MLB: NL East Preview

David Cassilo

1. New York Mets

2006 Record: 97-65

That creaking you hear is probably coming from the Mets’ starting rotation, which will once again rely on old vets Pedro Martinez (age 35), Tom Glavine (41) and Orlando Hernandez (37, 44 or none of the above) to anchor the pitching staff. Last year, injuries to the elder statesmen of the staff burned the Mets in the postseason and cost them a trip to the World Series despite their being heavily favored heading into October.

Key Additions: OF Moises Alou

Key Losses: SP Steve Trachsel

X-Factor: SP John Maine: The 25-year-old righty stepped into the rotation in the middle of the year and had a respectable season, highlighted by a win in Game Six of the NLCS. With Martinez out until at least midseason, Maine will likely have to be the man to step up and hold down the fort in Martinez’s absence, especially with the erratic Oliver Perez and the young Mike Pelfrey behind him in the rotation.

Don’t be surprised if … an early injury to El Duque or Glavine teamed with poor performances from Perez and/or Pelfrey have Mets fans hitting the panic button in May and get Omar Minaya on the phone in search of a starter.

2007 Outlook: With Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Delgado at the forefront of a lineup with established vets such as Alou and Shawn Green at the bottom of the order, the Mets have arguably the most dangerous lineup in the NL. Something disastrous would have to occur for this team not to make the playoffs, but with expectations high after last year’s Game Seven loss in the NLCS, nothing short of a trip back to the World Series will satisfy this club, and it’ll likely have to count on some question marks in the pitching staff to get it there. — K.S.

2. Philadelphia Phillies

2006 Record: 85-77

Jimmy Rollins made a bold statement during spring training: the Phillies are going to the top of the NL East. It’s a bold statement, but one can see some of the reasons why Philadelphia’s excited headed into the 2007 campaign. With Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins having established themselves as the cornerstones of the franchise, the team is moving forward and made improvements to the lineup and pitching staff.

Key Additions: C Rod Barajas, 3B Wes Helms, SP Freddy Garcia, SP Adam Eaton

Key Losses: SP Randy Wolf, SP Gavin Floyd, C Mike Lieberthal, OF David Dellucci

X-Factor: OF Pat Burrell. With Howard having fully established himself as one of the games most feared power-hitters, it’s going to be up to the man behind him to step up when opposing pitchers pitch around him. Burrell is seen by some Phillies fans as a “compiler” who doesn’t come up in the big moment (the less-talented, National League version of A-Rod, if you will). It could be a very long season for the Phils’ faithful if Burrell spends the summer whiffing with Utley and Howard stranded on base.

Don’t be surprised if … Aaron Rowand makes another great catch slamming into the wall, but lands on the DL again.

2007 Outlook: The Phillies have made some important improvements to their roster, and look headed in the right direction, but it looks like they could be saddled behind the Mets again the East. The playoffs are definitely in reach, however, especially if the new-look starting five can pull its weight. — K.S.

3. Atlanta Braves

2006 Record: 79-83

The Braves enter the season with an array of powerful bats and more than capable starting pitchers. Led by John Smoltz and Tim Hudson at the front of its rotation, Atlanta looks to improve on its sub-.500 season where the team failed to win its division for the 15th straight year.

Key Additions: RP Mike Gonzalez, 1B/OF Craig Wilson, SP Mark Redman

Key Losses: 2B Marcus Giles, SP John Thompson, RP Dannys Baez

X-Factor: OF Andruw Jones. The star center fielder is coming off a career year during which he hit 41 homers and drove in 129 RBIs. Jones will have to repeat those sensational numbers in order to keep the Braves alive in the NL East.

Don’t be surprised if … the Braves are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence.

2007 Outlook: Chipper and Andruw Jones provide the one-two punch the Braves need to lead them to the playoffs. Catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Jeff Francoeur and shortstop Edgar Renteria also provide enough hitters to help the Braves strong pitching staff. Despite their upside, the Braves will have a lot of difficulty jumping over the Mets and Phillies in the NL East. — T.R.

4. Florida Marlins

2006 Record: 78-84

The 2006 Marlins were expected to be one of the worst teams in the major leagues and ended up surprising everyone by being competitive. Due to disagreements with the front office, star manager Joe Girardi is out, and Fredi Gonzalez is in.

Key Additions: IF Aaron Boone, RP Kevin Gregg

Key Losses: RP Joe Borowski, 3B Wes Helms

X-Factor: SP Anibal Sanchez. If Sanchez continues where he left off in 2006, the Marlins could have one of the most dynamic one-two punches in the National League. Sanchez’s no-hitter and 2.83 ERA last season make him one of the young starters to watch for in 2007.

Don’t be surprised if … Dontrelle Willis is the subject of trade rumors again, with teams like the Mets and White Sox calling the Florida front office.

2007 Outlook: The Marlins have a plethora of rising stars that, while being fun to watch, are still at least another year from contending. The foundation of Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Willingham is good enough that many fans in Florida can already see the next improbable World Series run and ritualistic fire sale happening any year now. — K.S.

5. Washington Nationals

2006 Record: 71-91

Since trading star Alfonso Soriano during the 2006 season, the Nationals have done little to improve their roster. They have a new manager in town; Manny Acta is given the tough task of moving the Nats out of the basement in the NL East. With first baseman Nick Johnson returning from a broken leg, as well as closer Chad Cordero and ace John Patterson, Washington does have a solid core to build around.

Key Additions: 3B Tony Batista, OF Dmitri Young, SP Jerome Williams

Key Losses: SP Tony Armas Jr., SP Brian Lawrence, SP Ramon Ortiz

X-Factor: 3B Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman has become the Nationals up-and-coming star after a breakout year in 2006, when he hit for .287 with 20 homers and 110 RBIs. The young third baseman also is known for his excellent defense, already making him one of the top players at his position in the league.

Don’t be surprised if … the Nationals lose 100 games.

2007 Outlook: Washington does not have a reliable starter besides Patterson, a right-hander limited to eight starts in 2006 due to injury. The Nationals do feature a solid bullpen anchored by Cordero; however, they have a weak lineup and will be hurt by the deep fences at R.F.K. — T.R.