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Nationals’ bid to repeat as National League East champs should be challenged by Braves and Phillies

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A white, plastic tarp covered the Champion Stadium infield Tuesday morning, which spared the Washington Nationals. Chipper Jones, the retired face of the Atlanta Braves, had warned opposing pitching staffs earlier this spring to avoid the sight of Atlanta’s newly formed outfield taking batting practice. On Tuesday, the rain prevented baseballs from flying over grassy hills and into parking lots.

After the weather cleared, the Nationals got their first up-close look at the Braves’ vaunted new outfield. B.J. Upton, signed this winter as a free agent, stationed himself in center. His brother Justin, the former No. 1 overall pick acquired in a trade, served as the designated hitter. Jason Heyward remained in right. The Braves gave the Nationals a full glimpse.

Atlanta’s new acquisitions, by general consensus, installed them as the foremost challenger to defending champion Washington in the National League East. Inside the Nationals’ clubhouse, they are not so sure.

Back in Viera, as he tied his shoes for a morning workout, Jayson Werth was asked if considered the Braves or Philadelphia Phillies a bigger threat. Werth, the former Phillie, did not hesitate.

“Phillies,” he said. “I think everybody is writing them off. They played good in September, when they were healthy. They’re not going to roll over, that’s for sure.”

And about the Braves? “Yeah, the Braves got the Upton brothers,” Werth said. “But they lost [Martin] Prado and Chipper.”

In last October’s wild card play-in game, the Braves may have come within one bizarre outfield fly ruling of keeping the Cardinals’ Pete Kozma anonymous within the greater Washington area. Then they beefed up their lineup and kept intact one of the best bullpens in the majors. Tuesday, both Uptons knocked RBI singles off lefty Ross Detwiler.

But the additions came with subtractions. Michael Bourn left in free agency, Prado — a consistent pest for the Nationals — went to Arizona in the trade for Justin Upton, and Jones retired.

“Atlanta went out and got some people, but I think they also lost some people, too,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Everyone talks about how much better their lineup got. It didn’t get worse. But anytime you lose a guy like Michael Bourn and Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, it’s pretty hard to compensate for those three guys. By no means am I saying their lineup is not good or they won’t have a good team. But I think they almost replaced, which they had to do. They went out and made some noise.”

At this time last year, Philadelphia had won five consecutive NL East titles. It is odd to think of a team like that as a sleeper, but it may be. The Phillies improved with small, crucial additions and renewed health — Chase Utley is playing in spring games and Ryan Howard is no longer running as if trying out for Old Timer’s Day.

The Phillies still have major questions in their outfield, but newly acquired center fielder Ben Revere gives them speed and youth, two attributes they desperately needed. They traded for Michael Young to fill a glaring hole at third base. Their setup relief was a disaster in 2012, and they signed Mike Adams to lock down the eighth inning.

They may have lost 81 games last year, but any team with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee in its rotation should be considered a threat. It has not stopped the Braves from landing ahead of them in most early prognostications.

“That shows me how much everybody knows that writes for a living,” Werth told a reporter. “No offense.”

No matter their standing on paper, the Phillies will be considered a rival. Last year at Nationals Park, on the final day of the regular season, shortstop Jimmy Rollins claimed the Phillies would have won the division if they had stayed healthy. Werth responded this spring by telling the Philadelphia Inquirer the Nationals, who endured an abundance of injuries themselves, would have won 120 games if they stayed healthy.

“Personally speaking, I just always wanted to beat them because of the way they carried themselves,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “The way that they walked into everything, they thought they already won the game. That’s how they walk around. And that’s the right attitude to walk around [with]. But for me, when I see that, that makes me want to beat someone even more.

“They got talent, but we won the division last year. Injuries, they had ‘em, we had ‘em. At the end of the day, we won the division. We missed Werth. We missed Zimmerman. We missed [Michael] Morse. [Ian] Desmond went down. We still found a way to do it.”

At the bottom of the NL East, the New York Mets locked up David Wright, went young in their rotation and generally disregarded their outfield. The Miami Marlins shipped most of their best players to Toronto in a firesale, and Miami residents opened their Sunday newspapers and read full-page ads owner Jeffrey Loria bought to explain the gutting of his team.

“I think everyone in the division got better,” reliever Tyler Clippard said.

Even the Marlins?

“Marlins . . . not so much,” Clippard allowed. “I’m more referring to the Phillies and the Braves.”

The presence of Atlanta and Philadelphia alone will make defending the NL East crown a difficult task for the Nationals. They’ll play 38 games against two of the best teams, on paper, in the National League. Stephen Strasburg has repeatedly called it the best division in the league, and within the Nationals’ clubhouse he is not alone in his belief.

“It’s, in my opinion, the toughest division in baseball,” Clippard said. “I think it’s going to help us. We feel like we’re one of the best teams in baseball. Playing in the best division in baseball is going to prepare us for where we want to go. There’s going to be some struggles along the way. That’s what a baseball season entails. But I think it’s going to be good for us.”

The Nationals came to spring training as the favorite to win the NL East again. They know they face stiff tests — “It’s not a blow-away division,” Espinosa said. The Braves and — maybe more than anyone but the Nationals expect — the Phillies figure to challenge them deep into the fall. The Marlins and Mets . . . not so much.

© The Washington Post Company