Because the Nationals and Braves each made the playoffs last season and the Phillies went 81-81, and because the Nationals (Denard Span and Dan Haren) and Braves (B.J. Upton) each made high-profile acquisitions this offseason while the Phils made less explosive moves, there is a perception that the Phillies remain the third-best team in the NL East.
Is that necessarily the case though, as we sit here in mid-January? The Nationals are out to prove theyre now the class of the division, as years of drafting at the top of the first round have left them with a good, young nucleus. Additionally, GM Mike Rizzo has made smart decisions to acquire pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard and catchers Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki. There could be more help on the way if Mike Morse is dealt.
But the Braves, as presently constructed, dont look too much better than the Phillies. A quick glance at Atlantas rotation shows one that is at least slightly inferior to the Phillies. Its Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan vs. Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and probably Julio Teheran. Brandon Beachy is due to return around July from Tommy John surgery.
Defensively, the Phillies are stronger at the four most important positions: behind the plate, at second base, shortstop and centerfield. The Braves hold advantages at first, third and both outfield corners.
The Braves bullpen is certainly better, as Atlanta has two righties (Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden) and two lefties (Jonny Venters, Eric OFlaherty) who can all be extremely difficult to hit.
But offensively? If you think the Braves bats are much better, you must not have looked at Atlantas roster recently.
Chipper Jones is retired, which is meaningful given the fact that he had the third-highest on-base percentage and seventh-highest OPS of any major-league third baseman last year. Catcher Brian McCann is doubtful for the start of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery in early December (though this report came out three hours after this paragraph was written). Upton will add power, but its a minimal upgrade since it came at the expense of Michael Bourn.
If McCann can't go in early April, replacing him will be Gerald Laird, because Atlanta was unable to bring back its solid offensive backup backstop, David Ross. Laird has hit .231 with a .628 OPS the last four years.
Atlantas third base situation is more complicated. Juan Francisco, a 25-year-old who displayed power in the minors but has just 386 major-league plate appearances in four seasons, is tentatively set to start against right-handed pitchers. Against a lefty starter, the current setup would have Martin Prado shift from left field to third base and Reed Johnson a lefty-killer play the outfield. Either way, the Braves will be losing plenty of the production they received from Jones.
The Phillies lineup could very well be better than Atlantas. The Phils have their own questions in the outfield, of course but they figure to have healthier versions of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, and Michael Young will be an offensive upgrade to what Placido Polanco offered early last season.
If the Phillies dont sign or trade for another outfielder, theyll open the season with unknown quantities in both corners and a below-average offensive catcher while Carlos Ruiz waits out his 25-game suspension.
But the Braves projected 5-6-7-8 is Dan Uggla, Francisco, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Laird.
Uggla hit .220 last season and slugged just .384 because the 33 homers he hit per season from 2007-11 dropped to 19.
Simmons, a 23-year-old former second-round pick that Atlanta refused to include in potential trades for Justin Upton, has the skills to be a .290 hitter with 10-12 homers and 35 doubles. But hes played only 49 games in the bigs and probably wont be at that level as soon as 2013.
The Phillies hold offensive advantages at second base, third base and shortstop. The Braves are better with the bats in centerfield and rightfield. In left, the combo of Prado and Johnson should be better than what the Phillies trot out, but thats assuming Domonic Brown and Darin Ruf don't produce the way the organization thinks they can.
The catching situation is a wash because both teams will likely be without their starters on April 1 in Atlanta, and Ruiz and McCann are now at about the same offensive level -- albeit with Ruiz trending upward and McCann trending down. At first base, Howard and Freddie Freeman are also nearly even, since Howard has more power but Freeman gets on base more and strikes out less.
Looking at the totality of these two rosters, the talent levels are about even, if not slightly favoring the Phils. And the Braves 2012 record with a much different lineup doesnt give them an advantage.
Even without making massive offseason upgrades the Phillies should be able to climb back ahead of Atlanta, barring more medical catastrophes, of course.
E-mail Corey Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org