Phillies, Mets, Braves to go back at it

Phillies, Mets, Braves back at it

It would be extremely difficult for Philadelphia to duplicate the fantastic finish that clinched the National League East crown on the final day of the 2007 regular season. But don't bet against the Phillies repeating as division champs.

While the New York Mets and newly acquired two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana figure to remain one of the better teams in the league -- as does Atlanta, with Tom Glavine back home for the first time since 2002 -- the Phillies head to Spring Training as the team to beat in the division.

The Phillies, Mets and Braves had three of the top five offenses in the NL last year, and with star power like MVP Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell of the Phillies; New York's David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Moises Alou and Jose Reyes and Atlanta's Chipper Jones, Jeff Francoeur, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann, the East beasts figure to score runs at a frenetic pace again in 2008 and battle it out well into September.

The Washington Nationals will try to climb into the fray with what should be their best team since the franchise moved from Montreal, while rebuilding Florida begins the post Dontrelle Willis-Miguel Cabrera era.


The favorite

Phillies
Sure, they lost Aaron Rowand, but they also added Pedro Feliz to play third, upgraded their rotation by moving Brett Myers from the bullpen and added Brad Lidge to close. Bringing in Geoff Jenkins and So Taguchi should help negate the loss of Rowand. With everyone healthy, the Phillies have an infield that sets the standard in the league with Rollins at shortstop, All-Star second baseman Utley and slugging first baseman Howard. There's every reason to believe this offense will be as good, if not better, than last year's, which averaged 5.5 runs per game and led the NL with 892. Combined with what should be better pitching -- Philadelphia ranked 11th in the league in team and bullpen ERA last season -- the Phillies may not need another photo finish to win the division in 2008.

Projected regular-season finish: NL East champions

Biggest ST challenge: The Phillies are just about set, but they must make certain Myers makes a seamless transition from the bullpen to the rotation. If his arm isn't up to the change in regimen, it could impact others on the staff.

Best position battles: Veterans Jayson Werth and Jenkins are expected to share right-field duties, as Shane Victorino will move to center to replace departed Gold Glove winner Rowand. Recently signed Taguchi will also get some time in right.

Wild card: Injuries nearly kept the Phillies out of the playoffs last year and, with shaky depth at key positions, it is imperative the Phils keep Utley, Howard and Rollins healthy if they are going to repeat.

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The challengers

Mets
After blowing a seven-game lead with 17 to play and losing the division crown to Philadelphia on the final day of the regular season, the Mets should be itching to redeem themselves this season. With the exception of replacing Glavine with Santana, the Mets hadn't made any high-profile acquisitions this offseason and personnel-wise are very similar to last year's team. The question is will this talented team use the September face plant as a wakeup call, or will it underachieve again in '08? The Mets lost Glavine to division-rival Atlanta, but should have a healthy Pedro Martinez back for the whole season. New York also added catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church, who take over for Paul Lo Duca and Shawn Green, respectively. The rest of the cast returns, which means the Mets have the talent to win the pennant. Just like last year.

Projected regular-season finish: Second place

Biggest ST challenge: Duaner Sanchez must demonstrate he's healthy if he's going to be the bullpen boost the Mets are counting on. The fifth starter's spot was shaping up as an interesting competition between Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber, but Santana's arrival means the rotation is set, so Pelfrey will have to win a spot in the bullpen or return to the Minors for more seasoning (while Humber reports to the Twins).

Best position battles: Church, acquired from Washington in the Lastings Milledge trade, will compete with Endy Chavez for the starting job in right field, assuming the hamstring Chavez injured playing winter ball has healed.

Wild card: Martinez. The Mets are an excellent team, and adding Santana might put them over the top, but Santana's arrival could be negated somewhat if Martinez isn't his old self.

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Braves
After five years in New York, Glavine returns to Atlanta to rejoin a staff that also includes two other 200-inning workers from last season, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, and the best bullpen in the division. The addition of Glavine, having first baseman Teixeira for a full season and the acquisition of center fielder Mark Kotsay should make the Braves more formidable than they were in 2007. Remember this was a team that had the third-best team ERA (4.11) in the league last year, and among NL teams only the Phillies and Rockies scored more runs than the Braves (810).

Projected regular-season finish: Third place

Biggest ST challenge: Determining the back end of the rotation, especially considering injured lefty Mike Hampton's status, is the priority. Hampton, Jair Jurrjens, Jo-Jo Reyes (12-1 in the Minor Leagues last season) Buddy Carlyle and Chuck James are among the possibilities for the final two spots, although James appears to be the favorite for the No. 4 spot behind Smoltz, Hudson and Glavine.

Best position battles: With Andruw Jones and his power gone from center, the Braves could use more production from left field, where Matt Diaz and Brandon Jones are set to battle for the starting job. Center fielder Josh Anderson, acquired from Houston, could also see time in left.

Wild card: The Braves do not have a lot of depth, and injuries to any of the key contributors could be critical to their playoff hopes.

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The long shot

Nationals
They didn't have a starting pitcher with more than seven wins last year, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is coming off November wrist surgery. Zimmerman is reportedly healthy, and if others who missed time last year because of injury like Nick Johnson, Cristian Guzman, John Patterson and Shawn Hill can come back strong, the Nationals should be better than the team that finished 73-89 last year, particularly if holdovers like Dmitri Young and Chad Cordero can maintain their level of production. The Nationals have added potential offense in Elijah Dukes (10 homers and 21 RBIs in 52 games last year), catcher Johnny Estrada and outfielder Milledge (acquired from the Mets), joining Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena (eight homers in 37 games after the Nationals acquired him from Boston last summer).

Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place

Biggest ST challenge: Setting a pitching staff, where the only lock at this point is Cordero at closer.

Best position battles: The left-field and center-field situations bear watching, as Dukes is expected to challenge Pena in left and perhaps Milledge in center for playing time. Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera and Jesus Colome led the bullpen last year, and beyond those three and Cordero, their other slots are up for grabs.

Wild card: The Nationals aren't going to the postseason this year, but if healthy, they do have enough talent to make things interesting.

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Maybe next year

Marlins
When you have a team that finished 20 games under .500 with the worst ERA in the league as well as the worst fielding percentage, then subtract Cabrera and Willis from the equation, it is hard to see how the Marlins will climb out of the cellar in 2008. Florida does have talented young prospects, like Andrew Miller, to feel optimistic about the future, but that future lies beyond 2008.

Projected regular-season finish: Last place

Biggest ST challenge: The Marlins are in good shape at a few spots, most notably shortstop (Hanley Ramirez), second base (Dan Uggla), left field (Josh Willingham) and right field (Jeremy Hermida) and the top two spots in the rotation, but beyond those, as much as a third of the other roles must be determined as the rebuilding Marlins have numerous questions to answer. The challenge will be getting all of the necessary work done before rosters must be set.

Best position battles: Battles will abound in Jupiter, with the starting catcher and third baseman among the many jobs up for grabs.

Wild card: Although extremely unlikely, there's enough high ceiling young talent on hand to possibly lift the Fish from the bottom, but that would require several of the youngsters in question to blossom concurrently, and in this division that still might not be enough.

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You read it here first ...

1) At 29, healthy and entering his fourth full season in the Majors, the stars are aligned for All-Star second baseman Utley to be the 2008 NL MVP.

2) Martinez is in the season-opening rotation and is effective at times, but overall shows he isn't the dominant 200-inning pitcher he was before rotator cuff surgery.

3) Dukes makes the most of a fresh start with the Nationals as he beats out Milledge for the starting center fielder's job.

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