Braves look good, but won't beat Phillies

The only heavy lifting in the NL East this summer will be in identifying the best-looking also-ran. Otherwise, there's not much intrigue on the horizon: the Phillies are the division's biggest, baddest entity, and unless Roy Halladay is somehow less of a monster than we expect, the Phillies will be on a straight, unfettered path for the World Series.

The Braves? They're interesting, no doubt. Who doesn't love Jason Heyward? The Marlins? Ok, we get it, they've got some assets, not to mention that surprising 87-win season in 2009. The Mets can only improve after a horrific summer, and the Nationals are moving in the right direction; they've actually made people forget they were a 100-loss team last year.

But no one in the East has the talent or the street cred to stand up to the Phillies. The next 162 games will be one long calisthenics session for the NL's best team.

1. PHILADELPHIA There's a million reasons to like (and pick) the Phillies again in 2010, not the least of which is Halladay's debut in the National League. We figure he's good for 23 wins, having dominated the American League's toughest division last year.

Oh, is Halladay going to love his new surroundings: of the 10 ballparks with the lowest park factors in 2009, seven were in the National League. The man will eat up innings (27 or his 32 starts were seven innings or more last year) and he'll benefit from the league's second-best defense.

Aside from the East's new beast, the Phillies still have it all, including power, a renewed Cole Hamels and a winning pedigree that makes them the majors' premier club behind the Yankees. With Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley all in their prime, the race could be over by July.

2. ATLANTA Hand on his heart, Bobby Cox says his managerial career will be history after this season and common sense suggests he'd like to make it a memorable one. With 2,413 wins, fourth on the all-time list, Cox is obviously on his way to the Hall of Fame, but the last four seasons have diminished his legacy, if ever so slightly.

Cox's Braves haven't been to the postseason since 2005; they've fared no better than third since and have twice finished under .500. The good news for Braves' fans, however, is that this year's edition has the potential to sneak in via the wild card.

That is, if Jason Heyward is for real (we think so) and Tommy Hanson continues to develop (very likely), Chipper Jones has something left and Billy Wagner can stay healthy all year.

Actually, it's Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe who'll make or break the Braves this season: if they can resurrect their primary weapons (the sinker and the splitter, respectively), Cox could have the best farewell present of all, one last trip to October.

3. FLORIDA The Marlins set the bar fairly high for themselves, coming off a second-place finish in '09 that shocked some NL executives. But Florida exploited the Mets' rapid and unexpected collapse due to injuries -- everyone assumes the Mets will be healthier in 2010, which means the Marlins will have a difficult time cloning those 87 wins.

Their strength is in the individual parts -- like Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, who combined for 55 homers and 196 RBIs, and Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, who hit .372 in the second half of the season, and 15-game winner Josh Johnson, who not only throws heat, he throws it with precision (4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio).

But the Marlins don't have a reliable bullpen and the rotation after Johnson can't match the Phillies' or the Braves'. It's hard to imagine manager Fredi Gonzalez putting up a third consecutive winning season. More likely, the Marlins will be battling the Mets and Nationals at the East's lower rungs.

4. NEW YORK

The Mets are steadfast in the belief that they have enough talent to at least make the Phillies squirm -- that is, as long as their stars stay off the DL. It requires a leap of faith, however, to imagine every what-if scenario going the Mets' way, especially with the Nos. 2-3-4 starters all exceeding their current levels of mediocrity.

Can John Maine, Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez combine to win 40 games? Don't bet on it, yet that's the necessary calculus for the Mets to get into wild-card contention. All three pitchers staggered through the exhibition season -- so much so, manager Jerry Manuel was forced to install Jon Niese in the No. 3 spot ahead of Pelfrey.

Even Johan Santana ended the spring on a disturbing note, failing to hit 90-mph on the radar gun in a game against the Cardinals' Triple-A club this week.

The Mets do have this much going for them, though: the law of averages says no team can suffer so many devastating injuries two years in a row. Jose Reyes appears to have overcome his thyroid problems and Carlos Beltran should be back in a month or so. Jason Bay will help, too. But not enough.

5. WASHINGTON The vista in D.C. isn't quite as dreary as in past years, and who knows, maybe the Nats can inch their way toward .500 someday. But not yet. They're 2-3 years away from realistically challenging anyone in the East.

But that's not to say positive activity isn't bubbling just beneath the surface. Stephen Strasburg, the most talked-about rookie pitcher of the new millennium, should join the team by May after being sent down to Double-A last week. He's got a fastball to die for; it's only a question of when the 21-year-old gets a chance to feast on NL hitters.

Having Strasburg around will take the fans' minds off some of the Nats' more obvious deficiencies, including their defense (they committed a major-league worst 143 errors). Putting Adam Dunn at first base might limit his liability in the field, although he did make eight errors in 67 games there last year. Still, Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman create long-ball problems for opposing pitchers.

And the rotation might actually surprise people, if Strasburg copes with a case of first-year nerves, if Chien-Ming Wang resembles his Yankee-prime and Jason Marquis can thrive on a non-playoff team.

That's a heavy diet of "ifs" but it'll be enough to make the Nats interesting, even if it's only until the All-Star break.