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Trawling The NL East For Answers

[November 22nd] -- How well the Washington Nationals do next season in the NL East depends just as much on what the other four teams do [or don't do] as do the moves that happen in the D.C. front office. It's early, but let's take a look at the comings and goings within the division and see whose doing what.

Florida Marlins: The Marlins won 83 games in 2005 [5th best in the National League] with a payroll of about $65 million [10th highest in the league] and averaged 22,700 [dead last in the league]. The Marlins are beginning their third "fire sale" in a decade, and there is little else they can do. There is little hope of the city building a decent ballpark [Dolphins' Stadium is by far the worst facility in the National League], and the market doesn't warrant a payroll much above $70 million. Until they move, or get a [domed] stadium, the Marlins will have to continue to plod along with a middle-of-the-road franchise, with an "up" year surrounded by many "down" ones. They'll likely win 68-70 wins next year.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies won 88 games last year [4th best in 2005]. Their payroll was $95 million [second highest in the NL], and they averaged 33,316 at their still new park [9th best]. The Phillies are proof that throwing money at high-profile free agents don't win pennants. They would love to move first baseman Jim Thome but there are few teams able to afford his salary. They are likely to lose their ace closer, Billy Wagner, to free agency. For now, the team fields seven quality major league players. The exceptions are David Bell at 3rd base and Endy Chavez in centerfield [how did that happen?]. They have a solid starting rotation. The Phillies could easily win 85-95 wins in 2006, depending on who is closing for the team.

Atlanta Braves: The 900 pound gorilla continues to scare the pants off of the rest of the National League East. Most teams transition from a veteran to a young team over years; the Braves did it in less than a month. If the young kids, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans, Brian McCann and Jorge Sosa and the rest, continue to grow, The Braves will continue to dominate the NL East. Look closely however, and you begin to see the cracks in the team's foundation. The Braves no longer have a Yankee-type payroll. In 2005, their 90 wins [2nd best in the NL] came at a cost of $85 million [6th highest]. Their attendance continues to drop each year, falling to a decade low 31,000 last season [11th in the NL]. Braves' fans have become complacent. Watching their team win the NL East means nothing any more. Rafael Furcal will likely depart. So will Farnsworth. At first blush, the $85 million payroll seems like enough to keep the Braves on track to win their 15th consecutive championship. The problem for the Braves lies in the distribution of those dollars. Salaries for three players, Chipper Jones, Mike Hampton and John Smoltz, take up more than half of the team's payroll. There is little left for anyone else. Like Furcal. The Braves won't make many changes during the off-season, but their "kids" will play better in 2006. Look for 90-95 wins for Atlanta.

New York Mets: Any team with Omar Minaya at the helm has troubles. While with the Expos, Minaya traded away Jason Bay, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Chris Young, all stars on other teams today, and got in return no one who remains with the team. He paid superstar dollars for a "good" Carlos Beltran, and over paid Pedro Martinez last season while giving him too many guaranteed years. The Mets payroll in 2005 was $105 million [highest in the NL], won 83 games [5th best] and averaged 35,217 at the gate [6th highest]. The Mets won two more games than the Nationals did last year with a payroll more than twice as large. The Mets think they are the Yankees, which they decidedly are not. The Mets have young studs at first [Mike Jacobs] and third [David Wright]. Mike Piazza is gone which frees up another $16 million in payroll. The rest of the team is made up of good and really good players, but no great ones [and that means you too, Mr. Beltran]. Their starting rotation is questionable. Pedro and Tom Glavine are really old, Kris Benson is really average, and Jay Seo is really inexperienced. Brandon Looper is gone and Minaya is working hard to bring Billy Wagner in to fill the closer's position. Rumors are swirling that Carlos Delgado is high on Minaya's list of trade possibilities. As long as Minaya is the GM, don't look for New York to make any real strides towards a division championship. Look for another 80-85 wins, not very many for a payroll that large.

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