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March 26, 2012
The Phillies will win their sixth straight division crown, but the revolution is coming: The Marlins and the Nationals are primed for an insurgency in the East
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March 26, 2012

Nl East

The Phillies will win their sixth straight division crown, but the revolution is coming: The Marlins and the Nationals are primed for an insurgency in the East

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The usually frugal Marlins began preparing for a winter 2011--12 shopping spree three years earlier, when they got government approval for a $515 million, retractable-roof stadium that will open on April 4. This off-season the newly named franchise—it's now the Miami Marlins—committed $191 million to three free agents (Reyes, Buehrle and closer Heath Bell) and added a new manager (Ozzie Guillen). The Marlins have twice won the World Series as flash-in-the-pan, wild-card success stories that followed a three-step blueprint: assemble, win, dismantle. But with the new ballpark providing increased revenue streams, the front office believes success will be sustainable.

Still, the two most important Marlins may be holdovers. Ace Josh Johnson is one of the game's best starters (36--13, 2.80 ERA since 2008) when healthy, but he hasn't pitched since last May 16, when he was shut down after nine starts with shoulder inflammation. Then there's Hanley Ramirez, who is moving from shortstop to third base to make room for Reyes. A .313 hitter before '11, Ramirez batted .243 last year and saw his season end with a shoulder injury in early August.

He and Reyes join promising young corner outfielders Logan Morrison (23 home runs, .797 OPS in 2011), 24, and Giancarlo (né Mike) Stanton (34 homers, .893 OPS), 22, and All-Star first baseman Gaby Sanchez in what could be one of the NL's most dangerous lineups. "If healthy, we're going to be deadly," Morrison says.

The Braves, on the other hand, resisted the temptation to overhaul after a disastrous final month marred an excellent first five last season. On Aug. 25, Atlanta had the third-most wins in the majors, with 79, but it tied for second fewest (10) the rest of the way. The collapse was complete when the Braves lost to the Phillies in the season's final game and finished a game behind the Cardinals in the wild-card race.

Atlanta made the first trade of the off-season, shipping starter Derek Lowe to the Indians for a low-level prospect in October, but did little after that, holding on to its abundance of good young pitching. The Braves have four major league starters age 26 or younger—righthanders Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy and lefty Mike Minor—and three of Baseball America's top 50 prospects (Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado).

Wren was surely tempted to move one or two of those young arms for a bat because Atlanta scored only 641 runs (10th in the NL). Instead, the Braves are filling a lineup void with shortstop prospect Tyler Pastornicky, who hit .314 at Double and Triple A. Wren also counts on a full year from leadoff hitter and major league stolen-base leader Michael Bourn, who was acquired from Houston at the trade deadline last season, as "our big addition for this year." Atlanta needs a bounce-back year from Jason Heyward, who rebuilt his swing "from scratch" in order to regain his 2010 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up form. "We talked internally," says Wren, "and felt like the best thing we could do was let our young guys show how good they are."

The stripped-down Mets are also left to bank on rebound seasons from key players. "There's virtually no one on our roster that had a career year last year," says G.M. Sandy Alderson. "Almost everybody has room for improvement."

The focus, though, will be on three well-compensated former All-Stars: lefthander Johan Santana, third baseman David Wright and leftfielder Jason Bay. Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner, hasn't pitched since undergoing shoulder surgery in September 2010; he's expected to be ready for Opening Day. Wright and Bay, both bedeviled by injuries and hitter-unfriendly Citi Field, combined to hit just 26 home runs last year. The lineup should get some pop from the return of promising young first baseman Ike Davis, who hit 19 home runs as a rookie in '10 but went down for the year when he suffered a left-ankle injury last May.

There were some encouraging signs for the Mets last season. New York's on-base percentage rose 21 points to .335 (second best in the NL) in 2011, and the Mets actually outscored the division-champion Phillies by five runs despite hitting 45 fewer homers. Still, plate discipline is not the only kind of patience the Mets need right now, given the divisional company they keep.

The Phillies remain, in the words of Rizzo, "the king of the mountain" in the NL East. With a relentless rotation headed by three aces—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—Philadelphia won a franchise-record 102 games and had the majors' best starters' ERA (2.86) since 1985. The Phillies allowed only 529 runs, the fewest in a 162-game schedule since 1969.

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