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A Guess at the NL East, 2008

Since October, the desktop image on my computer has been a shot taken from the left-centerfield seats at Citizens Bank Park on that unforgettable final Sunday of the season. It’s sometime late in the game, with the shadows stretching past the mound. Fans in front of the photographer are on their feet waving white Phillies towels, just like the bulk of the other 43,000 maniacs there. The home team is comfortably ahead, with the game in the hands of the three relievers who have been more or less bulletproof the previous three weeks; 90 miles to the north, the Mets are suffering their final collapse at the hands of the Marlins. You can practically taste the anticipation of what’s to come.

That was six months ago today. Triumph has given way to doubt, confidence to confusion. It’s been a weird spring training season, hasn’t it? The initial euphoria at baseball’s return was soon replaced by dismay at how little the prospective 2008 Phillies had done to move past the problems that nearly capsized them last season before that gloriously improbable late run to the division title. The dismay soon yielded to disbelief: that Adam Eaton still had his job, that Kyle Lohse was allowed to sign elsewhere for pennies on his original dollar demands, that a team so furiously focused over those last weeks of September, a flawed division winner uneventfully escorted out of the playoffs in the first round, seemed so blasé about "getting its work in" and complacent about what was coming.

So the curtain goes up tomorrow and we’ll see whether their confidence or my (and not just my) doubt proves more justified. From here, the 2008 Phillies bear an uncanny resemblance to their 2006 and 2007 predecessors: a championship core supported by players who range from adequate to atrocious. The two-MVPs-and-counting infield is the game’s best, and the 1-2 starters could be as good as any pairing. The outfield boasts no all-stars but should render strong production. The back of the bullpen certainly has enough talent. But the last six or seven slots on the pitching staff look like a total mess—and there aren’t obvious reinforcements on the way.

The Phillies survived these flaws last year through a combination of canny in-season moves by GM Pat Gillick for the likes of Lohse and Tad Iguchi and blind, dumb good fortune of the type they were perhaps overdue for after so many late-season near-misses; Kyle Kendrick’s sorcery with men on base, J.C. Romero’s unfathomable good luck surviving walks, Aaron Rowand’s career year. It wouldn’t be wise to count upon a repeat, but it feels uncomfortably like the club is doing just that.

Meanwhile, the division rival Mets and Braves have reloaded. New York’s problem somewhat mirrors the Phils’, in that they have a championship core led by a future MVP, David Wright, and a past-and-future Cy Young winner, Johan Satana, surrounded by a lot of age and not much depth. The Mets could get below-average production from three positions (C, 1B, LF) and aren't likely to be much better than average at second base (Luis Castillo) and right field (Ryan Church. Worse, if they need in-season reinforcements when Oliver Perez flames out or Pedro gets hurt or Carlos Delgado collapses, they might not have the pieces left to make trades.

This won’t be an issue for Atlanta, whose farm system is probably in its best shape in a decade. The Braves' big strength isan offense that could be better than the Phillies if young hotshots Brian McCann, Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar continue to improve and one of their centerfield prospects seizes the job. The Braves’ hopes rest upon getting 40 wins or so from aging starters John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton; the two Hall of Famers to be were fine in 2007, but they’re 41 and 42 respectively, while Hampton hasn’t pitched since around when President Clinton left office.

Washington and Florida round out the NL East. The Nationals' pitching is a disordered mess that reminds me of the late-1990s Phillies staffs, minus Curt Schilling, but they have a good lineup core and a great manager. It wouldn't shock me if the Nats have a strong second half as they figure out their rotation and some of their young position talent (Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, and Jose Flores among others)  starts to mature. The Marlins boast two young stud hitters in Hanley Ramirez and Jeremy Hermida, but their pitching should be worse than Washington's. If they manage to avoid 95 losses, the season will be a success. 

Barring a real rash of injuries—say, in which Carlos Beltran, Pedro, El Duque, Delgado, Moises Alou, and Billy Wagner all miss significant time—I think the Mets are going to win the division. I’d probably take the Phillies’ Howard/Utley/Rollins/Hamels quartet of stars over David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana, but the Mets’ overall rotation is so much better than the Phillies that it still should be enough. Even if they get just a season combined from Martinez and El Duque Hernandez, that plus Santana’s almost certain excellence, good seasons from Maine and Perez, and slight improvement from Mike Pelfrey will give them the best rotation in the division, and one of the two or three best in the NL. Wright could put up a 40-40 year, and Reyes should return to his 2006 form. The lineup will be middle-of-the-pack and there are some bullpen depth questions, but these are less significant weaknesses than their opponents.

So here's my prediction: 

Mets 91-71
Phillies 87-75
Braves 84-78
Nationals 77-85
Marlins 65-97


On the other hand, I pick the Mets almost every year, and they usually fall short. Here’s hoping it happens again, and that in six or seven months’ time I’ll have another glorious image of Phillies triumph to buoy me through the next winter.

Play ball.