MLB: National League Postseason Predictions

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIApril 4, 2012

MLB: National League Postseason Predictions

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    While the American League may overwhelmingly have the most star power, following the defections of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to the Angels and Tigers respectively, the National League is not lacking for attention or success. 

    The St. Louis Cardinals delivered the second consecutive World Series title for the Senior Circuit, providing more heartbreak for the Texas Rangers.  

    Defending NL MVP Ryan Braun stunned us twice, first by testing positive for the use of a performance enhancing drug last fall, and then again by becoming the first player to successfully appeal the results of that test earlier this year. 

    If that weren’t enough, the Los Angeles Dodgers captured more headlines when an ownership group headlined by former Lakers great Magic Johnson won a bid to purchase the team with a $2 billion proposal that eclipsed the next highest bid, and shattered the record for highest price paid for a professional sports franchise

    There’s no question that whoever emerges as the 2012 NL pennant winner will likely be an underdog against the AL’s survivor. But recent playoff history has proven that anything can happen on the path to, and during, the Fall Classic.

National League Central

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    At the start of any new season, the defending champion typically comes in with a huge target on their backs as other teams seek to take their crown. The St. Louis Cardinals, however, enter the 2012 season under very different circumstances, albeit with no less pressure. 

    The losses of franchise cornerstone Albert Pujols and Hall of Fame bound manager Tony LaRussa have been discussed ad nausea throughout the offseason, but many still expect the Cardinals to contend for the division title with the addition of outfielder Carlos Beltran, the return of starting pitcher Adam Wainwright from injury, and the expected carryover of World Series MVP David Freese’s maturation into the 2012 regular season. 

    If long-time ace Chris Carpenter doesn’t miss too much time with a nagging shoulder injury, Lance Berkman can duplicate his 2011 revival, and Allen Craig can perform well enough to solidify right field, the Cards have a great shot at getting back to the playoffs, this time as division champs. 

    The Milwaukee Brewers come in with questions of their own following the loss of Fielder and concerns about how Braun will respond to the season-long scrutiny he is sure to receive following the PED fiasco.  

    There is hope that the addition of third baseman Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs and the development of Fielder’s replacement Mat Gamel will help offset some of their former first baseman’s offensive production.  

    A full season of Zack Greinke—who was not only transitioning leagues entering 2011, but got off to a rough start following an offseason ankle injury sustained in a pick-up basketball game—and Francisco Rodriguez (acquired during a July 2011 trade) should help make the Brewers pitching staff one of the NL’s best. 

    The Cincinnati Reds appeared to be the most stable team in the division entering 2012, until an injury to newly signed closer Ryan Madson caused some juggling of the pitching staff. They are now hoping that Sean Marshall can slide into the role seamlessly, while the move also pushed the team to move future starter Aroldis Chapman back into a set-up role. 

    The Reds may still have the division’s best offense, which was solidified by the recent 10-year, $225 million contract extension given to 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto. Surrounded by veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, and emerging star outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs, the Reds may just have enough to take back the division crown they earned in 2010. 

    The Pirates enjoyed an early Cinderella run in first place last season, until they remembered that they were the Pirates and fell back down to earth. New additions Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett may help stabilize the pitching staff, but Bedard is always an injury concern, while Burnett is already slated to miss the start of the season as he recovers from a fractured orbital bone injury suffered during spring training. 

    The Cubs are in rebuilding mode under the new Theo Epstein regime, while the Astros take on lame duck status before moving to the American League in 2013.

National League West

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks completed a surprising turnaround last season by winning the division by a comfortable eight games. The final margin was a bit deceiving though, as they were pushed hard by the defending world champion San Francisco Giants for most of the year before they faltered in September.

    Arizona looks to build on last season’s success with continued improvement from some young stars, namely Justin Upton, who finally developed into a perennial MVP candidate, and starting pitchers Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. 

    The Diamondbacks added a couple of key reinforcements in left fielder Jason Kubel and starting pitcher Trevor Cahill, adding depth to two positions of strength. Unlike last season when they snuck up on the competition, Arizona will enter 2012 as the favorite in the West. 

    San Francisco’s pitching staff could challenge Tampa Bay’s as the best in baseball, and should be intact for at least the next two years.  

    Two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum was locked up with a two-year, $40.5 million deal this offseason, while the staff’s No. 2 guy, Matt Cain, agreed to a five-year, $112.5 million deal earlier in the week that will keep him in San Fran through 2017.  

    While the certainty surrounding the front of the rotation is comforting, the team will need to hit better if they want to return to their 2010 glory.  

    The Giants took steps towards addressing that by trading for Melky Cabrera, who finally put it all together in Kansas City last year, and signing Angel Pagan to lock down center field. They should also benefit by the return of Buster Posey, after a 2011 lost to injury, and the emergence of Brandon Belt if they decide to let the kid play. 

    The Colorado Rockies have two of the best position players in all of baseball in short stop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez. They added more offensive fire power with the acquisition of former Twin Michael Cuddyer, but a questionable starting rotation will prevent them from seriously pushing the division’s top dogs in 2012. 

    The Los Angeles Dodgers and their fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the Frank McCourt era is finally behind them, bringing calm to a nearly two-year circus that stifled the teams ability to operate like a professionally run franchise should. 

    L.A. also has the two best players in the division, and arguably all of baseball, in 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and NL MVP runner-up Matt Kemp. Even with that dynamic duo, the Dodgers would need a lot of other things to go right for them to contend for a wild card spot in 2012, let alone a West division crown. 

    The Padres continue their annual rebuilding program with a combination of rising stars and MLB cast offs.

National League East

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    While we are unlikely to see another 100-plus win team emerge from this division, there’s no question that it remains the NL’s best, and deepest. Four of the five teams calling the East home could legitimately be declared the preseason favorite, while the fifth could make a surprising challenge with some improved luck in the health department. 

    If forced to make a wager, I’d reluctantly bet on the Atlanta Braves emerging as division winners. Despite a slow start from second baseman Dan Uggla, a nightmarish sophomore season for Jason Heyward, and an injury plagued season for emerging ace Tommy Hanson, the Braves were a couple of outs away from reaching the 2011 postseason.

    Even with the soon-to-be-retiring Chipper Jones already battling injuries, even slight improvement in their luck will push the Braves to the top of the heap. 

    The Philadelphia Phillies have the best 1-2-3 pitching combination in all of baseball with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels all coming off seasons in which they were legitimate Cy Young candidates. Unfortunately, age and injuries have taken their toll on the team’s lineup. 

    Ryan Howard is still a couple of months away from returning from an achilles injury suffered on the last play of their disappointing playoff loss to the eventual champion Cardinals in the NL Divisional round. Second baseman Chase Utley will also miss the start of the season as he recovers from an assortment of knee injuries. 

    This is without pointing out that former MVP Jimmy Rollins is a year older, so even with Hunter Pence in the lineup for a full year, the decline and injuries to their big three will significantly impair the team’s ability to win the East again. 

    The Miami Marlins are full of hope this season with a new home, new manager, new short stop, new closer, a new proven starter, and a new(ish) third baseman. 

    Ozzie Guillen is a proven winner whose act had worn thin in Chicago, but he should bring some much needed discipline and credibility to a mostly young Marlins team. The organization also made a big splash in free agency by bringing in Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle, proving to their fans that they are serious about contending right now. 

    If staff ace Josh Johnson can remain healthy, Hanley Ramirez can make a seamless transition from short stop to third base while rediscovering his offensive prowess, and budding star right fielder Giancarlo “don’t call me Mike” Stanton, can challenge for the league’s home run and RBI titles, the Marlins could find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 World Series title.

    The Washington Nationals have plenty to be excited about entering 2012. Stephen Strasburg will begin the season fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and looking to establish himself as one of the NL’s best starters. And the acquisitions of lefty Gio Gonzalez and veteran Edwin Jackson should help solidify a very strong starting rotation. 

    On the offensive side, Nats fans are hoping that Ryan Zimmerman can play a full season after the franchise inked him to a $100 million extension this off-season. 

    If Jayson Werth can prove that his  contract wasn’t a mistake, Mike Morse can build on his breakout 2011, and Bryce Harper can make his way to the Majors in time to help the team this year, the additional wild card spot could be the best thing to happen in the nation’s capital since Alexander Ovechkin made D.C. hockey relevant.

    The Mets are likely to end up in the division’s basement again, but if Johan Santana, David Wright, and Ike Davis can all stay healthy and perform at their best, the Mets could surprise people this year.

National League Wild Card

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    With no truly dominant team emerging in the National League, the additional wild card spot promises to make this year’s playoff race even better than the 2011 version. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the same drama that made last year’s final day so magical, but we could easily see that level of excitement play out over an entire week or more.

    That said, I see the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants battling for the right to advance to in the 2012 postseason. 

    The Reds should contend for the Central division crown, but if they fail to out duel the Cardinals, they’ll still pick up enough wins against the likes of the Pirates, Cubs, and Astros throughout the year to reach or exceed the 90-win mark. 

    The Giants will fail to unseat the Diamondbacks—the closest thing the NL has to a dominant team—in the NL West race as the newly acquired Melky Cabrera comes back to earth, and Buster Posey works off the rust of missing most of 2011. Their starting pitching will still be good enough to get them just over 90 wins and back into the postseason.

National League Pennant

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    The Atlanta Braves will out-mash the St. Louis Cardinals in the Divisional round as Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward announce their presence as the next great offensive tandem on the playoff stage.  

    After failing to unrest the regular season crown from their division rivals, the Giants will send the Diamondbacks home early with a second consecutive first-round playoff exit. 

    The Braves and Giants will battle it out in what will prove to be one of the greatest NL Championship Series in recent history. 

    Unfortunately for Braves fans, Chipper Jones’s final season will end just as so many have before, with Atlanta coming up short as Tim Lincecum out-duels Tommy Hanson in an epic 7th game, sending the Giants back to the World Series for the second time in three seasons.