The NL champion the last two years has come from this division, and all of the teams in it have improved themselves -- well, maybe not the Marlins, but you get the idea.
This continues a BCB series intended to help you know a little more about the teams the Cubs will be playing this year. Again, the teams listed after the jump are NOT necessarily in any predicted order of 2010 finish.
New York Mets -- 2009: 4th place, 70-92
At one point in 2009, the Mets had $90 million of players on the disabled list. When the Cubs played them at Wrigley Field at the end of August, one of the New York lineups looked like a split-squad spring training game.
So what did the Mets do about this? Why, they went out and spent $66 million on Jason Bay, which isn't a terrible move, as long as Bay stays healthy. They also lowered some of the fences at Citi Field; the high fences were blamed for David Wright's sudden loss of power -- although Wright's HR last year were split equally between Citi Field and road games (five each).
The Mets' pitching staff was also decimated by injuries, especially to ace Johan Santana. Still, apart from Santana and Mike Pelfrey, the Mets' staff this year is filled with question marks. Will John Maine return from his own injuries? Who are the fourth and fifth starters? (Mets fans will cringe if one of the answers to the latter question is "Oliver Perez".) Francisco Rodriguez is a fine closer, but the rest of the bullpen is "eh".
And Jose Reyes will already likely miss Opening Day.
In short, the Mets have to be better than last year almost by default. But they'll have to stay healthy -- and get big years out of guys like Daniel Murphy and Jeff Francoeur -- to have any chance to contend.
Philadelphia Phillies -- 2009: 1st place, 93-69, won NL pennant
The Phillies return nearly 100% intact from their second straight pennant. The only significant changes are at third base, where Placido Polanco will replace the free-agent-departed Pedro Feliz, and at the top of the starting rotation, where Cliff Lee was shipped to Seattle, to be replaced by Roy Halladay.
All teams should have such "problems". Lee did a great job for the Phillies. Halladay will do the same -- maybe better, since he leads the major leagues in complete games nearly every year. Last year he had nine CG -- that was more than every National League team except the Giants (and more than 12 AL teams). That will take a lot of pressure off the Phillies bullpen. The Philly pen last year was actually pretty good, too, except for closer Brad Lidge. Inexplicably, after not blowing a single save all year, including postseason, in 2008, Lidge was gasoline on the fire in 2009, with 11 blown saves and a 7.21 ERA, by far the highest ever for any pitcher with 30 or more saves.
What Lidge will show up this year? As last year's Phillies proved, it probably doesn't matter. The Phillies led the NL in runs (820) and although some of their hitters are getting a little old (Raul Ibanez is 38), they'll be a force in this division again.
Atlanta Braves -- 2009: 3rd place, 86-76
The Braves, at last, seem to have moved on from the Smoltz/Maddux/Glavine era. After the three pitchers who anchored the Braves rotation moved on, for various reasons, the Braves didn't seem to know how to handle it; they muddled on in mediocrity after their last postseason appearance in 2005, having two losing years in the last four.
Finally, last year, they seemed to have figured out how to build a winning team again, using the "build from within, with a key free agent or two" philosophy that got them 14 straight playoff appearances in the 1990's and early 2000's.
This time, one of the keys wasn't a free agent, but a young pitcher shrewdly acquired by trade: Jair Jurrjens, who was one of the best pitchers in the National League last year. He'll anchor a staff that features Derek Lowe -- who will have to come back after a poor 2009 -- a rejuvenated Tim Hudson, and Tommy Hanson, who started 2009 in the minor leagues, but on his recall posted an 11-4, 2.60 mark in 21 starts, getting him third place in NL ROY voting. Hanson could be a Cy Young candidate this year.
The Braves' offense, as in their glory years, might be "just good enough". Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus (the new 1B) are getting old. Nate McLouth isn't, but neither is he quite the star hitter the Braves thought they were getting when they shipped half their farm system to the Pirates for him. Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar are solid hitters. The Braves could be right at the top of the division if everything breaks right for them. They also have the motivation of this being Bobby Cox's final season.
Florida Marlins -- 2009: 2nd place, 87-75
Every time you think the Marlins have tanked it, they come up with players from their farm system that you've never heard of, or rejuvenate a free agent, and blast into contention. Last year's second place finish was, in part, courtesy of NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan -- who started 2009 as a Triple-A second baseman, and finished it as the Marlins' left fielder -- and Jorge Cantu, who, two years after being released by the Reds, drove in 100 runs.
I don't want to short-shrift the Marlins' pitching, anchored by Josh Johnson, who recovered from an injury that might have been induced by then-manager Joe Girardi's insistence on bringing him back after a long rain delay, to posting a 15-5, 3.23 season that got him on the All-Star team.
If only Florida's bullpen were as good as their starters, they might have won this division last year. They never really had a closer (I still don't consider Leo Nunez a closer), and the rest of their pen seems like it was plucked off the waiver wire. The Marlins' rotation depth is a worry for them, too.
And I just hate it when the Cubs play in that football stadium. Since the 2003 NLCS, the Cubs are 7-10 vs. the Marlins in Miami. That new park can't be ready soon enough.
Washington Nationals -- 2009: 5th place, 59-103
The Nationals were two teams last year. Their offense generated 710 runs, just about league average. Their pitching was horrific, allowing 874 runs (far more than any other NL team), and finishing last in walks allowed and strikeouts.
So, they have made two free-agent pitching acquisitions, both on what I'd call the "midrange" scale. Ex-Cub Jason Marquis joins the pitching staff -- and according to the Nats' depth chart, he's now their #1 starter. Scary. Plus, I think John Lannan is a better pitcher. On a better team, Lannan could probably be an 18-game winner.
They also signed Matt Capps, who the Cubs were pursuing, to be their closer. Capps did a good job closing in Pittsburgh, but got few opportunities. Life is likely to be the same for him in Washington.
The Nats' offense returns largely intact, although they released Elijah Dukes recently. Dukes has talent and troubles, and the troubles must have really been bad, because the Nats don't really have another right fielder. They signed Ivan Rodriguez to give some veteran leadership to their pitching staff. They better hope that works, because I-Rod really can't hit any more -- at 38, his numbers last year weren't much better than Koyie Hill's. (And I like Koyie Hill, but a starting catcher should have better numbers.)
The Nats will be better this year, but they await the coming of Steven Strasburg. That won't happen on Opening Day -- they've already said he'll start the year in the minors -- but if he blows through whatever level they send him to (likely Triple-A), he could be in the Washington rotation by midseason.