There was no more interesting division in baseball than the NL East this winter. It is essentially a rebuilt, redesigned, revamp of what it was just a few months back, familiar only in team locations in many regards. The Florida Marlins changed out everything about their club, both on field, off field and in the budgeting department. The Washington Nationals continued to drop big money, but also made smart, low price decisions as well. After a colossal collapse, that took them from a sure return to the postseason last year with a 8.5 game headed into September, they chose to had steady and give it another go. As for the Mets? Well, they let the National League’s batting champ walk to a division rival…and couldn’t do anything about it.

2011 Standings

  1. Philadelphia Phillies (102-60)
  2. Atlanta Braves (89-73)
  3. Washington Nationals (80-81)
  4. New York Mets (77-85)
  5. Florida Marlins (72-90)

While all of this was going around, one thing stayed the same: the Phillies looked down at it all. After winning their fifth consecutive division title, but being coming out on the wrong half of a classic Divisional Series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, they’ll look to pick up where they’ve left off for the last half decade. In order to do so, they’ll have to take on the revamped Miami Marlins, a newly deep Nationals team, the Braves with a major chip on their shoulder and a Mets club with absolutely nothing to lose….and does it without two of their top contributors in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for an unknown amount of time?

Doc Halladay had his standard Cy Young caliber year before being narrowly outdone in a classic Playoff matchup.

All-Division Team

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves

First Base: Freddie Freeman, Braves

Second Base: Dan Uggla, Braves

Third Base: David Wright, Mets

Shortstop: Jose Reyes, Marlins

Left Field: Logan Morrison, Marlins

Center Field: Shane Victorino, Phillies

Right Field: Hunter Pence, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cole Hamels, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson, Marlins

Righty Reliever: Tyler Clippard, Nationals

Best Players: Jonny Venters, Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Top 10 Players

1. Roy Halladay, Phillies

2. Cliff Lee, Phillies

3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

4. Jose Reyes, Marlins

Reyes rediscovered his healthy legs last year, and landed his first batting title as a result.

5. David Wright, Mets

6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals

7. Cole Hamels, Phillies

8. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

9. Brian McCann, Braves

10. Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Lineup

  1. Marlins
  2. Braves
  3. Phillies
  4. Nationals
  5. Mets

Miami one of the most versatile lineups in the game, featuring multiple 50 steals candidates, 5 former All-Stars and two of the premier young talents in the game in the former Mike, now Giancarlo, Stanton. The Braves lineup had a down year as a whole last summer, but the potential to rebound is definitely there. The Phillies will have to go into survival mode being down both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to start the year.

Rotation

  1. Phillies
  2. Marlins
  3. Nationals
  4. Braves
  5. Mets

This the best collection of rotations of any division in baseball. Halladay, Lee and Hamels would be the number one guy on nearly any other team in the game, yet they combine in Philly to be by far the best collection of arms in one city. They finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in last year’s NL Cy Young vote. Mark Buehrle and Gio Gonzalez join Miami and Washington to provide All-Star boost to growing rotations for each franchise.

Strasberg's return will feature an unparalleled mixture of expectation, but he won't be alone in carrying the weight.

1-2 Punch

  1. Phillies (Halladay & Lee)
  2. Nationals (Strasberg & Zimmerman)
  3. Marlins (Johnson & Buehrle)
  4. Braves (Hudson & Hanson)
  5. Mets (Santana & Dickey)

Halladay and Cliff combined to go 36-14 last year, with 14 complete games and 7 shutouts; dominant. Strasburg and Zimmermann have both had Tommy John surgery over the last two years, but the results both showed upon returning were very positive. Their potential should come into reality this summer. Much of the extent of how well the Marlins, Braves and Mets seasons go lay on the healthy returns of Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Johan Santana.

Bullpen

  1. Braves
  2. Nationals
  3. Phillies
  4. Marlins
  5. Mets

The backend of the Braves bullpen turns games into six inning affairs at best. Kimbrel had 46 saves and struck out 127 batters in 77 innings. Venters lowered his ERA from 1.95 to 1.84 and Eric O’Flaherty posted a 0.98 mark. In DC, Drew Storen, Brad Lidge and Tyler Clippard should be a very formidable group, and new closers Papelbon in Philly and Heath Bell in Miami bring solid new dynamics to their clubs.

Kimbrel set the rookie record for saves last year with 46, in addition to leading the Majors in relief strikeouts.

Tablesetters

  1. Marlins (Reyes & Bonafacio)
  2. Braves (Bourn & Prado)
  3. Phillies (Rollins & Polanco)
  4. Nationals (Desmond & Espinosa)
  5. Mets (Torres & Murphy)

Reyes led the league in hitting and triples last year, in addition to swiping 39 bases as a Met last year. Bonafacio stole 40 bags himself, and together they should be pure hell. Bourn has led the NL in steals the last two seasons. Him and Prado should make for one of the more potent hit and run combos in either league.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Marlins (Ramirez/Stanton/Morrison)
  2. Braves (McCann/Uggla/Freeman)
  3. Nationals (Zimmerman/Werth/LaRoche)
  4. Mets (Wright/Davis/Bay)
  5. Phillies (Victorino/Pence/Wigginton)

When Hanley is healthy, very few players can do more than he does. Behind him is Stanton, and only A-Rod and Ken Griffey, Jr have hit more homers before the age of 22 than him. If the Mets can keep Wright, Ike Davis and Jason Bay on the field together in the newly redesigned Citi Field, it push the Mets into a competitive season. The Nats hope that year two of Jayson Werth payout the promise his contract reads out at.

If Wright (102 games in '11) and the rest of the middle of the Mets attack can stay healthy, they'll shake up the East.

Bench

  1. Phillies
  2. Marlins
  3. Mets
  4. Nationals
  5. Braves

The Phillies bench will be pushed early due to filling in for its injured starters, but Jim Thome and Juan Pierre provide great options for an offense that will need contributions from everywhere. All in all, no team is particularly deep offensively in the East, and an injury to the wrong starter on any club could change the direction of the entire division.

Defense

  1. Phillies
  2. Mets
  3. Braves
  4. Nationals
  5. Marlins

Pence, Victorino and John Mayberry are a very strong outfield, while Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz anchor a good infield collection as well. Andres Torres will cover the expansive outfields in New York well, while Davis and Wright are plus fielders as well. Michael Bourn covers more outfield than player in the game, and the Braves will benefit from it in his first full year in the A. The Marlins will have to hope Hanley Ramirez takes to his new position at third base quickly, and Emilio Bonafacio and Logan Morrison take big strides in the outfield soon.

Speed

  1. Marlins
  2. Mets
  3. Phillies
  4. Nationals
  5. Braves

Reyes and Bonafacio are the burners, but Ramirez, Logan Morrison and Chris Coghlan can spark the bases as well. Wright is the rare third baseman that can steal 20 bases, and even after losing Reyes, the Mets should be a very good running team.

Manager

  1. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
  2. Ozzie Guillen, Marlins
  3. Davey Johnson, Nationals
  4. Freddi Gonzalez, Braves
  5. Terry Collins, Mets

Charlie Manuel is trying to wrap up his sixth consecutive division title this year, and has pushed the Phillies to the best record in baseball the last two years, as well as a World Series title in 2008. For as colorful as he is, there’s probably no better scenario for Ozzie Guillen than leading an exciting, rebuilt Marlins team that can be pushed by his energy. The best is yet to come for him. Terry Collins is a good manager, and as much life as the Mets show, he’ll be able to maximize it.

Ozzie's aggressive style fits in perfectly with the approach the Marlins have put forth all winter, and should pay off well this summer.

Finances

  1. Marlins
  2. Nationals
  3. Phillies
  4. Braves
  5. Mets

The Marlins’ bottomless, Scrooge McDuck-style money pit was one of the stories of the offseason, and they have the resources to continue to make needed additions to the team throughout the year. The Nationals also have the funds, and prospects, to make additions needed to shift a potential pennant chase in their favor. The Phillies hands are tied by the uncertain number it will take to secure Cole Hamels past this year and Ryan Howard’s escalated, $25 million mark he’ll pull down this year.

Impact Additions

  1. Jose Reyes (Marlins from Mets)
  2. Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies from Red Sox)
  3. Heath Bell (Marlins from Padres)
  4. Mark Buehrle (Marlins from White Sox)
  5. Gio Gonzalez (Nationals from A’s)

Reyes was the first big signing of the offseason, and the Marlins #1 target in their aggressive rebuilding effort early on. Bell, Buehrle, and eventually, Carlos Zambrano followed suit soon after and reshaped the direction of a team that competed early last year before injuries and a lack of depth dropped them into the bottom of the division.

Breakthrough Candidates

  1. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
  2. Lucas Duda, Mets
  3. Jason Heyward, Braves
  4. Brandon Beachy, Braves
  5. John Mayberry, Jr., Phillies

Before tearing his elbow up in 2009 and missing most of last year, StrasMania was at a fever pitch. This is the year to see what it can be about in full effect, despite an inning limit he’ll have to adhere too (most likely based on where the Nats are sitting in the pennant race). Jason Heyward had a brutal sophomore slump, but he’s still primed to become one of the game’s best hitters still. Lucas Duda is the type of low cost, high payout talent the cash and prospect deprived Mets have a desperate need to produce.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Bryce Harper (Outfielder, Nationals)
  2. Randall Delgado (Pitcher, Braves)
  3. Zach Wheeler (Pitcher, Mets)
  4. Julio Teheran (Pitcher, Braves)
  5. Tyler Pastornicky (Shortstop, Braves)

Harper's the next "Next Big Thing" in DC;whenever he arrives he'll widen the Strasburg spotlight to shine on him as well.

Harper is baseball’s “Next Big Thing”, and for good reason. The 18 year old has shown he can dominate minor league comp and play solid, if slightly inconsistent, ball with the big boys. That inconsistency will start him in Triple A, but it’s going to be hard to leave him there all summer, even if the Nationals are technically “in need” of him. The Braves really need for Delgado or Teheran to live up to their top prospect billing, so they can round out a pitching staff that needs improvement on its bottom half.

2011 PROJECTION

  1. Phillies
  2. Marlins
  3. Braves
  4. Nationals
  5. Mets

The Phillies have run the East for the last half decade in part due to a brutal lineup that featured MVP winners in Rollins and Howard, and one of the game’s most productive overall players in Utley. More recently, it has been due to their dominant pitching staff taking the lead. This summer the weight of the world will be on that pitching staff and whatever the lineup can provide. The good news is if any team can live with this arrangement, it’s the Phillies; and as far as win and losses go, they probably won’t skip much of a beat. Halladay is the best pitcher in the game and Lee isn’t too far behind. Hamels is in a contract year, and will be auditioning for one of the biggest deals this upcoming winter. With yet another up and coming stud in Vance Worley joining them and a championship-level closer in Papelbon backing it all up, runs may be a luxury, but not a necessity, until Howard and Utley potentially return.

However, it won’t be a runaway by any means. The Marlins are bringing in a lot of new pieces, but are both undeniably experienced and developing major young talents at once. They easily have what it takes to throw the Phillies from their home atop the division, but their pitching staff will have to prove both healthy and consistent. Also their very shaky defense will have to step up as well. The same story goes for the Nationals; a well rounded on pitching staff on paper will have stay on the mound, and its stars have to produce and be healthy. The Braves are coming off of an epic collapse, and now have to face both a tougher division and a certain pitching staff/lineup at once. The Mets are still stuck in financial limbo and cannot add pieces to their team of much substance at all, let alone up to the level that their divisional mates can…and have.

However, for all that has changed, the end result will be the same. They won’t finish with the best record in the game for a third straight year and the margin of their championship finish will be the slimmest since 2008. But the Phillies will ride high in the East again. And you know what else happened last time they had to fight so hard for the regular season title?

A World Series one followed. Not predicting THAT yet, but foreshadowing is what is it is.

For more on where the MLB is headed this summer and in the moment, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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