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2012 National League East Preview: Phillies, Nationals Could Lead Powerhouse Division

The National League East represents one of, if not the toughest division in baseball. With the league's new, expanded playoffs, the NL East could be heavily represented come October.

March 8, 2012; Clearwater FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels (35) pitches in the second inning of the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bright House Field. Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
March 8, 2012; Clearwater FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels (35) pitches in the second inning of the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bright House Field. Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Widely expected to repeat as National League East champions, the Philadelphia Phillies will be challenged by one of the strongest divisions they've faced in several years. The Washington Nationals continue to utilize their farm system to develop one of baseball's strongest young rosters, while the Miami Marlins have imported several new big names that could also bring an evaluated level of drama to the division. The Atlanta Braves, seemingly content with missing the playoffs by just one game last season, stayed mostly quiet this offseason and can never be fully counted out. That leaves the New York Mets, and if anything's been proven over the past couple of years with this franchise, it's that there just isn't too much that you can hold for certain.

In total, the NL East represents one of, if not the toughest division in baseball. With the league's new, expanded playoffs, the NL East could be heavily represented come October.

Philadelphia Phillies

2011 record: 102-60, 1st in NL East

Offseason acquisitions: closer Jonathan Papelbon, outfielder Laynce Nix, first baseman Jim Thome, relievers Chad Qualls and Dontrelle Willis, catcher Brian Schneider, infielder Ty Wigginton

Offseason departures: left fielder Raul Ibanez, first baseman Ross Gload, starter Roy Oswalt, relievers Danys Baez and Brad Lidge, closer Ryan Madson

Biggest strength: Pitching Philadelphia's rotation remains largely unchanged, though that's hardly an issue for the defending NL East champs. Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels (entering his walk year) and Cliff Lee make up likely the best 1-2-3 of any rotation in the league, and they'll be expected to carry the Phillies with a lineup that continues to age. Vance Worley, who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, and Joe Blanton are expected to round out the rotation. In the bullpen, former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was signed to resume that role for the Phillies. In between, there is depth -- barring injury concerns -- with Jose Contreras, Antonio Bastardo and Mike Stutes.

Biggest weakness: Depth Considering the Phillies' two biggest stars, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, will both begin the season on the disabled list and remain there for an unknown period of time, depth is the glaring question mark for this aging Phillies lineup. Jimmy Rollins (recipient of a three-year contract in the offseason), Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco are all on the wrong side of 30 years old, bringing the injury question into play for three of Philadelphia's biggest contributors.

X-Factor: The health of Howard and Utley Again, it's safe to say much of the Phillies' season will come down to the health of their two most important players. With Howard and Utley in the lineup, the Phillies can complement their beastly rotation with a lineup as dangerous as nearly any in the league. Without them, though, a tremendous load falls to the other position players. How they handle that in the early going of the season should add clarity to the situation one way or the other.

Atlanta Braves

2011 record: 89-73, 2nd in NL East

Offseason acquisitions: backup shortstop Jack Wilson, utility man Eric Hinske

Offseason departures: starter Derek Lowe, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, outfielder Nate McLouth, utility men Brooks Conrad and Joe Mather, relievers Scott Linebrink, George Sherrill and Jairo Asencio

Biggest strength: Pitching Like the defending division champs, the Braves are loaded with arms. Tim Hudson, once he's healthy, will lead a rotation that features four 26-and-under starters in Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor. Last season, the Braves finished third in NL in runs allowed (605) and fourth in ERA (3.48). In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel returns as the closer, as does his primary set-up man, Jonny Venters. Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen and Cristhian Martinez will also factor in heavily, while Cory Gearrin and Yohan Flande should fill the final two spots of the bullpen.

Biggest weakness: Lineup Atlanta finished 10th in runs scored (641) in 2011 and this season, they'll heavily rely on improved seasons from Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla and Martin Prado. Michael Bourn will also be expected to thrive in leadoff spot after being acquired at last year's trade deadline.

X-Factor: Jason Heyward After dramatically retooling his swing in the offseason, Heyward will be counted on to quickly break out of the slump that ruined his sophomore season in the league. After finishing the 2010 season as the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up with a .277 batting average, 18 homers, 72 RBIs and a .456 slugging percentage, Heyward's numbers fell to .227/14/42/.389 in 2011.

Washington Nationals

2011 record: 80-81, 3rd in NL East

Offseason acquisitions: starters Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, relievers Brad Lidge and Ryan Perry, outfielder Mark DeRosa

Offseason departures: starter Livan Hernandez, outfielder Laynce Nix, infielder Alex Cora, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, outfielder Jonny Gomes

Biggest strength: Pitching Stephen Strasburg's innings may be limited this season, but his potential as the ace of the Nationals' staff remains unbridled. Gio Gonzalez, acquired in the offseason in a trade with Oakland, will be the No. 2 starter ahead of Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and John Lannan. Closer Drew Storen is reportedly pain-free as he continues to work his way back from an inflamed right elbow, but he will begin the season on the disabled list. Tyler Clippard and newly acquired Brad Lidge will carry much of the bullpen load, while Henry Rodriguez, Chad Durbin and Sean Burnett will as well. Once he returns to health after straining his left hamstring, Chien-Ming Wang could fill in as a spot-starter or reliever.

Biggest weakness: Top of the lineup In Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth, the Nationals have a potentially impressive heart of the order. Much of that depends on if Werth can have the bounceback season that's widely anticipated, but the Nats might also receive some help in the form of Michael Morse (when healthy) and Bryce Harper (if/when he's called up from the minors). However, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa are relatively unproven at the top of the lineup. If they can exceed expectations, though, the Nationals could be in the process of developing a dangerous lineup.

X-Factor: Bryce Harper In so many ways, Harper is an x-factor for Washington. When will he get called up? How will he handle that transition? Does he have the mental makeup to withstand what still has the potential to be an up-and-down season for the Nats, despite the hype? One thing that is for sure, however, is Harper's undeniable power. Upon his call-up, any sustained power would pay dividends.

New York Mets

2011 record: 77-85, 4th in NL East

Offseason acquisitions: relievers Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Ramon Ramirez, shortstop Ronny Cedeno, outfielders Scott Hairston and Andres Torres

Offseason departures: shortstop Jose Reyes, outfielder Willie Harris, catcher Ronny Paulino, starters Chris Capuano and Chris Young, closer Jason Isringhausen, reliever Ryota Igarashi

Related: A Closer Look At The Mets

Biggest strength: A potential return to form for David Wright, Jason Bay and co. With all of the issues surrounding the Mets' ownership and front office, it's hard to find positives for this organization. Due to their financial problems, the Mets were essentially forced to let Jose Reyes walk while only adding Francisco, Rauch, Ramirez and Torres as their big offseason acquisitions. A club-record $52 million was cut from the payroll, but now the Mets must move forward with a lackluster roster in the National League's powerhouse division. Thus, the majority of the Mets' hopes lie in David Wright, Jason Bay and Ike Davis returning as big-time contributors after injuries and/or down seasons.

Biggest weakness: Health concerns That said, it seems implausible to expect Johan Santana, Wright, Bay and Davis to all return to form this season. Consequently, a heavy burden will likely fall to the Mets' assemblage of very young talent - Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, Josh Thole in the lineup and Jonathan Niese and Dillon Gee off the mound.

X-Factor: Johan Santana If Santana can at the very least stay healthy after missing all of 2011, the Mets will have their ace to anchor a questionable rotation of himself, R.A. Dickey, Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Gee.

Miami Marlins

2011 record: 72-90, 5th in NL East

Offseason acquisitions: manager Ozzie Guillen, closer Heath Bell, shortstop Jose Reyes, starter Mark Buehrle, starters Carlos Zambrano and Wade LeBlanc

Offseason departures: starters Javier Vazquez and Chris Volstad, relievers Burke Badenhop, Clay Hensley and Brian Sanches, catcher John Baker

Biggest strength: Speed With Jose Reyes joining Emilio Bonifacio and Hanley Ramirez atop the lineups, the Marlins are set up to run. If they can get on base with relative consistency, Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez could be set up for very strong years.

Biggest weakness: The glut of new faces Nearly all of the Marlins main offseason acquisitions are big names, and many of them come with their own question marks. Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano have proven their volatility time and time again, while Jose Reyes brings his injury history. In between, Mark Buehrle will face a ton of pressure at the top of the rotation is Josh Johnson is unable to return to health/form, while Heath Bell may not get all the save opportunities he'd expect with an unproven bullpen in front of him.

X-Factor: Josh Johnson The Marlins are well situated to rise from the cellar of the NL East given their influx of talent, but exactly how much improvement they will see in 2012 rides on the health of their ace. The 28-year-old righty was limited to nine starts last season by shoulder inflammation, and in his six full seasons in the majors he has surpassed 30 starts only once. But prior to his injury shortened 2011 campaign, Johnson led the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010. Even in last year's nine starts, Johnson held a 1.64 ERA in 60 1/3 innings.