NL East gearin' up to be one attractive division

You don't need to look at an atlas to find the center of the baseball universe this winter. There was more action in the thrill-a-minute National League East these last three months than there was on the Jerry Springer Show.

Jim Thome. Tom Glavine. Cliff Floyd. Mike Hampton. Bartolo Colon. Kevin Millwood. Mike Stanton. Pudge Rodriguez. Paul Byrd. Kevin Millar. David Bell. Russ Ortiz. Roberto Hernandez.

Every one of those luminaries was either coming to an NL East team this winter, or going. And all of a sudden, a division which has been won by the same team every year of its existence (guess who?) may now be the most fascinating division in baseball.

"Let's just say this," said Marlins GM Larry Beinfest the other day, after his team's stunning signing of Pudge Rodriguez. "We monitor the competition. And the competition in this division is terrific."

Ah, but only one team can win. So let's take a look at where everyone stands, with the help of two NL executives and several brilliant scouting minds:

The Braves
Coming: Three-fifths of the starting rotation (Hampton, Byrd, Ortiz), a new bullpen cast (Roberto Hernandez, Ray King, Mike Venafro) and a new first baseman (Robert Fick).

Going: Most of the old rotation (Glavine, Millwood, Damian Moss -- who won 48 games last year), most of the old bullpen (Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Tim Spooneybarger, Kerry Ligtenberg) and a couple of veteran supporting actors (Keith Lockhart, Wes Helms).

Biggest question: After reconstructive-population surgery, can the new Braves rotation carry this team the way a dozen previous Braves rotations always did?

"This whole run," said one NL scout, "has been built around the same guys -- Glavine, Millwood, (Greg) Maddux, the starting pitching. That was the one thing this team could always count on -- those guys. Now it's a whole new group -- Maddux, Hampton, Ortiz, Byrd. I don't know that there's a fear of the unknown there, but it sure is the unknown."

The verdict: The Braves think their rotation is deeper, their bullpen is fine and their offense will be better, with Fick at first, Gary Sheffield settling in for his second season in town and Javy Lopez chiseling himself into what's advertised as the best shape of his life. But not everyone is so sure.

"I don't see how you can say they're better," said one scout. "They could be close to the same. But better? I don't know. I'd take Glavine over Hampton. I'd take Millwood over Ortiz. And Byrd versus Moss might be a wash."

The Phillies
Coming: Thome. Millwood. Bell. Tyler Houston. Rookie center fielder Marlon Byrd. New pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.

Going: Travis Lee. Marlon Anderson. Jeremy Giambi. Doug Glanville. Robert Person.

Biggest question: For all the needs the Phillies addressed, the one they messed with least was a bullpen that blew the second-most saves in the league (24). They did bring back free agents Terry Adams and Dan Plesac, and they expect Turk Wendell to be healthy. But is this a championship bullpen, from closer Jose Mesa on down?

"I thought they'd do more out there," said one scout. "To me, they can only get by if they get a consistent six innings out of their starters. And even then, when Mesa comes in, hang onto your seats." But one NL exec says, "Their most important addition of all might have been Joe Kerrigan. I think that will have a big effect on their whole staff."

The verdict: The Phillies are the first team in history to add a 50-homer man and a pitcher coming off a season of 18 wins or more in the same offseason. But are they as much-improved in real life as they look on paper?

Assorted comments from our panel: "Most improved team in the league." ... "Millwood had No. 1-type stuff last year, but he's not a true No. 1 starter. He's a No. 2, with a chance to grow into a No. 1." ... "The guy I wonder about is Marlon Byrd. He didn't look ready last September. He was a little fat when he got to the big leagues, in more ways than one."

The Mets
Coming: New manager Art Howe. Glavine. Stanton. Floyd. Rey Sanchez. Tsuyoshi Shinjo.

Going: Edgardo Alfonzo. Rey Ordonez. Jeff D'Amico. John Thomson. Mark Guthrie. Steve Reed.

Biggest question: It's hard to pick just one question about this group, but the one we kept hearing from our panelists is: Will this team be any better defensively than the outfit that committed more errors (144) than any team in baseball last year and more than doubled the error total of the 1999 Mets (68)?

"They've got the worst defensive catcher in baseball (Mike Piazza)," said one NL exec. "They've got the worst defensive first baseman in baseball (Mo Vaughn). Robbie (Alomar) can be great, but it depends which one shows up. Shortstop is unsettled (with Sanchez bridging the gap to phenom Jose Reyes). Third base is unsettled. And in the outfield, all I know is, I bet Glavine is going to look around and see balls dropping in that outfield all year long and say, 'Boy, Andruw Jones catches that ball easy.' "

The verdict: Adding three guys of the talent and stature of Glavine, Stanton and Floyd can't be bad. Neither can subtracting the exasperating Ordonez. And it was just about unanimous that this group was so worn out by former manager Bobby Valentine that it can't help but respond to Howe. But all of our panelists still had major reservations about whether this team can win as constituted.

A smorgasbord of comments: "Despite what they did, I don't see a lot of difference from a year ago. I'm not sure the whole is as good as the individual parts." ... "They've still got more questions than the Braves and Phillies. Their pitching should be OK. But they need more from Vaughn and Alomar. And they need to do something about third base." ... "They'd have to have a lot of things fall into place. I don't think they're done making their moves. I hope not -- because if they're done, they are done."

The Marlins
Coming: Pudge Rodriguez. Juan Pierre. Tim Spooneybarger. Todd Hollandsworth.

Going: Kevin Millar. Charles Johnson. Preston Wilson. Julian Tavarez. Eric Owens. Tim Raines.

Biggest question: What the heck is Pudge Rodriguez doing here?

"The thing I don't get," said one scout, "is if you're going to spend that kind of money on a guy who probably can't put you over the top, why give him a no-trade clause? You see where you're at on July 20, and if you're not in it, get some players back for him. This way, you get one year, and then he walks and you can't even get a draft pick. And I can't figure why they gave him the money they did. He had nothing else close to $10 million. They should have been able to dictate the terms to him if that's where he really wanted to be -- not the other way around."

The verdict: There will be times these Marlins are no fun to play, because they still run some great young arms out there. But this is still a team with no left-handed thump, unless Hollandsworth mounts the first 500-at-bat and 20-homer seasons of his career. And those great young arms still seem to break more hearts than bats.

Our panel's view: "The only way they can score enough runs is if they're the '83 Cardinals, with (Luis) Castillo and Pierre running wild on the bases." ... "I like their young arms, but it's about time to get better. You can only be prospects for so long. If they develop, watch out. But it ain't no secret that Pudge isn't the catcher you want to develop a pitching staff."

The Expos
Coming: Orlando Hernandez. Jeff Liefer. Rocky Biddle. Excellent tanning opportunties in San Juan.

Going: Bartolo Colon. Matt Herges. Andres Galarraga. Troy O'Leary. Chris Truby. Masato Yoshii.

Biggest question: Can the Expos get enough out of El Duque, Liefer and Biddle that they won't spend every day of the season wondering what might have been had they been able to keep Colon?

"Liefer has definitely got power, and Biddle has a good arm," said one scout. "But I'm just not sure they're long-term guys -- guys you build around. I'd bet they're not going to have much to show for this deal in a year. You just don't replace guys like Colon. He's a huge loss. How many games are his replacements going to win? Eight? Ten? I have my doubts about El Duque. I wouldn't bet on him winning 10 games."

The verdict: The Expos were the surprise of the division last year. But minus Colon, our panel saw no way to project them any higher than third: "They won't win 83 games again. They'd be happy with 75." ... "They've still got talent. (Jose) Vidro is great. (Vladimir) Guerrero is great. And they always play hard. But no matter who they've still got, I can't see them being as good without Colon." ... "Montreal and Florida are the same teams they've always been -- dangerous, teams you don't want to play. But when it's all said and done in September, they're not going to be in the hunt. Just not enough there."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.