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Sunday, April 1, 2007
Diamond Mind: NL East

By Charles Wolfson and Tom Tippett
Special to

• Diamond Mind breaks down its projections in each division:
• NL East: Phillies on top
• NL Central: Cards reign again
• NL West: Pitching lifts Padres
• AL East: Yankees widen gap
• AL Central: The Indians' year
• AL West: Angels overcome A's

Nothing will set tongues wagging like a player who has the temerity to predict victory for his team, the way Jimmy Rollins has for the Phillies. It could be, though, that a bit of swagger is just what that team needs.

We project a dogfight in the NL East this year between the Phillies, Mets and Braves. Like last year, however, when the Mets blew the doors off and ran away with the division, any one of these teams, if things go its way, could approximate that feat.

Philadelphia Phillies

Projection: 1st, 85-77, division title 37%, wild card 16%

Jimmy Rollins merely said what he claims all the Phillies players think: that they're the team to beat in the NL East. Our projections back him up, even though for 2007 we have the Phillies winning exactly the same number of games, and registering almost identical runs scored and runs allowed, as they did in 2006.

Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are terrific players. While the addition of C Rod Barajas and 3B Wes Helms might be questioned on another team, both are improvements over their predecessors, Mike Lieberthal and David Bell, and, together with the underappreciated Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand, provide a solid supporting cast for those three.

If the Phils have a significant worry entering the season, it's the health of their pitching staff. Freddy Garcia won't be ready for Opening Day and (although he reportedly will only miss a week) may be showing the effects of all the mileage on his right arm. Jon Lieber, who had been the odd man out of the rotation, also is hurting now and unavailable to take Garcia's place. And woe be the Phillies if Tom Gordon's shoulder and elbow don't make it through the season intact.

Atlanta Braves

Projection: 2nd, 84-78, division title 32%, wild card 14%

The streak (14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005, excluding the aborted 1994 season) had to end sometime, and it did in 2006. After John Smoltz, the rotation reminded no one of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine; the bullpen registered a league-high 29 blown saves; and 2B Marcus Giles had a poor season offensively and defensively.

GM John Schuerholz is one of the few baseball executives whose personnel moves are given the benefit of the doubt by experts, who may be just humble enough to think, if not admit out loud, that he actually might know something that they don't. Beginning with the acquisition of closer Bob Wickman during 2006 (from the Indians, ironically, who had the AL's worst bullpen last year), Schuerholz has rebuilt the Braves' relief corps, adding Rafael Soriano (for Horacio Ramirez) and Mike Gonzalez (plus SS prospect Brent Lillibridge, for Adam LaRoche). (Is it just a coincidence that Schuerholz turned to the Mariners and Pirates, two of baseball's biggest patsies in recent years, to make those deals?)

Giles was non-tendered (would any other team get less criticism for letting a player of his caliber go for nothing?) and will be replaced by the three times converted SS to 3B to OF to 2B Kelly Johnson, and LaRoche will be replaced by some combination of Scott Thorman and Craig Wilson. And while other teams were signing guys like Jason Marquis (Cubs, 3 years, $21 million) and Miguel Batista (Mariners, 3 years, $25 million), the Braves picked up a healthy Mark Redman (a durable league average left-handed starter) as a non-roster invitee, on a deal (now that he's made the team) that will pay him a mere $750,000 plus incentives.

There are, of course, Braves players that everyone, not just Schuerholz, knows about, including veterans Andruw and Chipper Jones and Edgar Renteria (another canny Schuerholtz pickup after his one eminently forgettable season in Boston), and young up-and-coming stars Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann (just signed to an unprecedented six-year, $26 million deal).

The Braves look to still be a few pieces short of returning to their prior dominance, but would anyone really be too surprised if they came out and smoked the NL East in 2007? After all, Schuerholz may indeed know stuff that we don't.

New York Mets

Projection: 3rd, 82-80, division title 24%, wild card 6.8%

The Mets won 97 games last year. No other team in the league won even 90.

Basically the entire lineup, which scored 834 runs (3rd best in the league), is back. The only noteworthy change is Moises Alou in LF, who can still rake and is an upgrade.

For all the scrutiny that the starting rotation is getting, is it really any worse than last year's? The 2006 Mets had seven pitchers with ERAs between 5.48 and 9.87 start a total of 36 games. Glavine, Hernandez and Maine are back; Pedro Martinez may be for the second half of 2007, and was basically just a .500 pitcher on a .600 team before he went down in 2006. Does anyone seriously think that losing Steve Trachsel will cost the Mets 15 games in the win column?

On the other hand, the Mets outplayed their Pythagorean projection in 2006 by five games, so you could say they begin 2007 from a 92-win baseline. Can Glavine and Hernandez really be counted on to continue their Old Man River acts indefinitely? Projected starters Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez are two of that group of seven pitchers from 2006 with those bloated ERA's. Plus, the bullpen has taken several hits, with the departures of Chad Bradford, Roberto Hernandez and Darren Oliver, and Duaner Sanchez out with injury.

Speculation aside, there is an objective and imposing obstacle in the Mets' path in 2007, which is a killer interleague schedule. Besides their usual subway series with the Yankees, they've also been scheduled to face the Tigers, Twins and A's.

If there is one absolutely indispensable player on the Mets, it has to be Billy Wagner. In 2006 he saved 40 games with a 2.24 ERA. In our 2007 season simulations he averaged 30 saves from 38 opportunities with a 3.12 ERA. If the Mets are going to return to the postseason in 2007, they will need to find a way to bridge the gap to Wagner with the lead more often than that, and for him to slam the door decisively when they do.

Washington Nationals

Projection: 4th, 75-87, division title 4.2%, wild card 2.3%

If anything caught my eye when I first looked at the results of our season simulations, it was the Nationals finishing ahead of the Marlins in the East. This is a team that many are saying will be lucky to avoid 100 losses.

Looking at their player stats averaged from our simulated seasons, it isn't readily apparent how they managed it. John Patterson did remain reasonably healthy and pitched pretty effectively, as did Shawn Hill, and Chad Cordero was around to close the entire year.

What is apparent, however, is that the team that will take the field already is several wins worse than the one that averaged 75 simulated wins. Nick Johnson and Alex Escobar, both of whom will open the season on the disabled list, played much more in our simulated seasons than we now know they will. It's also probably more likely than not that Cordero will be dealt during the year. (We do not attempt to forecast deadline deals from also-rans to contenders in our season simulations.)

If we were to rerun our season simulations today, the Nationals would almost certainly drop to the bottom of the East. They would still, however, most likely dodge the infamy of a 100-loss season.

Florida Marlins

Projection: 5th, 73-89, division title 2.5%, wild card 1%

As much of a feel-good story as the Marlins were in 2006, they actually ended up winning just 78 games, so our 2007 projection isn't really that big a regression. And they averaged 73 wins in our simulated seasons with recently released Mike Koplove, not recently acquired Jorge Julio, closing.

Young players, even very good ones, are more likely to take two steps forward, then one step back, than they are to take two steps forward, then two more steps forward. So it's not surprising that number crunching projections for the Marlins encounter this consolidation stumbling block. In fact, however, on the offensive side, we project the 2007 team to outscore last year's slightly, 765 to 758. It's the pitching that lets the team down, allowing 845 runs (next worst to Colorado's 866) compared to just 772 in 2006.

Josh Johnson's injury accounts for part of the difference, as does the departure of Joe Borowski. (How well Julio will do as Borowski's replacement remains to be seen.) For this team to match, let alone surpass, last year's surprising, if modest, success, it's going to need a couple of pitchers to step up unexpectedly. A solid season from the surprise winner of the CF job, Alejandro De Aza, wouldn't hurt either.