If the NL East doesn’t produce 2005’s most interesting race, I’ll be very surprised. The top four teams in the division all have reasonable arguments to be picked as the division winner, and just as reasonable cases to be slotted fourth.

I’ve been tooting the Mets’ horn all winter long, so it will come as no surprise that I have them emerging from the pack. The additions of Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez are worth 10-12 wins to the team by themselves. Add in a full season of David Wright and any kind of bounceback from Mike Piazza, and the Mets will have a superstar core unrivaled in the division.

That’s not all. As I’ve written, I like the chance that Kazuo Matsui will play closer to his Japanese League level in his second season Stateside. He was getting it together last summer before back problems effectively ended his season in early August. I’m less optimistic about Jose Reyes‘s chance to be a good top-of-the-order hitter, although that has more to do with his being rushed than his ability.

The biggest questions being raised about the Mets concern their bullpen, largely because other than Braden Looper the Mets don’t have name brand relief. What they do have is talent; no-names such as Heath Bell and Bartolome Fortunato are the kinds of minor-league veterans who can be to the Mets what guys like Brendan Donnelly and Ben Weber have been to the Angels.

I see a lot of parallels between Willie Randolph and the Angels’ Mike Scioscia. Both were considered heady, winning players in their day, and they shared some similarities as hitters. (The comp doesn’t work visually, but isn’t it about time we were able to compare the stocky white guy with the skinny black one?) Scioscia has shown a willingness to assign roles based on performance, not pedigree, and Randolph will have the opportunity to do so. Scioscia has been big on aggressive baserunning, applying the concept in a way that adds to the Angels’ offense. Randolph has said he wants the Mets to be that kind of team.

The Mets will see a big change in their runs scored and runs allowed this season, enough to make them contenders and, in my mind, division champs.

The team most likely to challenge the Mets is the Phillies, who return the bulk of the team that has been a disappointment for the last three seasons. The big difference is in the dugout, where the temperamental Larry Bowa has been replaced by the more easygoing Charlie Manuel. While there is some research, notably by Bill James, that indicates teams get a boost when switching from one extreme personality to another in the dugout, my impression is that the gain the Phillies get here is simply from the removal of Bowa, who never seemed to be able to manage through failure these past three seasons.

Working against the Phillies is that they’ve quietly become an old team. On Opening Day, just two starters will be younger than 27, the middle-infield duo of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. The great Bobby Abreu is 31, Jim Thome is 34 and Mike Lieberthal 33. The pitching staff has some young talent in Brett Myers and Gavin Floyd, and just as many guys who once went on strike. They’re not the Giants, but this isn’t a young core coming together so much as the fourth go’round for a group that’s been coming up short since ’01.

I see this as Ed Wade’s last hurrah. He’s had real problems filling in around his core these past four seasons, unable to make the kind of in-season moves that, say, Walt Jocketty keeps pulling off. This past offseason largely consisted of acquiring guys–Jon Lieber, Kenny Lofton–who the Yankees were done with. With Bowa gone, a failure on the Phillies’ part to reach October should spell the end of Wade’s tenure in Philadelphia. They’ll be right there with the Marlins, Padres and Cards, battling for a wild-card slot.

The Marlins are the trendy pick, what with one of the best free-agent signings of the winter (Carlos Delgado) and two exciting young starting pitchers. What they have in front-line talent–Delgado sits in the middle of a very strong top six–they lack in depth. The Fish will have the worst bench and bullpen in the division, and among the worst in baseball.

The top of the roster isn’t without question marks, either. As exciting as the possibility of a Josh Beckett/A.J. Burnett top two is, both pitchers bear the burden of proving they can…well, bear the burden of a full year in a major-league rotation. Burnett came back from Tommy John surgery to pitch very well, especially down the stretch last year. He’s a good sleeper Cy Young candidate. Beckett’s blister problems have kept his innings and pitch counts down, which should be a good thing for his arm. At 23, it’s time for him to leverage that accident of development and make 34 starts.

That leaves the Braves, and I know I said I wouldn’t do this again, but here I am. The pitching staff behind Tim Hudson and whatever they get from John Smoltz–I call 110 innings, 3.11 ERA–just isn’t impressive, and they’re starting two absolute disasters in the outfield corners. Even with Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal having huge years, they can’t hang with the top three teams in the East. They just don’t score or prevent enough runs.

We’re going to know by midsummer just how badly the people of Washington, D.C. want to watch baseball, because their enthusiasm will be tested. The first D.C. team in 34 seasons will not be a good one, larded as it’s been by some questionable free-agent signings and the results of MLB’s questionable handling since 2002. There are enough good baseball players on hand to make things interesting–I’m a big Brad Wilkerson fan, Chad Cordero could make the All-Star team–but this is a last-place team.

Projected standings:

             Record     RS    RA
Mets         91-71     761   678
Phillies     88-74     835   792
Marlins      85-77     764   703
Braves       83-79     771   725
Nationals    66-96     651   761

NOTE: I missed getting this into the newsletter, but I’ll be on L.A.’s ESPN 710 tonight from 7-9 p.m. PT, talking fantasy baseball with Matt Berry, better known as The Talented Mr. Roto.

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