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Monardo: NL East is baseball’s most exciting division

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It includes baseball’s best team from 2011, a bevy of young talent, the most-renovated entity in the universe, the best bullpen in baseball and the New York Mets.

Welcome to the National League East, the most intriguing division in baseball.

Pinstripes, century-old curses and the impressive Rays have been fun, but it is time for the baseball world to shift some of its focus to the National League version of the AL East.

It seems fitting to begin at the top. The Phillies, having won an MLB-best 102 games last season, will try to approach that impressive total again. Bad for the Phils are the departure of Roy Oswalt and the Achilles injury that will sideline their All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard for as much as two months. Good for the Phillies are Halladay, Lee and Hamels, along with Rollins, Pence, and Victorino. That will be more than good enough.

Finishing second in the division last year, with 89 wins, the Atlanta Braves missed the playoffs after an embarrassing September collapse. Sophomore slugger Jason Heyward was injured and awful all year, the bullpen burned out down the stretch and second baseman Dan Uggla struggled to get his batting average above .200 during the first half of his introductory season with the Bravos.

However, there is much more to be optimistic about with the Braves than there is to be all ‘Houston-Astros-fan’ about. Uggla’s forearms are back and bigger than ever, and Heyward is a serious bounce-back candidate. Their last two weeks notwithstanding, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel pitched the best combined eighth and ninth innings of baseball in the majors, and seventh-inning specialist Eric O’Flaherty was absolute fire coming out of the bullpen, posting a 0.98 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 73.2 innings of work. With three highly-touted arms in Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino ready to transition to the major leagues, the Braves’ bullpen should only get better.

Another major story concerning the Braves is the nearing departure of Chipper Jones, who has pegged this season as his last. Entering his 19th season, the future Hall of Famer has already admitted he isn’t sure if his body will survive the season. Braves fans can almost certainly expect it won’t, especially since he will start the season on the DL. As it prepares to watch the face of its franchise’s golden age retire, Braves country should stand and cheer every time Larry trots out to third base this season. Standing ovation every inning. Seriously.

The Washington Nationals served as the division’s median last year and racked up 81 victories for the first winning season in team history, as the Nats escaped from the NL East cellar for the first time since 2007. Amazingly, Washington made progress despite losing super-ace Stephen Strasburg, who pitched 24 innings in September, striking out 24 batters and accumulating an ERA of 1.50, to Tommy John surgery. With Strasburg back and outfielder Bryce Harper on the way out of the minor leagues, Washington should have no problem improving. In fact, the duo of Strasburg and Harper alone makes the Nationals one of the most interesting and promising teams in the sport. The Nationals add reliever Brad Lidge to a bullpen that features Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen and bring in starters Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to join Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Also, first baseman Michael Morse has Giancarlo Stanton power.

Speaking of Giancarlo, the Miami Marlins are begging for center stage after only 72 wins in 2011. New stadium, new logo, new uniform, new colors, new manager, new shortstop, new reliever, and a new name for their beast right fielder – but will they be the same dysfunctional Marlins? Perhaps Ozzie Guillen has the magic recipe (which, somehow, requires two of the best shortstops in baseball). Either way, the Marlins made the biggest splash of the offseason by luring Jose Reyes south and Heath Bell east. If they don’t implode, the Marlins could do something – If.

Infinitely less interesting, the Mets will finish last.

Contact Joseph Monardo at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.