Are the Nats the team to beat in the NL East?

I went into spring training this year feeling that the Nationals were the favorites in the National League East by a pretty wide margin. I wasn't alone in this line of thinking. In fact, I believe the vast majority of the baseball world was with me. The Nats, after all, were coming off a 98-win season and their first division title in team history, had seemingly improved their roster with the additions of Dan Haren, Rafael Soriano and Denard Span, and would go into the 2013 season having experienced postseason baseball. They looked poised to take that strong 2012 campaign and build on it. We all know what happened next. The Nats came out incredibly flat, averaged just 3.52 runs per game through their first 80 games and needed a very strong finish to end up with an 86-win campaign. The Braves rolled to the division title, taking the NL East by a whopping 10 games, the second-largest margin of victory in baseball. In 2014, the Nationals again look to have improved their roster. They've fortified their rotation by adding Doug Fister, improved their bench with the signing of Nate McLouth and have found a quality lefty for the bullpen in Jerry Blevins. Is it enough to make them the favorites in the NL East again going into 2014? Some might be hesitant to pick the Nats as the team to beat in the division after what happened last season. It's tough to forget just how dramatically they underperformed given the talent they had on the roster, and that combined with Atlanta's strong 2013 season might cause a lot of people to view the Braves as the NL East favorites again in 2014. Not me. Not only have the Nationals gotten more talented during what's been a strong offseason for them, the Braves have lost a couple key parts since free agency began. Catcher Brian McCann, a major offensive weapon and quality backstop, signed a massive deal to join the Yankees. Veteran right-hander Tim Hudson, who has been an anchor of Atlanta's rotation for the last nine years, left to join the Giants on a two-year contract. And to this point, the only addition the Braves have made is right-hander Gavin Floyd, who has a career 4.48 ERA and is coming off Tommy John surgery. (Update: Atlanta also acquired catcher Ryan Doumit late yesterday afternoon in a trade with the Twins, a guy who will likely split time with Evan Gattis behind the plate.) Around the rest of the division, the Mets have added a couple nice pieces in Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon; the Marlins signed catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia but traded away Logan Morrison; and the Phillies have only gotten older by signing Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal and re-signing Carlos Ruiz for three years. Does anyone expect any of those three teams to be a legitimate contender for a division title? The Phillies still have Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, but I don't see them hitting enough or having enough depth to make a run at the NL East crown. The Mets are a couple years off at this point. And the Marlins are slowly improving and developing their young talent, but there's a lot of work left for them to do. In my mind, that leaves the Nats and the Braves, and the Nationals have had the far better offseason to this point. They finished 10 games behind Atlanta in 2013, but will enter the 2014 season hungry to prove that was a fluke. Even without Hudson, the Braves still have a young, talented starting rotation, featuring Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and Brandon Beachy. They've got a pretty potent lineup even without McCann, with the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, Freddy Freeman and others. Their bullpen is legit. It should be a fun battle to watch in 2014. The Nats and Braves don't like each other too much, and it sure seems like the last two NL East winners will be the class of the division again. Predictions mean nothing, and they mean even less in December with two months to go until pitcher and catchers report. The Braves have proven over the last two decades that they're a force in the division and are currently the top dog. But the way I see it, the way the rosters stand today, the Nats are the favorites in the NL East in 2014.

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