Most people who felt the NL East was anything but a two-team race as the 2008 season began thought it was the Braves that had a chance to keep pace with the Phillies and Mets. That didn’t prove to be the case. The Braves had a miserable season, finishing in fourth place and 20 games out of first.

It was the Florida Marlins that were in the thick of the race early in the season and they did more than keep pace. The Marlins led the East or had a piece of first place for 42 days in ’08 and led the division by a full three games after a win on May 11. Their record peaked at ten games above .500 — they were 30-20 on May 26. The Phils and Mets controlled the division from June on and the Fish went 54-57 after May 26 to finish the year at 84-77, which put them in third place and 7 1/2 games out.

The improvement for Florida was remarkable, however. Coming off of 71 wins in 2007, they improved their run differential by more than 100 runs. Here’s a look at the run differentials for the teams in the NL East for the past five seasons:

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In 2007, the Marlins allowed 891 runs and scored 790. They allowed 101 runs more than they scored. In 2008, they allowed 767 and scored 770, so they scored three more than they allowed. That’s a difference of 104 runs, which is the second-biggest improvement from the previous year for a team in the NL East in the past five years behind what the Mets did in 2006. In 2006, the huge improvement by New York shot them past the Phils and the Braves. In 2008, the huge improvement by the Marlins shot them past the Braves but still left them short of the Phils and Mets.

With offense down across the league, the Marlins scored 20 fewer runs in 2008 than they had in 2007. The difference in their pitching was huge — Marlins hurlers were charged with just 767 runs after allowing 891 runs the year before.

In 2007, Marlins’ relievers threw to a 4.05 ERA. In 2008 they threw to a 4.06 ERA. So the massive improvement was in large part due to what the starting pitching did. And the starting pitching for the Marlins is very young. The rotation for this year is penciled in as Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller — Nolasco is the oldest of the group and he turned 26 in December. Nolasco, Johnson and Volstad were all good last year, with Nolasco making the biggest contribution as he threw 212 1/3 innings with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.10 ratio. Anibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller both have a good chance to be fantastic — the Fish showed dramatic improvement last year with that duo combining to throw to a 5.77 ERA and a 1.62 ratio over 159 innings. If there’s good news for the rest of the division in the Marlins rotation, it’s that Scott Olsen, who was solid for the Marlins in 33 starts last year, was dealt to the Nationals over the winter in a deal that looks like a steal for Washington. The Marlins, however, look like they have more than enough arms to make up for the loss.

While the Marlin’s green line is creeping up closer to where the Mets and Phillies are (and where the Braves had been till last season), the question has to be whether the Marlins are ready to challenge the other teams in the NL East atop the division. I think the answer is no, not yet, for two reasons.

The first is that as much as the pitching is improving, it still has a long way to go. In 2008, only five NL teams, the Braves, Reds, Rockies, Nats and Pirates, allowed more runs than Florida.

The second is that they benefited from an electric offense in 2008 and chances are good that even if the rotation continues to improve the Marlins won’t be fifth in the NL in runs scored in 2009 like they were in 2008. Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham are gone and although neither were outstanding I would guess the Marlins will struggle to replace their production. I’d bet a lot against them having four infielders who hit at least 29 home runs again as well.

I think the thing to worry about is that there is a huge amount of young talent in Florida between all that starting pitching as well as offensive firepower that includes Hanley Ramirez, Cameron Maybin and Jeremy Hermida. That’s a whole lot of moving parts, but if they all got popping at the same time it would be a big problem for the Mets and the Phillies. I think it’s a little tough to predict that’s going to happen in 2009, though.

Finally, on what’s only a slightly related note, I feel I should remind all that the Fish are just a strange and surprising organization. In their 16 year history they have twice won the World Series, but never been closer to winning the NL East than they were in 2005 when they finished in third place, seven games behind the Braves (in 2003 and 1997, they finished second and went to the playoffs and won the World Series, but in each year they finished more than seven games out of first place). So you never know.

The Braves agreed to a one-year deal with Garret Anderson.

Charlie Manuel says something about the chances of Jason Donald and John Mayberry to make the team in this article, but I’m not quite sure I understand what it is.

The Phillies play the Pirates tomorrow. They have announced who will pitch in upcoming games.

MLB Network will be making a reality show about the Phillies bullpen which will debut in June.

Scott Eyre has had assets frozen as part of a federal investigation, which has caused financial problems for him.

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