You can make sensible arguments for the Phillies and the Braves being serious threats to the Nats' division title. Conversely, it is equally possible to find reasons for both teams to be utter disappointments. Hopefully the latter will prove correct. I will outline the justifications for each position below:
Never sleep on 'em. Three aces, two former MVPs, a healthy Chase Utley, and seven-time All Star Michael Young. The Phillies could be sneaky good. But then again you have the age, the Injuries, and the overall declining skill sets working against them.
Infield: this is where the Phils' fate could very well be decided. Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Young all have long and impressive careers. Howard is an MVP winner and three-time all star with four plus years of 40+ homers. He is also crushing the ball this spring training (but so was Jake Fox in 2011, who never saw the light of day during the regular season). Utley has dialed in 5 years with an OPS of 900+. He gets on base a ton, and still has some speed. He has also been healthy this spring, participating in his first full spring training in three years. Rollins brings in great defense and speed, and some flashes of power. Young has been a perennial all star, and only two years ago had the most hits (211) in baseball. There is a ton of potential in this infield. However, the Phils might need a time-machine to revive those sterling numbers. What's more troubling, is that each of these players have experienced either a serious injury risk, declining skill set, or both.
Howard had a dismal year in 2012. He was sidelined with an achilles tear for most of the season; and when he returned he was getting massacred by LHPs ( .197 / .244 / .382), putting him into platoon-split territory. What's more troubling about Howard is his declining power skills. His slugging percentages from 2009 - 2012: .571, .505, .488, .423. His sketchy defense also makes him a liability on the field. Utley's main problem has been injuries. He hasn't played a full season since 2009. Moreover his power and average have declined, though the OBP and walks will remain. He is healthy this spring, but he probably won't see another full season of at-bats as long as there's no DH position in the NL. Rollins has been the definition of "OK" since 2007 when he (undeservingly) won the MVP. His OPS has hovered around .720 the past four years which is almost exactly league average. Great defense, but little upside. Young is a conundrum. Two years ago he had the most hits in the Bigs; last year he was the worst full-time 3B in baseball with an OPS of .682 and a WAR of -2.4. Who knows if he'll bounce back. With all four of these guys, they are on the wrong side of the age curve (33+), so the odds of rebound years are low.
Outfield: Many many question marks. Ben Revere brings speed and nothing else. Granted, he did steal 40 bases in 49 attempts. But he offers zero power and mediocre OBP. Domonic Brown has been a major headache and disappointment in the Phils' farm system. The much-hyped prospect has fallen flat the past two years. Delmon young has some power left in the tank, but his paltry OBP of .296 and WAR of -1.1 neutralize that threat.
Hamels and Lee are aces. Period. Hamels was 8th in Cy Young voting with Ks, Wins, ERA, and WHIP to boot. He's a workhorse with great command, control, and strikeout potential. There's no reason to foresee a decline. Cliff Lee, while his ERA suffered from some bad luck, and his wins from no run support, is still an elite pitcher. Exhibit A: an incredible K/BB rate of 7.39 -- the league leader. Exhibit B: an eye-popping BB/9 of 1.9, also the league leader. The number one concern is of course Halladay. While he has been roughed up in spring training, the real concern is his sudden and drastic velocity drop (Buster Olney has written a great article on this). He normally sat around 90-91, but since coming back from his terrible 2012 campaign, he was clocking in at 82-85 and topping out around 87. If he has lost this much heat, his pitch placement needs to be immaculate for him to stay relevant. The downside is very concerning since his age and innings pitch seem to be catching up to his fundamental skill set.
Conclusion: The Phils 85 - 77 and just miss the last wild card spot. Threat Factor: 4.5.
The upside: freakishly talented outfield, lights out bullpen, strong batting lineup, and oh yea... Kris Medlen. The downside: inconsistency, big-time whiffers, and lack of clubhouse leadership.
The bullpen "O'Ventrel" (O'Flaherty, Venters, Kimbrel) is frightening. Kimbrel strikes out half of the batters he sees and has an inhuman K/9 of 16. He basically turns contests into 8 innings games. The rest of their bullpen shows few holes, so we'll need to look elsewhere.
The outfield has been hyped like crazy with the Uptons moving to Atlanta. Add Jason Heyward into the mix, and their outfield has elite power, speed, and defense. Heyward had a nice bounce-back year with an OPS of .814. He hit 27 homers and there's no reason to think he won't break 30 this year. B.J. Upton has shown promise in every skill set over the years. In 2007 his BA was .300 and an awesome OBP of .386, and last year he hit 28 dingers. But he has yet to put all of these skills together in a season. Last year his OBP was a dismal .298. His plate discipline has deteriorated -- He swung at 47% of first pitches, compared to the league average of 27%. For this reason alone I think the Braves seriously overpaid for BJ. Justin finished 8th in MVP voting in 2011 with an .898 OPS and 30+ homers. Last year he had a power outage with only 17 homers. Nonetheless his line of .280/.355/.430 is nothing to scoff at. One final wrinkle in the Justin Upton story is his departure from Chase Field. Upton's power was much more pronounced in home games due to the hitter friendly Chase Field. His road power was more "eh." Looking at his home/away split for slugging percentage -- .548 v. .406 -- there is reason to believe that his power will regress at the neutral / pitcher friendly Turner Field. Finally, there will be whiffs. Justin struck out 121 times, BJ 169 times, and Heyward 151 times. There is little evidence that Ks translate into poor run production. But I'm prone to think that so many Ks will become rally-killers, especially against Gio, Stras, Soriano who are all big time strikeout guys.
The infield is above average with Freeman, Uggla, Simmons, and Johnson, although the loss of Chipper at 3B will certainly sting. Uggla gets a ton of walks, but not much else anymore. Freeman has had two years of .795 OPS which is about average for first basemen. Simmons had a great minor league career but his MLB sample size is too small to draw any conclusions. Johnson is a big step down from Chipper, especially in OBP, but he does have a bit of pop.
The Braves' starting pitching is better than you'd think. Hudson, the grizzled vet, still has great control and his ground ball inducing skills are double the league average. However, he has troubling not getting tagged after the sixth inning and his age might be starting to show. Kris Medlen was absolutely dominant last year with a 10-1 record, 0.913 WHIP and 1.57 ERA. Granted a small sample size, but there's reason to fear Medlen. Mike Minor has been picked to be a sleeper in lots of fantasy leagues since his last three months he had an ERA of 2.14. Nonetheless, there's no reason to think he'll be more than a 2+ WAR pitcher. Maholm has great control but few strikeouts, he's perfectly serviceable as a fourth starter. And Brandon Beachy was dominant last year with a 2.00 ERA and tons of strikeouts before he was sidelined with Tommy John Surgery. This year he'll be out until July so his high upside will be blunted by that dreaded phrase we Nats fans despise -- INNINGS LIMITS!
The X factor in the Braves season to me is the loss of Prado, Chipper, and David Ross. Prado was absolutely demonic against the Nats the past year, tattooing our pitchers seemingly every at bat. His departure is a welcome event for us Nats fans. In Chipper the Braves lose a hall-of-fame hitter, a team leader, and another Nats-terrorizer (.306/.419./.444 last year against Washington). You might be asking yourself why I mentioned David Ross. Not only has the 36 year old turned in good numbers for a catcher, he was known in Atlanta as a humorous and calming presence in the clubhouse. This leadership will be missed by a team with so many young players, and potential hot-heads like B.J. Upton.
Conclusion: Braves - 95 - 67; First Wild Card winner. Threat Factor: 7.
Get ready for some great NL East rivalry baseball Nats Fans!!