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NL East preview: Phillies shoot for fourth straight division title

Big League Stew

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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 standings and award-winners. Up next is the NL East:

DB: Well, Mr. ‘Duk we've entered the home stretch. Only 33 percent of the divisions to go. Next up, the NL East, which has sent the league's representative to the World Series the past two seasons. That team, the Philadelphia Phillies, is vying to become the first NL club in 66 years to reach the World Series three straight seasons. Bobby Cox's juggernaut in Atlanta couldn't do that in the 1990s. Neither could Sparky's Big Red Machine or Lasorda's Dodgers in the 1970s. This could be a once-in-a-generation kind of ballclub in Philly. Now, obviously they have the wild card cushion, and the Braves sure look hungry for the playoffs in Bobby Cox's last year. But regardless, are these Phillies ready and able to be the best team in the National League again?

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'Duk: I was going to go ahead and say that the third time is a charm, but that would be completely wrong in this context. So I'll just go ahead and say that the odds are quite good that Meech might have to call up Pat Riley to ask him about licensing "three-peat" for his online t-shirt shop.

But by no means do I think it will be an easy route for the Phillies in 2010. They're already dealing with injuries on their pitching staff — Joe Blanton(notes), Brad Lidge(notes) and J.C. Romero(notes) are already on the DL — and they're coming off two straight seasons that saw them play deep into October and then into early November. Raul Ibanez(notes) is already looking creaky, so they'll have to hope he can last until Domonic Brown's arbitration clock is agreeable to a callup. The onus is really going to be on Ruben Amaro Jr. and Charlie Manuel to be resourceful and get their team through another 162 games before the October and November sprint.

Still, if their bullpen comes together and the back of that rotation does its job — admittedly no small feats — the lineup is always going to be there. As I've said on the Stew in the past, this Phillies team is the reason most of us follow baseball. They've been able to put together a once-in-a-lifetime core with all of their usual suspects. They've been fun to watch, even if you're not from Philadelphia.

DB: Definitely fun, even if you're just into big ol' beards and not baseball. But despite Phillies appearing frequently on TV, these guys are more than images. They're in position to make history because they're good at baseball, not commercials. Which brings me to Cole "Hollywood" Hamels. Granted, some key stats like his opponents' batting average on balls in play indicated he was an unlucky boy last year, but even his pitching coach said Hamels needed keep his nose closer to the grindstone and work harder to improve. With all of these early injuries, Hamels is going to need to be his 2008 self.

With him and Roy Halladay(notes) dealing at the top, it gives J.A. Happ(notes), Kyle Kendrick(notes) and Jamie Moyer(notes) a chance to do their own thing and keep the score close. If the offense can operate at max efficiency, it will be more than enough to compensate for the injured pitchers until the return. Or for Ruben Amaro to do something about the closer and get a new guy, which he probably should have done in the offseason. It's not like the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins aren't going to attack the obvious weakness up there in Philly.

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'Duk: Those Braves sure seem destined for the NL wild card, don't they? They were right in the thick of things until choking on the final week last season and I think they and the Phillies will form an iron-fisted grip on two NL playoff spots. Kind of like how the Yankees and Red Sox used to do before Andrew Friedman and the Rays came rambling along.

There are plenty of things to like about Atlanta, which features maybe the best mix of young and old talent in the majors. Tommy Hanson(notes), Jason Heyward(notes), Jair Jurrjens(notes) and Yunel Escobar(notes) will show Braves fans the future while Chipper Jones(notes), Tim Hudson(notes), Billy Wagner(notes) and Derek Lowe(notes) remind them of the past. Brian McCann(notes) is a power-hitting bridge between the two generations. Our pal Jay Busbee has reason to be excited down on Peachtree Street.

DB: Who? Oh, sure. Marbles. Two things about Busbee's Braves, and it's not like they're secrets. One, you mentioned the pitching staff. Didn't Lowe start opening day for them last year? He did, actually, and he pitched two-hit ball against the Phillies. But over the long haul, he wasn't a No. 1. With Hudson back, he's something like ATL's No. 4 starter which is a great thing if he's healthy. Here's the other thing: Jason Heyward. Everybody has read up on the car damage the young man has caused this spring with home runs and other deep flies onto wind shields. Bobby Cox might be in manager love with him. He's certainly been hyped more than enough, to the point that expectations might not be real anymore.

But if he's the Next Great Player, that might change everything — even more than we've anticipated. If — if — Heyward is an All-Star caliber player and if Chipper rebounds after a rare blah season, these guys are going to score many more runs than they did last year. With their starting pitching, this could be a real threat to the Phillies. I agree, though: They're a playoff team and the Marlins will have to swim along in third place.

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'Duk: Your point about the Braves needing to score more runs is well-founded — Chipper says he might retire and walk away from two well-paid years if he doesn't produce enough of them — but I'd like to add that I'm expecting big years from Hudson and Lowe this season. Call it a Fountain of Youth hunch.

Tell you what, though: Those Florida Fish have an awfully good pitching staff of their own. Josh Johnson(notes) got Greinke-type money over the offseason and Ricky Nolasco(notes) looks like he might finally be putting it together to become a No. 1A starter. Anibal Sanchez(notes) and Chris Volstad(notes) need to find their hidden potential, but watch out if they do.

The lineup again hinges on Hanley Ramirez(notes), whom they expected to have this season and Dan Uggla(notes), whom perhaps they did not. Throw in reigning ROY Chris Coghlan(notes), Jorge Cantu(notes) and newcomer Gaby Sanchez(notes) and Fredi Gonzalez has a good chance at cooking that South Florida magic that always seems to come together. In fact, put these guys in either Central Division and I think you'd have a strong contender.

DB: The Fish are one of my favorite teams to watch, actually. Hanley Ramirez is enjoyable to watch, even if his personality is ... less enjoyable. It kind of makes sense, actually. It's an organization of contradictions. One that's won two World Series in recent history, blown the team up twice, can't attract fans to games, still has no institutional identity and is delivering a new ballpark. In player personnel-terms, it's really well-run. It will be exciting to see what another season in the minors did for Cameron Maybin(notes).

I'm not all that sold on their outfield as a whole, though. I have this thing about Chris Coghlan, as you know, and Cody Ross(notes) is hurt to start the season. It's not a great team, but it has some great parts. They'll push the Braves and Phillies to a point. The next part of the division won't be as competitive.

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'Duk: Does that mean we have to discuss the rest of the division? Aw c'mon, ma! Do I have to?

OK, since I'm sounding a little bit like Jason Bay(notes) when presented a contract offer from Omar Minaya, let's talk about the Mets, They've done quite a job of keeping the Cubs, Royals, Padres and the Nationals out of the late night headlines and I honestly have to feel quite sorry for their fans. That team's a mess no matter which way you look at it and their two reasons to feel like this year might be different from the last — Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran(notes) — will begin their bounce back years on the disabled list. There's just no way that Johan Santana(notes), Jason Bay and David Wright(notes) drag the rest of that mish-mash squad to the top half of this division. None.

DB: I was hoping you'd discuss the Nationals first, actually. I think, if we just pretend that Stephen Strasburg(notes) and Bryce Harper are there, they become quite palatable. Am I getting ahead of myself? Absolutely, but why dwell on the depressing present? OK, here's a tactic: Just focus on certain parts of the Nats, and it's easy to put a smile on your face. Take your doppelganger, 3B Ryan Zimmerman(notes). One of the best infielders in the game. Not quite Longoria, but much better than, say, Eric Bruntlett(notes).

I am really curious to see if shortstop Ian Desmond(notes) has progressed as much as his call-up stint and spring training performance indicated. Nyjer Morgan(notes), I love to watch play and can't wait to interview about hockey. Adam Dunn(notes) is an OPS donkey machine. Josh Willingham(notes) is always on the verge of being traded. The rest of the roster, I have no comment on. Oh, manager Jim Riggleman: A nice man.

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'Duk: Quite the fitness buff as well, that Riggs! I guess Nationals fans should be happy they can selectively look at these pieces and be encouraged there might be something down the road, whereas Mets fans can't be satisfied with the knowledge they get to see Santana pitch every fifth day and that Wright could be the best position player in team history and that Minaya will one day not have a job — hopefully sooner rather than later.

I have to say, though, that I'm not convinced that Harper will be the Nats' No. 1 pick come June as he might not be the clear-cut top guy and if he isn't, what's the use in fighting with Scott Boras for another summer?

Also, it's a pity that Strasburg might have proven to be their best pitcher during spring training, a statement that's as much about the rest of the staff as it is the prodigy himself.

Final word goes to you, DB: Will Strasburg live up to the hype when he's finally called up?

DB: You never know, as Joaquin Andujar said, but yes, I think Strasburg is all that and a bag of chips. Here's the thing, though, as every baseball fan knows. Even if the guy wins 25 games, the team might still stink. See Steve Carlton's 1972 Phillies. I'd really like the Nats to be good, being in one of my favorite cities and the president showing up to throw out the first pitch on opening day. It's no fun to be a disaster year after year. In the name of the Montreal Expos, I pronounce the Nationals not a last place team. That honor goes elsewhere.

Hey, I think I got out of this without talking about the Mets. That doesn't seem fair. I tell you what: When they come back in 2011 ready to play baseball, I will talk about them double. Deal? Deal!

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

NL East MVP:
'Duk:
Ryan Howard(notes), Phillies
DB:
Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

NL East Cy Young
'Duk: Roy Halladay, Phillies
DB: Roy Halladay, Phillies

NL East ROY
'Duk: Jason Heyward, Braves
DB:
Jason Heyward, Braves

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