For the first time in their seven-year history, the Nationals have a chance to finish better than fourth. The Braves will win the National League East and the Mets will debate trading David Wright.
Baseball begins today, so that means a steady stream of questions:
The Braves are my pick to beat the Phillies, but there are concerns: Will Chipper Jones' knee hold up and how productive can he be at 38? Outfielder Nate McLouth had a strong spring, but will that give him enough confidence to return to All-Star form? And, do they have a closer? The two candidates are young: Craig Kimbrel threw 20 2/3 big-league innings last season, while lefty Jonny Venters was used in 83 games and Braves fans worried about his arm falling off.
The Phillies are pitching-rich, but that's a good thing because they aren't going to score as much as they have in the past. Closer Brad Lidge is out at least for a month with a shoulder injury, so who can be trusted more in that role, Jose Contreras or Ryan Madson? And will the offense be as intimating with Chase Utley out (knee) Jimmy Rollins struggling this spring after bad 2010 season? Shane Victorino needs to bump up his average and on-base percentage (.259/.327). And with Jayson Werth in D.C., where is Ryan Howard's protection?
The Nationals could finish third, and that'd be progress. Are they wasting a good RBI guy batting Werth second? Nats manager Jim Riggleman likes that Werth takes a lot of pitches. Does health mean Rick Ankiel will hit 25 home runs and give Jason Marquis a chance to win 15? Jordan Zimmermann takes aim at a breakout year. Is Livan Hernandez capable of an ERA under 4.00? And if John Lannan has found his sinker, does he return to 2008 and 2009 form?
The Mets finished fourth last season and except for a new manager, Terry Collins, the roster hasn't changed much, so they start with low expectations. Ownership is fighting a $1 billion lawsuit brought on by the victims of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and while that shouldn't affect the payroll, the Mets need to rebuild. Does that mean Jose Reyes or David Wright could be trade chips? Is the offensive firepower gone? Carlos Beltran is hurting and Jason Bay needs to bounce back. Johan Santana will not be ready to until at least midseason, and can Chris Young and Chris Capuano make contributions to a rotation led by Mike Pelfrey?
The Marlins are playing their last season in a football stadium and need their team leader, Hanley Ramirez, to have a rebound year after winning the NL batting title in 2009 at .342. How many home runs will Mike Stanton hit after leading all rookies with 22 last season? Will Omar Infante at second base help tight an infield defense that made 123 errors last year? Does Javier Vazquez pitch better in the NL? He had a 5.32 ERA games for the Yankees last season, but a 2.87 ERA for the Braves in 2009 (and he had a 2.99 ERA in four interleague games last season). When does No. 1 draft Matt Dominguez, a third baseman, hit will enough in the minors to join the core of Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Coghlan and Logan Morrison? Dominquez plays good defense, but didn't hit this spring.