It's not hard to tell that the NL East isn't going to be an easy breeze for the Phillies this year. The Nationals are serious contenders and not the joke of the league anymore, the Marlins are re-stocked and re-branded, the Braves haven't really changed a whole lot, and the Mets - well - they're the Mets.
Anyway, the NL East is most likely the most talented division in Major League Baseball. Sure the AL East has a lot of great talents, but it's not like the Orioles are going to stay in first place all year. Let's be real.
Every team in this NL East division has at least 20 wins. In fact, three of them are at 30 wins this season. The Nationals, Marlins, and Mets all have 30 wins and sit in 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the division, respectively.
So let's get to the point of this article. This division is pitching-heavy by all means. Despite the Phillies' injuries, they still have one of the best rotations on paper. They're entire pitching staff ranks 7th in the NL in terms of ERA with 3.80. In first are the Nationals, who have an MLB-best 2.95 team ERA. Right now I'm going to list, in order, of the top 5 pitchers in this division.
Cole Hamels (8-2, 2.81 ERA):
Call me biased, but King Cole has by far been the best starting pitcher in the NL East, the National League, and even Major League Baseball. Hamels became the first pitcher to 8 wins last Thursday, winning his fifth consecutive game. Hamels leads the NL in strikeouts with 80, but he is not far ahead of others. Although Hamels has a 5.52 ERA (9 earned runs in 14 2/3 innings) in his last two starts, his other 9 have proven that he is on track to have a career year. In 77 innings, Hamels has allowed 24 ER and holds a 1.04 WHIP. Hamels also 5th in the NL with strike outs per 9 innings with 9.35. Hamels is a free agent at the end of the season if the Phillies aren't able to sign him to a deal. He's said that he wants a long-term deal, preferably seven years, and it's well-known around baseball that Hamels will get paid big time wherever he signs.
Gio Gonzalez (7-1, 2.04 ERA):
Gio Gonzalez is a newcomer in the NL East. He spent the first four seasons of his big league career in Oakland before being dealt to Washington for four Nats prospects in December. The 27-year old lefty is surely making his presence known on the East Coast. In his first ten starts this season, Gonzalez has allowed more than three runs in one game just once. A four run outing against the Cubs for his Nats debut back on April 7. Since then Gonzalez has become dominant on the hill, holding opposing batters to a .156 average as well as a 0.94 WHIP. As of now, I would consider Gonzalez a Cy Young candidate, but it's just June. Gonzalez ranks in the top three in strike outs in the National League, having struck out 79 batters in 61 1/3 innings. Gonzalez's high pitch count in all of his starts have limited his innings count, but at the same time he has an offense that can keep the game in his favor after he leaves. With Gonzalez in the NL East now, he has only made this division's pitching even better.
Brandon Beachy (5-4, 1.87 ERA):
Ah, the Braves have a candidate in this list. The 26-year old Beachy is in his second full season as a member of the Braves' rotation and so far he has shown that he could be their Ace this year. With Tommy Hanson posting a near 4.00 ERA, Beachy has kept cool as the leader of this squad. Despite his 5-4 record, Beachy has allowed just 15 earned runs in 11 starts thus far. Leading all of baseball in ERA, Beachy sits third among the WHIP category with a 0.94 listing. Beachy has a low strike out number of 57 which gives him credit as a ground ball pitcher. Given barely any run support from a faltering Braves offense, Beachy seems to have been diagnosed with 2009 Cole Hamels Syndrome. Great pitching, no run support. The BBWAA doesn't factor wins into the voting process, so if Beachy can keep up the great pitching and low ERA and WHIP he could possibly be a candidate for the Cy Young Award. Felix Hernandez won it in 2010 with a 13-12 record and a 2.27 ERA.
Stephen Strasburg (6-1, 2.35 ERA):
In his first full season coming back from Tommy John Surgery, Strasburg is picking up where he left off. In 65 innings pitched, Strasburg has allowed just 17 runs while striking out 79 batters in 11 starts. Strasburg still maintains great velocity on his fastball and great command on that breaking curve ball that freezes hitters. With Strasburg as the Ace of the Nationals, all eyes are on his health. The 24-year old Strasburg is coming off of Tommy John Surgery and has a set 160 innings limit this year. At 65, he only has 95 innings left and it's only June second. If the Nationals want to be serious contenders they're going to have figure something out so that if they are in that position to blow open the NL East later on in the season, they'll have the arm of Stephen Strasburg to lead them.
R.A. Dickey (8-1, 2.69 ERA):
I had no idea R.A. Dickey was 37 years-old until I looked up his stats for this article. Wow is he having a career year right now. The knuckleballer has lead the New York Mets through the first two months of the season by deceiving hitters with his floater. Dickey, who is in his second full season in the Mets' rotation, has won three straight games and has a total of 30 strike outs in those last three. Although two of those teams are two of the worst teams in baseball, Dickey may be hitting a hot-streak at a great time for the Mets. I have never faced a knuckleballer, but I can see it on TV that it's not easy to hit. This is an advantage for Dickey, who is pitching to hitters who are used to seeing 95+ mph pitches. Sooner or later, the Mets will fall off out of contention. They may swim a bit longer up stream, but their injuries will catch up to them and they'll fall in a bad hole. Not to mention the fan base sucks in New York. But like Johan Santana, Dickey has no-hit capability. It's going to be interesting to see if the Mets will trade Dickey or not.
So you've read my choices for who I think are the Top Five Pitchers in the NL East. I want you to argue with me about this.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ErikSeyboldPHI.