NL East: Brave new world for Phils

Feb 18, 2003 2:06 AM

The National League East has been owned by the Atlanta Braves for over a decade. It’s time to pass the torch to a team that finished 21½ games out of first last year.

PHILADELPHIA (80-81): Well, maybe we’re stepping out on the limb a bit too far, but the elements are there for the Phillies to finally deliver on all that potential. It’s true that this would have been a better team if Scott Rulen stuck around, but he was unhappy and had to be accommodated.

When Rulen was dealt to St. Louis, it opened the door for Pat Burrell to become the right-handed power guy in the lineup. The Phils have the best young DP combination in the business in 2B Marlon Anderson and SS Jimmy Rollins.

First baseman Jim Thome came over from Cleveland and provides the big left-handed stick sorely needed. The Phils also added right-hander Kevin Millwood, who anchors an interesting staff that could be great if healthy. Lefty Randy Wolf and righty Vicente Padilla and Robert Person form a strong starting rotation.

The bullpen is a concern. Jose Mesa has been a good closer in the past, but has also been pummeled. His ability to protect leads in the ninth could well determine whether the Phils make it to the top of the division. As for the Rulen dilemma at third, free agent signee David Bell (Giants), Tyler Houston and Placido Palanco should be able to produce enough offense between them.

Bobby Abreu is the best hitter in the lineup and should really benefit from having Thome hitting in the cleanup spot. Mike Lieberthal is solid behind the plate, but has a history of injury problems. Still, Bowa and the Philly fans have much to be excited about in their final year at Veterans Stadium.

NEW YORK (75-86): Every year, the organization pumps up the volume on a rising star. This time it’s Jose Reyes, a 19-year-old phenom pitcher who could make the major league roster with a solid spring training. Last year, Reyes blew through both Class A and AA, making the All-Star team at both levels. Reyes is regarded as the best prospect in the entire system.

The arrival of Reyes would be a godsend for the Mets, who have Al Leiter and major free agent acquisition Tom Glavine from the Braves. Right-hander David Cone decided to come out of retirement at age 40 and try his hand one more time. Pedro Astacio and Steve Trachsel have had their moments. Lefties Graeme Lloyd and Mike Stanton should provide stellar support for closer Armando Benitez.

Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz all took the heat for the team’s miserable year. They can’t play worse and should benefit from reduced hype. Mike Piazza is the model of consistency and adding Cliff Floyd definitely helps. The Mets do need to find replacements for Edgardo Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez.

Manager Art Howe may be the best move New York made in the offseason, replacing the volatile Bobby Valentine.

ATLANTA (101-59): Age and salary cap has finally caught up with the Braves. Tom Glavine signed with the Mets. Kevin Millwood was traded to Philadelphia. Greg Maddux figured to go, but opted to remain.

The cupboard isn’t bare, just changed. Russ Ortiz came over from San Francisco, Paul Byrd from KC and Mike Hampton from Colorado. John Smoltz wanted to come out of the bullpen, but management nixed that idea and he will again get his 40 or 50 saves.

Offensively, the Braves need to stay healthy. Gary Sheffield and the Jones boys (Chipper and Andruw) provide enough firepower and new addition Robert Fick from Detroit may be a sleeper. Javy Lopez had a bad 2002 and can’t repeat.

The Braves are still a solid ballclub, but this is a patchup job.

FLORIDA (79-83): Ivan Rodriguez makes the Marlins instantly better, but also brings an injury-plagued resume. Without 130 games from Pudge, you can forget about the Fish.

The pitching staff is compared to Atlanta’s of 10 years ago with 20-win potential from Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett. It’s results that count and one wonders if there is enough offense to make this trio live up to the billing.

If management is not behind Florida, it’s hard to imagine the Marlins being able to crack .500.

MONTREAL (83-79): The Expos have Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and a ton of problems. San Juan, Puerto Rico will be the home for over 20 games. That’s literally good PR for major league baseball, but we can’t expect a repeat of last year’s amazing year based on the lame duck status.

The Expos signed El Duque (Orlando Hernandez), but it’s anyone’s guess how old he really is. Andres Galarraga is around for the memories. Dealing stud pitcher Bartolo Colon just signified how sad this situation is.

Maybe Washington D.C. will bail out the Expos next year.