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Big League Stew

NL East Preview: The Nationals and the Braves are battling for first, can the Phillies keep up?

Big League Stew

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(AP photos / BLS Illustration)

With opening day mere days away, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the baseball season ahead. David Brown and Mike Oz will examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few critical players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and break-out stars. Next up: the National League East.

Home of sexy-World Series pick-Washington Nationals, the Atlanta Uptons Braves, the doubly sad New York Mets and Miami Marlins, plus the could-go-either-way Philadelphia Phillies, this is the NL East. Let's predict, shall we?

[Also: NL Central Preview: Reds, Cardinals still looking good]

BIG QUESTIONS

Have the Braves added enough Uptons to beat the Nationals to first place? Don't think so. Maybe if Kate could play too. The Atlanta outfield looks nice, sure. B.J. and Justin could be great, or, just as easily, could be OK. There are a couple more "ifs" in the Braves lineup than the Nationals. Let's be clear, though: They're both loaded with talent and this should be a joust for first place that we'll be watching 'til the end. (MO)

[AL East Preview: How good are the Blue Jays?]

Will Bryce Harper be as good as we're all expecting? Scroll down. See who we both picked as this division's MVP. There's your answer. Yes. We all know Harper's potential. From what we saw toward the end of last season and this spring, he should only be better in 2013. Unless he goes on a wicked Chipotle bender because of all those free burritos. Alas, that probably is not going to happen. Jayson Werth's beard would not allow it. (MO)

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Has father time caught up with Ryan Howard and the Phillies? (AP)

Are the Phillies locked into the middle of the pack? They're in a precarious situation. There are two teams at the top of the division that are clearly better -- maybe than anyone else in the NL. That does leave a wild card spot to play for, but when you need Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay to all return to form, and for Delmon Young to come through as one of your big offseason acquisitions -- after Ben Revere and Michael Young -- you're asking for a lot. The Phillies had to claw just to get back to .500 last year. It's certainly possible they could contend for the playoffs, but it's more likely that GM Ruben Amaro and father time have allowed attrition to take too much of a semi-dynasty away. It's not like the farm system is poised to produce much. Most of their prospects have been traded. The Phillies have gotten used to winning, but pride might be getting in the way of practicality. (DB)

Is the Mets pitching good enough to keep them from losing 100 games? Maybe. Not that it's great pitching, but it's better than their offense. Have you seen the Mets outfield? If so, let them know because it seems to be missing. Marlon Byrd has won the right field spot after it appeared he had retired. Your choices in center are Collin Cowgill and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. That would be a great setup in Las Vegas, where the Mets Triple-A team is. Lucas Duda might hit some home runs. If he's more like 2011 Duda than 2012 Duda, the Mets will be OK in left. Except on defense. They should have kept Jason Bay. That's how bad it is out there.

Oh, yes, Mets pitching. The best parts are youngsters Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler (who still has to break through to the majors). The future is definitely bright there. Shaun Marcum would be a nice pickup, but he's having trouble avoiding the DL. Johan Santana will start the season on the DL as well. And opening-day starter Jonathan Niese is ... nice. Dillon Gee is the kind of guy who fills out rotations. Boy, this unit seemed better when we were talking about the outfield. (DB)

[Also: Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki stands alone as baseball's most dominant SS]

Will the Marlins trade Giancarlo Stanton, because they've already traded everyone else? That one seems to answer itself. If they were going to unload him, they would have already. You don't want until after the garage sale is over to bring out more stuff. The Marlins say he's the franchise and building everything around him — no matter how frustrated it might make Stanton — is the way to go. Maybe they're expecting him to hit 60 home runs and up his stock even more. He'll have to, if they want a respectable record. But if the Marlins were waiting until they're out of contention to move Stanton, like they did Hanley Ramirez last year, then they're already too late. (MO)

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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Roy Halladay: Ol' dependable Doc is not so dependable anymore. Halladay, 35, seems to be at a crossroads. He was hurt last year and had an out-of-character rough season (11-8, 4.49 ERA). He hasn't looked his old self this spring either. Can he overcome a lack of velocity and regain Cy Young caliber results?

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Justin Ruggiano is a Marlin to keep an eye on. (AP)

Denard Span: Acquired from Minnesota in an offseason trade, Span is the centerfielder/lead-off hitter the Nationals needed. A former first-round pick, Span showed lots of potential with the Twins and could be, at 29, ready to show baseball what he's truly capable of. If he can post a line like he did in 2009 (.311/.392/.415 with 23 stolen bases to boot), the Nats will be mighty happy.

Justin Ruggiano: Giancarlo Stanton is the best player on the Miami Marlins, we know this. But one guy who might be a bright spot for the lowly Marlins is Ruggiano. He's not a traditional prospect. He's 30 and spent years in the minors, up and down with Tampa. He impressed as a first-year Marlin in 2012, hitting .313/.374/.535 with 12 homers and 13 stolen bases in 91 games.

Kris Medlen: If he can do over 32 starts what he did in 12 last season, yikes, he'll be a monster. What Medlen did was go 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA, coming off Tommy John surgery. The Uptons are talk of the offseason for Atlanta, but if Medlen can have a 2013 that's even close to what he did in '12, he'll be crucial as the Braves battle the Nats.

Travis d'Arnaud: When does he get called up so the future might begin in Queens? The Mets have these things to look forward to in 2013: hosting the all-star game, the arrival of the aforementioned Zack Wheeler and of catching prospect d'Arnaud. He was acquired by the Mets in the R.A. Dickey trade and is the backstop of the future.

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PREDICTIONS

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Julio Teheran of the Braves is a top rookie in the NL East. (AP)

Order of Finish
Mike Oz:
1. Nationals
2. Braves
3. Phillies
4. Mets
5. Marlins

David Brown:
1. Nationals
2. Braves
3. Phillies
4. Mets
5. Marlins

NL East MVP
Oz: Bryce Harper (Nationals)
DB: Bryce Harper (Nationals)

NL East Cy Young
Oz: Stephen Strasburg (Nationals)
DB: Stephen Strasburg (Nationals)

NL East Rookie of the Year:
Oz: Andrelton Simmons (Braves)
DB: Julio Teheran (Braves)

NL East Break-Through Star
Oz: Jordan Zimmermann (Nationals)
DB: Domonic Brown (Phillies)

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Up next: AL Central
Already: AL East

Are you ready for opening day?
Follow @MikeOz, @AnswerDave and @bigleaguestew on Twitter, along with the BLS Facebook page.

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