The Braves are the Phillies' chief competition in the NL East, and honestly, they're really the only team in the division that has a chance to knock them off when you consider the Nationals have no identity or pitching, the Mets are in rebuilding mode trying to shed the horrible contracts given out by Omar Minaya, and the Marlins...well, the Marlins have gone through their near bi-annual tradition of blowing up their team and starting over. The Braves are the only team in the NL East aside from Philly that is poised to make a run for the World Series right now. I'm not going to do a player by player breakdown, because that would be unnecessary and time consuming. But I will take a broad look at the teams and how they match up.
When it comes to starting pitching, the Phillies obviously have a huge advantage. That top four is amazing, no doubt about it. It's closer than you may think, however. The Braves' top three starters (Hanson, Hudson, Lowe) contributed 9.7 WAR (Fangraphs) last year. The Phillies' top three (Halladay, Lee, Hamels) contributed 17.5 WAR. There's a huge disparity there yes, but you need to take into account that Lowe didn't start pitching like the Derek Lowe of old until September. Lowe was also not even lined up to be the Braves' third starter this season, an honor that was supposed to go to Jair Jurrjens until he began to deal with injury and ineffectiveness all season. But I'll wave the white flag on this one. The Phillies' starting rotation is better (obviously). But the Braves aren't chopped liver.
Now, we go to the bullpen. The Braves completely retooled back here, bringing in Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill to beef up the "veteran leadership" category, joining holdovers Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel. If only someone would lock Scott Proctor in a broom closet somewhere...now, to the Phillies. Philadelphia's bullpen is anchored by the Jekyll and Hyde of baseball, Brad Lidge, and a man who's been dubbed "future closer" for what seems like forever, Ryan Madson. The meat of Philly's bullpen is filled with retreads like Jose Contreras, Dennys Reyes, and the awful, terrible Danys Baez. The last two spots will be filled by a couple of kids, like Antonio Bastardo and Scott Mathieson. Comparing the two bullpens, Philly's seems more like one where no one outside of Lidge and Madson have defined roles. Anyone can pitch whenever, though they might not get the job done too effectively. The Braves have a very regimented system (or at least they should), but maybe I only feel that way because I write about this team every day. Kimbrel is the closer, Venters is his main set up man, Moylan is a DP machine ROOGY, Sherrill is the LOOGY, O'Flaherty is the LOOGY who won't run your team off a cliff if he faces a righty...everything seems a lot more clear and definted in Atlanta. That might not be the best thing in the world when you have a relatively inexperienced manager like Fredi Gonzalez running the team, but we'll see once March rolls out. Advantage, Braves.
In looking at the offense, we'll break things down into three categories: infield (including catcher), outfield, and bench. We'll start in the infield, where the Phillies return the same four men from last year, all of whom are a year older and shifting out of their prime: Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. Rollins, Utley, and Howard were superstars at their peak, but it's looking more and more like the only one that could return to that form is Utley, with Rollins and Howard both in freefalls since their MVP wins, Rollins due to injuries and Howard due to having old player skills (that are apparently worth $125 million in Amaro-land). The Braves aren't without their own questions, though. Chipper Jones is a dynamic star when healthy (which is never), Alex Gonzalez was pretty bad after coming over from Toronto in July, Dan Uggla finally was the king of the NL 2B mountain last year and will start his first season in Atlanta looking for a contract extension, and Freddie Freeman is the great unknown, the rookie looking to make an impact. As much as it pains me to admit, the Philles' infield is probably better than the Braves'. We don't know what we're getting out of Freeman yet, and we don't know how well Chipper will play from his torn ACL. As good as Uggla is, he can't carry the entire infield on his back. Behind the plate, Brian McCann is the best catcher in the National League, and Carlos Ruiz has had one good season in his career. Go with the younger guy who's done it longer. Three sentences is enough when talking about each team's catchers.
But in the outfield, we have a switch in the balance of power. The Phillies had Jayson Werth patrolling right field for three great seasons. He's gone to the nation's capital, and the Phillies are replacing him with rookie Domonic Brown, who they apparently want to platoon with Ben Francisco. The other two Phillies' outfielders are Raul Ibanez, who looked completely shot last season, and Shane Victorino, who's apparently trying to change himself from a speedy center fielder into a home run hitter. The Braves have not only the best outfielder on either team, but the best hitter in Jason Heyward. Martin Prado is a good hitter who is untested in left field, and Nate McLouth started the year horribly before showing signs of life late. Advantage goes to the Braves, especially if the McLouth that came to play in September shows up in April.
Finally, the bench. The Braves have one of the best in the league, with David Ross, Eric Hinske, and Joe Mather taking care of business. The other two spots are open for competition between Brooks Conrad, Diory Hernandez, and a host of center field options in Gwinnett. The Phillies don't really care about their bench much, with guys like Francisco, Ross Gload, and Brian Schneider on it. The advantage goes to the Braves in this one, just because Ross could start on half the teams in the league, and Hinske is one of the best pinch hitters in baseball.
So where does that leave us? The Phillies have a huge advantage in starting pitching, and a slightly smaller one when it comes to the starting infield. The Braves have a much better bench and bullpen, and a better outfield as well. It will all come down to injuries and luck in this race. If Chipper Jones can play in 130 games, Nate McLouth and Derek Lowe play like they did in September, and Jair Jurrjens play like they did in September, the Braves have a real shot at taking this race. But on the other hand, if the Phillies declining stars have one last gasp of greatness, they're going to be real tough to beat. It's close on paper, and we'll have to wait until the season starts at the end of March to see what is going to happen.