It may seem strange that a man who goes by the name Chipper and still calls his father for advice on his swing could be considered an elder statesman, but that's exactly what Larry Wayne Jones, who turns 39 in April, has become. Over 16 mostly excellent seasons with the Braves, Jones has morphed from a smooth-faced rookie whose socks went almost to his knees to a stubbled veteran whose knees are an almost constant source of pain. Along the way he has become intimately familiar with what the NL East once was and what it is again: a pitching-dominated division that features an overwhelming favorite with a stellar rotation and a Braves team that's a strong contender to play in October.
What makes this season different is that those truths speak to two teams, not just Atlanta. "I've heard other comparisons to our staffs of the '90s over the years," Jones said when asked how the Phillies' Phab Phour starters of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels (page 66) stack up against the Braves units fronted by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. "This is the first one that's deserving of that."
But the formidable Philadelphia staff isn't the only thing that reminds Jones of days gone by. "The last four or five years we came to camp hoping to win," he says of his own club. "Now we come expecting to win. That's exactly how we used to be."
Since Dec. 15, the day Lee signed, the central question in the NL East has been, Can anyone beat the Phillies? There is reason for Jones to be optimistic, and not only because the Braves very nearly beat them last year. (Atlanta held a seven-game division lead as late as July 22 before injuries and a Philadelphia rotation fortified by the addition of Oswalt forced the Braves to settle for the wild card.) Slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, who has hit at least 27 home runs in each of his five major league seasons, was acquired from the Marlins to provide some much-needed righthanded pop. Uggla and a healthy Jones, who missed the last six weeks of 2010 with a torn left ACL, will make an offense that was fifth in the NL in scoring (4.6 runs per game) even more dangerous. The lineup will also benefit from the addition of Freddie Freeman, the 21-year-old first base prospect whose arrival was almost as anticipated as that of rightfielder Jason Heyward last year. Says manager Fredi Gonzalez, who takes over for the retired Bobby Cox, "There's nothing broke here."
Two days after losing to the Giants in the Division Series last October, the Braves hired Gonzalez to replace their managerial icon, who had led Atlanta since 1990 and guided them to 15 postseason appearances. Gonzalez had a 276--279 record in 31/2 seasons as the Marlins' manager from 2007 to '10, but dugout track record wasn't the main criteria G.M. Frank Wren used to judge candidates. Gonzalez, who was a Braves coach under Cox from '03 to '06, is familiar with the organization's culture and player-development philosophy and likely to create a smooth transition out of the Cox era. (Jones began urging Wren to hire Gonzalez as soon as the Marlins fired him last June.) "We feel like we've hired the next great manager," says Wren.
The Braves' effort to reclaim the NL East crown starts with the rotation. "We feel like our top four can match up with anybody," says Wren. "Anybody. Including... ."
He didn't finish that thought, but there is no doubt which club he meant. In Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens the Braves do indeed have a staff capable of striking fear into the hearts of opposing hitters. Last year Braves starters finished sixth in the majors in ERA, and that was with Jurrjens making just 20 starts due to hamstring and knee injuries. It was also Hanson's first full season in the majors and Hudson's first full season after Tommy John surgery.
Gonzalez's former club boasts a strong stable of starters as well. Young, deep and underrated, the Fish's rotation has not escaped the notice of opponents. "It was the kind of staff you'd sit around the clubhouse talking about with your teammates and say, Those guys are really good," says catcher John Buck, who says he chose the Marlins in free agency over other suitors largely based on the pitchers. "I worked with a young staff in Toronto and the ceiling is higher with these guys."
Josh Johnson, 27, who led the NL in ERA (2.30), is the unquestioned ace, but he is complemented by impressive youngsters Chris Volstad, 24, Anibal Sanchez, 27, and Ricky Nolasco, 28. "Sanchez has cartoon movement, Volstad's slider spreads the plate and Nolasco can paint the corners," Buck says.
There is young talent in the lineup too—especially 21-year-old rightfielder Mike Stanton, who hit 22 homers in 100 games as a rookie in 2010—but the Marlins may have to wait until revenue from their new ballpark (scheduled opening: '12) rolls in before they're ready to make a splash in the East.
It will take even longer for the Nationals, who, if they aren't quite ready to move out of the division's basement, have at least completed the first segment of the four-step building plan installed by G.M. Mike Rizzo when he assumed control midway through the 2009 season. "Phase 1 was stripping away what we had and attacking scouting and player development," Rizzo says.
Phase 2 is enhancing the major league roster through free agency. Rizzo certainly made a splash there, too, nabbing outfielder Jayson Werth in perhaps the most surprising signing of the off-season. To persuade Werth, who hit 27 home runs and an NL-high 46 doubles in 2010, to head south on I-95 from Philadelphia, Rizzo revealed Washington's long-term strategy. "I mapped out our one-, three-, and five-year plans, how we're building the foundation, improving our payroll flexibility and the players we have in our pipeline."
The pitch worked, though the seven-year, $126 million offer didn't hurt. "I see the same things here that I saw in Philly when I signed there," says Werth. "A core group of players that are highly talented."
No two players fit that description better than Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the heavily hyped phenoms Washington drafted with the No. 1 overall picks in the past two drafts. Neither, however, is likely to play a game for the Nats before September, if at all. Strasburg is still recovering from Tommy John surgery after a scintillating big league debut last summer (he went 5--3 with a 2.91 ERA and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings), and Harper, 18, will begin his first professional season at Class A Hagerstown.
There may not have been a more apropos scene all spring: one March morning new Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson cheerfully bounded from his golf cart at the team's facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., to clean up a mess his rescue dog, Buddy, had made on one of the pitching complexes. ("I guess he didn't like that pitcher," Alderson joked.) The well-respected former Marine and ex-G.M. of the A's inherited a franchise that is awash in scandal. Owner Fred Wilpon and his family are facing a billion-dollar lawsuit related to the Bernard L. Madoff Ponzi scheme. The roster is scandalous too, though the Mets deserve credit for ridding themselves this spring of expensive duds Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, who had little chance of earning their sizable paychecks.
Alderson insists that the Wilpons' financial problems haven't impacted his baseball decisions, but the fact remains that the Mets' biggest signing of the winter was ... Chris Young. The 6' 10" former Padres starter signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal. Even if he's healthy after shoulder problems limited him to just one April start and three in September last season—he went 2--0 with an 0.90 ERA—he won't offset the absence of ace Johan Santana, who will be out until June after undergoing shoulder surgery last September.
Only three NL teams averaged fewer than the Mets' 4.1 runs last season. Since the lineup returns largely intact, an increase in offense will depend on two players who struggled with injuries in 2010. Shortstop Jose Reyes, entering the last year of a five-year, $34.3 million contract, missed 29 games last season with thyroid problems and an oblique injury; his .321 on-base percentage was his lowest since 2005, and his 30 steals were his fewest in a full season. Jason Bay, New York's $66 million signing of December 2009, played 95 games and hit only six home runs before being lost for the year with a concussion in late July. Bay got back to work in Seattle in December, focusing on "eliminating some moving parts" in his mechanics in an effort to create a bat path that will restore some of his lost power.
Aside from a lack of power from the right side of the plate—other than David Wright (29), no New York righthanded hitter had more than 12 home runs last season—the Mets and the Phillies have little in common. Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel had to think for a minute when asked this spring to list the things his club needs. He came up with: 1) more right-handed pop (the Phils hit five fewer homers from that side than the Mets in 2010), 2) a fifth outfielder ... and that's it.
The Phillies are loaded—but there are more question marks than Manuel lets on. Age could be a concern: Three starters (Halladay, Oswalt and Lee) are older than 30. Injuries too: highly touted rookie outfielder Domonic Brown needed surgery to repair a broken hand during spring training and could be out until May. That was a freak injury, and Brown's long-term prognosis is still good. The same might not be true for second baseman Chase Utley. After a sprained thumb limited him to 115 games last year, Utley showed up in camp with patellar tendinitis and cartilage and bone inflammation in his right knee. He was likely to begin the season on the disabled list.
Losing Utley for an extended period would be a harsh blow for the Phillies, who were second in the NL in runs last year but now are missing Werth's big bat. Still, being able to trot out a starter who has either been a Cy Young winner or the MVP of a postseason series four out of every five games makes them heavy favorites. Even the Braves' Lowe conceded that the Phillies' four aces should prevent any sustained losing streaks. "I tell our players all the time: expectations are good," says Manuel. "It's fine with me. It's up to us to prove how good we are."
When asked what has been the most important factor in their four straight NL East titles, shortstop Jimmy Rollins shook his head and held up three fingers. "It's only been three," he said. He was reminded that, no, the Phils have finished first four straight times. Rollins paused and smiled. "Really?" he said. "Shoot, time flies. Guess this better be five then."
HOW THEY will FINISH
JASON HEYWARD, BRAVES
He received some MVP votes as a 21-year-old rookie, when he hit 18 home runs and had a .393 OBP and .456 slugging percentage despite a bothersome thumb injury. With a year's experience, Heyward should put up even better numbers in the middle of a potent Atlanta lineup.
ROY HALLADAY, PHILLIES
Even Cliff Lee concedes that Doc is first among equals in the Phillies' rotation: "He's the best; nobody can dispute that." Halladay is coming off a Cy Young season in which he led the league in wins, shutouts, complete games and K/BB while pitching a perfect game—and that no-hitter in the postseason.
DAVID WRIGHT, METS
For the Mets to have any hope of contending—and it's a very slim hope—they need one of their few stars who doesn't have injury or age concerns to play at his peak level. Until Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran can show they've rebounded from their injuries, Wright is the Mets' only serious power hitter.
ROOKIE TO WATCH:
FREDDIE FREEMAN, BRAVES
Just as they did with Heyward last year, the Braves will hand a crucial spot in their lineup to a rookie on Opening Day. Freeman earned it by batting .319 and slugging .521 with a .378 on-base percentage at Triple A Gwinnett in 2010. He's the early front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year.
STAR ON THE RISE:
MIKE STANTON, MARLINS
Florida is working to cut down on the 21-year-old's strikeouts—he whiffed 123 times in 100 games last year—but Stanton's power is unmistakable: 22 homers in 359 at bats. "In games he'll mishit balls and they'll still go 400 feet and be gone in 0.5 seconds," says teammate Gaby Sanchez.
STAR IN DECLINE:
CHASE UTLEY, PHILLIES
Utley is a five-time All-Star whose superstar credentials have been greatly underrated, but he played in only 115 games last season due to injury and could miss significant time this year with patellar tendinitis in his right knee. Even if does recover, he is 32 and a good candidate to regress.
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
The offense rolls early; Domonic Brown, John Mayberry Jr. or Ben Francisco flourishes in right; Phab Phour is as good as advertised; and there's another Philly parade next fall.
Cole Hamels regresses to his 2009 form, Ryan Howard still can't hit breaking balls, and Chase Utley misses much of the season. Even that may not keep them from the postseason.
Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are the new Nasty Boys, Chipper Jones and Martin Prado stay healthy, and the Braves challenge Philly for the NL East title.
Freddie Freeman is sent back to the minors, Derek Lowe repeats his first-half performance of a year ago rather than his second half, and the Braves fall into a wild-card dogfight.
Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco harness their potential while young regulars, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez and Mike Stanton, shine. Look out in 2012.
The young players are unreliable, Hanley Ramirez gets into another spat with his manager, and hurricane season delays construction on their new ballpark so it can't open in April '12.
Jayson Werth proves he can be the man in the middle of a lineup, and the Nats get out of the basement. Most important: Stephen Strasburg returns in September with his stuff intact.
Veteran starters Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis run out of gas, and Werth fails to become a lineup cornerstone. Worse: Bryce Harper gets hurt, delaying his D.C. arrival by a year.
Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay return to form and give the Mets a potent middle of the order, and the ragtag pitching staff keeps them in the race until Johan Santana returns in June.
Santana isn't himself when he returns, Reyes (free agent in '12) is dealt, players revolt against Terry Collins's intense style, and the Wilpons' financial woes handcuff the front office.
Photograph by BRAD MANGIN
CRASH COURSE The Phillies' Carlos Ruiz (51) and the Braves' Brian McCann will each catch a staff capable of putting on a pitching clinic.