There is never complete certainty in baseball. The Orioles and A's both made the playoffs last season, for instance, and no one saw that coming during spring training. But it's hard to imagine any scenario in which the National League East isn't won by the Phillies, Braves or Nationals in 2013.
Those three teams also should have a decided advantage in the race for the league's two wild-card spots. That's because there are two struggling franchises at the bottom of their division in the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, and the NL Central just lost the woeful Houston Astros, who are now in the American League.
Both Miami and New York have essentially punted next season. The Marlins spent top dollar last winter to bring in big-name free agents for their new ballpark and promptly imploded in 2012. So ownership ditched that plan, fired manager Ozzie Guillen and traded all of its best players -- Hanley Ramirez during the season and then Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto in a megadeal this month. What's left is basically an expansion team, though Miami has successfully gone that route before.
The Mets looked like they at least would try to remain competitive. They did win 74 games, after all, and were still in the playoff race at the All-Star break. They even signed star third baseman David Wright to a big contract earlier this month. And yet they then traded NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to Toronto for prospects. Maybe Johan Santana is healthy in 2013 and the talented young pitchers on staff improve. More than likely a painful rebuilding process has begun -- one the Nats, Phillies and Braves can take advantage of in 38 games each against Miami and New York.
- Brian McNally