Get your Southwest reservation ready to hit the sports book at Caesar’s, because here are the N.L. picks:
This division once again belongs to the Phillies, who could be the best team in the N.L. for the third year in a row. Their lineup is so deep with Howard, Utley, Ibanez, Werth, Rollins, and now Polanco, that even though there are questions in the bullpen with Lidge, and the set up team to get to him, they should still pound most opponents into submission, and GM Amaro, Jr. will not let bullpen inconsistency go un addressed . They added the best starter from the A.L. in Halladay, which should allow Cole Hamels to get himself back on track without having the added pressure having to be “The Man”. If Hamels can resume his upward path that he showed during his first two seasons, the Phils could have the best righty/lefty top of the rotation in MLB., which will take even more pressure off the ‘pen. With this club all Charlie Manuel needs to do is what he’s done the previous years…stay out of their way and let this team’s talent take over.
The Braves are my pick for the N.L. wildcard for several reasons. First, they may not have the best one-two punch at the top of their rotation, but they may have the best overall 5 to beat you any day in the N.L. Jurrjens, Lowe, Hudson, Hanson, Kawakami are all tough, and not a bullpen killer in the group. Second, newly acquired closer, Billy Wagner, will stabilize the back end of the bullpen, and may win the comeback player of the year award. Third, Chipper, McCann Escobar, McLouth, and ROY candidate Jayson Heyward make for a deep offense. Finally, future hall of fame skipper Bobby Cox, and the front office that supports him are determined to finish his historic career on a playoff note, and they will as the N.L. wild card team.
The Marlins are again deep in young, exciting talent with Hanley Ramirez and on the pitching staff, but there are questions in the bullpen, and the young offensive talent is still not quite ready to fully bloom. It’s not the young Marlins time quite yet, but by the second half everyone will be talking about the fish as the team to watch out for in 2011.
The Mets seem poised to display their complete internal dysfunction for yet another season, finally prompting ownership to push the handle on the commode and give someone else a chance to guide this rudderless ship. Meanwhile the Nationals continue to get closer to finding their way out of the labyrinth of losing seasons, and hopefully don’t ask too much of their phenom, Stephen Strasburg, too fast.
With the best player in baseball anchoring their lineup and two Cy Young worthy starters to lead their rotation, the Cardinals are the team to beat in the central. Pujols is the most impactful player in the game, and he has help with Holiday, Ludwick, and the best defensive catcher in the N.L. in Yadier Molina. Franklin is a solid closer, and LaRussa keeps the Redbirds on track despite his propensity to over manage his bullpen, and change pitchers every….single…batter…ZZZZZZZZZZ….
The Cubs HAVE to be better this year simply by getting rid of the most cancerous presence in recent history, Milton “Kayne West” Bradley. They should get a full year of Aramis Ramirez, and Derek Lee is in a contract season. The problem is they are relying on Carlos Zambrano yet again to be their Ace, and he just isn’t one. Lilly starts on the D.L. but will be back and Dempster competes. Giovanny Soto came in to spring in great shape and is determined to rebound after a lackluster sophmore campaign. Marlon Byrd allows Fukodome to play his better position right field. Hey, they’ll be better and at times really good, but not often enough to get past the Cardinals.
The Brewers are interesting again this year with the addition of Randy Wolf to their rotation, LaTroy Hawkins the the pen, and Rick Peterson as the pitching coach. They already have Hoffman closing games, and an offense with sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder who is in another contract season. If Yovani Gallardo has a break out season, and Rickie Weeks can finally live up to the expectations the Brewers will be tough and could finish ahead of the Cubs.
Cincinnati is the popular pick to surprise people, but with Harang not having been the same the past two seasons, and needing Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, Jay Bruce, and rookie Mike Leake to all do more than may reasonably be expected, I think their competing for the division is just pipe dream. Houston has some nice pieces in Hunter Pence, and Wandy Rodriguez, and Carlos Lee, but their cornerstone Berkamn is starting ont eh D.L. and they lost their closer Valverde and set up man Hawkins. Could be along season for first year manager Brad Mills. Pittsburgh accomplishes the unthinkable by posting their 18th losing season in a row.
The Rockies are poised to win the West this season with a lineup that is balanced and deep. Helton, Barmes, Tulowitzki (MVP this year?) and Stewart on the infield; Gonzales, Fowler, Hawpe in the outfield with Seth Smith and Spillborghs, who could each be starters, ready to fill in. The rest of the bench is also deep, so there is no drop off when Jim Tracy goes to his “reserves”. The possible loss of Jeff Francis and Huston Street are concerns, but they still have Jimenez, Cook De La Rosa and Hamel who can all beat you in the rotation and Franklin did a solid job filling in for Street last season. Plus they have more power arms in the minors waiting to help out. Every where you look the Rocks can plug a leak, and that keep them afloat the top of the West.
The Dodgers have an exciting middle of the order with Kemp, Ethier, and Manny, but you don’t know yet which Manny is showing up this year. If he wants to prove something he could be a force, but if things start off slow he could just as easily pack it in and be a distraction. Everyone understands why Padilla was their opening day starter, but protecting Kershaw doesn’t absolve the fact that they had no better alternative. Ultimately lack of depth in the rotation is their undoing.
Arizona would have been a lot more interesting to talk about if Brandon Webb hadn’t broken down again. But he did, so now more is going to be asked of Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy which is asking too much. They have interesting and talented players like Upton, Jackson, Drew, Young, Reynolds, but they strike out so much and don’t seem to play as a supportive unit of each other, as though they’re on a scout team with each guy just trying to show off his own skills.
The Giants have a great top of the rotation with Lincecum and Cain, and Zito may keep them in games, but Sanchez and Wellemeyer are question marks, and so is their ability to score runs. I would even be willing to give the Giants more benefit of the doubt, but they were so underwhelming in the games I watched this spring both defensively, and in enthusiasm that it’s hard for me to get excited about anyone other than Sandoval, who does appear to want to kick someone’s a$$ when he walks to the plate.
I mention the Padres last ONLY because everyone else in the world has, but this team will win more than the 66 games predicted by Sports Illustrated. No one in the national media watched this team after April last season so they don’t know why they were 10 games over .500 the final two months of the season. With a young, athletic team that is finally being crafted to win in their spacious home field, the Padres will put more pressure on opposing defenses with their speed. Combine that with Adrian Gonzales’ 40+ homeruns, and the emergence of Kyle Blanks, Will Venable for power and Everth Cabrera for speed, and there is a nice balance that hasn’t existed in a Padres lineup for almost a decade. The questions are the health of Chris young, and the continued growth of youngsters Clayton Richard and Matt Latos in the rotation. The bullpen is solid with Bell closing things out. There will probably be a flameout of one of the young players, but the others should continue to develop into solid major league players, and in a couple cases legitimate impact guys. This team will be the funnest Padre team to watch in may years, and will surprise a lot of people. They may not be ready to challenge for the division this year, but they won’t finish last like most are predicting, and hopefully stay in the hunt long enough for the team to justify hanging on to Bell and Gonzales as long as possible before any possible trades.