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A quick look at the NL East contenders a few weeks before the non-waiver trading deadline.

The New York Mets

Why the Mets are worried:  The Mets haven’t been the runaway offensive wonders that they were last year and they have been struggling to get the offense going, which has allowed the Atlanta Braves to linger in contention.  The Mets rank 10th in runs scored to this point and they have scored fewer runs than any team in the Eastern division except the Washington Nationals.

Secondary reason:  Relief pitching has been hard pressed at times. The relievers have been forced to throw a lot of innings and arm wear is definitely a concern.

Why the Mets shouldn’t Worry:  Their much maligned pitching staff has had its problems but the Mets rank 2nd in the National League in team ERA   and 4th in the Majors (behind San Diego, Oakland and Boston).  They should get even stronger with the return of Pedro Martinez - even if he can only pitch at 80%.

Additionally, this is a talented offensive team even if they haven’t been firing on all cylinders yet.  The two Carlos’ (Beltran and Delgado) haven’t been able to find their groove, but it’s hard to imagine that they won’t before the season ends.

What the Mets SHOULD do at the trading deadline:  Omar Minaya would probably be smart to either sit tight or pick up bullpen help.  Big names like Brad Lidge or Eric Gagne certainly have eye appeal but they’ll probably be overpriced unless they’d be happy to stay in a setup role and this team would benefit more from someone that could regularly throw 2-3 innings rather than just one.

What the Mets are likely to do:  Seek relief help.  

The Atlanta Braves

Why the Braves think they can win the Division: The fact that the Braves are still within 3 games of the Mets at this point must be doing wonders for the confidence of this team.  They have been treading water even without the bat of Andruw Jones who has been slumping through almost the entire season.

A dose of reality:  Statistically, the Braves are a very middling team.  They rank 8th in team ERA and sixth in Runs scored in the National League.   The pitching staff is a cobbled together affair and their ace, John Smoltz, is coming off the DL after suffering “shoulder inflammation” a generic term that can cover a whole world of ills.

What the Braves SHOULD do at the trading deadline:  The Braves desperately need another quality starter - a scarce commodity.  However the Braves have a big chip to trade to a contender.  That’s Andruw Jones, a free agent at the end of the season. Of course he would have to agree to be traded but probably would for a chance at a World Series ring.  It would almost certainly end up having to be a three team deal as no one with playoff aspirations is going to be parting with quality starters. 

What are the Braves likely to do:  Try to trade for another starter and trust that the team can keep up its offensive production.  If another quality starter is not possible they’ll probably hang on to Jones and cross their fingers. 

The Philadelphia Phillies 

Why the Phillies think they can win the division:  The Phillies have the best offense in the National League.  With the emergence of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard the Phillies offer one of the most formidable lineups in all of baseball.

A dose of reality:  While the Phillies have the league’s best offense, they also have the league’s worst starting pitching (5.01 ERA).  The major problem has been injuries, but after Cole Hamels the Phillies’ starting rotation is a essentially anchored by Jamie Moyer (4.99 ERA) and Adam Eaton (an ugly 5.98 ERA).  That’s essentially a wasteland with Freddy Garcia and John Lieber seemingly cemented into the DL and unlikely to contribute much the rest of the way.

What the Phillies SHOULD do at the deadline:  In my opinion, the smart thing would be to try to move Freddy Garcia and the rights to negotiate with him for prospects - ideally talented pitching prospects for next year.  However, Garcia and his agent may decide that they want to test the open market at the end of the season and refuse to negotiate with a new team.  That could prove to be a road block in any deal.  Additionally, the Phillies are a team on the cusp and Pat Gillick could take a stab at the division title by acquiring a starter either for prospects or for slugger Pat Burrell, who he implied was a problem in the “middle of the lineup” back in May.

What the Phillies will do:  Attempt to trade offense for pitching, but the pitching that they are likely to acquire will probably be more of the inning eating variety than the uber-talented.   

I’ll stick with my preseason predictions here and say that the Mets will win this division.  If the offense wakes up they could run away from the pack, but even if the bats continue to struggle they still have the ability to creep into the playoffs and contend.  That’s something I just don’t believe the Braves or Phillies are capable of.