Posted: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:41PM ; Updated: Wednesday March 30, 2011 1:38PM
Ted Keith
Ted Keith>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL East preview (cont.)

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PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Joe Blanton
Joe Blanton is easily the least-heralded member of the Phillies' vaunted starting rotation.
AP

WINTER GRADE: A

Did you hear? The Phillies signed a free-agent left-handed starter and now have a pretty good rotation. Getting Cliff Lee to return to Philadelphia was their only major move but it was enough to cement their status as the team to beat in the NL East. Losing Jayson Werth will be a blow, but their offense should be deep enough to compensate, especially if one of the trio of candidates to replace him -- Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown or John Mayberry Jr. -- emerges as a consistent bat before the playoffs.

THREE QUESTIONS:

1. Can anyone beat the Phillies?

Maybe not, but the gap between them and the rest of the division has already narrowed thanks to injuries to closer Brad Lidge (shoulder soreness, out 3-6 weeks) and second baseman Chase Utley (patellar tendinitis in left knee, out indefinitely). There's no one better when healthy, but the Braves are good enough that they could take advantage of Philadelphia's absences and make a run at winning the division.

2. Will Ryan Howard bounce back?

You know you're good when you hit 31 home runs, drive in 108 runs and people wonder what's wrong with you. Yet such is the standard that Howard has set that even those monster numbers -- a home run total Werth has exceeded only once and an RBI count he's never reached, for example -- represent a stark decline from his first four full seasons, when he hit 58, 47, 48 and 45 home runs and drove in 149, 136, 146 and 141 runs. With Werth gone, Howard, now 31, won't have the same protection in the lineup and scouts were already starting to feel the holes in his swing were widening.

3. Can they survive without Chase Utley?

Wilson Valdez was a pleasant surprise last year filling in as needed, but he hit only .258 with four home runs, the kind of numbers Utley might put up in a month -- a bad month. The Phillies were so desperate late in spring training that they even signed Mets castoff Luis Castillo, he of the .235 average and zero home runs last season, as a possible solution. If Utley is out for a month or two, Philadelphia can probably get by. If he's out longer than that, the impact on the lineup will be noticeable, forcing players to be shifted around the order to compensate and likely sending the Phillies out into the trade market to see what they can pick up.

X-FACTOR:

Joe Blanton, SP

"Everyone's overlooking Joe but don't sleep on him," Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino said. Blanton has been overlooked with good reason -- he's not Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt or Cole Hamels, all of whom have either won a Cy Young Award or MVP of a postseason series. As No. 5 starters go, Blanton may be among the best in baseball. He has a lifetime .545 winning percentage and 4.30 ERA and he's durable, having made at least 29 starts in each of his seven seasons. He could also be valuable as trade bait if the Phillies need to plug a hole elsewhere -- say, second base -- and teams needing starting pitching could well view Blanton, a No. 5 in Philadelphia's loaded deck of aces, as a top drawing card.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Cole Hamels is a No. 2 pitching in the No. 4 spot, which is like your varsity pitcher pitching JV. He looked really good this spring. Ryan Howard is going to have to become a better hitter. You can get him out with soft stuff away when he starts to cheat. He has to stay in the strike zone. Wilson Valdez hits the fastball well and is an above-average defender. I'm a fan of his. Charlie Manuel will manage a little bit differently this year; he's got some guys he can use as multiple pieces and some athletic guys he can use as super utilities."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Even Phils' stellar staff comes with a question mark

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

WINTER GRADE: B+

The Nationals lost a lot of power when Adam Dunn signed with the White Sox and they traded Josh Willingham to the A's. Some of that will be made up with the acquisition of free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche and, especially, free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth. The LaRoche signing was smart -- two years, $16 million for a proven hitter and above-average defender -- but the Werth signing will take longer to judge. There's no doubt that Werth is a special talent, but he's also 31 and will be asked to carry a team offensively for the first time. That, plus the fact he'll still be making $21 million a year six years from now, means the jury is out.

THREE QUESTIONS:

1. Will Stephen Strasburg pitch this season?

It says a lot about the state of the Nats that their biggest question surrounds a 22-year-old pitcher with all of 12 games of big league experience who may not pitch at all this year. But Strasburg is nevertheless the most important player in their franchise's brief history, and if he can regain his health and his form that made him so effective in his rookie season, the entire organization will breathe a sigh of relief. GM Mike Rizzo says the team will be extremely cautious with its prized pupil, but if his rehab from Tommy John surgery goes well, expect Strasburg to be back with the Nationals sometime in September.

2. Will Bryce Harper reach the majors this season?

Don't bank on it. The No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft was "extremely impressive" in spring training in the words of manager Jim Riggleman, but the Nats see no reason to rush the 19-year-old power-hitting prodigy to the majors. It's the right decision. This team isn't going to compete for a playoff spot this year and Harper still has to learn how to play the outfield. If he makes the right strides in the minors -- he'll begin the year at Single-A -- he could compete for a full-time job in next year's camp.

3. How healthy is Jordan Zimmermann?

The other highly touted Nationals righty to have Tommy John surgery is Zimmermann who, without the fanfare of Strasburg's injury, spent almost all of last year rehabbing before returning to the Nats late last August, just two weeks after Strasburg was lost for the year. Zimmermann made seven starts, going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA, but this spring pronounced himself back to 100 percent and feeling as good as he had pre-injury. The rotation is mostly filled with aging veterans who are placeholders for this year, like Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis, or youngsters like John Lannan who don't project as top-of-the-rotation starters down the line. Zimmermann, though, is still just 24 and has the stuff, especially an impressive slider, to be a No. 2 behind Strasburg in the years ahead.

X-FACTOR:

Mike Morse, OF

Morse, 29, played 98 games for Washington last year, which represented a career high for his six seasons. He did hit 15 home runs, and in spring training this year he hit nine more, winning the starting left field job. If he continues to slug like that, he'll help fill the remaining power gap from Dunn's departure and help lengthen the middle of the Nats' lineup.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I see a lot of really good things here. They've done a really good job of drafting and a really good job in trades. They overpaid for Jayson Werth, but he'll have an impact in the lineup because they'll finally have some protection for Ryan Zimmerman. Bryce Harper is special. If he made their club, he'd be the Rookie of the Year. The last time I saw a kid his age with his skill set was Manny Ramirez."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Nationals finally moving in the right direction

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