1 ranking was actually released after the club used that asset by trading four prospects to Oakland in exchange for young lefthanded All-Star starter Gio Gonzalez. The club later signed righthanded starter Edwin Jackson and reliever Brad Lidge to one-year deals in hopes of further improving a club that allowed a middle-of-the-pack 643 runs last year (seventh in the NL) and had a 3.58 staff ERA (sixth). The offense remains relatively unchanged after the Nationals failed to sign free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, though the addition -- at some point -- of power-hitting prodigy Bryce Harper should help immensely.

KEY QUESTION: Is Davey Johnson right about the Nationals' rotation?

Johnson, Washington's manager, raised a few eyebrows when earlier this month he compared his best three pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann) to the Phillies' best three pitchers (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels). "Their top three versus our top three, stuff-wise, we match up as good," Johnson said, according to the Washington Post.

That's definitely a bit of a hyperbole given that Philadelphia's trio finished 2-3-5 in last year's NL Cy Young voting, but Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez are only 23, 25 and 26 years old and thus, presumably, still going to get a good bit better. The greater point is, Washington's top three starters are very talented -- but can they translate that stuff into Cy Young-caliber results in 2012?

X-FACTOR: The Outfielders

In Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and Bryce Harper the 2012 Nationals could join the 1941 Yankees and 1963 Twins as only the third club with three outfielders who all hit 30 or more home runs. Each does, however, have at least one small question mark next to his name.

Werth, though he's crushing the ball this spring, had an uncharacteristic down year in 2011; Morse, who ranked eighth in the NL with a .910 OPS last season, hadn't previously enjoyed a comparable full season like that one and now may start the year on the disabled list; and Harper will begin the year in the minor leagues before making his major league debut later in the season.

There's also the matter that, despite GM Mike Rizzo saying the club will fill centerfield internally, various reports have linked the club to every potentially available centerfielder under the sun. Such a trade would, presumably, improve the team's outfield defense though potentially at the cost of offense.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I circle [first baseman] Adam LaRoche as an important guy to be healthy and productive -- and not just in the second half of the season. You don't want to get buried in that division. His at bats weren't great early this spring, but I've watched him in B.P. and he looks healthy. . . Jordan Zimmermann has got a swing-and-miss curve, above-average fastball and shows a feel for the change . . . Bryce Harper can hit but it may come slowly against good, consistent pitching."

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