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Braves can compete for N.L. East title
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After a long winter of hibernation, Major League Baseball's regular season is only a week away.
Last season, the Braves spent much of the season hanging around the .500 mark only to make a late charge at the Wild Card that fell just a few games short.
This season, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Braves can get over the hump and return to the postseason that has eluded them for the past four years.
As many die-hard baseball fans will tell you, pitching wins championships. If that is true, then Atlanta has to be considered a threat.
Jair Jurrjens has proven himself as an ace over the past two seasons. Jurrjens was good for a well above average ERA of 2.60 in 2009 and has been the Braves' most reliable starter since 2008.
Right behind him is young fire-baller Tommy Hanson. An 11-4 record in right around two-thirds of a season in the majors should have all Braves fans itching to see what he can do with a full load of work this year.
Tim Hudson returned from arm surgery at the end of 2009 and looked to be fully healed. He has had some great starts so far in spring training, and should be a lock for 20-30 starts this year.
Rounding out the starting rotation will be Kenshin Kawakami - who has shown spots of brilliance - and Derek Lowe, who will be looking to improve from a serviceable - but below average - showing last season.
Key for the Braves will be the health of the middle of the order. Emerging rookie Jason Heyward looks like a one-man wrecking crew so far, but will need help over the course of a 162-game schedule.
Though nearing the end of the road, Chipper Jones remains one of the biggest threats in the league - if he can stay on the field. Chipper has played more than 140 games in a year just once since 2004, but will need to stay healthy for the Braves to compete with the other potent lineups in the division.
On paper, the Braves look like they could be a 90-win team, but there are plenty of other contenders in the N.L. East, including...

Florida Marlins
Though the Marlins lack the star power of most playoff-caliber teams, Florida always seems to hang around the top of the standings.
Returning N.L. Rookie of the Year Chris Coughlan will set the table ahead of Cody Ross, Dan Uggla, and Hanley Ramirez - all of whom smacked over 20 home runs last year.
On the mound, the Marlins have one of the most underrated players in the game in Josh Johnson. The 25-year old compiled a 15-5 record in 2009 and should contend for the Cy Young this season.
Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad and Ricky Nolasco also provide good young arms - all are 26 years old or younger - to a team that surely thinks it can finish at the top of the division.

Washington Nationals
By far the weakest team in the division, but also taking the biggest steps forward, is the Nationals.
Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham form a solid core at the heart of Washington's lineup, but the rest of the order's lack of ability to get on base hurt the offense last season and will continue the trend this year.
The starting rotation will look pretty weak on opening day, but - if all goes according to plan - the Nats could have a very imposing stable of hurlers by the summer.
John Lannan will be the only pitcher of high quality on staff to begin the season, but May figures to bring the 22-year old force of nature that is Stephen Strasburg to town. Strasburg has been overpowering this spring, but will start the year in Double-A ball to fine tune some things before making his debut.
Also waiting to return is Jordan Zimmermann, who was impressive as a rookie last season before sitting out the final months with an injury.
As young prospects like Jesus Flores and Justin Maxwell improve in the next two years, this team could bring some more hope and change to D.C.

New York Mets
Everything that could go wrong did for the Mets last season.
Injuries piled on top of injuries, and it was all that New York could do to keep a five-man rotation together by the end of the season.
Starting pitching will again be a concern in 2010. Johan Santana figures to be one of the best pitchers in the league and can contend for a Cy Young, but the rest of the rotation raises serious questions. Mike Pelfrey and John Maine have loads of talent, but have been models of inconsistency over the past two seasons.
Offensively, some returning bats could take a lot of pressure off of the pitchers.
After missing over two-thirds of last season, Jose Reyes should be ready for opening day. Carlos Beltran - who toughed out 81 games in 2009 - is still hobbled by a bad knee, but should return sometime before the end of May.
As easy as it is to write off the Mets, this is still a dangerous team that was three outs away from a pennant just four years ago. Since then, New York would have grabbed two more division titles if not for...
Philadelphia Phillies
In three years, the Phillies have evolved from come-from-behind division champs, to upstart World Series winners, to certified National League juggernaut.
Postseason hero Cliff Lee has departed, but he is replaced by Roy Halladay - arguably the best pitcher in baseball over the last five years.
Even if opponents can scratch out some runs, getting the Phillies out is opening up another can of worms.
Chase Utley (31 HR, 93 RBI in '09), Ryan Howard (45 HR, 141 RBI), Raul Ibanez (34 HR, 93 RBI), and Jayson Werth (36 HR, 99 RBI) make up a modern-day Murderer's Row that no pitcher can look forward to facing.
All in all, the Braves can hang in there with consistency and solid pitching, but it will be tough to supplant the Phillies as champs this season.
This sports writer's thoughts on how things shake out:


Play ball!

Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.