1. NEW YORK METS: The trade of Lastings Milledge was unforgivably dumb, and they've got big problems at catcher and in the corner outfield spots (Angel Pagan started in left in the Mets' opener yesterday). There are also questions in the rotation - fifth starter Mike Pelfrey has done little in the minors to prove he's ready, and who knows what they'll get from Pedro Martinez. The core of this team, though, is so strong - David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and the newly-acquired Johan Santana can hang with any other team's best four players - that New York should be able to hold off the Phillies and Braves. If one of those four goes down for any extended period, though, all bets are off.
2. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: Another team with a very strong core and a questionable supporting cast. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels are obviously great, but Hamels isn't a great bet to stay healthy. Which could be a big problem, since rotation depth is an issue - their third starter is Jamie Moyer, which tells you most of what you need to know. They've got some dubious players (like Pedro Feliz) in key roles and don't have a lot of minor-league talent that's likely to help anytime soon.
3. ATLANTA BRAVES: ESPN.com's pick of the Braves to win the World Series was a bad joke, but Atlanta is an interesting team, and they could sneak into the playoffs if the houses of cards the Mets and Phillies have built fall down. Like those teams, they have problems at the back of their rotation (Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine won't scare anyone, and it's too early to expect much from Jair Jurrjens). Unlike New York and Philadelphia, though, the Braves have decent contingency plans (including Jo Jo Reyes and Chuck James, both of whom will start the year at Class AAA Richmond). What they lack is serious star power - there's Mark Teixeira, Chipper Jones, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, but Jones and Smoltz are big injury risks.
4. WASHINGTON NATIONALS: Not a great team by any stretch, but I'm going to make a point to watch 10 or 15 Nationals games this year. I watched maybe only five last year, and didn't really appreciate Manny Acta's awesome managing until I read the Nationals chapter in Baseball Prospectus 2008. Look at the Nationals' pitchers last year - it's stunning that they only allowed 783 runs, even in RFK. Only one pitcher threw more than 118 innings, and the Nats relied on so many no-name pitchers that looking at their staff can make you feel if you accidentally clicked on a Columbus Clippers page or something. Acta was a big part of the Nationals' overachieving, in that he used his relievers often and well and relied on unusual infield shifts, taking advantage of Ryan Zimmerman's outstanding range at third. Acta will have to pull off another zany high-wire act this year, but he'll have a couple more talented outfielders to work with (Milledge and Elijah Dukes), and Nick Johnson is back as well.
5. FLORIDA MARLINS: Almost as bad as the Giants, but in a different way. Sure, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller are interesting, and they've got some other talented youngsters in Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Jeremy Hermida, but what else is there? Their starting pitching, which looked so promising after 2006, completely came apart in 2007, and now they're starting the year with a four-man rotation that includes Miller (who isn't ready yet), Mark Hendrickson (terrible), Rick VandenHurk (6.83 ERA last year) and Scott Olsen (5.81 ERA last year). Their defense is a disaster. They'll score some runs, but will give back far more with their arms and gloves. This is probably a 100-loss team.