NL East is going to be fun

dshirley@macon.comMarch 28, 2013 

Each year going into the Major League Baseball season, we love to make predictions of which team will win what and what players will stand out.

One of the topics each season that draws interest focuses on which is the best division in the majors. There won’t be much debate about that this year as the NL East takes that distinction … at least the top of the division.

Yes, the AL West will be good again with the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland and Texas all being really, really good. But Seattle is just average, and Houston might be the worst team in the majors. And the AL East looks stacked with Tampa Bay loaded again, and the New York Yankees being, well, the Yankees. But who knows what Boston will be this year, and do we really trust that Toronto will knock down the door this year or that Baltimore can be solid two years in a row?

Granted, the NL East does have the Miami Marlins and New York Mets bringing down its profile, but the top three teams are impressive, and their race for the division title and the playoffs is going to be really interesting.

In the end, all three of those teams -- Atlanta, Washington and Philadelphia -- should end up in the playoffs; that’s how good they are and fun this race will be. And the Braves, after a few years of looking up at other teams, are going to return to the top of the division with a division title.

The Braves have everything a team could want with a dominant lineup, strong starting rotation and a powerful closer; the rest of the bullpen is a concern, but we’ll wait and see on those pitchers. It all should add up to a lot of wins and an exciting season for Braves fans, maybe one like they haven’t seen in some time.

Atlanta had the best offseason of any team in the majors, and landing B.J. Upton and Justin Upton and putting them alongside Jason Heyward gives the Braves the best outfield in baseball. But the Braves are solid in the infield, as well, with Freddie Freeman at first, Dan Uggla at second, Andrelton Simmons at shortstop and the combination of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson at third base.

The only real concerns are catcher Brian McCann’s health and Uggla’s bat. If Uggla continues to struggle like he has the past two seasons, he could be the only hole in the lineup because the other seven spots look solid and even better than that in most of those spots.

That said, the Braves won’t have an easy path to the division title.

The Nationals won the division last year and should have another strong team, which will be helped by having Stephen Strasburg for a full season, while the lineup will be led by the continued growth of Bryce Harper. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are also terrific, while Gio Gonzalez, Dan Haren and Jordan Zimmermann join Strasburg in a dynamic rotation. But it would only be natural for Washington to take a step back a bit from finishing last year with 98 wins and the best record in the majors.

And don’t forget about the Phillies. Yes, they struggled last year with health issues, and with an older team, that again will be the key to this season. But the Phillies do have Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, again if healthy, leading the rotation and Ryan Howard, who looks healthy, and Chase Utley leading the lineup while Domonic Brown has had a terrific spring and finally appears ready to be the next star the Phillies need him to be.

The Phillies have more holes than Atlanta and Washington, but they also have a proud, veteran group that will bounce back from last year.

If Philadelphia can rebound, it can make this a three-team race, and it will be exciting throughout the entire major league season.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or dshirley@macon.com

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