The perception, at least nationally, is that the Phillies are the third-best team in the NL East. But upon further examination of a weakened Braves roster, is that really the case?
Compare these two sets of regulars:
McCann, Freeman, Uggla, Andrelton Simmons, Juan Francisco, Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Martin Prado.
Defensively, the Phillies have advantages at catcher, second base and centerfield, three of the four most important defensive positions. At short, Rollins continues to make practically every play every year, though Simmons could be the next great defensive shorstop. We'll call it even since Simmons has 49 games of major-league experience.
Offensively, the Phillies hold advantages at second base, shortstop and third base. The Braves are better in all three outfield spots. First base? Let's call it a wash ... Ryan Howard obviously has more power than Freddie Freeman, but Freeman gets on base and strikes out less.
Ruiz and McCann are nearing the point where they are similar offensively. Ruiz is trending upward and McCann is headed in the opposite direction. Both will miss the start of the season -- Ruiz with a 25-game suspension, and McCann as he recovers from December shoulder surgery. (Though this report was published shortly before our post.)
If the Braves don't make another big signing or trade, they'll really feel the affect of Chipper Jones' retirement. They'll go from having the third baseman with the 3rd-best OBP in the majors in 2012 and the 7th-best OPS, to Juan Francisco. In games against lefties, Atlanta is projected to shift Prado from LF to 3B and start Reed Johnson in the outtfield.
Upton was a splash move for the usually stingy Braves, but it came at the expense of Michael Bourn, making it a minimal upgrade if it's even one at all. We're looking at a likely 5-6-7-8 of Uggla, Francisco, Simmons and Gerald Laird, McCann's backup/early-season replacement who's hit .231 with a .628 OPS the last four years.
Starting pitching-wise, the Phillies have an advantage. It's Hamels-Lee-Halladay-Kendrick-Lannan vs. Tim Hudson-Kris Medlen-Mike Minor-Paul Maholm-Julio Teheran. The Phillies' first three is much better than the Braves' first three (unless you believe Medlen is a true-talent 1.80 ERA pitcher), and the difference in No. 4 and 5 starters is minimal. Brandon Beachy should return from Tommy John surgery for the Braves in mid-July, but who knows what kind of impact he'll make.
Bullpen? Clear edge to Atlanta, which now has two very good righthanded and lefthanded options in Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
But these teams are much closer than many may think, and the Phillies' offense has the chance to be better than the Braves', barring another rash of injuries.
The Braves' 2012 record with a completely different lineup has little bearing on how the teams will fare this season.