Previewing the National League East

The Washington Nationals arrived in 2012, and they won’t be going away anytime soon.

The Nationals captured their first division title after generally being considered a year or more away from contending.

Manager Davey Johnson guided a team with an abundance of young talent, headlined by two former No. 1 overall picks: right-hander Stephen Strasburg and center fielder Bryce Harper.  

Washington lost to St. Louis in last year’s National League Division Series, during which they were without Strasburg due to the Nats’ much-publicized pitch limit on their young star.

There’s no such restriction on Strasburg this season. That’s good news for the Nationals and a warning for the rest of the division, including the Miami Marlins.

Here is how the NL East breaks down (In alphabetical order. Last year’s finish in parentheses):
 
Atlanta Braves (94-68, 2nd)

Additions: 3B Chris Johnson, C Gerald Laird, IF Ramiro Pena, OF Jordan Schafer, CF B.J. Upton, LF Justin Upton, RHP Jordan Walden

Strengths: The Upton brothers join Jason Heyward to form a very potent outfield. As right-handed hitters, the brothers also help balance a lineup that includes lefties Heyward, C Brian McCann and 1B Freddie Freeman. Closer Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty help form a stellar bullpen.    

Weaknesses: 3B Chipper Jones retired, leaving a huge void in leadership. Johnson and Juan Francisco will platoon at third. Someone also must replace Martin Prado, a valuable utility contributor who was dealt to Arizona in the Justin Upton deal. Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are being asked to step up in the rotation. Can young SS Andrelton Simmons handle the leadoff spot?

Best-case scenario: The Braves stay healthy, the Phillies do not and the Nationals take a step back. That would allow Atlanta to win the division.

Worst-case scenario: The rotation fails to live up to expectations and the offense suffers thanks to struggles by Simmons, 2B Dan Uggla and one or two others. Still, third place seems the worst the Braves could do.

Miami Marlins (69-93, 5th)

Additions: RHP Henderson Alvarez, SS Adeiny Hechavarria, 1B Casey Kotchman, C Jeff Mathis, OF Juan Pierre, 3B Placido Polanco, RHP Chad Qualls, RHP Jon Rauch, C Kyle Skipworth, RHP Kevin Slowey

Strengths: Giancarlo Stanton rates among the game’s best sluggers. Closer Steve Cishek showed last year he’s a smooth customer in pressure situations. Hechavarria’s defense is well above average. C Rob Brantly looks like he’ll be a presence behind the plate and with the bat.

Weaknesses: So many uncertainties. Lack of lineup protection — especially with 1B Logan Morrison on the disabled list to start the season — could mean opponents pitch around Stanton. The rotation appears to have some good arms, but Nathan Eovaldi, Wade LeBlanc, Henderson Alvarez and Kevin Slowey must prove they can produce over the long haul. Opponents will try to take the extra base on Pierre and whoever’s in center.

Best-case scenario: The young rotation pitches like a veteran one, the defense is strong and Stanton hits 40-plus homers. Even then, anything higher than fourth place in a tough division seems to be unrealistic.

Worst-case scenario: The pitchers struggle, the lineup is anemic and Stanton gets frustrated. That could mean a 100-loss, last-place season.

New York Mets (74-88, 4th)

Additions: C John Buck, OF Marlon Byrd, OF Collin Cowgill, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP Shaun Marcum, C Anthony Recker

Strengths: David Wright was named captain after signing a long-term deal in the offseason. He hits for average, some power, and provides solid defense. He’s also a great clubhouse presence. Johan Santana, when healthy, remains one of the game’s best pitchers. He’s currently dealing with a tired arm, and there’s no timeline for his return.

Weaknesses: Santana and fellow starter Shaun Marcum likely will begin the season on the disabled list. All the outfield spots were up for grabs in spring training.

Best-case scenario: Santana returns to pitch like the former Cy Young winner he is, Wright and 1B Ike Davis offer great offensive production and a few youngsters emerge as keepers for the team’s rebuilding project.

Worst-case scenario: Wright appears to be the only sure thing, if you overlook the rib-cage injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic that derailed his spring training. If injuries, subpar years and disappointments add up, the Mets could see the division’s basement.

Philadelphia Phillies (81-81, 3rd)

Additions: RHP Mike Adams, RHP Chad Durbin, OF Ender Inciarte, LHP John Lannan, OF Ben Revere, OF Delmon Young, 3B Michael Young

Strengths: If healthy, few teams can boast an equivalent top of the rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. SS Jimmy Rollins remains a great table-setter ahead of power hitters 2B Chase Utley and 1B Ryan Howard.

Weaknesses: Halladay raised concerns when he struggled this spring. C Carlos Ruiz will miss the first 25 games after testing positive for Adderall. Can anyone stay healthy?

Best-case scenario: The team avoids major injuries, and the stars perform like stars. Young joins a lineup with Rollins, Utley and Howard to return the Phillies to the top of the division.

Worst-case scenario: Another year of injuries to key players and implosions by closer Jonathan Papelbon result in a second straight third-place finish.

Washington Nationals (98-64, 1st)

Additions: RHP Dan Haren, RHP Rafael Soriano, CF Denard Span

Strengths: Strasburg and left-hander Gio Gonzalez headline a quality rotation. Closer Tyler Clippard leads a deep bullpen that has added former closer Soriano. At 20, Harper seems to be among the majors’ best players. Span offers speed atop the lineup.

Weaknesses: Hmm … nothing that serious. Perhaps youth in spots, but even youngsters such as Strasburg and Harper carry themselves like veterans.

Best-case scenario: Last year’s playoff appearance — and NLDS exit — motivates this talented team to return and go deeper. Strasburg wins 20 games, Harper puts his talents on display, and the Nationals repeat as division champs.

Worst-case scenario: Youngsters Strasburg and Harper take a step back before taking two steps forward (don’t count in it), some of the hitters (e.g. RF Jayson Werth, 1B Adam LaRoche) struggle and the bullpen fails to perform.  That could mean third place, but no lower.
 
Most Dangerous Player

Bryce Harper

Last year’s NL Rookie of the Year could contend for the league’s MVP Award in 2013. He’s a potential 30-30 (home runs/stolen bases) guy. Harper batted nearly .500 this spring — he appears ready to pick up where he left off.
 
Best Manager

Davey Johnson

At 70, Johnson had been expected to transition into a consultant’s role with the Nationals. But last year’s NL Manager of the Year is no dummy. He returns to try and guide another talented team (’86 New York Mets) to a World Series title.

Sleeper

Philadelphia Phillies

It’s strange to call Philadelphia a sleeper; after all, it did win five straight NL East titles before Washington’s emergence last year. But the presence of several aging stars makes them fragile. But watch out if the Phils remain fairly healthy.

Team with Issues

New York Mets

Ace Santana will start the season on the disabled list, and the outfield has been a major question mark from the start of camp. The Mets’ financial situation apparently has improved since the Wilpons were affected greatly by the infamous Bernie Madoff investment scandal, but you wouldn’t know it by the look of the team.

Final Thought
 
The Nationals and Braves enter 2013 as the NL East’s best teams. The Phillies have experience, while the Marlins and Mets showcase a lot of youth.

Strange things often happen during a long season, though this is one division in which the finish could resemble the way 2012 ended.

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas