No discussion of the National League East in 2006 can even begin without acknowledging two unflagging truths: The Mets spend money like Ivana Trump and the Braves still are the team to beat.
That's not to say that the defending champion Braves won't finally cough up their pennant in 2006, especially given the latest round of money-tossing by the Mets. It's just that after 14 straight division titles, it would be idiotic not to give the Braves some serious consideration for number 15, no matter how badly their offseason has gone.
And, as offseasons go, the Braves have had better. Their shortstop and leadoff man, Rafael Furcal, bolted for the green ($39 million) the Dodgers waved at him. The man the team wanted to be its closer (Kyle Farnsworth) left for the Yankees. And don't forget that longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone is gone too, off to be the right-hand man in Baltimore. Former Boston shortstop Edgar Renteria, obtained in a trade after Furcal went to L.A., will be a fine defensive replacement for Furcal and should hold his own at the plate, so that helps. But this team still needs a closer and a proven leadoff hitter. Maybe Chris Reitsma can close, maybe Marcus Giles can lead off. Maybe is a big word in Atlanta these days.
The Mets spent their second offseason under general manager Omar Minaya much as they spent their first: spending. After signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran last winter, Minaya shelled out big bucks for closer Billy Wagner this offseason (four years, $43 million, the richest annual contract ever for a reliever), which filled one huge gap. The G.M. traded for Marlins first baseman Carlos Delgado and Florida catcher Paul Lo Duca, filling two other holes. And the Mets beefed up their bullpen, too, with some key signings and trades. They're looking more and more like legitimate threats to the Atlanta dynasty.
The rest of the division is a lot shakier. The only real challenge to the Braves and Mets will come from the Phillies, who lost Wagner but made up for it -- somewhat -- by signing former Yankees setup man Tom Gordon. Aaron Rowand is an upgrade in center (he came in the trade that sent Jim Thome to the White Sox), but the rest of the team is largely the same as the one that finished second in the East last year, winning 88 games. That won't do it this year, either.
As for the Nationals and Marlins? The Nationals' biggest offseason move was trading for slugger Alfonso Soriano, who won't slug well at huge RFK Stadium and may be more trouble than he's worth. He still is clamoring to play second base; the Nats have former All-Star Jose Vidro there. The team's starting pitching is questionable too. The Marlins, so close to contention last year, were gutted after another failed bid to get a stadium. They'll be lucky to win 70 games in '06.
That means the NL East again will come down to the usual suspects. The Mets' starting pitching, with Martinez, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel at the top, is their biggest weakness. But the Braves are not as strong in the starting rotation as they've been traditionally; they have John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, but after that their starters all have issues. And their bullpen is weaker than it was in '05.
So is this the year for the Mets? Isn't every year the year for the Mets?
And doesn't every year end up being the Braves' year?
With Atlanta's track record, you have to pick the Braves in the NL East -- until someone knocks them off.