The natural order of things in the NL East hasn't changed much in recent years. The Phillies have owned the division since 2007. The Braves have sat one notch below the last two years. The Marlins have typically finished in the middle of the pack, with the Mets landing in fourth place each of the last three seasons. And then there were the Nationals, who until this year held a death grip on last place.
That may all be in the process of changing, though, and the NL East may be preparing for a seismic shift of power.
We all know what the Nationals have done (and hope to continue to do) to thrust themselves into the conversation. But be careful not to sleep on the Marlins, who are attempting to take a similarly major step forward in 2012.
There's a pretty positive vibe around South Florida these days. A new ballpark on the old Orange Bowl site is nearly ready for business. Ozzie Guillen has taken over as manager. Later this week, the franchise will officially change its name from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins.
And, most importantly, owner Jeffrey Loria seems intent on opening up his checkbook and devoting his resources to bring some higher priced talent to South Beach.
As has been the case here in D.C., the Marlins have seen their names attached to just about every top free agent on the market. Loria is reportedly set to meet with shortstop Jose Reyes and left-hander Mark Buehrle in the coming days. Some have speculated Guillen could help lure Albert Pujols to Miami. And the Marlins are considered the frontrunners to acquire recent Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old center fielder with monster power who is expected to command big money.
Now, the Marlins still have a long way to go. They lost 90 games this season and finished last in the division. That said, they certainly appear to be a franchise on an upward track.
The same probably can't be said about the Phillies, who may still boast the NL East's best rotation but are no longer the juggernauts they appeared to be last winter. Philadelphia's lineup in particular is aging quickly, and there are injury concerns surrounding Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Placido Polanco. Jimmy Rollins, Roy Oswalt and Ryan Madson are all free agents and may not return.
Does that mean the Phillies have suddenly handed over their stranglehold on the division? Not quite yet, not as long as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels remain at the top of their games.
But everyone has known Philadelphia's window of opportunity is going to close in the relatively near future, and it's possible it could happen in 2012.
There's also some uncertainty in Atlanta, where the Braves are still reeling from their September collapse and trying to figure out what their intentions are next season. There's still a lot of talent on that roster, but there's some considerable dead weight, too, and there is evidence the Braves are trying to shed much of that. Witness last week's trade of Derek Lowe to Cleveland.
And then there are the Mets, who have been stuck in the mud for three seasons now and don't appear any closer to ascending back into contention. With Reyes likely gone and rumors of a possible David Wright trade out there, it's difficult to imagine New York entering 2012 feeling good about its chances.
Obviously, there's plenty still to be determined this winter. The Hot Stove League hasn't really begun.
But if things progress the way most expect, don't be surprised if there's a fairly significant shift in power structure in the NL East next year, one that could feature the Nationals in a prominent manner.