NL East rivals poised to challenge Phillies

Gammons: NL East rivals poised to challenge Phils

NL East rivals poised to challenge Phillies
It's the same feeling we have on January 2, after the succession of holidays and escapism passes and reality stares in through the window. The clock runs out on Super Bowl week, the wings and Spam and Velveeta are in the garbage and here we are realizing it's time to drive south, windows open to the rest of the world. And the first thing that comes to mind is Halladay, Oswalt, Lee and Hamels and that Fab Four's curiosity factor, with all due respect to the reigning World Series-champion Giants.

There have been attempts to put the potential of the Phillies' rotation in perspective and contemplate whether or not it will carry the team into October. The contemplating will be fine until Memorial Day, when injuries and human realities put the theoretical and PECOTA into the drawer. There is no doubt the Phillies are going to be very good. Chase Utley should be healthier, Jimmy Rollins will be consumed with proving that his statistical career graphs can be reversed, and it will be fun watching four extraordinarily competitive starting pitchers feed off one another.

But Philadelphia could, in time, prove to be slightly flawed. Jayson Werth's departure leaves the lineup very left-handed. They are reaching the age fault line. It may be a moot point given the 800-900 innings the starting foursome should consume, but they have not added to the bullpen; in fact, they are without their relief-innings leader, Chad Durbin.

And while the Phillies have been the power in the National League East for the past four seasons, keep this in mind: Coming off a year when a cornucopia of talented young players helped put the past in the rear-view mirror, the NL East is building to be a division dominated by the young.

Philadelphia has one of those young colts in right fielder Domonic Brown, who in 93 games between Double-A and Triple-A so improved his plate discipline that he hit 20 homers. Brown is the prototypical Pat Gillick high-ceiling talent -- like Werth and Darnell McDonald, whom Gillick took in 1997 for the Orioles -- who has power, speed, a big arm, size (6-foot-5, 200 pounds). Problem is, he is also left-handed, which may mean that he opens the season platooning with Ben Francisco and/or John Mayberry, but he is potentially a striking force as the season evolves.

Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton were, along with Buster Posey, the position-player faces of the 2010 season. The first two are the lynch pins of the Braves and Marlins, whose development of high-level talent may present more of a threat to the Phillies than many have thought.

Heyward's skills, intelligence, work ethic and understanding of the game was well-documented last season, and he is clearly someone who will not be satisfied with his accomplishments. Add his best friend, first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose .319 average and .898 OPS for Triple-A Gwinnett was remarkable given that he played the season at the age of 20.

"In many ways, Freeman is a more advanced hitter than Heyward," says general manager Frank Wren. "At least for now."

One scout who saw a lot of Freeman offers this report: "His approach is that of someone who's in his fifth or sixth year in the big leagues. He doesn't have raw power, per se, but he has gap power, has a disciplined approach and at the least the power of Adam LaRoche. It's almost impossible to believe that Heyward and Freeman are both 21."

What the Braves love is that Heyward and Freeman carry themselves in such a way that the veterans have instantly respected them. Brian McCann is already a leader, and the core has evolved to the point where Chipper Jones has said he feels rejuvenated. Dan Uggla gives them power in the middle of the infield. Martin Prado gives them versatility. They hope Nate McLouth and Jordan Schafer bounce back.

Granted, once Fredi Gonzalez finishes his first meeting (Bobby Cox won't join the team until Gonzalez has made his introduction), the succession in managers won't be an easy task. But Mickey Mantle replaced Joe DiMaggio, David Gregory replaced Tim Russert and Gonzalez has a stable of young arms to make the transition comfortable.

To go with Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, the Braves have two young impact starters in Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor, whom Wren did not have to trade to get a bat. Craig Kimbrel had 40 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings, Jonny Venters 93 in 83 innings. Scouts love Brandon Beachy, Peter Moylan is experienced and tough and they picked up Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill. Then look down the line at who may be ready during the season: Julio Teheran (243 strikeouts in 239 Minor L:eague innings), Arodys Vizcaino (179 Ks in 172 innings) and Randall Delgado.

"The Braves are on the verge of putting together yet another power pitching staff that could be together for years," says another GM.

There are issues with Atlanta's defense. The Marlins have issues, as well, such as whether or not Chris Coghlan can actually make the transition to center field and Logan Morrison can play every day in left. That said, no one seems too concerned about the offense that Stanton, Morrison, Coghlan, Hanley Ramirez and Gaby Sanchez will put together. They believe Matt Dominguez can be a Gold Glove-quality third baseman whose bat can come.

Ramirez is an elite player when he is focused. Morrison is one of the league's best young potential hitters, and Stanton is ... well ... ridiculous. At 20, he slugged .507 with 22 homers in 100 games. He is 6-5, 240, can fly, but, more than that, he is consumed with learning. He has been working out during the past month at UCLA with his winter mentor, Utley, which tells you he understands who to emulate. He has worked tirelessly on conditioning, plate discipline, hitting concepts and getting to pitches on the inner half of the plate. Stanton has the tools to be a superstar but with the drive to be far more than a tools player and the learning capacity to be not good, but great.

The Marlins think Josh Johnson is close to the best pitcher in the league, and Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad can improve off last season. They think getting Javier Vazquez back into his division of comfort will help rediscover the velocity that was down last season.

Marlins GM Larry Beinfest has addressed what was a gaping bullpen hole by acquiring Ryan Webb -- who but for Heath Bell might have closed in San Diego -- as well as Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn and Randy Choate. "We think we could end up with the bullpen being a position of strength," says Beinfest, who knows all too well how unpredictable bullpens can be.

Washington has Werth and Ryan Zimmerman and now will bring along Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos ("I just love to watch him catch," says one scout).

They've added LaRoche. The pitching may be a year or two away, but they have two franchise players and personalities in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, whose time together in D.C. should begin sometime in 2012. We saw Strasburg. Everyone who meets Harper is struck by his knowledge of and respect for the game; how many 17-year olds want to pattern themselves after George Brett and want his approach to work to be compared to Utley?

When Harper was in high school, he began ordering Marucci bats. Folks at the company were so impressed by him that Kurt Ainsworth, a first-round Draft pick 12 years ago, put together a video advising Harper of the do's and don'ts for a young player with his talent and buildup. It included cameos by Marucci users Utley and Stanton.

The Mets right now are in a dark, uncharted area. But their farm system brought them Ike Davis, they are wisely giving Jenrry Mejia and Wilmer Flores time to develop, so that sometime in 2012 they and Matt Harvey may be the floor of the rebuilding.

What was so unusual about a 2010 season in which Heyward, Stanton, Posey, Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and others hit it big is that so few missed. But prospects are just that. Prospects.

A lot of things can happen to people between the discovery of their tools and the application of their art. Hello, Andy Marte. Twice Ruben Rivera was ranked above Derek Jeter. In 1992, Todd Van Poppel, Roger Salkeld, Rivera and Boston's Frankie Rodriguez were ranked above Pedro Martinez. The year before, Boston's Jeff McNeely was ranked the 20th-best prospect in the game. Jeff Bagwell was 34th, Jim Thome 93rd.

In 2001, Corey Patterson (2), Jon Rauch (4), Sean Burroughs (6) and "Little Unit" Ryan Anderson (8) were ranked among the eight top prospects. Others included Drew Henson (14), Chi-Hui Tsao (15), Antonio Perez (16), Alex Escobar (18), J.R. House (21), and Joe Borchard (23). In 1991, Rich Garces (16) was ranked higher than Mike Mussina (21).

In 2006, Brandon Wood and Jeremy Hermida were 3-4 after Delmon Young and Justin Upton (1 and 2, respectively). In other years, Albert Pujols was 42 (2001), Adrian Gonzalez 89 (2001), Victor Martinez 97 (2002), Dustin Pedroia 77 (2006), Matt Cain 91 (2004), Ryan Braun 49 (2006), Utley 81 (2003), Werth 94 (2003), David Wright 75 (2003), Hanley Ramirez 39 (2004), Vernon Wells 69 (1999). Bernie Williams (77) was below Scott Cooper (68) in 1990. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the No. 1 prospect in 2007.

They're human. It happens. In the world of the NL East, how the Braves, Marlins and, eventually, the Nationals develop will be nearly as interesting as watching the firm of Halladay, Oswalt, Lee and Hamels in 2011.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.