The Astros, Cubs and Dodgers all had very disappointing 2010 seasons. The Astros finished in fourth place, with the Cubs one game behind fifth place in the National League Central division. While the Astros have been lingering in the basement for years, they did show signs of new life at the end of 2010.
The Cubs, on the other hand, went from winning the division in 2008 to second place in 2009 and then total disaster in 2010. It has been a long, ugly slide downhill for the Cubs.
In the National League West division, the Dodgers took fourth place in 2010 and went two games under .500 after winning the division both of the two previous years.
Despite the winning push at the end of 2010, the Astros may still see some growing pains in 2011. The Cubs will likely not do much better. But the Dodgers, with a few key staff changes and upgrades, have the best chance at success in 2011.
The following slides detail the reasons why each team either will or will not see improvement during the upcoming 2011 season.
The Astros' starting rotation got an injection of youth in the latter half of 2010 with the addition of pitcher J.A. Happ, sending Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia. But Happ is still lacking experience and it will be difficult to predict how he will perform next year.
Another boost for the Astros was the acquisition of Brett Myers, who, after a tumultuous eight-year career with the Phillies, turned out to be the staff ace for the Astros. However, given Myers' history of ups and downs, plus emotional issues, he is a big question mark in 2011.
Wandy Rodriguez is a pretty stable veteran arm but Bud Norris, still very young, has not been great. To compete for the fifth spot in the rotation, the Astros signed Ryan Rowland-Smith, an Aussie with potential.
But after a solid three-year run in Seattle, Rowland-Smith ran into a brick wall in 2010. He ended the year with a 1-10 record and a 6.75 ERA. If he bounces back, Rowland-Smith may be a bargain for the Astros. If not, this is just one more big unknown in a starting rotation that is already questionable.
Youth is a common factor in this 2011 Astros team. Third baseman Chris Johnson, 26, showed great potential in his first full season, batting .308 in 341 at-bats. Rookie first baseman Brett Wallace made some solid contributions as well in his short time on the field.
So while there is potential here, the veteran players need to step it up. Carlos Lee had a down year, batting only .246, and Michael Bourn's production dropped off as well. Hunter Pence is the most consistent player and, along with Bourn, adds speed to the lineup. Bourn stole 52 bases, but that was nine fewer than in 2009, and he was caught stealing 12 times each year.
Pence and Lee are the only real run producers, as well. Second baseman Jeff Keppinger had a career year with 59 RBI.
But overall, this team lacks real punch.
Another sore spot for the Astros is their bullpen. With two solid lefties in Tim Byrdak and Gustavo Chacin electing free agency, the lone lefty remaining is rookie Fernando Abad. He had some success in his very short stint with the Astros last year, but as with most rookies, it is hard to know what you will get out of him.
Nelson Figueroa is a righty with upside. He can start or pitch in relief and did a good job for the Astros in 2010, ending the year with a 3.29 ERA. But other pen pieces, like Jeff Fulchino with a 5.51 ERA, were a disappointment.
The bullpen is a giant question mark for the Astros.
It is all about pitching, and for the Chicago Cubs, that is not great news. The five projected starters for 2011 are Ryan Dempster, Tom Gorzelanny, Carlos Silva, Randy Wells and Carlos Zambrano.
Dempster is the staff ace, ending 2011 with a 15-12 record and a 3.85 ERA. While those are admirable stats, the issue is that many other teams boast aces with much more impressive numbers. And if this is the ace, it only goes downhill from here.
Both Gorzelanny and Silva had solid years and should be fairly consistent in 2011. Wells did well in his rookie season, but needs to avoid the sophomore slump.
And Zambrano always produces feelings of doubt and uncertainty as a result of his emotional outbursts and turbulent performances. In addition, the Cubs seem uncertain about his role, using him as both a starter and a reliever.
But the main problem with the Cubs' rotation is that it is very, very average. And average will only win you so many ballgames.
From average pitching to average offense, the Cubs have some issues. Taking the eight position starters and averaging out their numbers for the 2010 season, they would be batting .260 as a team. This statistic includes the addition of Carlos Pena this offseason, assuming he starts at first base.
The Cubs have a few heavy hitters in the lineup, including Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto and Marlon Byrd. Those three players combined for a .291 batting average and 160 RBI.
But many players had bad years in 2010, and their age indicates that there may not be improvement going forward.
Alfonso Soriano, who will be 35 this month, has had two consecutive down years. Both Aramis Ramirez and Pena will be 33 this season and each had the worst year of their careers in 2010. Ramirez batted only .241 and Pena batted .196.
Blake DeWitt and Tyler Colvin are both young, but neither are lighting up the scoreboard. The Cubs hope their veteran players will bounce back. But unless they do, it will be another difficult year for the Cubs.
The Dodgers have made several offseason moves that appear to indicate they are looking to change the environment in the clubhouse. The additions of Juan Uribe and Tony Gwynn plus signing Rod Barajas and Jay Gibbons, who played some at the end of 2010, should bring new life to the team.
Neither Uribe or Gwynn had great seasons in 2010, but Uribe brings experience and is fresh off a World Series championship with the Giants. Gwynn adds speed to the outfield. Barajas served as a solid backup catcher after Russell Martin was injured and Gibbons, despite a lack of playing time, batted .280.
Martin is now a Yankee, so Barajas is an important signing, although it appears the younger A.J. Ellis may get the starting job.
While none of these are real power moves, a little new blood may be the spark needed to get the veteran core with Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney working together again as a cohesive unit.
What does not kill you makes you stronger. The Dodgers hope this is true for their franchise. Owners Frank and Jamie McCourt are finally divorced and in December, a judge threw out an agreement giving ownership to Jamie.
The ruling means it is very likely that neither party will keep the franchise and they will be forced to sell it. New ownership would mean a new beginning for the Dodgers.
In another form of divorce, the Dodgers have also freed themselves from Manny Ramirez and the drama he came with. Ramirez was traded to the White Sox in late August and, finally, the Dodgers were able to move on.
Between the PED scandal, three trips to the disabled list in 2010 and erratic performances, getting rid of Manny meant one less distraction for the team. And this was a very big distraction that they should be happy to be done with.
Jonathan Broxton started the year as the Dodgers' closer and ran into problems. In August, he was told that he and Hong-Chih Kuo would share the role due to Broxton's inconsistencies.
By early September, Broxton lost the job to Kuo, who converted 12 of his 13 save opportunities. Broxton ended the year with seven blown saves and a lofty 4.04 ERA.
But the good news for 2011 is that the Dodgers now know who their closer is. With a final ERA of only 1.20, Kuo will start the year as the closer, which should be a huge boost for his team.
It is true that Don Mattingly has very little managerial experience. However, this fresh approach may be exactly what the Dodgers need.
Following a spectacular 14-year career with the New York Yankees, Mattingly wound up spending seven seasons as a special instructor for Yankees' spring training. After the 2003 season, the Yankees named Mattingly their hitting coach and he became bench coach in 2006.
Mattingly then followed Joe Torre to Los Angeles and will finally serve in his first major league managerial role.
To prepare, Mattingly managed the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League this past year. Add in all the years he spent with Torre, and Mattingly should have enough knowledge saved up to do a solid job with the Dodgers in 2011.
The Dodgers made a concerted effort to improve their pitching staff this offseason, starting with the signing of Jon Garland. In 2009, Garland spent part of the year with the Dodgers and pitched for the Padres in 2010, where he recorded a 3.47 ERA and 14 wins.
The Dodgers re-signed a few pitchers from the 2010 staff, as well. Both Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla will return with one-year contracts. Kuroda will start, but Padilla will probably wind up in the bullpen.
Returning starters also include their staff ace, Clayton Kershaw, plus Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley. Taking the averages of all five projected starters gives the Dodgers a rotation with a 3.39 ERA.
If it is indeed all about the pitching, the Dodgers are off to a good start.