This is Part Five of my six-part 2012 baseball preview. I’ve looked at the NL West, AL West, NL Central, and the AL Central. Now we move on to the deepest division in either league, the NL East, from which the Wild Card will almost surely come. Players were on the move in the NL East this season, with big names flowing in and out and the balance of power shifting to… well… let’s just say away from the Mets.
Most Improved Team
I see two teams improving by as many as ten wins from 2011 to 2012. While the Nationals could make a run at their first postseason experience in Washington (and the franchise’s first since the strike-oddened 1981 season), the Marlins may have made even more strides. After winning 72 games in 2011, they didn’t lose much by trading Chris Volstad and Jeff Baker, but they made several significant additions. Jose Reyes will not only add a boost by replacing Emilio Bonifacio’s bat, but he could do the team a favor by moving Hanley Ramirez’s glove off of shortstop. Watch for Hanley to struggle out of the gate, but to return to early career form, when he might have won an MVP Award or two if not for Albert Pujols. I’m not high on Heath Bell pitching away from Petco Park, but Mark Buehrle and maybe even Carlos Zambrano will strengthen a rotation that already features a top-shelf ace in Josh Johnson and a sturdy number two in Ricky Nolasco (who could be an ace if he can get his strikeout rate back to pre-’11 levels). If this team doesn’t implode under new manager Ozzie Guillen and expectations that have probably never been this high in Miami, I see them winning 85 games and hanging around the Wild Card race into the fall.
Least Improved Team
The Mets will finish last. They lost a key player in Reyes. They made no real improvements. They have no hope for the immediate future. But their decline won’t be quite as steep as the Phillies’. Philadelphia is still a strong team, and I see them winning the division and finishing with by far the best record in the National League. They’re unlikely, though, to win another 102 games. In 2011, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels were healthy and effective all year. They’re still three of the game’s best pitchers in ’12, but Halladay and Lee are on the wrong side of 30 and Hamels is coming off a career year. Vance Worley is not likely to outpitch his FIP by .30 points again, and Roy Oswalt isn’t around to be one of the best #4 starters in baseball history. Jim Thome may well hit better than Ryan Howard would while Howard recovers from injury, but his glove may be worse, and there’s no guarantee that a 41-year-old Thome stays healthy. It will take significant contributions from Shane Victorino and Chase Utley, and just enough health in the rotation, but I see the Phillies still winning 96 games.
The Phillies will win the division for the sixth straight year. The Nationals, with Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez joining a strong rotation behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, could win as many as 90, but they’ll be challenged for the Wild Card by both Miami and Atlanta, who looked like a championship team last year until September. The Braves should get a bounce-back season from Jason Heyward, and Brandon Beachy should take a step forward, joining a strong rotation headlined by Tommy Hanson, and including Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, and Jair Jurrjens. I see a little more offense in Washington, with Danny Espinosa and Mike Morse possibly taking steps forward and Bryce Harper ready to join the big league club, so they’re my Wild Card pick.
1. Philadelphia, 96-66
2. Washington, 90-72
3. Atlanta, 88-74
4. Florida, 85-77
5. New York, 74-88