Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg warms up between innings in a spring training baseball game against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Capsules of National League East teams, listed in order of finish last year.
2011: 102-60, 1st place (lost to St. Louis in division series).
Manager: Charlie Manuel (8th season).
He's Here: RHP Jonathan Papelbon, 1B Jim Thome, INF Ty Wigginton, OF Laynce Nix, OF Juan Pierre, OF Scott Podsednik, RHP Joel Pineiro, RHP Chad Qualls, LHP Dontrelle Willis.
He's Outta There: RHP Roy Oswalt, RHP Brad Lidge, OF Raul Ibanez, RHP Ryan Madson, OF Ross Gload, OF Ben Francisco, INF Wilson Valdez.
Projected Lineup: SS Jimmy Rollins (.268, 16 HRs, 63 RBIs, 30 SB, 87 runs), 3B Placido Polanco (.277, 5, 50), 2B Chase Utley (.259, 11, 44), RF Hunter Pence (.314, 22, 97 with Astros and Phillies), CF Shane Victorino (.279, 17, 61, 16 3Bs, 19 SB), LF John Mayberry Jr. (.273, 15, 49), 1B Ty Wigginton (.242, 15, 47 with Rockies) or Jim Thome (.256, 15, 50 with Twins and Indians), C Carlos Ruiz (.283, 6, 40).
Rotation: RH Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35 ERA, 8 CGs), LH Cliff Lee (17-9, 2.40, 6 shutouts), LH Cole Hamels (14-9, 2.79), RH Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01), RH Joe Blanton (1-2, 5.01 in 11 games).
Key Relievers: RH Jonathan Papelbon (4-1, 2.94, 31 saves in 34 chances with Boston), LH Antonio Bastardo (6-1, 2.64, 8 saves), RH Michael Stutes (6-2, 3.63), RH Chad Qualls (6-8, 3.51 with Padres), RH Jose Contreras (0-0, 3.86, 5 saves).
Hot Spots: First baseman Ryan Howard will start the season on the disabled list after rupturing his left Achilles on the final swing of last season. It's unknown when the 2006 NL MVP will return to the lineup, leaving a big void in the cleanup spot. Howard had a setback early in spring training and could miss the first half. Utley's knee condition could limit him and is an area of concern. Polanco's health also is worrisome.
Outlook: Anything less than a World Series title is unacceptable in Philadelphia. The Phillies have set the bar very high by winning five straight NL East titles and the World Series in 2008. They finished with the most wins in the majors the last two seasons, including a franchise-best 102 victories last year. But they've regressed each of the last three seasons, losing the World Series in 2009, losing in the NLCS in 2010 and getting knocked out in the first round last year. With three aces in their rotation and a dominant closer, the Phillies have enough pitching to overcome age, injuries and other deficiencies on offense.
2011: 89-73, 2nd place.
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez (2nd season).
He's Here: SS Tyler Pastornicky.
He's Outta There: RHP Derek Lowe, SS Alex Gonzalez, OF Nate McLouth, INF Brooks Conrad, LHP George Sherrill, RHP Scott Linebrink.
Projected Lineup: CF Michael Bourn (.294, 2, 50, NL-leading 61 SB), LF Martin Prado (.260, 13, 57), 3B Chipper Jones (.275, 18, 70 — plans to retire after the season), 2B Dan Uggla (.233, 36, 82), C Brian McCann (.270, 24, 71), 1B Freddie Freeman (.282, 21, 76, runner-up in NL Rookie of the Year balloting), RF Jason Heyward (.227, 14, 42), SS Tyler Pastornicky (.314, 7, 45, 27 SBs combined between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett).
Rotation: RH Jair Jurrjens (13-6, 2.96 — 1-3, 5.88 in second half), RH Tommy Hanson (11-7, 3.60, 142 Ks in 130 IP), RH Brandon Beachy (7-3, 3.68, 169 Ks in 141 2-3 IP), LH Mike Minor (5-3, 4.14 in 15 starts), RH Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.22 — will miss first month of season recovering from back surgery), RH Randall Delgado (1-1, 2.83 in 7 starts).
Key Relievers: RH Craig Kimbrel (4-3, 2.10, 46/54 saves, 127 Ks in 77 IP, unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year), LH Jonny Venters (6-2, 1.84, 5 saves, 35 holds), LH Eric O'Flaherty (2-4, 0.98), RH Kris Medlen (0-0, 0.00 in 2 games — missed most of season recovering from elbow surgery).
Hot Spots: Jones, who turns 40 in April, announced late in spring training this will be his final season. He has been plagued for years by injuries and actually decided to retire in 2010, only to change his mind. This time, he means it, turning 2012 into a farewell tour for one of the game's greatest switch-hitters. Pastornicky was handed the shortstop job after the Braves made no effort to re-sign Alex Gonzalez, but the 22-year-old rookie struggled at the plate and in the field during spring training. The Braves may have to go with their fallback plan, veteran Jack Wilson, if Pastornicky doesn't turn things around during the regular season. Heyward appeared to be baseball's next big thing in 2010, homering in his first career at-bat, making the All-Star team and finishing as runner-up for Rookie of the Year. But he slumped badly in his second season, a slide he blames on an ailing shoulder. The Braves need him to get back on track or they'll have a big hole in a lineup that struggled to find consistency last season. Fredi Gonzalez, who took over for Hall of Famer-to-be Bobby Cox in 2011, could come under fire if the Braves fail to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Outlook: Fredi Gonzalez's first season as Atlanta's manager was sailing along smoothly — until September. The Braves went into a terrible slump, winning just nine of their last 27 games, and the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to capture the wild card by a single game. The memories of that historic collapse still sit with the Braves like a bad hangover, making it vital they get off to a good start this season. GM Frank Wren made no major moves over the winter, believing he's got a solid team that just had one awful month. Indeed, the Braves have one of baseball's best pitching staffs and should again be a playoff contender, especially if several players who had off years (McCann, Heyward, Prado) bounce back. Atlanta would surely like to send Jones into retirement with a second championship.
2011: 80-81, 3rd place.
Manager: Davey Johnson (1st full season with Washington).
He's Here: RHP Edwin Jackson, LHP Gio Gonzalez, RHP Brad Lidge, INF Mark DeRosa, OF Brett Carroll.
He's Outta There: RHP Livan Hernandez, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Todd Coffey, OF Laynce Nix.
Projected Lineup: SS Ian Desmond (.253, 8, 49, 25 SB), 2B Danny Espinosa (.236, 21, 66, 166 Ks), 3B Ryan Zimmerman (.289, 12, 49 in 101 games), LF Michael Morse (.303, 31, 95), 1B Adam LaRoche (.172, 3, 15 in 43 games), RF Jayson Werth (.232, 20, 58), C Wilson Ramos (.267, 15, 52), CF Rick Ankiel (.239, 9, 37).
Rotation: RH Stephen Strasburg (1-1, 1.50 in 5 starts), LH Gio Gonzalez (16-12, 3.12, 197 Ks, 202 IP with Oakland), RH Jordan Zimmermann (8-11, 3.18), RH Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79, 199 2-3 IP with White Sox and Cardinals), RH Chien-Ming Wang (4-3, 4.04 in 11 starts) or LH John Lannan (10-13, 3.70).
Key Relievers: RH Drew Storen (6-3, 2.75, 43/48 saves), RH Tyler Clippard (3-0, 1.83, 104 Ks in 88 1-3 IP), RH Henry Rodriguez (3-3, 3.56), RH Brad Lidge (0-2, 1.40 in 25 games with Phillies), LH Sean Burnett (5-5, 3.81).
Hot Spots: Everyone wants to know: When will 19-year-old right fielder Bryce Harper make his major league debut? Washington decided to let the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft get a taste of Triple-A seasoning — and he'll shift from right field to center, too. The expectation is that he'll be called up sometime in late spring or early summer. Until then, it's not clear who the Nationals will use in center — or whether their lineup will score enough without any upgrades. Werth needs to bounce back from a terrible first year of his $126 million contract; LaRoche needs to bounce back from a shoulder injury.
Outlook: For a franchise that's never finished above .500, there sure has been a lot of talk about the playoffs and contending. Coming off an 80-81 record — and a third-place finish, the team's best since moving from Montreal — the Nationals think they finally can be a factor and play meaningful games in September — "and beyond," as GM Mike Rizzo put it. A big reason for optimism is the pitching staff, with a rotation led by Strasburg and bolstered by Jackson, a free-agent signing, and Gonzalez, acquired in a trade. The bullpen is strong, too, thanks mainly to Storen and Clippard, who made the All-Star team as a setup man last year. Now it's up to the lineup, which didn't get any additions in the offseason, to improve if the Nationals and Johnson — at 69, the oldest manager in the majors — are going to be as good as they say they should be.
New York Mets
2011: 77-85, 4th place.
Manager: Terry Collins (2nd season).
He's Here: CF Andres Torres, RHP Frank Francisco, RHP Ramon Ramirez, RHP Jon Rauch, INF Ronny Cedeno, C Rob Johnson.
He's Outta There: SS Jose Reyes, CF Angel Pagan, LHP Chris Capuano, C Ronny Paulino, RHP Jason Isringhausen, OF Willie Harris, 1B-OF Nick Evans, RHP Chris Young.
Projected Lineup: CF Andres Torres (.221, 4, 19, 19 SB, .312 OBP in 112 games with Giants), 2B Daniel Murphy (.320, 6, 49, 28 doubles in 109 games), 3B David Wright (.254, 14, 61, 19 errors in 102 games), 1B Ike Davis (.302, 7, 25 in 36 games), LF Jason Bay (.245, 12, 57 in 123 games), RF Lucas Duda (.292, 10, 50, 21 doubles, .370 OBP in 100 games), C Josh Thole (.268, 3, 40), SS Ruben Tejada (.284, 0, 36, .360 OBP in 96 games).
Rotation: LH Johan Santana (missed last season following September 2010 shoulder surgery; 11-9, 2.98, 199 IP, 4 CGs, 2 shutouts, 29 starts in 2010), RH R.A. Dickey (8-13, 3.28, 208 2-3 IP), LH Jonathon Niese (11-11, 4.40), RH Mike Pelfrey (7-13, 4.74, 193 2-3 IP, 220 hits, 105 Ks, 65 BBs), RH Dillon Gee (13-6, 4.43).
Key Relievers: RH Frank Francisco (1-4, 3.55, 17/21 saves with Toronto), RH Ramon Ramirez (3-3, 2.62, 4 saves, 66 Ks, 3 HRs, 68 2-3 IP in 66 appearances with Giants), RH Jon Rauch (5-4, 4.85, 11/16 saves with Toronto), RH Manny Acosta (4-1, 3.45, 4 saves), RH Bobby Parnell (4-6, 3.64, 6 saves), RH Pedro Beato (2-1, 4.30), LH Tim Byrdak (2-1, 3.82, 1 save, 72 appearances, 37 2-3 IP), RH D.J. Carrasco (1-3, 6.02).
Hot Spots: There's a new double-play combination at Citi Field, and it's a big question mark on both sides of the bag. The 22-year-old Tejada takes over at shortstop for Reyes, the NL batting champ and a homegrown fan favorite who bolted for a $106 million, six-year contract with the division-rival Marlins when New York, short on cash, didn't even make a formal offer. Tejada has a good-looking glove and arm, but he has huge shoes to fill. He hasn't shown much pop at the plate, though he is getting stronger and can be a pesky out. Collins thinks Tejada can develop into a Placido Polanco-type, but the youngster needs to be more steady and consistent on an everyday basis. Murphy, on the other hand, is a hitter without a defensive position. The Mets are trying to squeeze his bat — and surgically repaired knees — into the lineup at second base, where he went down with a season-ending injury on a steal play last August. Murphy gives a tough at-bat, especially with runners on, and he was certainly productive last year before getting hurt. He's a very hard worker, too. But the Mets tried him in left field a few years ago with costly results, and this time his safety might be as much of a concern as his subpar defense. He looks much more comfortable on the infield corners.
Outlook: Not long ago, the Mets spent their winters landing big-name prizes like Santana, Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Now they hunt for bargains — if they even shop at all. General manager Sandy Alderson said recently the club lost $70 million. But the Mets got some good news during spring training when owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz reached an agreement in court with the trustee for Bernard Madoff's fraud victims. The settlement makes it likely that Wilpon and Katz will pay much less than the agreed-upon $162 million, if any at all. It also guarantees they will owe nothing until the end of four years. The owners have paid back a $25 million loan from Major League Baseball and a $40 million loan to Bank of America. The team also closed on 12 limited partner shares of $20 million each, of which five were bought by newcomers and the rest by the current ownership group and its partners in the SNY cable network. So with the Madoff issue settled, the team can finally shift most of its focus back onto the field, where the Mets are trying to build for the future. Coming off three straight losing seasons accompanied by a severe decline in attendance, New York has slashed its bloated payroll from $142 million at the end of last season to around $90 million to $95 million this year — the biggest one-year drop in baseball history. In perhaps their biggest offseason move, the Mets lowered and brought in the fences at spacious Citi Field, about 15-20 feet closer to home plate in certain spots. They hope that will benefit Wright and Bay, a big-money bust. As always, injuries keep popping up. Wright tore a ribcage muscle early in camp and missed the first three weeks of exhibition games. He received a cortisone shot and insists he'll be ready for opening day. Still, many wonder if the face of the franchise will soon follow Reyes out the door. The club holds a $16 million option on Wright's contract for 2013, which gets voided if the All-Star third baseman is traded this year. Torres (calf), Byrdak (knee) and backup outfielder Scott Hairston (oblique) also were sidelined this spring. Davis was diagnosed with a likely case of valley fever, though he says he feels fine and the team plans to rest him regularly to prevent extreme fatigue. Davis returns to the middle of the lineup after missing most of 2011 with a slow-to-heal ankle injury. One positive has been Santana, who looks healthy after missing all of last season. The two-time Cy Young Award winner was on track to pitch the opener April 5 at home against Atlanta as the Mets celebrate their 50th birthday. The farm system features a few promising arms and athletes, but most are probably at least a year or two away. This looks like a last-place team in the powerful NL East, where everyone else has been loading up.
2011: 72-90, 5th place.
Manager: Ozzie Guillen (1st season).
He's Here: SS Jose Reyes, LHP Mark Buehrle, RHP Carlos Zambrano, RHP Heath Bell, LHP Wade LeBlanc, RHP Chad Gaudin, OF Aaron Rowand, OF Austin Kearns.
He's Outta There: RHP Chris Volstad, RHP Clay Hensley, RHP Brian Sanches, RHP Burke Badenhop, C John Baker.
Projected Lineup: SS Jose Reyes (NL-best .337, 7, 44, 39 SB for Mets), CF Emilio Bonifacio (.296, 5, 36, 40 SB), 3B Hanley Ramirez (.243, 10, 45 in 92 games), RF Giancarlo Stanton (.262, 34, 87), 1B Gaby Sanchez (.266, 19, 78), LF Logan Morrison (.247, 23, 72), 2B Omar Infante (.276, 7, 49), C John Buck (.227, 16, 57).
Rotation: RH Josh Johnson (3-1, 1.64 in 9 starts), LH Mark Buehrle (13-9, 3.59 for White Sox), RH Ricky Nolasco (10-12, 4.67, NL-high 244 hits), RH Anibal Sanchez (8-9, 3.67), RH Carlos Zambrano (9-7, 4.82 for Cubs).
Key Relievers: RH Heath Bell (3-4, 2.44, 43/48 saves with Padres), RH Edward Mujica (9-6, 2.96), RH Ryan Webb (2-4, 3.20), LH Mike Dunn (5-6, 3.43), LH Randy Choate (1-1, 1.82), RH Steve Cishek (2-1, 2.63).
Hot Spots: The hot corner is a hot spot, with Ramirez reluctantly moving from SS to 3B to make room for Reyes. Ramirez must learn a new position while trying to regain the stroke that helped him win the 2009 NL batting title. Also critical for the Marlins is the health of Johnson, the ace whose 2011 season ended after nine starts because of shoulder inflammation. If the 2010 NL ERA champion can take his turn every fifth start, the Marlins' rotation could be formidable.
Outlook: The Marlins have a new name, new uniforms, a new ballpark and four newcomers who have been All-Stars, which gives the franchise a new outlook. A team that finished last in the NL in attendance the past seven years expects big crowds to start the season, and they won't be coming just to see the ballpark. An offseason spending binge made national headlines, and the addition of such personalities as Guillen, Zambrano and Bell almost guarantees the team will stay in the news. But to keep fans coming, the Marlins probably need to win. It has been nine years since they reached the playoffs, but with a balanced team and proven manager, they expect to challenge the Phillies and Braves for the NL East title.