MLB 2011 Preview: National League Predictions

Jason Lempert@MetsPride84Correspondent IFebruary 15, 2011

MLB 2011 Preview: National League Predictions

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    With the SuperBowl complete, Major League Baseball is set to take center stage.Al Bello/Getty Images

    It's official.  The 2011 Major League Baseball season is right around the corner.  Don't believe me?  Just ask the groundhog.  Or maybe the fact that the next edition of MLB video games are primed for release will convince you.  No?  Ok...the Super Bowl is over and so is another season of NFL.  And, pitchers and catchers have reported for Spring Training  Yes, the 2011 season is swiftly approaching.

    And, with nearly all of 2011's top free agents signed, it's time to evaluate how all 30 big league teams did this offseason, and predict where they will finish in their respective divisions in this rendition of MLB 2011 Predictions.  We'll begin with the National League.

NL West, 1st Place: San Francisco Giants

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    It's hard to bet against the reigning champs. Especially when they have the kind of pitching rotation that these guys have.Elsa/Getty Images

    They won the World Series last year.  The San Francisco Giants are on top of the baseball world.  But come March 31, they become a targeted team.  There are 29 other teams that want what they have.

    Of course they want the rings and trophy.  But what they might also want is one of the best rotations in baseball - one that will continue to shine for a number of years.  Anchored by staff ace Tim Lincecum, the Giants boast a pitching staff that relies on its youth and talent to mow down opponents.

    Aside from Barry Zito, each member of the rotation will be under 30 years old come Opening Day.  Lincecum, who is a two-time Cy Young Award winner, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and rookie Madison Bumgarner, along with Zito, comprise a rotation that won nearly 60 games for the G-Men last year.

    And don't sleep on the Giants' offense either.  Reigning Rookie of the Year winner Buster Posey is poised to have a strong sophomore season.  And if the middle of the lineup can remain healthy and effective, they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with as they defend their title in 2011.

NL West, 2nd Place: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks underacheived last year. Can they rebound with a solid 2011?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    I still find it astonishing that the Arizona Diamondbacks had as poor of a season as they did in 2010.  In a 97-loss campaign, they ended up 27 games out of first place.  Look for a rebound in 2011 for the D-Backs.

    From an offensive standpoint, their strikeouts should go down a ton.  They traded away third baseman Mark Reynolds, who has led the league in whiffs each of the last three seasons.  They also lost first baseman Adam LaRoche to free agency—he was fourth in the league with 172 strikeouts in 2010.

    Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson and Chris Young each took strides in 2010 to show that they are legitimate offensive threats.  And of course, youngster Justin Upton is just now entering into his prime.

    The pitching staff may be the piece that keeps this squad from reaching the top in 2011, but not for much longer.  The rotation is balanced with experienced veterans and talented young guns.  Ian Kennedy, Barry Enright and Daniel Hudson each gained remarkable experience in 2010 and could have breakout campaigns this season.

    They also picked up Zach Duke and Armando Galarraga (yeah, the one who more-or-less threw a perfect game last season) as added depth and experience. 

    All-in-all, the Arizona Diamondbacks are a team full of talent, and with something to prove.  They should have been, and probably were, better than a 65-97 season. 

NL West, 3rd Place: Colorado Rockies

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    The Colorado Rockies have some fine young talent on their squad. Can they supplant the Giants atop the division in 2011?Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Colorado Rockies had a quiet but productive offseason.  They locked up their two young superstars with multi-year contracts.  Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki each received seven-year deals.  They are also in reported discussions with the Texas Rangers over a possible trade for Michael Young.

    With or without the All-Star infielder, the Rockies have a nice foundation, and could be serious contenders in the not-so-distant future. 

    But right now, their pitching staff behind ace Ubaldo Jimenez is rather suspect.  It's the same rotation they had a year ago, when they finished nine games behind the Giants.

    In fact, the 2011 roster is almost identical to last year's.  Reliever Matt Lindstrom and infielder Jose Lopez are the only two newcomers who are slated to be regulars (Lopez has been rumored to be a part of any deal for Young). 

    So while the Diamondbacks and Giants each bettered themselves, the Rockies pretty much stood their ground and are hoping for a better outcome than 2010.

NL West, 4th Place: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Dodgers have a nice balance of veterans and youth. Will it be enough to overcome the rest of the division?Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Dodgers had a dismal 2010.  They finished two games under .500, 12 games out of first place, and the McCourt war over ownership of the team began.

    They will begin 2011 with first-time manager Don Mattingly at the helm.  The same Mattingly who, while filling in for Joe Torre who had been ejected, made two trips the mound in the same inning, thereby forcing his closer Jonathan Broxton to be removed from the game.  Hopefully for Dodgers faithful everywhere Torre filled Mattingly's brain with everything he knows.

    Even that might not be enough, however, for the Dodgers to be contenders in 2011. They have a complete roster, but much of it is comprised of inconsistent players, all of whom need to be at the top of their games for the Dodgers to have a chance - such as catcher Rod Barajas, first baseman James Loney, and new second baseman Juan Uribe.

    Their pitching rotation is deep, but it's difficult to know what you're going to get out of the likes of Vincente Padilla (who may actually start the season in the bullpen) and Jon Garland.  2011 may be another blue year in Los Angeles.

NL West, 5th Place: San Diego Padres

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    The Padres has a storybook 2010. Do they have enough to make it to the playoffs in 2011?Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The San Diego missed the playoffs by an eyelash in 2010.  They finished two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the division, and managed to put together a 90-win season, which was much more than many predicted at this time last year.

    My apologies to Padres fans, however, as I predict they will finish last in the division in 2011.  They lost their one and only slugger, Adrian Gonzalez, when they traded him to the Boston Red Sox. 

    They have a core of young pitchers (Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, and Wade LeBlanc), and they play in a pitcher's haven in PetCo park.  But without a big thumper in their lineup, I do not see how they will be able to keep pace with the rest of the competition in the NL West.

NL Central, 1st Place: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Will 2011 be King Albert's last chance to win a ring in St. Louis?Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The National League Central may very well be the hardest division in the game to predict for 2011.  Four of the six teams have deep rosters with every chance to make the playoffs.  The Cards get my vote for first place, simply because of one man...Albert.

    What uniform will Albert Pujols be wearing come Opening Day 2012?  Well, that's still a long ways away, but the answer to that could be answered (at least partially) in the coming weeks.

    Pujols, a free agent after the 2011 season, has declared he will not take part in any contract negotiations once Spring Training begins.  So if the St. Louis Cardinals want to keep their franchise player past this coming season, they had better be prepared to spend some big bucks...soon.

    But regardless of what happens, Pujols will be a Red Bird for 2011, and that in and of itself gives the team a chance to compete.  Combine him with a healthy five-man rotation, consisting of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse—all of whom have proven their value over their careers—and you have a recipe for a winning ballclub.

    The Cards had a disappointing 2010, finishing five games out of first place.  But they've got a lot riding on this season—look for them to make that much needed push to the top in 2011.

NL Central, 2nd Place: Chicago Cubs

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    Cubs Win! Cubs Win! Could these words be true in October 2011?Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The 2011 Chicago Cubs may be one of the most complete Cubs teams in recent memory.  They finished in fifth place last year, in what was legend Lou Pinella's final season of managing.  Mike Quade, who filled in on an interim basis after Pinella retired in August, takes on the full responsibility for the first time in his career.

    But he has a roster full of talent and experience at his disposal, and as long as the pieces remain healthy (and they can work as an adhesive unit), there's no reason to think they won't be a contender this year.

    They added Matt Garza to a rotation that already includes Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster.  They added Carlos Pena to the middle of their lineup to go along with Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Marlon Byrd.  Starlin Castro is a star in the making at short stop and Carlos Marmol is one of the top closers in the game right now.

    It's been a long time since Cubbie fans had something to really cheer about.  But 2011 could be the year all of that gets set aside.

NL Central 3rd Place: Cincinnati Reds

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    The Cincinnati Reds had a storybook 2010. Is the book closed, or does the story continue in 2011?Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    If you picked the Cincinnati Reds to finish first the NL Central and make the playoffs in 2010, well kudos to you.  If you didn't, don't feel bad—neither did a lot of other people.  But they reached the postseason, and they did it in style too.

    It's hard to bet against a team that won its division, and has the reigning NL MVP and World Series MVP in their lineup.  And by all means, I welcome them to prove me wrong.  But manager Dusty Baker and his squad will have their hands full in a much-improved division from a year ago.

    Certainly Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips have the necessary skills to score plenty of runs.  And their pitching staff looks to be developing into a real force. 

    The front office spent this offseason locking up a number of their key players (Votto, Bruce, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto) with long-term deals.  This team is going to be real good for a number of years, and after some real down years in the Queen City, things may finally be looking up for the New Red Machine.

NL Central, 4th Place: Milwaukee Brewers

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    After several years of futility, the Brewers may have something to strive for in 2011.Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    The Milwaukee Brewers were really good in 2008.  They got worse in 2009.  Last year, they were bad.  They finished in 3rd place, 14 games behind the division-leading Cardinals.  Even with the likes of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brew Crew were unable to keep up with the rest of the league.

    Enter Zack Greinke.  The Brewers acquired the 27-year-old from the Royals (along with shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt) in December for a number of prospects.  Greinke's presence in the rotation, which also includes Yovani Gallardo and fellow newcomer Shaun Marcum, gives the team a deep rotation that should be able to compete with just about anyone.

    The concern lies in the offense.  Other than Fielder and Braun, the Brewers' lineup is full of inconsistency.  Corey Hart has shown that he can be a middle-of-the-order hitter.  He has also shown a bit of ineptitude at the plate.  Casey McGehee had a breakout campaign in 2009, and continued that momentum into 2010.  This is a crucial year for the young third baseman, as he looks to be come an everyday part of the lineup.

    Their bullpen also leaves a bit to be desired.  But they have the pieces to give the rest of the league fits, and could be a legitimate contender when all is said and done.

NL Central, 5th Place: Houston Astros

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    The Houston Astros seem burried in the NL Central. Do they have what it takes to move up the ranks in 2011?Bob Levey/Getty Images

    It seems like only yesterday that the Houston Astros were constantly in the hunt for October.  They even made it to the World Series in 2005.  But my how the mighty have fallen.

    Since that magical year, the Astros have failed to make the playoffs each of the next five seasons.  And 2011 is not looking anymore promising.  They dealt their ace Roy Oswalt to the Phillies at the trade deadline last summer and their star slugger Lance Berkman left for St. Louis via free agency.

    So now the burden of staff ace falls on Wandy Rodriguez, who has had a bit of a roller coaster career and has never really shown his "ace" ability. 

    Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence will continue to carry the offense, as newcomers Bill Hall and Clint Barmes will try to pick up some of the slack left by Berkman.  But in one of the toughest divisions in the game, it seems hard to fathom this group making it to the top in 2011.

NL Central, 6th Place: Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Despite a load of young, promising talent, another year of disappointment may await the Steel CityAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    It has to be tough to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.  The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992 and have found themselves at the bottom of the division more often than not since then.

    And despite some minor improvements to their ballclub from a season ago, it seems logical to expect them to be right back down there in 2011.  That may change soon, Pirates fans.  This team has a young core of players that are ready to breakout, and could lead this team to the top sooner than later.

    Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have all been highly touted since they were drafted, and all have a good chunk of Major League experience.  If the team can find themselves a legitimate ace in their rotation as well as a regular 20-30 home run slugger, they could certainly be headed to the top.

NL East, 1st Place: Philadelphia Phillies

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    The Phillies are undoubtedly the team to beat in the NL in 2011.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    It's tough to admit, but easy to argue—the Philadelphia Phillies have the best shot at winning the National League crown in 2011.  Even before they added Cliff Lee to their already deep rotation, they were probably the best team in the league.

    Lee gives the Phillies four legitimate aces, to go along with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.  It does make one wonder if they even need a fifth starter.

    And of course any offense that includes Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino can strike fear in any opponent.  The free agent loss of Jayson Werth shouldn't have any adverse effect on this team.  From top to bottom, they have one of the most complete teams in recent years, and there's no reason not to expect them to be in the World Series (barring a slew of injuries of course...).

NL East, 2nd Place: Atlanta Braves

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    The Atlanta Braves will look to return to dominance in 2011.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    For about a decade and a half, the Atlanta Braves were one of the most feared clubs in the National League.  They won their division 14 consecutive seasons, starting in 1991.  Since then, they have yielded some decent teams, but until last season hadn't reached the playoffs since their streak ended in 2005.

    You can say the team has a bit of a chip on their shoulders after being brushed aside in the playoffs last year by the San Francisco Giants in four games.  But they are primed and ready to compete in 2011.  The legendary Bobby Cox has retired, and his star pupil Freddy Gonzalez is taking the helm.

    They acquired slugging second baseman Dan Uggla from the Marlins to give the team some much needed punch in their batting order.  Franchise player Chipper Jones is hoping to be ready by the start of the season after suffering a season-ending torn ACL in 2010.  And of course budding superstar Jason Heyward will look to build on his impressive rookie campaign.

    And with one of the league's top pitching rotations, the Braves certainly have the make-up of a playoff team.  But there are a lot of teams that they will have to compete with if they want to be playing baseball deep into October.

NL East, 3rd Place: Florida Marlins

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    The Florida Marlins could very well be one of the big surpirse teams in 2011.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The expectations in Miami are not incredibly high for 2011.  Yet, the Florida Marlins may have the necessary tools to be competitive.

    Supported by a rotation that is balanced with youth and veteran leadership, the Marlins have good reason to be optimistic heading into spring training.  Ace Josh Johnson had his best season to date in 2010, leading the league with a 2.30 ERA.  Behind him is the surging Ricky Nolasco and newcomer Javier Vazquez. 

    On the other side of the diamond is an offense that has loads of potential, and may turn some heads in 2011.  Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison are heading into their sophomore seasons and have much to prove to the league.  And then there's Hanley Ramirez—one of the league's elite players who also happens to play shortstop.

    The Fish may have a tough time competing with the Phillies in 2011 (who won't?).  But they could very well turn some heads and swim their way upstream in the league's standings.

NL East, 4th Place: New York Mets

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    Despite a tight budget, the Mets should field a competitive and talented team in 2011.Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    It's been a rough stretch of seasons for the New York Metropolitans.  Disasters on and off the field have made the team into somewhat of a laughing stock around the sport.

    But General Manager Omar Minaya is gone, along with Manager Jerry Manuel.  Replacing them are Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins respectively.  With them, a new attitude will ascend over Queens, and Mets fans hope that attitude is a winning one.

    The team had a busier offseason than most probably anticipated.  They stayed away from the big name (and big money) free agents like Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, instead focusing more on filling holes.  They signed the likes of Chris Young, Chris Capuano, and Ronny Paulino to help fill out their roster.

    Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes are still with the team, and that alone gives them a solid batting order.  Ike Davis has Keith Hernandez written all over him.

    They will be missing ace Johan Santana for at least the first half of the season.  But if Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese can build upon their successful 2010 campaigns, and R.A. Dickey proves his knuckleball can still baffle hitters, then just maybe the boys in blue can put together a decent 2011.

NL East, 5th Place: Washington Nationals

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    An improved Washington Nationals team should make the NL East a very competitive division in 2011.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The National League East division is slowly becoming like its American League counterpart - competitive.  For the longest time, the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise have been at or near the bottom of the division.  But things are starting to come alive in the Nation's Capital.

    Led by Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats have the framework of a real competitive team.  They made a huge splash when they signed outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract back in November.  They also added Adam LaRoche's bat to their lineup, which gives them a formidable 3-4-5 heart of the order.

    They've also got a number of youngsters that will look to make this franchise into a winner.  Shortstop Ian Desmond played in his first full MLB season in 2010, and had pretty decent numbers (17 stolen bases and 10 home runs in 154 games).  Drew Storen has closer stuff, and will be given the chance to finish games for the team in 2011.

    And of course, you can't talk about the Nationals and not bring up Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper—two consecutive #1 overall picks.  Strasburg made his debut last year, and while he blew hitters away for the first half of the season, he also blew his arm out in August and subsequently underwent Tommy John Surgery.  He is expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2011 season.

    Harper was a catcher/outfielder standout at the College of Southern Nevada.  The Nationals had declared he would become their right fielder after a few seasons in the minor leagues, but with the signing of Werth, it will be interesting to see where he inevitably fits in.

    Regardless, the Washington Nationals have the pieces in place to make themselves competitive for years to come.  If they can add some solid, reliable arms to that pitching staff, they could be legitimate contenders.  They've come long way since moving into DC.