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The NL East is a mess, with overpaid teams, overrated teams, teams with no
ownership and teams that might be better off with no ownership. It’s possible
that no team will win 90 games, and that the spread from top to bottom won’t
be 20 games.

For the first time since realignment, the division winner will hail from north
of the Mason-Dixon line. It’s just one more failure of the AOL/Time Warner
merger.

Philadelphia Phillies

As much work as Ed Wade put into his winter, he hadn’t yet caught the Braves
when he left Nashville after the winter meetings. Thanks to the Kevin
Millwood
trade pulled off just before Christmas, though, the gap was
closed, and in fact the Phillies have become the favorites in the division.

The Phillies have a good offense, with no real holes. Their worst hitters are
average guys like David Bell and Placido Polanco, players who
won’t carry an offense but who won’t torpedo it, either. The 2001 Mariners won
116 games by avoiding any major lineup holes, and the Phillies have that same
kind of offense. Like those Mariners, the Phillies could be among the league’s
best defensive teams, having replaced Marlon Anderson with Polanco and
filling Scott Rolen‘s shoes with one of the few players who can rival
his glovework in Bell.

It is interesting to look at the Phillies’ lineup and see just how many slots
have major platoon issues. Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu routinely
lose 150 to 300 points of slugging against lefties, while Polanco and Mike
Lieberthal
are everyday players in name only; neither hits right-handers
well enough to justify his lineup spot or salary. The Phillies might get away
with this during the regular season, but it’s hard to envision them winning a
short playoff series against a good manager, one willing to exploit these
weaknesses.

Thanks in part to Millwood, the Phillies feature a deep rotation. They’ll
barely miss Brandon Duckworth at the start of the season, with Joe
Roa
available and Gavin Floyd on the way. Larry Bowa worked his
starters, particularly Randy Wolf, hard last season, and it’s
reasonable to question whether Wolf or Vicente Padilla can match their
career-best 2002 performances.

The team’s weakness is the bullpen, which consists mostly of guys who put the
ball in play and avoid giving up home runs. That’s not the end of the world,
but if there’s one thing the Phillies could use, it’s a strikeout-an-inning
right-hander for the seventh and eighth. They’ll have some trouble bridging
the gap from the rotation to Jose Mesa (who has been a much better
signing than I ever believed he would be).

The Phillies are a flawed team. Fortunately, they play in a flawed division,
and should emerge on top.

Atlanta Braves

If this is the year that ends the dynasty, they have no one to blame but
themselves. GM John Schuerholz changed the balance of power by dealing his #2
starter to his main competition for next to nothing. No matter what he said
about “the system” in the wake of the exchange, the move was his to
make, and he deserves all the opprobrium the fanatically devoted Braves fans
can rain upon him.

Shouldn’t be so bad, actually.

If not for that deal, the Braves would have had an improved squad. The offense
will be better, especially on the right side of the infield, with Marcus
Giles
finally in line for a full-time job and a Rob Fick/Julio
Franco
platoon at first base that will be both cheap and productive. The
Outfield o’ Stars returns intact. The Braves retained Greg Maddux and
added a couple of pitchers who seem like good candidates to improve under Leo
Mazzone in Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz, both of whom would
benefit from an increased devotion to strike one.

The Millwood trade is tough to overcome, though. A reasonable estimate of his
value is four wins above replacement, which means that trading him to the
Phillies is a swing of eight games between the two. There was no bigger move,
or set of moves, made by divisional contenders this winter. If Bobby Cox can
overcome this one, he deserves every managerial award they make.

New York Mets

How you can spend this much money and still not have a center fielder or a
third baseman is beyond me. The Mets will open the season with Roger
Cedeno
and Ty Wigginton in the starting lineup, despite a $461
million payroll. OK, it’s just $117 million or so, but it will probably be enough to
trigger the luxury tax.

The primary characteristic of the Mets is their age. This is an amazingly old
team, with only Wigginton and Timo Perez under 28, and the vast
majority of the at-bats and innings pitched going to players in their
30s. The Yankees and Diamondbacks have taught us that old teams can’t be
dismissed, but when you look at the recent performances, the trend lines of
Roberto Alomar and Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughn and
Jeromy Burnitz, it’s hard to put the Mets in that class. Even with the
addition of Rey Sanchez, the Mets will be hard-pressed to be even
average defensively, and that will hurt a staff that doesn’t rely heavily on
the strikeout.

For the Mets to win, or even to avoid being an expensive disappointment along
the lines of Connie Chung, they’ll have to get very lucky, staving off decline
in a half-dozen places while keeping many fragile bodies healthy. It could
happen, but more likely is a meandering season that ends up within three games
of .500, and finally gets Steve Phillips fired.

Montreal Expos

I’d like to say that I think the Expos could surprise. Assuming they get
Orlando Hernandez and Javier Vazquez back quickly, they have a
stable rotation with some upside and a ton of arms to fill out the bullpen.
The offense isn’t anything special, but the Expos are one of the few teams
that can look at Jeff Liefer and Endy Chavez as improvements
over the guys who played first base and center field last year. They’re a strong
defensive team as long as Chavez is in center and Brad Wilkerson is in
left.

That’s an optimistic appraisal, though. It’s more realistic to point out how
the team lacks OBP at four spots, has no bench, and will spend the next six
months doing more traveling than an NBA guard. That’s before we get into the
circus of ownership, and the impossible situation in which Omar Minaya finds
himself.

I hope Minaya gets a chance with a real team, be it a relocated Expos under
new ownership or another franchise, because he’s handled the last two years
very well. I can disagree with individual decisions, but on the whole, he’s
performed well. The Expos are good enough to hang around .500 and the fringe
of the wild-card race for most of the season.

Florida Marlins

Last month at the L.A. Pizza Feed, I was asked about the Marlins’ chances. I
simply made an arc across the air and said “Todd Hollandsworth,
Juan Pierre and Juan Encarnacion.” The Marlins’ starting
outfield might walk less than 100 times and slug .400 in doing so, and there’s
no amount of pitching, defense, or Santeria that will make that look good.

Moreover, we may be seeing the beginning of the Torborg Effect, with A.J.
Burnett
suffering some elbow pain following a year of heavy usage. The
Marlins’ vaunted young rotation has been a flop, and if Burnett goes down, the
group that briefly defined the franchise will consist of the raw Josh
Beckett
, the disappointing Brad Penny, and assorted journeymen.

The Marlins have to start over, but there’s no evidence that the franchise is
anything but a sleeper cell for the next run at contraction. It’s going to be
a very long season–a very long four seasons–in South Florida.

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