NL East race should be tight once again

NL East race should be tight once again

Francisco Rodriguez injected himself into the Mets-Phillies rivalry this year when he proclaimed the Mets the team to beat in the National League East in 2009.

Oh, really?

He apparently hadn't heard Jimmy Rollins make that initial claim prior to the 2007 season, during which the Phillies overcame a seven-game deficit with 17 games to play to win their first NL East title since 1993. He also seemingly hadn't heard Mets teammate Carlos Beltran make the same claim in 2008, before the Phillies enjoyed another September comeback against the Mets on their way to their first World Series championship since 1980.

The Mets and Phillies aren't fans of one another, and those unfriendly vibes should continue this season with the Braves, Marlins and Nationals hoping to make things more than a little rough on them.

Here is a look at how the division shapes up:

KEY ADDITIONS
• OF Garret Anderson, Braves
• 2B Emilio Bonafacio, Marlins;
• OF Adam Dunn, Nationals
• OF Raul Ibanez, Phillies
• SP Derek Lowe, Braves
• RP Leo Nunez, Marlins
• SP Scott Olsen, Nationals
• RP Chan Ho Park, Phillies
• RP J.J. Putz, Mets
• RP Francisco Rodriguez, Mets
• SP Javier Vazquez, Braves
• OF Josh Willingham, Nationals

KEY DEPARTURES
• OF Moises Alou, Mets
• 2B Emilio Bonafacio, Nationals
• OF Pat Burrell, Phillies
• RP Kevin Gregg, Marlins
• SP Orlando Hernandez, Mets
• 1B Mike Jacobs, Marlins
• SP Pedro Martinez, Mets
• RP Arthur Rhodes, Marlins
• SP John Smoltz, Braves
• SP Scott Olsen, Marlins
• SP Tim Redding, Nationals
• RP Scott Schoeneweis, Mets
• RP Joe Smith, Mets

BEST LINEUP
The Phillies and Mets tied for second in the National League with 799 runs scored last season, but the Phillies seem primed for an even better year.

2009 DIVISION
PREVIEWS
NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

Chase Utley played with an injured right hip for much of the season, but is expected to be healthy after having offseason surgery. Rollins got off to a slow start, and the Phillies expect him to rebound. And it's scary to think, but Ryan Howard could be better. The Phillies also are expecting good things from Raul Ibanez, who replaces Pat Burrell in left field, and Jayson Werth, who some think could be a 30-30 man. But the Mets certainly have firepower with David Wright, Jose Reyes, Beltran and Carlos Delgado. They shouldn't have problems scoring runs, either.
Our selection: Phillies

BEST ROTATION
There certainly is quality starting pitching in the division. Johan Santana is the Mets' ace. Derek Lowe has joined the Braves' rotation. But it's nearly impossible to find a scout or executive who doesn't love the young talent in the Marlins' rotation: Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, Anibel Sanchez and Andrew Miller. If they stay healthy and continue to develop, they should provide their NL East rivals absolute fits. Meanwhile, the Phillies have four potential 200-inning pitchers in Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton.
Our selection: Marlins

BEST BULLPEN
The Mets blew lead after lead last season -- a remarkable 29 blown saves in all -- but they seemed to rectify the situation when they acquired Rodriguez and setup man J.J. Putz. If K-Rod continues to be a stud and Putz stays healthy, they should find themselves holding onto a few more leads, which could make all the difference in the world in September. The Phillies had the second-best bullpen ERA (3.19) in baseball last season, but can they repeat that type of performance?
Our selection: Mets

BEST DEFENSE
The Phillies have back-to-back Gold Glove winner Rollins at shortstop and a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman in Utley. Shane Victorino won a Gold Glove last year in center field and Carlos Ruiz is a solid catcher, which makes the Phillies very strong up the middle. And Pedro Feliz plays a Gold Glove-caliber third base, too. The Mets have their own solid defenders with Wright at third base, Beltran in center field and Reyes at shortstop, but the Phillies might be just a tad better defensively.
Our selection: Phillies

WILD CARDS
1. Everyone talks about the improvements the Mets made with their bullpen, but the Braves bullpen could be much improved with Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano healthy for the entire year.

2. If J.A. Happ makes the rotation and pitches like the Phillies think he can, he could make one of the deepest rotations in the National League even deeper.

3. Fernando Martinez is the Mets' top prospect, but should the Mets suffer an injury in the outfield and the need arise, Martinez could be somebody who could surprise.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Phillies; 2. Mets; 3. Braves; 4. Marlins; 5. Nationals.

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