Nats and Marlins rising in the East

How well Howard comes back from his Achilles injury will heavily impact the Phillies' offense. Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Last year, the National League East was a two-horse race, with the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves jockeying for position on the strength of deep starting pitching. The Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins were essentially afterthoughts, but each has made tremendous strides filling out their respective rosters and have nearly caught up to the Phillies and Braves. The NL East pennant race, save for the New York Mets, will be a much closer contest than most realize, and don't be surprised if Miami or Washington comes out on top. Here’s why:

Phillies ages and injury

Ryan Howard’s Achilles injury will be a major factor and will dictate the Phillies’ success. They need his home runs and RBIs and don’t have enough at first base and left field when he’s not in the lineup. Further, Chase Utley’s knees are questionable. Will he have power at the plate and range in the field? Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco are getting long in the tooth and could see more decline this season. As Jayson Stark writes today, this once great infield is fading.