The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies have had a rough spring so far, losing closer Brad Lidge and second baseman Chase Utley for indeterminate periods.
Luis Castillo could not even lock down the starting second-base job, which will now fall to Wilson Valdez for Friday's season opener.
Still and all, the majority of those in the baseball pundit world view Philadelphia as favorites to reach the postseason, at which point some of their deficiencies become non-issues and their greatest strength—the starting rotation to end all starting rotations—becomes an even more critical advantage. Many still view them as the best team in the National League.
The Atlanta Braves might have something to say about that.
They enter the season in much better health, with a lineup as deep as Philadelphia's at this point and with a far superior bullpen.
Atlanta's farm system stands ready to provide further reinforcements throughout the year. The Phillies' blue-chip prospects are all multiple years away from being impact players at the big-league level.
Like Philadelphia, Atlanta has a strong rotation, though its strength is more in its depth than in sheer top-tier talent. Adding Dan Uggla to the offensive core of Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones was an inspired stroke for GM Frank Wren.
Which team could make a surprise pennant push in 2011?
This team has to be the favorite over the long season to win the NL East.
Can Philadelphia win the Wild Card? Sure. They have to be the favorites, in fact. But a lot could go awry: Three of the vaunted top four in the rotation are on the wrong side of 31. Lidge has been fading for a long time, injured or otherwise. Utley may be back before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.
Organizational depth offers little immediate help, and they don't have the payroll flexibility to fill any critical need that may arise over the balance of the season via trades for bigger names.
For argument's sake, though, let's say the Phils reach the second week of October.
That makes the NL playoff picture relatively clear: The Braves and Phillies, as the two best and most playoff-ready squads in the NL, will meet in the NLCS.
Now, then, let's see about the AL. This is a bit trickier, because as ruthlessly efficient as the Red Sox and Twins look this year, neither is composed with postseason success as a top priority the way Philadelphia's is.
Both teams play in divisions at least as tough as Philly's. Overall, it is harder to build around starting pitchers in the hitter-friendly American League than in the NL, so both Boston and Minnesota have built instead around offense and will have the inside tracks toward their division titles.
Once they get there, though, they could run into trouble.
The Oakland Athletics, lurkers in baseball's tall weeds, have a much better run-prevention profile than either of those teams, and the upside risk in Gio Gonzalez and Brett Anderson is huge.
Though I expect the Yankees or Rays to gobble up the Wild Card, the most interesting would-be match for Boston this side of Atlanta might well be Chicago, a team newly suited to threaten the Twins but not yet ready to beat them.
For the sake of argument, let's put the Twins, Red Sox, Athletics and Rays in the playoffs on the junior circuit side of the bracket. Minnesota and Tampa would be a fine series, but unless Wade Davis or Jeremy Hellickson morphs into a co-ace alongside David Price, Minnesota will win.
Oakland can give Boston trouble, but sooner or later, the Red Sox's bullpen and offensive advantages would be too much.
To review, then, I see Boston, Minnesota, Atlanta and Philadelphia playing for the respective pennants in each league this season. Those picks are pretty bland, but realistically, why go out on a limb?
Could the Colorado Rockies—led by Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin—unseat one of the teams on the NL side?
Colorado is a sleeper in league with the White Sox, and if fully healthy, either team could sneak all the way to the World Series.
Still, if anyone out there is making their annual friendly entertainment-only wagers on which combatants reach their LCS, be smart and bet on the proven entities involved.
These teams are favorites for a reason.