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There's a saying in football, one popular among coaches, that "Iron Sharpens Iron." In other words, the better the competition faced the better a team or individual may become.

In baseball, especially a Major League 162-game season, too much iron can lead to a deficiency.

It's a problem facing the Atlanta Braves as they attempt to win a fourth consecutive National League East title.

Put simply, division rivals have put the Braves on notice that the East will be a bloodbath this year. The Mets, Nationals and Phillies all seem well equipped to challenge for a title and the young Marlins, don't forget, made the postseason a year ago.

Win projections are all over the place, but most see the East as the tightest of the six divisions. Both Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports have the Braves, Mets and Nationals within six games, with the Phillies fourth with a winning record. The teams will play 19 games against each other (76 total), nearly half of the regular season.

That's great news if you're the Cardinals or Cubs in the woeful NL Central, where most projections have 85 games winning the title. Even in the West, where the wealthy Dodgers and big-spending Padres are championship material, the Diamondbacks, Giants and Rockies could each lose 90 games.

In other words, NL Central and West contenders have the luxury of resting regulars more often and can still count on winning 80% of games against the bottom feeders. That's an easy 40 to 45 wins. Even if the Dodgers and Padres split their remaining 102 games that's 90-plus wins.

Who are the Braves going to be able to cruise against in the East? Maybe it is the Marlins, but consider the Fish have, in some regards, the deepest group of starters in the division, going seven or eight deep and they are all young.

The Phiilies have, on paper, the worst staff, but the bullpen has been replenished and the lineup is plenty stout with fan favorite Bryce Harper, J.T. Reamulto, Rhys Hoskins and Didi Gregorius. Can they feast on the Nats, who, you remember, can trot out Max Scherzer, a supposedly healthy Stephen Strasburg and steady Patrick Corbin in any three-game set and have added former all-star first baseman Josh Bell and power-hitting outfielder Kyle Schwarber to an offense that already includes superstar Juan Soto?

How about the Mets? Well, there's Cy Young favorite Jacob deGrom to deal with in most any series. Noah Syndergaard is projected to return this year and Marcus Stroman is healthy after a lost season to join newcomer Carlos Carrasco in the rotation. ESPN calls the Mets lineup the league's best after the addition of shortstop Francisco Lindor. That may be a reach, but either way it's above average.

Add the fact the team plays four games against the powerful Yankees (projected for 95-100 wins), three vs. the World Series runner-up Rays, six against the young, talented Blue Jays and four against the heavy-hitting Red Sox and it gets tougher.

In a season where making the wild card round means likely having to win a game against the Padres, Mets or Nationals, so winning the East for the Braves is a must. The team, with a healthy Mike Soroka joining young ace Max Fried, even younger Ian Anderson and newcomers Drew Smyley and Charlie Morton, and a power-laden lineup is equipped to win playoff series.

The key to any division title this year will be managing innings. While the Braves have plenty of youth in the rotation, planning for anyone to get 30 starts is foolish and risky after a season in which Fried was the only Atlanta pitcher to go more than 40 innings. Having more games against bad teams would allow more rest for the usual starting five, and the Braves still get to play the Pirates, Rockies, Giants and Orioles. Just not as often as other contenders in other divisions.

This will be manager Brian Snitker's toughest season to navigate. He was able to get through last season despite numerous pitching potholes — losing Soroka to injury and projected starters Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels to opt outs and Mike Foltynewicz to his inevitable meltdown. It was a remarkable achievement, especially considering hopefuls like Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright were more bad than good.

Snitker and pitching coach Rick Kranitz have to find 162 starts. Even if they can somehow get 25 starts out of the front five, that leaves 37 starts. Get only 20 starts out of each and that number soars to 62, a third of the season. Then you, hopefully, have to plan for postseason starts.

And you have to stay healthy. When is the last time that's happened? Even in last year's 60-game season the Braves employed 13 different starting pitchers. Thirteen were used in 2019, 11 in 2017 and 15 in 2016. The last really steady season was 2014 when three pitchers, Julio Teheran, Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana, each had 30-plus starts and two others, Mike Minor and Alex Wood, had a combined 47.

When we look back on this season, if a fourth NL East title is to be had, the real MVPs of the season may be the group of Bryce Wilson, Kyle Wright, Newcomb, Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Muller and Patrick Weigel. Or it may be a late-season pickup or two.

The Braves are good, no doubt. The East is a beast. Let the bloodbath begin.

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com; follow him on Twitter @youngsports22

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