East By Jonathan A. Lowe First Place Atlanta Braves

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By Jonathan A. Lowe

First Place - Atlanta Braves

For yet another year the Atlanta Braves have to be the favorites in the N.L. East. Coming off their 13th straight division championship, it would be hard to convince even Pete Rose to bet against them. The Braves have long been known for their dominant pitching staff and this season doesn’t seem to be shaping up any differently. The Braves made a great off-season addition in ex-Oakland Athletics ace Tim Hudson, but the best move made by Atlanta this winter may turn out to be the signing of former Brewer’s closer Dan Kolb, which allowed John Smoltz to return to the starting rotation from the closer role. If Smoltz can stay healthy, expect the Braves to take the N.L. East unless either the Phillies or revamped Mets make a strong early-season statement.
Second Place - New York Mets

If their shopping spree of an off-season is any indication, the Mets may be the biggest threat to end Atlanta’s 13-year division championship streak. In his first year as Mets general manager, Omar Minaya shocked most of the baseball world by signing two of the most coveted free agents, center fielder Carlos Beltran and former Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez. Altogether the Mets added a whopping $171 million to their payroll over the next seven years for the pair and made it clear to the rest of the N.L. East that there’s a new force to be reckoned with in the division. Last season’s trade for the Pirates’ Kris Benson and the consummate veteran Tom Glavine will help fill out the Mets impressive rotation this season. One note of caution is a recently diagnosed herniated disc in Steve Trachsel, which could sideline the starter for up to six months. If the Mets fall short in the division, look for them to be strong contenders for the N.L. wildcard down the stretch.

Third Place - Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies remain a division threat despite a quiet winter that disappointed many fans. Philadelphia is still settling into the homerun-friendly Citizens Bank Park, which opened last year and proved to be a pitcher’s nightmare. The Phillies picked up former Yankees Kenny Lofton and Jon Lieber this off-season. Though successful in their primes, both have a question mark next to their name on the roster. Lofton, 38, is getting old by baseball’s standards and is clearly not the same base-stealing threat he was during his time in Cleveland. Lieber, though a proven starter in the past, has yet to reassert himself after his elbow surgery that cost him the 2003 season. That said, the Phillies have the most dangerous lineup in the N.L. East with the likes of first baseman Jim Thome (42 home runs, 105 RBI’s last year), and outfielders Pat Burrell (24 homer runs last year) and Bobby Abreu (.301 Average, 30 home runs, 105 RBI’s). If they can play to their potential and avoid injuries, the Phillies should be a wildcard threat. If they fail to meet their potential, management may find that the novelty of a new park is no longer enough to fill the seats.

Fourth Place - Florida Marlins

The Marlins may have one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball, but the NL East is also one of the most competitive divisions in baseball. Joining the rotation this year is the aging veteran Al Leiter, who was signed to provide some veteran leadership to a young pitching staff. Starters A.J. Burnett and Josh Becket will have to overcome previous injuries and lefty Dontrelle Willis will need to return to his rookie season form if the Marlins wish to get back to the World Series. Keep an eye on newly signed slugger Carlos Delgado, who joins an offensive lineup led by often superhuman leadoff man Juan Pierre and Miguel Cabrera, one of the best young players in the game. The Marlins have a strong, young core to continue building around, but if the team can stay healthy the Marlins will be a player in this competitive division.

Fifth Place - Washington Nationals

Fresh off their 600-mile international move, the Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos) have a new home, a new name, but essentially the same players as last year when they were forced split home games between Montreal and Puerto Rico. While it is certainly to the Nationals’ advantage to have a single home, this will no doubt be a season of development for the displaced ball club as their new owners become acquainted with their most recent purchase. Newcomers Jose Guillen and Vinny Castilla, along with future all-star Brad Wilkerson give the club a decent everyday lineup, and combined with a solid core rotation (Livan Hernandez, Zach Day, and Tony Armas Jr.), the Nationals are an improved team. However, don’t expect too much from the Nationals as they try to find their way through their new home - both figuratively and literally. For a more in-depth look at the Nationals’ journey from Canada to Puerto Rico, and now to Washington D.C., please read Professor Socolow’s article following our preview section.

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