Sizing up the National League East

The National League East figures to be a bear once again this year. A contractually happy Ryan Howard is back to lead the Phillies, the Mets strengthened their horrendous bullpen, the Braves remade their rotation and the Marlins remain the division's scorpion.

Before the Phillies gun for their third consecutive division title or the Mets try to reverse their recent September swoons, here are some things to consider, heading into the season:

 

Questions, Questions

 

Phillies: What will be the effects of Chase Utley's offseason hip surgery? If the optimistic goal of Utley being ready for Opening Day is not met, Eric Bruntlett, Marcus Giles and prospect Jason Donald would vie for playing time.

Mets: Are the Mets really the "choke artists" as identified by Cole Hamels? They are until they stop gagging in September.

Braves: Who in the name of Tim Hudson is in the rotation? With John Smoltz in Boston, Greg Maddux in retirement and aging Tom Glavine in free agency limbo, the rotation is being anchored by Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami and Jair Jurrjens.

Marlins: Would the country be in such fiscal disarray if Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest were running things? Went 84-79 last year despite entering the season with a $22 million payroll. Dangerous team in '09.

Nationals: Is there any optimism left over from the inauguration to consider the Nats anything more than cellar dwellers? Uh, no.

 

Five to watch

 

Phillies: Rightfielder Jayson Werth. Had a career-best 24 homers last year, and with Pat Burrell no longer around, Werth is the lineup's only righthanded power threat.

Mets: Closer Francisco Rodriguez. The Mets bullpen blew 29 saves last year. If they had only blown 25, they'd have won the division. Rodriguez had a record 62 saves for the Angels in 2008. The Metropolitans also added J.J. Putz, an All-Star closer in 2007, to help with the setup ahead of Rodriguez.

Braves: Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur. The fast track to superstardom hit an 11-homer, .239 landmine in 2008 that also included a demotion to the minors.

Marlins: Starting pitcher Josh Johnson returned from Tommy John surgery in time to post a 7-1 record with a 3.61 ERA.

Nationals: Starting pitcher Scott Olsen. Rather than give him a raise, the Marlins dealt Olsen to Washington, where he could end up being the staff ace. Phils fans might remember Olsen for once igniting a bench-clearing brawl in 2007.

 

Comings & Goings

 

PHILLIES

Key additions: Raul Ibanez, LF (Mariners); Chan Ho Park, RHP (Dodgers); Marcus Giles, 2B (DNP 2008).

Key subtractions: Pat Burrell, LF (Rays), So Taguchi, Ut. (Cubs), Tom Gordon, RHP (Diamondbacks).

Odds on winning ...

Division: 3-2

NLCS: 9-2

World Series: 9-1

METS

Key additions: Francisco Rodriguez, RHP (Angels); J.J. Putz, RHP (Mariners); Tim Redding, RHP (Nationals); Jeremy Reed, CF (Mariners).

Key subtractions: Pedro Martinez, RHP (free agent); Endy Chavez, RF (Mariners); Aaron Heilman, RHP (Mariners); Scott Schoeneweis, LHP (Diamondbacks).

Odds on winning ...

Division: 3-2

NLCS: 9-2

World Series: 9-1

BRAVES

Key additions: Derek Lowe, RHP (Dodgers); Javier Vazquez, RHP (White Sox); Kenshin Kawakami, RHP (Japan); David Ross, C (Reds)

Key subtractions: John Smoltz, RHP (Red Sox); Julian Tavarez, RHP (free agent); Tom Glavine, LHP (free agent).

Odds on winning ...

Division: 6-1

NLCS: 15-1

World Series: 30-1

MARLINS

Key additions: Emilio Bonifacio, 3B (Nationals); Scott Proctor, RHP (Yankees).

Key subtractions: Scott Olsen, LHP (Nationals); Kevin Gregg, RHP (Cubs); Mike Jacobs, 1B (Royals); Paul Lo Duca, C (free agent); Josh Willingham, LF (Nationals).

Odds on winning ...

Division: 8-1

NLCS: 18-1

World Series: 35-1

NATIONALS

Key additions: Scott Olsen, LHP (Braves); Josh Willingham, LF (Braves); Daniel Cabrera, RHP (Orioles).

Key subtractions: Tim Redding, RHP (Mets); Emilio Bonifacio, INF (Marlins).

Odds on winning ...

Division: 40-1

NLCS: 65-1

World Series: 130-1