Chris Cullum

This week I’ll be previewing the last of the three divisions in the National League, the NL East:

Let’s start off easy, shall we? The Washington Nationals, the perennial divisional doormat, won’t be going anywhere this year. They lost a huge source of power when Adam Dunn left via free agency and signing Jayson Werth to a gargantuan contract was not the way to compensate for it. I understand wanting to show your fans that you are committed to fielding a winning team while the farm produces big league-ready players, but Jayson Werth? For $126 million? It’s like the Vernon Wells contract all over again, except Washington doesn’t have the talent to compensate for this terrible move. All that being said, youngsters Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have Nationals fans (assuming they exist) excited for the future. However, to get an early glimpse of the future in Washington, check out 23-year-old closer Drew Storen.

Whereas the Nationals’ lack talent (among other things), the Florida Marlins lack fans. You would think that a team with some of the most exciting young players in the game – Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, Josh Johnson, just to name a few – would be able to attract loads of fans, but apparently there are better things to do in Miami than attend sporting events (isn’t that right Miami Heat?) Lack of fan support aside, the Marlins are somewhat of a “tweener” team this year; too much talent to stink, not enough talent to compete. They brought in Javier Vazquez to bring a little veteran know-how to an otherwise young rotation featuring Johnson and Anibal Sanchez. Losing Dan Uggla from the lineup certainly hurts and there really isn’t a proven hitter in the lineup to replace his production aside from Ramirez. They could easily finish over .500, but that won’t be enough in this division.

The reason that won’t be enough? The Philadelphia Phillies and their vaunted pitching rotation headed by Roy Halladay. Cliff Lee’s return only strengthens the group of hurlers that also features Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, easily forming the best rotation in baseball. The offense remains the same with Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins flanking big bopper Ryan Howard in the middle of the order and Shane Victorino thrown in for good measure. The Phillies are the favorites to repeat as division champs, but they’re definitely not without flaws. Brad Lidge remains a question mark at the end of games and the offense isn’t getting any younger (or healthier in the case of Utley) so the window is a little shorter than most assume it is. For this season, though, that shouldn’t be a problem.

The Atlanta Braves, last year’s NL Wild Card team, have the potential to be that problem for the Phillies. Their young core of Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson and Brian McCann is very impressive, and you can’t forget about veterans Tim Hudson and the newly acquired Dan Uggla. The corner infield spots are the biggest question marks on this team, but for different reasons. Top prospect Freddie Freeman should win the first base job this spring, but he’s just 21 years old. At the hot corner, Chipper Jones’ health is a serious concern after missing the last few months of the season last year with a torn ACL, but his main contribution at this point is his leadership. Plus, they have utility man Martin Prado at their disposal in case history repeats itself with Chipper.

That leaves the New York Mets, a team whose identity is based off the phrase “if they could just stay healthy …,” which is a shame considering their talent. At their best, this team could compete for the division crown, yet we haven’t seen them at their best since 2006. At their worst … well, they’re a mess. David Wright is obviously a superstar and Ike Davis and Angel Pagan showed flashes of very-goodness (it’s a technical term) last season, but the Mets are riddled with question marks. Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez would have headlined an All-Star game five years ago, yet their health and abilities are causes for concern for the Mets in 2011. Keep your chins up, Mets fans, those contracts will come off the books someday.

Projected Finish:

First- Philadelphia Phillies

Second- Atlanta Braves

Third- Florida Marlins

Fourth- New York Mets

Fifth- Washington Nationals