For whatever reason, the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Nationals decided to go ahead and field teams for 2011 even after the Phillies’ big signing of Cliff Lee in December seemingly solidified the semi-dynasty they have built in Philly.
And what do you know? A rash of spring injuries to the Phillies has thrown the division race wide open. By the third week of March, it became bad enough that we were ready to make the bold move. That’s right: We’re picking the Braves .
The Braves, mind you, had enough attributes of their own to make it an interesting race, beginning with their young, vibrant core: right fielder Jason Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman, closer Craig Kimbrel and ace-in-training Tommy Hanson, none older than 24.
If veteran Chipper Jones, coming back from knee surgery, can give them 130 games at third base, and if veteran pitchers Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe can throw 180 innings each, there may not be any stopping them.
The Phillies may very well get themselves healthy. They may very well ride the Lee/Roy Halladay/Roy Oswalt/Cole Hamels quartet all the way to late October. But for now, the injury problem — less about bad luck, we suspect, than aging players — is bad.
The worst news concerns second baseman Chase Utley (knee), the Phillies’ most indispensable player. Their offense already had holes before Utley came down lame. Without him, they’re a mess. What’s more, closer Brad Lidge will start the season on the disabled list because of shoulder soreness.
The Marlins are a team that could win 92 games, or lose 92. So let’s split the difference and say they’re essentially a .500 team. Maybe this is the year Josh Johnson wins the Cy Young and/or Hanley Ramirez wins the MVP. Maybe Javier Vazquez thrives in his return to the NL. And maybe Mike Stanton puts up a 30-homer season. But more likely, it’s just another good-but-not-great Marlins team.
The Nationals have finished last in five of their six seasons in D.C., but this could be the year they escape the cellar — maybe for good. If everything goes right then 2012 could get interesting.
You know it’s been a bad spring for the Mets when their biggest story involved Bernard Madoff. Yes, their owners’ entanglement in the Ponzi scheme scandal was a messy diversion. But it was hardly the only one. The Mets have mini-disasters all over the field — from Carlos Beltran’s knees to Johan Santana’s shoulder — and it adds up to a mega-disaster on the field.