Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLB National League preview — no big surprises here


While the American League should be chock full of surprises this season, I don't anticipate a similar result in the NL, where the best teams from a year ago will stay that way, some teams will get better but not good enough to contend, and some will get worse (sorry, fans).

So my apologies for mostly picking the favorites in this league, and not making any sexy reaches, but I just don't see such things happening. Seriously — who could beat out the Phillies in the East over a 162-game season? Shorten the season by 60 games, and maybe the Braves or Marlins could hang with 'em. But the Phils are way too strong. Same thing with the Cards in the Central.

The West will probably be the most interesting division, with the Rockies and Giants two young, improving clubs that could challenge the Dodgers for the division. So as with the AL, it will be worth your time to stay up late and watch those West Coast games (or, simply, move it there; I'd do it in a heartbeat — place to be in the U.S.). 

Anyway, with all that said, here's my "expert" analysis:

1. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65): There's cause for concern in Philly: The team only has two players among the top 100 prospects in the game and the least impressive farm system in the division. Who gives a hoot? With this team assembled, even the angry Philly fans won't be worrying about the future. Roy Halladay will bolster a solid rotation, and Placido Polanco will only make the lineup — Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and friends — even more dangerous than before. That's scary.

2. Atlanta Braves (88-74): Speaking of scary, apparently the Next Big Thing Jason Heyward hit a 450-bomb during spring training that busted an executive's car. How good is Heyward? Well, I doubt he had to pay the $3,500 in damages. With young guns like Heyward and pitchers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, this team might be the future of the division. Just not this year. 

3. New York Mets (82-80): Call me foolish, but I think the Mets will be much better than the train wreck everyone's forecasting. Don't forget that when healthy, they're still one of the most talented teams in the entire league, and I'm portending a catastrophe-free season for a team that's had its share of hardships lately. Jason Bay will make the Mets' lineup explosive. Yes, I'm calling it.

4. Florida Marlins (78-84): I know the Marlins always surprise the masses and contend for the division, but forgive me for abstaining from drinking the Kool-Aid this time around. Yes, they have a ton of young talent. But their pitching is still shaky, and what's to say Ricky Nolasco will be a consistent force or the back of the rotation will give them anything? Give this team another year to develop, then I'll put it higher.

5. Washington Nationals (73-89): This team will be much improved and fun to watch, and come June I'll be hitting up the ballpark frequently – as in every fifth day. Because, yep, that's when Stephen Strasburg should be called up from the minors. He's the real deal, sports fans, and will give the Nats' unimpressive rotation a real boost. 

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65): C'mon, people. Nobody is going to challenge the Cardinals for the Division. No, not even the Cubbies! Four words: Carpenter, Wainwright, Pujols, Holliday. Yep, the Cards have two of the best starting pitchers and two of the best slugging hitters in all of baseball. And as long as the rest of the lineup and rotation are solid, which they are, this team won't have a problem cruising into October, when they'll finally really be challenged. 

2. Chicago Cubs (88-74): The Cubs hardly did a thing during the offseason, except for Geovany Soto reportedly losing 40 pounds (damn, what did the man eat?). So there's no real reason to think they'll change much from last year, except for the fact that maybe the clubhouse will be more relaxed. For one, no one is forecasting a division title or playoff berth. Secondly, Milton Bradley is gone. The locker-room misfit certainly didn't help the Cubs, who might just benefit from his absence.

3. Houston Astros (85-77): The Astros are making a desperate bid for the playoffs, having kept all their old fogies instead of rebuilding. It's a dangerous move, and sadly it won't pay off in this division. But they'll play hard and win a lot of games, with Brett Myers putting together a solid season that he can shove in the faces (maybe literally) of his old Phillies pals. But playoffs? Nope.

4. Cincinnati Reds (80-82): They're getting there, folks. The Reds are the team in this division with the most future potential. Aroldis Chapman won't pitch this year, but other young flame throwers such as Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey will continue to improve as starters and the lineup will only get better as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce mature. Reds fans should book season tickets for 2012 and '13.

5. Milwaukee Brewers (75-87): This team is uninspiring to me. I don't see a real plan in place, I don't feel like it's committed to certain players for the future, and in the meantime it'll just be mediocre. Ryan Bruan should be one guy to hold onto for a long time, and he'll put together another solid season, but the rotation is about as frightening as an ant in a cage.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (65-97): Oh, the Pirates. I wish I could say something good about this team or organization, but to do that I have to think back to the Roberto Clemente days and how proud I am to own a Clemente T-shirt. Sadly, these days it's hard to say a good thing about the Pirates except that their stadium, purportedly, is pretty sweet. I can't wait to check it out, and don't anticipate having trouble getting great seats. Oh, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen is supposed to steal a lot of bases.

1. Colorado Rockies (90-72): In what figures to be a super, super competitive division, the Rockies will come out on top thanks to great balance from both their rotation and lineup. If No. 1 starter Ubaldo Jimenez goes down for a period of time, Jeff Francis or Aaron Cook will pick up the slack. The lineup isn't great, but it knows how to produce runs at Coors Field and will do enough on the road to get the needed wins to claim the West.

*2. San Francisco Giants (89-73): My apologies to the two-time reigning NL champ Dodgers, but I love this Giants squad. Will they score a lot of runs? Nope. But with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and a rejuvenated Barry Zito atop the rotation, plus the solid Brian Wilson closing games, the Giants will not give up many runs. As far as producing runs, expect a huge season from Pablo Sandoval and surprising contributions from others along the way.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74): Don't get my above comments wrong, folks — the Dodgers will still be in contention throughout the season. But I see the rotation being a bit shaky and not helped by the loss of Randy Wolf to the Brew Crew, and the lineup is good but will be outdeuled by the Rockies' and Giants' pitching staffs. Oh, and Manny's still good, but not scary good. There's a big difference.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (84-78): I like this team, I really do. With Brandon Webb back healthy and the addition of Edwin Jackson, the D'Backs have three solid starters (Dan Haren is the other). Add to that the explosive bat of Mark Reynolds — forget about the hordes of K's for a moment — and some capable hitters around him, and Arizona will make the NL West the most competitive four-team race in the league.

5. San Diego Padres (62-100): But not a five-team race... Yep, the Padres are going to be the worst team in the majors, especially after their only offensive weapon, Adrian Gonzalez, is traded to a contender before the trade deadline. I consider myself to have a decent amount of knowledge when it comes to baseball lineups, but sadly I can't name a player other than Gonzalez nd Tony Gwynn Jr. in San Diego's lineup. The rotation isn't much better. Thank goodness fans have the San Diego weather and beach to distract them.

*Wild Card team


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