Touring NL East training camps in Florida this spring was like watching an extended trailer for the future of baseball. At the Braves' Disney World facility, 20-year-old rightfielder Jason Heyward—the 6'4", 245-pound man-child whose talent manager Bobby Cox compares with Hank Aaron's—provided more fireworks in batting practice than the shows across the street at the Magic Kingdom. One afternoon Heyward bludgeoned a shot that shattered the sun roof of a team executive's car parked some 450 feet from home plate (the damage: $3,400).
At the Nationals' home near Cape Canaveral, the career of another phenom was lifting off: 21-year-old Stephen Strasburg, a 6'4" righthander, drew large crowds with each start and lived up to the hype as the best pitching prospect in two decades. After a dazzling two-inning debut against the Tigers, a reporter asked Detroit cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera, who struck out on a high 98-mph heater, if Strasburg had big league stuff. "Oh, my God, yes," Cabrera said.
Prospects like 23-year-old first baseman Ike Davis and 22-year-old centerfielder Fernando Martinez brightened an otherwise gloomy Mets camp as they sliced up opposing pitchers and gave hope to an injury-cursed team. And there was buzz surrounding first baseman Logan Morrison and outfielder Mike Stanton, both of whom were trying to jump from Double A to the Marlins. "The young talent in the division is tremendous," says Nationals G.M. Mike Rizzo. "It's going to be fun watching them develop."
The stars-in-the-making may be all that stands between the Phillies and a run similar to the Braves' NL dynasty in the '90s. After three straight division titles and two consecutive trips to the World Series, Philadelphia is turning into the Evil Empire of the league. Thanks in part to surging attendance at Citizens Bank Park (73 sellouts in 2009) and soaring ratings on the team's regional TV network, the Phillies' payroll has grown from $88 million in 2006 to nearly $140 million this year. The front office has become as aggressive as the Yankees' in acquiring talent: Adding Roy Halladay to the rotation while trading Cliff Lee in December, says Rizzo, was "like swapping Kobe for Jordan." As Atlanta G.M. Frank Wren acknowledges, "I don't think anyone would say they aren't the team to beat."
Yet the Braves could give the Phils a scare this year if Heyward makes the kind of impact that Albert Pujols did when he broke into the league in 2001. Atlanta has a rising star in its rotation as well, righthander Tommy Hanson, 23, who went 11--4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts after being called up last June. "Jason and Tommy are tremendously talented, but what's impressive is the way they conduct themselves and go about their business day-to-day," says Braves reliever Pete Moylan. "In that respect they are well beyond their years."
The Marlins, who last year had the majors' lowest payroll but still finished second in the division, have a credible core in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, second baseman Dan Uggla and righthanders Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, as well as leftfielder Chris Coghlan, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year—and could make the next jump with big contributions from Morrison, Stanton or 23-year-old centerfielder Cameron Maybin.
On the other hand, it's hard to envision the creaky Mets, losers of 92 games a year ago, reestablishing themselves atop the NL East without Davis and Martinez arriving and thriving as everyday players. And the Nationals may still be years from contending, but they finally have a player to build around in Strasburg, who will start the season at Double A Harrisburg (Pa.).
The Phillies' recent run has not come without sacrifice. To land Halladay, Lee and Joe Blanton, over the past 20 months they parted with a raft of highly regarded prospects; now only two, outfielder Domonic Brown and righthander Phillipe Aumont, rank among Baseball America's top 100 prospects. Philadelphia may have the least impressive farm system in the division, but for now, at least, with homegrown stars Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels signed through 2011 and Chase Utley through '13—and with Halladay sewed up through '13, as well—it may not make a difference.
"They're a model in the way they developed their superstar core," says Rizzo. "There's a lot of young talent [in the division], but it's still hard to put together a core like that. Whoever can do that will establish themselves next in the division."
Photograph by TOM MIHALEK/AP
RAGING BULL As members of the Philly core, including the slugger Howard, reach their early 30s, the team is primed to win its fourth straight NL East title.