Why the cash-strapped, injury-plagued Mets are gaining ground in the National League East

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Chase Utley. (mlb.com)
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Not only have the Mets owners staved off a financial reckoning (for now, anyway), but there's some reason for optimism on the field, too.

No, not because of the Mets, who are still without David Wright, are backing off of their projection to have Johan Santana pitch Opening Day, and generally suffer from the kind of depth issues that tend to manifest themselves rudely over the course of a long baseball season.

It's because their opponents in the National League East, which was shaping up as the toughest division in the league, are having problems, too. 

The Philadelphia Phillies, winners of 102 games last year, may be without most of its projected infield for the start of the season. Chase Utley, the team's stellar second baseman, played in just 103 games last year due to a knee injury. That knee has not healed, and ominously, Utley has been shut down with pain in his other knee as well. The team's general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., called him doubtful for Opening Day.

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Utley's partner on the right side of the infield, first baseman Ryan Howard, has not progressed as hoped in his return from a terrible achilles injury sustained on the final play of Philadelphia's season last year. According to Jimmy Rollins, the one healthy member of Philadelphia's infield, Howard isn't likely to return before June at the earliest.

With Placido Polanco, the third baseman, also slow to return from sports hernia surgery, Philadelphia could find itself even more reliant on the starting pitching of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. That's an awfully good basis for success, but it also means the Phillies are quite vulnerable to any pitching injury.

As for the Atlanta Braves, last season's second-place team in the division, Jon Heyman reported that everything has gone wrong this spring, from Atlanta's struggle to find a fifth starter, to the struggles of prospect Tyler Pastornicky, who the Braves are relying on to play shortstop. Chipper Jones has suggested he won't make it through the season, and the hyped prospect Jason Heyward, who struggled with injuries last year, hasn't looked great this spring, either.

The Florida Marlins, the division's most-improved team on paper, could be without the most powerful slugger in the division, Giancarlo (formerly Mike) Stanton for a while due to a knee injury that isn't healing. An offense that lacked depth beyond starss Stanton, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez would be further tested.

The Washington Nationals, whose young talent has made them a relevant factor in the division, just lost starter Chien-Ming Wang to a hamstring injury he sustained by tripping over first base. He'll be out for at least two weeks. And Mike Morse, one of baseball's biggest breakout stars last year with 31 home runs, has been shut down with a lat injury, and no timetable yet for his return.

Given that even if everything goes right for the New York Mets, they're still probably the fifth-best team in the National League East, their rivals' misfortunes may give them some hope of hanging in there for a while. After all, every loss by the team they're chasing helps just as much as a win.