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In NL East, 4 Big Fish and the Nats

"We think we have as good a rotation as we've ever had here," Schuerholz said, "and we've had some good ones."

Equally astounding, in an offseason in which more than $1 billion was spent on free agents -- with the Mets alone accounting for nearly $200 million -- the Braves' spending totaled only $12.76 million.

_____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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The Mets, after averaging 93 losses the last two seasons, underwent the division's biggest makeover, bringing in a new GM (Omar Minaya, formerly of the Expos), a new manager (Willie Randolph) and two radiant superstars in Beltran and Martinez. Although their organizational blueprint sometimes seems to place as much emphasis on winning New York City's devotion and conquering the Latin American market, they understand the best way to do that is by winning titles. "The rest of it," Minaya said, "will fall into place if we take care of business on the field."

Perhaps the four-year, $53 million contract the Mets gave Martinez won't look so good in 2008. But in 2005, he heads perhaps the division's deepest rotation, which also includes Tom Glavine, Kris Benson, Victor Zambrano and Steve Trachsel.

"When you're as deep as we are," said Glavine, a veteran of 11 of those Braves division titles, "it's hard for teams to match up with us at number four, number five. It's a huge, huge luxury."

No team in the division is as dangerous, if the potential becomes the actual, as the Marlins. Their lineup is frighteningly deep and, with Delgado's arrival, nicely balanced. No more will teams be able to stop the Marlins' right-hand-heavy lineup with power right-handers late in the game. In the Marlins' entire history, they have never had a left-handed hitter bash 30 or more homers. Delgado has done that eight years in a row.

The Phillies, after spending aggressively the previous two winters, mostly stood on the sideline this winter, preferring to undertake their biggest makeover in the manager's office -- firing Larry Bowa, whose caustic style alienated much of the clubhouse, and replacing him with easy-going, molasses-voiced Charlie Manuel.

Having signed no one any more prominent than middle-of-the-rotation right-hander Jon Lieber and aging center fielder Kenny Lofton, the Phillies are making their biggest roster additions from the disabled list: closer Billy Wagner, right-hander Vicente Padilla and left fielder Pat Burrell are among the key players who missed considerable time in 2004, derailing a season that began with many observers calling them the division's best. "The last two years, we had blockbuster offseasons that didn't lead to the postseason," Phillies GM Ed Wade said. "So [spending lots of money] is no guarantee."

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