The Mets enter the 2007 as the clear-cut favorite to win the National League East. They return most of the same team that steamrolled the division in 2006 en route to finishing with a 12-game lead over the second-place Phillies. Sure, the Amazins have a few question marks heading into Spring Training, most notably in the back end of their starting rotation, but the young core of stars -- David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran -- will be back. The Mets have added Moises Alou, a veteran right-handed power bat to compliment Carlos Delgado's left-handed one. Plus, the bullpen that carried the starting rotation at times in 2006 will be as strong - if not stronger - with the addition of several new arms.
That said, the Phillies, Marlins, Braves and Nationals won't go down without fighting. With a few key injuries or a regression from some of the budding young stars, the Mets could very well find themselves right in the thick of things come September, not comfortably ahead like they were last season.
Let's take a look around the NL East to see what the Mets are up against in 2007.
Strengths: When Nats GM Jim Bowden fleeced the Reds for Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, he solidified a decent core of young hitters. Ryan Zimmerman is a budding star at third base, very much in the David Wright mold, and Nick Johnson finally put everything together and had a productive season at first base until he broke his leg in September. Of course, Johnson has always hit well, he's just never stayed healthy. Which provides a nice transition...
Weaknesses: Johnson has already said that he won't be ready for the beginning of 2007, meaning that first base at RFK will likely be manned by Larry Broadway, whose name belies his inexperience at the Major League level.
That's not nearly the biggest problem, though. The Nationals traded Livan Hernandez last season and did not re-sign Tony Armas, Jr. or Ramon Ortiz. Granted, it's not like any of those guys is going to win a Cy Young Award any time soon, but the Nationals are left with only the oft-injured John Patterson and the waif-like Mike O'Connor atop their miserable rotation. They've brought in Jerome Williams and Brandon Claussen, but it's hard to imagine either providing much help.
Maybe the Nationals could get by despite the glaring weakness in the starting rotation, but they have several glaring weaknesses in their lineup, to boot. The awful Christian Guzman will apparently start the season at shortstop for some completely baffling reason. The Nats also seem to have decided that Nook Logan is a capable enough hitter to start in centerfield, though his career stat line shows otherwise.
Where they'll finish: Barring an unforeseen development, the Nationals should wind up in dead last in 2007.
Strengths: The Phillies return a powerful starting lineup featuring star second baseman Chase Utley and reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard. Though shortstop Jimmy Rollins doesn't get on base enough to be a great leadoff hitter, he does provide a spark in the field and on the base paths. Pat Burrell hasn't turned into the star many thought he would be, but he has been a steady, solid-hitting outfielder who for whatever reason absolutely destroys Met pitching.
The Phils acquired Freddy Garcia in a trade with the White Sox and now can boast of the deepest starting rotation in the division. Young left hander Cole Hamels has the makings of a star, and Brett Myers has been much better on the field than he has been on the streets of Boston.
Weaknesses: The Phillies have something of a hole in their outfield, as projected starting rightfielder Shane Victorino has speed and some plate discipline but nothing like the type of power most teams expect from that position. Centerfielder Aaron Rowand has been inconsistent over his career.
Philadelphia will also lean on a few questionable starters. Adam Eaton, who has never in his career even been an average Major League pitcher, was signed to a three-year, $24.5 million contract. Jamie Moyer is 44 years old and may break down at some point, though he hasn't yet.
Where they'll finish: The Phillies have an imposing lineup and a solid -- if unspectacular -- pitching staff. They have all the pieces in place to contend for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, but they'll have to put them all together - something Philadelphia teams have been traditionally unable to do.
Strengths: The Marlins have a great young pitching staff headed by Dontrelle Willis. Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson and Scott Olsen all look like future aces, and should continue their improvement in 2007.
While much has been made about Wright, Reyes, Utley and Howard, the best young star in the NL East may very well be Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera - buried in relative obscurity in South Floirda -- has been consistently producing and steadily improving at the big-league level since 2003, and he's still only 23 years old. Entering last season, many thought Cabrera would struggled without Delgado protecting him in the lineup. Instead, he improved his plate discipline and brought his on-base percentage up to .430, good for third in the league behind Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. If Cabrera can continue to produce as he has, he'll find himself on the short road to Cooperstown. It's scary to think of what he'll do if he continues to improve.
In addition to Cabrera, the Marlins have good-hitting young infielders in Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and former Met Mike Jacobs.
Weaknesses: As anyone whose held on to Mark Prior for way too long in a fantasy baseball keeper league - like me - can tell you, you can never count on young pitching. Sanchez and Johnson have both already reported some arm trouble, which is never a good sign. Even Willis, who finished second in Cy Young voting in 2005, allowed more hits and walked more batters in 2006 than he ever had before.
Though the Marlins crop of young outfielders shows promise, only Josh Willingham has established himself as a legitimate Major League hitter. It's also possible that Uggla's numbers will suffer with increased exposure. He played his way out of Rookie of the Year contention in the second half of 2006, when he was held to a .311 on-base percentage.
Where they'll finish: For a franchise that's only been around since 1993, the Marlins have established a pattern pretty quickly. They put together a good team, improve until they win a World Series, then sell off all the players when they realize that their ticket and cable revenue can not pay the salaries of World Champions. The Marlins have all the makings of another champion team, but they're not quite ready yet. Look for Florida to stick around in the Wild Card hunt for a long time in 2007 but finish third in the division. If they can keep most of their young players healthy and happy, they'll make a lot of noise in 2008.
Strengths: John Smoltz and Tim Hudson will head a Braves rotation that may also be bolstered by the return of injury-plagued former Met Mike Hampton. Chuck James pitched well in his 18 starts for Atlanta last season.
On the offensive side, Andruw Jones is always a threat. Catcher Brian McCann had an unbelievable year at the plate in 2006, and Chipper Jones, when healthy, is still a great offensive player - as much as Mets fans hate to admit it.
The Braves also brought in Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano to set up for closer Bob Wickman. Gonzalez and Soriano are both great young bullpen arms, probably better than Wickman. Don't be surprised if one of them takes over the closer role at some point in 2007. Soriano has a long history of injuries, but he did come up as a starter back in 2002, so it's not inconceivable that he will be stretched out into a rotation spot.
Weaknesses: The Braves have major question marks at several spots in their starting lineup. The departures of Adam LaRoche and Marcus Giles leave a gaping hole on the right side of the infield, and Jeff Francoeur did not live up to the promise he showed in 2005 last season. He posted a miserable .293 on-base percentage, an inexcusable number for a Major League rightfielder. On top of that, there's no guarantee that Chipper Jones will stay healthy for the whole season, and his absence would render the Atlanta lineup very weak.
While both Smoltz and Hudson are solid, neither has been spectacular for several seasons. Hampton is nothing like a sure thing, and potential fifth starter Kyle Davies posted an 8.38 ERA last season. 8.38. Not good.
Where they'll finish: Even after 2006, it's difficult to imagine the National League playoffs without the Braves in them. Still, the Braves finished 79-83 last year and did very little to improve themselves in the offseason. While there's always a chance they'll start doing whatever it was they used to do and go back to dominating division play, all signs point to a fourth-place finish for the Braves in 2007.