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Despite being the only division to see four of its teams reach the World Series in the wild-card era, and the only one to boast three different Series-winning franchises, the NL East has consistently languished behind its Junior Circuit counterpart -- and, occasionally, every other division -- in the hierarchy of baseball's best groupings. But with the defending world champion Phillies and the revamped Mets and Braves having made efforts to patch their most obvious holes, the NL East is shaping up as a division race to rival any in baseball. The Marlins may have the deepest starting staff in the league, meaning only the cellar-dwelling Nationals enter the season with virtually no realistic chance at the postseason.
Location: Orlando, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 72-90 (4th, NL East)
Winter grade: B
Starting pitching had long been the Braves' signature component, but with the departure of future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, the rotation has been remade. After finishing near the bottom in most starting pitching categories last season (20th in ERA, 27th in innings pitched, 23rd in wins, 24th in strikeouts), Atlanta signed star free agent Derek Lowe and Japanese righty Kenshin Kawakami and traded for enigmatic righty Javier Vazquez to replenish a staff that might be missing Tim Hudson until midseason as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. And Atlanta brought back franchise face Tom Glavine. The offense was not overhauled as heavily, but if Chipper Jones stays healthy and Jeff Francoeur returns to form, it'll be just fine.
Key question: Is Jeff Francoeur back to his old self?
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Francoeur is diligently preparing himself for what he hopes will be a bounceback season after struggling so badly last year that he was sent to the minors. With Jones limited to just 128 games by injury, the Braves didn't have anyone top 23 home runs or 87 RBIs, numbers well within the reach of Francoeur if he can shake his hitting slump.
Prospect to watch: Tommy Hanson, SP
The next wave of young Braves starters is being led by Hanson, who dominated the Arizona Fall League, earning MVP honors after going 5-0 with a 0.63 ERA. Still just 22, Hanson is developing a changeup to go with his mid-90s fastball. His name was mentioned in offseason trade talks for Jake Peavy, but those talks never went anywhere.
Position battle to follow: Left and center field
With Francoeur locked in to right field, the other two outfield positions remain wide open. Matt Diaz and Brandon Jones will compete for the job in left, though neither did very much in limited duty in 2008 (.244/.264/.304 in 43 games for Diaz; .267/.312/.397 in 41 games for Jones). Gregor Blanco should move from left to center, but he'll be pushed by top prospect Jordan Schafer and Josh Anderson, another youngster who got a taste of the majors last season, batting .294/.338/.426 in 40 games.
Scout's take: "I don't think they're that good a club. They have to get healthy in the bottom of their rotation. They have a lot of questions in the outfield, too. I don't know how many runs they're going to be able to score. Chipper's another year older and has an injury history. They have to get guys healthy. Mike Gonzalez has to come out of the shoots smoking, for example. Derek Lowe is a great signing, but Javier Vazquez is nothing but a middle rotation guy who'll go 14-11. He's better when he doesn't have to bear down all the time. Kelly Johnson is a good run-producer for them, but is marginal at second base. If Diaz comes back healthy, they'll be a more productive team."
Location: Jupiter, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 84-77 (3rd, NL East)
Winter grade: C
As hard as it may be to believe, the Marlins actually got younger this season, dealing away several talented, experienced players, including starting pitcher Scott Olsen, outfielder Josh Willingham and first baseman Mike Jacobs, who had 32 home runs and 93 RBIs last season. Promising second baseman Emilio Bonifacio came over from Washington in the Olsen-Willingham deal, but he won't displace All-Star Dan Uggla anytime soon. Ex-Oriole Josh Gibbons was a non-roster invitee to spring training and could be a nice insurance policy in the outfield.
Key question: Will they add payroll (currently around $33 million, the lowest in the majors)?
The Marlins gave Hanley Ramirez a six-year, $70 million extension last season, but have indicated they aren't interested in giving Uggla a long-term deal. Developing young stars won't be enough if they don't also find a way to keep them around for their prime seasons. Their new ballpark is still several years away from opening (if it's even approved), but winning in this division with that payroll may prove to be impossible.
Prospect to watch: Cameron Maybin, OF
The outfielder, who will turn 22 right on April 4, is still best known for hitting a home run off Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium in his second big league game in 2007. After being traded to Florida last offseason, he spent the year at Class AA, (playing just eight games in the majors) where he batted .277 with a .831 OPS, and showed a good power/speed combination with 13 home runs and 21 stolen bases. He's likely to be the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Fish in 2009, a large burden for a player with only 32 games of big league experience.
Position battle to follow: Closer
Right-hander Matt Lindstrom has closer stuff, including a fastball that can reach 100 mph and a developing slider, but he's largely untested. He filled in for Kevin Gregg when Gregg was injured last year and went 5-for-5 in save chances, but he's never been a full-time closer. Veteran Scott Proctor, another hard-throwing righty, could contend for the job, as could Leo Nunez and Logan Kensing.
Scout's take: "They have the best starting rotation 1-5 in the division. Josh Johnson is the third-best pitcher in the division, behind Santana and Hamels. [Ricky] Nolasco's good, their young starters are maturing. The offense is the question, they're always a mix and match, but when you have pitching, you can do some things. They're a potential to surprise. They don't have anyone other than Hanley that they can rely on offensively and their infield has no one you consider to be a plus infielder defensively, even Ramirez."