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Biggest Challenge for the New York Mets May Be Competing in the National League East

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COMMENTARY | For the New York Mets, it's not just about building a winning baseball team. It's about being able to compete in one of the best divisions in Major League Baseball.

Consider the recent history of the National League East:

The Atlanta Braves won the division every year from 1995 to 2005. Though the Mets reached the World Series in 2000, Atlanta never relinquished its regular-season supremacy.

When the Braves run finally ended, the Philadelphia Phillies were on their way to five straight division crowns from 2007 through 2011. (The Mets won the NL East in 2006.) Prior to the 2007 season, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said that Philadelphia was the team to beat in the NL East. That didn't sit well with the Mets, who responded with a September collapse of epic proportions. The following September, they collapsed again.

Though the Braves and Phillies remain viable contenders, it's now the Washington Nationals' turn to take over the division. Washington won the NL East last year, and is clearly the favorite to do so again in 2013. In fact, it's feasible that they could be the team to beat in the division for the foreseeable future.

I tend to be the eternal optimist when it comes to the Mets. For example, I buy into what they did in the first half of 2011 and 2012. It's not that I'm ignorant to the fact that, in both years, the Mets fell apart in the second half, but I look at the starting pitching and the solid infield and can't help but think that the Mets can hang around long enough in 2013 to at least make things interesting.

But I'm also a realist. The Mets aren't winning the NL East any time soon unless the landscape changes dramatically. Not with the Nationals as stacked as they are. Not having to play Washington, Atlanta, and Philadelphia 19 times a year.

I think that the American League East is the best division in baseball -- considering what the New York Yankees do every year, what the Baltimore Orioles did last year, and what the Toronto Blue Jays have done this offseason. And then there's the Tampa Bay Rays, who have remarkably been one of baseball's best teams over the past five years, and the Boston Red Sox, who can never be counted out. But as good as that division is, the NL East is a very close second. While the Nationals may be the favorite, the Braves and Phillies are both potential playoff teams. Within the division, only the Miami Marlins start 2013 with little hope of reaching the playoffs.

Which brings me back to the Mets, and their current predicament. We all know they're not as good as the Nationals, Braves, or Phillies. The Nationals added Dan Haren to what may be the best pitching staff in baseball. The Braves committed $75.25 million to B.J. Upton. And the Phillies made two big moves (and they might not be done) by bringing in Ben Revere to play center field and Michael Young to play third base, addressing significant holes in their lineup. In all three cases, the strong got stronger.

Meanwhile, the Mets have been busy working out a new deal with David Wright and hoping to come to an agreement with R.A. Dickey, while at the same time trying to fill huge holes in the outfield, behind the plate, and the bullpen. No matter what the Mets do between now and Opening Day, the division crown is still most likely out of reach. You never say never, of course, and games aren't won on paper, but one thing we know for sure is that the Mets are not the favorite to win the NL East.

If you're looking for a bright spot, it's this: The Mets are better than the Florida Marlins. Maybe that at least assures them of a fourth-place finish for the fifth consecutive year.

Charles Costello has followed the Mets closely since the rookie years of Darryl Strawberry (1983) and Dwight Gooden (1984). He was a beat reporter assigned to cover the Mets during the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

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