NL East: Watch your back, Phillies

Roy Halladay and his Philadelphia Phillies are favoured to repeat as NL East Division champs in...

Roy Halladay and his Philadelphia Phillies are favoured to repeat as NL East Division champs in 2012. (REUTERS)

Ken Fidlin, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 7:23 PM ET

It has been five seasons since a team other than the Philadelphia Phillies won the National League East Division title, but the stage could be set for that to change sometime soon.

Whether it happens this year or not, the teams that have been in the Phillies’ rearview mirror the past few years are closing the gap.

In 2007, the Phils won their first division title in 13 seasons and have since added four more. They won 89 games in ’07 and have improved on that total every year thereafter, winning 92, 93, 97 and 102 games. Ironically, as the regular-season wins have piled up, the playoff success has deteriorated. After the Phils won the World Series in 2008, they followed up by losing the Series in 2009, losing the NLCS in 2010 and losing the LDS last year.

Over the course of those five seasons, the personality of the team has changed dramatically. The 2007 team that won 89 games scored 892 runs and allowed 821. The 2011 team that won 102 games scored just 713 runs but allowed only 529, the fewest runs allowed by a Phillies team in any non-strike season since 1915.

The Phils will go into the 2012 season once again with the best starting staff in baseball. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are the headliners and while they no longer have Roy Oswalt as a fourth, 24-year-old Vance Worley may already be better than Oswalt anyway. And then there’s Joe Blanton as an $8.5 million fifth starter.

On offence the Phils have, somehow since 2007, misplaced almost two runs per game. The core players — 1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utley, 3B Placido Polanco, SS Jimmy Rollins, CF Shane Victorino and C Carlos Ruiz — are all 31 or older and are starting to break down.

Utley played just 104 games last year and won’t be on the opening day roster with a knee problem. Ditto for Howard, recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon. Rollins has missed 94 games the past two seasons. Victorino missed 30 games last year and Polanco missed 40.

Meanwhile, the Braves, who stayed right with the Phils for much of the season in 2011 before falling apart at the end, once again have a solid club that also features a strong pitching staff and plenty of potential on offence. Atlanta won only nine games in September, yet still finished with 89 wins.

Both Washington and Miami are improved and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the NL East could have four clubs finish above .500 this season.

The Phils had best heed the words of Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gainin’ on you.”

PREDICTIONS

1. Philadelphia Phillies

2011 Finish: First, 102-60

Offence might be a problem, but the Phils still come at you with a premier starting pitcher every day — and that can mask a lot of warts. That’s a good thing because the Philadelphia system has not produced a position player of substance in quite a while.

For years, John Mayberry, Jr., and Domonic Brown have been touted as the next big things, yet neither has stepped up. Infielder Freddie Galvis will get a chance to show what he’s got in Utley’s stead, but nobody is expecting him to set the world on fire.

The Phils made a great call in signing bullpen closer Jonathan Papelbon instead of re-signing Ryan Madson, who went to the Reds but is gone for the year with an elbow injury.

2012 Prediction: First, 94-67

2. Atlanta Braves

2011 Finish: Second, 89-73

The Braves’ massive collapse last September was every bit as ugly as the one suffered by the Red Sox. In late August, they had a 10.5-game lead on the Cardinals for the wild card spot, yet were overtaken on the last day of the season.

They return in 2012 with the second-best pitching staff in the division but they will only go as far as their offence takes them. It was an offensive breakdown that led to their 10-20 season-ending record. With Chipper Jones out for the first month of the season, they need Jason Heyward to bounce back from a miserable sophomore season.

CF Michael Bourn will be the table-setter for boppers Dan Uggla, Jones, Freddie Freeman and C Brian McCann on a team that averaged less than four runs per game in 2011.

2012 Prediction: Second, 92-71

3. Miami Marlins

2011 Finish: Fifth, 72-90

The Marlins did their best to make an off-season splash, signing SS Jose Reyes and making a strong, but unsuccessful, pitch for Albert Pujols as they head into a new downtown ballpark in Miami. They have a dynamite rotation in Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and the unpredictable Carlos Zambrano. They should also be able to score some runs with Reyes at the top of a lineup that features Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Logan Morrison and John Buck.

With mercurial Ozzie Guillen in his first year as manager of the Marlins, it’s hard to predict just what the team will accomplish, but there is one thing it won’t be: Boring.

2012 Prediction: Third, 84-78

4. Washington Nationals

2011 Finish: Third, 80-81

The Nationals made a big jump forward in 2011 on a foundation of pitching and appear to be even better on the mound heading into 2012. They added lefty Gio Gonzalez in a trade with Oakland and signed free agent Edwin Jackson to go with phenom Stephen Strasburg, back from elbow surgery, Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan.

The offence is spotty at best and promises to be what holds this team back from taking a run at the Braves and Phillies. Bryce Harper will be along at some point this season to begin what everyone expects will be a long, productive career but until he arrives, they’ll have to count on the likes of Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche to carry the load.

2012 Prediction: Fourth, 82-80

5. New York Mets

2011 Finish: Fourth, 77-85

The Mets keep denying that the team’s financial disarray that resulted from the principal owner’s disastrous involvement with ponzi-scheme artist Bernie Madoff will affect the team’s day-to-day operation, but it’s obvious that it has.

They lost Reyes to the Marlins after trading away potential free agent Carlos Beltran at the 2011 deadline and haven’t really replaced either. They are expecting lefty Johan Santana back in the rotation, but he hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 2, 2010, missing the entire 2011 season after shoulder surgery. They really need a bounceback year from Jason Bay, who hit .245 with 12 HR and 57 RBI in 2011 and will earn $16 million this year.

2012 Prediction: Fifth, 67-95

 


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