Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

Ever-changing NL East remains a beast
October 24, 2012, 8:30 am
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The NL East was, for a good portion of the season's first half, the toughest division in baseball. All five franchises stood at least three games over .500 on June 1, and all looked poised to stay competitive through the remainder of the season.

That, of course, didn't happen. Though the champion Nationals and runner-up Braves each got better over the final four months, the Phillies fell apart in midsummer before a late surge got them back to the .500 mark, while the Mets and Marlins simply fell apart and never recovered.

Where, though, does that leave things heading into the offseason? The Nationals obviously will return loaded in 2013 and should be favored to repeat as division champs. But the Braves, too, will have the bulk of their 94-win club returning to the fold and will be determined to jump into first place and avoid the one-game playoff that killed their season.

The Phillies may continue to get older, but their strong finish will give team executives and players alike reason to think they can make another run. The Mets, on the other hand, remain stuck in the mud with a few elite players (R.A. Dickey, David Wright) but no depth whatsoever.

Which leaves the Marlins as the biggest wild card in the East. (Note: That's wild card in lowercase letters, as opposed to a team that wins one of the league's two Wild Card berths.)

What exactly are they doing down in Miami right now? All those good vibes, the star-studded roster and hundreds of millions of dollars spent both on payroll and a space-age new ballpark have officially vanished into thin air. Gone are Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Heath Bell. And now gone is Ozzie Guillen, who was fired yesterday after one miserable season as manager and $7.5 million still owed to him.

There's still plenty of talent down there on South Beach -- what team wouldn't jump at the chance to build around Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Reyes? -- but there doesn't appear to be any direction. Is owner Jeffrey Loria going to go out and splurge on free agents once again this winter, or will he gut the roster even further and start over from scratch?

Who will succeed Guillen as manager? And what, if any, positive impact can he have when his owner calls every shot?

Despite their continued dysfunction, the Marlins remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Their overall winning percentage over the last five years is a sub-par .485. Their winning percentage against the Nationals over that same span is a staggering .663.

So whether anyone believes the Fish will be a legitimate contender next season, you better believe the Nationals should treat them like they are.

In the end, it's hard to imagine the NL East won't be an even tougher division in 2013. All five teams will have reason to believe they can be better next year than they were this year.

That won't make the Nationals' challenge any easier. But, if nothing else, it should convince their front office they can't simply show up for spring training and expect to repeat as division champs.