Baseball's best pitcher

When healthy, Josh Johnson has the stuff to be the best pitcher in the NL East. Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Last season, the Philadelphia Phillies had it easy in the National League East. Only in the American League Central, where the Detroit Tigers were the lone team to finish above .500, did a division winner enjoy a wider margin of victory than the 13 games that separated the Phillies from the Atlanta Braves. However, the defending division winners appear vulnerable this season, and no NL East team can expect to cruise to a title.

Baseball Prospectus projects the division's first- and last-place teams to be separated by just nine games, the second-smallest range after the NL West's eight-game differential. Things look even tighter at the top, where the Phillies and Miami Marlins are projected to tie, with the Braves trailing by only one game. In no other division is a third-place team projected to finish fewer than four games behind the leader.

The NL East is the only division aside from the perpetual powerhouse AL East to feature three teams that have at least a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs. With such a small spread between teams, the performance of a single player could mean the difference between third place and a playoff berth.

Each contender is depending on at least one prominent position player with a spotty health history -- Chase Utley for the Phillies, Jose Reyes for the Marlins, Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward for the Braves -- but a pitcher, Miami's Josh Johnson, might play the most pivotal role. Four of the NL's seven best projected starting rotations hail from the East (see chart), and the Marlins' continued membership in that group hinges on keeping him healthy because, on a per-batter basis, no starting pitcher has been more dominant than Johnson over the past three seasons.