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For years, the eventual division champion in the National League East stopped playing serious baseball in mid-September. Last season was more of the same, with the exception of the cast. The New York Mets dethroned the Atlanta Braves atop the NL East and cruised to an easy postseason berth. Winning the division promises to be a little more difficult this year. Jimmy Rollins, a shortstop with the Philadelphia Phillies, proclaimed his team was the one to beat a few weeks ago. A shrewd trade for Freddy Garcia this offseason makes his words seem true. The Florida Marlins’ rebuilding program is way ahead of schedule, while the Braves are looking strong with a pair of new arms at the end of games.

Atlanta Braves
The Reason for Hope: General Manager John Schuerholz knew the weakness of his ballclub and did everything he could to fix it. The bullpen that blew 29 saves last year added a full season of Bob Wickman (18 of 19 in save opportunities after coming over from Cleveland), as well as Mike Gonzalez (24 of 24) and Rafael Soriano. They combine to create what may be the best bullpen in the National League.

The Cause for Concern: There are a lot of questions revolving around the pitching staff. Tim Hudson spent the offseason following his old offseason program, which might help him re-gain the velocity and stamina he lost over the previous two years. Mike Hampton is coming back from Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched in 18 months. Both Kyle Davies and Chuck James are young pitchers, and those types of players are extremely unpredictable.

Prediction: First place, with 94 wins

Philadelphia Phillies
The Reason for Hope: Their lineup finished first in the National League in runs scored last year, and the chance for them to do it again remains. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Pat Burrell may be the most powerful 3-4-5 combo in their division, and that’s saying a lot. Expect 115 home runs and nearly 320 runs driven in right here.

The Cause for Concern: While there’s a lot to admire on the Phillies’ pitching staff, it’s difficult to find much to like about their bullpen. Tom Gordon, 39 this upcoming season, got hit by injuries late last year, missing a month with a shoulder strain. If that happens again, there really isn’t anyone else to go to.

Prediction: Second place, with 91 wins

New York Mets
The Reason for Hope: From top to bottom, this may be the most potent lineup outside of the Bronx. Jose Reyes and Paul LoDuca get on base enough for the power bats of Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright, and Moises Alou to drive them in. The only trouble will be getting future star Lastings Milledge enough playing time to develop.

The Cause for Concern: When constructing his team, General Manager Omar Minaya must have not remembered the phrase about pitching winning champions. Going into next season, Minaya’s rotation consists of the venerable Tom Glavine, the ancient Orlando Hernandez, and reclamation projects named Aaron Sele, Chan Ho Park, Oliver Perez, Dave Williams, and Jorge Sosa.

Prediction: Third place, with 90 wins

Florida Marlins
The Reason for Hope: There’s plenty to like about this young Marlins team. Josh Johnson would’ve tied Cy Young winner Brandon Webb in ERA had Johnson pitched enough innings; Anibal Sanchez threw a no-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks; and Dontrelle Willis was still the staff ace. On the offensive side, Miguel Cabrera lost 15 pounds this offseason and remains the least talked about superstar in baseball, while Jeremy Hermida is going to put a season full of injuries behind.

The Cause for Concern: Youth, however, has its drawbacks. A percentage of players experience a decline in their second seasons, whether caused by a backing off of offseason workouts or opposing players making the proper adjustments. Dan Uggla, in particular, is someone to keep an eye on. The second baseman somehow set a career high (including minor league statistics) in home runs and struck out 2.56 times for every walk.

Prediction: Fourth place, with 80 wins

Washington Nationals
The Reason for Hope: There really isn’t one, but the most optimistic Nationals fan could point to the bullpen. Closer Chad Cordero saved 29 games and won 7, while Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala are excellent setup men. Reliever Emiliano Fruto, stolen from the Seattle Mariners this offseason in the Jose Vidro deal, is a big name to watch, with his blistering fastball. Should the Nationals ever have a lead, it will be secure.

The Cause for Concern: General Manager Jim Bowden assembled a pitching staff that would make a Triple A team cringe. John Patterson is the ace, but he’s never won more than 10 games in one year. From there, it gets worse. The remaining candidates for the starting rotation are journeymen who couldn’t hold down even the lowliest job with their former teams: Tim Redding (Astros), Colby Lewis (Rangers), Jason Simontacchi (Cardinals), Mike Bacsik (Mets), and Brandon Claussen (Reds).

Prediction: Fifth place, with 65 wins