Atlanta did little to reshape a roster that endured one of the worst collapses in baseball history, only to be overshadowed by the fried chicken and beer in Boston. So how is it possible to pick the Braves over the Marlins and Nationals for second place and top contender after the Phillies in the stacked National League East?
It will take a much better season by Jason Heyward, the right-field phenom who crash-landed after a stellar rookie season with a 50-point drop in batting average and 74-point drop in on-base percentage.
It will take at least 130 games from Chipper Jones, the soon-to-be 40-year-old whose 2011 numbers still made him the second-most productive third baseman in the NL with an .814 OPS. His balky knees, however, can give way at any time.
But mostly, Atlanta is relying on pitching depth unparalleled in the rest of the division. The Nationals have been lauded for stockpiling arms, but Stephen Strasburg is on an innings limit, and Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang are only recently removed from surgery. The Marlins, for all their moves, still need Josh Johnson healthy and believe that Carlos Zambrano can stay sane enough to be the fifth starter.
The Braves hold Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, and Tommy Hanson at the top of their rotation, and all three come with injury concerns. But behind them are Brandon Beachy (age 25), Mike Minor (24), and the three top prospects: Julio Teheran (21), Randall Delgado (turns 22 Thursday), and Arodys Vizcaino (21).
It's as deep as any rotation in the majors. The bullpen, everyone knows: Craig Kimbrel carried a 1.64 ERA into September only to finally succumb to a heavy workload by blowing three saves. But Kimbrel, along with Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, now understands what sort of conditioning it takes to last through the final month.
The young arms that don't start can provide bullpen depth or bide time at triple A until they are needed in the rotation. Kris Medlen is back from Tommy John surgery, and Cristhian Martinez provides middle-inning help.
In Washington, there is no notable offensive addition. The Nationals, obviously, do not expect Jayson Werth to hit .232 with a paltry .718 OPS again. And waiting in the wings is Bryce Harper, the next great slugger. Michael Morse belted 10 more home runs in 2011 than he did in his previous six seasons combined; is that type of production repeatable in 2012? Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Wilson Ramos are offensive cornerstones at two relatively weak positions in baseball.
The Marlins added Reyes, a dynamic presence in a lineup that already boasts Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton. Ramirez possibly could be the most important player in deciding the NL East's 2012 pecking order. How will he take to third base and Ozzie Guillen? Is he a .310 hitter or a .255 hitter?
Atlanta, for all its offensive woes, still mashed 173 home runs - third most in the NL and 20 more than the Phillies. Dan Uggla endured a horrific first half. Martin Prado's batting average dropped 47 points. Nate McLouth somehow garnered 267 at-bats.
But an older Freddie Freeman could challenge 30 home runs. Brian McCann remains one of the game's top offensive catchers. It's hard to imagine that 22-year-old shortstop Tyler Pastornicky is worse at the plate than Alex Gonzalez.
The key lies with Heyward, a talent so admired in 2010. A year later, he dealt with shoulder injuries and, ultimately, a spot on the bench behind Jose Constanza. Heyward, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, spent this winter working with hitting coach Greg Walker and Jones in daily sessions to improve his swing.
"The ball is jumping off the bat now - close to what it was in spring training 2010," Jones said.
That's when Heyward, bashing cars in the parking lot with home-run balls, captured the eye of Bobby Cox. Heyward will turn 23 in August. There are many reasons to believe he can learn from such extremes during his first two major-league seasons.
Sure, the division is better. But winter splashes by the Marlins and Nationals do not detract from the five quality months of baseball the Braves enjoyed in 2011. That makes Atlanta the best challenger to the Phillies.
Inside the Phillies: A Look at the National League East
On Feb. 8, these predictions hold as much cachet as Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow. Even if the numbers don't look right, expect the Phillies to finish with fewer than 100 wins simply because the division is better as a whole. Here are my predictions:
1. Phillies, 96-66: Yes, it's a six-win decrease. Yes, they might actually have to win a few big games in September. No, the streak of division titles doesn't end in 2012.
2. Braves, 91-71: They are banking on huge seasons for Jason Heyward and the bounty of young arms. A full season of Michael Bourn won't hurt, either.
3. Nationals, 86-76: It's easy to be skeptical of Jayson Werth's playing center for the entire season. Bryce Harper is the wild card here.
4. Marlins, 85-77: That still represents a 13-win improvement over 2011. There's just not enough pitching depth here to match the three teams ahead of them.
5. Mets, 67-95: They should hit rock bottom in Queens and finish last for the first time since 2003. But they will not trade David Wright.
- Matt Gelb
Contact staff writer Matt Gelb
at firstname.lastname@example.org or @magelb on Twitter.