Last year, it was the foregone-est conclusion-est division in baseball; nowadays, its parity should satisfy even Occupy Wall Street. It is the National League East, which I am forecasting to be baseball's strongest division in 2012—and probably its most talented. At different points in the offseason, I was convinced that each of the top four teams in this division would end the season as NL East champs. Indeed, there is still a lot of volatility in these standings from one through four; each team is capable of dominating to the tune of 100 wins (yes, even the Nationals), and each team could collapse like a house of cards to below .500 (yes, even the Phillies). The one certainty—and, in my opinion, the safest bet in all of baseball this year—is that a certain team from New York will sink comfortably to the bottom.
One note—I'm not cheating here by making these picks even though the season has started. While it has taken extra time to write up each team's blurbs, my predictions of each team's record were finalized a week ago. (Had to do that to make sure all the wins and losses added up to 2,430.) With that, onto the NL East forecast:
1. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65; 1st playoff seed)
There has been no more overblown narrative in baseball this spring than "Have the Phillies lost their mojo?" I realize that Philadelphia spoiled us all last year with four elite starters, but the proper reaction to the lowering of this number by one isn't "Whatever will become of the Phillies now that they have ONLY THREE elite starters??" Roy Oswalt, the team's only major offseason loss, wasn't a huge part of the 2011 Phillies' success anyway, pitching only 139 innings. Much more crucial was the œuvre of Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01), whom Philadelphia has retained and of whom we can expect potentially even greater things in 2012. (So, actually, the Fearsome Foursome remains, just in different form. Again I ask: Why the panic?)
Yes, the offense is getting older, as many have pointed out. But that was true even last year, when the team occasionally struggled to score. It didn't exactly get in their way, as Philadelphia won 102 games and the division by 13. In fact, their 713 runs scored were second-most in the division—second to the Mets, who are the one team that won't threaten Philadelphia in 2012. Furthermore, it's not clear that Washington, Miami, or Atlanta improved their offense enough that they could outscore Philadelphia in 2012 without a major dropoff by the Phils. In fact, with José Reyes gone from New York, the Phillies will probably have the best offense in the division. (How's that for a kick in the pants?) And, of course, any team that can boast the NL East's best offense and its best pitching will win its crown.
So yes, this is a slightly worse Phillies team than last year's. Yes, with division rivals like Washington on the upswing, this might be the club's final shot at a second World Series title; its window of opportunity closes even tighter after 2012 with the possible departure of Cole Hamels and the continued downspin of Chase Utley's and Ryan Howard's careers. But these are 2012 predictions, and this squad will pick up pretty much where it left off (i.e., dominating everyone). Figure that you take off a couple of wins for Oswalt and a couple for an atrophying offense, and you're still left with a healthy total in the high 90s.
2. Washington Nationals (92-70; 1st Wild Card)
To those who doubt the Nationals, I ask: If a team went out and signed the best, second-best, and third-best free-agent starting pitchers all in one offseason, wouldn't you consider them a playoff favorite? That's essentially what the Nats did, signing free agent Edwin Jackson, trading for Gio González, and getting an ace back from injury in Stephen Strasburg. And while getting three spiffy new starters would constitute a total makeover for any team—i.e., enough to propel even a 100-loss team into the competitive conversation—Washington is building upon a much better start (80-82 in 2011). Along with holdover Jordan Zimmermann (1.15 WHIP, 4.0 K/BB ratio), I don't see how this rotation doesn't add at least nine wins to that total, and possibly as many as 18; six per new starter is hardly farfetched. It could even be better than the Phillies' vaunted staff.
Likewise, the Nats' bullpen is otherworldly, with dominant closer Drew Storen probably only the team's third-best reliever. (Numbers one and two are Tyler Clippard, who hasn't struck out less than 10 per nine innings since 2008, and Henry Rodríguez, who is wild but has the best stuff of the bunch.) Don't be surprised if this staff leads the majors in ERA in 2012.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, they won't lead in runs scored, which could be their Achilles heel. However, there are many sources of potential salvation for 2011's paltriest NL East offense. Jayson Werth is the most obvious; while Washington may never get the $126 million man they signed, he's not as bad as his .232-20-58 batting line last year. The team also has a healthy Adam LaRoche, who before missing most of 2011 was a consistent 25-home-run threat. Then, of course, there's Bryce Harper, whose legendary bat is obviously going to emerge from AAA and hit 80 home runs in August alone. The bottom line is that there may not be a fireworks display at Nationals Park this year (apart from the Fourth of July), but if they reached .500 with that offense in 2011, they can exceed it with a likely-to-be-improved offense in 2012.
3. Atlanta Braves (91-71; 2nd Wild Card)
The Braves may define the uncertainty that haunts this division. Famously choking their way to only 89 wins in 2011, they're a team for which it feels like everything that can go wrong, does. However, on paper, they're also tremendously gifted, with almost literally no weak link on the whole 25-man roster. Injuries—and crippling, prolonged psychological slumps—are this club's only weaknesses, and I'm sad to say that this team has been so snakebitten by these things in recent years that I just can't imagine Atlanta without them anymore.
Go through the Braves lineup and you find a solid bloc of young, 30-home-run potential: Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, and Jason Heyward. They're joined by accomplished veterans Michael Bourn (61 steals in 2011), Dan Uggla, and Chipper Jones (the last two past 30-home-run hitters). Obviously, if all of this potential is realized, the Braves will have the best offense in the National League. But you could have said the same thing last year, and instead this crew posted the 26th-best OBP in MLB. Could they have similar problems in 2012, with Heyward and Uggla continuing to struggle? Will Jones's weathered body hold up for one more year? Could Freeman be subject to a sophomore slump similar to Heyward's? There are too many questions for Georgians to be able to rely on these bats for deliverance.
Similarly, the Braves might have the game's deepest rotation, but how many injuries can that staff put up with before it taxes the rest of them? Tim Hudson is already on the DL to start the season, while Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson missed significant time at the end of 2011, just as the Braves collapsed in the standings. (To all those who correctly point out that the Braves were the third-best team in baseball for much of last summer, I would point out that they were among its worst after the starters they relied on got hurt.) If injuries strike again for these top three, the pressure will be on top prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado to fill in. That duo is highly capable, but it's a lot to bet a season on. Meanwhile, the overworked bullpen has no such contingency plan if manager Fredi González again runs Most Valuable Relievers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel into the ground.
Ironically, it is Atlanta's two relatively inexperienced starters, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, whom I'm not worried about. They should be excellent and perhaps could be what separates 2012 from the despair of 2011. While I'm not naïve enough to expect the rest of the team to be as good as it is on paper, last year certainly had to be a fluke... Right? As long as things remain so uncertain in the Big Peach, I'll hedge my bets: I've picked them for a disappointing third, but a third that comes with a playoff berth as the second Wild Card.
4. Miami Marlins (85-77)
The winner of the NL pennant for offseason acquisitions, can Miami show similar success on the field? A lot of prognosticators, blown away by the boldness of the Marlins' signings of Mark Buehrle, José Reyes, and Heath Bell, have said yes. Clearly, I am more skeptical. In my eyes, the Marlins did one thing to improve this winter: add a starting pitcher. (Bell, like all closers, is a dime-a-dozen reliever thrust into a strangely sacrosanct role; Reyes is no better than an average shortstop when time lost to the inevitable hamstring injury is taken into account.) A lot of teams added a starting pitcher this winter, and we're not going gaga over them. Indeed, Washington added three, which is a big part of why I believe they'll so convincingly outstrip Miami in 2012.
I know a lot of Marlins fans read this blog, so let's run a quick thought experiment to prove my point. The Marlins won 72 games last year. According to fWAR, Buehrle was worth 3.4 wins in 2011, Bell just 0.5 wins (!), and Reyes 6.2 wins. Add that all together, and you get... let me see here... 82.1 wins. This is an improved team, no question; however, they have so much ground to make up, and they did not improve themselves as much as their impressive hype campaign has made them out to have done.
I said at the top, of course, that any of my top four NL East teams could win the division. In the Marlins' case, this would happen if Carlos Zambrano returns to his 2009 form (adding 3.6 wins), Hanley Ramírez rediscovers his swing (6.1 wins added, based on the difference between his 2009 and 2011 selves), and Josh Johnson remains healthy (4.6 wins, based on the difference between his 2010 and 2011). That puts Miami at 96.4 wins—but this perfect storm of good fortune is also highly improbable. I do believe in the talent on this roster—specifically, I believe that Zambrano and Ramírez will bounce back very nicely indeed—but I worry about injuries. I expect Josh Johnson to miss significant time, which would decimate the Fish rotation and put even more pressure on inconsistent Aníbal Sánchez and mediocre Ricky Nolasco to perform. And I do believe that it is inevitable that Reyes misses about a month with a hamstring injury; he has done so every year since 2008.
5. New York Mets (62-100)
By process of elimination, we arrive at the Mets—and eliminated they will be, by about May 1. In a division where literally every other team has an undeniable strength, the Mets remain in tatters. At least, for once, their front office realizes this and is setting its sights on a longer-term rehabilitation effort.
In a division of scary rotations, this one is led by Johan Santana—which should scare Mets fans. Santana, of course, was the Best Pitcher on the Planet pre–Roy Halladay but hasn't thrown a ball or strike since 2010. At this point, no one should pretend to know anything about the quality of his work if and when he makes it onto a major-league mound. Jon Niese is a sabermetric favorite for his excellent xFIP, but in four major-league seasons he's never had even a league-average ERA. Mike Pelfrey is persona non grata throughout Queens for his questionable work ethic. You see a pattern developing.
The offense has some nice pieces, highlighted by Lucas Duda and Ike Davis, from whom fans of the Metropolitans should be able to derive some positives this year. Jason Bay and David Wright, however, must be the three-four punch of this offense, and neither has been up to it in recent years. New York's home-run leader in 2011 was the departed Carlos Beltrán, who hit only 15. Wright had 14, and the concussed Bay had 12. Nevertheless, they were able to be the top-scoring team in the NL East, thanks in large part to José Reyes's prolific offensive prowess; he, obviously, is gone now. With the exception of starter RA Dickey and, if they're lucky, a healthy Santana, there is simply no longer any place on this team for wins to come from. In such an improved and powerful division, this will hurt them all the more. They may not deserve to lose fully 100 games, but the math may force them to.