MLB preview: NL East Division

James Evans

By James Greene and Greg SeerveldSports Editor and Staff Reporter

Last year the Atlanta Braves were on top of the NL East from the beginning of the season until the end, securing their 11th division title along the way. Meanwhile the Mets were to busy listening to Phish and staring at the clubhouse walls. The Phillies were competitive, but were not in the same league as the Braves. The Expos were to busy wondering where they will be playing next year and the Marlins couldn’t field a competitive team with the amount of money they spent.However, this year every team will have a shot to take the crown from the Braves.

1. ATLANTA BRAVESKey Additions: Paul Byrd (P), Russ Ortiz (P), Mike Hampton (P), Mike Venafro (P), Roberto Hernandez (P) and Robert Fick (1B)Key Losses: Tom Glavine (P), Kevin Millwood (P), Damian Moss (P), B.J. Surhoff (OF), Kerry Ligtenberg (OF), Albie Lopez (P), Chris Hammond (P), Tim Spooneybarger (P), Mike Remlinger (P) Team Motto: Eleven years as the N.L. East champs, this year we’ll be the twelve.

This past winter the Atlanta Braves made distinct changes in their rotation. Instead of signing veterans Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood, they decided to let them go and signed the younger lefty Mike Hampton and the Kansas City Royals’ Paul Byrd. Then the Braves traded Damian Ross for the Giants Russ Ortiz. It’s hard to think that the Braves could have a better rotation this year then last year, but they do. Along with Hampton, Ortiz and Byrd, they resigned Greg Maddux and have promising young Jason Marquis, who made major steps last year in turning himself into a premiere pitcher. This pitching staff, backed with an offense that seems to effortlessly put runs on the board, is sure to amass a plethora of wins this season. The only place where this team may falter is in the bullpen. Last year Atlanta could boast they had the best pen in the league, with the emergence of lefty Chris Hammond and righty Kerry Ligtenberg, however, now both are gone along with veteran Mike Remlinger. To soften the blow, management brought in Roberto Hernandez, a power pitcher, and they still have closer John Smoltz. But without a deep bullpen, there may be no baseball in Atlanta come October. 2. NEW YORK METS Key Additions: Tom Glavine (P), Mike Stanton (P), Cliff Lloyd (OF), David Cone (P), Tony Clark (1B) and Tsuyoshi Shinjo (OF)Key Losses: Edgardo Alfonso (3B), Jeff D’Amico (P), John Valentin (3B) and Rey Ordonez (SS)Team Motto: Could this year be our year?

The New York Mets have the second highest payroll in MLB, behind the Yankees, and saw little to no success last year. With the increased payroll and increased talent this year that may change. There is no question that the talent to win is there, and if all the players can get on the same page and perform as they are expected to, win they will. New pickups, like Glavine, Stanton and veteran Cone returning to Shea, the pitching staff has been re-worked. Only time will tell if they are ready and able to win in a tough division that has been owned by the Atlanta Braves for the past umpteen years.

3. FLORIDA MARLINSKey Additions: Ivan Rodriguez (C), Todd Hollandsworth (OF), Gerald Williams (OF), Juan Pierre (OF), Mark Redman (P) and Al Martin (OF). Key Losses: Charles Johnson (C), Preston Wilson (P), Kevin Millar (P) and Eric Owens (OF).Team Motto: At least we will be the best team in Florida.

The Florida Marlins are in for another long season. With the trading of team leaders, Preston Wilson, Kevin Millar and Charles Johnson, it seems as if the Marlins took another step backwards. Wilson had finally been settling down of late, cutting down on the strikeouts and blasting more shots out of pro-player stadium, while Millar led the team in hitting. However, with money open, the Marlins picked up free-agents Mark Redman and Todd Hollandsworth. Redman is a solid lefty pitcher who, though only 29, will be looked to as the veteran presence in a staff that’s average age is 24.5 years. Though young, the Marlins have a promising pitching core that in a few years, along with the Phillies, could become some of the premiere pitchers in the league and could cause the Braves title run to come to an end.

4. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIESKey Additions: Jim Thome (1B), David Bell (3B), Kevin Millwood (P) and Tyler Houston (INF). Key Losses: Robert Person (P), Mike Timlin (P), Doug Glanville (OF), Travis Lee (1B), Marlon Anderson (2B) and Jeremy Giambi (1B).Team Motto: “We have no reasons not to win this year; we finally opened up the checkbook.”

The Phillies made the biggest splash in the off-season market when they signed first baseman Jim Thome. The big move foreshadowed what was to come from the Phillies management, as they decided to make moves that would turn them into a real power in the NL East. Along with the signing of Thome, the Phillies decided to sign third baseman David Bell to a big contract. Bell, an average player, was able to hit it big in the free agent market, after a solid post-season run with the Giants last year. The Phillies shelled out an amazing $265 million in player salaries this year; hopefully interest in the team will help to soften the blow.Philly’s pitching staff is young, so this might not be their year, but in a couple of years they just might turn into the Atlanta Braves and have a run of NL East Championships of their own.

5. MONTREAL EXPOSKey Additions: Damon Buford (OF), Orlando Hernandez (P), Livan Hernandez (P), Jeff Liefer (1B) and Rocky Biddle (P).Key Losses: Wilton Guerrero (INF), Masato Yoshi (P), Troy O’Leary (OF), Andres Galarraga (1B) and Bartolo Colon (P).Team Motto: Thank God for Vlad!!

Vladimir Guerrero is the name of the game north of the border. He led the Expos last year in virtually every statistical category not involved with pitching. In order for the Expos to have a stellar year, and have a chance to compete with perennial powerhouse Atlanta, they need some other players to step up. I don’t foresee that happening. No major off-season moves have been made to really help them win. It will come down to how many games Vlad can pull out for them. Probably not enough.