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National League East (predicted order of finish and records)
New York Mets (92-70) – The Mets addressed their most pressing needs in a big way by shoring up their bullpen, and they still have left-handed ace Johan Santana going every fifth (or third) day, but the psychological factor of overcoming the last two late-season collapses will be there come September. Both young stars on the left side of their infield, Reyes and Wright, need to become true leaders and turn this team into the division winner that it clearly should be. This team has pennant-winning talent, but putting together the pieces of this puzzle will be a tough task; I think it will be done this season.
Atlanta Braves (86-76) – In my opinion, calling this Braves squad improved would be an extreme understatement. Their lineup, when healthy, is among the best in the National League, led by the aging, but never declining Jones, and their rotation should not be slept on after signing Derek Lowe, complemented by the maturing Jair Jurrjens.
Their bullpen might be an issue, and don’t forget to factor in team morale after missing out on Burnett, Furcal, Peavy, etc. Anyhow, this Atlanta team should be able to contend enough so that we might see a late-90s style division race down the stretch with the Mets and Braves.
Philadelphia Phillies (83-79) – A team that can still be considered a legitimate threat in the National League, it seems to me like the Phils took a huge step back between ’08 and ’09. Pitching is very shaky behind Hamels (who’s not healthy), they have no more true right-handed bats that are capable of production, and teams usually suffer a hangover after a championship season. If their "Big Three" can produce like they’re supposed to, and some other starters fill in nicely behind Hamels, this Philadelphia team can contend for the division title. Until then, no dice (for me anyway) with this Phillies squad.
Florida Marlins (81-81) – A starting rotation that has the potential to be superb is already in place under Fredi Gonzalez, not to mention a lineup that could probably hold its own against those of the top three suitors of the NL East. Hanley Ramirez puts up numbers like few other shortstops ever have in our league, but this team is too incomplete to contend this season. Any team that contends usually has even a smidge of veteran presence, which the "Fish" have none of, but they are certainly a team to watch out for down the road. Eighty wins would be a nice plateau for this team to reach in 2009.
Washington Nationals (64-98) – What else is new? There’s nothing to like about the Nationals this season. This organization is still a joke until further notice, and it will take at least a few years of stable, intelligent management for the Nats to both gain a local fan base and be relevant at all in this tough division. As others move forwards, the Nationals continue to move backwards, and if they could rid themselves of trouble (Milledge, Dukes, etc.) and start building in the right direction, we might see something good from the nation’s capital in a few years.
National League Central (predicted order of finish and records)
Chicago Cubs (95-67) – In my mind, the Cubs are undoubtedly the best team in the National League, and maybe even in baseball. Their lineup is loaded—from any angle at which you look—with pop and wheels spread throughout. The part of their team that will put them over the top is their lights-out rotation, led by the trio of Zambrano, Harden, and Dempster. Their bullpen was a bit uncertain coming into this season, but there’s a lot of depth out there, so closer by committee might not be the worst thing for the Cubbies. This is the best Cub team I’ve seen in a while, Baseball—watch out.
St. Louis Cardinals (90-72) – The Cardinals are going to rely on their big hitter, Pujols, and their now healthy ace, Carpenter, to bring them back to their early decade glory. This team has sufficient talent and great leadership to be a contender after two lousy seasons, and though there is some uncertainty in the bullpen and at various positions, this team’s rotation can be scary good. If they get similar production from Ankiel and Ludwick, St. Louis will undoubtedly be a force to reckon with. The chances are slim that they will be able to challenge for the division, but they can sneak into the playoffs.
Houston Astros (85-77) – A lot of people are writing the Astros off as the Central’s cellar-dweller this year, but I don’t hesitate to put them third due to the lack of appeal from the rest of this division. Heck, they won 86 games with the same exact bunch last year, so it’s not at all a reach that they’ll make a play for a Wild Card come 2009.
In what has been a career of peaks and valleys for Lance Berkman, 2008 was as close to Everest as it’ll get. This team can’t go wrong with a workhorse ace like Roy Oswalt. It doesn’t seem as if the outlook in Houston is as bleak as everyone has begun to proclaim this spring.
Milwaukee Brewers (80-82) – A team that seemed to be on the rise for a short time will definitely take a step back this season. Their offense remains intact, with the likes of Braun, Fielder, and Hart leading the way. However, it’s extremely tough to compete without the two starters that helped the team capture a playoff berth last season.
The entire look isn’t nearly as imposing with Sabathia on the hill, a result of being a small market team. A return to the playoffs is out of the question, but I still could make a case for this team going in the right direction, as they build around talented youngsters.
Cincinnati Reds (76-86) – If all of the pieces click for this preseason flavor of the week, contention is almost a certainty. However, as good as their rotation has the ability to be, I still think their lineup is way too soft to contend with the big dogs of the National League. Votto, Bruce, and Phillips are certainly a solid, young core, but what else exactly makes this team an instant participant in the NL Central sweepstakes? I’ve never really loved Dusty Baker as a manager, nor have I loved a team with Bronson Arroyo, Alex Gonzalez, and Ramon Hernandez as key parts. They caught my eye, but nothing more.
Pittsburgh Pirates (66-96) – Can I just copy what I wrote last year about this team? Or what I wrote about the Nationals? In all seriousness, this is just another franchise stuck in the mud. Neither their lineup nor rotation stands out in anyone’s mind, despite the great play of young centerfielder Nate McLouth. Even in a weak division and a watered-down league, it will take a lot of time to rebuild this team; I’d suggest starting from scratch. Another miserable summer for the people at PNC will have lots of them asking, “Hey, when do the Steelers get to camp?”
National League West (predicted order of finish and records)
Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74) – Even without Manny, I think this team would’ve been the preliminary favorite in this awful division. Signing Manny makes their team a no-brainer pick at the top of the West. On the other side of the ball, their rotation could use some work. Losing Lowe and Maddux could be a con, but that means more starts for young Clayton Kershaw, exactly what Dodger fans want to see. I can’t rave enough about the depth in this lineup, and since the postseason pedigree is now there, expect the Dodgers to sail smoothly into October, which would make fifteen straight for Torre.
San Francisco Giants (83-79) – They won’t be the embarrassment that they’ve been in each of the past four seasons, primarily because of their very good starting rotation. A trio of starters who have won the Cy Young fill out the top three, and though their lineup is nothing to write home about, they’ll be a team to watch because of what they have to offer on the mound. The 83 wins I’ve given them might be a bit too generous, but I think they can pull it off with progression from Lincecum and Cain. When Aaron Rowand is your go-to hitter, the offensive outlook couldn’t be much worse.
Arizona Diamondbacks (80-82) – Another one of America’s sweethearts, the Diamondbacks young core cooled down in a big way after an electric start to 2008. I still love Webb and Haren manning the top of the rotation, but these youngsters still need time to come into their own. With so much youth comes unpredictability, which is exactly what type of season it’ll be in Arizona. When you look up and down their lineup, who stands out? I’ll tell you who. No one. They’ll be able to pitch their way all to way to .500, if that, making it another mediocre campaign in the desert.
Colorado Rockies (72-90) – Even with the consistent lineup and the effects that Coors Field can have on your offense, there is still too little pitching for the Rockies. They continue to head in the right direction, but without Holliday, this team doesn’t have the juice it’s had recently, and won’t have any of it without somewhat of a bounce back season from Helton. They can’t hang with the elite or even with the mediocre in the National League, as the attitude within the Rockies organization will be based towards the future.
San Diego Padres (70-92) – It was shocking how much the Padres fell off after the three previous seasons to 2008 resulted in two playoff appearances and a one-game playoffs, but I guess that’s what happens when you can’t hit a lick. Jake Peavy is still a Padre (for now), and if it’s at all possible to convince him that a rebuilding project will begin immediately, that would be a step in the right direction for the Friars. The cleansing process might take a while, and though it’ll be a struggle to convince any free agents to sign there, hope is the predominant word within the organization.
All National League First Team
C - Brian McCann, Atlanta
1B - Albert Pujols, St. Louis
2B - Chase Utley, Philadelphia
SS - Hanley Ramirez, Florida
3B - David Wright, New York
OF - Manny Ramirez, Los Angeles
OF - Carlos Beltran, New York
OF - Ryan Braun, Milwaukee
SP - Johan Santana, New York
SP - Tim Lincecum, San Francisco
SP - Jake Peavy, San Diego
RP - Francisco Rodriguez, New York
RP - Brad Lidge, Philadelphia
All National League Second Team
C - Geovany Soto, Chicago
1B - Lance Berkman, Houston
2B - Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati
SS - Jose Reyes, New York
3B - Chipper Jones, Atlanta
OF - Alfonso Soriano, Chicago
OF - Carlos Lee, Houston
OF - Matt Kemp, Los Angeles
SP - Brandon Webb, Arizona
SP - Dan Haren, Arizona
SP - Cole Hamels, Philadelphia
RP - Jose Valverde, Houston
RP - Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles
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