NL East is full of contenders

NL East is full of contenders

When the Atlanta Braves developed this addiction to division titles in 1991, their youngest player was Dave Justice, who has now been retired for four years and hits the big four-oh next month.

In the process, the Braves have overcome so many obstacles -- really, valid excuses for not winning -- you'd think they were being run by Penn & Teller, not Cox & Schuerholz.

But one thing they have not had to overcome is a double-barreled threat. In all those title-winning seasons, 14 straight now, never have they had to fight off two contenders, never have two teams finished within five games of them.

The Mets and Phillies now represent a potent one-two punch, against whom 38 games may finally wear down the Braves. If the Nationals shake off a zany spring quickly enough, the jeopardy only compounds.

Safe to say that if he can again bring the Braves home, Bobby Cox -- already the only one to ever earn back-to-back Manager of the Year honors -- will make it a three-peat.

As for the Florida Marlins ... oh, baby. You won't know many of the names in April, but the idea is for them to demand attention by midsummer. The infusion of young talent is exciting, even if batter's box and bullpen will be replaced in Fish Talk by sandbox and playpen.

SCENARIOS

The Braves win if ...
They remain the Braves: All their gutsy moves pan out, while elders like Chipper and Andruw Jones convince the next wave that titles are their birthright.

Possible pitfalls
John Smoltz runs out of bullets and bounce-back, and the symbol of a dynasty turns into a symbol that it's coming to an end.

The Mets win if ...
A buffed team gets merely average seasons out of everyone. Toss in a couple of career years, and it's over by Labor Day.

Possible pitfalls
If Pedro Martinez can't toe the rubber, the princely Mets turn into toads. The rotation could pull its own weight, but not without a lead horse.

opening day 2006
Battle for the Division Titles
• American League: East  |  Central  |  West
• National League:   East  |  Central  |  West

The Phillies win if ...
Pat Gillick's hunch that Citizens Bank Park makes pitching a lower priority proves to be correct.

Possible pitfalls
Tom Gordon can't save himself from the wolves and the bullpen turns the end of games into an eyesore.

The Nationals win if ...
Everybody (Jose Vidro, Cristian Guzman, Jose Guillen, Tony Armas Jr.) has an outbreak of health. At its whole, this is a potent team.

Possible pitfalls
If nobody can catch the ball. The Nats relied on a tight defense to overcome some shortcomings and keep them in the chase last season, but the early line on the infield is, "Duck!"

The Marlins win if ...
They catch lightning in a bottle, have enough mirrors, wear garlic garlands against the division's monsters.

Possible pitfalls
Upset over a shortage of milk and cookies in the clubhouse, they hold their breath until they start turning blue, and manager Joe Girardi sends 'em all to their rooms early.

IMPACT PLAYERS

Top pitcher
Tim Hudson now knows the league, and the league will get to know him for what he is -- filthy and nearly impossible to beat.

MVP
Carlos Delgado will do his habitual 30-100 work and has the perfect platform for breakthrough recognition if he brings the Mets home.

NEW FACES

Billy Wagner, Mets -- He'll save games, and if he senses a soft clubhouse attitude he'll save the Mets from themselves.

Alfonso Soriano, Nationals -- Washington's offense counts on getting a left ... er, lift, from him.

Aaron Rowand, Phillies -- Perfect addition to chase down drives and set up the offense.

Carlos Delgado, Mets -- Consistent production that will make you stand up and cheer.

Paul Lo Duca, Mets -- The first time he replaced Mike Piazza (with the Dodgers) turned out all right.

Edgar Renteria, Braves -- His AL adventure wasn't excellent, but he can make people forget about Furcal.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals -- Last June, drafted (out of the University of Virginia); this June, possible All-Star candidate, though a Gold Glove will have to wait.

Hanley Ramirez, Marlins -- Will future Boston generations talk of the Hex of Hanley? He's that good.

Josh Johnson, Marlins -- Control issues are the only thing that can detain him from making his mark with Team Opportunity.

Anderson Hernandez, Mets -- He may be hard to ignore -- as hard as the Mets try -- as long as Kaz Matsui is still on the payroll.

Joey Devine, Braves -- The kid who last September became the first to ever surrender grand slams in each of his first two MLB games will show how tough and talented he is.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.