The NL East could have four contending teams this season. The Phillies and Braves are still strong, and the Marlins and Nationals have made improvements that have many people looking at them as possible playoff teams.
The Cubs won't have to wait very long to see some of them, either; the Nats will be the Cubs' opening series opponent at Wrigley Field on April 5, 7 and 8, and they play in both Miami and Philadelphia before the end of April.
We'll be seeing some familiar faces in some Eastern Division cities, too. After the jump, a brief look at the Cubs' five NL East opponents, in alphabetical order by city.
Atlanta Braves. 2011: 89-73, second place. The Braves were part of that incredibly exciting final regular season day last year, losing to the Phillies and thus losing out on a possible wild-card tiebreaker game with the Cardinals. I'm guessing that was more exciting for the rest of us than it was in Atlanta.
The Braves return essentially the same team for this year; Michael Bourn will have a full season for Atlanta in center field and the Braves will likely turn shortstop over to 22-year-old rookie Tyler Pastornicky, who has not played a single major league game. Pastornicky was acquired from the Blue Jays in the deal that sent Yunel Escobar to Toronto. On the mound, the Atlanta rotation is intact, though 21-year-old Julio Teheran will get a chance to break in.
The Braves' biggest strength could also be their biggest weakness. Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty were so good that manager Fredi Gonzalez overused them, and this trio's failure in September was one of the biggest reasons the Braves stayed home. Kimbrel led the NL in saves and won the Rookie of the Year award, but blew three key saves in September. Gonzalez will have to use these three more carefully.
Crazy Ozzie Guillen! Crazy Carlos Zambrano!
It's like a random Dr. Seuss book came to life and was given baseball uniforms.
OK, serious for one second. This team has talent and if they all perform up to their capabilities, should be a contender in the NL East.
Now, back to wackiness:
New York Mets. 2011: 77-85, fourth place. Lord, what a mess this team is. If they're not basically begging for money, they're hoping a guy who hasn't pitched in the majors in almost two years is going to be their savior. Or they're moving in the fences at Citi Field so that David Wright might hit a few more home runs.
Their closer is either Frank Francisco or Jon Rauch. Does that strike any fear into your heart, National League hitters?
I didn't think so.
Their starting second baseman is Daniel Murphy, a man who had barely played that position at all in professional baseball until last year. Their starting center fielder, Andres Torres, got himself a nice contract off a career year in 2010, but returned to mediocrity last year and is 34.
I'm done. And so are the Mets. They'll finish last.
Philadelphia Phillies. 2011: 102-60, first place. The Phillies are old, and that's after letting 49-year-old Jamie Moyer go.
Ryan Howard's Achilles injury is healing somewhat faster than expected, but he's still likely going to be out for a third of the season. The Phillies hired former star Jim Thome to play some first base in his absence, but Thome has played exactly four games at first base since he was last a Phillie -- in 2005. John Mayberry Jr. should also get some time at first base. The Phillies signed Ty Wigginton as insurance, but he's getting old, too.
The Phillies also let Roy Oswalt go, and he's still a free agent. That's because the Phillies have a very deep rotation anyway, headed by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and also featuring Vance Worley, who was very good last year. Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick will fight it out for the No. 5 slot -- and both of those guys are decent, too.
Jonathan Papelbon was signed to a megadollar, megayear deal to close. That rarely works out well. We'll see if Papelbon can be the exception to the rule.
The Phillies are aging (Jimmy Rollins is definitely declining, among others), but probably have enough pitching to be a solid contender.
Washington Nationals. 2011: 80-81, third place. Only a postponed game that wasn't made up prevented the Nats from having a shot at their first non-losing season since the franchise moved to DC in 2005.
And between the hype around Stephen Strasburg (who the Cubs should see for the first time on Opening Day at Wrigley Field) and the hype around Bryce Harper (who could crack the Opening Day roster at the age of 19), you might have overlooked the other good talent on the Nats, including Danny Espinosa, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who just signed a long-term contract extension with the team earlier this week.
And that's not even mentioning Jayson Werth, who also has a huge contract that he spectacularly failed to live up to in 2011. If he returns to his Phillies numbers, the Nats offense could be potent.
They have other good starting pitchers, too, including Gio Gonzalez (for whom they traded four of their top 10 prospects) and Edwin Jackson. It's enough that they're practically begging teams to trade for John Lannan.
Drew Storen, their closer, is no slouch, either. He was fourth in the NL with 43 saves a year ago. Did you even notice?
You will this year. The Nats are right on the cusp of being a really, really good team.