Giants' catcher Buster Posey was the National League Rookie of the Year a season ago.
It's still early in the 2011 season. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals are first and second respectively in the American League Central division. Albert Pujols is hitting below the Mendoza line.
Will these things remain this way throughout the course of the season? Gut instinct says probably not. But baseball can be a funny game at times, and strange things can happen.
So with that, here are some bold predictions to watch for in the National League during the 2011 season.
Can reigning NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey avoid the feared "sophomore slump" in 2011?
It was a banner year for young Buster Posey in 2010. The former first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants got his initial call-up to the Major Leagues in September of 2009 for a cup of coffee. But his career really took of last May, when the 24-year old catcher was summoned from the minor leagues for the final time.
Posey finished a very successful 2010 season with 18 home runs and a .305 batting average - good enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors for the National League.
But as talented as Posey is, will he be able to avert the dreaded "sophomore slump"? The Marlins' Chris Coghlan won the award in 2009, and had a disappointing follow-up season, when he appeared in only 91 games (due to a season-ending knee injury suffered in July).
Fellow catcher and 2008 Rookie of the Year winner Geovany Soto had a dismal '09 season - hitting just .218 and 11 home runs.
So as recent history displays, it takes a lot for a one-time prospect to maintain their rookie season momentum and have an equally successful sophomore season. Many people around the sport are expecting a big sophomore season for Posey. But be wary of the jinx - a down season could be in-store for him in 2011.
The Reds tasted postseason play in 2010.
The last time the Cincinnati Reds were in the World Series, George Bush Sr. was President of the United States. The average cost for regular gas was $1.16/gal. And the Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays had not even been born yet (all of which have made it to the Fall Classic).
The Reds haven't been in the World Series since 1990. But after a Cinderella-like 2010 season, which saw the Reds make the postseason for the first time since 1995, the Reds are hungry for more in 2011.
They weren't able to make it out of the first round last year, getting swept in three games by the Phillies. So with that bitter taste still in the mouths of the Reds' players, they have their sights set on the Fall Classic.
And with talent like reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Edinson Volquez and veteran Scott Rolen, the 2011 Reds could take the National League by storm this season.
Albert Pujols will hit the free agent market for the first time in his illustrious career after the 2011 season.
The attention that Albert Pujols' impending free agency has drawn may be the most for any single player ever in the history of the game. For the first time in his already Hall-of-Fame career, Pujols will be hitting the free agent market following the 2011 season (barring any unexpected mid-season trade or extension).
Pujols is already the poster boy for Major League Baseball and is constantly living under a microscope. But after an off season that was purely focused on Pujols' future, the nine-time All-Star has been mired in a slump to start the 2011 season. He is off to his worst start (six games) since the 2007 season.
That season, Pujols still ended up with with more than 30 home runs, 100 RBI and .300 batting clip. But the stats were certainly down to his standards. Could all of the fanfare and hype surrounding his walk year be too much for him? With another nine-figure salary awaiting him, 2011 could end up being one of the worst seasons in Pujols' career.
With 29 home runs, Rickie Weeks had a career-year in 2010.
Rickie Weeks had a remarkable 2010 campaign. He drove in 83 runs and launched 29 long balls - a solid comeback season after an injury-plagued 2009.
But despite the gaudy numbers out of the second base position, Weeks received no MVP credit. Granted, his Milwaukee Brewers finished in third place with a sub-.500 record. And I am not saying he should have won the award. But he should have at least received some nominations for what was a banner year.
Not all was lost for the 28-year old. Weeks signed a four-year extension with the Brewers, worth $38.5 million - not too shabby. So with a fresh, lucrative deal in hand, Weeks can now re-focus himself on having another fantastic season. And he's already off to a roaring start with three home runs in his first six games.
Weeks was a homer away from reaching the 30-home run plateau last year. If he can reach that mark in 2011, and with the Brewers gunning for tops in the NL Central, Weeks could be earning himself MVP honors. No National League second baseman has been crowned MVP since Jeff Kent in 2000.
Can the Phillies' star-studded rotation lead the team to a first-place finish in 2011?
The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies undoubtedly have one of the most intimidating pitching rotations in the last 40 years. The fearsome foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt have drawn many parallels to the 1971 Baltimore Orioles' rotation.
In '71, Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally each won at least 20 games - the only time in history that has happened. And of the top four pitchers in the Phillies' rotation, only Hamels has yet to win 20 games in a season. But even with this great rotation, do the Phils have enough to win the National League Eastern division in '11?
It seems like the Phillies will be without their All-Star second baseman (Chase Utley) and closer (Brad Lidge) for much of the season - Lidge has already been declared out until the All Star break. And as talented of a team as the Phillies are, they might not have the depth to efficiently make up for their absence.
Right now, they have a combination of Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr manning second base, whose combined career home runs (8) equal half of the amount Utley (16) hit in 2010. And while Ryan Madson has done a decent job in the past filling in for Lidge, he and Jose Contreras are not as intimidating at the end of a ball game than Lidge.
It may shock some people, but if everyone remains healthy, the Atlanta Braves could have what it takes to reclaim the first place in the division for the first time since 2005.
Could Yovani Gallardo start for the National League at this year's All Star Game?
Yovani Gallardo may be one of, if not the most, underrated pitcher in the National League. The Milwaukee Brewers' right-hander has done all that he can in the last couple of years to keep the Brew Crew in contention.
He had his breakout season in 2009 when he won 13 games and struck out 204 batters, good for fifth in the league. He was an All-Star for the first time in 2010, which should be one of many for the 25-year old.
In fact, I argue that Gallardo will have pitched so well in 2011, that by the Mid-Summer Classic, the Bruce Bochy will have no choice but to name him the National League's starting pitcher.
The Brewers alleviated some pressure on him by acquiring Zack Greinke during the off season. And though Greinke is currently on the disabled list, when he returns, he along with Gallardo, will make a dominant 1-2 punch in the Brewers' rotation.
Gallardo will no longer be the man in the rotation, as he was the last two seasons. Look for Gallardo to have an incredible season in 2011, as he helps to lead the National League to its second consecutive All Star Game victory.
Bryce Harper, 18, is the number one rated prospect in America, according to Baseball America
Yes, that's right. Bryce Harper will make his Major League debut with the Washington Nationals in 2011. Why shouldn't he?
Last year's number one overall draft pick is currently playing for the Nats' Single-A squad. And in his professional baseball debut on Wednesday, the 18-year old went 2-4 with an RBI and a stolen base.
Since spring training he has been determined to crack the big league roster in 2011. And with the Nationals hoping to be competitive in the coming seasons, it may make perfect sense to give the kid some Major League experience with a cup of coffee in September.
Soon-to-be free agent Albert Pujols could be dealt mid-season
It's hard to imagine (even harder for Cardinals' fans) the great Albert Pujols donning another jersey other than his St. Louis Cardinals #5. But as his seven-year, $100 million contract is set to end after the 2011 season, the slugging first baseman could be playing for a new team before season's end.
This past off season was flooded with Pujols trade rumors, as the Cardinals' chances of re-signing him were dwindling. Pujols gave the Cardinals a deadline (February 16) to re-sign him, or they would have to wait until after the season to negotiate a contract.
Well the deadline came and went, with no new deal for the future Hall-of-Famer. And with the Cardinals' playoff hopes diminished with the injury to ace Adam Wainwright, the Red Birds could look to trade Pujols and receive some talent in return, as opposed to letting him walk (and receive compensation draft picks) after the season.
The Chicago Cubs were one of the teams rumored to be in on possible trade talks during the Hot Stove season. The Cubs have the roster need (though they signed fellow first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year deal during the off season, Pujols is an obvious upgrade). They also may have the financial flexibility with several big contracts coming off the books within the next three seasons.
The Cards and Cubs have a long-standing rivalry. But watching their franchise player playing on the North Side would give St. Louis fans even more of a reason for disdain.
Tim Lincecum is a two-time Cy Young Award winner
Tim Lincecum has done a lot in his four-plus years as a big-leaguer. Since making his Major League debut in '07, "the Freak" is a three-time All-Star, a two-time Cy Young award winner, and now has a World Series ring to boot - a World Series in which he won the decisive Game 5. At 26 years of age, Lincecum has already accomplished what some 15-year vets never have.
But something he's still yet to do is throw a no-hitter. Which is surprising when you seem him pitch - his stuff is electric and nasty. Yet, he's hardly even come close during his career.
He's never thrown a complete game, one-hitter. In June of '09, he tossed a complete game, two-hit shutout against the Cardinals - that's as close as he's ever gotten to a no-hitter.
Last season was the year of the perfect pitchers. Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay (and for some, Armando Galarraga) each threw perfect games. Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson each tossed no-hitters of their own (Halladay added another no-hitter in the playoffs). So perhaps 2011 will be Lincecum's turn.
Ike Davis is playing in his sophomore season with the New York Mets
Ike Davis is only 24 years old. The son of former Major League pitcher Ron Davis, Ike was drafted in the first round in 2008 by the New York Mets. He played 147 games in his rookie season last year with the Mets, when he finished in the top 10 in Rookie of the Year voting. And already he is drawing some rave comparisons.
Davis' swing and fielding ability have been compared to that of a couple of other left-handed first basemen from Mets' past - Keith Hernandez and John Olerud. Both players led their league in hitting once in their careers, but never as a member of the Blue and Orange.
With a full season under his belt, Davis, who plays most of his games at the spacious CitiField, has a legitimate chance of being a batting champ in his career - and it could come as soon as 2011.
The Arizona Diamondbacks had a highly disappointing 2010 season
In 2008, the Arizona Diamondbacks finished second in the National League West, two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. They won 82 games that season.
Each of the next two seasons, however, the D-Backs finished in last place, winning no more than 70 games in either year. They are now with their third manager since that '08 season, and early predictions peg the Diamondbacks to finish below .500 again.
But the way I see it, this team is far too talented to be that bad again. They vastly improved their ball club for 2011. Last year, when they won only 65 games, they led the league in strikeouts, with over 1,500. They parted ways with Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche, who were first and fourth respectively in National League strikeout rankings.
Youngster Justin Upton is primed for a huge breakout season - we could see 30/30 from the former number one draft pick. Chris Young is another speed/power combination threat. And catcher Miguel Montero is only getting better at the plate, and has 20-home run potential.
The rotation, while very young, is very talented. Daniel Hudson looks to be absolute gem for the D-Backs, and could wind up leading the league in strikeouts. Ian Kennedy and Barry Enright got some good experience in 2010 and look to continue their development this season.
I recently predicted the D-Backs to finish in second place in the division. And I still stand by that prediction. The Diamondbacks may surprise a lot of people this year.
It's not easy winning the Triple Crown. That's why no one has claimed it since Carl Yastremski in 1967. No National League player has won the Crown since Joe Medwick, way back in 1937. To win the Triple Crown, a player must lead his league in home runs, RBI and batting average in the same season - no small feat.
In 2010, several National Leaguers came close to winning the prize. Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto and Albert Pujols jockeyed back and forth for much of the season. In the end, no one was able to lead in all three categories (Pujols led in RBI and home runs, "CarGo" led in batting average).
It's been 74 seasons without a National League Triple Crown winner. Seems far too long. I believe a new crop of players will by vying for the coveted honor in 2011. Milwaukee's Ryan Braun seems to me to have the best shot.
When looking at his career averages (36/117/.307), he would match up against any one of the three that challenged for it last season. Braun had a down year in power, with only 25 home runs in 2010. He certainly has the talent and endurance to be at the top in all three categories at the end of the season.
And of course, it stands to reason that the likes of Votto, Pujols and Gonzalez will be in the running again as well. Could make for a very fun and interesting 2011 season.
Jake Peavy won the National League pitching Triple Crown in 2007
The Major League Baseball pitching Triple Crown is not as coveted, or mystical as the hitting Triple Crown. But winning it is still an impressive feat. Jake Peavy was the last pitcher to win it in the National League. In 2007, while pitching for the San Diego Padres, Peavy led the league in strikeouts (240), wins (19) and ERA (2.54).
It had been five seasons before him since someone in the National League won it (Randy Johnson - 2002), and before that it had been since Dwight Gooden in 1986. Well, if 2010 was the year of the pitcher, perhaps 2011 is the year of the Triple Crown pitcher.
Some obvious candidates include Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. But don't count out Cliff Lee. He returns to the potent Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, and has Triple Crown stuff.
And a dark horse candidate could be Zack Greinke, who just two seasons ago led all of baseball with a 2.16 ERA. He moves to the National League for the first time, and once he returns from a disabled list stint, could seriously challenge for that Triple Crown.
New Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle will try to put an end to a losing streak in Pittsburgh.
The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the playoffs was 1992. That was also the last season the Pirates finished with at least an even win-loss record. Since that year, the team has gone through six managers and has never had a winning season, and they have not won more than 79 games in that span.
Enter 2011. Enter Clint Hurdle. Enter hope. Hurdle will take the helm for the Pirates in 2011, and with a young core of talented athletes heading towards their prime, there is a scent of hope in the Steel City.
Outfielder Andrew McCutchen is a pitcher's nightmare when gets on base. Jose Tabata, who is currently being used in the leadoff position, is a speedster who looks to be getting better each game. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez each have 20-home run potential. Sprinkle in veterans like Lyle Overbay, Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Doumit, and the Bucks' offense is chocked full of talented hitters.
Their pitching staff leaves a little more to be desired. But closer Joel Hanrahan has looked very sharp early on in 2011. All-in-all, the Pirates are not expected to contend in 2011, so there is very little pressure in Pittsburgh. With the cool-headed Hurdle leading the way, the Pirates could have themselves their first winning season in almost two decades.
Pedro Martinez has 219 career victories, spanning 18 seasons.
He's a three-time Cy Young award winner. He's won a World Championship. He has 3,154 career strikeouts (13th all-time. But Pedro Martinez still has the desire to play ball.
The future Hall-of-Famer last pitched in the big leagues for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, making nine starts, as he signed a contract in late July with the Phils. But as Zach Links at MLBTradeRumors.com notes, Pedro is waiting by the phone for a possible contender to call him up.
The 39-year old has a residence in South Florida, and had been linked to the Tampa Bay Rays prior to signing with the Phillies. Pedro would be an excellent addition to the Fish, either as a starter or reliever. Martinez claims he would not need very long to get into game-ready shape, as he was training all off season.
The New York Mets are looking to end several consecutive seasons of futility in 2011.
It's no secret that the last few years for the New York Mets have been anything but Amazin'. Since reaching the playoffs in 2006, nothing has seemed to go right in Flushing - on the field, and off. Even when they were good (2007-2008), they managed to fold it up at the end of the season and lose their way out of the playoff picture.
But the 2011 season brings a sense of rebirth and renew at CitiField. The Mets have a new general manager, new manager and new hope. And while many people have already given the Mets a sub-.500 record for 2011, I argue the team will finish about the halfway mark.
Consider, that when healthy, the Mets could have one of the best 3-4-5 hitters in the league, with Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jason Bay - each of whom have hit at least 30 home runs during their careers. The periphery of the lineup is not too shabby either, with spark plug Jose Reyes at the top. Ike Davis and Josh Thole are two left-handed hitters who are entering their prime years. And Angel Pagan is coming off of a career year.
Plus, the team is expecting to have staff ace Johan Santana return from off season shoulder surgery sometime around the All-Star break, which would be equivalent to making a blockbuster mid-season trade. Newcomer Chris Young has looked very good in his first two starts as a Met. And Jon Niese is a budding pitcher with lots of potential.
On paper, the 2011 Mets have a roster that could net them a winning record. And though they will likely not make the playoffs this season, a winning season is certainly a step in the right direction for the "Amazins".
Cole Hamels is 1-1 so far in the young season.
It wasn't all that long ago when Cole Hamels was the man in the Philadelphia Phillies' rotation. The left-hander had a lot of pressure on him, and in 2008 he helped lead the team to its first World Series championship in more than two decades.
Now in 2011, Hamels has become the third man in the rotation, with big guns Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee above him in the pecking order. And that could be exactly what Hamels needs to have his best career to date.
The 2009 season was a challenge for Hamels, when he was again was the go-to guy in the Phillies' rotation. That is until Cliff Lee arrived mid-season. Once Lee joined the rotation, he became the ace of the staff, and some of the pressure on Hamels was alleviated - and the stats show it (4.16 ERA in the second half, compared to a 4.46 ERA before Lee trade).
Hamels had a big rebound season in 2010 with the arrival of new ace Roy Halladay. The Phillies made another pitching acquisition last summer, trading for Roy Oswalt. And again, with another ace-like pitcher in the fold, Hamels numbers got even better.
So now in 2011, with Halladay, Lee and Oswalt all in the Phillies' rotation, Hamels should feel very relaxed on the mound, and could put up career numbers across the board - and bring home his first Cy Young award of his career.
Over 17 seasons, Jason Giambi has over 400 career home runs.
Since the calendar turned to 2011, several players have called it quits and retired from the game of baseball. Braden Looper, Jermaine Dye, Manny Ramirez highlight some of the players who hung up their cleats this year.
Jason Giambi could be next. He's playing in his 17th season, with just his third ball club. The Colorado Rockies re-signed the 40-year old first baseman to a minor league contract in January.
But at this stage in his career, Giambi has become a pinch hitter/veteran leader for the Rockies. The former MVP is certainly at the last stages of his career. His 2010 offensive numbers were the worst he's had since his debut season in 1995. At this point, Giambi doesn't even really have any value as a full-time designated hitter in the American League.
Undoubtedly Giambi would like to add a World Series ring to his resume. But 416 home runs and 1,369 RBI (entering play on Monday), to go along with his 2000 American League MVP, is not too shabby of a career. His name has been linked to steroid usage in previous years, but speculation aside, Giambi could find his way into Cooperstown in the near future.
Kenley Jansen could be the Dodgers' closer in the not-too-distant future.
After several inconsistent outings in 2010, the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton was relieved from closing duties in favor of left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo. While Kuo performed admirably, the Dodgers are giving Broxton the reigns on the ninth inning duties to start the 2011 season.
But you can be sure that new manager Don Mattingly will have the burly right-hander on a short leash and won't be afraid to plug someone else in that closer spot. And this year, it could be the 23-year old Kenley Jansen.
Jansen was signed by the Dodgers in 2004 as an amateur free agent. He originally signed as a catcher, and also play some first base in the minor leagues. But in 2009, the Dodgers converted the right-hander into a pitcher. And did that ever work out.
He made his Major League debut last July, and was just about phenomenal. In 25 games, he had a sparkling 0.67 ERA and struck out 41 batters in 27 innings. He even recorded four saves in his debut season. The kid has electric stuff, and could find his way into that closer position before the end of the season.
The San Diego Padres won 90 games a season ago.
2010 was a miracle year for the San Diego Padres. A Cinderella-like season. They trumped just about everyone's expectations, and went on to win 90 games. And if it weren't for a turbulent September, they very well may have made the playoffs, painting a whole different picture indeed.
And as magical of a season as that was, 2011 looks to bring the team back to the doldrums. They traded away their only offensive threat, Adrian Gonzalez, during the off season. Ryan Ludwick, brought in at last year's trade deadline, has had a miserable time offensively in San Diego.
Yes, the Padres have one of the best young pitching staffs in all of baseball. But, despite the old adage that pitching wins, a team has to be able to score runs in order to win ball games. The Padres' lineup is full of light hitters with no real power.
Granted, PetCo park is a pitcher's dream and a hitter's nightmare. But building a batting order that lacks any power whatsoever is a recipe for disaster, not success. It stands to be a rough year for the Padres, and a trip back to the cellar, a place they haven't resided in since 2008.