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In NL East, 4 Big Fish and the Nats

Washington's Rivals All Have Title Aspirations

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page D01

Greetings, Washington Nationals, and welcome to the National League East division. We trust you'll find your accommodations satisfactory. Here, let us show you to your room.

No, that's not your floor. That's the penthouse, which has had only one tenant, the Atlanta Braves, for as long as anyone around here can remember. And no, those middle floors don't belong to you, either -- not for what you're willing to spend.

_____Baseball's Best Division?_____

How the National League East bulked up this offseason (in predicted order of finish)

Atlanta Braves

2004 finish:

96-66, first place.

Major additions: Acquired RHP Tim Hudson in a trade with Oakland and closer Dan Kolb in a trade with Milwaukee. Signed OFs Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan, and relievers Gabe White and Jay Powell.

New York Mets

2004 finish: 71-91, fourth place.

Major additions: Signed CF Carlos Beltran and RHP Pedro Martinez. Traded for 1B Doug Mientkiewicz.

Florida Marlins

2004 finish: 83-79, third place.

Major additions: Signed 1B Carlos Delgado, LHP Al Leiter.

Philadelphia Phillies

2004 finish: 86-76, second place.

Major additions: Signed RHP Jon Lieber, traded for CF Kenny Lofton.

Washington Nationals

2004 finish: 67-95, fifth place.

Major additions: Signed SS Cristian Guzman, 3B Vinny Castilla, RHPs Esteban Loaiza and Antonio Osuna. Traded for OF Jose Guillen.



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Here you go, folks. That's right -- the cellar. Don't be too disappointed. It's pretty much as your predecessors, the Montreal Expos, left it when they expired last fall -- except for one thing: Oddly enough, the higher floors seem to be getting farther and farther away.

Yes, it is the Nationals' unfortunate fate to be born into existence in the NL East this season at a time when the division, arguably, has never been stronger. Each of Washington's division rivals -- Atlanta, Florida, Philadelphia and the New York Mets -- have designs on a title, and all of them, to varying degrees, appear capable. Get used to seeing them: Nearly half the Nationals' games will be against those four teams.

"It's a division that's the best in the league," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden acknowledged. "And it's a division where every team can compete day in and day out."

Many observers in baseball agree that the NL East is the best (or at least the deepest) division in the game, both because of the strong offseasons put together by Atlanta, Florida and New York, and by the decline of the NL Central, whose top three teams -- Chicago, Houston and St. Louis -- appear, at best, to have regressed slightly because of free agent defections and general retooling.

It is also one of the richest divisions in the game, especially since the Mets' stunning offseason spending spree. The Nationals' payroll of about $50 million this season will trail the others in the NL East by a wide margin; the Mets lead the pack at more than $120 million -- with much of that having been spent this offseason.

This winter saw the division's star power rise dramatically. Star center fielder Carlos Beltran and legendary right-hander Pedro Martinez signed on with the Mets. Right-hander Tim Hudson, he of the dazzling 92-39 career record, came to the Braves in a trade from Oakland. And first baseman Carlos Delgado spurned the Mets to join the Marlins, filling their giant need for a left-handed slugger.

Solid cases could be made for any of those three teams as the best in the division, but there is only one place to start any discussion of that sort.

The Braves have won the NL East title in every season in which it was contested since the realignment of 1994, and they are working on a streak of 13 straight division titles overall -- a record in any major sport.

"To me, they're still the team to beat," Marlins Manager Jack McKeon said. "Every year, they keep coming up with the players."

There is perhaps no other GM in baseball besides Braves boss John Schuerholz who -- in an offseason practically devoid of free agent number one starters -- could still somehow come away with two new aces atop his rotation, and for relatively little money.

For all their regular season success, the Braves have only one World Series title (1995) to show for their efforts. In recent Octobers, they were undone by their lack of dominant starting pitching to send to the mound against monsters such as Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Schuerholz's plan for the winter was to rectify that situation.

First, he engineered a deal with Milwaukee for all-star closer Dan Kolb, which allowed the Braves to grant John Smoltz's wish of returning to the rotation. Then, Schuerholz pulled off a trade for Hudson, part of Oakland's erstwhile Big Three. If Smoltz's surgically repaired elbow can hold up to the rigors of starting again, the Braves could have one of the top front ends in baseball.


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