Getting back into the swing of things

James LeBlanc

What a couple of weeks it has been for sports in the Philadelphia area. The Eagles winning the NFC Championship and playing in the Super Bowl, the Philadelphia 76ers upsetting the Heat and taking the lead in the NBA’s Atlantic division, and let’s not forget about Villanova, who parlayed a rout of Kansas to their first trip to the Top 25 in almost eight seasons.

However, with all this going on, there is one thing that everyone seems to be forgetting: the Major League Baseball season is right around the corner.

Relax, there’s no need to skip all your classes and isolate yourself from friends and family to prepare yourself mentally for the upcoming season, because I’ve already done it and I will gladly pass my knowledge onto all of you. Every week I will check in and provide you with everything you need to know about a specific division in the MLB, until I have flawlessly covered every single solitary team.

Well, it’s time to get to work. I’ll start with the division which garners the most local interest. I speak, of course, of the AL Central Division. The Royals have a legit shot to win 100 games this season. (Okay, not really. )

Maybe I’m better off starting with the NL East.

Let’s start out with a team that’s just starting out. The Washington Nationals will play the role of the new kids on the block in the NL East this season. Unlike The New Kids on the Block, they are going to have a hard time “Hangin’ Tough.”

Although the name has changed, these are the same old Montreal Expos. The pitching staff remains largely with the return of Livan Hernandez and Tony Armas. Aging starter Estaban Loaiza will not add much to the staff. With the additions of Jose Guillen and Vinny Castilla and the return of Jose Vidro, this team does have the potential to be exciting, but for now it will be the same old same old for this franchise as they will come in last place in the division.

Next on the chopping block is the Florida Marlins. This team will very simply be good. Paul Lo Duca is back for an entire season which gives them one of the most consistent catchers in baseball. Miguel Cabrera and Mike Lowell are both back, and both have proven themselves dangerous middle of the order bats. Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre are also back, giving the Marlins two great on base guys for the top of the order.

The addition of Carlos Delgado makes this one of the most potent offenses in baseball. Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and AJ Burnett are all back and the addition of Al Leiter will provide the staff with much needed experience and poise.

Expect the Marlins to be an exciting team. They will be in the race all the way and may end up winning the division or the wild card.

Now, it is time to examine the new look New York Mets with new manager Willie Randolph. They have made noise in the off-season by adding the two biggest free agents, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, to their roster.

However, despite all the hype, the Mets have many other holes that needed filling. Mike Piazza is aging, but can still be the best offensive catcher in the NL. New first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz will provide good defense and occasional offense but still less than your traditional first baseman. Kaz Matsui will switch to second base but both his glove and his bat are suspect, and talented shortstop Jose Reyes is yet to prove he can stay on the field. Third baseman David Wright was the lone bright spot of last season, and he may be a budding superstar.

In the outfield Cliff Floyd can no longer move, Mike Cameron will miss at least a month, and Carlos Beltran is taking his 38 home runs to one of the best pitchers parks in the league. Every starter the Mets have is either aging (Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, and Steve Trachsel) or unproven (Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano) and the only good reliever they have is closer Braden Looper. Expect the Mets to be improved but once again out of the playoffs.

Now let’s go to the odds-on favorite to win the division: Atlanta Braves. In my mind, they will remain the favorites until somebody else finally wins it. Their infield is pretty much the same as last year and in the outfield they are trying to replace JD Drew with Raul Mondesi.

This may seem foolish, but since it is the Braves it will somehow work out for them. The loss of pitcher Jaret Wright is more than offset by the addition of Tim Hudson and the return of John Smoltz to the rotation. A more than capable Danny Kolb will take over the closer duties.

Finally, it is time for the hometown favorites the Philadelphia Phillies. Now that Larry Bowa is gone maybe they can finally play to their potential. New manager Charlie Manuel inherits pretty much exactly the same team from last season.

There is no doubt the Phillies are extremely talented, however, this reporter sees no reason to believe things will be any different this year. They return Randy Wolf and Vincente Padilla and add Cory Lidle and Jon Lieber. They can expect solid pitching in the majority of their starts.

Offensively though, Jim Thome will still be very inconsistent, and Pat Burrell is yet to prove he can be a good and patient hitter. Jimmy Rollins is a very exciting player and Bobby Abreu is one of the best outfielders in the NL but it will not be enough to compete with the Marlins and Braves over the course of the whole season. With their talent level though, don’t count them out until it’s over.

The NL East to be an exciting division this year and maybe someone can finally knock off the Braves, but until somebody does, smart money is on Atlanta.

Stay tuned, and I will bring you the latest from the NL Central.