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NL East MLB Fantasy Preview


Fantasy owners love hype. They feed off it, and they even tend to guide their selections with it.

That's why it makes sense to open our fantasy baseball preview with a peek at the NL East, where the Marlins made some of the biggest splashes of the winter in adding Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and most recently Carlos Zambrano. The Nationals also will make headlines with A's starter Gio Gonzalez joining Stephen Strasburg and 19-year-old Bryce Harper in the club's effort to become a legit contender.

But in the NL East this season, it may be what is not hyped that will lead fantasy owners to titles.

It will be easy to forget the Phillies still boast three top-10 fantasy starting pitchers and the Braves have an embarrassment of pitching riches and young talent.

The NL East is going to be a very competitive division with the incumbent Phillies getting old quickly, the Braves coming off a collapse and the Marlins and Nats the aggressive new money on the block. Only the Mets will be worthless in the headlines and at the box office.

Who wins here will be determined by which sleepers or breakouts soar for fantasy owners. Will it be Tommy Hanson? Jason Heyward? Josh Johnson? Strasburg? Harper?

Let's see what the summer months will bring as we break down the projected lineups, rotations, bullpens, sleepers, busts and breakouts in the NL East in predicted order of finish:

The skipper said it this winter:

"Once we added Hunter Pence last year, actually that's when Mayberry really started coming on, that's when he picked up," Charlie Manuel said. "We think he has a chance to be an everyday player, and we'll find out."

Key question:When will Howard return?

Howard looks like he will miss at least the first month of the season, and it will be interesting see where he will be drafted. The Achilles' injury shouldn't keep Howard from doing what he does best: Hitting homers and driving in runs. He will be a nice in-season upgrade for fantasy owners, but the question is how long do you have to wait for him and where does the reward outweigh the risk. The spring should help with this question.

Sleeper: John Mayberry, OF

Mayberry had a career breakthrough as a 27-year old and now will be given the chance to start for a top contender. If you project those numbers for a full season, we could be looking at 25 homers and 90 RBI.

Bust: Shane Victorino, OF

He has been a solid fantasy player who has been under-drafted for years, but he is now 31. Age and injury risk should worry you for someone that is going to be drafted as high as he ever has, but the reality is he is on the back end of his prime.

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Breakout: Domonic Brown, OF

The Phillies really want him to spend a season in Triple-A, but the reality is the aging Phillies are going to need this 24-year-old wunderkind sooner rather than later. Brown will be an elite fantasy player, but the question is just how soon.

The skipper said it this winter:

"I talk to Zambrano almost every day -- we don't talk, we just text message each other -- and I got a bet with somebody; I will tell you: He will win a lot of games for the team," Ozzie Guillen said. "He is right now."

Key question:Will Hanley be healthy again?

Ramirez is coming off a terrible year and shoulder surgery. If he is healthy, he is going to be a monster in the middle of this lineup. The move to third will also add position versatility, although you're pretty certain to use him at shortstop in fantasy for as long as your league's rules permit. Spring Training will give is a good idea of just how high Ramirez should go. Going in, he is not a first-rounder.

Sleeper: Josh Johnson, RHP

He is in the injury-risk category, coming off his own shoulder woes. A healthy Johnson, though, has the potential to be a top-five fantasy starter. The Marlins gave him plenty of rest, so if you have swallow the shoulder questions you can get someone that will dramatically outperform his draft position.

Bust: Jose Reyes, SS

He is coming off a career year before a huge free-agent contract. We have seen this movie before. Reyes is great player, when healthy, but he really isn't a batting champ and might not even hit .300 again. He is going to be the most over-drafted Marlin, even if he is still going to be a very productive fantasy player.

Breakout: Mike Stanton, OF

He has already hit 34 homers with 87 RBI in his first full season at age 21. He is going to be a 40-homer, 100-RBI threat for years, particularly with the wheels he has in the lineup ahead of him. He can drive in a lot of runs even with singles. If he stays within himself, he could become the most productive outfielder in fantasy as early as this season.

The skipper said it this winter:

"I think what we saw in September of last year, with Delgado and Minor, obviously Minor did it more than other guys, you feel like you could -- you could carry those guys in rotation," Fredi Gonzalez said. "Can you carry three of them? Maybe not.

"But we seem to have a knack, the Atlanta Braves have a knack of plugging one guy in that rotation, and it kind of keeps flourishing. I would feel comfortable using those guys in rotation, if not all of them. If they're all in rotation, that means something bad happened with a couple of those guys."

Key question:Are Heyward and Hanson healthy enough to take off?

The Braves are going to be a big-time team if Hanson is an ace and Heyward has the Stanton-like season he is capable of. Both were huge disappointments last season and the Braves were still close to being in the playoffs and a World Series threat. We are going to learn a lot about both in Spring Training.

"Hanson, he went down to Instructional League and started doing some strengthening exercises on his shoulders, and I think he's going to be fine," Gonzalez said.

Sleeper: Jason Heyward, OF

If you miss out on Stanton, Heyward is going to be a nice option rounds later. He struggled with his shoulder and the consistency of his swing, but he has 30-100-100-30 potential. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see him even outproduce Stanton in fantasy because of the steals and better strikeout-to-walk rate.

Bust: Tim Hudson, RHP

Hudson is coming off a great year, but he is going to turn 37 this season and is recovering from back surgery that he held off on until the offseason. Back surgery is as dangerous to pitchers as shoulder surgery. Hudson still has value, but he is a dangerous bet at his age and coming off surgery.

Breakout: Tommy Hanson, RHP

Hanson, like the Marlins' Johnson, is capable of being a top-five fantasy starter but he will be drafted far lower than that because of the shoulder questions. If Hanson is healthy enough to reach 200 innings -- a tall order with the embarrassment of riches the Braves have in terms of young starters capable of chipping in to keep Hanson regulated -- he is capable of winning 20 games and striking out 220 batters.

The skipper said it this winter:

(On Harper making the team this spring) "You know, it's is he the best candidate out there? I mean, is he going to make our club stronger?" Davey Johnson said. "I'd like another left-hander batting in the lineup. Right fielder is probably going to hit seventh in the lineup. I'd like to kind of have a more balanced lineup.

"So, I'm open for him competing for a spot. Whether he can handle it or whether he makes it in June or July. I said in the spring, guys were asking me, when do you think Harper is going to get there, I said I think he's going to have to go back to the big leagues when he's 19. So, he's 19.

"... But I think that the main thing is that I think, could he handle it mentally? And I think in his mind he's already figuring to be starting on the club, if you ask him. And I haven't talked to him, but I know that he's done everything in his whole life to succeed at a higher level and compete with the best.

" ... I had to fight for a young pitcher, who was 19 years old in New York (Dwight Gooden), and just keep an open mind and let's see what he does in the spring. And then evaluate whether he makes the club or not. And after many conversations I finally got him to agree to that. And the rest is history."

Key question:Is Strasburg ready to take off coming off Tommy John?

Strasburg has the potential to be the best pitcher in baseball as soon as this season, which could be his first full year in the majors coming off major elbow surgery. The Nats limited Zimmermann to around 160 innings, but could they possibility do that with Strasburg, particularly if the Nats stay in the race until late in the season? If Strasburg reaches even 180 innings, he can be a top-five fantasy ace.

Sleeper: Bryce Harper, OF

He might not be draftable in a standard league if he gets sent to Double-A in mid-spring, but he could produce a .280-20-50 stat line after June, which would make him a fantasy star. The problem considering him a sleeper, though, is that it is more likely his name and hype will get him drafted far sooner than a 19-year-old hitter should ever be considered.

Bust: Stephen Strasburg, RHP

This, by no means, is to stay Strasburg is going to go bust, but he has so many bust-like traits: 1. He is highly hyped; 2. He is coming off injury; 3. He could be held to an innings limit; 4. And he will get picked before hundreds of players proven over a full season. He is about as high risk and high reward as it gets.

Breakout: Jordan Zimmermann, RHP

He is in a perfect spot. While everyone watches the Strasburg and Harper freak shows this spring -- maybe even offseason acquisition Gonzalez -- Zimmermann is going to fly under the radar in terms of headlines and fantasy awareness. Zimmermann is a much better bet to approach 200 innings than Strasburg. If Zimmermann gets to that level, he could win 15-plus games with 200 strikeouts and a sub-3.00 ERA. That's top-10 starting pitcher stuff right there, at a fraction of the cost.

The skipper said it this winter:

"I think you've got to put Dan Murphy's name in (the second base) mix," manager Terry Collins said. "We had so many candidates trying out for second base that, as you remember, I played Dan at third some games, I played him at first some games, I played him sporadically at second base. I think this spring going in if we concentrate and say hey, look, you're going to get the majority of your playing time at second base, I think you're going to see a little bit more comfort when he takes the field."

Key question:Is Santana's shoulder going to allow him to pitch?

The Mets are confident Santana will be ready for Spring Training, as he has been working in a throwing program for months. The question is whether he is going to be able to handle regular work and bounce back from pitching every fifth day. That's a $100 million question that won't be answered until midseason at earliest. Santana is merely a late-round flier, particularly since the Mets are not a winner that gives him much of a chance even if he stays healthy.

Sleeper: Jason Bay, OF

Bay has had two disastrous seasons in New York, but now at least the fences are being moved in. That gives him a chance to be a .280-25-90 outfielder again, and you will be able to snatch him up with a late-round pick.

Bust: Dillon Gee, RHP

You actually have to have value to be a bust. The Mets don't have value anywhere. You could consider Wright a potential bust, but he has been multiple years in a row now. He is more likely to fall to a reasonable draft position finally. Let's go with Gee, who went 13-6 as a starter last season. He shouldn't be drafted in most fantasy leagues, but his record might get him picked. He is more likely to be out of the Mets rotation in midseason than still on a good fantasy roster.

Breakout: Ike Davis, 1B

He looked capable of becoming a fantasy star in 129 at-bats last season, hitting .302 with seven homers and 25 RBI. That is a .300-30-100 pace. He won't be that good in his first full season, especially since there are still questions about his ankle, but he can be a player drafted late -- or not at all -- that winds up being a must-have producer by the end of the season.

We will be breaking down all of the divisions like this leading up to the magical words of February: Pitchers and catchers report.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there and takes them very personally.