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Big League Stew

NL East preview: Can anyone take advantage of Philly’s injuries and end the reign?

Kevin Kaduk
Big League Stew

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(Getty/BLS illustration)

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on expected standings and award-winners. Up next is the NL East.

Kevin Kaduk: Aloha, Mr. Brown! In honor of the Philadelphia Phillies, I would like to announce that I'm writing this NL East preview while wearing a soft boot and riding a Rascal while taking grounders on my way to the nearest emergency room.

Actually, I take that all back. I don't think that Ruben Amaro wanted me to say any of that. So my official announcement is that there is no official announcement.

Let's move on, shall we?  This used to be one of the easier divisions to run through. The Phillies have won the NL East five years running and would be considered a near slam dunk for a sixth if they were healthy. But they're getting old and hurt, man! Ryan Howard is still recovering from the worst ending to a playoff appearance (or is it the worst start to a $125 million deal?), Chase Utley's knees are doing an unfortunate impression of Bo Jackson and the Phillies beat writers have more or less become medical transcriptionists with the number of major and minor maladies that have affected the team this spring.

At the same time, they've got the best insurance policy that money can buy with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels heading that rotation and Jonathan Papelbon drawing a huge paycheck to close the games on the back end. Do you think it will it be enough to drag that offense to the right side of health?

David Brown: They do seem particularly vulnerable for a club coming off 102 victories. But I got a stat for you, Kevin: Did you know the Phillies led the National League in runs scored from July 1 forward? You did know, because I mentioned it the other day. I got another stat: A big reason for that was Hunter Pence turning in a 157 adjusted OPS in his 54 games with the City of Lovely Brotherhood. That means he was 57 percent better (using 100 as a baseline) than the average major-league hitter. Is that going to happen again? I doubt he'll be quite that productive, but my point is that Pence is actually the centerpiece of Philly's offense. As long as Jimmy Rollins and Chooch Ruiz and Shane Victorino don't fall off the Earth, the offense will be good enough.

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Emo Chase Utley (AP)

As for who might unseat the Phillies, I'd put your money on the Miami Marlins if they had signed Albert Pujols in the offseason. Or the Atlanta Braves before Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens fell off the health wagon. Or the Washington Nationals if we were living in 2013, '14, '15, '16 or '17, when Stephen Stasburg and Bryce Harper have fully blossomed. But we're not living in those times. None of these challengers are ready for prime time.

'Duk: Yeah, that lack of obvious heirs really is the rub here. Has a team with 72 wins the previous season ever received as much hype as the Marlins have? Look, I love the entertainment that Ozzie Guillen provides and I'm glad they're spending to fill a new stadium, but it's hard to see where they're going to get the additional 20-26 victories it'd take to stop the Phillies reign.

But if they are to make a run, I guess it's going to come from the potential of that pitching staff. Josh Johnson really needs to stay healthy for an entire season and Carlos Zambrano needs to finally put together that big season some suspect he still might have in him. (Did somebody say contract year?)  When it all comes down to it, though, the only guy on that staff you can really count on is Mark Buehrle and his days of being the ace on a division-winning team are over. As are my days of expecting Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco to ever pitch well at the same time.

DB: But the Fish are going to be entertaining. Not just with Ozzie, but the wacky Internet exploits of Logan Morrison and Bryan Petersen (he made the team for ratings reasons, right?). Giancarlo Stanton (formerly Mike Stanton) is twice as colorful now that he's changed his first name. Add the budding bromance of superstars Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez and Heath Bell, perhaps the funniest major leaguer of them all. You see, Kevin, there's more to hold our interest than wondering who wins first place. The Atlanta Braves know all about that, having perfected their role as bridesmaids after having ruled the roost for so long.

[Related: Miami Marlins' home-run display features flamingos, shooting water — and a rainbow]

Let's just imagine, though, that Jason Heyward not only gets through his third season healthy, but does so with a vengeance. And Dan Uggla can put two solid halves together instead of his night and day act of 2011. And Brandon Beachy pitches at an All-Star level. Are we sure we're not being hasty in relegating them to second-class citizens again?

'Duk: Well, I was hasty is wanting to address the ready-for-pay-cable Marlins. But it's curious that people aren't as high on the Braves as they were before last season. Perhaps that's the real cost of their momentous September collapse. Here they thought everyone was just fixated on the Red Sox, but the bill has come due during these preseason predictions. We saw what happened with that team when the rotation fell apart down the stretch and roughly 98 percent of us are convinced that the arms of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters will fall off by tax day.

[Fantasy baseball: All-Bust Team: Derek Jeter isn't only future Hall of Famer you should avoid]

Still, the fact remains that the Braves have one of the best young cores of talent in the game and a lot of yet-realized potential. The right side of the infield with Uggla and Freddie Freeman is probably the best in the division with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley laid up. Brian McCann, meanwhile, is one of the most under-appreciated players in the game, and Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons are pushing each other at short. If Chipper Jones' injuries linger, we could even see super prospect Joe Terdoslavich called up from the minors to try his best at third!

Speaking of midseason call-ups, which date do you have circled for Harperpalooza in D.C.? And will it be for a team looking for a surge in the standings or one that's just trying to sell some tickets?

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A name to watch (AP)

DB: It's the latter. Remember the stir Stephen Strasburg caused when he came up in 2010? Not only in D.C. but on the road, like in Cincinnati, where they were selling his shirsey. I'd expect similar results for Bryce Harper, who I would pencil in for June 11 at Toronto. Road game. International waters. Just after the Nationals series at Boston — where they never lack for selling tickets. The Blue Jays appearance will get him used to catcalls from a spirited opponent's fan base, but also will whet the home folks appetites for Harper's first home game, June 15 against the New York Yankees. His favorite team! I've got this all planned out, Kevin, if only the Nats would listen.

On the whole, I'm excited about the Nats' future — just not so excited that I'm going to pick them to win the division, or make the World Series as Davey Johnson says they can. Strasburg will have an innings limit. Harper will be a rookie. They've got to keep Ryan Zimmerman on the field. Jayson Werth has to get back to being Jayson Werth. I'm not sure what to make of Michael Morse or Ian Desmond. I like all of these guys a lot. I expect to be entertained. I'm just not in love yet.

[Related: Nationals get serious as clubs gear for opening day]

'Duk: Agreed, though I will say that there's a little bit of the Rays '08 vibe going here. Remember what that was like? The Baseball Prospectus computer spit out the prediction of a winning record for a Tampa Bay franchise that had never done such a thing, everyone got their preseason scoffs in and then the Rays went out and reached the World Series after winning the AL East. A lot of the team's success that year was predicated by a value-driven bullpen and maybe these Nats can win in a similar way. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard both have the ability to be cost-effective stars and there's also some veteran value depth in there with guys like Brad Lidge, Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny. Maybe the Nats really do have a chance at the playoffs if everyone's on their game (and healthy) in the bullpen and someone like Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann or Edwin Jackson can lead the rotation after they place Strasburg back into his carbonite for the winter.

Or they could just as easily finish fourth. I've been saying this all offseason, but this NL East really excites me because it seems like it could go so many ways, especially with the addition of that second wild card. The only given, I think, is that the Mets will again struggle. I know they're a lot healthier than usual — hey look, Johan Santana! — and maybe Ike Davis and Lucas Duda can take advantage of those drawn-in Citi Field fences to revamp that offense, but my hopes aren't high. I blame Mike Pelfrey's refusal to blossom into a star. Oh, and the Wilpons for whatever their involvement with Bernie Madoff may have been.

[Related: R.A. Dickey's new memoir reveals he was victim of child abuse]

DB: I'm afraid the best Mets news of the season will be that The Wilpons (and The Katz — don't forget The Katz!) paid off all of their creditors and are staying as owners. Unless that's the worst news of the season. It depends on who you read and believe. Here's what Mets fans can hang their hopes on: Ownership is stable again and Sandy Alderson is still running baseball operations as he was before. The big picture is still kind of bright. Maybe not so bright that we all need to wear shades, but just OK bright. David Wright might stay and get paid now. Matt Harvey is on the verge. This Duda dude. Jason Bay's contract runs out in a couple of years. Mr. Met has never looked better. The Yankees don't even have a mascot, Kevin!

'Duk: And let's not forget that Walkoff Walk's annual Heist is scheduled for Citi Field sometime in early August! If there's anything that signals a franchise is on its way back, it's a visit by assorted baseball blogger types. Just look what it did for the Phillies! And Nats and Pirates!

Seriously, though, this is going to be a great division to keep track of. The Phillies have needed a worthy rival for quite some time now and we're getting closer with every call-up/trip to the trainer's room.

* * *

Predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Phillies, 2. Marlins, 3. Braves, 4. Nationals, 5. Mets
DB: 1. Phillies, 2. Nationals, 3. Marlins, 4. Braves, 5. Mets

'Duk: Jose Reyes, Marlins
DB: Jason Heyward, Braves

NL East Cy Young
'Duk: Cole Hamels, Phillies
DB: Cliff Lee, Phillies

'Duk: Joe Terdoslavich, Braves
DB: Bryce Harper, Nationals

Previous previews: AL East

Coming Thursday: AL Central

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