The National League East is going to be a very good division this year. The Philadelphia Phillies are still going to be a strong contender to be one of the best teams in the National League. The newly named Miami Marlins have once again gone on a shopping spree, this time to draw fans to its new ballpark.
History is doomed to repeat itself with the Marlins, who have spent money, won and then realized they do not draw enough fans consistently to support their product. Even with a new park, the Marlins will not draw enough. People do not like to go to the old Orange Bowl area, and South Florida is simply not a baseball town/area.
The Washington Nationals are building a team that can contend in this division for a long time, and the New York Mets? Well, someone has to bring up the rear, and as long as the team remains in its current financial state, it cannot contend. There is one longtime division stalwart, however, that cannot be overlooked, and is by some.
You can look at the teams on paper and try to predict who will come out on top, but team chemistry is often what propels a ballclub to great heights. It is palpable wen you visit the clubhouses. The Phillies are definitely a unified bunch, but they are also very insulated. They almost seem to have an “us against them” mentality that works well for them. They also seem to communicate and work well with each other.
The Marlins have to get to know each other, and with powderkegs such as Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen in the mix, you never know how it will all turn out. Hopefully for them, Jose Reyes can step in and settle things wit a smile. The Nationals appeared to have a loose clubhouse last year, but they are maybe a year away from being a true force. The Mets players seem to be well aware of their limitations, and while their clubhouse is never hostile, it has often seemed joyless, and that is not going to change much this year.
The one team that should figure into the NL East race, and maybe beyond, is the Atlanta Braves. Yes, we all remember their September collapse last season, when they lost 18 of 27 games and blew an 8.5 game lead in the Wild Card race. The Braves return looking much the same as they did last year, and it says here that they have some unfinished business to take care of in 2011.
Atlanta has one of the most tightly knit clubhouses in all of the majors, and you can bet key veterans such as Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson and Brian McCann will lead the troops on a very focused charge to the postseason in 2012. The Braves are a fine collection of distinguished veterans and promising youngsters. It would not be surprising to see them win the division this year.
Going around the diamond, there are all kinds of reasons for optimism. Freddie Freeman is one of the most poised and promising youngsters in the game. Dan Uggla has last season’s forgettable first half fully in the rear-view and should be much more dangerous from wire to wire this year. Michael Bourn is the ideal leadoff hitter, and a healthy Jason Heyward is destined to have a bounce-back year. McCann is one of the best catchers in the game. Martin Prado will be a fine contributor if he can stay healthy. Jones may have another respectable year left in him and his presence in the locker room is a must as Atlanta looks to finish 2012 strong and erase the dark shadows of 2011.
Pitching has always been a strong suit for Atlanta, and they have many promising arms such as Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran to mix with the likes of Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson. Hudson may miss the beginning of the year because of a back issue, but the Braves have enough depth to compensate. Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are simply outstanding finishers in the bullpen.
For all their talent on the field, it’s in the locker room and on the bench where the Braves are more distinctive than their opponents. There seems to be little, if any dissension, and while Bourn and Uggla are newer to the team, they fit in very well very quickly last year. The Braves players genuinely enjoy each other as people and professionals. They are jocular and have fun with each other, yet they also pull together as pros when they hit the diamond.
You can’t always quantify the intangibles in pro sports, but trust me when I tell you that the Braves have one of the most unified rosters in Major League Baseball. Hudson, McCann, Jones and Eric Hinske set a very positive tone. Freeman is already intertwined like a savvy veteran. Even the role players are treated like important equals. The Atlanta clubhouse has a loose vibe that boasts of camaraderie and team. That’s why they may surprise some people in 2012.