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February 17, 2010

Division Preview

NL East

by Kevin Goldstein

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The Philadelphia Phillies dominated the National League East at the end of the past decade-winning three straight division titles (aided in 2007 and 2008 by the New York Mets collapsing in the season's final weeks) and advancing to the last two World Series as the NL rep.

The Phillies will try to make it four NL East crowns in a row this season, though the resurgent Atlanta Braves, resourceful Florida Marlins, and retooled Washington Nationals will all be hunting as well. The Mets also made a big off-season move by signing left fielder Jason Bay to a four-year, $66 million contract as a free agent. The Phillies did not stand still, either, trading for Toronto Blue Jays' ace Roy Halladay to be their new rotation anchor, clearing a spot for Halladay by trading left-hander Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners and signing Placido Polanco as a free agent to replace Pedro Feliz at third base.

Here is how the NL East stacks up in the eyes of PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus' proprietary system that projects player and team performance based on comparison with thousands of player seasons:

Philadelphia Phillies

Projected record: 88-74

Why They Might Win: Because they are the three-time defending champions of the division and they just traded their strong farm system to replace a very good Lee with a potentially better Halladay.

Why They Might Not Win: If Cole Hamels doesn't bounce back, the rotation is Halladay and a bunch of innings eaters. And-oh goodness-they're not going to let Brad Lidge close again, are they?

Player Who Could Surprise: After a rough 2009 campaign, PECOTA sees shortstop Jimmy Rollins returning to form with a .281 batting average and the usual power/speed combination. Jose Contreras could turn out to be a great find as a short-stint reliever.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Scouts and PECOTA think J.A. Happ's 2009 showing was a fluke, and when those two forces agree, rarely are they wrong. A projected ERA of 3.86 is much closer to reality than last year's 2.93 mark.

Atlanta Braves

Projected record: 83-79

Why They Might Win: Jason Heyward is the top position prospect in the game, might be the right fielder on Opening Day, and one of those rare talents who could make a big-league impact from Day One. Their rotation could be outstanding, as Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are both good young pitchers who could be even better this year-while the club is convinced Tim Hudson will return to form after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Why They Might Not Win: If Heyward isn't ready, their corner outfield situation is pretty sad. Also, do you really want to put your faith in a team that has Billy Wagner closing and Troy Glaus at first base? Good for you, because few others do.

Player Who Could Surprise: After slumping a bit in the batting-average department last year, PECOTA projects a nice rebound for Nate McLouth-pinning him for 22 home runs, 24 stolen bases, and a career-high .361 on-base percentage. That's nearly All-Star territory.

Player Who Could Disappoint: PECOTA believes that a Troy Glaus/Eric Hinske combination at first base could produce 20-plus home runs, but also a combined slugging percentage that's still under .400. The Braves have yet to find anything close to a replacement for Mark Teixeira, and after all of the talent they sent to Texas for him, Atlanta fans probably don't want to be reminded of that.

Florida Marlins

Projected record: 81-81

Why They Might Win: Because this is still a young team with plenty of players still on the upward trajectory of their career-and let's face it, the Marlins are pretty much always better than anybody thinks they will be.

Why They Might Not Win: They don't have a first baseman, unless prospect Logan Morrison can make a big move this spring, while Jorge Cantu and Emilio Bonifacio provide nearly equal weakness at the other corner. The potential roster is loaded with young arms that have yet to live up to their potential.

Player Who Could Surprise: Our new pitching metric, SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA), identifies righty Ricky Nolasco as one of the top sleepers in the game this season. On a purely elemental basis, he was much better than last year's 5.06 ERA, and PECOTA believes he'll be nearly as good as Marlins ace Josh Johnson in 2010.

Player Who Could Disappoint: PECOTA projects a major regression for 2009 NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, with a batting line of .284/.369/.430-making him an average-at-best left fielder.

New York Mets

Projected record: 79-83

Why They Might Win: Because there's no way things could be as bad as they were in 2009. This roster still has plenty of star power. If they're healthy, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana should all have solid campaigns. They also landed Bay, who strengthens a real weak spot in left field.

Why They Might Not Win: Because they've found a way to turn the season into a nightmare for three straight years, so why stop now? Bay was a great get, but what this team really needed was a starter behind Santana, and that never materialized.

Player Who Could Surprise: While it's not the kind of thing any projection system can measure, don't underestimate how important having other productive players in the lineup will be to David Wright, for whom PECOTA projects a strong rebound: a batting line of .303/.401/.516 with 26 home runs.

Player Who Could Disappoint: While Bay has slugged over .500 in every year of his career other than 2007, PECOTA sees a player who is not aging so gracefully, with a .258/.360/.475 line, not exactly what one expects for $15 million.

Washington Nationals

Projected record: 76-86

Why They Might Win: They're not going to win big, but PECOTA sees a team that lost 103 games last year finishing just five games under .500. Stephen Strasburg's first year as a pro could be very similar to Mark Prior's 2002 season, when he made nine minor-league starts, was in the majors by the end of May, and immediately the best pitcher on the staff.

Why They Might Not Win: Because they're still the Nationals and they're still not very good. This is the team that allowed 874 runs last year, 100 more than 13 of the 15 other teams in the league. Even with Strasburg and the addition of Jason Marquis, the back end of the rotation is a nightmare, and the bullpen isn't much better, with new closer Matt Capps going into the year with a possibility of being the only reliever with a projected ERA below 4.00.

Player Who Could Surprise: While righty Garrett Mock got knocked around for a .308 opponents batting average and a 5.62 ERA last year, PECOTA sees a good skill set and a solid minor-league track record, projecting him as a big-league average starter with a 4.23 ERA.

Player Who Could Disappoint: PECOTA has no faith in the .351 batting average center fielder Nyjer Morgan posted for the Nationals last season after being acquired in a late-June trade; he's projected for a .283/.348/.385 batting line in 2010. That's not only a below-average player, but also well off Morgan's career line.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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